RGD Booster Draft

I watched my opponent's Azorius First-Wing deal another two points to my face. As from that turn I would be winning the damage race since his turn three Azorius Signet wasn't much good in combat. Signets prefer knitting and flower arranging and romantic walks along the beach, I'm told. Then my opponent tapped out for a Celestial Ancient. Perhaps that's not a card that fills you with fear, but I'd just won the previous game quite easily as my opponent played out something like five auras and a bunch of Beacon Hawks. The following turn he played a Beacon Hawk, then Shielding Plax on the Ancient. Two turns later it was all over.

I stepped away from the monitor for a moment and stretched my arms, drank some of my water and paced up and down a bit. A two-one win was all it took to win any match. This was no different. I began to mentally calculate the odds of holding removal for the Ancient in my opening hand. I began to feel nervous, then irritable. That was bad. Losing the calm mental state required to play correctly was the first step to losing the final game. Then at that moment I smelled a rat. Or rather, I smelled a Legendary Creature - Spirit. It was, of course, my good friend Pat. He turns up almost magically when I'm about to lose a draft in the same way that traffic wardens do when you're illegally parked.

"Hi Dom, won the draft yet?"

"No. And in fact my 1650-rated opponent is about to knock me out in the first round. Thanks for asking."

"But dude," Pat sounded confused - as he usually was, "you're sideboarding, how can you have lost?"

"Meh. Whatever. Let me put it this way: if I lose this one, that's it for me. No more drafting. I'll just buy junk rares for fifty cents each from the traders and play casual."

"You're giving up? You can't! I'm your apprentice. My training is not complete. I'm not ready to face Vader!"

I flopped back down into my swivel chair and looked at Pat. The effect of the pleading puppydog look in his eyes was somewhat spoiled by his drooling maw filled with hundreds of razor sharp teeth. On the other hand, it was flattering that he rated my skills enough to care. I'm a sucker for that kind of thing.

"OK then Pat. We'll just have to complete your training before my match finishes!"

I left the pooter on, my sideboarding timer slowly counting down (please allow some poetic licence here - we both know it was really still going at one second per second). Pat and I took the express elevator upstairs to my Top Secret Draft Dojo.



A waitress at the Top Secret
Draft Dojo performs the ancient
Coke Ceremony for Sensei Dom,
who is too damn lazy.
reader, please excuse a brief digression whilst I discuss preliminaries to our lesson today.

Pat is not an absolute beginner to the art of drafting. He has played enough that he no longer loses every draft in the first round. He knows what a mana curve is and that he needs one. He has a basic notion of card advantage. He has a vague grasp of what one means by tempo. His Draft Fu is not yet strong, but he would defeat a novice without difficulty. The lesson today, whilst it may be read by anyone, is aimed at intermediate players of this kind.

A second point must be made, at least as important as the first. Your humble teacher would not presume to teach every aspect of Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension draft to perfection. Instead, I simply present in its entirety a single approach to drafting this format. It is the approach I use, distilled from both experience and the advice of many others. It has served me well.

On Guilds and Archetypes

"You have doubtless heard, Pat, of the triads? Tell me of them."

"Yes, master," Pat replied, "within the Wooberg there are ten guilds. Many have noted that this means there are also ten three-color combinations, each formed by the exclusion of one guild's colors from the Wooberg. Each of these is a triad. There are five greater triads and five lesser triads. The greater triads are BRG, UBR, WBR, WUB and WUR because each of these contains within it a guild from each set. The five lesser triads are WUG, WBG, WRG, UBG, URG because each is unrepresented in one of the sets."

"It is so, as many have said. And yet this knowledge - useful though it is - has led many astray."

So I began to teach Pat a new way of looking at archetypes in RGD draft.

The first key observation which changes our perspective is this: theoretical availability of cards is no use to you if you cannot claim them in practice.

Like most enormously important ideas it seems probably seems obvious to you at first sight. That's because it is obvious in isolation, but many players miss this point in the context of RGD.

Consider the Ravnica pack. In simpler formats of the past, a drafter would select cards reading color signals from the right and attempt to fall into the most powerful two-color combination that was sufficiently open to provide enough playables. Not so in Ravnica. Unsure of your colors early in the draft, the smart strategy is to take cards requiring a minimum of color commitment. However, the usual inclination to take powerful cards still remains. The consequence of these two effects combined is that it is very difficult to get a strong set of cards from a Ravnica guild.

