You’re not playing enough Limited.
“When Holiday drew a land for his turn, he had the window he needed to try and go off. He played his Island, tapped it for a blue, and then killed it with his own [card]Ghost Quarter[/card]. The Island he put into play gave him the second blue mana he needed to cast [card]Reshape[/card] for zero, sacrificing his [card]Chromatic Star[/card] and drawing a card and fetching out a [card]Lotus Bloom[/card].
With the Bloom in play, a [card]Second Sunrise[/card] in hand, and a few cards that had already gone to the graveyard this turn, Holiday was able to begin going through the motions. He sacrificed the Bloom for white mana to play Second Sunrise, returning the following cards to play”
“Monsalve and Arvigo both spent their early turns setting up for their middle and late game. Monsalve with a [card]Grisly Salvage[/card] to load up his graveyard, Arvigo with a [card]Farseek[/card] to fix his mana perfectly.
Again, the players spent the early turns setting up, Monsalve with [card]Grisly Salvage[/card] and [card]Lotleth Troll[/card]s—plural—and Arvigo with lands and a [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card].”
While it may be true that I am slightly bending the context of the above two scenarios from the Grand Prix circuit this year, they both do a good job of showcasing Constructed Magic. Basically, in Constructed Magic, you have a pre-determined plan and you try to execute it.
Think about your prep for a Constructed tournament. You go through a gauntlet, playing matchups against established decks. You learn and note what cards matter, what cards to board out, to board in, to counter, to [card]Duress[/card]. The entire matchup is broken down days before you ever sit across from a real opponent. Then, when it comes time to play that game, you try to match the plan you built as closely as possible.
Honestly, Constructed is about memorization. You learn the matchups, you learn the quirky plays and interactions, and you learn the sideboarding strategies. The tournament is mostly a test to see how well you then remember what you learned. Sure, play obviously occurs and you can win or lose a game based on technical skill, but disparities there can be hard to find in the day of the internet. Every player has access to the writings of Gerry Thompson or PV, and because Constructed allows it, you get to mimic their choices, even if you can’t mimic their play, and still get most of the way toward mastery of an individual deck.
What about Limited? Ever read an article about the proper ways to stack your triggers in order to win the Bant versus Golgari matchup in Sealed? I thought not. Limited has archetypes, of course, but the nature of the format inherently introduces variance in each archetype, never allowing you to play the same list twice (most likely). You have no strict sideboarding guide and you definitely do not know your percentage chance to win the match based on your opponent’s first land drop. Limited is about exploration, variation, and interpretation. Rather than learning micro habits, such as which land to play first, which 3-drop is good in which matchup, and sideboarding guides, you learn broader, general concepts, and you try to use those to shape your pool of cards to the best of your ability.
Neither Constructed nor Limited is necessarily superior to the other, but they are different. The methodology for preparing for a Constructed tournament is about learning and regurgitating information, while Limited manages to capture more of the essence of tabletop Magic from years past. In order to perform well, it is necessary to learn Constructed, but we should not forget that element of Limited Magic that has become so overlooked in Constructed.
Learning and reciting is not bad, but it is predictable. If you sit across from a midrange green deck in Standard, you can probably anticipate a turn 5 [card]Thragtusk[/card]. And when they pass the turn with a convenient 4 mana available, a [card]Restoration Angel[/card] is sure to follow. But what if you were sitting across from a [card]Hellkite Tyrant[/card] deck? What is his turn 5 going to look like? What does him passing with 4 mana open mean?
All of a sudden, once a new element is introduced, the typical Constructed player has to now play Limited. Is it actually Limited? No, but a similar set of skills is required. All of the number crunching and rote repetition before this point matters so much less. The player is still going to need to know how to pilot their own deck, but the interactions are largely new.
This is the reason I find going rogue so valuable. You essentially get to take all the staples of Constructed Magic and render them much less effective. You introduce an unexpected variable to an equation that your opponent thinks is already solved. No longer can the opponent check out a sheet of paper and sideboard properly. No longer can a player run out his 4-drop worry free, because he knows you have no countermagic in your deck. No longer can that reanimate player count on [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] to answer your graveyard hate because, who knows what hate you are packing?!
