Last weekend I traveled to Phoenix to attend the ChannelFireball Limited Grand Prix. I always have a blast at Limited tournaments and this one was both fun and memorable.

I put in a lot of preparation for the event on MTGO, and was surprised and disappointed that my result at the event was fairly average. I practiced hard and knew a lot about the Sealed and Draft formats, but struggled throughout the tournament.

What does it take to level up those Limited skill sets?

1. Everyone Overestimates Their Limited Skills

Limited formats go exceptionally deep and there is a lot to know and learn.

No matter how much or how little you think you know about a Limited format, assume that your assessment of your skills is overrated.

I don’t mean to say that you or I are not good at Limited. The key is that no matter how good a person is at a Limited format, there is always so much more that can be learned and gained as long as they stay committed to keeping their eyes and ears open, and search for better information.

The key is that when you are drafting or building a Sealed pool, there are so many possibilities and decisions, and what you are looking for in order to build success is to make as many good decisions as possible.

I’m trying to move away from “correct” and “incorrect” in my Magic perspective. It’s rare that any complicated decision is 100% right or wrong. Typically, there is upside and downside to any play predicated on incomplete information.

Approaching these formats from this perspective is important because it puts you in a frame of mind that forces you to compare upside and downside, and make a choice based on the information that you have.

If you assume “right” and “wrong,” it is predicated on the assumption that you know everything there is to know, which probably isn’t true. Whereas if you assume shades of gray where picks have upside and downside, you can really challenge yourself to constantly reassess what you know and why you believe it.

2. Compare Your Assessments to Those of Others

For GP Phoenix, I roomed with D.J. Kastner and Adam Yurchick, who are both great Limited players who also were prepping for the tournament. We did a ton of Drafts over the course of the past week and our experiences reinforced the fact that everybody overestimates their faith in what they know.

It was telling that when we sat down to draft, we commonly did not agree on the pick.

It wasn’t that any one of us was “better” and always had the correct pick in mind. But on difficult picks, there was always upside and downside based on imperfect information. Often, one pick would end up being better or worse simply because of which cards came down the pipeline.

“Card A and card B feel similar in power level—ultimately, the pick that will payoff higher will hinge on what color ends up being more open as the Draft progresses…”

How do we make picks where the payoff will ultimately be made based on unknown information?

There are a lot of variables in play:

  • How powerful is the card in a general sense?
  • How important is the card in the archetype we would be looking to draft if we take it?
  • How likely does the fact that we are being passed these cards make it that the drafters ahead of us are or aren’t in those colors (or tribe)?
  • How flexible does the pick allow us to be if we are forced to consider other options?
  • How curve conscious is the pick and what are the advantages of taking a cheaper card over a more powerful but expensive card?

The key here is that a person can formulate more and more questions to ask about which card is most likely to have the greatest upside if they take it.

Talking about Limited is a great way to add depth to your understanding of how the format works and what is important. When you play, the conclusions that you draw about which cards are ultimately “better” or “worse” than others will come from your experience.

If you have success with a good deck, it is likely that you’ll look to replicate that success by making similar decisions that led you to that deck in the first place. But if you go into every Draft looking to force the same deck over and over again, you won’t be maximizing your chances for success. What if the deck you are prioritizing simply isn’t open and you are trying to force it? Your deck will stink.

Each pick, starting with the first pick, is a choice between multiple options based upon unknown information.

I discovered while drafting with two other skilled players that much of the reason that we each wanted to make different picks was based on each players’ assessments of which cards or archetypes we preferred.

For instance, I’ve had a ton of success drafting green Merfolk decks and so I was more interested in moving in on green than the others. Once we started really talking through the picks and bringing all of those insights to the table, it became clear that some picks did have slightly greater upside than others when we considered all of the factors.

3. Know What the Format Looks Like

When you go deep on a Limited format, it is possible to paint a picture of what the format actually looks like. Limited formats have metagames, the same as Constructed.

The current Limited metagame consists of several plausible decks:

  • U/B, R/B, and U/R Pirates
  • G/R, G/W, and R/W Dinos
  • B/W Vampires
  • U/G Merfolk

As well as hybrids of these archetypes across colors. These are sort of the default “best decks” in Ixalan Limited. It is also worth noting that there are more “archetypes” than there are drafters at the table, which means that if you can find one that is open and coming to you that you’ll have a great chance of having a strong deck.

