In Development – Great Crossover Potential (MEP content)

Limited is the Chevy Cobalt to Constructed’s Corvette.

I wrote that on twitter last month after returning home, semi-plussed, from a Scars Sealed PTQ.

It wasn’t sour grapes. Magic is fun. I played Magic. I had fun. There were good people around and I got to spend some time teaching a fellow player how he could have fogged his opponent for a turn by a well-placed Tainted Strike. Nonetheless, I came home with a sense of washed-out fun, and it coalesced into that thought. I’m sure racing almost any car is pretty fun, but wouldn’t it be more fun to be behind the wheel of that Corvette?

This, in turn, led me to ponder yet again why people prefer the formats they prefer….and why they’re better at some formats than others. All of a sudden, this sounded like a Magic Effectiveness Project question.

After all, my lassitude about Limited may mirror your confusion with Constructed. But, whether we like it or not, sometimes we’re going to play in that “other” format, whether it be at a modern-day mixed PT, or a PTQ season that doesn’t quite match our tastes. Or, notably, the new mixed-format MTGO PTQ sets.

So how can we apply what we love in one format to the other?

In other words, can I learn to love Limited as much as you do?

A reminder – good at what we love

Back in the article that spawned the MEP survey and articles like this one, I talked about the notion of playing to your strengths.

As discovered by the fine folks at Gallup, we do our best when we play to our strengths. Backing this up, our strengths tend to be thing that we are not simply mechanically good at, but also things that we genuinely enjoy doing. So if you’re good at something, it’s probably due to a combination of some kind of aptitude and a desire to keep doing it.

In other words, it’s not that I don’t like Limited because I’m not great at it. I’m not great at Limited because I don’t like it.

This leads to the logical conclusion that if I’m going to be better at Limited, and the dedicated drafter is going to be better at Constructed, we have to see if there’s anything we can legitimately love about the “other” format. We can then apply that to being actually better at it.

That’s what I’m going to talk about today.

Expanding on the MEP and collecting your impressions

The point of the initial MEP survey, to which so many of your generously responded, was to provide a basis on which to start understanding what makes us good at Magic. I didn’t imagine I’d find any global rules. Rather, I was hoping to pull out factors that made us excel at individual parts of the game.

So when I turned to the MEP survey data to ask about what differentiates those who prefer Constructed or Limited, I was thinking that perhaps I might see things like, “adaptability” as factors for Limited specialists, and “planning” for those who prefer Constructed.

And, indeed, I saw some of those things.

However, the single strongest factor linked to any kind of preference for Limited versus Constructed was cost. That’s unsurprising, but also, well, not so helpful in explaining what makes someone better at one format or another. After all, money doesn’t make a player better at Vintage. It just makes them able to play it.

However, the other information in the MEP replies did provide a solid ground on which to build last week’s survey, which asked all of you to answer five simple questions:

1) If you had to choose, would you rather player Constructed or Limited?
2) What’s the best thing about Limited?
3) What’s the worst thing about Limited?
4) What’s the best thing about Constructed?
5) What’s the worst thing about Constructed?

The results from that survey form the basis for this week’s exploration of why we like Constructed or Limited, and how we can apply what we love in one to maybe, maybe appreciating the other.

Your impressions, organized

First, let’s start with the high-level result.

53.5% of you would pick Limited
42.6% of you would pick Constructed
3.9% of you don’t care

Given the purported preference of Magic players for Limited, this relative lack of bias for that side of Magic play might be surprising. On the other hand, this survey was largely replied to by people who read my writing, which I have to imagine means we have more than the typical percentage of Constructed aficionados.

With the rest of the replies, I grouped responses into generally similar categories to see which concepts would float to the top. For discussion purposes, I’ve taken the top categories and grouped them thematically in today’s article. Hopefully, the grouping makes sense, and helps us see how Limited and Constructed play interact on the same points.

So, with that idea in mind, here are the highlights from this most recent MEP survey.

NASCAR and F1, part 1

In introducing this article, I made Limited into a Chevy Cobalt and Constructed into a Corvette. I have no idea if the Cobalt is a good or bad car, having never driven one, but the idea was this – in my mind, Constructed is about racing with a car that’s been tuned until it hums, and Limited is about picking some random cars out of a grocery store parking lot and seeing who can win with theirs.

Both would actually be pretty fun racing experiences, and you’d have good reasons to prefer either over the other.

I mention this because one of the essential divides between Limited and Constructed might be described like so – Limited is NASCAR, and Constructed is F1.

Some 18.6% of you cited a “level playing field” as one of the best things about Limited.

At a given tournament, this is essentially true. If you went to a PTQ during the most recent seasons, you began with six Scars of Mirrodin packs. No more, no less. Everyone got the same thing, everyone got the same amount of time to build their decks, and that was that.

