Chaff to Champions: Making the most out of bad cards in Limited
Hey everyone, thanks for joining me for another ‘Know Your Limits‘. I’ve been a bit slack in my writing recently, because of some busy work followed up by a trip to America (which was awesome thanks and yes I did buy a serious amount of Magic supplies!) However, I’m back in the action now and cracking packs like there’s no tomorrow! Disturbingly, I’ve also been enjoying 75 card formats quite a bit recently, but don’t worry I’m not going to use the ‘C’ word in this series.
We have been really spoiled lately with the quality of limited formats, Ravnica block has proven to be interestingly complicated, M14 has produced a much more diverse environment than most core sets and of course Modern Masters is simply one of the best draft environments that has come out of Wizards. It’s a good time to be a draft fanatic!
The subject I am going to be talking about today is actually the opposite. What are we going to do with those cards that are lacking in quality? We would all like to fill out our deck with top notch cardboard, but in reality you are going to have play several spells that you are not particularly happy about.
If you think about it, excluding bomb rares the difference between your best spells is quite slim, but your worst cards have a huge margin for improvement. Anyone can tell you Rumbling Baloth is a good card, but when do you pick up Cyclops Tyrant? What about Diabolic Tutor?
Realising that I needed to get the most I could out of my later picks was something that really upped my game to the next level. Improving on those low value picks can pick you up some value where there is very little cost. Those great under-costed threats and premium removal spells are all well and good, but you have to spend high value picks on them. Conversely, your tenth or so pick is essentially ‘free’. These cards often don’t make the cut, so being aware of when you can utilise them can gain you value where you usually get none.
The big epiphany for me was the awareness that the ‘bad‘ cards were not necessarily just poor, they just tend to have a few more hoops to jump through in order to make them playable. If you put the effort in, they can work just as hard as some of your early picks.
There are a bunch of qualities that can turn poor cards into something quite serviceable. It’s going to be your job as a drafter to keep an eye out for them and try and extract the most value out of them that you can. I’m going to discuss the main things I look for, but by no means is this a complete list. Here follows the Seven…
Spells With a Tendency to Trade
This is one of the top qualities I look for in a low end card. The ability to trade it for one of the opponents, which let’s face it is probably better than the card you are using. If I can take a card that I am not excited about and straight up one for one with a decent card of the opponents I am going to be pretty happy with the result.
Expensive combat tricks often fall into this category. I remember Spidery Grasp from Innistrad kept slipping into my deck. It really is a bit too expensive, only offers a defensive ability and doesn’t even give a significant power boost for finishing the opponent. It is tricky to get exactly what you want with a spell this clumsy, but in most games you will exchange it for something relevant at least.
Deathtouch is another really good example. Almost by definition it says that the creature it is attached to always trades in combat. It turns out if you take a massively unplayable one mana 1/1 and give it deathtouch it makes an enormous difference. Typhoid Rats proved this quite adequately. It’s really hard for your opponent to find a way to stop you trading off a deathtouch creature without using a card of their own. You can usually rely on those Typhoid Rats nabbing a guy.
Deathgaze Cocktrice was given a very poor reception, but I think it is well know how solid this card is by now. Whilst I have been quoted as saying Doom Blade is a black Deadly Recluse (By the way thanks LSV for reading this one out at Worlds!) Deathgaze Cockatrice really is the black Deadly Recluse. There is almost no way you can’t get a one for one with this card.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to give the impression that anyone was saying Death Gaze Cockatrice was anywhere near unplayable, but deathtouch is an ability that is always better than it looks. The absolute low end for any deathtouch creature is to die and take an opponents creature with it, which let’s be honest is pretty solid by anyone’s standards. In fact, I suspect it will be some time indeed before we ever see a truly poor deathtouch creature.
There is one more example I will give and that is a cantrip spell. For those who don’t know what that means it’s any spell that has a rider of ‘draw a card’ in addition to the primary effects. In this case rather than trading for an opponents card you instead trade for a card in your deck. The effect can be extremely marginal and these cards can still only be so bad as part of their effect is quite literally worth a card of value.
Probably the second most important quality I am looking for towards the end of the pack is cards that either have synergy with spells already in my pool or have good synergy with easy to pick up commons I am likely to get later on.
M14 draft has a couple of nice examples of cards that fluctuate in value greatly depending on what else you have. By the way, I consider this to be the main reason why it’s one of the better core sets to draft.
Gnawing Zombie and fellow late pick Tenacious Dead do not achieve much on their own, but together they are an impressive force on defence that will also win the game in a few turns. It’s perfectly reasonable to try and grab one of these when you can to give yourself a chance to pick the other later. There is some additional cross synergy with higher pick commons like Blood Bairn and Act of Treason, which can give some additional value.
