In my opinion, Limited is the best and most fun format in Magic.
I’ve played Limited Magic for years. Whilst most Competitive tournaments these days are Constructed, I still love Limited Magic and there’s not much that I enjoy more than sitting down with seven other people for a booster draft. One thing I love more is heading out to the prerelease of the latest set. In ten years of playing Magic, I have only ever missed one prerelease; Oath of the Gatewatch happened to clash with my Mom turning 50.
I’d like to share the core principles I follow when drafting a new set or building from a sealed pool, then talk specifically about the upcoming Theros Beyond Death set. Whether this is your very first prerelease, or you’re looking for some inspiration to help improve your Limited game for the upcoming Wizards Play Network Qualifiers, hopefully there’s something here to help.
What is Limited Magic?
‘Limited’ is the general name that we use for any format where you didn’t build your own deck before starting (events where your own deck is required are known as ‘Constructed’).
Limited can be played as either:
– Sealed (open 6 packs and build a deck to compete with) or
– Booster Draft (start with 3 boosters and ‘draft’ them with (ideally) seven other players – picking a card from a booster for your pool, pass the packs, then pick again until the cards are gone. Alternate direction for each pack, then build a deck from the cards you picked aka. your ‘pool’)
– A range of other fun and wacky versions.
Sealed and traditional draft are by far the most common.
Limited decks are traditionally 40 cards, built with around 17 lands and 23 non-lands. Usually they run with two colours. Just one colour can lack a range of solid cards, leaving you with too few to build with, however more than two means finding your colours can become problematic since you won’t have access to the level of mana fixing that Constructed decks provide.
Understanding the best way to build your deck is key to playing well in Limited.
Creatures are the most relevant permanents in Limited.
Creatures make up about two thirds of spells in most Limited decks. Even more quirky decks that don’t need a lot of creatures still need plenty of ways to deal with opposing creatures. Blue/red, for example, often wants to cast a lot of instants and sorceries – strong removal and creatures to take you over the finish line are often critical to a successful build.
Let’s say you’ve built a red/white aggressive deck. You should have about 16 creatures with a good mix of casting costs (typically starting with 2-drops and stopping with a couple of fours or fives). You now have room in your deck for 7 spells. In an ideal world, all seven of these will be removal spells or combat tricks (instant speed spells that enhance your creatures to win combat moves, such as Infuriate).
This accomplishes a couple of things. Firstly, these spells allow you to attack more often – exactly what you want to be doing in an aggro deck. Secondly, if you’ve run out of resources mid to late game, then you want to know that every non-land draw will be a card that can affect play, by either adding another creature to your board or effectively killing an opposing one. There are some obvious exceptions: if you have creatures that care about equipment or enchantments you want to play some. However, running too many of these dilutes the power of your top decks and as a result your chances of swinging the board state to your favour.
Draw spells run the same risk for control decks; whilst card draw spells like Divination are obvious ways of gaining card advantage, the lack of board interaction is a big downside. You can’t play too many of these kinds of effects and get away with it. This leads me on rather nicely to my next point:
Aura spells are terrible
Ok, I need to add more context. If all they do is enhance your creature, such as Tall as a Beanstalk, then as a general rule you should not play Auras. They need to do a lot more than that to be playable.
Lets unpack this…
Card advantage is fundamental to Limited.
Here’s how card advantage works:
Ignoring life loss and decking, imagine playing out a game of Magic where you instead trade off your cards for your opponent’s cards on a one-for-one basis. I.e. you attack with your creatures and trade them off whilst using your removal spells to kill theirs, and vice versa. Once the dust settles, if you have spells left to play and your opponent doesn’t, you win the game.
Ok, this sounds weird, but it is an example of how a lot of Limited games play out. Like chess, the winner is generally the player who traded their pieces for those of higher value. To emulate this in Magic you need to get those two-for-one trades wherever possible. If you play an Aura that pumps your creature and then your opponent kills it, you are down two whole spells (the creature and the Aura) vs. your opponent’s one removal spell. You’re immediately at a disadvantage. Had your Aura been virtually any other card type (ideally another creature), card use would still be equal.
When valuing cards in Limited, one of my rules is to ask if it is capable of trading for at least one whole card from my opponent’s deck. If that is not the case, I don’t play the card. Is my creature capable of trading with an opposing creature? Can my spell kill one of my opponent’s creatures? Auras typically fail this test and as a result enable your opponent to get free value.
The exception? Auras where this rule doesn’t apply.
If an Aura replaces itself when it enters; by drawing a new card or killing a creature, for example, then its value increases and gains potential as something you want to use.
