Pro Perspective – Analyzing Limited Formats

The StarCityGames.com Open Series returns to Atlanta!
Friday, April 23rd – Hall of Fame stalwart Raphael Levy returns today with an intriguing examination of what makes an engaging Limited format. He analyzes a number of recent forty-card formats in regards to their fun factor, and has high hopes for Rise of the Eldrazi in the weeks and months to come!

Hello folks!

It’s been a while… and it feels strange to be back, but I guess I will get used to it! I’ve been having a break from Magic for a couple of months and I have been enjoying every second of it, dedicating myself to more physical activities, such as breaking arms, choking people, kicking faces, and punching guts (which unfortunately worked the other way around as well…). Craig decided it was time for me to start using my bruised fingers to write about Magic again.

First things first, a quick introduction: I am RaphaÔl Lévy, a member of the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame, currently Pro Level 6 and Lightweight Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Karaté black-belt wannabe. I first played on the Pro Tour in 1997, which was a Mirage / Visions Constructed event. I won Grand Prix: Lyon the following year running Thermokarsts, Stunted Growths , Mishra’s Factories and the most unfair creature, Ernham Djinn (yeah, a 4/5 for 3G with a drawback was undercosted back then…). I qualified for the World Championships the same year (1998) as I was tied for 50th place on the Player of the Year rankings, and lost to eventual champ Brian Selden in the semis… and never missed a Pro Tour since then. My career as a Pro Player has had ups and downs, mainly due to my occupations outside Magic (studies, work…). And here I am now, fresh off a much-needed break.

Although I would love to share with you how awesome, fun, and exhilarating that training martial arts has become for me, I am here going to stick to what I do best (for now). And yes, that means talking about Magic. I have written a lot about Magic theory in the past, here on StarCityGames.com and in the column I wrote for MagictheGathering.com, “Ask the Pro.” I mainly wrote about game theory because that is what I could bring to the community of readers: my experience, down on paper, in the form of timeless material that can be read years later without losing its accuracy. You can still find them in the archives.

I decided to write for StarCityGames.com again because I want to rediscover the game. I want to start playing again… and we’ll see if Rise if the Eldrazi makes me regret that decision. I would like to spend more time preparing for the events than I did for my last few tournaments. By not preparing enough, I broke a nine-money-finish streak at Pro Tours (starting at Worlds NY ‘07- ending in San Diego ‘10). I started to play worse, with bad decks too; bad preparation leads to bad deck selection. I figured I might as well commit myself officially to prepare for tournaments by becoming a weekly columnist, sharing with you the course and the story of my successful comeback! (If you consider that I ever really left…)

As for my first article of the year, I want to share some thoughts about the evolution of Limited, and what I am expecting for the years to come. I had planned to go to Paris last weekend, long before StarCityGames.com asked me to write again, for some non-Magic related business. A volcano located 2700kms away decided that I should stay home and play the Prerelease instead. I would not have known a thing about the new set, but here I am now, with a RoE prerelease win under my belt (that’s a start!).

The real reason I took a step back from Magic was because I didn’t think the game was fun anymore. I never really enjoyed playing (or playtesting) Constructed, but I always loved to draft. I have always loved to think outside the box, find combinations that nobody else thought of. However, in the last 2 years, I wasn’t given the chance to do so. Shards of Alara and Zendikar blocks didn’t offer much room for creativity. And not only did I think the formats were boring, the variance was far too high.

The discussion about what makes a format healthy crops up over and over again when you talk about Constructed. In Limited, you will always have good and bad points for every format. Let me go through a couple of criteria that allow you to rate a Limited format.


What makes a format “fast” is the average length of games. In a fast format, you can be dead by turn 5 or 6. The games can also be decided by turn 3, when you are on the draw, missing a color when your opponent played really fast beaters and there is no way you can recover from your slow start.

Mana fixing plays an important role regarding the speed of the games too. To balance things in a fast format, you need a lot of efficient mana fixers, otherwise fast beatdown decks will always have an edge over Control decks. Some might say, “Control decks… in Limited?” They didn’t even know that such things once existed.

The more games you simply can’t win because of the draws, the more variance there will be. And nothing is more frustrating than variance in a game where skill is involved.


