1. Introduction to Drafting the Hard Way
MTG Hall of famer and limited guru Ben Stark wrote a 2013 article detailing how he approaches booster draft titled “Drafting the Hard Way
.” It is basically required reading for anyone looking for a complete understanding of MTG draft. The topic is complex, of course, but here’s a simplified version: Especially early in booster draft, you should pay attention to which colors or factions aren’t being taken out of the packs, usually referred to as the open color. Often, it’s correct to start drafting the open color as you’ll get all of the best cards that are opened in that faction. When done effectively in MTG, the open color you identify in pack 1 should also be open in pack 3. In Eternal, identifying the open color in pack 1 reaps rewards in pack 4, while the open color in pack 2 will likely also be open in pack 3.
For an excellent example of drafting the hard way in action, I highly recommend you watch LSV's Oath of the Gatewatch Pro Tour Draft
before you continue reading, but if not, here are some of the highlights: LSV first picks a phenomenal Red Rare, follows it up with a premium White 4-mana removal spell, then takes 2 more Red commons. The commentators discuss Red-White as among the best archetypes in the format and claim that it must be open based on what was in P1P4. LSV appears to be putting together a premier deck, Red-White allies, after 4 picks.
Then pick 5 comes along with Saddleback Lagac, a Green common. LSV considers it to be the best Green common in the set according to Marshall Sutcliffe, his podcast cohost. Saddleback Lagac isn’t on the same power level as Siphoner Paladin
but it’s a good card, and if someone to LSV’s right were drafting Green, they most likely would have taken the Saddleback Lagac. There were also two playable White cards in the pack that I’m guessing most drafters would have taken to stay on track for one of the best decks in the format. However LSV, a slightly more accomplished player than myself and most, took the Lagac; and then another one in the next pack. Red card pick 7. Fantastic Green/Red rare pick 8: Mina and Denn, Wildborn.
Now, it’s easy to look at the rare as the payoff for switching to Green, but we can’t always count on being passed such a late rare. This would be a terrible example of being rewarded for drafting the hard way, because the payoff for drafting the hard way isn’t the potential of getting a rare in pack 1 – it’s all the cards you get in the later packs. The real payoffs for LSV begin pack 2, pick 4 with a Nissa’s Judgment, a top-tier uncommon in the set that also happens to be Green. Had those Saddleback Lagacs gone to LSV’s left, I have a hard time believing someone to his left wouldn’t have started taking some Green cards and then snapped up a Nissa’s Judgment in pack 2. Long story short, he was the only Green drafter and ended up with a very solid Red-Green deck that went 2-1 (maybe not ideal for FNM, but a record I’m sure most would be happy with at the Pro Tour). Pack 1, pick 5 a master of his craft drafted the hard way and got rewarded.
You shouldn’t consider drafting the hard way because some random guy on the internet (i.e. me) told you to do it, you should consider drafting the hard way because that’s how LSV, Ben Stark, and many of the most successful limited players of all time approach draft. However, this random guy on the internet will do his best to explain some principles of drafting the hard way, how they apply in current Eternal draft, and why this format rewards drafting the hard way more than the previous format.
2. Drafting the Medium Way
When I played draft more casually, I won a decent amount of games just following deckbuilding fundamentals during draft: my decks had 2 drops, some interaction, and I could play my cards consistently. I found it difficult to make much progress in Master rank, as my opponents’ decks were also consistent but their decks were doing more powerful things than mine and the games weren’t close – I was getting crushed.
Diving a little deeper, I started consuming Eternal content to get a better understanding of the draft format. Drafting the hard way didn’t seem to be paying off in Eternal the way it usually did in MTG. I could tell when Purpose was open in draft but most of the time it was correct to just stick with the Shugo's Hooked Sword
or Edge of Prophecy
that I picked up in pack 1. Even if Creation was getting cut, you could usually find a piece of recursion or two and call it a game plan. For example, if your deck isn’t looking great, one Corpsebloom
or Waystone Gate
will hide a lot of flaws. Time was so deep that you could pretty much always draft it. Now that I’ve taken a step back from EoE, I think figuring out how to build a deck that could survive long enough to do a couple of powerful things was a skill that was highly rewarded.