We can take this even more to the extreme. If you take a look at Memorys Journey that is a card that is utterly unplayable on first look. This kind of effect is just too marginal and slow for 95% of limited formats. Combined with other other cards though, most notably Runic Repetition and Spider Spawning, you can create an almost unbeatable combo.
If you aren’t aware of some of the self mill possibilities that were available in Innistrad I would strongly recommend catching up by reading Steve Sadin’s article on the subject as it really quite an interesting example to be aware of. Being one of the first to stumble across these interactions can win you a serious amount of matches.
These sort of niche archetypes are almost always comprised of individually poor cards. They are the ones that you can count on picking up with regularity, so that’s where you are going to have to look for them. Perhaps you’ll be the first to break open Theros if you do this.
It’s crucial to know that everything is contextual and that if you can’t have a good card at least you can ram two bad ones together and hopefully have a great effect.
Cheap Mana Cost
I have talked many times about the strength of low cost spells in limited. I can’t overstate enough how important it is to keep playing spells each turn or better yet cast multiples. I wrote an article that discussed this in more detail, so I will let you go there rather than explain it again.
A card that often finds itself as my 22nd or 23rd is Burst of Strength. It does suffer from a fundamental problem, which is that it’s a combat trick that wants to be used defensively. The ideal play is untapping a creature that is tapped from attacking and growing it in order to eat an attacker and not die itself. Unfortunately playing combat tricks on your opponents turn is risky as during their attack they are likely to have all their mana untapped and can easily two for one you with an instant speed removal spell or a combat trick of their own.
However, the card is so cheap that you have a huge amount of flexibility on when to cast it. It’s no sweat to hold off casting this card if you believe a blow out is coming, as it’s very likely you’ll be able to keep one mana up in coming turns. It’s also not difficult to set up a turn where you cast this and another spell in one turn, usually gaining an excellent tempo swing. It’s overall a very precision tool that can be that tiny grain of sand in your opponents meal.
Pay No Heed is another one that is a really quite underwhelming effect, but the mana cost of just one means that past a certain point you can basically leave it up for the entire game, waiting for the perfect moment to step in. If this cost any more it would be too clunky to get a reasonable deal enough of the time, as it stands it just asks so little of you.
One and two mana spells are almost always worth considering, especially at instant speed. It is important that they are worth a card in value though. Do not start including things like Merfolk Spy that usually has an effect that is actually close to zero on the game. If a cheap spell can either potentially help kill/neutralise an opposing creature, enable/save one of your own creatures or deal a significant amount of damage to your opponent it is probably worth including as these are the primary goals of limited.
This category is all about cards that are not great on their own, but help mitigate a weakness of your deck. Perhaps it lets you answer something that no other cards in your deck can or maybe it provides an effect that is unique inside your colours capabilities.
Capashen Knight is not an exciting card at all. It gives you very little for your initial mana investment and then has an inefficient pump ability. The threat of activation is there to discourage blocks, but unfortunately with a base power of one there is little risk in your opponent simply letting it through. In most modern day formats Capashen Knight is likely to be your 24th card ie. It will just about miss the cut most of the time.
However in M14 draft it actually serves some important roles. First of all there are very few good two drops in white. The only other similar common in that slot is Sentinel Sliver, which usually gets drafted higher than it should by players with a sliver sub-theme. There are literally no uncommon two drops. The relative unpopularity of the colour often means you can get mltiple Master of Diversions, which is extremely powerful should you be curving out, something which the knight will gladly help you with.
M14 draft has another property that elevates Capashen Knight and that is the slow speed of the format. If you have played a good amount of M14 draft you will notice that if you are not playing blue, typically the game tends to stall out into a state where you have no cards in hand and the board becomes fairly stabilized. Again there is a severe lack in mana sinks in white, Stonehorn Chanter at uncommon being the only reasonable alternative. The good knight is happy to step in once more and plug the hole. You can easily threaten a 4/1 first striker at this stage in the game, which is always going to be relevant.
Therefore Capashen Knight fulfils two important roles in this format which are usually taken up by other cards. It says a lot that such an underpowered card can be elevated to the level of basically never being cut, but this may not be obvious at first.
Look for what these cards can do for you in the context they exist in. Don’t compare them to magic’s history, nothing is in a vacuum. Before condemning a card make sure you look at it’s competitors at in the same mana cost, colour and format. It might just be the best card in that slot even though it’s overall power level is low.
Another aspect of good limited play I am a proponent of is playing with a very high creature count. If the pickings are slim towards the south of the pack at least we can try and pick up some warm bodies which frees us up to grab more exciting non-creature spells down the road. I’m sure most of you have suffered in later packs, having to pass up on an exciting trick just because you were in a bit of a crisis and had to instead go with a less powerful card just to fill out your creature slots. This is totally avoidable, so don’t let it happen to you!