So now we have to take a fresh look at our lesser triads. There is one triad which has no representation in Ravnica: URG. Those of you who know the format well may have felt a shiver of recognition at this point. The URG archetype is the first choice for many great players and has the potential to produce what are probably the best decks in the format.

But there is more. Now consider Dissension. There are two key features of the Dissension pack. The first is that all players should by then be settled into colors, so this is the pack where strong cards have the greatest potential to travel several seats around the table. On the other hand, since signals in Ravnica will often be hard to read it is quite frequently the case that one does not know what to expect from Dissension. The two lesser triads WBG and WRG are both unrepresented in Dissension and consequently are highly risky since they tend to fall short of playables. For this reason, if you find yourself drafting Selesnya in Ravnica you must value color fixing above all else since you will very probably need to splash a fourth color.

Last we consider Guildpact. This is the one pack where you can develop clear expectations, since you know what you have passed and therefore the most likely colors the players to your left are in. It is because of this that the two archetypes WUG and UBG are the weakest triads, with the latter being particularly awful since it involves two Ravnica guilds!

"So there are really six strong triads?" Pat asked.

"Be patient," I responded, "we have not yet completed our analysis."

The next thing to do is to take a look at the frequency with which Guildpact and Dissension Guilds occur within the six...

Gruul: 2
Izzet: 3
Orzhov: 2
Azorius: 2
Rakdos: 3
Simic: 1

"Oh... my...", Pat mumbled.

"I think you see now why the greater triads drafting approach is flawed and why URG is so strong. Nobody else can use Simic."

"So I should really draft URG every time?"

"No. Because there is more to drafting than potential cardpools."

The Concept of Draft Paths

"If everyone drafts URG," I explained to Pat, "they will all achieve poor decks. In more pedestrian draft formats, the art of signalling is used to prevent oneself from suffering this fate."

"Is there no signalling in RGD?" Pat asked, afraid.

"Oh, there most certainly is," I reassured him, "but it is no longer quite the same beast. What you have to understand about signals is that the structure of signals in a given format arise from the options one has in that format. Because there are so many options in RGD we cannot begin to analyze the signal patterns of the format until we look a bit more at the possible paths through the draft..."

Explaining paths to Pat was a painful process, since he does tend to be a little hard of thinking. The basic idea is to look at how drafting the various good archetypes can arise in terms of picks. Before we can do that, two further preliminaries are required.

The first extra thing we need to do is introduce the idea of 4-color and 5-color decks. Whenever you stray outside the six strong triads you should always steer towards 4/5-color. For brevity I will from now on refer to this archetype as 5CG (for "Five Color Green"), just bear in mind that such a deck might turn out to only use four colors. When drafting 5CG what you need above all else is manafixing and particularly bouncelands.

The second thing we need is an understanding of the pace of the format. Because it takes people time to fix their mana, the format is generally slow. Fast decks exist and they can certainly win, but they're at a natural disadvantage.

Ready? Off we go!

Nothing: When you have no color commitment at all, you should usually be looking to take the most powerful card from each pack. This is what we call "natural" signalling. (When you do something which weakens your deck in the interests of sending a clearer signal, that's "artificial" signalling.) Now move on to one of the color sub-headings below.

Sucks to be put on a pedestal.
White: This is the weakest color you can find yourself in. It's vitally important not to pass any good Black, because your only option not involving Black is WUR and that requires you to secure the scarce Izzet cards from Guildpact, which is a long shot at best. Don't be tempted by Selesnya cards - those are not for you unless there's absolutely nothing else good in the pack. If you were to move from a White start to a 5CG deck it would be because you'd managed to pick up bouncelands and signets.

Blue: Blue is very powerful in RGD, so this is a reasonable place to start. Be very careful, however - Blue is most frequently the "small" color in a typical three color deck and is the commonest color to splash. You should be quick to grab the powerful single-Blue cards (Compulsive Research, Vedalken Dismisser, Peel from Reality and Snapping Drake at Common) but anything with double-Blue in the cost belongs in a far smaller set of decks and is best avoided during early picks. The two paths available from a Blue start involve either claiming Red as well (preferable if you can manage it) or accepting Black and White as your two other colors. The availability of both UBR and WUR mean that you need not be too shy of taking either White or Black cards from packs with no Red.

Black: The second best color to start in. The only two strong triads which don't use Black both involve the hotly contested UR combination. You can afford to take any of the four other colors and still be left with good options.

