The Icy Grip – You Too Can Master Limited!

Shaheen Soorani has won multiple StarCityGames.com Draft Opens this past year, but his Limited wasn’t always his best asset as a Magic player. Find out the lessons for becoming adept at 40-card formats.

While in a Two-Headed Giant tournament at PT Philly, J. Sonne and I reminisced about the 2HG PT in San Diego. He was teamed with Mike Thompson against me and Chris McDaniel (Star Wars Kid) in the final round… The winning team would get into Day 2. We of course got smashed, and he asked me:

“Aren’t you a Constructed specialist?”

This was a nice way of him telling me I wasn’t the greatest at Limited, and I realized it was time to step up my game. Since then I have put to great use the 40-card weapon.

In these last few years, I’ve considered myself stronger in Limited than in Constructed. The ability to make reads, see signals, and rank card strength in each format has given me an edge ever since the Pro Tours have changed their tournament structure to include three rounds of Draft. This change has given the professional community incentive to make sure their draft skills are sharp, but what about the rest of the Magic players?

This is the point where I thank StarCityGames.com for the Draft Opens—and I’m not just saying that. This provides average players with a high-level draft even almost every weekend near you or me to battle in.

Many of you will agree that Limited takes a little more talent to master than Constructed, but what defines mastery? No draft is the same, and the decisions that have to be made each and every game make Magic a much more skill-intensive game when you can’t grind 100 games of Caw-Blade to learn all the ins and outs.

You can draft over and over to help build your ability to read signals, assess card strength, grow card familiarity, and many other things, but the results you achieve in tournament play may not increase at the rate you hope.

In this article I will cover a few categories that help define Limited in general, and I will be using M12 for the examples. Base set Limited is very frustrating to some; however since it is the only relevant format with the upcoming Opens and GP Montreal, we need to dive right in.

Magic is a skill game

How lucky is my opponent! I was mana screwed, then flooded, then screwed! We Magic players as a whole always tend to divert the blame in Magic, and sometimes there is certain validity to that. The big problem is when we get into this “it’s not my fault” mindset. It becomes much more difficult to see misplays and correct them.

Professional players will always point out the fact that they have won through flooding and mana screw, but the tricky part is knowing when you are in that situation and making different plays based on it. For example, if you are drawing infinite lands and have a removal spell in hand with minimal action, that removal spell’s value increases dramatically. You need to take more damage, use your life as a resource, and save it for something better or the right time to strike.

Obviously this is an example without a clear understanding about what’s going on and what’s in play, but generally speaking it is correct. When mana screwed, it’s the opposite. Use whatever means are necessary to stay alive and preserve health in order to make it out of that situation alive.

Sometimes there is nothing you can do; sometimes you are dead to bad luck. However, if you think better players get less “bad luck” than you, it isn’t possible. From LSV to Aintrazi to Timmy FNMer, they all receive more land or less land than wanted all the time, but it’s up to you to find a way out objectively without complaining and chalking it up to luck of the game.

I hate mulliganing!

Mulliganing is a necessary aspect of the game. This article is determined to tackle the different aspects of Limited, so of course we will delve into how the mulligan is much different in Limited than in Constructed.

I choose to draw, and my opponent mulligans. I’m a U/B midrange deck, and he is unknown. Choosing to draw is a weapon that has only recently become popular. Still people favor going first in M12 Limited, but the vast majority of the time, I will choose to draw. Tempo, being aggressive, and not falling behind to a fast deck are all reasons why we play first. That mentality is sound, but what are the advantages of going second, especially in Limited?

Safer mulligans. When you mulligan, you take the risk of getting a worse hand, which is true for any format. The key difference is that Constructed decks are far better equipped to drop a card or two from the opener without missing a step. Of course I haven’t done an extensive study, but I have played about a hundred thousand games of mixed Magic formats that led me to the conclusion that winning after mulliganing in Limited is much harder than in Constructed.

A Limited deck is drafted together with a hopeful curve. You do the best you can, taking the best cards, but let’s face it…are you going to take an Aether Adept over a Mind Control pack three when you are lacking a three-drop?

A Constructed deck has brute force to Goblin Guide their way out of mulligan situations or the control route of a Preordain or two in order to continue to make land drops and play spells. Sadly in Limited when you ship that initial hand on the play and look at a one-lander with a couple two-drops, your option to mulligan again doesn’t look so appealing.

Falling behind the land drop curve in Limited can be disastrous. Being on the draw can result in some pretty sweet rips into that third, fourth, and fifth land to continue to drop those very important spells. A two-land hand on the draw looks phenomenal, whereas on the play you have that innate fear that you might not hit the third one on time for that very important Blood Ogre and might get stuck with a Fireslinger tossing a damage every turn as your strong play.

