Courtesy Wizards of the Coast
Cutest little cause for victory there ever was.

Magic: the Gathering is, like many nerdy diversions, something of an expensive hobby.

It’s also similar to things like MMORPGs in that the players are on the prowl for rare items to improve their performance, and that certain arrangements and combinations are ‘best’. In the formats for constructed decks, there tends to be a mentality following this general line of thinking: “If your deck doesn’t use X combination or feature card Y, you cannot and will not win.” And more often than not, those combos and that card are prohibitively expensive. We’re talking hundreds of dollars here, folks.

That’s why limited formats are appealing to those of us operating within the confines of a budget. Everybody starts on a relatively even field, using the same basic resources and their wits to assemble the best deck they can with what they have. In addition to being wallet-friendly, it rewards good analytical and on-the-spot thinking. Rather than walking into the event with a particular combination in mind guaranteed to win games, the player has to think on their feet and make smart decisions.

The ultimate expression of this format, to me, is the draft. Not only is it the least expensive and therefore the easiest to justify, it puts critical thinking skills front and center. It’s rather different from sealed deck events, and in my opinion you get more bang for your buck.

Instead of getting a set number of packs all to yourself, you sit at a table with other players and open each pack one at a time. When you open your pack, you pick one card from among the 15 viable possibilities, then pass the rest to the player on your left. You pick another card, pass, etc. Once that pack is done, you open the next, pick a card and pass to the right. So on and so forth.

By the time you’ve finished you have more than enough cards to build the 40-card minimum deck. But if you just pick the shiniest cards or make choices based solely on rarity, you might not do very well. As you make your choices and see the cards coming by, you need to decide what cards are going to yeild a viable deck despite the randomization based on color, casting cost and the mechanics of the expansions from which you’re choosing.

Let’s say you really like a particular color, or combination of colors. It can be tempting to expect to draft that color and play to your strengths. I can tell you from experience that doesn’t always work. You need to deal with what the military would call “the facts on the ground.” If the person to your right got a really sweet rare card in your preferred color, it’s highly likely he or she will be picking up that color’s more common (and useful) cards to build the foundation of their deck. It’s a preconception that needs to be overcome.

Likewise, if you do aspire to play or compete with those who have constructed decks, you may see a card that would be useful in one of your projects either in a pack you open or passing you by during the draft. As tempting as it can be to grab that card for later use, the competition at hand may have different demands that you need to fulfill, based on your earlier choices.

It was these challenges I needed to overcome in last night’s draft and, for the most part, I succeeded. Apart from some misfortune in the first round, a sleek little black deck carried me to victory in the end. It was a vastly different experience than my first draft, which didn’t net me a single win. I learned from my mistakes, changed my point of view, and found the experience much more rewardiing since my brain was engaged from minute one. I’d probably still feel this way even if I hadn’t done as well, mostly because I think an activity that rewards critical thinking as well as game-playing savvy is a healthy one, especially if it gets one out of the house.

It’s a nerd thing, I guess.