Filigree Sages (Shards of Alara) - art by Dan Scott

Filigree Sages (Shards of Alara) | art by Dan Scott

We do like drafting around here – come to think of it, deciding to call ourselves Draftsim may have been a dead giveaway!

In modern Magic, drafting and MTG Arena are tightly entwined: the huge majority of the popular content creators that focus on MTG drafts play on that platform.

Yet Arena has two main draft modes: Traditional, which is as close as the platform gets to tabletop MTG, and Premier, an Arena-only format without sideboards.

What's the difference between them, then? Let's find out!

What’s the Difference Between Premier and Traditional Draft?

Updraft Elemental - Illustration by Raf Sarmento

Updraft Elemental | Illustration by Raf Sarmento

There are four differences between Premier and Traditional draft in MTG Arena: reward structure, match structure, the hand-smoothing algorithm, and most important of all, the different matchmaking systems.

The most visible is the reward structure, which is obvious even before you sign up for an event:

  • In a Premier draft, you keep playing until you reach seven wins or three losses, whichever happens first,
  • In a Traditional draft, you always play three matches regardless of record, and you get rewards based on how many wins you achieve.

Don't worry too much about rewards when starting out, though. When converting what you get (gems, packs, and play-in points) to their gem value, the rewards for both modes are practically the same for similar win rates.

The second difference between Premier and Traditional is match structure. Premier drafts are best-of-one matches without sideboard, while Traditional has best-of-three matches with sideboard.

Having a sideboard makes Traditional drafts more complex (and nearly equal to drafting in tabletop), but whether that's better is a matter of personal preference: Some players consider that only Bo3 is “real” Magic, others prefer the more streamlined matches that Bo1 provides, and some players (including yours truly!) play both depending on how much time they have available.

The third difference is subtle, and you wouldn't know it from the information that Arena provides. For Bo1 games, Arena uses a hand-smoothing algorithm – Wizards of the Coast hasn’t told us much about it, but players like Sierkovitz have been able to partially reverse-engineer it:

The quick takeaways are: If in doubt about playing X lands versus playing X+1 lands in your deck, go for X if you're playing Bo1. Expect to mulligan more in Bo3 than in Bo1 matches. Cheap card-selection effects (like scry or surveil) are arguably better in Bo3, allowing you to keep an otherwise risky opening hand.

While not trivial, all three differences above are small details compared to the biggest factor: Premier drafts are ranked, while Traditional drafts are unranked.

MTG Arena has a ranking system for some (but not all) game modes. In ranked modes, you start in the Bronze tier and can climb through the Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, and finally the Mythic tier. And, in these modes, the matchmaking algorithm pits you against same-rank opponents: While in Bronze, you face mostly other Bronze players, while in Gold you'll face mostly Gold foes, etc.

The matchmaking system is the biggest difference by far between Premier and Traditional drafts.

If it's your very first Premier draft, you'll be at Bronze and will face mostly Bronze players until you graduate to Silver, Gold, etc. In Traditional you can be matched against anybody, including the best of the best, even if you’ve never played a single draft game in Arena.

Deckbuilding Differences

The deckbuilding differences between Premier and Traditional mostly concern the sideboard. While not irrelevant, they’re too subtle and case-specific to be covered in this article so I'll direct you to our guide to sideboarding in Draft and our ultimate guide to drafting on MTG Arena to start.

If you still want the nutshell version, niche and conditional spells (cards that are often bad, but amazing against some very specific scenario or strategy) are the sort of cards that you want to avoid in your main deck. You should never draft them in Premier, but they may be a consideration for your Traditional sideboard for games 2 and 3 in case you bump into the strategy that these cards shine against.

Gameplay Differences

The big gameplay difference between Premier and Traditional drafts is that Premier is best-of-one and Traditional is best-of-three.

For starters, that makes Traditional matches much longer!!

I mean, yeah, duh… But, uh, I've heard that a friend of a friend has more than once said, “Yeah, I've got 20 mins, let's fire up a match!” only to have to quit in the middle of the fight when their Traditional match dragged on much longer.

As a rule of thumb, make sure you have 10-12 mins for a Premier match and about 30-40 mins for Traditional matches. You won't always need that much time, but it’s sure weird how the universe throws the longest games at you when you have the least time.

The other difference is that Traditional uses a sideboard.

Is Premier or Traditional Draft Harder?

Unless your MTG Arena Limited ranking is Platinum or better, Traditional is probably harder.

That has little to do with sideboards and hand-smoothing algorithms and a lot to do with the fact that Traditional drafts are unranked, while Premier drafts are ranked.

