For Limited players there’s nothing quite like the thrill of sitting down for a draft and opening your first pack. You tear open the wrapper, thumb through 15 cards and select the best of the bunch to be your coveted pack one, pick one. You’ve trained for this moment, you’ve read all the set reviews, you feel confident in your pick order. But then a pack is passed to you with one card missing and you begin the treacherous journey of reading signals: uncovering the clues to what the players on your right are doing as each subsequent pack arrives with fewer and fewer cards. This is, in my opinion, the most exciting and most daunting part of drafting. And it's what I’m going to attempt to illuminate for you today.
As I have often said on my stream and podcast “staying open” in a draft can mean one of two things. It can mean taking the best card out of the pack, regardless of power level, in order to find the open color pair for your seat. It can also mean staying nearly mono color in pack 1, sacrificing some power level in your picks for flexibility, to leave you with the most options based on what you open or are passed in pack 2. Walking the tightrope between these two options is one of my favorite things about limited. I like to refer to it as “bobbing and weaving”. In a set like Guilds of Ravnica where the decks are a bit more restricted and the archetypes more clearly defined, identifying the correct deck for your seat is often the difference between a 3-0 and a complete train wreck. 99% of the time these decisions happen in the first pack of your draft, which is what we’re going to focus on today. I believe that navigating pack one can be broken down into three sections.
Section 1: Picks 1-3 “The Power”
The first three picks of your draft are where you hope to find your most powerful cards. It’s when the least number of players have had the opportunity to look over the cards so your options are wide open. Having a clearly defined pick order is so important for pack one of a draft and picks 1-3 are where you can use that pick order in its purest form. This is where you should be taking the most powerful or flexible cards. By powerful I mean the strongest card in a vacuum, and by flexible I mean the card that is most likely to make your deck at the end of the draft or leaves you open to the most choices down the road. For example, I would consider
Niv-Mizzet, Parun a very powerful but restrictive card whereas
Deadly Visit would be more flexible.
I often treat these as three distinct first picks. A recent draft I had started with
Lazav, the Multifarious into
Swiftblade Vindicator into
Crackling Drake. No deck in this format that would want to play all three of those cards, but I was very keen on scooping up the best card from each of those first three packs. Sure, I could have stayed tunnel visioned on Dimir with my first pick and grabbed a
Darkblade Agent second and an
Artful Takedown third, but that would have left me high and dry through the rest of the pack as I watched fantastic Izzet cards like
Runaway Steam-Kin and
Sonic Assault pass by.
Now, I am not advocating completely ignoring what you’ve already selected when considering subsequent picks in the early part of your draft. When the power level of the cards is flat or roughly equal, I would certainly lean towards taking the card that matches up best with what you already have in your pile. If I start the draft with
Erratic Cyclops and the next pack contains
Direct Current and
Dead Weight as its two best cards, I’m of course going to take the red card here even though I rank
Dead Weight slightly better. However, if I start that same draft with a
Watcher in the Mist I will take
Dead Weight second as I am purely picking based off of power level at that point.
Power and flexibility, that’s what the first three picks are all about.
Section 2: Picks 4-8 “The Signals”
The reason I draw the line after pick 3 is it is very difficult to read signals before then. Being passed a
Murmuring Mystic second doesn’t necessarily mean the person to your right didn’t take a blue rare out of the pack. And even so, it doesn’t mean that the two drafters to that player’s right aren’t going to end up in blue. Once you’re in the middle of the pack you start to receive clear signals from the 3 people to your right who will be passing to you for two of the three packs.
Let’s take the following draft as an example:
P1: I select
Expansion // Explosion over
Knight of Autumn,
Lava Coil, and
Dead Weight. Here I chose to take what I believed to be the most powerful card over a more flexible removal spell in
Lava Coil. I think some players might be afraid of taking the split card here since
Lava Coil is almost certainly the second best card in this pack and wouldn’t want to send mixed signals regarding drafting Red. Don't worry about this. I can’t stress this enough: the signals you receive are far more important than the signals you send. And even though I would hope to play my rare in an Izzet deck, I can still play Expansion in a Dimir or Boros deck.
P2: I select
Goblin Cratermaker over
Artful Takedown and
Dead Weight. It matches up nicely with our first pick and is, if not the most powerful card in the pack, certainly close enough.