Theros Beyond Death fields a lot of Auras, and most of them are playable. They avoid the inherent card disadvantage by having either a relevant ‘enters the battlefield’ trigger, Escape (so they can be reused again later) or Flash (so that they can function as combat tricks that give a permanent buff). All you need to pay attention to is whether your opponent has mana available: all Auras, no matter how good they are, are vulnerable if your opponent can kill your creature in response to you casting the Aura.
Avoid spells that do nothing to the board
Permanents on the battlefield are important. They provide constant effects (or the potential to activate or trigger an effect), they counter opposing threats or they apply pressure to life totals.
There have been sets featuring cards that do nothing to help you win Limited games. These usually come in the form of land destruction or life gain spells, and those that interact with your opponent’s deck. Thought Distortion, Unmoored Ego, Deafening Silence and so on. Some of these are intended as plants for Constructed formats and were never intended to be played in Limited.
When you’re putting cards in your deck, consider whether you’ll be able to reliably cast it and whether the effects will really be good for you. If it isn’t adding something to the board or interacting with your opponent, then ask if it really is worth including it. Most of time, it won’t be. Sometimes the effect seems like it might be good under certain conditions, but if that situation isn’t likely to happen it is probably correct to leave it in the sideboard and bring it in when it will be useful.
Removal spells are the most important cards in your deck
If creatures are the most relevant permanents in a game of Limited, then the ability to remove creatures from the board is the most important thing that your deck should have access to. In every draft set, the best commons in each colour will likely be a removal spell and these days every colour has access to common removal elements.
When building a sealed deck, I often decide on my colours depending on which have the best removal spells. If I have two copies of Murder, it’s going to take a lot for me to not to play black in M20 Sealed.
In draft, removal spells are at a premium and become hard to get. When you see them in your early picks then you need to prioritise them as you’re very unlikely to see them later.
Keep track of what removal is in your deck. Some removal is conditional (such as burn spells) and can’t kill every creature. If you have only one Bake into a Pie it is probably better to hold on to as an answer to something powerful, rather than using it on a generic turn four drop.
All Limited players at some point play a game decided by a silly bomb rare. It has nothing to do with skill, it just happens, and it sucks when it happens to you. But most bomb rares can be dealt with immediately and then they don’t do a whole lot. If you spew off your only copy of Murder to kill a three-mana creature and then lose to a bomb rare a few turns later, chances are you’ll look back and see there was a different way to deal with that four-drop. Speaking of early plays…
A lot of one-mana creatures are unplayable
One-mana creatures are typically weaker options because they’re just too small. Although great on turn one, once the game gets going a typical 1/1 creature has very little value: they’re easily stopped by even small blockers and drawing a one-drop later rarely has much impact. Even with a relevant keyword such as flying or lifelink, one-mana creatures just don’t make enough impact.
Thankfully Wizards of the Coast have identified this issue and one-mana creatures have become a lot stronger in recent sets.
Two of my favourite one-drops from recent sets are Healer’s Hawk from Guilds of Ravnica and Faerie Guidemother from Throne of Eldraine. Healer’s Hawk is not strong on its own, but in the context of drafting in Guilds of Ravnica, red/white Boros has mentor to quickly grow the Hawk to a significant body, whilst green/white Selesnya needs cheap creatures to cast convoke spells. Faerie Guidemother gives solid turn one beat down, but when you draw it on turn six you can still get advantage from its Adventure side. If your deck wants a couple of one-drops for early pressure, then look towards ones that you wouldn’t be unhappy to see later in the game.
Editor’s note: Gingerbrute is one of our picks as a solid Limited one-drop. Given how few creatures have haste in the format then unblockable ability can swing through for early beats, whilst late game equipment and Auras can pump for the win, not to mention the potential for artifact synergy (All that Glitters, anyone?)
Playing more than two colours has heavy downsides
I touched on this earlier, saying that Limited decks should typically just be two colours. It is always possible to ‘splash’ a third colour if you want to play a particularly powerful card, though usually it’s not worth unbalancing the mana for. If you are going to splash something, follow these simple rules:
• Only splash a card if it uses one off-colour mana symbol. Two off-colour mana symbols are too intensive on the manabase.
• If you are splashing, the card needs to be very high quality, such as a bomb rare or a strong removal spell.
• You should run a minimum of two mana sources of that colour, but three or more is a lot more reliable.
• If you don’t have any ways of fixing your mana (such as a dual land or search mechanics like Traveler’s Amulet) then it’s probably safer not to splash as you can’t add more than two off-colour lands to your deck without destabilising your mana.
