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Drafting with Style Part 1: Drifting Through the Signals

Drafting With Style Series
– Part 1: Drifting Through the Signals
– Part 2: What do those pretty symbols in the top right really mean for draft?

For a more updated version of this article, check out:


So you just booted up your first draft, there’s that gold glint in the corner, what should you do now? Well, you’re now at “pack 1 pick 1 (p1p1)” and you’re about to select your first card; this is one of the most exciting bits of the draft because it can really change how the rest of the draft ends up and help determine where you go from here. Draft can feel a bit overwhelming when you’re just staring at all these strange new cards and don’t really know what you should be doing but that’s why I have a plan for each draft I’m going to teach you, and it’s based on a few core ideas I’m going to go over for you! Oh wow, I got a bit ahead of myself there, let’s start over… Hey, all you delightful drafters out there! I’m Drifter and this is a new series of articles I’m writing for MTG Arena Zone where I outline the core concepts behind my style of drafting.

In this first article, I’ll be introducing myself a bit and talking about staying open, signals and pivoting. This article requires that you understand some very basic things about draft and so it’s best you’ve done at least a couple of drafts but I’ll try to explain as much as I can.

This is my “Hello there!” smile.

Why should you care? Who am I?

Well I’ve been a magic player and draft-lover for a really long time now, both in paper and online. I learnt to draft by taking the core style of drafting Ben Stark and Luis Scott-Vargas use (two of the most prominent Magic drafters and pros out there) and through a lot of practice and help from various friends and outside influences, adapting and twisting it to suit what I had learnt and what I believe. I’m an infinite arena drafter – which means my winrate is high enough that I make my money back from drafts and am able to continue drafting perpetually – and I’ve made it to top 100 mythic several times now in multiple sets. I produced a draft tier list for M20 which I’ll talk about a bit more at the end and will be linked below after the article and you can look at to see how I rate each of the M20 cards. 

A little bit of background

As I’m sure most of you know, arena drafting is a bit different from paper in that you draft with bots rather than in a pod of players. The major difference is that on arena, it’s important to learn the patterns of the bots so that you can determine what cards are likely to wheel and what cards and archetypes the bots undervalue so you can adjust your card evaluations to value those a bit higher, and to adjust for the changes in those patterns as the bots are updated. Despite that, the core tenets of drafting well are really the same and those are what I’ll be discussing in these first few articles, so I’m hoping you find it useful wherever you draft and whatever you do. While this article is more about basics early in the drafting stage, I’ll be discussing some more complex strategies, talking about what’s important later in the draft and also be giving advice for the gameplay stage in future articles. Really, I have a ridiculous amount of stuff I can talk about when it comes to draft because well, we’re talking about one of the main modes in the best and most complex game in the world which I love dearly and I know I’m far from alone in that.

Hopefully not this kind of bot…

Without further ado, let’s jump in!

My belief is that the optimal way to draft most sets it to stay open, which means taking the best cards passed to you for a while, often quite a long while and then remaining in the archetype in which you’re being fed good cards. Maybe you’ve gone into drafts before thinking “I’m going to draft red green aggro, take all the good cheap red and green cards and kill my opponents before they can mount proper defences”. This is called forcing an archetype and staying open is the exact opposite of this plan – I never go into drafts knowing what I’m going to end up as. Why not? Well because the cards you see in packs are based on what other people (or bots) are drafting and who you’re having to compete with to get the cards you want. Having a rigid plan doesn’t work if say, someone else near you is also drafting red green aggro or a couple of people passing to you are drafting red and snatching up all the great red commons like Shock that your aggro deck really wants. At the same time, because you haven’t given yourself the opportunity to be black, you might see a bunch of Murders and Audacious Thiefs going much later in the pack than normal because nobody else is in black. At the end of the day, because you’re not seeing good red cards and are red green aggro, you might well end up with a lacklustre deck and have passed a really good black or white one.

If you’re seeing these late, maybe not being in black is a mistake!

