Last updated on May 19, 2022
Cardpecker | Illustration by Richard Sardinha
Animate Library | Illustration by Raymond Swanland
We’ve talked about a lot of different ways to play MTG (especially Commander) but this time we’re gonna talk about something a bit different: drafting. It shouldn’t be a surprise that we love drafting here at Draftsim. We’ll go a bit deeper today and talk about drafting in different forms, on different platforms, and go over some key points you should know to get better at it.
Drafting: The Basics
Start Your Engines | Illustration by Darek Zabrocki
Let’s start with exactly what booster drafting is. Drafting is a form of limited MTG where players take turns selecting cards from booster packs in order to build a deck on-the-fly.
In many ways it is a very “pure” form of Magic because it allows you to rely heavily on your skills and knowledge, plus a bit of luck. There’s no room for expensive decks or planning beforehand, and the mere thrill of opening new boosters to make a deck from scratch makes drafting a very exciting and rewarding way to play MTG.
- A booster draft is traditionally played in 8-player groups called “pods.”
- Each player receives three booster packs, usually from the same set
- You open the first pack, pick a card, and then pass the pack to the next player
- Take the pack from the player passing one to you, pick a card, and do it again
- Rinse and repeat until everyone has opened three packs and you have a card pool which you’ll use to build a 40-card minimum deck
Drafting is a unique way to experience Magic and is significantly different from constructed. In any constructed format, you already know which cards you’ll play with and can easily engage in theory-crafting.
There’s also the matter of investment, since players with bigger budgets will naturally have more cards to choose from which can create a huge gap between players. But players are on equal grounds when it comes to drafting. Nobody knows what cards they’ll get and it’s much more difficult to counter other players’ decks. All you can only rely on to make a good deck out of nothing is your skill and (obviously) lady luck.
The Rules of Draft
As with anything related to MTG, there are rules you need to know while drafting. Here’s how a typical draft will go:
- Each player opens one booster pack.
- Remove tokens and non-playable cards (e.g. advertisement cards and tokens).
- Pick one card from the pack you opened and then pass it to the player on your left.
- Receive the pack from the player on your right.
- Repeat pick, pass, receive until there are no more cards.
- Each player opens one new booster pack.
- Remove tokens and non-playable cards like before.
- Pick a card and then pass the pack this time to the player on your right.
- Receive the pack from the player on your left.
- Repeat pick, pass, receive until there are no more cards.
- Each player opens one third and final booster pack, repeating the same process passing to the left and receiving from the right.
- Once the third pack is finished, everyone will have enough cards to construct a 40-card minimum deck. The number of cards you have will vary based on how many cards were in the packs for the sets you used, but this number is most frequently either 42 or 45.
Quick note: Some pods also remove basic lands from the packs, but don’t worry, you are allowed to add as many basics as you want when you build your deck later.
Here’s a great video from TCC talking about drafting, how it works, and some tips for drafting picks and draft deckbuilding:
Naturally, players aren’t allowed to talk or make signs to each other during this process, but this is more of a courtesy than a rule. If you’re not sure, ask the host for their preference. After all, you might get an ultra-rare card once you open your first booster and not everyone is against a little celebration.
Deckbuilding After the Draft
After the drafting process, you’ll need to actually build a deck with at least 40 cards. You can only use the cards picked during the drafting phase other than basic land cards. Your sideboard will consist of the extra cards you drafted that aren’t in your deck.
Traditionally, around two-fifths of your deck (16 to 17 cards in a 40-card deck) should be lands. This means that your aim during the drafting phase is to get at least 23 to 24 cards that’ll create a good, well-synergized deck. Since you won’t be using all the cards you’ve picked, there’s some room to make mistakes and pick a few that end up not being played in your maindeck later.
You’ll only use around half of the cards picked, so you don’t have to commit to a color or archetype right from the start. There are pros and cons of doing so. Choosing an archetype and sticking to it means you’ll get a lot of synergy in your deck, but it’s a risky move because you may be fighting against your neighbor(s) for cards in the same strategy.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get a monster deck with high synergy. But you could also end up with a half-built mess that doesn’t pack much of a punch. If you don’t commit right from the start, you’ll be able to keep your options open and make changes to your strategy as you go. On the other hand, you risk losing strong, archetype-specific cards.
