Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge: 5 Tips to Help You Improve at Limited
It is paradoxical, yet true, to say that the more we know, the more ignorant we become in the absolute sense, for it is only through enlightenment that we become conscious of our limitations. Precisely one of the most gratifying results of intellectual evolution is the continuous opening up of new and greater prospects. – Nikola Tesla
This week I’m going to write about Limited in Magic: the Gathering, and how you might improve. I’ve been pretty good at Limited for years and I have had the privilege of playing with some of the very best in the country on a regular basis. I was over the moon to hear about the return of Nationals as this meant draft would be a very worthwhile activity once again. I’m going to write this so that there will be content which will help a wide range of people, the upside of which ought to be obvious; but the downside is that there will be a little variability in terms of the target audience from topic to topic.
With that said, let’s go.
1. Draft a Mana Curve
One of the most important things you’ll ever learn in Limited is the importance of drafting a mana curve in your decks, but before I go on to explain why this is, I’ll explain what it actually is, because in my experience many players have meaningful misconceptions around mana curves.
When people talk about a mana curve what they’re referring to is the distribution of casting costs in your deck, in essence. Games of Limited are often determined in terms of tempo, which means that you’ll want sufficient low end cards to be able to play spells to match up with your opponents in the early game so that you don’t get rolled before you know what hit you. On the other hand, we know that the higher casting cost creatures are bigger and can easily shut down an offense. The solution to this is to try and have a bit of both, but a direct relationship between how high the converted mana cost of a spell is and the number of them we have in a deck.
For the majority of formats, the ideal is something along these lines…
One Mana 0-2
Two Mana 5
Three Mana 4
Four Mana 3
Five Mana 2
Six Mana 1
Seven Mana 0-1
Two things will be immediately apparent looking at the curve I’ve suggested. The first thing is that one and seven are variable numbers. This is because it depends on the nature of your deck whether or not you’d actually want any at these casting costs – an aggressive deck might want to play a couple of decent 1 drops, but otherwise these cards tend to be pretty weak, while only control decks are going to want a seven drop. In both cases these cards must be pretty stellar because of how awkward they are when drawn late and early, correspondingly.
The second thing is that I have suggested a total number which is between 15 and 18, which is low for a 40 card deck. This is because your curve ought to be primarily concerned with creatures – these are the spells which you want to cast on curve, generally speaking as soon as you have them. Non-creature spells tend to be removal spells, combat tricks, and card draw spells, all of which ought to be cast as the appropriate situation dictates, and so their casting cost isn’t of primary importance in consideration of your mana curve in the way that it is with creatures. With that said, it is also important that you don’t fill your deck with expensive 5cmc removal spells, and end up losing games to being extremely sluggish in the mid-game due to being unable to cast two spells in one turn at any point.
This is something you’ll often find mentioned in Limited articles, too, but I’d like to offer an alternative to what most of them will advise; if you play a lot of Limited, especially draft, then force decks. Limited formats are often discussed in terms of the best colour, combination of colours, and the archetypes from which they are constituted. If there is a clear outlier in terms of power it is useful to know how open it needs to be for you to move in and play it. Sometimes there is a colour which is seen as a bit weak, but it’s good if you’re the only one drafting it. Sometimes you’ll open a premium uncommon or rare for a particular archetype in your second pack, and it’s in your colours, but you think someone close to you is in that archetype. How do you know if it’s viable to move in, or if the colour can actually support two people, or if you can just fight the guy next to you for a tribe he successfully cut in pack one, stealing what he just set up, then make do on what he leaves behind pack three?
If you force, you’ll find out. You’ll also get crushed quite a bit, but that’s OK so long as you’re aware that you’re doing it to try and learn something. You’ll also annoy the hell out of the people you draft with, as you just ignore the signals and rules which they’ve read you’re meant to obey, writing off their decks…
… So long as you’re learning, you’re onto a winner. Obviously this is something which is good to do in preparation for the events you’re practicing for, but not a good idea at the event. Take what you’re learned and apply it there.
3. Compare with Streams
I mentioned the utility streams offer in terms of learning in my last article, so I’ll not repeat myself in that respect in this one. However, one thing that is particularly useful about streams in respect to Limited is the comparative element. It might be best to do this in phases. When you begin preparing for a new format, try watching a series of streams to get an idea of what the format is like in general, how various colours are rated, and how the cards within those colours are rated. This will be a quick, cheap way to get going without having to lose a lot to learn basic things. Once you’ve done that, play a bunch yourself for a couple of weeks then compare again with streams at that time. After this, compare what streamers do to what you do, taking some notes on the difference as it happens, then following up on those notes in practice.
