2016: The Year in Booster Draft

Written by Jeff Zandi on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Limited

2016: The Year in Booster Draft

Jeff Zandi

Jeff Zandi is a level 2 judge and an eight-time veteran of the Pro Tour. He has written continuously about Magic for over eighteen years. His team, the Texas Guildmages, have the longest running regular game in history, meeting at his home every Tuesday night since 1996.

The New Year is here. It’s out with the old and in with the new. While I can assure you I’m just as happy to say goodbye to 2016 as anyone, I do find myself musing over the events of the past year. Specifically, the various booster draft formats of 2016. I’m going to break down some of the finer draft moments that put dollar bills in the big shot’s pockets on the Pro Tour. After that, I’ll share what my team, the Texas Guildmages, did with booster drafts in 2016. Then I’ll do something others can’t do, I’ll objectively lay out what draft format was the most powerful in the past year. It’s entirely possible I played hundreds of games with booster draft decks that my friends drafted at the fifty Tuesday night meetings in 2016 in which the team booster drafted.

What the Pros Drafted

Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch – Atlanta, Georgia – February 5-7

Eight players managed to go undefeated in their two draft pods at the New Year’s first Pro Tour in Atlanta. They were Shota Yasooka, Frank Karsten, Nick Connell, Alex Bianchi, Frank Lepore, Shuhei Nakamura, Mike Sigrist and Matej Zatlkaj. Shota Yasooka characterized the Oath of the Gatewatch draft format as being very speedy. The speed of the format understood, Shota said a lot of different color combinations were possible. For what it’s worth, Shota went 6-0 in Atlanta drafting red/white two times. Shuhei Nakamura agreed that fast decks were best in the format. For himself, Shuhei won his draft pods with black/white control on day one and blue/white control on day two. “Yeah, but no one else should do that,” Shuhei explained in coverage from the mothership. Mike Sigrist valued removal over anything else in the format and he wasn’t afraid to swim against the aggressive red/white tide, even if that meant playing defensive creatures like Ancient Crab or Wall of Resurgence.

Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad – Madrid, Spain – April 22-24

At the second Pro Tour event of the year, in Madrid, Steve Rubin won the whole thing on the back of his Standard Green/White Tokens deck, but who and what was winning at the draft tables? There were eight players who went 6-0 in their booster draft matches at the Pro Tour. These included Jon Finkel, Jeremy Dezani, Marcio Carvalho, Matt Severa, Tyler Lytle, Raymond Perez, Jr., Luis Salvatto and Jonathan Morawski. This Pro Tour was held in April and the booster draft format was Shadows over Innistrad. Of the sixteen booster draft decks from these eight undefeated Limited players, the designs broke down this way:

Black/White – Finkel’s second, Lytle’s first, Perez’s first
Black/Red – Perez’s second, Dezani’s second, Morawski’s second
Blue/Green – Finkel’s first, Severa’s first
Green/Black – Severa’s second, Carvalho’s second
Red/Blue – Dezani’s first, Carvalho’s first
Blue/White – Salvatto’s second, Morawski’s second
Red/Green – Lytle’s second
Green/White – Salvatto’s first

Black/White and Black/Red were the most popular color combinations among the 6-0 drafters. I want to share one of each of those decks. In choosing them, I picked decks that had more going for them than just a bunch of lucky-dog rare picks. There is obviously more to booster drafting than getting lucky with sick first picks and bombs passed to you by other players.

This, my friends, is what we call a hard-working draft deck. It’s all creatures and curve with just a few combat tricks and a few power-ups along with four ways to kill an opponent’s creature. Either Tyler started in a third color that we don’t know about or else he was fighting with someone for black and white cards because the only duplication in this deck full of commons is Hound of the Farbogs. Tyler has seventeen creatures, four one-drops, three two-drops, four three-drops, three four-drops and a hat trick of Hound of the Farbogs. Hound is not a favorite of mine, but this card certainly gets better in Tyler’s deck when he gets delirium, something he does pretty easily with a good mix of card types and the help of Shard of Broken Glass.