In Echoes of Eternity draft, one could easily compete by Drafting the Medium Way
, a concept explained in a 2017 article by Players Tour champion Ondrej Strasky. Instead of being prepared to draft whatever colors are open, drafting the medium way involves becoming proficient in 2-3 of the best archetypes and then drafting the one that is most open. That felt like a better recipe for success than drafting the hard way in EoE, which isn’t to say that reading signals wasn’t rewarded at all or didn’t improve one’s chances of building a good deck: it does and always will, but it didn’t feel like the skill that made the difference between winning and losing at the top level.
3. Drafting the Hard Way in Argent Depths
I went on a horrendous losing streak towards the beginning of this format after thinking I had a decent grasp on it, so I took a much-needed break and tried to analyze my game honestly. It was clear pretty quickly that I wasn’t drafting the hard way. I was falling in love with new rares that I was first picking, and I was trying new things “for science” (an excuse I often use when I want to be greedy). I was clicking on cards without fully considering everything in the pack, what might have been taken before it, and what cards might come later. I wasn’t taking Apprentice Mage
in my first 3 picks. These were all mistakes.
A quote I’ve heard attributed to MTG Hall of Famer William “Huey” Jensen is “I don’t draft cards. I draft decks.” During my losing streak, I was most certainly drafting cards. Curtain Call
is insanely powerful, so of course that’s how I’ll win games. My deck has these busted Fire rares, so of course I’ll win games, but I wasn’t winning games because I was drafting individual cards and just putting pieces around them. We’re past the time when it’s correct to draft cards. It’s time to draft decks.
A couple of things have to line up for drafting the hard way to be fully rewarded: 1. Multiple decks/archetypes have to be good, it’s usually not very useful to identify the open color if it really is significantly underpowered compared to the rest. 2. There have to be synergies or payoffs for being heavily in a particular faction or color combination.
I’m not qualified to make such distinctions, but I think Argent Depths is a masterpiece. Every single two-color combination can be competitive and at least two of the mono-colored decks are viable (Justice and Fire, though I’ve seen some Mono-Time as well). Further still, there is even variability between decks within the same color pairing; sure, you’re Stonescar, but are you Stonescar aggro or Stonescar midrange? Both are completely playable decks but each wants different cards. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, Argent Depths has plunder. I think plunder is a brilliant limited mechanic and whoever created it should get a raise. I loved it when I first saw it and my love grows with each power I transform. I could gush about why it’s so great, but for now let’s just say it’s part of what makes this format excellent.
The most significant change I made in my own draft process was starting to properly weigh my picks based on when I saw them. For example, say I drafted a good Justice rare and 2 Justice uncommons with my first 3 picks, then I took time cards with 5 out of my next 7 picks. At the start of the format, I would go in to pack 2 thinking I had a good foundation for Justice, Time, or Combrei. Now, I would probably consider myself base time with the possibility of being Combrei. I’d be pretty quick to abandon my first 3 picks if it became apparent that Justice wasn’t open in pack 2 after being cut in pack 1. Picks 4-10 can tell you a lot about what the player passing to you is drafting, inform what you take in subsequent packs, and pay off heavily in pack 4.
In general: picks 1-3 don’t send strong signals. Picks 4-10 do.
The fact that each faction or color-combination can be competitively drafted is what makes drafting the hard way so rewarding in this format. It’s often said that the best color in a draft set is whatever one is open, and while that’s generally true, I’m not sure it was true in Eternal until recently. It didn’t feel like it in EoE draft, but it certainly does now. You could have passed me Agent of Purpose
all day in the previous format and I would have passed every single one, open faction or not.
Each deck that can be competitively drafted in a format is a potential tool in your toolbox. If you want to draft the medium way you only need a few tools, but you should know how to use them really well. If you want to master this format, I get the impression you need to know how to use a lot of tools - and that means drafting the hard way. The real value in Argent Depths draft comes in knowing how to build the open deck regardless of which deck it is. To be clear, I think drafting the medium way is just another alternative to drafting, it’s not the “wrong” way, and it may have even been optimal in the previous format. I think those days are behind us, however. This format feels incredibly deep and will take a long time (and probably a lot of losing) to master, in my humble opinion.