That’s the danger of going in with the plan of always drafting red green aggro – over the course of a lot of drafts, you’ll have really good decks when it’s really open and really bad ones when it’s not, and this will cause your overall winrate to suffer and you to have bad experiences quite often. It’s not uncommon at all for two people close to each other at a table to be in the same archetype.  Staying open maximises the quality of your decks in every single draft by minimising competition for the cards you want – I can teach you how to end up with a good deck every single time because when red green aggro is open, we’ll be red green aggro. When something else is open, we’ll be that. It’s not an exact science but I almost never end up with decks where I think “wow this deck really is dreadful” and when I do, I can usually pinpoint mistakes I might’ve made that led to this outcome.

So how do we know when something’s open?

I’m glad you asked! Maybe you’ve heard the term ‘signal’ before in the context of draft, well now I’m going to briefly teach those of you who don’t know how to read signals how I do it. Signals are clues people (and bots) send you that you use to paint a picture of what they’re drafting and not drafting. There are three things I look at when determining the strength of a signal:  how good the card you’re seeing is, how late in the pack you are and what other cards you’ve seen. I won’t be teaching you how to evaluate how good cards are in draft in this article (I plan for that to be my next one and really, one could write books on that subject) so let’s talk mainly about the other two and go over some examples: a card like Murder is first pickable, of a very high power level and pulls you into a colour early so if you see that p1p6, that means five people have already passed Murder, and so you can deduce from that that maybe some of those people aren’t drafting or prioritising black.

As I explained before, being in the colours your fellow drafters are not in maximises the quality of cards you receive so if you’re seeing a Murder p1p6, that should strongly indicate to you that maybe you should be taking it and considering black. In a lot of formats, you end up with a lot of spare cards you don’t end up playing – well taking this Murder now over a medium card that might not make the cut has the potential for huge upside because you could just end up black and then you’re up a really good card at the cost of a medium one if you don’t end up there.  This kind of exchange is usually super worth it early in the draft because at that point, you don’t have a lot of picks in other colours and are not that invested in those. Later in the draft, you might have enough cards in red and green that you don’t want to take murder even if it is p2p6 because it would be abandoning too much and you’re happy to settle for just an okay card in your colours and that’s fine.

Early in the draft, I would recommend just taking the best card out of each pack and not worrying too much about your colours – let the picks decide your colours, don’t decide them for yourself.

Now, that’s the case for Murder but if we’re talking about a much worse card like Daybreak Chaplain… well I would expect Daybreak Chaplain to wheel almost every time and would not consider p1p6 Daybreak Chaplain a signal at all because it’s not very good and nobody is going to take it highly so the fact that it’s there doesn’t really mean anything. 

Definitely the poor man’s murder..

Now, p1p6 is late for Murder but what about p1p2? P1P2 Murder is not a signal – the card is not so good that it’s inconceivable that people would take cards over it. It’s a fine first pick but if their rare was some kind of busted bomb, they would easily take that over Murder and you don’t have enough information about their first pick to deduce anything from Murder being there – they could also just think that Risen Reef is a better p1p1 than Murder in the format and have slammed that, for example. However, if you see a card that really shouldn’t even reach p1p2, a card that is a ridiculous (mostly rare or mythic) bomb like Drakuseth, Maw of Flames or Cavalier of Gales, then okay you have a signal – it is very likely that whoever is passing to you (bot or human) isn’t in the colour of that bomb (and also that they’re undervaluing the card). The great thing about signals is generally early, they are the cards you want to take anyway; the best cards in the pack and here, you should absolutely slam this rare or mythic bomb and really, it shouldn’t have reached you in the first place.

Okay, so P1P2 Murder isn’t a signal but what about if you’re in pack 2? How do signals change based on what pack you’re in? So, P2P2 Cavalier of Gales is still a big signal that whoever is passing to you is not in blue (but this time, they might not be undervaluing the card – they might just have two good colours they don’t want to leave or be scared to pivot for the Cavalier) because well, if they were in blue, there is no card in the set you would pass Cavalier for. P2P2 Murder is still not a signal because again, what if they just opened a rare in their other colour, a rare powerful enough that they want to speculate on it over Murder or a card like Chandra, Novice Pyromancer that is about as good as Murder but in the colour they’re more invested in? All three of these examples can easily be the right thing for the other drafter to do and all of them work even if the other drafter is in black, because Murder is a good card but not an incredible bomb.

