New cards can be tricky to evaluate in limited. Inevitably, there are always a few overlooked cards that slip through your initial card evaluation. After all, how many times have you looked at your pre-release sealed pool months afterward and wondered, “how in the world did I not realize that I had all of Blue’s best commons sitting in my sideboard?” I often find it humorous to look back at pre-release decks and sealed decks from early in the PTQ season and see how poorly they are built. While nobody can get it perfect while the format is still being explored, there are several methods you can use to identify which cards you should be drafting highly — and which tempting cards can be shipped along.
Both the Apprentice and the Beetle have the same converted mana cost, same power and toughness, and have very similar abilities. On the surface, not much changes. So, what’s the difference?
The answer is their format’s context.
Ravnica block Limited was a fairly slow card advantage based Limited format. Yes, there were some aggressive decks, but even in those cases Sparkmage Apprentice seldom shined. There were only a handful of commonly played creatures it could kill, and, when the scope of the entire game was taken into account, the effect of a Sparkmage Apprentice was fairly small and unlikely to be worth the card even if it did knock off an Elves of Deep Shadow. The Apprentice made the cut sometimes as a 23rd playable, but even in multiples he wasn’t particularly noteworthy.
Alara block, on the other hand, is a much faster format that is less based in roots of card advantage. Some of the speed can be attributed to cards like the â€˜Blade cycle and Akrasan Squire, which Blister Beetle handles excellently. Furthermore, the format is crafted such that the Beetle’s body is relevant even later on in the game, thanks to Grixis-based cards like Bone Splinters. Despite having very similar functions, Blister Beetle is the much better card in its format than Sparkmage Apprentice was in Ravnica.
Hopefully you can see where I’m going with the comparison above. In a more in-your-face example, you could also look at the roles of Shatter and Terror in Mirrodin block, and how those two cards are on a significantly different power level in that block than in any other. Hill Giant can be very good or a card you want to avoid playing with, purely depending on the norm of the format. My point is this: your evaluation of cards needs to change not based on their individual power, but on the format. “But how do I know the norms of a new format before I’ve even played it?” you may wonder. Well, the secret is to do some early evaluation.
Let’s use what we know of Zendikar as an example. I would like to reserve any final judgment on Zendikar until the full spoiler is out, but needless to say, I think a quick overview of the cards we do have indicates that the format is pretty fast. The thing about the landfall mechanic is that it rewards players for doing something that they want to do anyway: play a land for the first several turns. Any of the cheap landfall creatures, like Plated Geopede or Windrider Eel, are consistently going to be Watchwolves — and this is at common. Additionally, the thing about landfall is that (barring some trick like Harrow) the ability is set to only happen on your turn. If your creature’s landfall ability grants any kind of attacking bonus, you’re going to be sending that creature every turn you play a land because they’re all horrible on defense. Similarly, your opponent is going to be cracking in with his landfall creatures. All of this can lead to races, and quicker games. Throw in a lot of aggressively costed creatures — one mana 2/2’s, two mana 2/2’s with good abilities, and the overwhelming tribal nature of allies — and you’re going to be in for a format with some blazing fast starts.
Now, all of that is not to say that a control deck can’t exist, or that games will never go long. I’m sure plenty of decks will be able to get into the late game. The trap mechanic in general allows for a lot of resiliency to creature based strategies, and, as always, there are some good common removal spells. However, I would be prepared to deal with a format more based on attacking than on resolving more draw spells than your opponent. What does all of this mean? Well, it’s probably a good idea to leave your eight mana spells in the sideboard, for one. But it also means cards like Cancel will probably a little worse than normal, because leaving three mana up and passing when your opponent went one-drop, two-drop, three-drop, is just going to lead to taking a lot of extra damage. It’s still a fine card, but probably not quite at the power of countermagic in a more card advantage based format, such as Convolute in Ravnica block.
The other thing to keep in mind about a format like Zendikar is that you’re probably going to be playing more lands than normal. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see somewhere around 18-20 lands to become the norm so that you can have maximum value on your landfall triggers. Because of players hitting all of their land drops up to five or six consistently, you need to make sure you have ways to fight them up the curve. What all of this means is that you should be able to cast your huge five- and six-drops every game, so make sure that you have them available to you. Despite the format looking fast, few formats are so fast that playing five- and six-drops is unwieldy, and you’re going to want to have some fatties of your own to make sure you can fight your opponent’s. A card like Sea Gate Loremaster, while powerful in a card advantage format, is an invitation to lose if your opponent decides to spend his fifth turn casting an aggressive 4/4 (such as Geyser Glider) instead. As an added note, the dual nature of the format — aggressive decks that hit all of their land drops — is going to put kicker at a premium because of the ability to cast your spell early to add to your army, or kick it up later on when you’ve hit all of your drops.
