Limited Basics

Its two days before the deadline, seems like a good time to begin writing my article for this contest.  Actually, I’ve been thinking about a topic to write on since the day the contest was announced.  I did some research into a few different topics, but ultimately it didn’t seem that they would make for interesting articles.

So, I’m going to talk about limited Magic.  Since this is my first article, some of this will cover some relatively basic topics.  My intention is to divide the article into three main sections: first, Some background thoughts on limited.  Second, some basics and general theory on limited play in general.  Finally, a few basics on deck construction.

  1. General thoughts

Limited is a lot harder to get “good” at than constructed.  My own experiences show that, but I think many people have had a similar journey as well.  For constructed, certainly getting the nuances of the more highly sophisticated control decks figured out isn’t easy.  However, it is much easier to grab some quick aggressive netdeck from a website and jam it at a local event.  You generally can do fairly well preparing this way.  Myself, I took an aggressive deck to my first constructed tournament, and went 3-1 with it.  It took me 4 years of on and off drafting before I had a record like that in a limited event.

One of the chief difficulties of limited is that it is always in flux.  For constructed, we see people having success all the time with pet decks they have used for years over and over.  In legacy, you might not ever need change your deck.  Even for standard though, it seems some of the top pros use the same deck (ie, blue black control), just changing one removal and one counter for another, as the sets rotate.  While basic archetypes for limited exist in many limited formats, there is so much diversity from year to year, that you need to be constantly studying the sets and the interactions.  Lets consider just the past few years, for example.  Lorwyn focused on drafting around tribal themes.  Then Shadowmoor kind of switched that thinking.  Alara block had its focus on the various shards, and using lots of different colors.  Zendikar focused on landfall and was a really “fast” format.  Rise of the Eldrazi was its own draft format, and turned a lot of the previous Zendikar thinking around.  Then this year we had Scars, which had a lot of different angles: artifacts, proliferate, infect, and so on.

One may wonder, given the difficulty of becoming adept at limited, why bother getting involved?  Certainly, one can enjoy Magic by playing constructed only.  ARG offers multiple constructed events throughout the week.  Limited, I feel, has two main reasons why you should spend time and focus on it.  First, many folks, myself included, are aspiring pro players.  Some have maybe been on the pro tour, some maybe have been close.  Either way, the reality is this: every fall, the Pro Tour Qualifier (PTQ) format is sealed deck.  So, if you want to win a PTQ and go pro, 1/3 of the year is in a limited format.  Even if you qualify for the pro tour through a constructed PTQ, all pro tours are now split format.  What this means is that any given pro tour works like this: day 1, you play 5 rounds of constructed, then 3 rounds of draft.  Day 2, you play 3 rounds of draft, then 5 more of constructed, and then there is a top 8 bracket.  As you can see, 6 of your 16 rounds (close to 40%) of the pro tour swiss rounds are in a limited format (note also that for the block pro tour each year, the top 8 is also a draft instead of constructed).

Second, limited is fun.  Now I realize writing about “fun” in a somewhat competitive MTG article is at times considered cheap hackery, but I assure you, limited can be quite enjoyable.  Opening packs is fun.  Be it draft or sealed or whatever, no one has even NOT enjoyed cracking packs.  Also, you get to use cards that aren’t played a lot in constructed.  You haven’t really lived as a MTG player until you kill someone with an allstar islandwalking crocodile.  Limited is also an intellectual challenge, a thinking person’s game.  You have a limited number of resources, and you need to use them well.  Maybe that Brink of Disaster, for example, isn’t that great of a card.  But, it and the Frost Breath you have might need to be in your deck, if it’s the only way your sealed pool is able to kill your opponent’s Grave Titan.  Limited allows you to be more creative, because there is no “box” that you have to be forced in to, like in constructed (ie, before he was banned, every creature had to pass the Jace test, you know, could it do anything if your opponent bounced it every turn with Jace?  We now have a dismember test, and also need every deck to be able to deal with turn 4 titans from Valakut).

2.    The Basics: Building Blocks of Limited

BREAK BREAD.  No, I’m not trying to get religion involved in this article (the last time MTG and religion got mixed, some angry parents had WOTC stop printing demons for a few years in the mid 90’s).  These two words, however, are the acronyms for the basic concept behind nearly every limited deck.

B- Bombs

R- Removal

E- Evasion

A-    Abilities

D/K- Dirt, Krap, etc.  Essentially, filler, but F doesn’t make the acronyms work

I’ll discuss my thoughts on each of these as follows.