Some sets are designed for you to draft more than just two colours (Any of the Ravnica sets, Khans of Tarkir, Modern Masters 2017, etc.), by giving you access to a lot of solutions like common dual lands. Playing more colours is fine when you have an abundance of mana fixers, but those sets are the exceptions to the rule. Pay attention to how much mana fixing is available in a set and you’ll know how easy it will be to play more colours.
Pay attention to theme
Contemporary sets are designed with Limited in mind and every colour combination has a theme to focus on. More and more we are seeing sets with heavy synergies to draft around. If you can get some of these going, then your deck is likely to be a lot more powerful than average. If you’re drafting a Masters set (Modern Masters, Modern Horizons and so on) then keeping synergy in mind is almost mandatory to ramp up the power levels of your cards.
The Throne of Eldraine themes were quite clear. The three different combinations of red, white and black were themed around Knights. The three combinations of blue, green and black utilised Food tokens. Blue/red had a theme incentivising you to draw extra cards.
When drafting or building your Limited deck, identify the cards that care about theme consider if and how you can utilise that: if you have a strong Food payoff (such as Savvy Hunter or Trail of Crumbs), then you probably want to value Food generators higher. If you have a good Knights payoff (like Inspiring Veteran or Steelclaw Lance), then maybe you can even play some weaker Knights in your deck because the synergy improves your payoff.
Keeping those Limited fundamentals in mind, let’s take a look at the specifics for Theros Beyond Death.
Theros Beyond Death: Key Mechanics
Theros Beyond Death is the follow up to Theros from 2013, my least favourite block of sets in Magic’s history.
The main reason for my dislike was how dull the Limited format played out. The mechanics heavily favoured aggressive decks to the extent that nothing else could keep up with them. It created an unhealthy environment of fast and often non-tactical games. Being aggressive also naturally favours white and red and the other colours less so, so if you like drafting black/green decks then you’re out of luck.
Original Theros also marked a huge shift in Wizards of the Coast’s game design, where they decided to make removal more expensive overall. The common black removal spell that could kill anything was a six-mana sorcery instead of a 3-5 mana instant, again favouring aggro decks with runaway wins if they had a good start.
The legacy of Theros has influenced the design of Theros Beyond Death, but fortunately it’s clear that the issues present in the first Theros set have been dealt with. We have cheap removal, fewer aggressive creatures and some great mechanics that let us play longer games.
What are the two-colour themes?
As I mentioned earlier, it’s always worth paying attention to potential themes so you can prioritise synergies during deck building. In Theros Beyond Death, every colour combination has a powerful uncommon and some offer you helpful hints as to what the theme might be.
Here’s a rundown of what those themes are:
• White/Blue – Enchantments. Staggering Insight is our signpost uncommon, a powerful Aura that will give you some sweet advantage. White and Blue both pay off for slapping Auras onto your own creatures and also have constellation payoffs pushing towards the aggressive.
• Blue/Black – Self Mill/Escape. Devourer of Memories triggers when something goes to your graveyard from anywhere. Blue and Black both have commons that put extra cards into your graveyard and you’re going to want to make use of that.
• Black/Red – Sacrifices. A classic Black/Red archetype, and one that is hard to get right. If you build a sacrifices deck, pick up creatures that like dying, permanents that sacrifice them for benefit and cards that give you multiple creatures as fodder. Pay attention also to Portent of Betrayal, allowing you to steal an opposing creature and then sacrifice it for a bonus before it would go back.
• Red/Green – ‘Ferocious’ (creatures with power 4 or greater). Another typical archetype, but the signature uncommon, Warden of the Chained, is incredibly powerful and efficient if you can enable it and there are a ton of solid creatures for you to build this around. This also makes the best use of green’s fight spells.
• Green/White – Enchantments/Auras. Siona, Captain of the Pyleas is a heavily spoon-fed payoff for a simple Auras deck. Slap some Auras on your creatures and when drafting, pick up every copy of Siona that you can find because she’s basically Wonder Woman, so you can’t go too wrong there.
• White/Black – Negative Auras. White and Black are tricky as Rise to Glory doesn’t give you a clear direction. But there are quite a few cards in both colours that want to return enchantments from the graveyard to the battlefield and these are the two colours that have removal spells in the form of Auras, so recycling Mire’s Grasp and Dreadful Apathy is probably where you want to be with this one.