So what about pack 3? Well, as you get later into a draft, signals become less important because you become more invested in your colours – abandoning one Murder for a great rare is much easier than abandoning Murder plus another six good black cards. By the start of pack 3, you probably have a reasonable idea of your colours so if you’re being cut by then, signals will help you less. Late in pack 3, signals are generally not useful at all – you will generally be too committed to your colours to change them and have enough playables at that point and the promised value later in the draft that signals provide is no longer really there since there are only a few wheeling cards (cards that you’ve already seen and are coming round again) left in the draft. However, signals at the end of packs 1 and 2 can still be useful for pack 3 since you can pivot at the start of pack 3 if you see really good reasons to do so, know the colour is open and have enough playables in your other colour that you’ll still end up with enough. If one of your colours is weak by the start of pack 3, then you can still consider dropping it, even if you should do that a lot more often in pack 2.

This is where I should talk about pivots a bit more – pivots are when you abandon a colour in favour of another colour at some point in the draft, and signals are one of the major reasons to pivot. As always, switching colours is much easier when you are less invested in them so pivots should happen all the time early in the draft and become rarer as it goes on. The same people or bots are passing to you in pack 3 as in pack 1 so if a colour is open in pack 1, that generally indicates it will also be open in pack 3. It’s not a guarantee since sometimes people do completely switch colours between packs 1 and 3 but it’s unlikely that enough people will switch that if a colour is very open in pack 1, it is completely closed in pack 3. That means that by taking the signals in pack 1 and planning for the possibility of being In that colour, if you do end up in that colour then you have the promise of that colour also being open in pack 3 and so you could receive a bunch of black much later than expected – so if you see a Murder p1p6 and then see a couple of other decent black cards later in that pack then you have good reason to believe that you will also see decent black cards coming to you late in pack 3. Even in pack 2, if a colour is very open and you are wheeling good cards in it, even though you are being passed to by people in the opposite direction for this pack, that is still a good indication that the colour is open and you might well be rewarded for being in it in pack 3 (though it still means less than in pack 1). Pivots are a little more complex than basic signals and will take practice to get right but they are crucial to implementing this style of drafting.

Signals don’t just apply to colours – if you see a card like Lavakin Brawler p1p7, that might well be a signal that elementals are open, more than that red is open. Lavakin Brawler is okay by itself but not that impressive without other elementals so it’s reasonable for it to go late even if other people are red but if somebody else had a couple of Scampering Scorchers, they should be taking that Lavakin Brawler highly so the fact that it’s there means maybe they aren’t that interested in elementals.

I’ve described a bunch of strong signals of things being open here but remember that weaker signals are still important and together can give the impression that a colour is open. If a bunch of merely reasonable green cards like Feral Invocation or Growth Cycle are wheeling and you’re not seeing much wheeling in other colours, that can rightfully give you the impression that green is open and if nothing is wheeling in a colour, not even the merely reasonable cards, that indicates the opposite – that a colour is high in demand and in being that colour, you will be competing with other people. This is where using screenshots or draft aids that track the contents of packs can be very useful – you can see what did and didn’t wheel out of each pack that way. I often use MTG Arena Tool for this purpose as it provides a useful feature where you can go back and check the contents of picks you’ve already made.

Well, I rambled on a bit and despite that, I haven’t come close to exhausting the topic of openness and signals (because again, there is so much to say) but thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed anyway! All feedback and questions are welcome and I will do my best to respond to everyone. My idea is to go over basic card evaluation next time as part of explaining my style of drafting but if there’s something you really want me to talk about instead, let me know!

Wrapping Up

My M20 tier list (I did this with JustLolaMan, a good friend of mine and fellow infinite drafter and streamer; I highly recommend his stream and sometimes am even on it! [])
Find all my articles here:

JustLolaman and Drifter’s Core Set 2020 Infinite Mythic Draft Tier List

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Drifter is a draft and strategy specialist, with hundreds of articles under his belt! Of special mention are his Limited Reviews and draft coaching service.

Articles: 138

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