Magic is an extremely complex game, and since a new set comes out every three months, it’s impossible to solve. Today, I’ll give you a comprehensive look into at how I analyze each new Limited format.
No one will ever get everything right. I can’t teach you how to do that, because I don’t know how to do that myself. What I can teach you are some of the methods I use to analyze each Limited format so that you can apply good thought processes and do your own analysis of each Limited format, and hopefully start to develop your own understanding of it.
You can and should still come here to ChannelFireball and get expert opinions. But being able to analyze things for yourself will give you skills far beyond just learning what you can from expert content, and besides—the most fun you can have in all of Magic is figuring out how a new Limited format is going to play and trying to analyze how good each card, type of card, and whole decks are going to perform.
Limited mostly revolves around the commons, though the uncommons, rares, and mythics will often be so much better than the commons that they frequently decide the outcome of a game. But those cards simply don’t show up enough to affect how much flying is worth, or whether 3/3s, 2/4s, or 4/2s are best in this format. These are the first concepts I try to understand.
One of the biggest pitfalls for many players is trying to figure out whether G/B Saprolings or U/R Wizards is the best archetype. It’s fun to debate. But this isn’t a game in which if you figure out what’s best and do it you’ll win and if not you lose. Magic is a game of small, value-based decisions that are then combined with random boosters, and then drawing cards at random.
You are trying to give yourself the highest chance to win, so you work to make the decision that produces the most positive value. That can be a choice in the middle of a game. Or which card to take from a booster pack during a Draft, or to select for your main deck in a Sealed tournament.
I believe step 1 to being able to take the best cards is not knowing which archetype is slightly better than another. Draft finds a natural balance most of the time, where the best colors will be drafted by the most people. Step 1 is developing your understanding of how valuable the individual cards are. How effective are small ground creatures? Big ground creatures? Flyers? Which power and toughness combinations will overperform and underperform in this given format?
The answers to these questions are driven by the way the cards interact with each other game after game. As a result, the commons will have the largest impact. They show up more often than uncommons; uncommons will have a larger impact than rares; and so on.
Okay, so you are looking at the commons and to a lesser extent the uncommons. Now, what are you looking for? I start with the mechanics. Mechanics printed on commons and cycles of commons can shape the format. For example, cycling helps decks looking to play longer games more than it helps aggressive decks. Aggressive decks play fewer lands and are less scared of missing a land drop. Therefore, they aren’t looking to spend 2 mana to cycle on one of the early turns instead of adding to the board.
This doesn’t mean that cycling cards aren’t good in aggressive decks. That depends on the card. If they printed the card 1R 2/2 cycle for R, that would be a good card for an aggressive deck. They could cycle it looking for a second or third land out of a land-light draw, and play it on turns 2 or 3 if they are trying to add to the board and attack.
Now imagine that you are playing a more controlling deck. If your opponent plays a 2- or 3-drop, you can trade so you don’t fall behind. And if they don’t have a 2-drop, you can cycle it to help hit land drops.
I chose this design for my example here because a 2-mana 2/2 is a card aggressive decks often want, one control decks would consider filler, or a sideboard card against aggressive decks. It may still be better in aggressive decks than control decks, but it is less better than a 2-mana 2/2 without cycling would be.
In Dominaria we saw kicker accomplish something similar. Control decks are better able to use kicker cards for either effect because they make more land drops and play more expensive cards. If you played Shivan Fire in a 15-land aggro deck, it’s still going to be a good card, but you aren’t going to be able to kill 3- and 4-toughness creatures with it all that often.
Play it in an 18-land control deck, and you can just wait until you play land 5 and kill a bigger creature with it whenever you draw other cheap cards. Have a hand with more late-game cards but no early game? You can use it to kill an early attacker so that you don’t fall behind and can get to your late game.
Shivan Fire is a good card in any type of Draft deck. But adding expensive kickers to cards benefits late-game strategies more than aggressive ones. I chose those examples because they don’t say anything about attacking or blocking. Some mechanics are more obvious than others, like bloodthirst and afflict.
Convoke, however, is less obvious. Aggressive decks can more profitably play small creatures, and can afford to tap them to cast more powerful spells instead of attacking for one turn. Decks with slower, more late-game strategies will have fewer cheap creatures in their deck and won’t be able to afford to tap them instead of using them to block against aggressive strategies. Remember that this isn’t all or nothing. An aggressive strategy may be the best in a format for cycling, or a controlling one best for convoke. It will always come down to the individual cards. This is just a look into how I attempt to figure out how good each card will be in a specific format.
The next thing I look at is the common removal. This will often be the biggest factor guiding how good the creatures are. But no one thing will determine everything—not even close. How well the creatures match up with each other is also important. But certain types of creatures will over- and under-perform based on exactly what removal is around.
In Dominaria, virtually all creatures without an enters- or leaves-the-battlefield ability were largely ineffective. Cards that look good on stats, like Baloth Gorger, were filler. By the end of the format, I was confident that Cloudreader Sphinx was better than Serra Angel. That would not be true in most Limited formats, but Dominaria had the best common removal I have ever seen.
Now, it’s rare that even creatures with great stats will be only okay. In a set with average quality removal, you will need to look at the specific removal spells and see how the common creatures line up against them.
Let’s look at Core Set 2019’s removal, which looks to be a little above average, but nothing like Dominaria. At common, red has Shock and Electrify and black has Strangling Spores and Lich’s Caress. That tells me that small creatures and specifically good 3- and 5-toughness creatures will likely be the most effective.