The appeal here is clear. As in NASCAR, games should all come down to the skill of the driver rather than the car. Of course, as Robert Duvall taught us in Days of Thunder, stock cars aren’t stock, and Limited card pools aren’t either – but more on that below. In principal, though, many of you feel that Limited makes it a “fair fight” for everyone at the tournament.

However, 33.3% of you cite the ability to play the cards and deck that you want as the best thing about Constructed. Sure, there are rules – like in F1 – but as long as your deck fits within those rules, you can tune it up as much as you’d like. Putting a Jace or Gideon in your deck is just as much your choice as putting a Honda or Ferrari custom engine in your car.

What’s worth pointing out here is that the Constructed lovers aren’t saying “I want to crush people who can’t afford better decks.” It’s just a simple desire to play with the cards they want to play with.

So, we have one clear axis of division – level playing field or choice of cards?

NASCAR and F1, part two

But that division comes down to something else, of course. Money.

The single biggest negative mark against Constructed is its expense. 47% of you say that Constructed is just too darn expensive. And this idea of expense ties into the level playing field, with some portion of respondents complaining that someone can just “buy the best deck and win.”

This is both true and completely inaccurate. It’s true for a lot of FNMs and other local settings, where the one player who is willing to lay down the cash for a current tier one Standard deck does have an edge on everyone. At the same time, it’s not true in the broader context of Magic. A bad player with four copies of Jace nonetheless remains a bad player, and will get stomped each and every round by actual good players who are running their own top tier decks.

This may seem like a fine point, but it’s one that I like to keep in mind. The problem is not “pay lots of money, win.” Instead, it’s “pay lots of money to get in, but once you’re there, skill matters.” I think it’s good to keep this in mind because it focuses us on what we can actually do about it. There are no magical decks that make bad players good – or else Paulo, Brad, Luis, Josh, and our other players here wouldn’t be able to consistently perform because someone out there would pay lots of cash for that giantkiller deck that would take them all down.

Still, the barrier to entry is legitimate, and clearly frustrating.

On the other side, about 9% of you specifically said that you like how cheap Limited is. And, on an incremental basis, it certainly is. Ballpark fifteen bucks for a draft – less than half a Vengevine, maybe, and you’re set for a bunch of cards and three matches of Magic. Not bad at all, and who doesn’t have fifteen bucks in their wallet most days?

One thing I’m curious about, but which is a topic to explore on another day, is how much it costs to be good at a specific Limited format. Imagine we have a Constructed deck with a retail (not eBay) sticker price of $600. That’s forty drafts right there. If each Constructed event is $5, then we need to play 60 events to spend as much, total, on Constructed as we have on Limited (any more events after that and Constructed is now cheaper). This leaves aside the issue of cards remaining useful throughout Standard, Extended, and Legacy, and of being able to sell or trade off some of your Limited haul, but it’s an interesting benchmark.

No plan survives contact…

Taking a step away from money, what else really tickles us about our favorite formats?

21% of you adore the preparation and planning that go into Constructed play. You love plans, you love testing and optimizing those plans ahead of time, and you love smashing your plan into the opponent’s plan and seeing how things turn out.

I totally get this. It’s definitely on my list of why I love Constructed. It’s also why I tend to loathe real-time strategy games. It’s so much more fun, for me, to test and develop a plan and then try to enact that plan – or something based on it – in the game.

On the other hand, 19% of you cite the need to adapt as your favorite thing about Limited. You’re the folks who like figuring out how to make a mediocre Sealed pool work, or who want to read signals, change colors as needed, and make the draft work for you even if the person feeding you is a making crazy choices. Similarly, the variability of Limited play in-game works well for you, as your plan is tenuous at best, and you need to work around your opponent’s bombs and other key cards.

So, we have planners and adapters? How can they ever get along?

Kicked around by fate

One of the big selling points for Constructed is getting to play the cards we want to play.

Generalizing from this, 9% of you say that “reduced luck” is one of the best things about Constructed. You see the ability to choose your weapons as you go in as something that levels the playing field, offering an entirely different take on that concept.

In fact, 41% of you, including many of you who clearly prefer Limited, cite the inability to control your card pool as the worst thing about Limited play. Many of you complained about getting smashed by bombs while all your rares were pointless dual lands, and we had a certain amount of bitterness about “idiots” getting to win on the back of good cards.

We’ve probably all had the “bad pool” experience, and I think I’ve heard more than once the estimate that 10-20% of the Sealed pools at a PTQ simply can’t make top eight, which is awfully disheartening.