Having a strong source to compare with is a great with to anchor your ideas in reality, preventing you from drawing a series of conclusions based on a faulty premise. If the streamer thinks your pet card is really poor, maybe that tells you something. Same for things like the number of lands to play, how easy or hard a splash is, the sorts of trades which are appropriate to make and so on.
Of course, this all relies on you having the self-awareness to consider these discrepancies in a constructive way, and act appropriately…
4. Don’t be Scared to Do it Your Way
…which isn’t always to stop doing things the way you are and do it how the streamer is. If you’ve prepared loads for an event and you’ve had success with a strategy or card, then you shouldn’t be scared to play it. There is so much going on in Limited, between deck building and play, that it might well be that, because of the particular conditions of your “style” of Limited, that you’re actually experiencing the card or strategy differently, and so it has a different value for you.
Everyone knows that guy who always drafts weird stuff, but rarely goes 1-2 and wins the draft more than it seems like makes sense. I’m not one to advocate the “surprise element”, but at the same time, I don’t think that the majority of these people would do better if they were to draft more “normally”.
But let’s say you’re more like me, and you draft pretty conventional, boring draft decks for the most part – that doesn’t stop you playing some oddball card, if you think it’s good. I remember playing a draft in Glasgow and a player with whom I had a friendly rivalry was talking to a new player about their deck, and I overheard him say “…the only person I know who is any good, and plays this card is Graeme.” The card was an Act of Treason, which used to be called Threaten, and it was a decent uncommon in Onslaught, so when it was first printed with its new name I didn’t think twice and just played one in aggressive decks where it made sense. I also play Lava Axe sometimes. The thing about cards like this is that so many games of Limited come down to racing your opponent that being able to spike a bunch of damage can win you games. I’m not over the moon to play cards like these because they’re sort of trash, but I don’t mind them as a 23rd card over a redundant creature.
In Shards of Alara Block I had many heated discussions about Tri-Lands (which came into play tapped, and produced mana for each colour in their respective three colour combo). I didn’t really rate them that highly, seeing them as a 4-5th pick, while most people I drafted with saw them as a hands down 1st pick. I’d take a Magma Spray over one at the time, and maintain that this is still correct now… at least for how I was drafting. The guys slamming it first pick with a big grin probably drafted more heavily into three colours than I did, so that makes sense. I tended to draft very moderate splashes, generally for late game cards, and I didn’t mind playing an Obelisk or a Panorama (much worse fixing that came late) to sustain those cards.
When Khans of Tarkir came round, I rehashed these discussions about Wedge-lands (the same thing, but for the colour combinations of that set) in a new city with new people. This time round the splash was more important, but the common mana fixing was better, so I was still not especially keen on what others thought was a premium uncommon.
These are just some especially prominent examples which stick out from years of experience. Each was discussed at length, I considered what others thought, tried it in places, then sometime before the big events I worked out where I was at on various issues, then resolved to do what I thought made sense.
5. Draft and Sealed are Different
When you’re practicing for Limited it is important to remember that draft and sealed are different formats. In the past this was often discussed in very simple terms – sealed is like draft, but slower, and you’ll have a worse deck. I don’t know if this was even true back in the day, really, but now they’re normally very distinct formats in which cards can vary wildly in terms of worth. I think I learned this in Lorwyn sealed, where it was very common to play 5 colours and the best thing to open was the vivid land cycle in sealed, while the draft format was a strict 2 colour tribal affair. I started to realize this fairly late in the PTQ season, after having drafted extensively. Needless to say this was quite unfortunate as much of my practice time would have been better spent learning the important distinction between sealed and draft in this format early, so I could build appropriate decks at the PTQs.
So if you’re practicing for a Limited GP, play loads of sealed in addition to draft. Conversely if you’re practicing for Nationals you should be drafting, not playing sealed. To an extent both will help you with familiarity with the cards and generally make you play tighter in Limited as a whole, but as I described above, playing the wrong sort of Limited can lead to some fairly catastrophic misunderstandings of a Limited format.
Improving at Limited is a slow affair in my experience. There is only so much reading you can do to help you actually work out how to make good attacks and blocks, while playing loads of games will help tremendously. With that said, I think the most important lesson I’ve learned in Magic – and my whole life, thinking about it – is that you can be far more effective in learning if you are willing to look at your actions and think critically about them. Speaking to like-minded people, especially if they’re better than you at the game, will also help considerably.
That’s it for this week. Next week I’m going write a similar piece for constructed.
All the best,