Wizards announced a big change for online drafters: 6-2-2-2 and Swiss draft queues will be replaced by three-round leagues with the same payouts starting next month. This is big news! Overall I believe this will be a fantastic improvement for online drafting, but there may be some downsides as well. Let’s dig in.

Flexible Time Management

This is the big one. Playing Magic tournaments requires setting aside large blocks of time. If you want to play a local PPTQ on Saturday, you can’t really plan to do anything else that day. Maybe you can hedge an early drop with a trip to the outlet mall next to the PPTQ host store, but making dinner plans is unwise if you plan on doing well in the tournament. And this is true of any size of paper tournament. FNM takes up most of your Friday night. Maybe you can still go out with friends after, but that’s tougher for Tuesday night Legacy or other small mid-week tournaments.

Playing online helps a little, because you can at least select the block of time you prefer instead of going to the store’s scheduled event. But if you want to draft two nights a week online after work, you have to set aside a three or four hour chunk of time those nights when you can’t do much else. I’ve tried cooking dinner or doing laundry in the evening while drafting online, and it mostly works. But it’s stressful and sometimes leads to burnt food or, in the worst case that’s happened to me, getting stuck in the elevator from my apartment’s laundry room between rounds and timing out of the finals of a draft.


Draft leagues solve this issue totally. You join the league and immediately draft. Then you have unlimited time to build a deck, and choose to play your three matches on demand. If I want to spend fifteen minutes cooking between rounds, now I can control that instead of hoping I have time before the next round of a draft pod fires. If I started a draft league at 9:00pm thinking I could play until midnight, but after two rounds start falling asleep, I can save the final round for later instead of having to drop or try to play while dozing off. Bad idea drafts now have a safety valve! And if you, dare I say it, only have an hour to mess around with Magic each night, you can now play a draft or two across the week, instead of struggling to fit one in over the weekend. I believe draft leagues will be huge for older casual limited players.

Streaming Matches

If you are focusing on Magic while drafting, which is usually a good idea, then you can just blast through draft matches in a league. No more twenty or thirty minute waits—or surprise, only five!—while other matches in the round finish. You can join your next match immediately after winning the last. You might be able to finish an entire league in two hours. That’s nigh impossible to do in a queue, even if you auto-split the finals of 8-4s.

For grinders looking to maximize return on tons of drafts, leagues look a lot better than double or triple queuing drafts. I think you’ll have to jump through some hoops to join multiple draft leagues at once, but even if it is easy to play in two or three leagues simultaneously, I don’t see it being worthwhile. Once you eliminate most of the wait between rounds of a draft, the argument for filling dead time with another draft becomes weak. There may be issues with wait times for league matches firing at odd hours, but I doubt it will be a big problem.


Once you’ve reduced non-play time to a minimum, the added value of playing multiple matches at once evaporates. Maybe a genius like Luis Scott-Vargas can play two matches simultaneously without hurting his performance in either, but most of us can’t. If you focus and play quickly, chaining single draft leagues for an extended period of time, with rest periods under your control, will improve output for draft grinders. And the fewer people double queuing in general, the better all our lives will be.

Cross-Pod Matches

Draft league matches won’t be against players in your draft pod. That is the major structural change necessary to obtain the two huge benefits discussed above. “Cross-pod” drafts have a lot of stigma in the community. Each individual draft pod has its own metagame, defined (mostly) by the contents of the packs, which varies more widely than other format metagames. Like any random feature of a game, the top players will study how to exploit this. Removing single-pod metagame information sounds scary, and who knows, maybe it is. But I think this concern is overblown.

Cross-pod drafts rarely happen these days outside of local store draft nights. Managing the number of available seats for players on a draft night is a real challenge for stores. You can maintain single pods, but then you either have to fire on demand instead of a fixed schedule, fire pods of six-to-ten players, or turn players away. You can avoid all of this by firing all draft pods at once and pairing matches across pods. You may still have some odd-sized draft pods, but everyone can draft and play at the same time. Stores can even choose to play four or five rounds instead of three, and offer bigger top prizes.