Jeremy’s deck is interesting to me because he played three copies of Reduce to Ashes, a five-casting-cost spell. A lot of people wouldn’t have run that many copies, but Jeremy clearly decided he wanted as much removal as possible and that he could buy the time needed to get five lands in play by playing seventeen land (eleven of these players’ sixteen decks ran seventeen land) and by playing three copies of Rancid Rats. Once Jeremy drafted Diregraf Colossus I’m sure he was happy to pick up any Zombie he could get his hands on. Rancid Rats is a Zombie Rat and a perfectly fine card, but there wouldn’t necessarily be three of them if Jeremy wasn’t (a) playing Diregraf Colossus and (b) using the low end of his curve to buy him time for the bigger spells later.

Jon Finkel’s second draft deck was almost mono black until he opened Archangel Avacyn in the third pack. Green and blue cards were among the first he picked in pack one but he moved quickly enough to black. It was a fairly aggressive deck with three copies of Heir of Falkenrath.

Matt Severa’s second draft deck was green and black, a very popular color combination for Shadows over Innistrad draft. Here’s what his deck looked like:

You can tell that Matt wasn’t fighting for black with anyone around him because he ends up with four copies of Dead Weight. That wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The classic green/black bits are in here: Vessel of Nascency for turn one, Autumnal Gloom as a sort of hope chest for the late game when you reach delirium. He has two rare Markov Dreadknights, but I think most people would agree that his best creature is the uncommon Duskwatch Recruiter. Even though Matt cuts the mana lean with just sixteen lands, this deck doesn’t play like an aggressive creature deck. For one thing, it only has thirteen creatures. On the other hand, it has cards like Vessel of Nascency and Traverse the Ulvenwald that help connect you with creature cards. Three copies of Moldgraf Scavenger hold down the fort in the early turns while Matt hopes and prays he hits his fifth land before turn seven or eight.

Pro Tour Eldritch Moon – Sydney, Australia – August 5-7

Another Pro Tour, another draft format. There were thirty-seven players who went 3-0 in their first Eldritch Moon drafts at Pro Tour Sydney, but only five who managed to repeat with a 3-0 draft on day two. These five include Brad Nelson, Reid Duke, Samuel Pardee, Oscar Christiansen and Marcio Carvalho. That means Carvalho has a perfect 12-0 record in draft across the past two Pro Tours of 2016! Unfortunately, we don’t have their deck lists to study in detail.

Brad Nelson first drafted a green/white Humans deck with Lone Rider and a series of power-ups including Lunarch Mantle, Equestrian Skill and Borrowed Grace. On day two Brad drafted an aggressive red/white deck. Eternal Scourge, in the day two deck, was the only rare he drafted all weekend. Nelson said that bombs were much less important in Eldritch Moon draft.

Reid Duke didn’t mind having a few good rares in his decks this weekend. His day one deck was blue/red with Elder Deep-Fiend and Flameblade Angel. His day two deck was more ridiculous, in black/green with Distended Mindbender and a pair of Elusive Tormentors.

As for the other three undefeated drafters from Sydney, Sam Pardee played black/red on day one and green/white on day two. Sam said that his team’s testing had indicated that black/red was the best combination and that white wasn’t nearly as good. Oscar Christiansen drafted blue/white on day one and white/green on day two. Marcio Carvalho is not only crushing drafts himself, he is also credited by teammates for making them better at draft. Carvalho’s 6-0 draft finish in Sydney earned him the title of Draft Master and earned him a World Championship invitation.