Bombs- Sometimes, they are obvious.  Inferno Titan is a huge bomb.  It will win the game in about two turns when it’s played.  They generally will be big creatures, that are hard to kill, or hard to block, or have good text.  It is important to note that bombs often will also fall into another category as well.  Take that Inferno Titan, for example.  He is a big attacker.  But his burn ability is also removal.  It is also evasion in a sense, if he can burn away blockers.  Note that bombs do not always need to be a creature.  Fireball is fairly Bomb-y, and can end the game quickly.  Mind Control might be the biggest bomb in the set, since it both steals an opponents bomb, and gives it to you.

I think the best advice I can give on bombs is actually to don’t force them all the time.  Ok, so maybe you opened the 12/12 mythic dragon.  Congrats.  But he still costs triple red, and he still dies to Doom Blade, and you might be better served by just using a blue white fliers deck.  Also know that rarity doesn’t mean a card is good.  Worldslayer is rare, and it is garbage.  So are some creatures and other cards.  It is ok to rare draft, if you want, but know that it doesn’t always mean you will win.  Rare drafting and drafting to win sometimes are two different things.  If you want to build the best actual draft deck, maybe you pass the Primeval Titan and take the Mind Control instead.

Removal- Cards that destroy your opponent’s cards.  Doom Blade is a common example.  It is good to have removal that is more general in it’s application, ie, it can kill a lot of cards.  That said, something like Celestial Purge can still be a very good card, though maybe should start in your sideboard.  Removal is not limited to creature kill.  Naturalize, for example, is great in M12 format, because of the powerful auras and there are also some good artifacts.  Oblivion Ring is another example of this.  Sometimes, you need to get creative with your removal.  Maybe the only way to kill a Sun Titan your opponent has is to play Act of Treason, and then sacrifice it if you have one of the creatures that allows you to pump by sacrificing.  Or maybe you need to combine Gideon’s Lawkeeper and Brink of Disaster.  It all depends on the pool of cards you have.  Note that sometimes, especially in green, you may not have as many cards that say “destroy a creature” as say, a red or black deck.  However, green generally has bigger creatures, so your opponent needs to block more.  In a sense, green’s big creatures can function in part as the removal in a green deck.

Evasion- Someone once said to me that many sealed formats boil down to removal and fliers.  While this is probably an oversimplification, the notion that fliers (and other evasive creatures) are key to limited is most certainly correct.  Flying is certainly the most common form of evasion.  It is strong because sometimes limited games go on for a while and each player has out an assortment of non fliers, such that an attack from either player wouldn’t force through any damage.  Evasive creatures help to break the stalemate.  Landwalk, ie, islandwalk, is another form of evasion that can be useful in limited.  While not as powerful as flying all the time (a swampwalker isn’t so hot against a red white deck), in a lot of matchups they will be fairly useful.  In the matchups where their abilities apply, they are usually more powerful than fliers.

Sometimes other cards can enable evasion.  Think Goblin Tunnler, or putting Lure on a creature then attacking with it and others.  Evasion helps to break stalemates and force through damage.

Abilities- We see the lines of these categories blur somewhat again, but abilities are basically gametext that is good but doesn’t fit another category.  Royal Assassin is technically an ability, but lets face it, he is removal.  Islandwalk is an ability, but really, for our purposes, it is evasion.  Abilities basically are two types, one shot and reusable.  Gideon’s Lawkeeper (which is also quasi removal and potentially quasi evasion) is a repeatable ability, it can be used every turn.  Manic Vandal, which is more along the lines of removal anyway, is basically a one shot ability.  For Scars block, Trinket Mage is a one shot ability, while Kuldotha Forgemaster is potentially repeatable.  Cards with abilities are sometimes more difficult to evaluate, because you have to contextualize their effect on the game.  They often don’t have high power or anything, and sometimes have to live a turn for their ability to work.  However, they can have an incredibly significant impact on the game, so their value can be incredibly high, given the right deck.  Some of the best abilities currently are on the cycle of mages in M12.  They can be used multiple times a turn, and all of them are good: drawing cards; giving haste, deathtouch or lifelink; and making an army of 1/1s are all great tools in limited.