Knowing the format can also rule out a lot of picks. For instance, U/W and G/B don’t have any shared tribes, which makes these combinations less synergistic than others. While it is possible to get a strong (but less synergy based) deck if those colors are wildly open, it is useful to make picks that put you into stronger archetypes rather than weaker ones if given the chance.

Aside from archetypes, you also need to consider the nuances that make a format unique. What defines the format?

Ixalan is a unique Limited format in a lot of ways. The format tends to be aggressive and board presence is important.

Ixalan also has a few defining characteristics that you can use to shape your assessments of cards.

First off, the removal in Ixalan is poor. Nearly all of the removal spells suffer from one of the following flaws: The removal is conditional (it either kills only big or small creatures), or the removal is really expensive. Removal is conditional, expensive, and there isn’t a ton of it.

The lack of quality, efficient removal lets Auras play an important role in the format. When racing and board presence are important and the removal doesn’t punish a player too hard for suiting up and bashing, that adds a dimension to consider.

These cards are very good in Ixalan Limited because the types of cards that specifically punish these strategies are more scarce than they would be in other formats.

While it is true that Contract Killing or bounce spells interact favorably against enchanted creatures, it is also true that these expensive less conditional answers are quite bad against low-to-the ground aggressive decks that quickly swarm and pressure.

It’s clear that the format has a sort of rock, scissors, paper metagame that revolves around aggressive decks and racing. How you position yourself is important because you want to be as effective as possible against the other expected decks in the format and you don’t want to leave yourself exposed to getting run off the board by any particular kind of draw.

Keep these fundamental elements of the format in mind when choosing between various cards. How does this pick position my deck in the expected Limited metagame? How favorably does this pick enable my strategy or hedge against a potential weakness?

4. Every Pick Has Multiple Considerations

Sometimes life is simple. You first pick some outrageously great rare and then you’re passed a pack in which the best card shares a color, and you’re off to the races…

These Drafts are uncommon and delightful. Everything is coming up Milhouse!

More often than not, you’ll be choosing a first pick between two different but similarly powered cards.

If you open a pack where there are three similarly powerful cards—one is black and the other two are green—perhaps the tie-breaker could be that by shipping the two green cards and taking the black card that you’ll be more likely to put the people to your left into green rather than black.

It is also perfectly possible that after doing such a maneuver, you won’t see good black and get shipped the nut green. Just because you see the line doesn’t mean that you’ll get paid off for taking it. But that also doesn’t make doing it wrong. If you honestly believe that two cards are relatively even in the abstract, it makes a lot of sense to use what you are passing as a tie-breaker.

Additionally, it is important not to overestimate these kinds of variables. If the best card in the pack is green and there is another good green card and a good black card, I’d snap off the better green card and not worry what I’m passing as much. I mean, I’d be worried, but I wouldn’t sacrifice picking a stronger card in order to not pass an on-color card.

5. Pick Order Is Important, but it’s Not Everything

It is important to have a strong understanding of which cards are the “best” cards in the format.

What makes a card the “best” card? It’s complicated, but it all comes back to the choices and variables that I discussed earlier. How much mana does the card cost? How flexible is the pick? How many archetypes does the card go into? How easy or difficult is the card to answer?

There are a zillion factors you can consider. But at the end of the day, players will determine for themselves which cards they think are “better” picks than others.

For instance, Pirate’s Cutlass is a really important card in the format.

The Cutlass’s stock has continued to rise as the format has gone on. It functions like a recurring Aura in a format where Auras are good. It generates a ton of board presence in Pirate decks but it is also unbelievable when equipped to 1/1 lifelink Vampires.

The card is inherently strong based upon the perameters of what is important in Ixalan Limited and its applications become multifold the deeper you get into the metagame.

The more you play, the more you learn. And the more you understand the format and the metagame the more you can refine those pick orders to make increasingly solid choices between close picks.

Understanding a Limited format, whether it is Ixalan, Cube, or some format we haven’t even seen yet, is all about refining information in order to make better and better picks each and every time.

You can achieve this through practice and by expanding your horizons when it comes to learning new aspects of a format. The more you play, the more you learn. Never assume that you’ve got it all figured out because there is always another level out there.

Limited is never solved. The key is to always be learning how to assess these variables in order to make consistently higher payoff picks as you move through the Draft. Good Limited play rewards making smart, heads-up decisions over and over again.