Approaching Limited PTQs

Glenn Jones tells you what he learned about Theros/Born of the Gods Limited at a Pro Tour Qualifier this past weekend on his way to making the Top 4.

I’ve been seriously lacking opportunities to play Magic recently.

Sure, I had a shot during Standard PTQ season, but I really hate playing the current Standard format. I’m not going to stand up here and say ridiculous things about its skill level or variance or anything like that because those are mostly excuses or rationalizations for results rather than factual statements. Frankly, this Standard format is basically akin to coin collecting in my book—I get that there are people who enjoy it, but I’m not one of them and don’t really understand their perspective.

I’d simply rather do other things with my time.

Of course, I’ve been growing more interested in Eternal formats, but Modern PTQ season is a ways off, while local events haven’t quite taken off yet. Fortunately, the West Coast is a solid area for Legacy events, but I spent the past couple weekends helping out SCGLive rather than battling in Legacy Opens. Enjoyable, yes, but I did miss the bloodshed. However, I’m happy to have helped train and introduce Andrew Shrout to SCGLive’s fans, and I’m confident everyone will enjoy his work on coverage and Above The Curve for some time to come!

Anyway, to say that I was looking forward to Limited PTQ season would be an understatement. It’s weird—I don’t like Theros/Born of the Gods Limited much at all actually. I think a few commons are balanced a bit off, and the nature of the format revolves so heavily around initiative in combat that many of the games wind up being one-sided affairs that aren’t especially interesting. I’m not saying all of the games work out this way—in fact, it’s a relative minority—but just putting together a reasonable ratio of lands and spells is hard enough, you know? I don’t need to get my teeth kicked in by Wingsteed Rider every seven games or so too!

But I digress.

Regardless of my personal feelings on Theros/Born of the Gods as a Limited format, I love Limited—period. It’s a fantastic format for developing players because it tests virtually every skill a Magician needs. Don’t believe me? Let’s run through a quick list of the obvious:

  • Deckbuilding
  • Mulliganing
  • Technical Skill
  • Card Evaluation
  • Metagaming
  • Sideboarding
  • Attrition
  • Tempo
  • "Rogue" Strategy

There are likely many more, but the odds are that no one reading this article—and certainly no one writing it—has reached the peak of their game in all or likely even any of these elements. Just playing competitive Limited events seriously will sharpen all of these skills—that much I guarantee. Any good gamer should love a power-leveling session, and that’s how I approach virtually every Limited event I play in: a complex learning experience spread across the acts of deckbuilding and playing my matches. In this way, I manage to enjoy the vast majority of my Limited events regardless of what I open or how the event actually goes. In fact, I often play Limited events to completion regardless of my record because it’s rare that there’s nothing left to learn!

While one could say the same for Constructed, I prefer to stew in my own hypocrisy. Plus 40 cards is more fun!

This past weekend I made the trek to Costa Mesa for my first Theros/Born of the Gods Limited PTQ of the season. I wanted to write about the event regardless of my finish because I find Limited so fascinating, but as luck (and perhaps the occasional good decision) would have it, I managed to make it into the Top 8. This result is obviously nothing remarkable—I only mention it because it means we also get to talk a little bit about Draft!


I’ll start by showing you my pool. I had to rebuild this from memory because I lost the copy of the sheet that I made, but it should be correct within a handful of cards. To be honest, the pool didn’t really present a lot of options in my opinion.

The first thing I noticed upon laying out all the cards was the double Bolt of Keranos and the two copies of Kragama Butcher, with Lightning Strike and Magma Jet as well. These are all fantastic cards and made red my starting color. Red pairs well with green in Sealed, combining sizable bodies with some excellent removal and tricks, but my green felt pretty shallow. Hunter’s Prowess and Nemesis of Mortals are both awesome cards, but the rest of green just seemed pretty middling. Red and white tend to rely heavily on the heroic subtheme, and I lacked the spells and most of the creatures in white to make that work. With next to no evasion and relatively few quality bodies, white didn’t look great either.

