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How to Learn Limited

Government Camp, Oregon – 2014.

A high-priced New York attorney of Eastern European origin stumbled around eating taco shells straight from the package and bumping into the kitchen island like one of those mesmerizing screen savers. I sat in Team Pantheon’s celebrated, oft-since-imitated limited meeting, eyes bulging out of my head, apoplectic. One of us had already been driven mad by this 3+ hour affair and I was squarely in the on-deck circle.

“YOU TAKE THE CARD ON THE (expletive) BOX,” I shrieked. Everyone laughed nervously. “IF THEY PUT THE PICTURE ON THE BOX AND THE PACKS, YOU TAKE IT!”

We were talking Core Set Limited and the discussion was whether one should select Triplicate Spirits, the consensus best common, or Garruk, Apex Predator, a broken mythic, first pick first pack. I grabbed a nearby booster box and held it in the air, gesticulating wildly at the bewildered taco shell aficionado “This lawyer didn’t fly all the way from Manhattan, and open GARRUK, just to take a common. If they set your boosters, you have to just accept it!” (FOOTNOTE 1)

Part 1

For the longest time, I sucked at limited. I was afraid of really learning how to draft the hard way and found that my friends, some of whom were the best drafters of all time, were even worse at explaining how to draft well than I was at drafting. I was stuck in a paradox wrapped in an enigma and my limited win percentage at Pro Tours held me back despite playing some truly awesome constructed decks.

My preparation for Pro Tours would consist of drafting until I found success with an archetype and then doing everything I could to bias towards that archetype. Rock bottom for me was Pro Tour Gatecrash where I drafted Boros in 24 of my 26 practice drafts and then this happened. (FOOTNOTE 2).

My only other strategy was to open a broken mythic or rare (ideally gold) so that I could “put the blinders on” and stay in that color/colors, regardless of what signals were being sent. I’d then try to draw my mythic as much as possible. This is, obviously, not an optimal way to draft. Sometimes the players around you at the table will naturally settle into different color combinations and you’ll end up a genius. But sometimes the three players on your right are fighting like hell for some combination of Sultai and you miss the opportunity for perfect Boros because you stuck to your green first pick.

Forcing an archetype, putting the blinders on, etc. how do we avoid using these crutches and falling into the traps that hamstring our potential as limited players? I went 51-9 in draft at GPs and PTs between PT Ixalan and draft one of PT Phoenix this year, which is not proof that I’ve figured it out but holy moly you should have seen how bad I was before.

Part 2

I think limited is the best way to play and watch Magic. I know this opinion is not widely held, but I think much of the public aversion to limited is borne of fear. If you pay enough to the last SCG winner’s Patreon, you will get an updated competitive decklist and sideboard guide. A couple reps later and you have achieved a baseline competency that will allow you to pursue Magic as a hobby and not embarrass yourself at FNM. There is no safety net with limited – if you don’t have the right mental muscles developed, you’re operating from first principles and are going to crash into the mountain.

Many have written about how to draft or play limited, but what I want to do is teach you how to learn a new format from the beginning as spoilers trickle out. Here is the system I have developed, a roadmap I’ve built off my own beats.

  1. 1. The LSV Inversion Corollary: Your reliance on set reviews, pick orders, and archetype breakdowns released before a set has come out should be inversely correlated with your ability as a limited player. If you are brand new to limited, by all means fire up draftaholics or Karsten or LSV’s ratings as you navigate those early drafts. But as you develop – consider going it alone for a while and learning some hard lessons. Once you become an expert, I’d only use those tools to check in on the market consensus and look for outlier deltas between their evaluation and yours. They will bias/anchor you in a way that impedes and taints your learning process. Bottom line: if you are not a strong limited player, I recommend reading people you deeply respect, but try only to process their analysis, and not the number ratings. Number ratings assigned with fewer than 25 drafts of experience should be considered extremely low confidence.
  2. Prioritize gameplay over drafting. This is something I learned from William “Huey” Jensen, my pick for best limited player of all time. As part of the Ultimate Guard Pro Team, we had one day in Las Vegas last year to learn Guilds of Ravnica limited. Huey suggested that we build our decks as quickly as possible and then get to playing. Trying to figure out how to draft a perfect deck in your first draft is impossible! What you want is to see the cards interact with each other as much as possible.

I’m a firm believer that learning how to win at limited is more about understanding cards in context than how drafts develop (although of course expertise requires the latter as well). If you’re drafting with your friends or at an LGS, consider trying to play more than the traditional 2-3 matches with your deck. Ask people if they’ll play a quick game on the side between rounds. The secret (not a secret) is that Magic cards are extremely difficult to evaluate in a vacuum. Whether a card should make your pick order’s “Good Place” should largely be determined by the score it accumulates during practical application.

Your brain will do a pretty good job collecting the data – think about how you feel when you cast Kiora Bests the Sea God and how you felt when your opponent cast it. What we’re looking for are feelings (obviously weaker feelings on average than those you get from Kiora Bests the Sea God) for every card. If you get the reps in playing rather than drafting, you will have immediate impressions available in your subconscious about each card in each booster as you draft. If you spend all your time drafting decks and playing one round you will only see a fraction of the cards you draft in action and will delay achieving mastery of a format.

  1. Experiment. Draft mythics, rares and uncommons as high as you possibly can. Mess around. Draft 5-color decks. Take those wacky or pushed build-arounds highly and try to cobble together a linear strategy. If you draft an archetype in one draft, heavily bias towards drafting something different in the next draft.