It’s extremely rare that any creature you play in limited will have no impact on the game. Normally the absolute worst you can expect from a creature is a chump block on the most powerful attacker. That play essentially makes your creature analogous to ‘gain 4 or 5 life’, which while not great is a fine floor. If you consider a card like Negate, the absolute worse is that the opponent never casts a non-creature spell while you have two mana untapped, a virtual mulligan.
More often creatures at least have a trade available somewhere on the table. There are even more uses, you can build up numbers for a finishing alpha strike, sacrifice them for various effects, the list goes on and on. Creatures are always better than they look and they often look pretty good!
Keep in mind that just having a power and toughness opens a considerable number of doors no matter how bad the card is. If you want more information about why a generous number of creatures is so excellent I wrote a piece here that goes a little deeper on the subject.
Shines in Certain Matchups
Now I don’t just mean your classic sideboard cards here. Obviously Naturalize will be a useful tool against powerful enchantments and artifacts if your opponents deck has any. What I am really talking about are cards like Bane Alley Blackguard. That creature is next to useless in a mid-range battle, but can be vital when facing all-in aggressive to stem the bleeding long enough to get your powerful spells online.
He is especially potent against decks playing multiple Riot Pikers. Honestly, how many of the staple good two drops can actually eat a Riot Piker on defence? The number is close to zero. The piker decks want to keep attacking as long as possible until they are forced to start using tricks to push their creatures through. Bane Alley Blackguard requires them to use their first trick far earlier than they would like, stopping their board development and putting pressure on their precious trick count.
Another section of cards worth looking out for are ones that have a very desirable effect, but are costed a bit too high to be relevant. You will find that when you are in a mirror of slower more controlling decks suddenly there is a lot more room to consider these spells.
Smog Elemental may not be the obvious contender, but I have found him (it?) to be more than serviceable in these match-ups. The games are often characterised by ground stalls followed by air battles that actually decide the game. Smog Elemental is absolutely fantastic at gaining air supremacy and his primary weakness, which is his relatively high mana cost is severely mitigated by long games.
If you have a keen eye and really start to zoom in on a card’s true strengths and weaknesses you will be able to spot a few of these corner cases and leave your opponent thinking ‘I can’t believe he beat me with that card!’
If All Else Fails Take a Gamble!
Lastly if you can’t be good, then at least be lucky! The type of cards I am talking about are generally not very impressive in the majority of situations, but if the right conditions are met they can be quite spectacular.
Wild Ricochet is a good example of this. Let’s look at the situation where you can actually cast this spell. You need to be leaving four mana up, which is a sizeable amount. You then need to have your opponent cast an instant or sorcery, which average decks tend to only have around 6 of. There then needs to be enough legal and relevant targets out that it both benefits your opponent enough to cast it and then benefits you enough to copy and redirect it.
This is not the kind of unreliability you want in your deck. If at all possible I would like to have a much more solid card in this slot. However, when the choice becomes a 100% chance of mediocrity or a 30% chance of a blow out then sign me up!
The next step is actually walking your opponent down the road and creating the scenario where your narrow, but devastating car shines. Making the situation extremely enticing for your opponent to alpha strike you could turn the unimpressive Aetherize for example into quite the back-breaker.
One thing to watch out for is justifying too many spells under this category. The upside needs to be very high to make these cards worth it. What we are really doing is buying a lottery ticket at the cost of one slot in our deck. Make sure the prize is significant or it may just be better to stick with a consistently mediocre option.
I do believe that there is a more general lesson here as well. If you are in a difficult situation, perhaps facing a poor matchup or a player you know to be considerably better than yourself, give yourself as many chances as you can to get lucky. Go for the risky plays with the big payoffs, what have you got to lose? If you are playing someone like Brian Kibler he is going to beat you in any sort of fair fight, so try as hard as you can to turn the match into a coin flip. If his deck gives him the tools he needs it’s going to be extremely tough, but you can’t be punished if he just doesn’t have the right answers.
Hopefully these examples have given you a perspective on the way I justify using one less than impressive card over another. Do not limit your reasoning to solely the headings above, but remember that you need to have specific and legitimate reasons to cast these spells. It’s not the cards themselves, but the thought process I want to arm you with. If your logic is sound they should do good work for you.
Before I go I just want to key you in on a couple upcoming limited tournaments, in case you weren’t already aware.
Magic Online will be hosting 64 player Modern Masters premier event every Monday throughout September. Modern Masters draft is definitely competing with my favourite formats and you will likely find me in one of these events. My username is Grollub, so if you are sitting across from me do say hi.
The more exciting event for us limited fanatics is the Return to Ravnica block Team Sealed tournament at the Cardiff Mindsports Festival. I will be there with my team as this is one of the few high stakes limited tournaments we get in the UK. If you care enough about limited to read this then I expect you are already planning to go, so good luck!
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you all next time when we talk Theros.