Three of the four common removal spells cost 4+ mana. That means that any time they are killing a 2- or 3-drop, they are trading down. Shock efficiently kills a 2-toughness creature, but it’s only one card. In Dominaria, Shivan Fire (a much better Shock), Vicious Offering, and Fungal Infection could all do that while trading even or up. A 3-mana creature with 3 toughness in M19 basically can’t trade down with a removal spell since it will take at minimum a 4-mana removal spell to kill it.
4-toughness creatures will likely underperform the most. They basically trade with all three expensive removal spells (Spores can shrink them when they block or are blocked). Only Lich’s Caress can take out a 5+ toughness creature, so unlike in Dominaria (where Fiery Intervention, Vicious Offering, and Eviscerate could do that), I would expect cards like Thornhide Wolves and Colossal Dreadmaw to do just fine in M19. White, blue, and green have their one staple “not too situational” removal that they normally get.
Looking at the removal only tells half the story of the way the commons interact with each other, though. Creatures also must attack and block. In Dominaria, big creatures were ineffective because of the quality of the big removal, yes, but it wasn’t Shivan Fire, Fungal Infection, and Vicious Offering that primarily rendered small aggressive creatures ineffective. Those cards are good against small creatures, and piled on to making them even worse, but they were not the primary factor—they were more like the nail in the coffin.
If one player plays a 2-mana 2/2 and another plays a 2-mana 1/3, that is about an even exchange, and the player playing the 2-mana 2/2 will have an advantage. Both creatures will be roughly equally bad in the late game, but in the early game the 2-mana 2/2 has the potential to do more damage. If one player plays a 2-mana 2/2 and one player plays a 2-mana 1/3 with kicker 4 to make the opponent discard two cards or to get a removal spell back from the graveyard, or even just a useful 1/3 blocker like Vodalian Arcanist (providing 2 mana over the course of a game while stopping the opponent’s 2/2 is an advantage), then the player playing the 1/3 has a massive advantage because their card is a good defensive card early and a relevant card late. The 2-mana 2/2 is a good aggressive card early and an irrelevant card late.
Sometimes we see 2-mana 2/2s and defensive early creatures that don’t have good abilities in the late game. In that case, aggression has the advantage. The better the defensive creature, the bigger the advantage late game decks will have, and the worse small aggressive decks will perform in the format.
This can also be true of specific power and toughness combinations. In M19 there are six common creatures that punish 1-toughness creatures while being at least serviceable Limited cards in multiple stages of the game or providing value through synergy. Every color has one. They are Pegasus Courser, Omenspeaker, Doomed Dissenter, Goblin Instigator, Druid of the Cowl, and Skyscanner. Four of those cost 2 mana and are ground creatures without reach. What this tells me is that small ground attacks will likely not be very effective on their own in M19. I think the designers of the set realized this. That’s why they gave us Inspired Charge, Marauder’s Axe, Pegasus Courser, Star-Crowned Stag, playable Auras, and good pump spells like Titanic Growth, and Sure Strike.
I take that information and look at how it will affect the common keyworded creature abilities like first strike, flying, vigilance, and haste, and if the mechanics are combat oriented, then how it affects those creatures as well. The worse small ground attackers are and better big ground creatures are, the better flying will be. If 2-mana 2/2 ground creatures are effective, then 3-mana 2/2 flyers will be less important, because they generally lose the race to ground creatures of the same size. But if big ground creatures are effective and small ground creatures are not, then flyers will have the advantage since they win the race against slow, big, ground creatures.
The less toughness the playable creatures in the format have, the more effective first strike will be. The more and better the instant removal and good vigilance creatures there are, the less effective haste will be.
It can be even more pronounced when there is a new key mechanic on a lot of playable commons that affect combat. If a mechanic like morbid is on a bunch of playable commons, then trading becomes very bad. This means that defensive decks will have to have high-toughness, low-power creatures because they can’t play the same size creatures the aggressive player is playing and trade to keep their life total high or they will activate all of their opponent’s morbid bonuses. Bloodthirst, on the other hand, makes it so you must block when your opponent attacks you, so that means trading 2/2s is good but taking a single hit can be problematic. This is obviously an advantage for aggression, but also more specifically it means that if you want to play a late-game deck, you must have a lot of cheap creatures and removal to play in the early game. Mechanics don’t just dictate advantages for late-game strategies versus aggression, they can also greatly influence how effective different casting cost cards and different sized creatures are.
Now you want to put it all together. This information doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t play a card with as good of stats as Baloth Gorger in Dominaria. Or not to play a 2-mana 2/1 or 2/2 in M19. It just plays a substantial role in influencing their value.
The trickiest part in solving all of this is that it’s somewhat circular. The cards all influence each other at the same time, so you must compute it all at once. There isn’t an order you can follow like 1) lots of first strike so low toughness will be ineffective, then 2) low toughness cards are ineffective, so aggression is better. Those are both true statements, but they work simultaneously.
There is also no end all be all. A 2-mana 4/4 would be a very good card in Dominaria, which I believe is the most punishing Limited format for small aggressive creatures of all time. But a 2-mana 4/4 would be much more effective in Zendikar, which I believe was the format where small aggressive creatures best performed.
When you use this method of evaluation, it isn’t “on” or “off” based on the reasoning. The reasoning allows you to adjust the card accordingly after you consider how good it would be on average. That’s the baseline. Then you can move the needle using this reasoning. The downside is that it’s extremely complex. The upside is that it’s a value judgement, so if you can use the reasoning properly, then you don’t have to get things exactly right to derive positive value.
It’s also a lot of fun. Imagine if we had to play with the same set forever. Eventually, everyone would figure out exactly how good each card was. But having only three months before a Limited format changes means that no one ever figures out exactly how good everything is (including me). So don’t be scared to analyze and make mistakes. Just enjoy the process and enjoy the best way to play the best game ever created.