After all my babbling, let’s take a look at some principles of drafting the hard way and how they apply to Argent Depths draft.
5. Early Picks and Reading Signals
You’ll often see experienced drafters pass on two-color rares and instead pick slightly less powerful cards in a single color early in a draft. This is because a single color card is far more likely to be in your final deck than a 2-color card if you’re drafting what’s open. High level drafters place a premium on cards that fit in a wide variety of decks and often take them over cards that are powerful but fit in fewer decks. They take flexible cards early on while attempting to figure out with faction or color is being underdrafted by reading signals. A signal, in this sense, is a clue what the person next to you is or isn’t drafting. Some signals are obvious, like being passed a bomb rare in a particular faction, but most signals are subtle and require an understanding of how cards are valued by the community at large to be interpreted correctly.
Knowing which cards send signals is essential if you’re going to draft the hard way—the Saddleback Lagac wouldn’t have sent a signal if LSV didn’t recognize it as the best green common—and you have to constantly update your mental ranking of each card as the format evolves. Below, I have listed some cards I misevaluated early in the format with what signal I thought they sent, as well as how I view them now. For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume we’re in a similar position to the one LSV found himself in: it’s pick 5 and we’re pretty committed to one color but have reasons to lean a particular 2-color combination.
Here are some mistakes I was making:
Maybe it was Time fatigue. Maybe I lost a few games with a ton of power and nothing to do early in the format. Whatever it was, something made me look away from Apprentice Mage
early. (I am so sorry, Apprentice Mage. I was so wrong.) I objectively knew how good the card was, but I wasn’t picking it nearly high enough in my pick order. If I see a 5th pick Apprentice Mage
, I am taking it even if it’s my first Time card. If you place a high value on cards that are extremely likely to make your deck, then Apprentice Mage
is a perfectly defensible choice p1p1, never mind pick 5. If you see a card like Ancient Machinist
, I think it’s safe to conclude that Praxis might be open, but I’ve had lots of other Time decks that didn’t want Machinist, so that’s not the signal you’re looking for. An Ancient Machinist
is a clue. An Apprentice Mage
is an alarm. Chainwhip Bludgeoner
I used to take this as a sign that Justice is open because I viewed it as a card that could go into any green deck. While it’s true that you could put a Bludgeoner in any Green deck and not be unhappy with it, I’d much rather have Solemn Clergy
if I’m trying to build the Argenport weapons deck. Kill a creature with Grisly Contest
and Silence another? Yes, please. And Solemn Clergy
has plunder! These days, I take Bludgeoner as a signal that the surge deck is open and that I can probably at least pick up playable Justice cards in pack 4. I’m looking at a 5th pick Caravan Guard
as a signal that Green is probably open, and Siphoner Paladin
in that position as a sign that it definitely is. So if you don’t see a lot of Green cards until a 5th pick Chainwhip Bludgeoner
, I’m not so sure that all of Green is wide open. Again, you won’t be unhappy with Bludgeoner in most Green decks so it’s a safe pick but not the surefire signal I mistook it for early on. Vorpal Cutter
Like most people who have played with the card, I have seen Vorpal Cutter
do some disgusting amounts of damage. I was hooked on the potential power level and saw it as a staple of every Shadow deck. I always took Cutters early, but I found that in my Xenan decks I was just using it as a 1 Decay blocker far more often than I liked, and I’d much rather be casting Wisdom of the Elders
, Sewer Crocodile
, etc. on turn 3 when I’m in Feln. I was way too high on this card initially and took it as a card that fits in to every Shadow deck. I think that’s incorrect now. I’m not sure that Shadow has a clear-cut 5th pick signal similar to Apprentice Mage
or Siphoner Paladin
. I’m certainly picking Grisly Contest
in that spot, but it seems like people value that card very differently. Flameheart Patroller