K- Other.  Maybe this is trying to be too cute to fit the acronym, but I prefer to think of K as if it were a baseball game.  Inferno Titan? Grand Slam.  Mind Control? Home Run.  Incinerate? Double.  Goblin Piker? K, the symbol for strikeout.  The reason I personally don’t like to call them crap or dirt is because sometimes these cards will make it in your deck.  Take that goblin Piker, for example.  Not so good.  But, he fills a spot on the curve.  He can trade with many 3 drop creatures.  Also, there are many cards available, such as Goblin Grenade or Goblin Chieftain, that can make him a lot better.  Sometimes a Brindle Boar is just the right card in your deck to fill some space as a blocker until you have mana to drop a bomb.  Don’t run a ton of filler, but know that even the best decks often have some of it.

The one thing the standard phrase BREAK does not really cover is card advantage.  Drawing cards is the most important thing in Magic.  In limited, however, the value of draw is different sometimes.  Note first that cards like Merfolk Looter are great, but would fall into the “abilities” category.  I think card advantage is lumped into “filler” by some people, but that’s not the best way to think about it in my view.  Something like Divination will be played a lot of the time, because it helps you get to your good cards faster.  Conversely, Mind Rot can stall your opponent and maybe make them lose mana they needed to play their bomb.  A card like Druidic Satchel is a huge card advantage engine, but is difficult to classify in one of the traditional categories.

One of the reasons card advantage is different in limited is that you will, on occasion, need to trade 2 or 3 for 1 to kill certain cards.  This is blatant card disadvantage, but is the correct line of play if it is the only to answer a particular threat.  In limited, you use a 40 card deck, so you don’t need to wade through as many cards as in constructed to get to the ones you need.  That said, stuff like Ponder is still incredible in limited.

I think overall, what happens is that people, while looking to draft BREAK cards, subconsciously will pick card advantage stuff as well.  In part, since MTG is all about card draw, its always something people think about.  Card draw is difficult to evaluate because every draft is different in terms of where a card is taken.  Is Divination a first pick? Probably not.  Third? Seventh? Fourteenth?  No one can be sure.  Ultimately, my point of this section was to address a criticism of the BREAK method of limited deckbuilding, and to offer some suggestions as how to approach card advantage in the future.

3.   Deck Construction

Two main issues I’d like to touch on.  First is the standard 17-6-17 limited deck model.  Essentially, this is a fairly common breakdown of a winning limited deck’s contents.  Roughly 17 creatures, 6 spells (removal, pump, combat tricks, artifacts, etc), and 17 lands.  Of course this can be varied some.  Also, a card like Mind Control is both removal and a creature basically.  But this breakdown generally gives you enough cards and enough mana for them.  I try to stick to this method, and it was incredibly helpful as a young drafter.  In those 17 creatures, make sure you have a good curve, that is, some creatures that cost different amounts.  If all you have is 5 cost monsters, well, they are big and bad, but you can only play 1 a turn.  Its much better if you can play something turn 2, turn 3, turn 4, and then your big 5 guy.

The other thing I wanted to mention in passing is to make sure your land is right.  Make sure you grab the correct color (on more than one occasion an opponent of mine has had islands instead of swamps in their black red deck, it happens).  But more importantly, make sure you have a number of lands equivalent to the number of cards of that color in your deck.  Two common methods of picking the right number of lands are:

-Count the number of cards you have of each color, add correct proportion of lands; or

-Count the number of mana symbols of each color, add the correct proportion of lands

Counting mana symbols can be more useful if you have a lot of double colored cards.  For example, some of the big black bomb creatures cost colorless plus 3 black mana.  If you counted this as only 1 black card, and black was more of a splash color in your deck, you may not have the 3 swamps you need on turn 7.

I also like to slant my mana a little toward my earlier drops.  If only 40% of my deck is white, but a lot of that is double white and it mostly costs 4 or less, I might play 9 plains and only 8 islands, even though I have more blue cards in my deck, if all the blue cards are higher cost.  This is because the longer the game goes, the more chance you have to draw lands you need.

That concludes this article.  Thank you for reading, please feel free to leave feedback here or email me with thoughts or questions.  While I have no delusions about winning the contest, if I were to be invited back for another article, I would like to cover some more on limited, and some of the finer points of making a deck.  I would also welcome reader suggestions for future articles, and would love to have a mailbag type of section where readers could write in.  I certainly would not mind writing about constructed either, but it seems that so many folks all over the place write on standard, I would not want to bore the readers by going over the same things as others.

-Brad Eier





Latest posts by JACE_THE_MIND_SCULPTOR (see all)