On a related note, 22% of you think Limited is too random even when we aren’t talking card pools. “Random” factors here include the people feeding you in draft and the variability that happens when both decks are full of one-ofs. For many of you, it makes everything from the draft onward feel like it’s out of your control.

So we like to feel like things are under control, and it disturbs us when Limited reminds us that they aren’t.

Variety is the spice…

The counterpoint to “randomness” is its good-guy twin, “variety.” If the downside to Limited play is that you can’t predict what each draft, game, or draw will bring, the upside is the exact same feature. Similarly, the perception of variety has a big impact on how we feel about Constructed.

22% of you say that “variety” is the top selling point of Limited. In fact, this was the most popular positive comment about Limited. You appreciate that each new tournament, match, and even game is different from the last. You also appreciate getting to use a much wider swathe of cards than we tend to get away with in Constructed, including cards that are “bad” in Constructed play. Finally, you like that the value of cards is highly relative in Limited, more so than in Constructed.

On the Constructed side, 16% of you love to research and crack the metagame. You find your appreciation of variety in watching how the metagame shifts, and in trying to adapt to it.

Naturally, the evil twin of the variable metagame is the stagnant metagame, which 19% of you cited as the worst thing about Constructed.

That’s awesome, but what can we do with it?

Having broken down the highs and lows of Constructed and Limited, as filtered through all of you, can we now bring these thoughts together to provide bridges to help players who primarily appreciate one format gain more access to the other?

I think we can.

On level playing fields

Oh, cost.

As I saw in the initial MEP results, cost remains the biggest driver of players preferentially playing Limited. And as a lifestyle choice, I don’t fault this at all.

However, if you want to, say, play in the upcoming PTQ season to qualify for Nagoya, or in the ChannelFireball Winter Series, you need to play Constructed.

I won’t discuss ways to make Constructed more affordable here, but they exist. You can trade for cards, buy cheaply, and pick up cards with an eye toward having decks across multiple formats.

The real take home, however, is that if you feel like competing in Constructed, you really should make the effort to have a fully competitive deck. If you don’t, you are wasting all of the money and time you subsequently spend preparing for and attending tournaments. Essentially, you need to commit.

Committing may even mean pooling resources with your friends and borrowing cards. It just means making sure you have the actual cards you need.

We all have plans

The one top-scoring common feature of both Limited and Constructed is the idea of planning. Limited players like to plan under pressure, building their decks and adapting their game play. Constructed players like the long plan, cracking the metagame, optimizing decks, and testing matchups.

These are two sides of the same coin.

In fact, that’s very much what I wrote about recently. Planning is planning is planning – it just happens on different time scales.

Constructed fans tend to think that Limited is nearly random…but it’s not. It’s just condensed. You have to plan on the fly, but you’re still designing decks and responding to the hints of a metagame, even if that metagame is “signals from my fellow drafters and cards I’ve passed.” You can research and have general plans going into an event, and once you’re there, you very much need to have a plan. In fact, some players complained that “too much” depended on your initial draft or deck build in Limited…in other words, the plan was the most important thing.

From the Limited perspective, Constructed games can feel very set. It’s rock-scissors-paper, right? But if you take a step back, you can appreciate the need to plan around what’s actually going to be present at your next event, both in a broad sense (which archetypes) and more narrowly (Frost Titan or Grave Titan as a finisher in U/B Control?). Even within specific matchups, you have significantly more ability to adapt and react than you might believe. Consider Paul Rietzl bringing in Relic of Progenitus against Thomas Ma at Amsterdam. It was quirky and surprising, but also helped turn what was supposed to be a one-sided stomping of Rietzl into his first sweep on the way to sweeping his way to the winner’s circle.

Less luck

In a way, this is more of a common weakness than a common strength. We might summarize it as “bad players blame luck.” But that’s a little too general, because a lot of the players who find a given format too random – be it Constructed or Limited – don’t say that about their format of choice.

Essentially, the more you find yourself blaming luck, the more likely it is that you don’t (yet!) understand the format you’re complaining about.

I think we should all be highly suspicious whenever we catch ourselves calling something “luck-based” or “random.” Is it really? Or have we not yet figured out how to best buffer ourselves against that format’s specific take on the randomness that is present in every variation of Magic?

Luck, planning, and you

So my take home is this:

Planning is a universal Magic strength; it’s just the timeframe that changes.

Randomness is a universal Magic issue; it’s how we deal with it that changes.

If we can keep these universals in mind and ask, “How can I apply my knowledge of planning and change to this format in this timeframe?” I think we can start enjoying – and thus, doing better in – every format of Magic.

You’ve seen the highs and lows summarized above. What do you take home from it? Have you found a unique way to apply your love of one format to better your skills in another?

magic (at) alexandershearer.com
parakkum on twitter

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