I have been beaten by this card far more often than I’ve won with it. Part of that is just my drafting preferences, as I have yet to build a good Mono-Fire deck, but I have beaten by plenty. I don’t have the Mono-Fire tool in my toolbox yet. Similar to Chainwhip Bludgeoner
, I don’t find myself playing every Flameheart Patroller
I can. If I’m leaning Rakano or Stonescar aggro, I’m thrilled to see a Flameheart Patroller
5th, but in Praxis? I’d much rather play Sauropod Wrangler
because it lets me play Battery Mage
a turn earlier. So Flameheart Patroller
isn’t the signal I thought it was... But Corrosive Dagger
might be. Like I said earlier, I don’t have the Mono-Fire tool yet. I probably don’t have any of the Fire combination tools yet if I’m being honest, so I could be dead wrong with my evaluation of Fire cards and their signals. It’s important to be aware of what tools you don’t have. I might think a 5th pick Fire card is a signal that it’s open while an actual Red Mage wouldn’t give it a second look. Look elsewhere for Fire expertise for sure. Primal uncommons
Okay, so I’m cheating on this one. You don’t need a signal to tell you that Primal is open, it probably is. At common, I think the real signals for Primal comes in pack 2 when you start seeing mid-late Lightning Strike
. As more of a secondary color, I don’t think Blue has a common that sends a strong signal in pack 1, but it definitely has uncommons that do. I’ll say this just in case – Ancient Serpent
is too good to be on this list. If you see one 5th pick, you should take it, but I’ve been surprised by how late I see them.
I really like Mobilization
and actively want it in all of my Blue decks except Hooru, though Hooru isn’t in my toolbox yet either so I’m no authority there.
I am incredibly high on Acrid Scorpion
. If I think I might be Elysian or Feln, I’m snap picking the scorpion. In this format, you and the player to your right can sometimes draft the same color if you’re in different archetypes, so a 5th pick Acrid Scorpion
tells you Feln or Elysian aren’t being drafted, but Skycrag or Hooru might be. A 5th pick Steamblast obviously sends a different signal. So I don’t think Primal has a signal at common, but the uncommons can tell you a lot. I think it’s a mistake to avoid Primal completely in this format. You can end up perfectly happy only playing 6-10 Primal cards if they’re cards like Lightning strike, Ancient Serpent
, and Polymorph
In an unbalanced format, nuanced decisions between commons and uncommons in the middle of pack 1 have less of an impact on your overall win percentage, but I think we’re in a format where these decisions matter more, now. This format rewards good decision making both during the draft and in-game, particularly with plunder.
6. Why It Matters in Packs 2 and 3
The thing about drafting the hard way is, well: it’s hard. It’s difficult to predict what the person who is passing you pack 1 might do in pack 4. Justice might seem open in pack 1, but maybe they opened a pack 2 Justice bomb and moved in so it gets completely cut in pack 4. These things happen even if you read the signals perfectly as there are no guarantees what you’ll see in pack 4, but you should be thinking about what is likely to be there based on pack 1 as you make selections in packs 2 and 3. Gravewatch Ancestor
vs. Humbug Nest
Let’s say you’re pretty heavily committed to time at the beginning of pack 2. Nothing early in pack 2 pulls you in to a second color. Pack 2, pick 5 has two playable time cards: Gravewatch Ancestor
and Humbug Nest
. Which one do you want? In a vacuum, Ancestor is the more powerful card and you’ll pretty much never be unhappy putting it in your deck, but what if you saw some late shadow cards in pack 1? What if you end up in Xenan? In Xenan, I want the Humbug Nest
over the Gravewatch Ancestor
and it’s not close. In Praxis, the opposite is true. When I was drafting cards instead of decks, I probably would have just snapped off Gravewatch Ancestor
because I was planning to win with the Curtain Call
I took p1p1. Just a friendly reminder: I lost a lot drafting that way. Shadow 2-drops
Let’s assume the same situation as the one above except now we’re in Shadow. Pack 2, pick 5 we have the choice between Makkar Evangel
and Fervent Siphoner