Okay, so you have a preliminary outline of what the format looks like in your head. How do you use that information to help analyze cards? What comes next is comparing and simulating.
Comparing is taking the card you’re looking at, and comparing it to cards similar to it in the past. We already do this on some level internally with each set. When we see a two-mana spell that destroys a creature, we know that it is good because we internally compare it to other removal spells, note that it is well costed and will be useful, and mark it as playable. We can do the same thing with any card that has a similar analogue. Shock to Punishing Fire, Nissa’s Chosen to Elvish Warrior, and so on. Those are simplistic examples, but with a little bit of creativity you can compare cards with vastly different twists on old effects. I can compare Nimbus Wings to Angelic Blessing (mentally noting that the former is better), Narrow Escape to Call to Heel (mentally noting that Call is more versatile because it can hit their creatures), and so on.
The problem with solely using a method of comparison is that when you become too creative in your comparisons, you can start to lose sight of what the card actually does. While I compared Nimbus Wings to Angelic Blessing above, I had to note that Wings is better because it can send two creatures to the air. Who can tell how good that ability plus a pump bonus is simply by looking at it in comparison? Additionally, as I said earlier, it’s very important to keep the context of the format in mind. Angelic Blessing has been moderately playable in some formats and excellent in others, while I imagine Nimbus Wings is almost always playable because it is both better as a card and better in the context of an aggressive format. (In a format like Ravnica block, it would have been significantly worse.) Furthermore, sometimes adding even slight tweaks to cards and trying to compare them is just a flat out disaster. Compare Dosan’s Oldest Chant — a consistent 15th pick in Saviors of Kamigawa — with Kiss of the Amesha for an example of a small tweak that throws off the comparison chart. For everything else, we have a much more useful tool: simulation.
The idea behind simulation is simple: figure out when the card will be good, and when it will be bad, then weigh the two. Unfortunately, Magic players have a poor track record of doing this properly. It’s all too easy to imagine a game state where any narrow card can become a blowout, then become so hung up on that game state that it’s all you can see doing with that card. Because of this tendency, I suggest doing simulation a little differently. Instead, I like to start with, “when is this card going to be bad?” For example, if you’re looking at playing an aura, it’s going to be bad if you’re behind and you don’t have any creatures in play. If you’re looking at playing any kind of instant speed protection trick (such as Brave the Elements) there are going to be times when their guys just outclass yours and it’s a Pay no Heed. Cards that provide card advantage, like Compulsive Research or Tidings, are so good because they are almost never bad! Drawing four cards is almost always a great thing to be doing at any point in the game.
Creatures are usually better than spells in the “when is this going to be bad” test, but even they have their own litmus test to pass. Mon’s Goblin Raiders is bad because it’s a 1/1 for 1 with no relevant abilities if you ever draw it late game: it’s unlikely to make an impact after turn three or four. Serra Angel, on the other hand, is only bad if your opponent has a 5/5 flyer they’re outclassing you with. In general, you want your creatures to be as useful as possible in all stages of the game.
While Mon’s Goblin Raiders isn’t a good investment, Birds of Paradise is, despite them both being weak in the late game. Huh? Why is it that you’d play one but not the other? The answer is a question of risk versus reward. Now that you have the worst situations firmly set in your mind, think of reasonable situations where the card would be good. If you have Birds of Paradise in the first few turns, it’s going to provide you with such a significant advantage that it’s worth playing in your deck, even though it’s weak in the late game.
Lastly, you can use simulation in the context of your deck. With cards that are often borderline playable, you want to try to think about how your games are going to play out and add cards accordingly to fill gaps in your strategy. The most useful deckbuilding trick, for me, had been figuring out the ways in which I am going to lose games. Are you a fast R/G deck that can only lose if your opponent trades up the curve with you on removal and then plays a huge threat you can’t deal with? Maybe you do want to play a card like Cavern Thoctar so you can have a late game presence. Alternatively, maybe you need that Healing Leaves so that you can have a trick to foil some of their removal. Are you a deck with an excellent late game? How about playing a few smaller guys in your last two slots so that you can trade early in the game to ensure you reach the late game. The context of your deck is extremely important. Always remember that you want to be assembling a 40 card deck, not just a mess of 22 good and 18 lands cards. Having each card fit your strategy or foil methods that will be used to beat your strategy is far better than simply having a bunch of good creatures and spells with no coherent mix between the two.
At this weekend’s pre-release, try and use the techniques I’ve outlined in this article with your brand new Zendikar cards and see if they help in building your sealed pool. Let me know how they work out for you too, as well as your initial impressions of the set for Limited play. I’d be interested to hear what you think! You can either post in the forums or send me an e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com. I’ll be judging at the big Seattle pre-release, and I hope to see many of you there. Have a good pre-release!
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else