There is something you can do to help improve your draft, but it’s somewhat tricky. You’ll need to keep track of a lot of packs simultaneously.
As you go through the draft, keep an eye on which cards are getting picked. If a good card for an archetype is still available in your booster pack when it comes back around to you, it means that the archetype is “open,” i.e., no one is trying to build a deck around it. You’ll probably have a better chance of getting cards from that archetype, so it’s basically a green light to go for it.
If you’re going to go this route, make sure you know the archetypes in the relevant set and which are stronger. Some sets favor one or two archetypes over others. If everyone is opting for the stronger one, it means weaker archetypes will be open and you can go after them to create a deck with more synergy.
With that in mind, I think it’s better to start the draft by picking the most powerful card and then reading the table. If a color or archetype is uncontested, you can change your initial strategy. Most inexperienced players will go for obvious choices. Their decks might be lacking since they’ll be picking cards that may be powerful on their own but don’t necessarily work well together.
Aside from these tips, you can create a solid deck by remembering the basics of deckbuilding:
- Make sure that your mana curve is right. This is especially important in drafting since you won’t always have a reliable way to get out of trouble. You can even consider swapping some valuable cards to fix your curve as they won’t matter if you don’t have enough mana to play them.
- Find clear win conditions. This is the most difficult challenge since you’ll be getting random cards. If you can find cards that win you the game, that’s great. If not, you need to know where your deck is strongest and don’t try to do everything at once. If you’re picking for aggro, go full aggro.
- Rarity doesn’t win the game. I know it’s tempting to pick that rare card and wreak havoc, but it’s not always the best choice. Sometimes letting go of one rare and picking a common that fits with your deck and synergy could win you the game.
- Always have removal. Since your opponents likely won’t have too many heavy-hitters, removing a single high-value creature can win you the game. Sometimes this might even involve having a board wipe.
I won’t go into too much detail on how to play after building your deck, but I’ll give you a quick tip that’s particularly useful in limited: bluff. Your opponent may have the means to block your attacker, but if their defending creature is valuable and they think you have the means to take it out, bluffing can give you a couple free hits.
Getting Started With Draft
Truth or Tale | Illustration by Michael Phillippi
Okay, everyone built their decks and is eager to try them out. But how will you pair matches and keep track of everything? Naturally, you can use the old-school method of pen and paper to remember how many wins each player had and just pair the winners. It’s the year 2020, though, and we live in a digital world. Take a look at WotC’s MTG Companion app to see if it works for you.
Where to Draft
Now that we’re ready to get into drafting, it’s time to find the right place to do it. Luckily, you have both paper and digital options to choose from.
Quick note: Make sure you follow current safety guidelines if you’re looking to play in person, no matter where you’re drafting.
The first choice is obviously your home. If you have a couple of good friends who share your interest in MTG, hosting a draft would be a fun choice.
But if you don’t want to gather a bunch of people at your house, you can use the Store Locator to find your closest LGS. After all, it’s a lot of effort to get 8 people to show up in one place at the same time.
In the locator you can also see all kinds of official events and tournaments, so you should definitely take a look if you like playing in person.
Digital Options: MTG Arena and MTG Online
Battlefield Promotion | Illustration by Scott Murphy
Since we all got used to staying at home thanks to the brilliant year of 2020, it might be easier to just log in and draft online. MTG Arena has lots of drafting events, but you need to check their schedule to see what’s going on and what’s coming up. If you do opt to draft on Arena, check out our Ultimate Guide to Drafting on MTGA.
MTG Online has the advantage of hosting a wider range of draft options, but it’s a bit more difficult to hop in since you need to spend some money to get started.
If you’re not sure which platform is right for you, we’ve got an article about that!
Improving Your Draft Game
The most obvious way to get better is to, you know, draft more. But you need a lot of time and money to get really good this way, so I’ll give you a good hint to get better in no time. You’ll be surprised, but there’s actually a super useful website out there for just this: Draftsim.
Check out our main page and select the set you want to draft. You’ll be able to draft a card pool and then build your deck on your own time for just about any set you can think of. There’s no time limit, so you can analyze which cards would be more useful and get familiar with the set and drafting process before you jump into actual games.