At a basic level, this will help you in pressure situations. If you’ve never drafted Burning Vengeance in Innistrad…well stop everything you’re doing and do that and then come back.

Ok, now that you’re back, my point is that the PTQ Top 8 or Grand Prix Day Two is the wrong time to be drafting an intricate high-variance strategy for the first time. If you’ve been stretching your mental muscles early in a format’s life, you’ll at least have something to draw on.

Secondly, this will just make you a better, more-rounded limited player. Have you noticed how some “pros” will crush it one year and then disappear and then come back? Sometimes this is due to Magic’s inherent variance, but often it is because they have developed very specific skill sets. If generic aggro is good in Constructed and two-drops are good in limited, they have a huge season. Next year midrange rules Standard and the best common in draft is Divination and those same pros are launching tweet storms about the death of Magic design.

Like Bruce Lee said, “you must be shapeless, formless, like water.” Only by experimenting (and often failing!) early in a format can you learn to approach any draft without apprehension.

  1. Sideboard a lot. If When practicing, if there is a situational flier-killer or disenchant or damage prevention spell and you suspect it could possibly be good, BRING IT IN. You need to see the card in action a lot and as a sideboard card you’re going to have limited sample size and you want to know as best as possible the floor, mean, median, ceiling for the card.

Three great things can happen as you learn about sideboarding. First, sometimes you’ll realize a card is good enough it shouldn’t start in the sideboard at all! This was the case for me with Revoke Existence in Theros Beyond Death. Almost everyone has relevant targets, and the exile clause is especially relevant in dealing with otherwise-unbeatable things like Gods. Second, you will realize how to prioritize sideboard cards during the draft. It’s easy to windmill slam your first pick but navigating the mid-picks and deciding between polarizing uncommons, high-floor 2-drops, and high-upside sideboard cards is really hard. Third, sometimes you’ll realize that a sideboard card stinks! Plummet is historically a very high-value sideboard tool. But in Theros Beyond Death, there aren’t many awesome flyers to kill. Again, it’s about contextual value – so bring in all those weird cards you think might be good.

  1. Enter David Humphreys’ Brain. Don’t literally do this. Try to figure out what the designers want you to do. They seed the sets with enablers and payoffs, and the archetypes are designed to do some specific things. Often this is made apparent by benchmark gold uncommons, but not always.

This is especially important when deciding whether to utilize the truly marginal and decrepit cards. Tolarian Scholar in Dominaria is my favorite example- the card is designed to enable wizard synergies in Izzet and is a fine inclusion. If you instead decided to stick it in all your Azorius decks, you’re not maximizing the card. Azorius wants to do something totally different, so keep a look out for which mediocre cards are maximized here. (Hint: They put Serra Disciple in the file for a reason).

Also keep an eye out for reprints/functional reprints. They often are designed with a massive delta in value compared to their original printing, again due to context. This creates a stimulating experience for the enfranchised gamer. After you recover from the disorientation, the fresh valuation on an old favorite (in either direction) is one of the coolest aspects of limited. But if you try to rely on your previous impression of the card, you’re going to be out of step a lot of the time.

Part 3

Finally, a few quick tips:

-In deciding how many lands to play, most people just look at the curve and double-color requirements and decide 16/17/18. You should instead be thinking about how well your deck functions on the tail ends of the mana distribution and figuring out if you win those games.  If you can’t ever win when you miss your third land drop, you may want that 18th land. If you have no way to mitigate flood at all, you may NEED to play 16 or fewer land. This is why great players value variance reducing effects like looting or activated abilities on 2-drops so highly. They give you the luxury to play 17+ land in decks that otherwise would look at every land drawn after 5 as a paper napkin.

-Choosing to play or draw is much harder in limited (this is a feature, not a bug). Some things that should make you more apt to play: divination effects, 2-drops, creatures that must attack or can’t block, expensive combat tricks. Some things that should make you consider drawing: lots of cheap removal, three-color decks or sketchy mana, creatures that can’t attack (I’ve been told these are called “walls” but I never include them in my decks), card disadvantage like Navigator’s Compass. Keep in mind that the presence of these cards in your deck OR your opponent’s should impact your decision – it’s a zero-sum game!

This should remain a fluid dynamic heading into game 2 or 3. If your opponent chose to play game one and beat you badly and you were thinking of choosing to draw, consider updating your model. I can’t count how many times I have chosen play/draw game one, won, and then my opponent has deferred to my preference AGAIN game two! This isn’t ipso facto an error but is a great opportunity to evaluate your priors.

-Make sure you can tell a compelling tale about how you’re going to win and consider obvious countermeasures. Are you going to assemble a killer combo or draw a specific mythic rare? If so, make sure you play those card selection effects and cantrips. Raise Dead might be worth considering here – what if they counter your big Kahuna? Are you going to grind and attrition people into oblivion? Make sure you have the card advantage and removal to back it up. Can you beat recursive threats? Hexproof? Plan on building impregnable defense and using evasion like flying to peck them to death? Better have a plan for something unblockable, or direct damage, or someone trying to deck you. Different limited formats usually have distinct ways of approaching counter play for these macro-archetypical strategies. Your counter for their counter needs to adjust accordingly.

When I play, I often just try to beat down with two-drops and use removal judiciously to play a proactive game. I skip right to week three, tempo oriented.

I hope I’ve helped demystify learning new limited sets just a bit – it’s one of the true joys of Magic and I want everyone to love it.

Thanks for reading.

Paul

FOOTNOTE 1: I was wrong, this pick is indefensible. I will never admit this publicly.

FOOTNOTE 2: I was wrong, this pick is indefensible. I will never admit this publicly.

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