MTG Card Evaluations in Limited with Paul Mclachlan

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When I started playing Magic competitively, one aspect of the game I struggled with was evaluating cards. Without a wealth of experience to draw upon, I struggled to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the creatures and spells I was confronted with in draft and sealed. I decided that I needed a solid baseline to build from, so I went out and read and read and read until I was comfortable deciding if a card was good or not. I’m going to try and save you some time today and explain my card evaluation process for limited. With the Dark Ascension pre-release looming on the horizon like a big… looming thing, it seems timely.

I’m going to lay out some rules, which I’m going to try and think of snappy titles for. I might even name them all after myself.

Mclachlan’s Razor: All Magic cards are bad.

This is just a statistical time-saver. The majority of Magic cards that see print aren’t very good. It’s not your job to prove that the card is bad. It’s your job to prove that a card is worth inclusion in your deck.

Mclachlan’s Law of Utility: Two Ifs

When you’re deciding if a card is good or not, think of a simplistic scenario where it would be beneficial. If you have to use two if statements in your scenario, you’ll have to think carefully before playing the card. For example: Into the Maw of Hell is a good card if I want to kill one of my opponent’s creatures. Curiosity, on the other hand, is a good card if I have a creature to enchant, and if my opponent doesn’t immediately kill it, and if they can’t block my enchanted creature. This is the main reason I hardly ever play creature enchantments.

Victim of Night is an interesting case. It’s a good card if I want to kill one of my opponent’s creatures, and if that creature is not a vampire, werewolf or zombie. That second clause can make the card swing from Swords to Plowshares to blank. There’s a reason that Victim often goes later in drafts than a card with this effect should.

Logan’s Law of Mana Effeciency: Cheaper is better

If your deck has twenty one bomb creatures, but they all cost seven mana, you are going to lose every game to a person who makes two creatures on turns two and three and beats your face in with them. You have to consider your mana costs when building a deck or drafting. Big casting cost spells are flashy and powerful, but often come with a hidden cost: even if you have them in your hand you may not get the chance to cast them.

Mclachlan’s Cat: Cat in a Box

When you’re evaluating cards for the new set, it would be prudent to take a cat and put it into an enclosed box with a time release device filled with poison that could go off at – Okay, I have a confession: I don’t have any more rules. I just wanted to put my surname in front of things and feel important.

Let’s talk about creatures. Let’s talk about you and me. Let’s talk about… What the hell was that? I have no idea where I was going and seem to have just drifted off into an inappropriate nineties pop fjord. I’ll try and swim to the shore, but it might take me some time. Made it. Whew.

Yeah, so: creatures.

Dudes. Monsters. Dorks. Whatever you call those cards with them there power and toughness. Creatures will make up the majority of your limited deck. You’ll average out at sixteen. You might play more in an aggressive deck, or less in a more controlling deck, but I’ll discuss plans for limited either later on or in another article. I really wanted to type “sixteen is a good number” there, but I didn’t want to sound like I drive a rusted van and have pockets fully stocked with sweets that I never eat.

You’ll typically want to build a mana curve out of your creatures. A guideline for this would be four 2 drops, four 3 drops, three 4 drops, three 5 drops, and two higher casting cost creatures. One drop creatures are generally not worth playing unless they’re some form of removal – either a tapper or just straight up removal, or if the format is very aggressive.

But how do you tell if a creature is worth it? It’s not just because it uses that branded shampoo. Here’s a quick breakdown of the average stat-line of a creature at each casting cost.

1 Mana = 1/1
2 Mana= 2/2
3 Mana = 2/3 OR 3/2
4 Mana = 3/3
5 Mana = 4/4
6 Mana = 5/5

Creatures will often receive a reduction in power and toughness for gaining a beneficial ability. You’ll have to assess whether the drop in muscle is worth the increase in brainpower. You should always ensure that you are taking the whole card into account when making an assessment of a creature. It’s amazing how many people fixate on the rules text of a creature a miss out on it’s stat-line. You will also find that creatures in certain colours are weaker than average for no real reason (typically Blue, Black and Red), this is due to those colours having access to the best spells. What a segue!


