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A Treasure Chest of Draft Decks

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

A Treasure Chest of Draft Decks

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.

How many Magic decks have you ever had constructed all at the same time? Does it count if some of the cards are proxied in some of the decks? I think so. My collection supports having about ten Modern decks constructed at the same time, give or take a few proxies of cards for which the real copies I own are in another deck. I’ve been collecting Magic: the Gathering since 1994 but I’ve sold a lot of old cards along the way. In a nutshell, the valuable part of my collection mainly consists of a playset of Modern. I do what a lot of other people do, I try to assemble four copies of every card when every new set comes out. You never know what you’re going to want to play. Better get four of everything.

When I’m really grinding on Standard, and that hasn’t happened at all this year (your fault, Wizards of the Coast), I keep about four or five separate decks put together. It’s easier to maintain Modern decks because their cast of characters doesn’t change as often. So, does that seem like a lot of decks to have built at one time? I guess my constructed decks, to go a little deeper, would also include my collection of top eight decks from Pro Tour New York 1996, my collection of World Championship precon decks that Wizards used to print and my one and only Commander deck. As a Magic judge, you’re sort of required to have at least one Commander deck. I also have five or six Pauper decks that are a little out of date but completely built. Counting all of these decks from all these formats, I probably have forty decks completely, or almost completely, built at current time.

A while back, I started doing something a little crazy. On top of all these constructed decks, with their main deck size ranging from sixty to one hundred cards, I decided to create a collection of booster draft decks. It may have gotten out of hand. I now have a treasure chest containing sixty-four booster draft decks, each individually sleeved and boxed.

It started off innocently enough. Eight years ago, I was writing for a smaller Magic website at the time, a site with lower readership and somewhat lower expectations. It actually was kind of a dream gig. I could write whatever I wanted, as much as I wanted. I was paid a sum per article that I didn’t think was much money at the time but which I wish I was making nowadays. The editor-in-chief was extremely agreeable with all my ideas because I was the editor-in-chief. I got paid a nice amount for each article I wrote as well as a little bit for each article that the site’s other writers submitted. Editing, that kind of thing.

I started writing up the weekly exploits of the Magic team that I have been a part of since it started in 1996, the Texas Guildmages. I included more personality-related stuff in those articles back then, but I knew I needed to come correct with some actual Magic analysis each week as well. To that end, I started retaining the decks of the two players who finished in the finals of that week’s booster draft. We normally ended up with very strong decks because we played Swiss rounds instead of single elimination. This gave us the ability to get a little more play out of our precious booster packs. This also helped ensure that the top two decks that survived their semifinals matches (after three rounds of Swiss) were truly the best bred of the litter. Obviously we remove the rares and foils from the winning decks, those cards belong to the winners. I replace those cards in the winning decks with either my own copies of those cards or with proxies. Then I would play lots of games pitting the two decks against each other so that I could say something intelligent about the decks in my weekly article.

Innocent enough, holding on to the winning decks for research purposes. Then things started getting weird. At the end of the month I found myself with a month’s worth of winning decks with no good reason to retain them all. I did what any reasonable person would do. Just kidding. Like the only child that I have always been, I took the winning decks from an entire month and pitted them against each other in the form of a little tournament. Yup, I play both sides in all the matches. I assure you I don’t take sides. All I want to do is see what happens when this one pile of shuffled up cards plays against this other pile of shuffled up cards. I let the chips fall where they may. When a winning deck emerges, it is crowned the best draft deck of the month. I promptly take apart all of the other decks for that month and move on with my life.

Then I got to the end of the year and realized I had a year’s worth of monthly draft winners. You can see what’s coming next. I played another small tournament with the twelve monthly champions and declared one of the decks to be the best draft deck of the year. The end of year tournament is very fun because I’m playing draft decks from one format against decks from entirely different draft formats. Are these matchups going to be wildly one-sided or do you think these decks will play well with each other? The answer is that for the most part, forty-card booster draft decks do play well with each other. It probably helps that the decks have all come from a similar origin, all from booster drafts with roughly the same number and quality of players week after week. Also, the decks participating in the yearly championship have already beaten so many other decks. They’re all good. The exception is drafts from sets like Modern Masters. The draft decks that come from special sets like that have no business playing against draft decks from “normal” Magic expansion sets. I learned that the hard way.

As an amateur hoarder (I prefer the term Collecting Enthusiast) it’s no big deal for me to hold on to all these monthly championship draft decks. Then, six months ago, an opportunity arrived to actually make these old draft decks useful. The occasion was the celebration of our team’s 1000th weekly practice. Guildmage 1000 took place on Tuesday night (our regular night), April 11th, at a truly great game store in Dallas called Common Ground Games. Our team has always put on a big party for our one hundredth meeting milestones. This time around, for the 1000th, we pulled out all the stops. Instead of our usual Guildhall attendance of eight to fourteen dudes, we invited sixty-four players to the party. As a matter of fact, it was fine if more showed up, but only sixty-four could play in the tournament. At all of our previous 100th meeting anniversary parties we had either drafted or played sealed deck. This time would be different. I kept the format for the party a secret from everyone until the big night.