In Premier, Arena's matchmaking algorithm looks first and foremost at your rank, so you'll be matched with players from similar tiers. As a Bronze player, you'll mostly face other Bronze players – you'll be swimming in the shallow end of the kiddies' pool, so to speak.

In Traditional there's no ranking system: The matchmaking algorithm throws everybody to the deep end. You may be matched against rookies or bad players or may face the best drafter in Arena in your very first game.

There's also the sideboard, which makes Traditional more complex. But the main difference between Premier and Traditional drafts is the matchmaking system.

The consensus among experienced drafters seems to be that, very roughly speaking, your win rate in Traditional is more or less similar to your win rate at Platinum in Premier.

Therefore, while you’re in Bronze, Silver, and Gold, Premier drafts should be easier, and Traditional drafts harder.

Is Premier or Traditional Draft Better?

When starting out, Premier drafts are better than Traditional. You'll be faced against low-ranked players, making your odds better.

The cut-off point seems to be around the Platinum tier. If you manage to get to Platinum (or better) in Premier drafts, you'll be matched against increasingly more experienced players and the Traditional non-ranked field may overall be softer.

In other words, at Platinum or better you’re one of the sharks, and you may be better off switching to the unraked mode.

Then again, there's always personal preference: Premier matches are shorter (which, as anybody with demanding toddlers knows, is a really big deal…); some folks consider that “real” Magic is Bo3 and will lean towards Traditional; etc.

How Can You Practice and Get Better at Limited?

The best way to practice drafts in Arena is to play the third draft mode: Quick Drafts.

Quick Drafts cost half as much as Traditional or Premier, and you draft with bots rather than humans. There's no timer with bots and you can take as much time as you want for each pick. You can even log off in the middle of a draft and come back hours or days later – the bots don't mind!

After the draft portion, a Quick Draft run works the same as a Premier Draft (best-of-one matches until seven wins or three losses), and they also use hand-smoothing.

Quick Drafts also share the same ranking as Premier. If it's your first draft, you'll start at Bronze and most of the time be matched against other Bronze players.

The main caveat about Quick Drafts is that their set doesn’t always overlap with Traditional and Premier – for example, as of this writing the available format for Premier is The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, but for Quick Drafts it's Dominaria United.

Another (free!) way of getting better at limited is checking set reviews.

Practice on Draftsim

Draftsim’s Draft and Sealed Simulator is great to practice Drafts for free. What's more, each set is usually available a few days before it releases on Arena, so you can go into day one with some mock drafts under your belt.

Use Arena Tutor

If you need specific help and recommendations, our Arena Tutor app can do that on the fly as you draft.

Arena Tutor Deckbuilding Suggestions 1

Post-draft, Arena Tutor offers deck-building suggestions:

Arena Tutor Deckbuilding Suggestions 2

In particular for best-of-three, Arena Tutor keeps track of your foe's cards. That way you can better tailor your sideboarding strategy.

Arena Tutor Deckbuilding Suggestions 3

Draftsim Tier Lists

If you'd rather not install the Arena Tutor, you can check Draftsim's ratings directly!

This is one of the advantages of playing Quick Drafts over Traditional or Premier. With the Quick Draft bots, you can take as much time as you like to double-check every card.

Spikes Academy

Another option to improve your draft game it to take a paid online course.

Our recommendation is Spikes Academy's online course from Ben Stark, one of the best drafters in Magic's history. He covers everything from the basics to advanced testing techniques.

And if you'd like to learn more about sideboards, Hall-of-Famer Seth Manfield has a full course on the topic.

Limited Communities

My first recommendation for Limited communities would be Magic Arena's subreddit – I’m aware that Reddit isn’t everybody's cup of tea, but Arena's sub is as friendly as they come. If you post your deck or have questions about your run, there's almost always somebody willing to give you a hand.

Another option is the r/lrcast subreddit – formally, this is the subreddit for listeners of the Limited Resources podcast, but it's the de-facto subreddit for all things Draft. Not everybody in that subreddit plays on Arena but everybody knows Limited inside out.

The majority of content creators have some community around them – if Discord is your cup of tea, I've found the Limited Level-Ups community to be friendly and helpful.

And, of course, you can always stop by Draftsim's Discord for a chat!

Wrap Up

Backdraft Hellkite - Illustration by Rudy Siswanto

Backdraft Hellkite | Illustration by Rudy Siswanto

In a nutshell, Traditional versus Premier boils down to: What's your Limited rank in Arena?

My rule of thumb would be: focus on Premier (or Quick) at least until you reach Gold tier, then try Traditional drafts, then see from there which one you prefer.

I hope you've found this overview useful, and if you have more doubts or questions, let me know in the comments below or over on Draftsim’s Discord.

And may your P1P1 always be the bombest bombs!

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