. It doesn’t seem close even as I write this because the Evangel fixes your influence and has quickdraw, but an argument can be made for Siphoner. If I’m more likely to be Argenport or Xenan, I’m planning to sacrifice creatures to Siphoner Paladin
and Grisly Contest
anyway, so I’ll take the 1/2 weapon bonus too. If you’re in Xenan and Fervent Siphoner dies on your opponent’s turn, you get the triggers for playing a card. Plus, that’s another deck that I’m looking to play Grisly Contest
in. But if you end up in Stonescar? You’ll feel silly for not taking the Evangel. Green 3-drops
Same situation as above, but now we’re Justice. Pack 2, Pick 5 we see Brightmace Paladin
, Copperhall Marshal
, and Fencing Master
. Which one do you take? I’m unsure about this one, partly because I haven’t had much success with stun decks so I’m a little wary of Fencing Master
. I’m assuming the stun deck wants the Fencing Master
over the Copperhall Marshall but I’m not 100% sure. Brightmace Paladin
is about as safe as you can get, so my inclination is to take the Brightmace Paladin
because it’s the safest choice, but if I knew how to correctly build the Hooru deck and the signals led me to believe that it might be open, I’d probably take Fencing Master
. I’m not here to tell you which 3 drop is correct – I’m here to tell you that decisions like this don’t seem huge but matter more than they used to and add up over the course of a draft in this format.
7. Pack 4 Payoffs
You did it! You identified the open color! Congratulations! Now, what do you get? In some formats you get more than others. In this one, you get the goodness. Time
Late Apprentice Mage
in pack 1 means you can probably get all the Battery Mage
s you want in pack 4. Remember that an Ancient Machinist
doesn’t send the same signal. The person passing us packs 1 and 4 could be in time but not Praxis. A late Apprentice Mage
, however, is a strong signal that Time won’t be drafted in pack 4. This means that you can devalue 5-drops a little bit during packs 2 and 3 because you can anticipate getting all the Battery Mage
s opened in pack 4 thanks to drafting the hard way. The 3 toughness makes Battery Mage
a little fragile but it would’ve been too good as a 5/4. The secret mode on the Battery Mage
? Sometimes you generate an insane amount of power in Time and you don’t need the ramp anymore. In that case, a 5/3 can trade with a sizable threat on your opponent’s side while you try to find Disappear or whatever else you’re looking for. Don’t hesitate to trade it away when it has outlived its usefulness. Justice
Justice is a fantastic faction to have as your open color because it can be a deck all on its own or pairs well with any of the other factions. A 5th pick Caravan Guard
tells me Justice is probably open. A Siphoner Paladin
tells me it definitely is. The payoffs are everywhere. At uncommon, Mantle of Justice
has crushed me enough times for me to respect as a win condition. Greenstone Officer
is a 2 drop win condition. Audacious Ruse
also becomes excellent when you’re heavy Justice, and you get to play all the Smogwing Tinker
s. The rares are great. It’s important for your deck to have mini-synergies, and Justice has that from the commons through the legendaries. Seeing Justice as the open color in pack 1 means the potential power level of your deck is through the roof. Primal
The self-correcting nature of draft is wonderful. Early indicators are that no one wants to draft Primal. I get it. The Argent Depths Primal cards are weird (I’m looking at you Terrazon Echo
). But you really get hooked up for being in Primal in packs 2 and 3. Lightning Strike
and Biting Winds
are good as ever. Wisdom of the Elders
is great because there are a lot of instant speed things to do with 3 power. The real payoffs for Primal are cards like Ancient Serpent
and Sky Serpent
. I had two Ancient Serpent
s in a deck and I’m guessing that’s how Thanos feels. You can’t build around Primal in the same way that you can the other factions, but the hate has gone too far. If the person passing you packs 1 and 4 isn’t in Primal, you get premium uncommons. Some of the rares are excellent and sometimes a turn 4 Brood of Eremot
will just win the game for you. Primal is very playable in this format, is a great support color, and its rares/uncommons are among the best.