Pro Tour Kaladesh – Honolulu, Hawaii – October 14-16

There were only six players at Honolulu who managed to go 6-0 in Kaladesh booster draft. These included Martin Juza, Raphael Levy, Matthew Nass, Owen Turtenwald, Donald Smith and Travis Woo. The consensus opinion among these expert drafters is that synergy is much less important in Kaladesh draft than in the previous two draft formats. According to these guys, Kaladesh draft is much more about good mana curves and combat tricks. Matthew Nass admitted that he mis-picked when he took Armorcraft Judge over Thriving Grubs. He says he would rather have the two-drop for his curve over the more synergistic Armorcraft Judge. Owen Turtenwald’s strategy was a little more synergy based. After taking Aethersquall Ancient with his first pick, a format defining rare, he snap-picked Hightide Hermit for the synergy it has with Aethersquall Ancient. Cards like Thriving Turtle became more important for the rest of Owen’s draft. “I wanted to draft creatures that enter the battlefield with a lot of energy so that I can use the Ancient more reliably. Hermit plus Thriving Turtle means I can bounce every creature every turn.” Turtenwald also got his hands on Skysovereign, Consul Flagship. This illustrates the way that while synergy may have been slightly less important in Kaladesh draft, bomb rares became a little bit more important. Donald Smith likes either green or black in the format, but not the combination. He likes green the most because it pairs well with other colors in Kaladesh.

Here is the breakdown of these six players’ chosen color combinations at Pro Tour Kaladesh:

Green/White – Juza’s first draft, Nass’s first draft, Smith’s first draft
White/Black – Juza’s second draft, Woo’s first and second draft
Black/Red – Levy’s second draft, Turtenwald’s first draft
Red/Green – Nass’s second draft, Smith’s second draft
Black/Green – Levy’s first draft
Blue/Red – Turtenwald’s second draft

From the perspective of high level booster drafts, that’s what’s going on around the world, now here’s what’s happening in my neck of the woods.

Texas Guildmages Draft Deck of the Year

The decks drafted by the top pros at the four Pro Tour stops are good examples of the best the year had to offer in the way of booster draft decks. I humbly present some additional examples. My team gets together every Tuesday night to draft, and has done so for the past 986 weeks, give or take. That’s twenty years of hot, sweaty, booster draft action. At our weekly meetings, we do other stuff too. We team draft, we practice constructed, we trade cards and crazy stories. We talk about girls, movies, whatever. In the middle of all these other activities, however, is our Swiss booster draft.

In an effort to get more bang out of our Magic buck, we play Swiss rounds in all of our drafts with more than six players. Single elimination just doesn’t teach you enough. You may have drafted and built an excellent deck but had bad luck in two straight games and now you don’t know if you did anything right at all. We play Swiss rounds cutting to a top four. Then these four play their semifinals round, first versus fourth and second versus third. Then we have the finalists split all the mythics, rares and foils from the draft including any masterpieces. The reason we don’t play out the finals is so we can get started on another draft without waiting for the finalists to play a slower-than-normal final match with all the prizes on the line. Also, we have had the situation where one hotshot would win all the prize cards too many weeks in a row. That’s bad for business. Therefore, we have the two finalists split all the prize cards between themselves any way the two of them would like to do it. Then I do a strange thing. I collect the decks of the two finalists and replace the rares in them with cards from my own collection.

At the end of the month, I play all of the finalists’ decks from that month against each other in order to determine which deck was the best of the month. Obviously this is not an examination of the players’ skill, because I’m the one playing both sides of all the matches. It’s an examination of the cards themselves and the combinations present in that small forty card deck. I know it sounds like a waste of time to a lot of people, but I assure you it is not. Yes, if you take two draft decks and play a couple of practice games with them and then put them down, I agree that you aren’t likely to learn much. But when you do it over and over again, playing a dozen, maybe two dozen games between a couple of decks, I assure you that you are learning something. Somewhere along the way you figure out, better than that, you experience every possible combination of events. Suddenly, you aren’t guessing anymore. You objectively learn what deck, from a group of decks, works the best against that set of decks. After a large number of practice games, I pit the eight or ten or twelve winning draft decks from the month against each other in a mocked up tournament and award the overall winner Deck of the Month.