Capture Sphere, and
Izzet Guildgate are the only cards worth mentioning that match up with our first couple picks. This rare does not excite me at all and
Capture Sphere, despite being a solid removal spell, often won't find a home in the best Izzet decks not being an instant or sorcery. And this seems a little early for me to be taking a guildgate. So what else do we have? Well, all three uncommons are still in the pack, two of which are
Necrotic Wound and
District Guide. The former's a fantastic removal spell in a Golgari deck and a fine (though less impressive) spell in a Dimir deck.
District Guide I like quite a bit. Not only is it perfect as a creature with an ETB effect, which is just what the Golgari deck wants, but it also enables the base green 3-5 color decks. I think these decks are very viable and exactly what you should try and do when your attempts at identifying open guilds get thwarted. At the time I felt
District Guide was my best option and if Izzet remained open, I wasn’t missing out on much.
Before we get to the next pick, I want to really hit this last point home as I believe it's a crucial tenet to navigating the middle section of packs. If you hedge on open colors (or guilds in the case of GRN) and that ends up not working out, that’s totally fine. Here you miss out on a gate or a solid player in
Capture Sphere neither of which you will miss if Izzet is what your seat is supposed to be doing and neither of which should send any kind of signal to the person to your left. On the other hand, if Gx is open you will sorely miss the
District Guide that you pass. I think the CCDD cards in the set are great examples of strong hedge picks. If I get a
Conclave Cavalier fourth even if I have three Izzet cards I will often grab the Selesneya card. If GW is open, I’m thrilled. And if it’s not, I will move off of it very quickly and just continue the draft along my UR path. I give up very little in terms of card quality for the chance at identifying the open deck for my seat. And at the end of the day, that’s my goal.
Status // Statue. That’s the kind of signal I’m talking about. This is a card that I’d be happy first picking making its way to me fourth. Even if I hadn’t taken
District Guide last pick, I would still be taking
Status // Statue as a huge signal here for BG. Because I have such a clear pick order, I am able to identify this card as going later than I believe it should and therefore take it as information that BG is what I should be drafting.
As you continue to take cards in this middle section of pack one, you will probably stop seeing the windmill slam powerhouse cards and instead start selecting the role players for your deck. These are the better non-removal commons and guild specific uncommons. If I think I’m BG then I’d be looking for
Portcullis Vines, etc. If I’m not seeing those and I start to see the role players for another guild, I would consider that the BG signals I thought I received were a fluke and that something else is correct for me to draft (which is just another reason that
District Guide was a nice third pick as it still leaves me outs to a multi-color good stuff deck.)
The hope is that by the middle of pack one you will have identified the open guild and be ready to settle in. There's also the possibility that you could be primarily one color and straddle either guild to which it belongs. Having five black cards and two Dimir and two Golgari cards at the end of pack one is a great place to be since you are very flexible for what happens in pack 2. In a less restrictive format this kind of strategy is often best. If you can be primarily one color and have your toes dipped into a couple others you will be able to jump on a bomb you open in pack 2 or a second color flowing from your left.
Section 3: Picks 9+ “The Wheel”
The final section of pack one is the cards that have made their way around the table. This is your chance to not only see cards which may be going criminally late, but also evaluate what other people at your table may be doing. If a
Glowspore Shaman wheels out of your first pack it's fair to suspect no one else is in BG. If in pick 2, you take
Murmuring Mystic and pass
Piston-Fist Cyclops, and
Sonic Assault and then none of those three make their way back to you, get out of Izzet. One of the most rewarding things about reading signals and finding your lane is being able to grab two picks out a single pack. This will not only result in a strong 40 card deck, but a sideboard full options for each of your three matches.
Staying open, reading signals, and navigating a draft are incredibly difficult things to do optimally. Pick orders vary from player to player, and knowing when it’s time to jump ship or when the ship has sailed and you’re better off sticking with what you’ve got often boils down to instinct more than hard and fast rules. I believe that thinking about pack one in these three sections, coupled with a clear pick order is the most helpful way to get the best deck each and every draft. There's so much more to discuss here with each new set bringing about its own challenges for drafting that I look forward to future articles on this topic.
But for now, I wish you clear signals and open colors. Until next time!