There And Back Again – Preparing for New Limited Formats

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Monday, April 7th – In just a few weeks time I’ll be headed across the Atlantic to join a legion of fellow Magic players competing for prizes at Grand Prix: Brussels. The format will be Shadowmoor sealed followed by booster drafts on Day 2, but studying how to prepare for a brand new Limited format can help all of us prepare to get the most bang for our buck at our upcoming Shadowmoor prerelease.

We’re going to take a break from discussing “ELVES!” today to look at a topic quickly approaching relevance for most of us: playing a new Limited format. In just a few weeks time I’ll be headed across the Atlantic to join a legion of fellow Magic players competing for prizes at Grand Prix: Brussels. The format will be Shadowmoor sealed followed by booster drafts on Day 2, but studying how to prepare for a brand new Limited format can help all of us prepare to get the most bang for our buck at our upcoming Shadowmoor prerelease.

Helping us today are a few compatriots I tapped to add additional voices and perspectives on preparing. From my own loosely organized testing group, essentially a conglomeration of top Midwest players, we’ll hear from five time Grand Prix Top 8er Gerry Thompson, fellow Grand Prix-Columbus Top 8er Owen Turtenwald, two-time Pro Tour Top 8 near-misser Brandon Scheel (who just missed Top 8 again in Kuala Lumpur), and Belgium’s own Jan Doise, one of the many well-respected pros from that region of the world.

Read the FAQ

Let’s be honest, FAQs are far more interesting reading for judges than they are for players. All too often players simply want to rush head first into cracking their first portion of product and to hell with the consequences. Everyone is, of course, free to do that, but by not reading the FAQ you’re restricting yourself access to very important information. First and foremost you learn how the new keyworded abilities from the set work.

Reinforce and Channel are both great examples of this. Both are quite similar, but not exactly alike. If you read the FAQ headed into your Saviors of Kamigawa prerelease you knew Channel was an ability that could only be played at sorcery speed. It seems unnecessary to point out how critical that information could be when you’re expecting your Jiwari, the Earth Aflame to wipe out your opponent’s board mid-combat only to find out that she, having read the FAQ, actually knows how the ability works and instead blows you out. With that precedent set, it then becomes even more important to read the Morningtide FAQ so that you know that Reinforce, while again similar in functionality to Channel could be played at instant speed. Burrenton Bombardier with Channel? Not a combat trick. Burrenton Bombardier with Reinforce? Combat trick. [Pretty sure Channel was an Instant ability… still, this definitely hammers home Bill’s point! – Craig.]

Yes, the FAQ may be a bit boring and tedious, but it singlehandedly provides you with the most pure information from any one source prior to hitting up a brand new Limited format. Treat it like homework, call it cramming for the final, but do yourself a favor and slog through it to gain an edge headed into your event.

Is the force strong with you?

Whenever a new set comes out, players fashion drafts preemptively in their heads, hoping to take advantage of unprepared opponents by out-reading them regarding draft archetypes. Should we try to force archetypes or draft strategies in order to gain that edge over our opponents, or is that an unnecessary risk?

The answer, surprisingly, was a mixed “yes and no” from our respondents. Said Jan, “In general I’m a very reactive drafter, but when I’m practicing a new format it can happen that I force an archetype just to see what it’s worth and pick up experience knowing well that there’s a high chance that it’s not the optimal strategy.” That’s the type of calculated risk many, many players fail to commit to. It’s entirely possible BW Treefolk is utter garbage in triple Lorwyn, but you can be certain when you’ve tried the archetype out and recognized its failings firsthand (though I doubt Jan ever had to go that far regarding BW Treefolk specifically…). Scheel echoed Jan’s sentiments, saying, “Forcing an archetype can be more powerful when cards are being heavily undervalued, but if you force blindly you can be fighting someone in the same colors who doesn’t know how to draft the archetype.”

Gerry T was less gung ho about forcing but wasn’t too afraid when given the opportunity. “Affinity in MMM is a prime example of a deck that I would force. The cards were almost always there and your deck was always absurd. Lately that hasn’t been the case and most of the decks play fair. I have a preference for Blue in almost every format so I’ll certainly jump in if given a chance, but overall I’m not a big fan of forcing.” Owen Turtenwald had an additional format-specific note on forcing adding “In a set like Lorwyn, forcing can pay off big time; some of the most powerful cards only fit in one deck, so if you can position yourself by taking every card of a certain tribe and making sure nobody behind you has any business being in that tribe, you can get very late situational bombs like Summon the School.”

Of course, knowing what was good in Mirrodin and Lorwyn can only help us so much come Shadowmoor. The press material Wizards has released on the set indicates that it will not follow a strict tribal path like the two sets before it, opening up new and/or more traditional decks for drafting. The prudent plan sitting down to your first SSS draft would be to stay flexible, get a feel for the types of cards that come around late and the important elements of specific archetypes, and draft accordingly. Stick to traditional Limited rules of thumb by asking yourself which colors your neighbors appear to be in and which colors are flowing freely to you. Once you’ve gotten a handle on things you can start to gain an edge and follow some additional advice from Mr. Doise, who said, “When the draft format is newer, it’s possible you want to force because you find a good archetype that most other people haven’t considered.”

Hopefully that will be just in time for your first pod on Day 2 in Brussels…

Don’t be so Dismissive

It seems to happen in every set. People will start off with a rating of the cards they see in their head based off previous experiences drafting. They will have determined for themselves that certain cards are very powerful while others are very weak, and they will draft those very powerful cards while passing those they consider poor. Inevitably they will be wrong on some or both accounts.

