Magic is celebrating its 25th birthday and for the occasion, drafts of the very first sets were organized during GP's. Limited Edition Beta packs were opened in Vegas, Unlimited packs in Barcelona, Singapore and Sao Paulo. At PT Minneapolis, the Silver Showcase will conclude the series of events with a draft that will feature Beta, Arabian Nights, Antiquities and Legends.
Some of you may not be familiar with the actual format used in these very particular events, and to prepare you for the next one coming up in a couple of weeks, let me walk you through a very special draft format: Rochester Draft.
Rochester, New York is presumably the place where the first Rochester draft took place and was the first known way to draft with Magic packs. While Booster Draft is the only format played these days in competitive play, the Pro Tour used Rochester from 1997 (in Los Angeles, won by Hall of Famer Tommi Hovi) until 2005 (in Nagoya, won by Shu Kumoro). Team Rochester lived on for a couple more years before eventually giving in to a much more popular "Team Booster draft," better known at the time as "Money draft."
Every player has a set number of packs (usually three) and sits at an eight-seat pod. Each player receives a number. Player one will open the first pack, player two the second (and so on). Unlike Booster Draft, only one pack is opened at a time and laid down face-up on the table. After a short review period, the player whose pack was opened selects a card, then the player on their left picks one, until player eight picks one. Then that player picks again, going counter-clockwise until there's no cards left.
Once the first pack of each player is opened (player eight should have opened the last pack), player eight opens another pack, and the draft goes on, counter-clockwise (player seven picking second), until player one picks, picks again… The third pack would be drafted like the first one. This sounds a little complicated, but it's not that bad.
Rochester draft was said to be the most skill-intensive Limited format. All information is open, you get to see everyone's picks, choose the colors that you think will get you the best cards according to what your neighbors are doing and counterdraft to make sure someone's deck isn't going to beat yours. With a genius memory, you are able to build everyone's deck after the draft, giving the best chances to the best player.
Nowadays, a draft takes approximately 40-50 minutes at the Pro Tour: about 20-30 minutes for the actual draft and 20 minutes of deck building. Add the occasional delays and setups, and you get a fairly quick procedure.
Rochester draft would take, in the best-case scenario, almost double that. You could review your picks while the packs were being opened, and when everything was going smoothly, each player had three seconds to select a card after their neighbor did. It would take roughly one and a half minute per pack, times 24, so about 36 minutes.
In practice, it took way longer. At the Pro Tour, there was only one caller for the now-infamous "Next. Draft. Next. Draft". If there was a problem, among all the tables (25 to 40 tables), the table judge would stop the draft… for everyone. The reason for a stoppage would vary from a card that isn't stamped properly, a card sticking to another one, to a player picking at the wrong time… You name it.
I played my first competitive Rochester draft at Worlds in August '97, and I thought that was cool. It was just part of the experience, trying to stay focused and keep your cool. It was just what pros did, and they would use the time off to consider the cards laid down on the table and think about their strategy. By the time I played my second Pro Tour in the format, Mainz in December '97, I thought it was just unprofessional and a huge waste of time. I remember the drafts taking between one hour and a half to two hours each. At that point, forget about memorizing other players' decks, you only wanted it to be over with.
By 2005, things ran a little more smoothly, table judges would take over issues individually (and call the drafts for the table where the issue happened only), only delaying the draft after all picks were chosen instead of in the middle of a pack. It would still take significantly longer than a booster draft. GP Day 2's would also finish super late (three drafts in a day…).
From a logistical stand point, the format had to be dropped.
In a Booster Draft, the chances between the players when the draft starts are about even. One would argue that a player sitting next to a less experienced player would have more chances to get passed something good, making things unfair, but there's not much to be done about that. Being seated in seat one, two or eight in a Rochester draft was difficult to Overcome. Seat seven was not as bad but still not great. You wanted to be seated in the middle of those somewhere.
What happened in seat one and two was that you would often pretty much waste the first four or five picks of your draft. You'd have no idea of what your neighbors would do, and if they wanted to step in the color of your first picks, there's nothing you could do about it (they would draft before you two-thirds of the time). Players seven and eight would pick the leftovers from the very first packs, not being able to decide if these cards would be able to fill a deck or would just end in the sideboard.
Players in the middle had a lot more wiggle room. When it came to them "rebounding" (picking two cards in a row), they could take two cards in their colors, since there had been enough picks for them to decide.
In a perfect world, all the players would react rationally to whatever happens in a draft. Imagine a situation where your neighbor decides to hate draft that card that would have been good in your deck over a card that could have been fine in his. Clearly their goal is to screw you over. A couple of packs later, on the way back, the player screwed in the first place remembers what happened and decides to take his revenge and hate draft from the original offender…
While hate drafting is part of the game, knowing who's hate-drafting you is infuriating. You could keep your cool and let it go. Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don't. And worst of the worst, sometimes you're just a seat a two away from the action and you're caught in the crossfire. The first hate-drafted player picks something that was clearly ending up in your deck, because they only had three seconds to select a card, and they could switch into your colors… a huge snowball effect can be triggered by one hate pick. This would not happen in a booster draft because you can't be sure the card you're passing isn't just as efficient in your neighbor's deck than the card you hate drafted.
Don't think these incidents were isolated. They happened all the time, making some drafts a complete mess. If you were a known player at the table, it was recommended and encouraged that your neighbors made sure your deck wouldn't be too good (at least among non-pros). You would therefore draft for them not to win, which goes a bit against the spirit of the game.
One other thing that would happen in a Rochester Draft that would not happen in a Booster Draft, was that you sometimes knew who your first opponent would be, most of the time the player sitting across the table. That made up for some interesting situations: color hosers picked super high, main deck enchantment or artifact removal. In GPs Top 8's, it was worth it.
Bad blood and friendship were also issues: two players that either didn't like each other or had previous bad Rochester Draft experiences with each other, waiting for payback and hate drafting each other, and you were caught others in the crossfire. Or two friends not wanting to hurt each other's feelings, messing up their own draft because they feared switching colors would affect their friend too much.
Sometimes, less information is just better.
When it came to Rochester Draft, the timing for picking was precise: you picked when you were told to pick. Wait a little too long, you goof grabbed the top left card of the pack. In the early years, you would also get a warning. On the third warning, you would be kicked out of the draft. In fact, at Euros '99 in Brussels, one of my opponents got kicked out after the second pack, leaving him with 30 cards to build a deck from. The judges were not messing around back then.
"Prison rules" were also in effect. You touched a card on the way to grabbing your pick… sorry, that's the card you selected. The drafts were taking so long, that it was easy to lose track of whose turn it was to pick. The "Next- Draft- Next- Draft" symphony had quite the hypnotic effect that would make you doze off for a couple of seconds and miss your pick. Crap common for you this time again.
Rochester Draft wasn't a good Pro Tour or Grand Prix format. It was frustrating, unfair and took way too long. However, it made for a good show. Watching the draft unfold was the fun part, even when standing on the sidelines.
The Beta draft in Vegas drew a lot of viewers, thanks to the excitement related to the cards being opened in the open and also because everyone kinda took part in the action at the same time. And I think for a one-pod event, without all the logistical nightmares that a full tournament would imply, Rochester Draft is a good format.
While the whole controversy around the Silver Showcase might still be the top of the talks when it happens, I know it will be awesome, to play and to watch, and expect yours truly to bring his a-game, from his 22 year-old experience in the format.
How about you. Would you like Rochester draft to be played again in other circumstances?
- Raph Levy