Group Game Draft

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The letter I! had stopped playing Magic for a little more than a year when I decided, on a whim and hungering for social action, to pick it back up shortly before Shards of Alara was released last year. I didn't have many cards at the time: eight booster packs of Eventide from the Fat Pack I bought and Eventide's green and black "Death March" theme deck. I furrowed my brow and quickly cracked all the packs. As I was opening the last pack, my soon-to-be-new friend Dan asked me, "Hey, did you want to draft?"

I said "Sure!" and went on my way with him to pay. Another soon-to-be-new friend, Amir, checked me out for the price of a draft but handed me four booster packs: two Shadowmoor and two Eventide. "I think you gave me one too many?" I asked. Dan saw my puzzled look and said, "You'll find out!" as he grinned from ear to ear, something I would soon learn to fear.

I was in for an experience like no other.

This format is a format that has transcended the casual / competitive and the playtesting / casual play splits for my local group of Magic players. This is a format dedicated to multiplayer mayhem and fun. This is a format that has withstood cards that threatened to break it, survived sets that were decidedly awkward to use for it, and supported entire assortments of play styles and approaches where none invariably results in wins.

What I'm going to talk about today is Group Game Draft.

"The group what-now?"

Group Game Draft, or GGD here on out, is a Limited variant that many of you are no doubt unfamiliar with. A creation of the mixed casual and competitive group that gathers at my local store, Group Game Draft (also known as a free-for-all draft or multiplayer draft) takes drafting to a completely different place.

If you're unfamiliar with regular drafting (and its own potential fun) check out an article all about it here. Here's the scoop on how GGD is different from normal drafting:

  • Each player uses four booster packs, rather than the traditional three (with the pass order being left-right-left-right).
  • The draft is capped at six players with a minimum of four.
  • All players play one big game of free-for-all multiplayer Magic.
  • The "Rumble Rule" is in effect.

There are some subtle implications to all of this and a special rule just for the format, so let's get through the major differences before you jump out to give this a try.

1. Each player uses four booster packs.

Four booster packs is exactly what you think it is: more cards to pick as well as choice of any combination of booster packs to use, though keeping everyone to one set or block is recommended. Like regular drafting, by the third pack you will generally be committed to the colors you're in. However, because of the extra fourth pack, it's a little more forgiving if you don't settle down into your colors right away. For sets that are heavily multicolor, like Shards of Alara, you have more opportunities to grab mana fixing or multiples of powerful commons. Remember, you can use any number of a card you draft, so if you can grab a fifth copy or more of a card (like Torch Slinger in Zendikar or Soul Warden in Magic 2010) ahead and take it! This fourth pack, can lead to some seriously consistent decks. Since the goal is to then play a multiplayer game, the surprising power of the decks is balanced against three, four, or five other players. It only makes it fair after all!

For those who don't enjoy drafting because they don't get all the cards they want to keep from a pack, adding the fourth pack into the mix gives more chances to pull a card you want that perhaps doesn't fit into your deck. Just as you can wait to settle into colors later than you usually would, you can afford to take a detour and pick that Serra Angel or Vampire Nighthawk you really want even if your deck will be solidly red and green (and there may be added benefits to this, as you'll see later on). The fourth pack also gives you another shot at that one rare you really want. When I drafted a quadruple Conflux draft I not only got to play a domain-based deck (like everyone else) but also picked up both a Child of Alara and Maelstrom Archangel. The other bomb rare that made it into my deck was a Banefire that was passed to me.

The fourth pack makes a world of difference.

2. The draft is capped at six players with a minimum of four.

This limit is strictly logistical: seven and eight player games can take a very long time even when the decks aren't hampered by a limited card pool. It has been tried and tested repeatedly with the result that this player range makes games both dynamic and fun while minimizing the slow pace that some games will inevitably take.

3. All players play one free-for-all multiplayer game.

If you're afraid of drafting because you aren't an "expert" you don't need to worry. Multiplayer games are filled with politics that can seriously benefit someone who doesn't have the "best" deck. In fact, players who are better at the game are more likely to try to outmaneuver each other first since they know that, well, those other better players may just as well kill them soon. Of course you can't sit with an empty board: as you'll see very soon you'll need to put your own creatures out pretty quickly as well. Just know you're not the only one other players will be looking at when they have an untapped Flameblast Dragon on their turn.

As an additional benefit to those unfamiliar to drafting (and we all are at first!) is that the "usual" evaluation of cards in drafting doesn't necessarily apply here. The value of cards in multiplayer can be vastly different than traditional Magic, a fact that can be easily missed when looking at a lot of exciting cards. While Doom Blade is a great card for spot removal, cards like Pyroclasm and Marsh Casualties become far more important since they can destroy many more creatures at once as well as creatures that are otherwise difficult to get rid of, like Mist Leopard and Deft Delist. Similarly, Kelinore Bat is usually an okay pick (as it has an evasive ability, flying, and has 2 power so it can "trade up" with a Snapping Drake) but Windstorm will clear away everyone's creatures with flying. Not all cards are looked at differently: Ant Queen can still almost singlehandedly win you the game. Almost.

Even better, the opposite can be true as well. Some cards that are fairly weak in a traditional draft become impressively strong—like one-on-one underperformer Underworld Dreams, which pings each player when they draw—or fantastically cool, like Lurking Predators, which lets me get a either a free creature (awesome!) or the opportunity to choose whether I want to draw the revealed card next if it isn't a creature (also awesome!).

