Theros Triple Draft – How to Get Better in a Hurry
By Jeff Zandi
This man walking in New York City, carrying a violin case, stops a passerby and asks him, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The passerby replies, “Practice, practice, practice!”
That old joke predates Magic: the Gathering by about fifty years, but what was true then is true today. If you want to get somewhere in this game, you better be willing to put in the practice time. All practice, however, is not created equal. When it comes to the arcane science of booster draft, good practice can be hard to come by. While I would be the first to insist that all practice is useful, it cannot be denied that you get better at booster drafting when you have good players with which to draft.
Steven Bruce, a fellow Guildmage and veteran of several Pro Tours, called me a little while ago. He had been distracted from “serious Magic” for a few months by work and family life. Theros had just come out and Grand Prix: Oklahoma City, a sealed deck and booster draft event, was looming just two weeks away. How can we get some extra drafts in? Good question. Steven told me that he had persuaded a local Magic businessman of some renown to let Steven borrow two boxes of Theros boosters. Steven’s plan was to assemble some good drafters and use the two boxes of boosters to power a series of drafts. Each box contains thirty-six boosters. You need twenty-four boosters for eight players to draft. Two boxes equals seventy-two boosters, exactly enough for eight players to draft three times.
Normally, when we draft on Tuesday night practices, or just about anytime else, we play for whatever rares and mythics and foils that we open in the draft. This does two things: it keeps players from greedily rare drafting since they know they won’t get to keep their precious rares unless they win the draft. The other reason we play for the rares is because having something of value on the line makes players more competitive. In the past, when a set has just come out, I’ve furnished all the boosters for a draft with the understanding that all the cards come back to me after the draft. Sure, it was nice for the other players to have a chance to draft without any risk, but the lack of a reward made the draft a failure overall.
Steven had already done the hardest part, he got eight good drafters together. I supplied the location, my house on a Monday night. I warned the wife that this was going to be one of those Magic-intensive weeks where she would see Guildmage galoots and guests on Monday night as well as the normally prescribed Tuesday night.
In order to keep the game interesting, in order to have something on the line that we would be playing for, the eight drafters agreed to each put five bucks into a pool. This forty bucks would be paid to, or split among, the best finishing record after not one, but THREE booster drafts. Three booster drafts would take a very long time using our traditional Tuesday night method of playing three Swiss rounds with the draft decks before cutting to a final four. We play the semifinals matches and then have the two finalists split up the prizes. That’s four rounds of play for the players that reach the final four. Using this system, three booster drafts back-to-back-to-back would be a little tedious and would be more time than some of our drafters had to spend. We could have chosen to play single elimination rounds in each of the drafts, but even that format takes three rounds per draft. Here’s what we decided to do: We would draft, then play two rounds of Swiss, then throw all the cards back into the box and draft again using new packs. After we drafted the second time, we played two more Swiss rounds and again threw the cards back into the box afterwards. Then we drafted a third time and played two more Swiss rounds.
We randomized seating for each of the three drafts.
It was shockingly efficient. In about eight hours we had drafted three times and played some amount of meaningful Magic with each of the decks we drafted. There was prize money on the line so all eight drafters gave their best performance in each draft and in each match. In one night we saw more draft choices, more deck building decisions, and more in-game strategy than any of us might see in a week or more. And other than the five dollars each for the prize kitty, and our time, it didn’t cost us a dime. Steven painstakingly sorted the cards after the draft making sure that the local Magic businessman would get every rare, mythic, foil, uncommon and common that belonged to him. I don’t remember the two boxes of boosters actually rendering any particularly valuable cards, but the point wasn’t to open good cards or to win any cards, the point was to get better at drafting Theros. And I think we all did.