The depth of a format is determined by the options you have available when it comes to drafting and building your deck. Is there a preset number of options in the set? Are there totally unplayable combinations? Is mana fixing allowing you to mix things up?

The downfall of the depth of sets in Limited came at the same time as when they replaced the 15th card by a land. It may not seem very important, but it is extremely relevant. When in the past, you could rely on a card wheeling with which you might be able to pad your deck, now there is just no chance at all. Every card, even the worst card of all, might find a place in a deck. Those are the cheap tricks that might come up handy when sideboarding. For example, how many times do you last pick a Disenchant? The answer is: less often since Shards of Alara. Removing three cards from a draft pool limits your possibilities a lot. These cards give a little upgrade to your fillers, give you an extra chance to recover a draft from a bad start. Switching colors has never been so hard in a draft as it has been in the last two years.

Let’s have a quick review of the last few sets from a Limited viewpoint:

Lorwyn Block

Lorwyn had its preset archetypes in the form of tribes. You could be drafting a common color with your neighbor and still manage to receive playable cards in these colors, even after a few picks. For example, you could both be drafting Blue but your neighbor might be drafting Merfolk while you are drafting Faeries. The format was not particularly fast, which allowed you to splash a third color (even though it was not needed most of the time). The colors/tribes were mostly balanced (except maybe for Giants). You had to read all the subtypes of creatures so you could take the most advantage of them all. Having preset tribes was a concept that limited your options by nature.


Shadowmoor Block

Shadowmoor brought back the hybrid mana. I loved the concept that opened so many options. When you first-picked a hybrid card, you left your options open and didn’t commit yourself to one color or one specific combination. You had to think through all your picks in a very different mindset. When you first-picked a Thoughtweft Trio in Lorwyn, you knew where you wanted to go: you wanted to draft Kithkin. In the case you didn’t get there, since your neighbor might have had the same idea, it would likely end up in your sideboard. In Shadowmoor draft, you would know in which direction your draft should go, and tried to follow that line. In the case it didn’t go exactly the way you wanted, you could always drift to something else without totally dumping your first pick. All colors could be combined together, and the mana fixing was pretty much incorporated within the hybrid concept. Being able to play mono-color was a good feeling too.

Overall, this was an amazing set for draft, with a huge amount of possibilities, very little mana problems, and skillful games. Some overpowered decks could emerge (like Mono-Red or Mono-White), but nothing that made the format unhealthy.


Shards of Alara Block

I hated the Alara block from the first day when the draft was Triple Shards. I hated it when it was SSC. I still hated it at the end, with SCR. The very concept of the set in Limited was completely flawed. You had, at the same time:

– Very intensive mana issues, with cards that only went together in specific 3-color combinations.
– Shard concepts that don’t go at all with other Shards. What’s the synergy between Exalted and Unearth? Or Devour?
– Super aggressive cards that make sure the game doesn’t last too long (Wild Nacatl).
– Fixers that are very slow and inefficient. It takes Panoramas 2 turns to give you the right mana, and Obelixes that are just too expensive. I guess the format could have been fixed had the Panoramas given you an untapped land instead, but we’ll never know.

In a nutshell, you have a very high variance format. You could die very quickly to cheap three-power creatures without a chance to develop your game. You were bound to draft three-colors, hoping to get there every game. The only fun thing to do was to draft five-color / bombs / manafixers. Even then, I don’t see much skill in that.



Playing with vanilla creatures has never been very exciting. No tricks, no particular draft strategies. Knowing that you should pick Fireball over Lightning Bolt might be the only real challenging choice. Boring games. Boring cards… Only bombs to spice games up.


Zendikar Block

The landfall concept was interesting, but badly exploited. The games were all about the draws. I understand the idea behind it – “oh, and then you’re going to love drawing lands in the late game!” – but it’s not what happened at all. In fact, that took away a lot of in-game strategy. You didn’t have to think of what to do; you only had to read what the cards did when you played another card, at the most basic level. Play a land and your guy gets bigger. Play a land and gain 2 life. Okay, I guess I’ll just play my lands. And the same went for allies. Play an Ally, pump your other Allies. The latter concept has been used over and over again. Synergy with tribes… woot! And it’s pretty much the only fun thing in the set. There’s no real interesting color combination. You just drafted the biggest and fastest beaters in each of your two colors, and hoped you won the die roll to start beating first. There was no real hidden potential in cards; it was always very straightforward. There were very few ways to deal with a fast draw, and missing a land drop in the early turns sealed your fate.