• Black/Green – Self Mill/Escape. The same look as Blue/Black, but with more payoffs and slightly fewer enablers. The signpost uncommon, Acolyte of Affliction, is great recursion and should go in every Black/Green deck regardless of what you’ve built around.
• Green/Blue – Enchantments/Constellation. Blue and Green have the most Constellation payoffs and their signpost uncommon, Eutropia the Twice-Favored, is the best of the bunch. This looks like it will be quite an aggressive mechanic, and you’ll want to prioritise any enchantments you see.
• Blue/Red – ‘Flash’ (casting spells on your opponent’s turn). Blue/Red tends to run fun mechanics and Mischievous Chimera proves this set is no exception. There are a few creatures in these colours that want you to cast spells on your opponent’s turn and a ton of instants and flash cards to trigger those payoffs.
• Red/White – Aggro/Heroic. Red/White is doing what it does best: getting in there for some damage! Heroic was a mechanic in Theros that gave you a trigger that happened when you targeted your creature with a spell. In Theros Beyond Death, there are a few creatures with the word ‘Hero’ in their name, and they all have a Heroic trigger that gives each of your creatures +1/+0. You’ll want to draft a very aggressive deck with lots of creatures and then if you can trigger one of these heroes using an Aura or a combat trick, you’ll be off to the races!
Highlight singles for Theros Beyond Death Limited
This set really does look fun. There are a lot of cards that look strong to play with and build decks around, but until we play with the set, it will be hard to figure out exactly what’s good, what doesn’t quite get there and so on.
I do however have my eye on a few cards that I can’t wait to try out:
• Heliod’s Pilgrim. This is a nice little reprint from M15. Whilst a little unassuming, it saw a decent amount of play in Standard at the time and even some Pauper. For Limited, a 1/2 body is not strong on its own, but a 1/2 that finds one of your removal spells is. Search up Dreadful Apathy then block some of those 1/1 Satyr tokens for great value from a single card. I expect this to be a strong pick in a draft and something I really want to open in sealed.
• Daybreak Chimera. White has struggled to keep up with other colours recently and many members of the community have been asking what kinds of cards can bring it up to standard. Daybreak Chimera is a solid turn 3 play. Turn 2 Daxos, Blessed by the Sun followed by 1WW turn three for a 3/3 flyer is perfect for applying pressure. It’s also a significant body for carrying Auras that I would look to buff with a Staggering Insight or two at some point during this format.
• Thirst for Meaning. Blue looks quite underpowered in this set, but Thirst for Meaning is something special. A throwback to the original Mirrodin set and Thirst for Knowledge, a card that even got restricted in Vintage. Thirst for Meaning is a fantastic card. In this set it can be cast on your opponent’s turn for the blue/red deck, fuel your graveyard for the Escape decks and so much more. Divination has been a powerful card in many Limited formats and Thirst for Meaning is even better value for three mana.
• Blight-Breath Catoblepas. Black is not short on removal spells in this set, but Catoblepas stands out to me. Back in Dark Ascension we had Farbog Boneflinger at uncommon and it was very strong, so I am quite excited to see this version in action. Six mana is a lot to ask, but for that you get a decent sized body and you can potentially kill any creature in the format. Don’t sleep on this one!
• Hateful Eidolon. This card has some fun wording which might not be immediately obvious. It says, “Whenever an enchanted creature dies…” Note that it doesn’t specify that it must be yours. Mire’s Grasp and Mogis’s Favor are both Auras that give negative toughness and can kill creatures, giving you a nice little engine to build around. This is going to be a particularly fun one, letting you draw cards off your removal spells.
• Wrap in Flames. This is a pretty underpowered card in general, but it has a nice extra bit of utility in this set that I want to highlight. Just like Hateful Eidolon, it doesn’t specify what creatures you can target, so you can also target your own creatures. Why would you want to do that? To trigger your Heroes of course! If they only have two blockers, you can ping each of them and ping your 2+ toughness Hero to give your team a boost at the same time, which may make this card better than it has been in previous printings.
• Alirios, Enraptured, Mirror Shield and Wings of Hubris. Finally, I wanted to give a nice honourable mention to these cards. What a huge win for flavour! Gingerbrute was one of the best designed cards in Magic’s history and now we get two more solid hits on classic stories that many of us know. The fact that they exist in the set is brilliant and I love it.
Tell me what you think in the comments. Is there any topic you’d like to hear more about? Any hot takes of your own? Next time, we’ll go deeper into Theros and maybe do some draft picks. In the meantime, check out your local prerelease for Theros Beyond Death and give the set a try! It looks like it will be fun to draft and also great for Constructed.