Team Rochester Draft is the most strategically rich, most advanced, and most rewarding format in Magic history. Alas, almost no one ever plays it, which is why it was abandoned as a tournament format, but aside from signaling concerns, Team Booster Draft is almost as good. The tension between drafting for yourself, drafting to hurt your opponents and drafting to help your teammates makes your decisions far more complex and interesting, while having only limited information about what your opponents and teammates are up to creates huge rewards for being able to communicate and coordinate with teammates via your picks while each team tries to send misleading signals to the other.
If you're too predictable, you're an easy mark, so everyone needs to be flexible, but if you're too flexible, your teammates can't read you. After drafting, memory and draft reconstruction enter the mix, as each team must reconstruct what its opponents were up to and what cards they will face and prepare accordingly—if you're paying full attention, each opponent has only three cards you don't know about. Even more than Team Rochester, this is a true team event requiring that the players know each other's plans and tendencies and work together.
There's a reason that this is the format of choice for side drafts once the main event is completed! Drafts with random teams recreate the joys of having a team without the warping effects of drafting as a team or the problem of finding a fair matchup, but there's nothing like a battle between two well-oiled machines composed of true friends.
Before I discuss strategy, a review of the format's rules is in order. The players sit at a six-person draft table, with one team taking positions 1, 3 and 5 while the other takes positions 2, 4 and 6. The six players draft normally, but after that the teams build together and then play against each other, ideally playing all nine matches (or until one side wins five of them). At Grand Prix Providence, teams were meant to play two rounds per draft, which is not quite as good but does little to change the strategic dynamics.
In a regular draft, what matters is how good your deck is against the other decks at the table, which means almost all of your attention should be on the quality of your deck. There are rewards to counterdrafting, but they are small enough that it's almost always right to take a card for yourself even if you don't think you will need it. There are rewards for preparing for the cards you've passed, but for the most part the cognitive load required to make large adjustments on this basis isn't worthwhile. In a team draft, drafting (and building) to beat what you expect to face becomes far more valuable because you have only three opponents and counterdrafting helps not only you but your teammates as well.
Traditionally, players have aggressively counterdrafted in team drafts or taken cards as semi-counterdrafts, meaning you will at least attempt to play the card you've taken but your deck would have much preferred a different pick. Passing truly broken cads even if you have no hope of playing them is considered unforgivable because that card is far more impactful as an upgrade to their pick than it would hurt you to eat a pick preventing the card from falling into the wrong hands.
There is one card in Return to Ravnica block for which there can be no argument under no circumstances (other than opening two of them) do you ever pass a Pack Rat (and if you open two and aren't, black you'll want to pass both of them so your teammate gets one of them). However, as I will illustrate, for lesser or harder to play cards it's not that simple.
Reading the draft is already vital to a regular draft, but now the question is not only what is open but what each other player is drafting. Let's presume that Zvi (myself) is passing to Alice, who is passing to Gaudenis, who is passing to Bob, who is passing to Sam, who is passing to Carol. I want to cut off cards from Alice without cutting them off from Gaudenis. It's a tragedy when you cut off cards that Alice can't use because that frees up Alice to make her best pick from the pack and takes the card away from Gaudenis, and for cards that are later picks the same logic applies to Bob, Sam and Carol's decks as well.
People overestimate how much information they have in a normal draft. Without a team convention, trying to differentiate between Sam drafting Boros versus Carol drafting Boros requires that the second pick of the draft be important to this equation. If she passed you a Lightning Helix and then things dry up, it's (probably) not her, but you have very little information if the second pack has a missing rare even when you see premium uncommon cards.
If anything, in a team draft you know less than you would otherwise because Carol wants to fight with you as long as it's not over a Gatecrash guild. If she can lure me in and then cut me off, she can ruin my day, and given how awful it is to pass great cards, I often will have no choice on my second and third picks of the draft no matter what I started the draft with. This has been taken so far that some, such as Tom Martell, say that your goal is to have a better deck than the player on your left and take that mindset into the draft.
Due to these considerations and to the nature of a six-man table, decks will be much lower quality and in great danger of not having enough playables. In a normal Return to Ravnica draft, even if you stay on target, a one-guild deck will usually only have 23-27 cards you are willing to play. At a six-man table, you're taking the seventh pick out of your own pack rather than the ninth pick and so on all the way down, which hurts a lot, and you're both facing players willing to counterdraft and under pressure to do counterdrafting yourself.