Red: This is where you really want to be. An early claim to Red gives you a good grip on two potential guilds from Guildpact and leaves a positively ridiculous five of the six strong triads still open to you. Your first choice would be to go UR and preferably URG. But don't force it, you're already in a strong position.

Green: This is a dangerous start. The reason it's dangerous is because Green is an all-or-nothing color. There are few worthwhile cards with single-Green mana costs in Ravnica and even the excellent Civic Wayfinder and very useful Farseek aren't as flexible as you would like from single-Green since you need to cast them early. Green without Red has to mean 5CG, so if you can't pick up any Red cards you need to focus on mana fixing. On the other hand, 5CG can be a very strong deck at its best, so the best rule once you're Green is "if in doubt, pick the bounceland".

...your draft path continues from your opening color with one or more Guildpact guilds. Note that whilst a small minority of decks may contain no Guildpact guild, this isn't a decision you can make at this stage; it represents your "Plan B".

Izzet: If fortune is on your side and the cards flow well then congratulations, you probably just won your draft. The trouble is that all the good drafters want the Izzet stuff if they can get it, so you'll frequently see little of it. Interestingly, both WUR and UBR get very little from Guildpact outside Izzet. This means you should already have a good idea which of these you're in by the time you reach Guildpact because it's what you get in Dissension that will fill out your deck. Note that one important decision you need to make during Guildpact is whether you can make a heavy Blue commitment. If you can then your deck power will rise considerably as the very strong Train of Thought often goes surprisingly late due to the impossibility of splashing it.

Gruul: Gruul cards are really deep in Guildpact, so you should pick up more than enough material here to give you flexibility in Dissension. If you're aiming for BRG, note that the best version to aim for is GRb so that you can get good use out of Pyromatics and still cast Ghor-Clan Savages reliably on turn five. Sometimes you can manage to get enough Green and Red playables to go into Dissension not caring which of Simic or Rakdos you take, which is very powerful.

Orzhov: The Orzhov have one big advantage in Guildpact, which is that their good cards are all genuinely two-color. This tends to stop other players grabbing them to splash. On the minus side, Orzhov are shallower than the other two Guilds, so you will sometimes find yourself short on card quality coming out of Guildpact.

There is one more aspect of draft paths which need mentioning, which was hinted at earlier with our analysis of how often each Guild features in the six strong triads. The WUB triad uses both Orzhov and Azorius which are in low demand (featuring in only two strong triads each). By contrast UBR uses both Izzet and Rakdos, which are both in high demand. Following the "paths" approach to drafting is also much more likely to lead to UBR than WUB. The astute reader will note that these two facts are simply two aspects of the same phenomenon. Importantly, this means that there can be big rewards for taking the less "safe" paths through the draft. I've seen cards like Azorius Ploy go as late as 13th pick at a table of good drafters because nobody could support its mana cost.

Away from Three Colors

"So your basic point," Pat concluded, "is that Red is excellent and Black is good because of the archetypes they put you in?"

"Don't worry about trying to condense all this into simple, memorable rules. We'll do that at the end of the lesson."

"OK," Pat shrugged, "so now I know something about the six decks, what next?"

"Six decks?!" I laughed and rolled my eyes, "No! Nononono! Far more than that. Because only an idiot plays three color."

In many ways this is the one nugget of wisdom that survived from Invasion block to Ravnica: Do not run 6/6/6 manabases. Though where those might have been lands during Invasion, in Ravnica they represent sources. Nobody runs eighteen land in RGD.

My typical RGD draft deck contains three colors, but has two major colors and on minor color. When calculating sources for such a deck, any one-time-flexible source like Civic Wayfinder counts as a source for the minor color only.

The main consequence of this is that the six strong triads explode into a positively ridiculous eighteen possible decks. Or so you might think, but a great many of them are seldom seen.

Indeed, I only really recognise five distinct archetypes as strong synergistic decks. This is very much a personal perspective rather than a canonical truth, but sometimes it’s easier to understand very complex things by first accepting a bit of oversimplification.

I will talk briefly about each archetype, ranking them from most-played to least played amongst my own draft decks.

GRb - High power beatdown
With Green being the color of quality ground-based creatures and Red and Black being the two removal colors, the plan here is simple. Play creatures, curving up to huge difficult-to-answer fatties and blow away anything that tries to stand in the way. The nice thing about this archetype is that the cardpool is deep, so it very seldom goes horribly wrong. Even better, the archetype tolerates a lot of variation in what you draft and still works. The card this archetype truly loves is Wildsize. Draft at least some mana acceleration (Farseek, Signets, Starfletchers or Utopia Sprawl) because the sooner your fatties hit the board the more likely you will win.

