Note: The concept examples in this article will use cards from TSP block as it’s been explored and most people are familiar with it.
Greetings from sunny Valencia! My good buddy Zac is currently occupied with a beautiful Spanish maiden so I’m taking one for the team and filling his post for the week. As I know Constructed about as well as a chimpanzee knows Chess, we’re going to dive into the realms of Limited.
Do you remember when you started drafting? Most people begin their Limited careers by taking colors they like or cards they heard are good. Or just stone cold balls-to-the-wall rare drafting.
After specific cards, you learn about archetypes. Why is Stingscourger better than Prodigal Pyromancer in R/W? When are the times you would take Looter il-Kor over Fathom Seer?
And finally, you begin to draft decks. G/W aggro, U/B control, U/B madness. Your thought process completely changes from when drafting an archetype because that just serves as a guideline. Drafting a deck means you are in the moment, paying close attention to how your cards will interact and the way you expect games to shape up. Say you’re G/W and you’ve managed to draft 2 Shade of Trokair and the same number of three-drops. Do you take a Knight of Sursi or Nessian Courser in the 3rd pack? Conventional wisdom says the Knight is the better card, but Future Sight is weak for G/W three drops and the most important aspect of the deck is its curve. Initially this looks like an easy windmill of the Knight, but there is a lot of thought surrounding this pick*.
I could never win with U/B until I started watching the games of one Brandon Scheel (who, incidentally, has never lost with U/B in his entire life). I always saw cards I hate like Dreamscape Artist and a certain four-drop I absolutely despise that serves as a 1/6 wall. I was drafting U/B completely wrong! My decks were usually more aggressive or tempo-oriented, but the optimal way to draft U/B is through a control route. Even if you don’t like to draft certain decks, it’s still important to know how they function to understand the value of certain cards and how to beat the deck. But I sure don’t like to draft U/B, let’s talk about attacking!
Earlier this summer in sunny Baltimore, I was at lunch serving as a good luck charm to Luis Scott-Vargas, accompanied by David Ochoa. We were discussing Nick Eisel’s pick of Sprout Swarm over Thunderblade Charge for a R/G deck when Fob said to me, “I think Charge is the right pick for you.” Even though we agreed Swarm was the better card, Boomshakalaka Hammer does a lot more in the decks I like to draft which tend to be more aggressive and curve oriented.
Is attacking for you? What are the advantages of an aggressive strategy?
The biggest advantage is that games generally end quickly. Aggressive decks punish any stumbles on the opponent’s part and can also mise out a deck that is strictly and strategically better. If you’re a control deck and have to battle against a deck that’s better than yours, you will almost always take a notch in the L column. With an aggressive deck, you can always go dude, dude, dooder, dude** and steal a game from a deck you have no business beating. Your opponent is forced to have answers and will quickly succumb if he does not. If your deck is better or your opponent sucks, you can always slow the game down by being less aggressive and exploiting the superiority of your cards or play skill Another consideration for tournaments is that your rounds end faster, giving you more time to rest between rounds and not exhaust yourself mentally.
Like every deck, an aggressive strategy also has its weaknesses… for example, you single-handedly lose to a Penumbra Spider. Not completely, but the advantage you have in making your opponent have answers is reversed as you are forced to have a specific card like Temporal Isolation*** or you yield the initiative. Any form of mass removal like Sulfurous Blast is absolutely devastating, and even weaker cards like Subterranean Shambler will not bring a smile to your face. So an aggressive deck’s advantages are also its weak points. You overextend and quickly put a lot of guys on the table, but if your opponent is able to answer your threats and recover you will be hard pressed to find a victory.
Crucial in almost every victory and an important role of many defeats, mana is one of those limited resources we’re so used to hearing about, just like the cards in your hand or your life total. My personal belief is that in a given Limited game, you will have access to roughly 35-40 mana. Turn 1 is often wasted by just saying go, which is why suspend creatures are so good. Think about a card like Flamecore Elemental… you’re spending 1/5 of the mana you will have in the entire game on a 5/4! Since your mana is so limited, each turn has to be devoted to getting the most possible value. Which card is better, Nessian Courser or Scarwood Treefolk? We all know the answer to that one, but which would you rather be playing on turn 4?
Let’s make this clearer. Which would you rather have in draft, Wild Mongrel or Darksteel Colossus? Obviously our favorite hound is the pick. Which would you rather have in DC-10 where are you have infinite mana? The same thing applies to the Treefolk, as on turn 4 you don’t have infinite mana, but you’re not worried about how good the creature is for the mana cost. Rather, you are concerned with the best thing you can get for four mana. Ghost Tactician is considered terrible and unplayable, but would you rather have him or Mistform Ultimus on turn 5? The most important thing with a mana curve is having something to do every turn and trying to tap out. If you’re tapping out every turn, that means you’re getting the most out of your mana.
“Blocking is loose.” A wonderful statement I was quoted saying, but it was misinterpreted by many. I never said that you should never block and there are no times for it. Obviously that’s incorrect and the situations come up, but when you attack your men are generally sideways and when they’re not you want to keep them. Take this situation for example…
It’s turn 5 and you’re tapped out with a random vanilla 2/2 and 4/4. Your opponent is R/G and has just played his 6th land and swung with a generic 2/2. You’re both at relatively high life totals and have (let’s say) 5 cards in hand; it’s not really relevant in this example. How should you block? First dismiss the options that are certainly wrong. Blocking with your 4/4 is a poor choice since you turn your opponent’s Brute Force into a (better) Lightning Axe. You take the value of a 5th pick card and increase it to a 1st pick. Your opponent may not have it, but the risk is not worth it since you could potentially get blown out. Double blocking is even worse… if your opponent has a Bogardan Rager you turn it into a Desolation Giant! By blocking you turn an average card into an excellent one and expose yourself to an unnecessary risk.
What happens if we block with our 2/2? Our opponent has the choice of trading any trick for you guy, but you still get a card for it. If he elects to trade, you have a 4/4 against an empty board and your opponent has to do something with his 6 mana or you will quickly take the game. This option is good as it simplifies the board (favoring the attacker) and you do not lose cards for it. If you trade and he kills your 4/4 the game is back at an even position, although you have the initiative since you fully untap on your turn.
The final option and one I would take against an unknown opponent is to just take 2. You have 6 power worth of creatures and will get to untap after seeing what your opponent does with his 6 mana. This is a big advantage as playing a defensive pump is much worse for your opponent. What if you have removal? If he plays a smaller creature and leaves mana for a pump, what does he do when you attack? If he plays the boost and you have removal it’s a solid 2 for 1 that leaves him way behind. If he plays something like Durkwood Baloth his choices are still difficult if you attack. You could have a pump and he does not want to turn your mediocre cards into one mana removal spells for 5/5s. By not blocking you make him respond to your board position and you make him respond now.
The key lesson from this example is the value of cards. You want to maximize the value from yours without letting your opponent turn their mediocre cards into something spectacular. In aggressive decks this often occurs by playing your tricks on your turn or when your opponent has limited mana. By playing stuff on your turn you maximize your options and also make life difficult for your opponent, since that’s when he has the least amount of information.
Unfortunately, 3 donks**** are hovering around me and begging to play more Constructed. Have a good week!
* I would still take the Knight, but the pick is closer than most would give it credit for.
** Typical scenario here being, turn 1 suspend Knight, turn 2 Benalish Cavalry, turn 3 Morph Lumithread Field, turn 4 Cavalry Master, hence the dooder. BTW, I like White.
**** Marijn, Zac, and Fried. Actually two donks, I’ll let you figure out who they are…