A strong two-color deck is great, but you'll often need to learn to love cards you'd rather avoid like Bellows Lizard and Lyev Decree even if the guild is open. If the guild isn't open or if you take a few picks to find your footing, it can get even worse than that. As a result, many decks will end up splashing third colors whether they want to or not, and by the end everyone is desperate for on-color Gates. Many players can no longer afford to counterdraft if they want to have a playable deck, allowing those who are flexible to clean up.
That's where the Guildgate or "Mongo" strategy comes in. Tom Martell believes this is the best deck and strategy, and it is very possible that a team should have a designated Mongo player. That player spends Dragon's Maze largely taking a lot of Gates and then takes all the great cards that no one else can take while being able to reliably take the best card away from the other team. In the original proposal that my team tested, Sam Black would be Designated Mongo and take Gates over all the commons, while the rest of us would try to get him all the Gates early, and then we'd all cut off mana fixing later in the draft so the other team would be short on fixing.
Once you start taking away mana fixing, applying more pressure on that axis forces the other team to stick to two-color decks or have terrible mana bases, but you have to be ruthless about it to avoid letting fixing slip through the cracks, as we learned in our tests when we weren't sufficiently ruthless. Meanwhile, since we all knew that Sam could play cards of any color, Gaudenis and I could pass powerful cards knowing that often we'd be putting the opponent in a terrible situation where they'd have to counterdraft or give the card to Sam, while Sam would always be able to take the card if it got to him.
The problem with this plan is that the other team is getting better cards while you're taking mana, which can backfire in a slower format where players have time to recover, so we concluded that doing this too aggressively wasn't worthwhile; in the end, it was better to have bad mana bases and better cards if those were the choices on the margin. Having a Mongo player was still a fine strategy when the situation called for it, however, and you only want one, so in effect I became the player who would sometimes want to go there, which I did in two drafts out of three.
I continued to propose having very strong conventions for who would draft what even after we decided that we couldn't rely on having a Mongo player, but Sam especially argued that going in too strong would be bad. A convention can greatly improve coordination between teammates. If you know what each player is looking to do and what cards they value, you can read the packs much better.
In our case, I knew that Sam was looking for green cards and especially for Gruul. I knew that Gaudenis was going to look for red cards, with Boros and Rakdos in that order as his go-to guilds. I would start with white, with my alternate plan being a Guildgates strategy. We were all ready and willing to abandon our plans if the right card showed up, but would understand the implications of sending misleading signals. At the same time, we also knew each other's common pick orders. Common knowledge of what these cards meant as signals would give strong incentive to honor those signals, strengthening them and forming a virtuous cycle.
As an example, in one draft I got a look at a Zhur-Taa Druid that Sam had passed up with his second pick. With his strategy, Zhur-Taa Druid was never going to get taken over a common. Given the chance that a pack would have multiple top uncommons and would have one of them be Gruul and given the incentive to avoid drafting Gruul in front of another Gruul mage, it was a fair bet that Sam was going in another direction and would actively avoid Gruul in that spot. Given Gaudenis didn't have this information, he would be avoiding Gruul as well.
Thus, if such a deck existed, it would be in the hands of our enemies. Sam knew that either I would see the Druid and reason this out or would not see the Druid and thus never go Gruul, so he too knew our team didn't have a Gruul mage, thus allowing us to counterdraft such cards with impunity later.
The balance is between having a too-weak convention that doesn't give you enough information or leads to fights between teammates and a too-strong convention that prevents taking the best cards or extracts too high a price when a player is forced to deviate from the plan. The best conventions are based on intimate knowledge of the format and each player's tendencies and plans, and it's especially good if you can rely on secondary cards.
At a six-man draft table, you can and should have a good idea what is likely to come back and respond with radical adjustments when the wrong cards don't return. Especially good are when you know that there are cards other players likely cannot take, such as the Gatekeepers. If you pass a strong Gatekeeper other than the black one (he often disappears anyway) and then are passed another, it's a very strong position from which to take a Guildgate, especially if you know your teammates won't interfere.
Studying the Leave
When you pass a pack, especially your first one, it's important to memorize what you're passing to the left. There are three key questions, and changing the answers to those questions often changes your pick if the cards are close in power level.