There are many types of spell in Magic: The Gathering. You only have to concern yourself with small sub-sets of them. Here they are, in order of their power (just generally – don’t bring up your specific examples with me!):

Planeswalkers –

I probably haven’t mentioned how much I hate Planeswalkers as a card type yet, so I’ll just gloss over this and pretend that it didn’t happen. Planeswalkers are ridiculous cards in limited, and spawn a mini-game around their death. If you can’t deal with the Planeswalker you’re going to lose. I wouldn’t bend over backwards to play any Planeswalker I opened, but I’d certainly look to splash them if they have an attainable mana cost (Garruk one coloured mana requirement for example, or playing a couple of swamps to support the new Sorin in my white deck).

Removal –

If it says “destroy target creature…”, “deal X damage to target creature…”, “target creature gets -X/-X”, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” or “enchanted creature cannot attack or block” you should probably look to be playing it. I will splash for removal in sealed decks, but I typically just try to build around my kill spells – using them as a guide to choose my main colours.

Card Advantage –

Limited is a game of attrition. You are trading cards with your opponent, and any way that you can get ahead on this front will see you at an advantage. With card advantage spells you are trading one card and an amount of mana for two or more cards. The only problem is that card advantage spells will typically not effect the board. You can draw all the cards you want, but if your opponent makes a 2/2 for two mana and you don’t deal with it, you’re going to get beaten to death. Card advantage can come in multiple forms. I’m not just talking about pure card drawing here. A good example of this would be Morbid Plunder from Mirrodin Beseiged that returned two creatures from your graveyard to your hand.

Tutors –

Cards that search your deck for another card are worth playing, provided you have a good enough reason to do so. For example, during a draft in M12 limited, I picked up a Diabolic Tutor so that I would effectively have two Grave Titans. That draft was pretty sick, now that I think about it. I got to untap on turn five, activate Chandra Firebrand‘s fork ability and cast two Diabolic Tutors. The first got my Grave Titan, the second copy fetched my sixth land… Good times.

Spells That Make Creatures –

Yeah, these spells are pretty good. As I’ve already noted: creatures are your bread and butter in limited.

Equipment –

Equipment can be very powerful, as it is a recursive effect, but you have to be careful with what equipment you play in your deck. The ideal type of equipment is one that has both a low casting and equip cost, but comes with a good effect. For an example of this look at Trusty Machete from Zendikar. An example of a terrible piece of equipment would be Wooden Stake from Innistrad. Low impact garbage. If you play a card with a high equip cost (like Butcher’s Cleaver), you’re going to have to be mindful about the possibility of losing your turn if your creature is picked up by a removal spell in response to the equip activation.

Bounce –

Bounce spells (cards that return a creature to their owner’s hand) really took a hit in power level once you could no longer stack damage. They’re still a useful effect, but they’re a shadow of their former selves. You’ll tend not to want to pay a ton of mana for this type of effect. Unsummon is a good baseline for simply returning a creature to hand. If a card puts a creature on top of your opponent’s deck they are going to cost more as this is a much more powerful effect. You are bouncing your opponent’s creature from the board and effecticely denying them a draw step. Spells of this type are of a higher quality, but they’re very similar to normal bounce spells and I’m really lazy.

Counterspells –

Counterspells fluctuate from mediocre to unplayable with each new limited set. In Time Spiral block, Cancel was actually a decent card, because with the suspend mechanic you knew when a spell was coming that you need to counter. You cannot afford to sit with untapped mana in the hopes that opponent’s play spells into your counters in limited. They still have utility, but they’re nowhere near as good as they are in constructed.

You can just pretty much ignore every other type of card. They’re just static.

Thanks for reading,

Paul Mclachlan

(I guess I’ll be talking about plans in limited in another article.)


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