Pick Up 40
Have you ever heard a player tell you that they are not good at Limited, but are good at Constructed? That is purely a product of the way Magic has evolved and what is rewarded in Constructed. You have to have 2 different subsets of skills in order to play both formats competitively. There is some overlap of course, so the spectrum ends up looking like this:
At the base of everything, and certainly more important than any distinction I am identifying here, technical playskill is most important. Without the ability to play well, the rest is moot. Before you ever begin focusing on one of these areas or anything else, such as mind tricks, or bluffing, make sure you understand strong, fundamental Magic first and foremost.
But then, once that happens, you have a decision to make, or at least a trap to walk into. You can branch off into the world of Limited, or you can take the more common route and start learning Constructed. Now, most Magic players end up doing both of these things to be fair, but there is some number of players who will forever remain one or the other. The trap though, is that regardless of whether you want to be a Limited player or a Constructed player, you should learn how to play Limited.
I am sure you have heard the expression/fact that not all rectangles are squares, but all squares are rectangles. A similar thing is true of Magic. All Limited skills will help you improve your Constructed play, but not all Constructed skills will help your Limited play. Even the things that you think define Limited, like combat tricks and board stalls, do come up in Constructed. Knowing how to maneuver around them can be invaluable. But when is the last time you needed to know a sideboarding scheme for 2 specific Limited decks? Or the last time you needed to know the timestamping on [card]Mutavault[/card] being [card]Peppersmoke[/card]d? The skills needed for Constructed are much more scenario specific and rely less on feel or intuition.
By learning Limited, Constructed almost feels like an extension of the format. Now, you get to apply all of the lessons you learned from Limited on top of the knowledge of specific matchups, proper sideboard strategy, and quirky interactions. All of those things end up being built on the foundation that you developed learning to play the game in its most basic form.
Some amount of the time, your Constructed tournaments will go down exactly as you expect them to. You face 20% Valakut, 15% Mono-Green, 40% Cawblade, 15% Vampires, and then 10% of the field is random. You board in the cards you planned on, play around the cards you know about, and answer the cards you were told to. Other times, you do that for a round, and then run into Mono-Black Control, or some weird [card]Heartless Summoning[/card] deck.
Now, at this point, I am sure most of you think back to times you have played those decks, and you go, well yea, I play against [card]Heartless Summoning[/card], have no sideboard plan against it, but I crush it soundly anyway because it is obviously a bad deck. And, to be fair, that is often true—but what happens when the person is actually good and their deck is actually good. Do you just concede a huge edge because, “You’re a Constructed player?”
Remember, that player gets to use all of that Constructed knowledge against you. They have been playing against your deck for weeks. They have a sideboard plan, they know what to kill and what to ignore, and they know roughly how many counterspells you are running. Meanwhile, you know basically nothing about them. You can start running through the rumors you may have heard over the past 3 months about Heartless Summoning being fringe, but outside of that, good luck!
Will playing Limited teach you about the confines of their deck or silently hand you the sideboarding schemes under the table between games? Of course not, but that is not to say it is not helpful. Limited teaches you the tools to adapt to these situations. You begin asking the same questions that you would in a Limited match to determine you positioning, rather than taking it as a given.
You are able to ask yourself questions that provide meaningful insight. Even just asking yourself why your opponent is doing something that is otherwise inexplicable, and then being forced to piece together multiple cards or plays to arrive at a conclusion is invaluable.
This kind of thinking occurs all the time in Limited. He made this attack with a 2/2 into a 3/3, but then didn’t block the 3/3 with his 1/1, why? Well, he likely has a +2/+2 pump spell in hand. Obviously that is a gross oversimplification, but it illustrates the point. A pure Constructed player might resort to remembering what spells they have seen in said deck/archetype in the past and when they come back with no answers, maybe they block.
Of course, I don’t want anyone to take my advice too far. Playing Limited is not a prerequisite for playing Constructed, and a Constructed-only player could develop the same skills you do in Limited. However, it is much more realistic, reasonable, fun, and all-encompassing to learn these things from Limited. A well-rounded game is an enormous advantage.
It is not just reactionary skills that can be developed in this way either. For example, the art of the bluff comes up much more often in Limited, and learning that skill could be the difference between a win and a loss. Handling complex combat math, learning how to proactively break a board stall, or how to turn a removal spell into a 2-for-1 are all common things you learn in Limited that are rare in Constructed. It is certainly up to every individual player to decide what is best for them, but if you are in this boat, might I suggest picking up 40 cards from time to time! Thanks for reading!