Arena Tutor by Draftsim can help you with what cards to draft on MTGA
You can also download Arena Tutor if you’re playing on MTGA to get some help while entering draft events. This is especially helpful if you’re new to drafting, as our ratings can help you make better picks. After a while, you’ll begin to understand why some cards are picked more often than others and how important it is to keep track of your mana curve and balance the number of creature and non-creature spells.
Finally, once you decide where and what you’ll be drafting, we have a bunch of tier lists that can help you learn how good the cards are for each set. You can use them to shortcut your learning process so you don’t completely feel lost during the draft.
Take a Class
If you’re really committed to getting better at draft, there are actually online courses dedicated to the subject. Your professor is Ben Stark, Magic Hall of Famer and complete limited master. Check out his class if you want to get a lot of good info in one place:
Recommended Sets for Booster Drafting
Everyone has favorites, but MTG has some sets that are perfect for drafting. If you ask experienced MTG players which sets they prefer, I think a common answer might be Conspiracy. It’s a set specifically designed for drafting. However, since it’s older, the price tag might be a bit discouraging.
If we’re talking newer sets, both Ravnica Allegiance and War of the Spark are great sets you can get your hands on with a fair price. You should also try drafting Dominaria. The set includes a lot of legendary cards and it’s unexpectedly easy to build a very strong draft deck.
We also have an article about the best draft sets of all time that you should check out.
Again, check out the vast library of sets on the draft simulator to try out a few and see which you like.
Traditional booster drafts are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other ways to play limited games, but I strongly recommend that you become more experienced first. If you’re curious, though, or already feel like you’ve mastered booster draft, here are some other options you might enjoy!
Cube Draft is somewhat different from other drafts. The host creates a “cube” of at least 360 cards, which is what you draft from instead of regular packs. Most of the time, these cards are all high-value so players can draft incredibly strong decks. It’s the closest any draft can get to constructed.
To combine this experience with the cool deckbuilding constraints and hijinks of Commander, you can even build a Commander Cube.
As the name suggests, Chaos Draft is completely chaotic. The rules are similar to regular draft, but each player gets as many different sets as possible. This means that Chaos Draft is always fresh. There are plenty of combinations you can get in this format.
WotC even introduced Mystery Booster, a “set” designed specifically for Chaos Draft, because the format became incredibly popular. The cards in Mystery Booster packs go as far back as Mirage which was released in 1996. I’d definitely recommend playing Chaos Draft if you get the chance.
An almost-forgotten way to play MTG, Team Draft is a rare sight. It’s much more difficult than drafting for yourself; normally, you’re only trying to make the best deck for you. In Team Draft, you need to think about what your opponents and teammate are drafting, too. This includes trying to trick them by “hooking and cutting,” i.e., trusting your teammate and ultimately knowing when to pick or pass. This is perhaps the most complicated way to draft.
Noxious Ghoul | Illustration by Luca Zontini
Winston Draft was developed by Richard Garfield himself. It’s basically a 2-player draft that can be played by up to four people. Here’s how to play:
- Each player brings three boosters and opens them without looking at their contents.
- Boosters are combined to create a card pool of 90 cards (more if you’re playing with 3 or 4 players).
- The top three cards are placed face-down on the table.
- One player (usually picked from a coin toss) looks at the first card and decides if they want to take it.
- If they don’t, they add the top card from the main stack on top of that pile and move on to the next card.
- If they don’t take the second or third piles, they have to take the top card of the first pile.
- After all the cards are drafted, players build 40-card decks from their card pool. The player who went second in the draft chooses who goes first in the match.
Wrath of God | Illustration by Kev Walker
The last limited format I’ll mention is Rochester Draft. The rules are almost the same as booster draft, except players don’t open a pack and secretly choose their card.
Instead, one booster is opened and the cards are placed face-up on the table. Players are given around 20 seconds to review all of the cards and then players take turns picking one card at a time from the fifteen available. Rinse and repeat until 24 packs have been drafted.
Since all cards are revealed on the table, everyone knows who picks what cards and can strategize their own picks with that info in mind.
Rochester draft takes forever to do, but way back in the day it was a format used at the highest levels of the Pro Tour.
Finale of Eternity | Illustration by Daarken
So, as you can see, there are a lot of ways to enjoy drafting. It combines the fun of opening booster packs with the challenge of building a solid deck and you’ll love it as you understand it better. It’s easier to draft online, but I recommend going out to a store and playing with other players in person to get the full experience, as long as it’s safe.