After six rounds, it was me and Justin Lenhart sitting on top of the scoreboard with matching 4-2 records. We split the money, twenty bucks each. Not a bad night’s work. There were so many Texas Guildmages in the draft (Joe, Mark, Steven, Eric, Jon and myself) that I eventually decided to claim this special draft practice as an extra Guildmage meeting. Suffice to say we had a very nice talent base present for crushing some Theros drafts in a worthwhile manner. Mark Hendrickson is our biggest gun tonight (and most nights). He has consistently qualified for the Pro Tour from year one, in 1996, to the present era. By far, Mark has more Pro Tour Qualifier top eights than any other Guildmage (almost fifty?) and more Grand Prix day two appearances. Mark made day two this year at Grand Prix Houston and finished in the money. Mark has been awarded Guildmage of the Year honors two times and is the leader so far for 2013. Eric Jones is known as the Perfect Gamer around here, and for good reason. He has a knack for perfectly understanding every game he plays. He can be a bit of a mad scientist in booster drafts, but his results are unassailable. Eric has played on the Pro Tour and would have more PT appearances if he were not choosing to judge so often in the past. Jon Toone has played in several booster draft Pro Tour events including the team Pro Tour in Charleston in 2006 and individually at Pro Tour Geneva in 2007. Jon has been the most dominate player in our Tuesday night drafts this year. Steven Bruce played in both of the Pro Tours alongside Jon Toone. I’ve played in seven Pro Tour events over the years, four of them featuring booster draft. Joe Klopchic is a skilled player/judge and the finest rules expert on our team. Our two guests tonight are also very experienced players. Patrick Lynch doesn’t play in many PTQs these days, but has been a semi-regular in our weekly drafts for the past seventeen years. In the early days of the Pro Tour, Patrick was a regular practice partner with North Texas’ first really good players like George Baxter (who top eighted at Pro Tour number one). Last but definitely not least, Justin Lenhart has Pro Tour experience and is always finishing near the top of big local events.
What We Learned
The number one thing we learned is that we could get a lot of work done in a short period of time using this interesting draft format.
We learned about a few draft archetypes that we were not really exploring in our first few Guildmage drafts. Namely, blue/green aggro. Justin made short work of the first two drafts going 4-0 with two very similar blue/green decks. When you think aggro, you might think about one and two-drop creatures. Blue/green aggro draft isn’t necessarily trying to jam in one and two-drops, although Sedge Scorpion and Vaporkin are very good cards in this deck. You might even take Vaporkins fairly early in the draft to make sure you have some. You never have to worry about taking Sedge Scorpion early. The green and blue commons just give you a lot of value among fairly inexpensive yet meaty creatures. Nessian Courser, obviously, is a fine play on turn three. Breaching Hippocamp is both a fast aggro creature and a later-game combat trick rolled into one. The best common “removal” spells for this deck are Voyage’s End and Savage Surge. Voyage’s End may only be a bounce spell, temporarily removal at best, but when you’re going fast it can buy you all the time you need sometimes. And you get to scry. Savage Surge is the sickest card in this deck because it allows you to alpha strike ALL THE TIME. You send in everyone. If the other guy blocks in a way that would cost you a crucial creature, you can save it with Savage Surge and have it ready to block if necessary on their turn. Maybe they don’t block because they want to take advantage of your depleted defenses with a big swing-back. Not so fast, my friend! Savage Surge suddenly buffs your biggest man and untaps him so he can surprise your opponent with a timely block. Green also gets a common actual removal spell in Time to Feed. Agent of Horizons is another game-winning common that defines this kind of deck.
The broadest takeaway from this series of drafts was that aggression in this format goes way beyond the red/white heroic decks that we originally experienced. The red/white aggro plan is still powerful, but has a lot of risk built into it. Its creatures, like Favored Hoplite and Cavalry Pegasus, are good in early turns but potentially terrible when you draw them late. It’s also risky to play so many spells whose only purpose is to target your own heroic creatures. It’s easy to fall into a bad position of having a handful of spells when you *want* to draw a creature. Red/white aggro is still a deck that can crush a draft, but it has a high degree of risk to go with the possible rewards. The blue/green aggro deck is interesting in how fast it can go without the late game downside. As this draft format matures, we’re seeing faster and faster decks in general. A month ago we thought people were going to win games with control and big effects and creatures. Today, while I wouldn’t say the bombs are dead by any means, it is certainly not safe to assume you can draft bombs and live long enough to play them. One way you know a format is getting faster is when it is routinely correct to take a common over a rare with your first pick. Celestial Archon is a fine first pick, but you can defend taking a common like Nimbus Naiad over it. Both can be used as a creature enchantment (they have bestow) to surprise your opponent with a big flyer for the win. Nimbus Naiad can do this trick for just five mana, while Celestial Archon requires seven mana. The five-mana trick is better most of the time.
Other tidbits: Griptide seems to get better and better in this format. All of the Ordeal auras are better than we originally thought. Both of these revelations point to the importance of pace and aggression.
Two Boxes is a Lot of Cards to Open
Is it? I see guys buy boxes of cards all the time and simply rip them open to see what rares and mythics they got. Take the same two boxes and the system we used tonight and you can have a lot of fun and move your understanding of the draft format ahead by miles. When the three drafts are over you still have all the cards from the two boxes. If they are your boxes and you want to protect the quality of your rares and mythics, you can ask your friends to play in sleeves. You can proxy the most valuable cards if you really want to.
Thanks for reading.
Level II DCI Judge
Zanman on Magic Online