Obviously, my black was quite bad period—there’s virtually no reason to play the color here.

This put me in an odd spot because the remaining color was blue. Now, blue is a fine color in the format, but it tends to pair worst with red! The colors don’t overlap on any particular synergy, with heroic, inspire, and bestow all really getting more play in other color combinations. What blue did have going for it was a density of quality spells to match my red. In fact, across the two colors I had more strong playables than any deck would require, which is about as rich as you can get in Sealed.

I wound up registering this deck, which was certainly wrong, with the timer counting down.

What I Got Wrong

Playing 41 cards

I knew I never wanted to miss a land drop before turn 5, and my mana was also a bit shaky—with 1RR wanted on turn 3 or 4 often but 1U necessary for my only two-drops and 3UU necessary for all of my fives, it would be difficult to keep hands that lacked one of my primary colors unless I skewed the mana strangely. I had access to a ton of scry—between Bolts, Storms, the Jet, and Thassa, I could avoid a lot of land gluts. All of these factors told me to run more than seventeen lands, using the additional land to cheat up a colored source without shorting my secondary color.

Unfortunately, I had a problem. My deck was relatively creature light, and all of my spells were very good. Cutting a creature was unacceptable, and cutting Fearsome Temper for a land didn’t sound right to me—the Temper was a card I knew I’d want to be able to open on with either of my two-drops that would also have a lot of power in the late game when I had plenty of mana.

In the end, I decided that I’d rather hedge and keep all of those spells in my deck while boosting my lands with the 41st card. I skewed toward red because having a turn 3 Bolt could be game breaking and I felt like the deck would be able to do decent work on just one Island in most situations.

Not Maindecking Stormcaller

This was straight-up stupid and a product of having never played with or against Stormcaller of Keranos. The reason I left it on the sidelines was because my deck had access to so many three-drops and all of them could attack at a profit into opposing 2/3s. Even a vanilla 2/2 is freerolling damage because my opponent has to fear a trick when I attack! I figured I’d board the Stormcaller in against slower decks.

Boy was I wrong! I vastly underestimated how many stalled situations I’d get into, and while my deck had lots of ways to break through in these spots, Stormcaller would’ve been a much better card to draw than almost anything in those situations. On the play it was often a very legitimate early source of damage.

After boarding Stormcaller in for game 2 of round 1, I boarded it in every single round afterward and can’t recall losing a game in which I cast it. The card was incredible.

Trying To Make Thassa Work

My deck was very good at forcing in damage and creating favorable combat situations because I could threaten Sudden Storm or Sea God’s Revenge against conservative opponents that left back multiple blockers or gain a huge lead when racing players only left back one thanks to the plethora of removal and bounce. I simply didn’t need Thassa, God of the Sea’s unblockability, and turning her on as a creature required me to have at least one game-winning five-drop in play most of the time.

It’s rare that this would be the case, especially in Sealed—you get frequent board stalls in the format, and improving every draw for the rest of the game is no small gain. However, I think my evaluation of Stormcaller actually fit Thassa perfectly. She was great against slower opponents who were trying to attrition me out but horrible against anyone racing and not relevant enough against most control decks.

Also, my commitment to Thassa caused me to include a pretty mediocre creature (and five-drop no less). The correct build for this deck is likely -1 Sphinx’s Disciple, -1 Thassa, God of the Sea, +1 Stormcaller of Keranos. I wouldn’t call you crazy if you made an argument to cut something for Retraction Helix, but I felt Helix was a weaker version of many of my spells and that it would make it more difficult to set up safe attacks. Helix is a great card so it felt very weird to not play it, but double Sudden Storm kind of changes the math on how you evaluate ever working to keep back non-summoning sick creatures. For me, it came down to Fearsome Temper versus Retraction Helix, and I liked having access to Temper more.

What I Got Right

The Colors

I stand by U/R being "bad" by typical standards, but my logic held strong. My spells were so good and t sheer number of scrys so plentiful that I could often take games to the later turns with a slight edge on damage and put opponents away before they peeled out or bolstered their defenses. My sole match loss came to an early Spear of Heliod followed by a mulligan to five with no second land in sight. That player went undefeated, but I came incredibly close to squeaking it out against that Spear, with running draw steps making the difference.