WBu/WUb - Orzhov control
The idea here is very simple: gum up the ground and win with a trickle of evasion and/or bleed damage. There's a lot of good defensive stuff in this block as well as the three disabling auras (Fetters, Pillory and Plumes). There are two main weaknesses with this deck. First, you have to be confident Orzhov is open, because the cardpool is not deep. Second, you have to be good at making mulligan decisions, because if an aggro decks curves out against you it's very hard to stabilise in time.

URb/URw/URg - Izzet tricks
Steamcore Weird, Ogre Savant, Izzet Chronarch and as much bounce and card drawing as you can get your hands on form the heart of this archetype. It was awesome in RRG, but now it's even better. Unfortunately this means that the better the people you draft with the less likely you'll have a shot at this deck. Note that this archetype does not need Wee Dragonauts, so don't pick 'em over important stuff. If you have few flyers that's OK, but make sure you pick up a Leap of Flame or two to act as a finisher in this case.

Simic Banana-Swallower is not technically
an archetype even though your opponents
always have it.
WRu/WUr - Evasive beatdown
This is the deck I most fear to play against, because of the way it sometimes "just wins". The basic idea is to have a deck full of quality 1-drops, 2-drops and 3-drops and win before the opponent's had time to develop their mana. This deck is all about things with evasion. Not to say it doesn't like cards such as Sell-Sword Brute, but some games the opponent will develop fast and without multiple evasion creatures your situation will be hopeless. Note that this deck needs to come out of Ravnica with plenty of good creatures, since Guildpact will mostly provide tricks.

GUr/GRu - "Bloodgraft"
Everyone talks about this one a lot, but in reality it's quite hard to pull off. The basic idea is to exploit the fact that Bloodthirst puts +1/+1 counters on things which allows Sporeback Troll and Helium Squirter to target them. Also Skarrgan Pit-Skulk and Silhana Ledgewalker are both very happy to receive +1/+1 counters from Vigean Hydropon. Very low-curve versions also add in Taste for Mayhem, which goes very nicely with regenerators, flyers and Pit-Skulks (and particularly regenerating, flying Pit-Skulks).

I am in no way trying to imply that these are the only deck archetypes, but I can say with complete honesty that every other good deck I've faced has tended to be a pile of random powerful stuff held together rather tenuously by an overstretched manabase.

Other Matters of Importance

"Sensei," Pat asked, "It often happens that I draft what I think is a great deck, then lose in the first round. By what means may I prevent this."

"One afternoon in an orchard in Owari province, a young scholar chanced upon a beautiful young lady and her two minders. He composed a beautiful verse in his head with which to woo her, but before he could recite it the two minders grabbed him and cast him down a steep slope and into a ditch containing pig dung. What does this story tell us about RGD draft games?"

"That sometimes there is nothing one can do?"

"No," I waggled my finger at Pat, "it teaches us that in order not to end up in the poo we must understand the nature of the obstacles we face before approaching them. The young scholar was so intent upon impressing the young lady that he did not give proper consideration to the task ahead of him."

"Then please advise me, how must I prepare?"

"It is the work of a lifetime to study these matters, but I will give you ten items of advice drawn from my own experiences. These should suffice to improve matters greatly for you."

1 - The quality of combat tricks in RGD is high. If you can trade only a single creature for the opponent's combat trick, this is frequently good play. It is much easier to stall the ground once your opponent's tricks are exhausted. If you are the aggressor, avoid initiating attacks where the opponent can draw out your tricks unless your tempo advantage is likely to mean a win.
2 - The decision as to whether to accept a 1-for-1 trade in combat should be made primarily according to how aggressive your opponent's deck is compared to yours. The more aggressive the opponent is, the more you should prefer to trade. This is because the format contains an awful lot of viable ways to finish an injured opponent, which will likely outweigh any card quality considerations involved in the trade (so for example, do block the opponent's Sell-Sword Brute with your Dimir Guildmage).
3 - If your opponent appears to have access to Blue mana, you should wait as late as possible before playing out auras (and particularly disabling auras) due to the high risk of bounce.
4 - The ability to do one point of targeted damage is valuable, since the format contains many good X/1 creatures (not just flyers, also utility stuff like Minister of Impediments, Rakdos Ickspitter and so on). Conversely, you should avoid running X/1 creatures unless they are really good since too many opponents will be able to kill them for free.
5 - On the ground, the 3/3 creature is the benchmark. Thus 4/4s are powerful and 2/2s ineffective after the early game. (In combat that is, obviously some 2/2s are played for their abilities.)
6 - In the air, the 2/2 creature is the benchmark. A 1/3 flyer is therefore acceptable in a control deck because it blocks 2/2s but bad for an aggressive deck.
7 - Do not play around countermagic by doing nothing. (Playing around countermagic by reversing the order in which you cast two spells is fine.) Decks running countermagic are probably weak already, so if they have the counter you usually don't mind much. (Exception: If you know for a fact their deck contains countermagic this no longer applies.)
8 - Low creature counts are unusually acceptable in this format. If your spells are solid then 12-13 good creatures can be perfectly adequate.
9 - When given the chance to play or draw, you should choose to draw unless your deck is both aggressive and has excellent mana.
10 - A two-land hand where neither is a bounceland should seldom be kept unless you have another mana source in hand. Good decks mulligan well in RGD thanks to bouncelands (and every deck wants two or more bouncelands).