There are two great examples of this type of mistake. The first is Vedalken Dismisser, initially a much ballyhooed Blue common from Ravnica that could often be found going as late as last. Eventually someone somewhere was short a playable, gave the bear a shot, and lo and behold, the card quickly started climbing in drafters’ pick orders. Eventually it became one of the important cards for Blue drafters, and it was hard to imagine that the initial conventional wisdom could have gotten things so wrong.

The second example, and one which asks us to stretch way back to recall, is Kor Chant. You might know it better as its Timeshifted cousin Kor Dirge, but when Exodus first came out the White common was far too full of text for players to truly value it highly enough. The savviest drafters, however, realized it was a slug of a removal spell and quickly started snagging as many copies as they could for their Limited decks. After watching that first generation of players figure it out, new waves of players started putting it together, and soon Kor Chant had moved from the bottom of the pick order to the very top.

The moral of these stories? Be a bit more flexible with your card valuations to begin with. Sure most of the time we’re right when we realize Chimney Imp probably isn’t going to see much play, but eventually (and I would argue it happens every new set) we get something wrong. By keeping an open mind for Shadowmoor you’ll be able to adjust faster and start picking those Vedalken Dismissers and Kor Chants a lot sooner.


Magic fans can argue themselves blue in the face about how sporting using spoilers is (and in fact, they seem to with every new set); today’s article isn’t interested in the answer to that question. Instead, we asked our resident pros whether they used spoilers or not, and how they benefited from them. It’s worth noting that the resounding response from all of them regarding the first portion of that question was “Yes!” Of course, the reasons behind that answer are what we’re after.

Said Owen, “Knowing what kind of tricks there are and how you can play around them is huge. If there is a lack of cheap removal you can put more value on pingers and flyers.” Gerry was even harder about knowing the tricks. “Having as much information as possible is vital to success,” he offered, before adding, “There’s no reason you shouldn’t know every trick in the format.” While the Indiana resident probably meant knowing every trick as the format progressed, he seemed to strike a chord with his fellow pros. Brandon Scheel pointed out that he tried to memorize Every card in any format he was playing, but particularly in Limited where the format features the smallest card pool of any.

Jan was the only voice that dissented slightly. While he admitted to reading spoilers provided he had the time, he did add, “Ideally you know all the cards in the format but it’s better to spend your time drafting than reading.” This is a sentiment many might echo (shhh, don’t tell Craig or Pete), but when you haven’t had the chance to practice a format because it hasn’t been out at all or for very long, spoilers go a long way towards helping you prepare. Put a different way, practicing guitar will make you better at it faster than reading about practicing guitar, but if you can’t do the former the latter is better than nothing at all.

Keep an eye on abilities

Every new set introduces some number of keyword abilities to the game, and as many a long time drafter has discovered, those abilities sometimes prove very important to the Sealed and Draft decks of the format. Madness, Affinity, Soulshift, Changeling, even tribal themes have all ended up being archetypes or significantly contributing to certain archetypes in a Limited format. For Shadowmoor we’ve seen a few specific new abilities like Q (the untap ability), Wither (dealing damage to creatures in the form of -1/-1 counters), and Persist (when this creature is put into a graveyard from play, if it did not have any -1/-1 counters on it return it to play with a -1/-1 counter).

Will any of these new keyword abilities prove to be a brand new archetype? Time will tell, but we can make some educated guesses now. It seems unlikely there will be a Q deck (creatures have always untapped, and conversely there has rarely been an archetype dedicated entirely to classes of creatures that tapped solely because they tapped), but a deck filled with Persist creatures could be quite a nightmare to deal with. Of course, the perfect foil to that deck might be one that counteracts the reanimation aspect of Persist by putting -1/-1 counters on creatures before they died. A deck filled with creatures that have Wither, perhaps?

Keep an eye out for the possibility of such archetype play and consider ways to hate out those abilities (like by recognizing how Persist and Wither play off one another).

A few more things

I asked each player what other things, if any, they did to prepare for new Limited formats. Brandon Scheel quickly piped up by pointing out a combination of talking and practicing were his primary goals to prepare, “I talk over the cards with friends. I try to draft early and often too.” Jan echoed those sentiments, saying, “Discuss with other people. Since you won’t have much experience, try to get it from talking to other players. A good way to do this is to make a [pick order] list à la Frank Karsten with your friends… it generates really useful discussions.”

Of all the different points they discussed, “talking with your friends” seemed to be the most universally held opinion of all. Gerry was in Scheel’s boat, urging players to talk with their friends as well as draft as often as they could. Owen closed the discussion by explaining, “I always ask my friends and try to get as many different opinions as I can.” Considering how hard-headed some of these players are (and I know from personal experience), you can bet that when they’re willing to go out on a limb and ask others for input, you should be too.

In summation

Format specifics are a tough sell when we’ve only got a certain number of spoiled cards and we’re still a few weeks out from getting our hands on the actual set. Still, here are a few of the things we’ve gone over today:

1. Read the FAQ and spoiler.
2. Don’t be dismissive of cards early on.
3. Watch out for a new mechanic to create a new draft archetype.
4. Talk to your friends. Don’t have friends? Talk to the other players at the tournament.

That’s all for this week. I’d like to thank Gerry Thompson, Owen Turtenwald, Brandon Scheel, and Jan Doise for their input (and you can give them a shout out in the forums attached to this article). Check back here in a few short weeks as I travel back around the world to visit the gang in Belgium and get my game on at my first European Grand Prix.

Bill Stark
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