Flow of Ideas – ABC: Always Be Clocking

Monday, August 23rd – How do you think more Limited games are won than any other? Creatures with evasion? Gaining the advantage over the course of a long, grinding game? Glare of Subdual? Nope.

How do you think more Limited games are won than any other?

Creatures with evasion?

Gaining the advantage over the course of a long, grinding game?

Glare of Subdual?


By far, the easiest way to win a game of Limited is to curve out. If you can just play creatures on turns 2-5, you apply so much pressure so fast that it takes a similar draw on their behalf to even have a chance.

Curving out is one of the most elementary principles of Magic. Yet it is one of those so basic that it is relegated to a neat corner table in the back of our minds.

The reason why has to do with the same kind of “no wrong threats” thinking, typically applied to Constructed Magic. However, unlike Constructed where people can play as many removal spells as they want and massive quantities of two-for-ones, in Limited the average deck will boast around three or four ways to kill a creature. They’re put in a position where they need to kill or otherwise outclass your creatures fast. It forces them to make decisions about how to block and use their removal — decisions that are easy to mess up. Mike Jacob once said, “I love giving my opponent decisions. The more decisions my opponent has to make, the more opportunities they have to make mistakes.”

My affair isn’t really with curving out, though. It’s with attacking in Limited. The potential to curve is just the catalyst that helps makes attacking happen.

In Limited, the majority of my decks that consistently 3-0, even across years of formats, are creature-based decks that plan on attacking. You just always want to always be aggressive. You want to establish a clock early and never let go.

Yes, I love a good Limited control deck as much as some of you, gumming up the board with Armored Cantrixes while building up toward your Demon at Death’s Gate. However, it often feels like so many things have to go right with those decks. You need to draw your blockers, you have to have your removal spells at the right time, you have to deal with their strongest spells at the right time.

To be aggressive? You just need to draw some creatures.

Sure, you can draw those creatures in the wrong order, they can have the perfect draw to beat all of your creatures, and so on. However, that’s true of any strategy. For the amount you make yourself susceptible to, you end up with several games where you establish a clock, hit your curve, and pick up free wins.

Some players say there are formats where you can’t do this effectively. Lording over everything is the traditional notion that there are two kinds of Limited formats. Tempo-based limited formats, like Lorwyn or Zendikar, or card advantaged based Limited formats, such as Invasion or Ravnica. Be aggressive in the former, be controlling in the latter. End of story.

I disagree. That only narrows your ability to draft different kinds of decks.

In M11, I love Silvercoat Lion. If you play against me in a M11 draft and I play a first turn Plains, you better be ready for a second turn Silvercoat Lion.

A lot of people won’t even consider playing Silvercoat Lion. M11 is a vanilla and evasion format, they will tell you. He’s outclassed too quick, others will claim.

The format is that way because you made it that way.

One of my favorite things to do is to play a totally different game from my opponent. It’s like they sit down with a draft deck, expecting for the game to be Magic, and I sit down with a stack of Uno cards. How much did you prepare for this fight? If you sit down thinking the format is going to be about crashing Spined Wurms into each other, you know what I have to say?

Attack you for two.

Now, it’s not always right to play in this fashion. There are decks where a 2/2 for two is atrocious. But, at the same time, ignoring these strategies cuts you off to a whole way of thinking and only limits you as a player.

Let’s dial it back a year and a half to triple Shards of Alara Limited.

Everyone wanted to play the long game. They had so many great plans going long; there was so much your deck could do if you gave it time.

The key? Not giving them that time.

When Sealed started that season, all I wanted to see staring back from my boosters was a Broodmate Dragon. By the time Sealed season ended, all I wanted to see in my packs was a pair of Wild Nacatls.

Josh Wludyka made Day 2 of GP Kansas City just in this fashion: his pool was pretty bad, but he just constructed a beatdown strategy to capitalize on his opponent’s slower plans. While everybody else was fixing their mana, his deck was attacking them in chunks that would quickly put them in under. After seeing his finish, that’s how I began to build my Sealed decks — and the difference was both apparent and enormous. Sure, if you opened bombs you could employ those to outbomb your opponents — but otherwise, I would rather apply enough pressure to just nullify the best cards in their deck.

Shards draft was more aggressive than Shards sealed, but even then most players were just not maximizing their speed and ability to curve. Of course, that format was compounded by mana difficulties, but if you just drafted a deck that was capable of aggressive starts, your deck would hand you free wins over and over again.

Let’s go back a few years more to the world of Ravnica, a format pretty much everyone agreed was a “card advantage based” Limited format. Cards like Train of Thought and Compulsive Research were big blowouts, and to win players built careful strings of two-for-ones and then ground you out with some mediocre creatures.

Those decks were good. I first picked many a Compulsive Research. I loved my Signets and bouncelands. But those weren’t the only kind of decks.

At Pro Tour: Prague, the draft strategy of the tournament was a GRU graft-based deck that used cards at few people played, like Gruul Scrapper. This deck was notably far more aggressive than the other decks most people were drafting at the time, and several pros capitalized on that ability.

Even more impressive, yet much less talked about, is how Rasmus Sibast and his countrymen took that tournament by surprise with one of the most underdiscussed draft archetypes ever. They came in, drafted an aggressive deck several times, and were very successful despite the lack of press about the archetype. We’re not just talking aggressive in the sense that, “oh yeah, Blind Hunter is aggressive” here. No. They drafted decks with Utvara Scalpers, Wild Cantors, Scab-Clan Maulers, and Taste for Mayhems These cards, widely regarded as unplayable, did amounts of damage people just weren’t ready for. That strategy was even able to push one player who drafted them — Rasmus himself — into Sunday.

How about the Skarrgan Pit-skulk archetype?

Originally propagated by Steve Sadin, this strategy propelled him onto the Pro Tour. The widely considered “unplayable” common would just loop around the table, and Steve would snatch them all up while constructing an aggressive R/G deck. The end result? Several 3-0 drafts — including a PTQ final.

After Steve publicized the archetype, I began trying it myself and found the same thing Steve undoubtedly did: people just weren’t ready to deal with a barrage of creatures.

I bet if you had asked any average, or even above average, Ravnica drafter who wasn’t aware of these archetypes if he thought they were remotely playable a week before the tournament, and he’d probably tell you they would never work.

And yet, here we are.

In a podcast interview I did with Noah Weil for this very site, we talked about how Limited games are won or lost, and what the pivotal moments of the game are. He responded with some ideas I had never considered, but have since found to be widely true.

He noted Limited is a game of attacking. When one player can’t attack and the other can, the game widely swings in the other’s favor. Therefore, when you force them to play the defensive, when you put them in a position where they can’t attack you because they need to consider blocking, that is when you begin to win. It plays right into your hands. It makes all of your tricks good. It turns all of your other creatures into live cards.

That moment is precisely why you go on the aggressive.

Gary Kasparov, renowned Chess player, once said, “the attacker always has the advantage.” While it’s true that in Magic almost all Limited games eventually boil to attacking in some form; if you begin attacking earlier rather than later, you can catch your opponent in a position they were not prepared to be in. When everybody says to not be aggressive, when they claim a format is entirely about card advantage and the long game, that’s the perfect time to do precisely the opposite.

Hopefully you enjoyed this look at Limited theory, and I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on the matter. Feel free to post in the forums, tweet at me, or send me an email at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com if you have any comments. Thanks for reading, and hopefully I’ll talk to you soon!

Gavin Verhey
Rabon on Magic Online, GavinVerhey on Twitter, Lesurgo everywhere else