As your group becomes more accustomed to drafting for multiplayer, you will start see cards that are "worth" more outside of multiplayer being passed around later. Not only do the drafts get more exciting when you think you know what others are trying to do, because they will gravitate to the strategies that seem to work better (hint: they don't always work!), but you also have even more shots to take a card you need elsewhere for regular Magic. I've seen single-target removal, like Doom Blade and Hideous End, go as late as midway through the pack!

4. The "Rumble Rule" is in effect.

"What the heck is the Rumble Rule?" It's what makes these drafts distinctly casual and much more fun. Similar to the rules for another casual format, Elder Dragon Highlander, or Commander for those of you on Magic Online, the Rumble Rule is a special rule for the format. For every 20 total points of damage dealt to and points of life lost by your opponents by effects you control, you may choose and set aside a card that you did not put into your deck—that is, a card currently in your sideboard—then cast that card anytime you would normally be allowed to cast it without having to pay its mana cost. For spells that have additional costs to cast, like sacrificing a permanent or kicker, or spells that have an X in their cost, you pay those additional costs or X values as normal. Whew! That's a mouthful!

What this rule really gets at is that you want to be attacking to deal damage, dealing damage with burn spells and life-draining effects, or otherwise actively damaging your opponents as often as possible. It's something you probably want to do anyway, but you get a reward for it too. Neat, huh?

While the cost of attacking into an opponent is often a risky situation, the Rumble Rule changes this to an advantage—if you hit enough times you can bring out something absurdly good or difficult to cast, or both, if you happen to have something like Progenitus in your sideboard. Instants and sorceries that are off the colors of your deck but would otherwise be great to play, like Sleep, can be used to surprise or switch up a situation. You can even grab a land or other mana fixer you need to cast the cards in your hand; fixing some mana troubles can mean the difference between sitting duck and sitting pretty!

And, perhaps best of all, that awesome card you picked up for one of your decks (like that Serra Angel from before, remember?) can even come out to play!

"So what else makes GGD so much fun? You seem excited."

That isn't a tough question to answer. For the group of players I play with weekly, GGD provides a lot of game overlap between the more competitive players and the players who are only really looking to crack some packs and play some fun Magic. Some other pack-cracking variant formats, like Pack Wars, are much more random or removed from the mainstream, and that can turn off a lot of players. GGD is easy to get into for anyone who has drafted, or who likes Limited formats in general, but simple enough to explain on the fly.

But much more than getting your friends to play with you, GGD lets some interesting cards truly shine in very unexpected ways. Consider Breath of Malfegor:

In ordinary draft this is just a harder-to-cast instant Lava Axe, but in a GGD of four or five other players, this is an instant Rumble! Even in a "smaller" game, where a player or two has been knocked out, 10 or 15 damage will really help push your Rumble points over the edge. Our group discussed long and hard about this card. "Is it too good?" "Should be ban it or have it not count towards Rumble Points it to make it fair?" "Since it's a common couldn't this chain together into an automatic win?" Eventually we decided to leave it be, and the format adapted seamlessly. Sure, there would be a random Breath of Malfegor here and there, but the counterspells of Shards of Alara block (like Double Negative and Traumatic Visions) became more important and were used to great effect. Because of how strong of a card it is, there became a general unspoken rule that "You do not pass a Breath of Malfegor," and nobody ever ended up with multiples to use.

In addition to the breath of a certain Demon Dragon, subtle cards like Algae Gharial become truly menacing: with three or more players trading and killing creatures, it doesn't take long for Algae Gharial to become the biggest threat around. A utility card like Necrogenesis becomes a much more powerful tool that both deprives your opponents of graveyard targets (of which there will be many) and helps build a wall of blockers to deflect potential attacks elsewhere. Oh, and I guess you can always just attack with a few Saproling tokens. If you really wanted to.

That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It!

So what happened in my first GGD? I ended up drafting a fun but slow blue and black deck that had some pretty good dudes: Ghastlord of Fugue, River Kelpie, and Murkfiend Liege. What it lacked was a plan for drafting more creatures. I didn't draft enough of them, and what few creatures I did pick up were a little on the expensive side. Smaller beaters like Battlegate Mimic and Ballynock Cohort (who made a great team against me early on) came crashing in repeatedly until I had a few creatures to deter would-be Rumblers. Over the next turn or so after stabilizing somewhat I drew the land I needed for my first bomb, Ghastlord of Fugue, which I followed up on the turn after with a Helm of the Ghastlord on, well, the Ghastlord itself, which then immediately swung right into the player with the biggest hand. He wasn't very pleased despite my ardent assurances that I would "only go after the player with the most cards in hand"—which, ironically, would probably have ended up being me after short order. Unsurprisingly, nobody was very convinced by my lie.

Even after assuring everyone at the table that "I'm not the guy you want to kill!" there were two things that everyone agreed on: a 6/6 unblockable creature that rips two cards out of anyone's hand, while drawing myself one, was pretty cool (he was wearing his own helmet after all!), and a 6/6 unblockable creature that rips two cards out of anyone's hand, while drawing myself one, is really, really scary for someone to have. Politics unfortunately led to the resolution that before my next turn came around I was to be knocked out of the game, which was an easy task due to my already low life total and lack of a reasonable defense. Looking back now I keep thinking: "If I had only dropped a few more blockers before bringing out the big guns ...."

After getting finished off, which let my killer Rumble out his Deity of Scars, my next draw would have been a well-timed and much-needed Murkfiend Liege.

Next time, Ghastlord. Next time.

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