First there's the obvious question: what will the next pick be and what goes after that? If there's a clear best card, you know it will probably go to Alice as the second pick. Once you know that, you can often know what her third pick will be as well even without her first pick, and then you can draft to cut her off later and to avoid or prepare for getting cut off yourself. It's important to remember that for Gatecrash guilds you want to be on the left, not the right, so you'll want to avoid that guild rather than try to cut her off.
This often leads to what Martell calls "Gatecrash Chicken" where you can't take one of the two quality cards in a guild for fear of the other one going next or splitting the guild with a teammate, which isn't much better, resulting in Christmas when both make it to whoever was in the guild anyway. It's important to remember that rares can be very powerful and some players make strange picks, so don't get too confident that you know what happened to your pack.
The second question is what is likely to be picked by the other players and what this says about what decks are likely to get drafted and what will be open as well as what it would mean if the wrong cards come back instead. If there are four high quality red cards and three or four of them are likely to go in the next five picks, chances are red will get massively overdrafted, even more so than in a normal draft, and you'll get a read on that when you look at pick 7. If they're mysteriously not missing, it means other turtles have dodged the trainwreck as well, so things are likely now open. The better you know your teammates, the more the missing cards tell you about the draft, especially when combined with what else you see.
This is for both intelligence purposes (knowing what's out there) and in terms of getting your team the best cards. Remember that as a team you are picking third and fifth out of the pack starting now, so taking the best card might not matter. In particular, if there are two cards of similar power level, especially in the same color, passing them both is often correct. The basic example of this is Rubblebelt Maaka and Punish the Enemy. While they're not quite equal, it is easy to pass both for a card that is more strategic in terms of response to the pack, which was especially true when I was passing towards Gaudenis, who was leaning red and therefore guaranteed an on-color strong third pick.
The most valuable information comes from cards that are high value to one guild or strategy but otherwise low value and which are reasonable but not forced picks. Deputy of Acquittals is exactly this type of card in an average pack. If it comes back, everyone else passed it and knows that they passed it, so you know that the guild is open. If it doesn't come back, someone chose to take it, so chances are it's not open and you should look elsewhere.
The third question is what cards will still be available for you to take, especially for cards no one else is likely to want early enough to cut off (but, of course, if they do take them, that's a really bad sign). Gatekeepers are ideal for this, as are filler drops for aggressive curves. In many drafts, your seventh to tenth picks are known to you before you see the packs, and you've already drafted their companions.
The Second Best Card
This all leads into the biggest thing that I think is misunderstood about Team Draft. Rather than feeling forced to take the best card with your second pick, it makes a lot of sense to often take the second best card if it's on theme and/or the power level is close. This isn't true when your opponents pass a true bomb; in our first draft, I was passed Varolz, the Scar-Striped presumably because the guy didn't realize how broken he is, and at that point you have little choice. However, in cases like when Sam Black was looking at the pack discussed above and debating whether to take Zhur-Taa Druid or Far // Away to follow a Punish the Enemy, there are big advantages to doing the unexpected.
The first big advantage is staying on target and communicating properly with your teammates; you're not letting that second pack distort what you're doing and make the signal misleading. Your teammates can read the signal far better than your opponents can because they know you and your plans and pick orders!
The second advantage is even bigger, which is that it confuses your opponents. When Bob passes Sam a pack containing Far // Away and Zhur-Taa Druid, he's assuming Sam will likely take Far // Away because that's a flexible card and very scary to pass along. Later in the draft, especially if the cards passed continue to enable Sam to support a deck that contains Far // Away, Bob will assume Sam is on Far // Away and the Gruul deck is more likely than not in the hands of a teammate. As a result, he'll be cutting off black and blue cards and passing along red and green cards!
Instead of cutting Sam off, he's cutting Carol off and setting Sam up for bombs assuming Carol sees the Far // Away and moves in. The more aware your opponents are of what they are passing, the more rewards there are to doing the unexpected.
By delving deep into these and other issues, Team Draft opens up both new angles to explore and strengthens your hand at individual Draft by forcing you to take your game to the next level. Instead of mostly forgetting what you've passed, you're forced to remember and think about how to beat those cards. You have to ask not "how good is my deck?" but the far more useful question of "how does my deck beat the opponents it must beat?" and are forced to learn to love and play against cards that would otherwise fall below the Mendoza Line. Signals take on a whole new character and level to the point where two out of three times I knew exactly what most of the other drafters were up to.
The big problems with Team Draft are the need to keep the teams balanced, the time the draft takes, and the danger of signaling, but when these obstacles can be overcome, this is the way Magic was meant to be played.