Tips in a Bun, with Fries

For anyone too lazy or dense to study and ponder the above (so that's Pat again then), my drafting style can be very roughly condensed into two questions and one rule:

Q1: Which Guildpact guild(s) does my deck plan to draft?
Q2: Is my deck aggressive or controlling?

Rule 1: If in doubt, take the bounceland!

And because lists are cute, here's a list. My top five format-defining cards from RGD:

5) Minister of Impediments
4) Stinkweed Imp
3) Fetters, Pillory and Plumes
2) Wildsize
1) Dimir Aqueduct (and the other 9 bouncelands)

OK, so that was really sixteen cards. Don't complain - that's more than 200% extra free!

"Master, did you hear the sound of Magic Online? Your sideboarding time has ended."

"That is of no consequence, Pat, I will not require all the playing time allotted to me. One lesson remains."

"Be swift, for I would not want my requests for tuition to cost you the match!" Pat said.

"You must answer this question," I said, "to prove your understanding of RGD to me. Consider this pack:

Ravnica, Pick 1Magic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
1 Helldozer
1 Drooling Groodion
1 Golgari Thug
1 Moroii
1 Dimir Signet
1 Snapping Drake
1 Selesnya Signet
1 Infectious Host
1 Quickchange
1 Boros Recruit
1 Nightguard Patrol
1 Sparkmage Apprentice
1 Civic Wayfinder
1 Dogpile
1 Golgari Rot-Farm

The apprentice drafts the Moroii, because it was good in triple-Ravnica draft.

The adept drafts the Civic Wayfinder, because it provides flexible mana fixing and card advantage.

The master drafts... what, Pat?"

Pat pondered the question for some time, before replying:

"The master understands that the correctness of a pick can only be judged within a drafting environment. A pick which is great at one table might be awful at another with the same cards in each pack simply because of the drafting and signalling patterns of the other players seated at each. The Golgari Rot-Farm must be considered depending on the scarcity of bouncelands. The Civic Wayfinder must be considered depending upon how reliably signals can be read. The Snapping Drake must be considered depending upon how heavily drafted Blue is. You yourself would draft the Moroii, because for you the risk represented by the two colors in its cost is outweighed by the card's great power. Each drafter must draw this line somewhere or pass Glare of Subdual in favour of Dimir House-Guard."


The Pimp is dead, long live
the Pimp.
stood up and bowed to Pat. "I have nothing more to teach you," I said.

I returned to my computer and won the game, the match and later the draft.


Would I really have quit drafting? No, of course not. It is not in my character to make dramatic gestures.

I was, however, more tense than usual during that draft. At its conclusion, I had achieved a long-awaited personal goal: to reach an online Limited rating above 1800. When I set myself this task it was of some small importance since Magic Online used to contain a private room into which only players rated 1800 or higher could go. Wizards later downgraded the threshold to 1700 and I was able to gain entry more easily. Then they abandoned it altogether.

There is nothing particularly notable about an 1800 rating now. And yet I am pleased, because it is the goals we set ourselves which matter the most.

Lastly, I would like to thank the members of the Limited forum here on MTGSalvation. Their often insightful comments have improved my drafting greatly over the last year. It is not their fault that I still seldom take Peel from Reality over Stinkweed Imp pack one, pick one but they can at least take comfort in the fact that I now smile ruefully when the URb deck I end up with contains two Izzet Chronarchs!


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