Cross-pod drafting is pretty lousy at a store with three or four pods, though. The variance in draft pod power level is real enough that among a handful of pods, some pods will be at a real disadvantage. You can also manipulate pods by how you seat players. Unethical organizers can seed pods to favor certain players. Even if that isn’t effective in practice, the perception can still sour a community against cross-pod pairings.

A large online draft league, however, should be able to avoid this problem. The difference between the power level of your draft pod versus any random opponent from dozens or hundreds of pods in the league will rarely be that great. Most opponents will have median or average decks when your cross-pod pairings have access to hundreds of players. The official announcement says draft matches will be paired by league record, so you’ll still get some degree of progressive difficulty as you win rounds. The deviation of your deck from the mass of decks will be less significant than in a three or four pod draft.


There will be times in leagues when your pod is low-powered, you cobble together a solid deck, win two rounds, only to be paired against a super-powered deck from another pod. This happens in single-pod drafts too, though. Sometimes the only great cards in a pod get opened by the same player. Many drafts that feel weak to you turn out only to have been weak for half the pod. League pod mixing might make it harder to go 3-0 with a mediocre draft deck, but I doubt the change will be significant. “At least everyone else’s decks will suck too” is a lie we tell ourselves to give us hope after drafting poorly.

Large sample sizes remove variance. Some of the weird quirks of single-pod drafts will be lost, but so will the unpopular aspects of small cross-pod play. There’s still the cruelty of the shuffler, Worth’s “whitelist”, and other urban legends of Magic Online; but if those are keeping you from having fun, you may be beyond help.

Reading a Draft

Some limited masters can describe the decks of each pod member after finishing a draft. Friend and Streamer Extraordinaire Gabe is pretty good at this. (He’s also back from summer vacation and streaming most nights, so check him out!) Even lesser mortals like me can tell who might have the Ruthless Disposal I passed, and I generally know what my neighboirs drafted. This helps the old Bayesian what-do-I-play-around analysis in tough matches. Once you play cross-pod, you have less information to refine your probabilities. That is a minor loss, but it is a real thing, and will be felt most by the best players. This is already much harder to do online than in person anyway, as you have to track the names and positions of the players in your pod online to be able to do this, rather than simply remembering a face or shirt.

But here’s the thing. Outside of what I just described, most strategies players employ to exploit single-draft structures are counter-productive. Hate drafting is the big one, but there are many ways that drafters try to influence the quality of neighboring decks in a pod. The value added to your deck by selecting a card you will not play but do not want to play against is miniscule. Sometimes it is worth using a pick to hate draft, but most players overestimate the value added to their deck versus a narrow card they might actually play. Adjusting the size of your creatures to best match your opponent’s deck is one of the most powerful sideboard strategies you can use: almost any extra on-color creature is worth picking up in the late picks for this reason. In general players are too willing to throw away picks on cards they will never put into their deck.


Pairing across pods removes any incentive to draft cards to avoid playing against them. Hate drafting is an advanced technique that master drafters can use for an edge, but the vast majority of us would be better off never having to think about when hate drafting is a good idea. Thinking too much about things that matter little is a major leak that all Magic players should work to eliminate. Be thankful you don’t need to think about how to influence your pod-mates’ decks in a draft league.

Limited Options

Magic Online can only offer a few formats of limtied play. If they offer five different structures of the same draft format, the player pool gets divided and diluted, and the benefit of convenient online play evaporates. Because of this, the new draft options for the current draft format will be 8-4 single elimination queues, pack per win Swiss leagues, and 6-2 draft leagues (where three wins gets six packs and two wins gets two packs). If you want to draft in a single-pod structure, you have to do single elimination 8-4s.

This means there will be no online draft structure that matches a professional draft pod.  But let’s be real: unless you control who joins your pod, or you happen to make a top eight draft in a MOCS or something, you can never match a professional pod online. To do that, you need to get people together in a room to draft. The difference in play quality between a Swiss draft queue and a Swiss draft league won’t be much, and those will be more like each other than either is like a professional draft.

I can’t wait to try the new draft leagues and see how they play!

Carrie O’Hara is Editor-in-Chief of Hipsters of the Coast.

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