Limited formats tend to prove your decisions one way or another. If I’d had Stormcaller of Keranos and not Sphinx’s Disciple in the maindeck, I likely would have taken that game instead of giving it up for example.

The Mana . . . Sort Of?

I was right about wanting another Mountain to ensure early drops and Bolts while leaning on scry to keep the spells flowing. Three of my other game losses came when a third or fourth land took far too long to materialize, and the games where I remained stuck on three were often quite close!

Of course, by running 41 I directly contributed toward those mana situations. In hindsight, I think eighteen lands and the minimum deck size was better than the other options, but only because of my strong scry cards. If I’d had a couple less cards with that particular effect, I’d probably have wound up taking my chances on seventeen.

Choosing To Play

Sealed often winds up generating some significant debate on this issue, but in my case the answer was a hundred percent to play. My deck was built as a tempo strategy, and opening on a three-drop and then using Bolt of Keranos to kill their three-drop is a much stronger start than simply Bolting their guy and returning the board to parity as I pass the turn. Simple lesson, but it’s there.

Fearsome Temper

I mentioned that I opted for this card over Retraction Helix, and I was frequently very happy with that decision. Because of how efficient this deck could be at getting in early damage, moving all in on an effect like this was very useful—I only had one game come up where I regretted the decision, and I might’ve lost with either card anyway.

Interestingly, if I’d opened Nimbus Naiad or Flitterstep Eidolon, I wouldn’t have felt the need to include Temper, but some sort of way to "surprise" someone with a two-turn clock is very effective and especially useful when you can scry your way to it in games in which the opponent is beginning to stabilize and build their own offense.

The Playing Of Magic

I’m not going to play-by-play you here because that’s not very helpful to anyone. Instead, I’m going to discuss how I approached each match. In general, I was happy with my technical play and only really made two bonehead blunders over the course of the day, although there were several interesting tactical positions.


First off, I lost the die roll in all but one round, which affected my mulligan decisions significantly. On the draw, hands with two-drop removal spells become must keeps, and hands without three-drops are snap mulligans barring some incredible strength. I mulliganed aggressively in these situations because my deck wasn’t equipped to come back from distinct disadvantages—I needed to stay on even footing or get ahead over the first four turns to have any shot in the late game.

Be Proactive, Not Reactive

If you examine the deck, you’ll realize I’m a little low on bona fide haymakers and have very few creatures with true evasion—that’s why enablers like Fearsome Temper and Thassa, God of the Sea are valuable against opponents with strong defenses, primarily green and black decks. If my opponent had creatures, I’d need to either kill them, neutralize them, or dupe my opponent into attacking with them. Frequently I’d be able to enter a "bad" race that suddenly turned in my favor on the back of a timely Sudden Storm in game 1, but the same trick would rarely work as well in the following games.

I’ve talked a lot about tempo and racing in previous paragraphs—that’s because Theros/Born of the Gods heavily emphasizes the field of battle. It’s frequently very difficult to come back from behind in a game because these two sets are chock full of spells that allow you to race more proactively. Think about it—even excellent "reversal" spells like Savage Surge, Sudden Storm, or Sea God’s Revenge are actually at their most powerful when you’re winning! This drives a heavy incentive toward focusing on proactive combat, and it’s one of the reasons I dislike black—it has too many creatures focused on defense that often can’t generate effective attacks against green and blue creatures.


Out of the sideboard, Stormcaller of Keranos gave me the most help of course, but that hardly counts since it was ridiculous to leave it in the board to start with! Retraction Helix was good where I brought it in, but the third most useful sideboard card might surprise you: Demolish! I brought in Demolish against a three-color opponent, my opponent with Spear of Heliod, and a R/W deck with several six-drops and Chained to the Rocks.