You don’t die as quickly. Limited decks deal 20 damage much slower than their sixty-card counterparts. Limited will always have good aggro decks, but pack one pick one, I tend to always slam a Merfolk Looter over a Goblin Arsonist. You have time to use removal, play defensive creatures, and create card advantage opportunities even on the draw without the fear of being overrun constantly. Think back to die rolls you lost…for which format do losses makes you more upset, Limited or Constructed?

When your opponent is forced to play and takes a mulligan…it’s happy times! When my opponent goes down to six or five in a Limited match, life doesn’t get much better. The chances of him or her hitting those land drops and/or being aggressive is drastically reduced which each one. As previously stated, Limited is a much different animal than Constructed, and each mulligan is that much more devastating.

That being said, I believe that choosing to take a mulligan in Limited has different criteria than in Constructed. In Constructed you create your own curve, and opening hands will look fairly similar with an equal distribution of four-ofs.

In Limited, you hope your curve is good, but more often than not, opening hands will contain all the wrong drops. Choosing to mulligan a hand with “no action” is more of a Limited move than a Constructed move. The Constructed logic we use is having no land or too much land, where in Limited the decision-making process is slightly different.

An example of a mulligan in Limited would be Mountain, Mountain, Swamp, Volcanic Dragon, Bonebreaker Giant, Swamp, Vampire Outcasts.

This hand has land, and it has spells; however your first spell being cast on turn 4 can be a nail in the coffin for the game and even the match. Limited, especially base set Limited, is all about applying pressure and/or removing their threats then applying your own.

The Age Old Question: Which card is better?

How many times have you stared at a pack that you just freshly cracked and had no clue which card to take? Sometimes it is between two cards and sometimes a few more, but taking the best card is vital to your success in building the best draft deck in your pod.

I have prided myself in having good results in various Limited tournaments throughout the years and in a multitude of different sets. That success is primarily based on the ability to make good draft picks and not based heavily on the actual gameplay. I make mistakes like everyone else, but my decks usually give me some leeway to make those errors and still come out ahead.

The thing about card strength in Limited is that few agree on what should be picked over what. Of all the team drafts, PT drafts, and even FNM drafts I have participated in, I will have people disagree with many of my picks. I also disagree heavily with picks taken by pro friends of mine on a regular basis. Am I wrong, is he wrong, or is no one wrong? That question doesn’t have an easy answer. Let’s look at a pick decision or two.

Let’s say that these three cards are all in the same pack. Also this is pack one, pick one, and we are battling in an SCG Draft Open. Each of these cards has its own strengths and weaknesses as a first pick.

The strengths of Chandra’s Outrage is clear…it kills stuff and hurts your opponent. The negative is also fairly clear by looking at its mana cost. The double red on Outrage makes it nearly impossible to splash if you decide to switch to a different color later on. Card strength in the red column isn’t too bad, so being red off the bat isn’t a huge negative… However keeping your options open is a very important aspect of any Limited format.

We are judging these picks without a full pack of cards because I don’t want to get to signaling until the next section. If there is a vast amount of red playables, that will also play a role in which card you take in order to either commit your opponent to your left, or guarantee they do not venture into a color scheme that has a minimal amount of playables. So for the time being, assume the rest of the pack has very weak picks.

OVERRRRUNNNNNNNNNNN!! This card has been considered a bomb since the beginning of time (my time at least). The power level of Overrun is obvious…you cast it, and then you win. Your mediocre Runeclaw Bears and Giant Spiders become superstars for one turn as you slay your opponent with ease.

I have always had the greatest pleasure in passing this card in eight-man drafts. A first-pick Overrun can condemn you to a deck of weak creatures and spells just with the hope of one day casting this monster of a spell to snake a win from a normally unwinnable situation. Passing Overrun also dips into the signaling aspect of Limited, putting one of the nearby drafters to the left into green.

I have had a lot of debate on this card, and I stick to my guns on the issue. The card is powerful but has a couple flaws. The most obvious flaw is its triple green cost. You take an Overrun; then Garruk’s Companions start to look really good, and you scoop them up over cards that might be slightly more powerful to fit your Overrun game plan.

Another flaw is that it takes a good amount of creatures to deal that lethal blow, and a removal spell in response is sometimes enough to stop you dead in your tracks. If I had a nickel for every time an Unsummon or Shock has stopped the lethal attack and left me dealing 12 and then dying the next turn, I’d have at least two bucks. Pass the Overrun, and you’ll feel better in the morning; trust me!