The good Mono-Fire deck seems unbeatable. For a good example of a Mono-Fire deck, look at none of the decks I’ve drafted. I haven’t come close to building a good -Mono-Fire deck but I have seen plenty of them. Topdecking a Bladecrafter
into a Corrosive Dagger
should be illegal. The benefit of identifying Fire as the open color is that you get to play Corrosive Dagger
for 3, 4, even 5 rustlings. The quiet all-star that I’ve seen while getting pummeled by these decks is Trailtorch Cinderpaw
. I live in constant fear of it and no lead seems safe. Flash Fires in packs 2 and 3 is also a payoff. As I said earlier, I’m not a great person to learn from when it comes to building Fire decks. Sorry, Red Mages. Shadow
I’m not convinced there’s a single payoff for identifying Shadow as the open color. Blade of the Worthy
really is such a shame, as all the other cards in its cycle are impactful cards. I think it should’ve been a 6 cost spell that destroys a creature and drains your opponent for every 2 Shadow influence you have, but I digress. The real Shadow payoffs seem to come from figuring out what the second open color is. Backbreaker
is fine in Shadow decks, hero in Argenport. False Demise
and a cartographer is a perfectly good win condition in Feln. Midnight Hunt
wins games for Stonescar. You can get Rolant’s Ambushers all day if Xenan is open. I don’t need to say anything about Curtain Call
. If Shadow seems open, it’s good to take note of what supporting color might be open as well and lean into those colors in packs 2 and 3 (if they’re open, of course).
8. Final Thoughts on Drafting the Hard Way
With the usual caveat of it being a small sample size, I get the impression that drafting the hard way pays off heavily in this format. That’s not how I felt about Eternal drafts before; games felt powerful and swingy and invokey (I do not miss you) and you could win games with a very questionable pile of cards if you found a way to play your most impactful cards. This format feels different, and these draft decisions matter in a way that they didn’t in previous formats—at least, that’s what I’m telling myself now that I’ve started winning some games. Forcing a color or pairing based on your first couple of picks can lead to some disastrous decks and is incorrect a majority of the time.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take powerful cards early in the draft and try to play them: you should. But when you open Maveloft Huntress
P1P1 there’s a huge difference between saying “Sweet! I get to play this Maveloft Huntress
” and saying “Sweet! I really hope I get to play this Maveloft Huntress
.” If your goal is to draft sweet rares and play cool cards, then you should take and enjoy the huntress every time you get to play it. But if your goal is to maximize your win percentage, you should be open to putting that Maveloft Huntress
in your sideboard and drafting something else. You should lean Primal – not force it.
Here is a very incomplete list of thoughts that occur while drafting the hard way: Am I leaning into my first pick or am I forcing it? Is this card powerful enough to force a faction even if it’s not open (the answer is usually no, but there are exceptions). Does this card send a strong signal that this faction is open? Or is it possible they took a more powerful card in the same faction? Are the rares and uncommons missing from the pack, or did the person to your right take a premium common? Which commons are good in the format are powerful enough to take over these uncommons and rare? The questions are endless when you draft the hard way. It’s constantly balancing risk vs. reward, power level vs. flexibility, and learning to read the signals through the noise. It’s my favorite part of draft.
The old MTG draft clichés haven’t always felt true to me in Eternal. I felt like I identified open colors, played functional, streamlined decks and just got smashed in the face by giants. It felt like drafting the medium way helped to compete at this highest level more than drafting the hard way, but Argent Depths plays out much differently. When you truly identify which color is open, you feel like you’re getting away with something in pack 4. The old adages feel true now. We can’t draft cards, we have to draft decks. The open color is the best color. It’s time to draft the hard way in Eternal.
#3 Ranked drafter for Chapter 41: Whispers of the Throne
& Chapter 43: Argent Depths
. #6 at time of submission for the current Chapter 44: Dead or Alive.
Since becoming a part of the Eternal community, I have found it to be overwhelmingly positive, welcoming, and generous. I have undoubtedly improved my game by enjoying the content of others and hope that this article can do the same for fellow players. Happy drafting!
All my Eternal writing can also be found here: Let's Talk Limited