I created a single elimination bracket with sixty-four slots filled with the players who came to the party. When everyone was seated for round one, I surprised them by giving each of the players, randomly, one of the draft decks from my collection. Every deck was sleeved and boxed and labeled with the name of the player who had originally drafted the deck and what month and year their deck had been champion. Then they battled. I chose not to play in this event since I knew all the secrets and because we needed someone to run the event and answer judge questions. We played three rounds in order to reach a top eight. The top players then drafted Eternal Masters. Players kept whatever they drafted in the top eight and the top two finishers got some packs of Eternal Masters as a prize.

I didn’t know how such a tournament might be received, but since it didn’t cost anyone anything to play in the event, I figured the crowd would be open to whatever I came up with. The event got plenty of good reviews, even from people who eliminated early. There was pizza and cake and some wacky side events. One table drafted Magic Origins, another reenacted Pro Tour New York 1996.

The experiment was a success. I felt good about having collected sixty-four booster draft decks. I started storing these decks in this old trunk that I bought from an army surplus store in my old hometown when I was in high school. This small trunk used to carry my Dungeons and Dragons stuff. Now it houses a ready-to-go tournament with sixty-four very good booster draft decks. These decks include recent Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation decks all the way back to an Innistrad deck from 2011.

Now what? The next step is maintenance. I have no desire to collect 128 draft decks. That would be ridiculous, right? I like having sixty-four. The next issue is how to decide what decks in the treasure chest get replaced when I have new monthly draft deck winners. The most obvious thing to do would be to get rid of the oldest decks in the box as the new ones arrive. A couple of teammates suggested I get rid of Core Set draft decks so that eventually the box of decks would all come from “expert level” Magic: the Gathering expansions. This is a decent idea, until you realize that Wizards of the Coast has some new form of a Core Set concept waiting for us all just around the corner.

What I decided to do was to keep the decks with the best winning percentage and get rid of twelve poorly performing decks from 2016 and before in order to make room for the twelve monthly draft champion decks from 2017.

The sample size of results from Guildmage 1000 was too small. It was just one tournament and, as it turns out, we played with slightly less than sixty-four players so a few of the decks didn’t get used. That’s okay. The answer in Magic is usually PLAY MORE MAGIC so that’s just what I did. I created another sixty-four slot bracket and randomly put all the decks into it and started playing them out again. As a matter of fact, I have completed two such brackets since Guildmage 1000. With the results from those three “tournaments” I have a more useful reckoning of what decks deserve to stay and which ones need to go.

Would you be surprised to learn that newer decks tended to win more often than older decks? That, man and boy, is what is known as Power Creep. Remember that when you start opening packs with all those busted Dinosaurs and Pirates a week from now in Ixalan. As it turns out, after three events, there were exactly eight decks that had been used in all three tournaments and which had all lost their only matches. Eight decks that were each 0-3. At this point, the treasure chest of draft decks already contains the decks from January through June of 2017. I only need to shed six of the eight low-performing decks. Which two of the eight would survive? Time to play more Magic to find out. After three rounds of Swiss followed by a best-of-seven games semifinal, the two surviving decks were Joe Klopchic’s UB Dark Ascension deck from February 2012 and Brian Heine’s UW Journey into Nyx deck from March 2014. Six other decks, sadly, were removed from the treasure chest forever:

4CG Journey into Nyx by Mark Hendrickson from July 2014
WUG Theros by Mark Hendrickson from January 2014
WBG Dragon’s Maze by Jon Toone from May 2013
WG Magic 2013 by Jon Toone from August 2012
RG Avacyn Restored by Robbie Howell from June 2012
GB Return to Ravnica by Eric Knipp from November 2012

As you can see, the decks weren’t all from the very oldest end of the pool, but in general, the more recent decks are beating the older decks.

I’d like to think that this is really important work I’m doing, curating a group of draft decks that mean nothing to anyone except myself and a small circle of friends and teammates. Still, a guy has to have a hobby, and all of my hobbies are Magic: the Gathering.

You know, if a person is going to go to all this trouble, he should probably make a spreadsheet to keep track of it all. The spreadsheet not only serves as a repository for all the data but it also gives me a way to sort the decks and easily see which ones have won the most. Here are the top ten decks after three trips through the wringer:

9-1 BWG Khans of Tarkir by Mark Hendrickson from December 2014
7-2 GWB Khans of Tarkir by Tuan Doan from September 2014
7-2 UW Battle for Zendikar by Jeff Zandi from October 2015
8-3 RWU Oath of the Gatewatch by Lawson Zandi from March 2016
6-1 WB Aether Revolt by Brian Heine from March 2017
6-2 GW Magic 2014 by Mark Dean from July 2013
6-2 UB Dragons of Tarkir by Lawson Zandi from June 2015
6-2 RW Aether Revolt by Michael Ewing from January 2017
6-3 RB Magic 2013 by Mark Hendrickson from July 2012
6-3 UG Magic 2014 by Ian Jasheway from August 2013

Playing with all these draft decks from all these different draft formats across a span of six years is a lot of fun. It appeals to me the way Commander appeals to other people. It’s very cool to see decks set in entirely different worlds with different keywords taking each other on. If you don’t believe me, feel free to stop by the Guildhall sometime and I’ll open up the trunk of Magic draft decks. Every one of them is a treasure to me.

Thanks for reading.

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