Welcome to the first installment of Limited 201, a new draft and sealed strategy series by Pro Tour competitor Austin Bach! Today he covers how we should update our modern-day thinking of card evaluation and why B.R.E.A.D. is no longer a useful strategy!
Before you even sit down at the table to draft, you should be thinking about what role each card plays in the format. Aside from how inherently powerful a card is, you should be considering exactly what role you want a card to fill in your deck. Do I want this as an early blocker? Do I want this to transition smoothly into the late game? Do I need this to push through extra damage?
This is a crucial element of both drafting and deckbuilding, and so much of it depends on what you already have in your pool and what you think your deck needs. It’s an important skill to be able to remember what weaknesses you’re trying to shore up and/or what strengths your deck has and wants more access to. To do this, you need to be able to sort cards into different categories and know which subsections you need to dip into to make your deck better. Pick order lists only get you so far…you need to know not just which card is the best in the pack, but which is the best for your deck.
The other important thing to note is that most cards fall under multiple categories at once. These are the cards you should keep your eye on…if a card is both a strong developer and a potential finisher (i.e. Archer’s Parapet), or both a stabilizer and a finisher (Ojutai’s Summons), you should keep your eye on it. It could give you the edge at the beginning of a new format when people are still figuring out what strategies are good.
These are the cards you recognize as potential 1st-3rd picks in a draft for their raw power and/or efficiency…the bread-and-butter cards of limited. These shape the way your draft will go and what colors you want to be, and dictate how signals are read in the early stages of a draft.
Part of what makes these cards so good is their flexibility to slot into any type of deck. If you select a Flatten or a Stampeding Elk Herd early in a draft, you know you can play it in an aggressive or defensive deck and it will be good no matter what.
As opposed to the first category, these are cards that are only good in a particular deck. Inspiring Call is the perfect example; it is unplayable in most decks, but in the GW Bolster/Megamorph deck, it is an excellent role player. These are the cards that you usually want to take only when you are already in the deck that wants it.
Many cards straddle the line between synergy and power. Ojutai’s Summons is an example of such a card; it is at its best in a Prowess-heavy deck, but still slots into many other deck strategies as well. In recent draft formats, R&D has seeded certain 2-color archetypes with these powerful role-players to give skilled drafters a chance to discover not just the open color, but the open color combination. Seeing these in the middle of the pack could be an indication that it’s safe to move in.
Some decks care more about the early game than others, but even strictly defensive decks need something to do in its developing turns. These are cards that typically fall off late into the game but provide important tempo in the initial stages of the game to allow players to dictate the pace of the game.
This is mostly relevant for defensive-minded decks, but can be true for aggressive decks as well. It is unavoidable in a game of Magic that you will sometimes be behind and need a way to catch back up. A crucial boost in life and/or board presence is what you are looking for in this instance. Ideally these cards will double as a way to turn games around the other way and put pressure on the opponent, but such cards are typically good enough to fall into the Power category as well. A necessary evil for limited, but one you should be on the lookout for nonetheless.
As the title suggests, this is the counterpoint to stabilizers that seek to push the snowball the rest of the way down the hill. Aggressive decks often find themselves stuck in the midgame with smaller creatures against a growing defense from the opponent. Effects that push blockers out of the way or otherwise force damage through are important for the top-end of aggressive decks to avoid falling off hard the longer the game goes on.
Card draw is the most obvious example of card advantage, but there are other ways to gain an advantage in drawn-out games. These are often too slow in normal games of Magic (no one wants Mind Rot in their deck against an aggressive strategy), but in a slower matchup you may find yourself wanting clunkier but more advantageous options. In leiu of these options, crafty players may also use combat tricks or situational instant-speed removal as a proxy for this effect to maneuver combat steps to leverage multiple cards out of an opponent.
Finishers can come in all shapes and sizes, and the ideal finishers are the ones that can double as stabilizers or destabilizers in the midgame. Lava Axe is a pretty bad Magic card if your opponent is above five life, but once you get there it’s the best thing possible and exactly what your deck might want. Venerable Lammasu wasn’t a draft all-star in KTK, but if your deck needed that extra oomph at the top of your curve, he was a worthy candidate. Sometimes it isn’t pretty, but when you need a way to win close games, you often have to get creative.
As a way to bridge the gap between aggressive and defensive roles, R&D often includes cards and/or mechanics that can be used both early and late to good effect. Morph is the perfect example of this: you can use it early to maximize mana efficiency and get onto the board, while still giving you something powerful to do in the late game. Other examples of this category are mechanics like Kicker, Level Up, and Bestow. All decks can make use of this category if their deck is loaded up with more aggressive or defensive cards than usual and need a way to shore up their weakness in whichever department they lack, while still scaling well up or down as needed.
How can we make use of all of these distinct categories? There is no convenient acronym to be gleaned from P-S-D-S-D-C-F-S! While you might not need to sort every single card into compartments and keep it as a rigid guide, you do want to think about which categories a card could fall under and move forward from there. If you see a freshly-spoiled 2-drop and wonder how good it is, consider how well it slots into development and how well it scales into the late game. If you see a weird ability on a midgame creature, think about how it could help you turn around losing games or force through the final points if you’re ahead. If a card has a splashy effect on the game with a heavy drawback, think about the other commons in its colors and what archetypes might be able to leverage it better than others.
This was a dense topic to cover in so few words, but I hope you picked up a few tips to carry into your next draft. No one gets better at limited overnight, but by picking up tiny bits of information over time, you will see steady progress. Next time in this limited series I will talk about signals in draft and how to read and react to the cards that are passed to you.