Merfolk Looter is the man. This card is like a Phyrexian Arena in Limited. Since you have to play 17 land in a 40-card deck, you will probably get flooded once in a while, and this guy is the key to escaping that disaster. Having an active looter is one of the best feelings in Limited. It almost feels like cheating. Your skilled opponents will tap two and Fireball that Looter right off the bat if they are experienced enough against the card and are aware of the consequences of leaving it around for too long.

One of the side effects of drafting a looter is making it easier to splash any color. All of a sudden with two Merfolk Looters, you can toss a Mountain in there with a Lightning Bolt and have no problem if you don’t hit one or the other.

Not sure if you gathered this from my rant, but I really enjoy this card, and there is a specific school of player that also agrees that Looter is a first pick against a long list of other options.

Let’s do a slightly harder pick.

Mannnn Serra Angel AND Sengir Vampire? Big, dumb green rares and a burn spell? With this pack, we are also under the assumption that the rest of the picks are subpar, so let’s continue.

Out of these four I would take Serra Angel. Serra Angel could be argued as being worse than Sengir Vampire, but you have to understand the format before making that call of “which is better.” White commons include Stormfront Pegasus, Griffin Rider, Peregrine Griffin, Griffin Rider, Assault Griffin, Pacifism, Auramancer, and Stave Off. All these cards are either decent or AMAZING. The white common print run in this base set tends to be overpowered, and that is the main reason for the Serra Angel pick.

The black commons you can expect that are decent are Doom Blade, Wring Flesh, Devouring Swarm, some bats that aren’t too good…some 3/1 Vampire, and a Child of Night. I mean come on…it’s no contest.

Common strength is what I want to focus this pick decision on because becoming a master of Limited isn’t about going from one card to one card. In order to become skilled at drafting, you have to know what your options will be before they get to you because once you take that wrong pick, it’s too late.

Incinerate is the pick after the two big fliers, and Garruk’s Horde is last. I don’t have anything against green if you were wondering—my favorite rare is Arachnus Spinner. That guy is mythic in my mind and is almost unstoppable with a few Arachnus Webs. So if the choice is between a Spider that tutors up green Pacifisms and something else…you know what to take!

Follow the signals!

Signaling is a word that many people toss around but may not fully understand. Seeing a good green card pick 4 may be a signal, or a Goblin Fireslinger tabling may give you the impression red is open, but be careful. A true signal is a continuous flow of one color and can be confused with a general dislike of a certain card by your friends at the draft table.

Signaling may be the most important aspect of becoming a successful drafter because if you don’t adhere to them and just ignore them, you will end up short on playables, missing out on a great series of card, while helping your opponents develop insane draft decks compared to your own.

Packs will tend to fly by you in high-level events with the timer ticking, but you have to avoid the biggest mistake that is made on the fly. Some grab the pack and immediately sift through for their color-coordinated pick without looking at all the picks available. Doing this will limit your ability to grow and become a great Limited player.

Look through all the picks and make a decision to switch colors if you see it open up. I know you slammed that Garruk, Primal Hunter, but it wasn’t mean to be… let it go and salvage the draft.

Base set Limited gets a lot of flak, even from me, but it is not so different from every other draft format for the last ten years. Innistrad is coming out soon, and when you get to your local Prereleases remember to be open to the switch if that opportunity presents itself.

Also remember that it isn’t the rares or uncommons that make or break you; it’s the availability of commons for that particular color.

Another example is seeing a late Stormfront Pegasus, let’s say seventh pick, and you pick it up. After that, you don’t see any more white. Was that late Pegasus a signal or an example of a pack stacked with white common playables? That example shows you that signals usually will give you a string of playables, and flukes like the Pegasus may be due to a deep common pool of good cards.

What’s better than a draft with friends?

Limited is the best format in Magic. Of course that is my opinion, and many would disagree, but I love the feeling of heading to a tournament with no deck box, ready to craft my book of spells from scratch against enemy planeswalkers.

Maybe I have a slight gambling problem, but I love to crack a pack hoping for that bomb rare and being at least satisfied with a powerful uncommon or common to start the building process. You also can’t be great at Limited overnight… It takes a ton of practice, and each time the format changes, you have to apply the same amount of effort to get associated with all the different cards.

Limited rewards good players and skilled play by giving you an edge over your opponent if you are prepared. I can hand someone a Mono Red deck in Standard and guarantee his or her victory half the time, but if I send a rookie into the draft pod at one of these Opens, you can almost always guarantee seeing them on the sidelines after round one.

I will be writing another Limited article when Innistrad is out, and that article will just focus on all the cards in the set that I think will be popular and those cards that will be underrated in competitive drafting. M12 has one more big tournament at GP Montreal and of course the SCG Opens until the release date of Innistrad. As always, I hope to hear y’alls feedback via email or Twitter, and thanks for reading, my friends.

Until next time,

[email protected] — email
@shaheenmtg – Twitter