The Draft

I don’t have much experience with BTT Draft—this was my fourth one in fact—but I felt confident in my understanding of Theros/Born of the Gods Limited in general. I preferred the colors in the Bant wedge and would ideally pair red with green or white and nothing else. I didn’t like most black decks, but I knew which cards would get me interested.

My first pick put me between Arbiter of the Ideal and Akroan Conscriptor. My inexperience put me at a bit of a disadvantage here, and I wound up taking Arbiter. I figured passing the Conscriptor would make it more likely one of the (significantly more experienced) drafters to my left stayed clear of blue, freeing me up to get a better shot at blue in pack 2.

Next I had the choice of Fate Unraveler, Bile Blight, or (I believe) Floodtide Serpent. I know I mentioned my dislike of black, but both of these cards are fantastic. Plus the player to my right was likely communicating an abandonment of the color by sending both of them along right here. Due to the general low quality of Born of the Gods cards, my plan was to take the best one without especially significant color loyalty and to sort things out early in pack 2. That left me picking between Blight and Unraveler. Both cards are quite good, but I went with Unraveler for a few reasons.

First off, it’s a bruiser for its cost and is capable of getting in damage even as a board stalls out. Second, it’s less mana intensive—if black winds up being my secondary color, it’ll hurt the Blight’s strength, while the Unraveler’s will remain constant. The same logic might also promote players to my left to pass it along or abandon the Bile Blight if they see little to no other black come along in pack 1.

This is a spot where more than a few players might become inspired to "get tricky" by sending along both black cards. I don’t like this plan much at all for several reasons. These two black cards are head and shoulders above not only the cards in this pack but the vast majority of draftable cards. If I’m going to send both of them along, I need it to translate directly into gains later on—planting two players to my left in black needs to benefit me.

While I might weaken their decks by promoting infighting, I’m giving each of them a very good card and weakening my own deck by taking a worse one. It’s early in the draft—there’s no reason to commit to anything so aggressively at this stage. I’m already interested in (but not committed to) avoiding red, and locking myself all but out of black so early would be a big limit. Players shy away from picking gold cards early but then make picks like this that promote restricting your pool of draftable cards to a subset of colors—it’s the same exact thing!

Getting cute when you need a 3-0 is also a good way to wind up with regrets instead of Pro Tour invites in my experience, but that’s neither here nor there.

I did wind up electing to move into black when I wheeled Nyxborn Eidolon with about three cards left in the pack, which I considered a clear signal that black was very open. As it turned out, I was wrong—three other players were in fact drafting it, but the two to my right weren’t, while the one closest to me was only splashing it for a couple cards. My deck wound up nearly mono-black, with two copies of Nimbus Naiad and Voyage’s End accompanying eight black two-drops and three copies Mogis’s Marauder. I wound up cutting Arbiter of the Ideal to enable a sixteen-land deck with only six Islands, and I liked my chances against nonblack decks.

The Top 8 was strange. I was forced to become a control deck when I was paired against a hyperaggressive R/W heroic deck in the quarterfinals and fell to the alternation of flood and a failure to hit a game-winning fifth mana in the semifinals. An opposing Horizon Chimera on turn 4 in every game was especially key in my Top 4 loss, saving my opponent from lethal Fate Unraveler damage and creating a clock at the same time in our final game.

During that game, I faced a moment when I could’ve gotten in lethal against my opponent if his hand was all blanks. I’d seen four cards that could stop me during his Top 8 match and couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger in the face of open mana, especially because waiting and finding a fifth land would deliver a win without the risk. These spots are very difficult to remain objective in, and I rushed my consideration of the options. Perhaps if I’d evaluated the position with more care, I’d have been able to discern whether or not the lethal attempt would actually work rather than avoiding it due to "the fear" combined with the temptation to lay the game on the top of the deck because I needed "just a land."

I’m looking forward to my next Limited PTQ, and I plan to record that sealed pool and write about it as well. This weekend is Grand Prix Phoenix, which I’ll very likely be skipping due to not enjoying Standard and the side events looking miserable, but there’s a nonzero chance I’ll go if presented with a convincing argument or the right companions. I really want to play some Legacy!