A format that was much too fast, with nothing original.


Before I get to talk about Rise of the Eldrazi, I want to talk about another set…

Urza’s Saga

Released on MTGO a couple of weeks ago, Urza’s Saga was first seen as a boring set back in 1999. I am not saying it is the most amazing set ever, but it had a few concepts the last few sets did not have. First of all, the creatures were much smaller, or had much bigger drawbacks. Echo was a way to balance creatures very efficiently. It was not possible to put enough pressure down in the early turns so that your opponents had to scoop on turn 5 or 6. There were a few cards that were definitely unbalanced: Pestilence as a common, for instance, and Runes of Protections that made the games much longer and sometimes unwinnable for your opponent. But one of the things I’ll remember about the set was that classic counterspells were good. For two mana, you could counter a spell with Power Sink in the first turns, and it would still be useful in the late game. A counterspell for 4 mana was considered annoying (Rewind). And finally, a concept that has been long forgotten: you had to think about how you will actually win the games. When in a game, you have to think things like “hmm, I will have to protect my 3/3 flyer because if it dies, I have no other way to win,” and it’s a good thing. Nowadays, almost every single creature is able to deal 20 damage. It takes all the long-term planning out of the game, thinking that you can just trade any of your creatures and wait for any other to deal the damage.

It took me and my UW Control deck 3 hours to complete the Urza’s Saga draft I played on MTGO… and it felt good. There was so much more to think of than just “kill your guy, swing for as much as possible.”


Rise of the Eldrazi

Going to the prerelease, I didn’t know what to expect. I had seen the visual spoiler list but didn’t have a clear idea of how it would play out.

I played 7 rounds and enjoyed every second of it. There is so much to love about the set. Everything that I loved about Magic is back, and there was no better time for me to start playing seriously again. I have only played one Sealed deck, and I am planning to draft this week so I can tell you more about what I feel about the set, but as for impressions so far:

It was interesting (and so nice) to see that all the undercosted beaters were gone. My pool consisted of Walls and late-game cards (I will write a more detailed report next week, giving you the decklist and explaining my choices). I knew while building my deck that I had a game plan that was different from other formats: reaching turn 10 and start dealing damage then. When was the last time you could think something else than “kill/swing for as much as possible,” or build your deck with your mana curve being your most important – and only – issue?

The most important thing in Magic, and one of the things that makes a balanced format more skillful, is the number of options during a game. The more options you have, the more chances you have to mess up. And that’s exactly what RoE is bringing to the table: a lot of options. Should you level up your creature or keep you mana up to counter? Or should you play any kind of tricks, since there are finally interesting things to play around? Everything was sorcery speed in Zendikar: Landfall was sorcery speed, playing an ally was sorcery speed. There was no real mana management during the games, or just a very short-sighted one that could be summed up as: “how much damage do I push through this turn if I do this, and how much damage next turn?” The level counters remain on your creatures, making every decision you make important for the later game. Do you need to invest in one level for your guy, keep you mana up, or play another creature?

I liked the way I had to think about my kill cards. I had my Walls to protect me for a while, but my opponent could overrun me if I didn’t have anything to put pressure on him. I liked the way you had to use your resources wisely. Defend yourself from the threats or protect your kill cards (mostly in the form of Regress and counterspells)? It seemed that every time I tapped a land for mana, I could have made a bad move.

I am motivated, and am hoping I am not wrong about the set. I can’t really rate it yet, but I am looking forward to drafting tonight and see how it plays out.

In my absence from writing, I did not get to talk about the effect of M10 rules. I have been away from StarCityGames.com columns for a while and had not had the chance to voice my opinion. Honestly, I am fine with the rules. I never thought it would change much in the first place, and indeed it didn’t. What I hated though, and I mentioned this above, was the fact that everything had to be made simpler. Everything is at sorcery speed. I miss the old “Tap: do something” abilities on multiple creatures. It has been all “When you play x, do something,” or “while x is in play, y gains this.” I blame the M10 rules and the “make the game more simple” outlook for that. Hopefully, everything is getting back to normal now!

Until next time…