Then, suddenly, you run out of days on the calendar. Guess what? Now you have twelve decks that each earned Deck of the Month “honors.” Now it’s time to mash them against each other and find out which one of those is the best. That’s what I’d like to share with you. The eleven best draft decks from the fifty Texas Guildmages meetings of 2016. There was no Deck of the Month from June because we spent all of those meetings playing team drafts with Eternal Masters. It’s just as well, I might have disqualified Eternal Masters draft decks from the annual competition. Last year, Modern Masters 2015 wreaked havoc on the other monthly winners from “normal” draft formats.

Here are the eleven Deck of the Month winners from our 2016 booster drafts. The player of each deck chose a common MVP from their list and I put the name of that card after the name of the draft format on each deck list.

After running these decks into each other in four rounds of Swiss, the final four decks from this group included two green/blue Kaladesh decks from October and November as well as a very aggressive three red/white/blue Oath of the Gatewatch deck from March and a very solid black/white Battle for Zendikar from January a year ago. From these four emerged the finalists, the two Kaladesh green/blue decks.

Why did Kaladesh draft decks end up on top? I don’t have a problem with the simplest answer, that Kaladesh is the year’s most powerful draft format. I’m not concerned that I somehow played better with the Kaladesh decks because that format is more current with me, more on top of mind. I spent a week playing these older draft decks from earlier in the year, so much so that in our weekly Kaladesh draft last week I played around Uncaged Fury even though that card is not in Kaladesh. Whoops.

In all examinations of booster draft decks, or Limited decks in general, the question of rares comes up. Were the winning decks simply good because their drafters were lucky in their acquisition of rares? This is obviously possible. Bomb rares have an obvious effect on Limited formats. However, none of our team’s best draft decks of the year feature cards that say “I win” on them. The two Kaladesh decks that reached the finals of the Deck of the Year contest each had Aethersquall Ancient and Oviya Pashiri, Sage Lifecrafter. One of them can help you assert your deck’s exceptionalism on turn one, the other makes you wait a while longer. In both cases, however, your opponent has a chance. These are fair cards. Neither, in fact, is widely judged to be a must-pick first choice for drafts. I consider each of these cards to be excellent first picks and bombs, but again, I think they are “fair” bombs. Fiery Temper is just a common but having two of them made Maitland Griffith’s July Shadows over Innistrad deck very, very good. Yes, it’s obviously true that great draft decks are defined by the quality of the cards in them.

Are you able to see the value in looking at booster draft decks put together by other people? Some people are not. They simply scan the list for the rares and excellent uncommons and commons and say to themselves, “if I had gotten all those great cards I would have won as well.” It’s just not the point. Looking at winning Limited decks helps the Limited player see what other people had success with in their entire forty card design. It would be even more helpful to know at what point in each booster pack a particular card was taken, and more helpful still if you could see the cards that a certain pick was taken over. Still, a booster draft deck list always reveals some subtle clues that other players can pick up to improve their own Limited game.

In the finals, by the way, Brian Heine’s green/blue deck won 3-2 over Tuan Doan’s green/blue/white deck. Brian’s deck plays out more smoothly and predictably. Tuan’s splash for white is more than acceptable, from a strategic point of view, but it pales in a direct match up with a similar green/blue deck with similar win conditions but a better and more simple mana base. Brian Heine’s October draft deck is no fluke. Brian is a veteran of the Pro Tour. He played in Kobe ten years ago and might be going back soon. He won a sealed deck Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier two month ago. I hate to brag about my team (not really, I love it actually) but in that PPTQ, the top eight consisted of six of the eight players from the previous Tuesday night’s Guildmage meeting. Just saying…

I love studying Limited and I know that it helps me stay sharp even when I’m not grinding out dozens of booster drafts every month on Magic Online. There was a Kaladesh sealed deck PPTQ this past Saturday in Dallas. There were nine Tuesday night regulars playing in the forty-six player event and three Guildmages reached the top eight. I lost in the quarterfinals while teammates Scot Martin and Ian Jasheway met in the semifinals. Scot won that match but unfortunately lost to Electrostatic Pummeler beat downs in two straight games in the finals.

Thanks for reading and good luck in your booster drafts.

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