ith all the excitement around Modern Masters, it's easy to overlook the fact that the full Return to Ravnica Block Limited format is now in full swing. People are figuring out how many colors to run and how the mana bases work. Or they aren't and are being punished by consistent two-color decks and powerful two-color-with-a-small-splash decks.
Those are the two combinations that I have had the most success with so far. Two-color decks are my favorite option. Yeah, it's tempting to just go big and draft four- or five-color decks all the time, but the truth is that it's difficult to get the mana to work in those decks. Prioritizing Guildgates goes a long way to fixing the mana issues, but it also dictates passing powerful spells that the deck needs as well. The balance can be difficult to get right.
Gatekeepers seemed to be the saviors for strategies like this, but they have proven a risky option. Early in pack one, it often comes down to a choice between a Gatekeeper and a Gate. Most people take the Gate, hoping to wheel the Gatekeeper, which is a logical decision. Ostensibly, if you are taking all the Gates, the people behind you won't want the Gatekeepers as much.
While this makes sense, the risk in incurs expresses itself in two ways:
- Someone else has the same idea and just takes the Gatekeepers.
- Someone on your right decides to move in on Gates, effectively cutting you off from the strategy.
While neither scenario is disastrous, they aren't appealing either.
I was drafting at my local game store last week for FNM. I had been out of town the previous few Fridays on coverage duty, and a friend debriefed me on the situation at the shop: Everyone was drafting five colors. I asked around, and it had become common wisdom that the correct strategy is to go five colors.
I decided to go with a two-color deck. I knew that a solid, aggressive, two-color deck would feast on the lumbering five-color monstrosities my opponents would surely have on display. While I was in the draft portion, I was reminded what it meant to go two-color in this format. It meant being disciplined.
Discipline and fun rarely go hand in hand, but this FNM was the exception. I had a great time crafting a Boros deck, although it occurred to me why people gravitate away from solid two-color decks in full-block Draft: there is much temptation.
I was taking good red and white cards, but passing decent stuff in Gruul and Orzhov along the way. It's really tempting to take a Tithe Drinker here and there, but you are duly rewarded when you reach the end of the draft and are still only in two colors. Sometimes it feels awful to take mediocre cards over good cards, but if you can manage to think from a whole-deck perspective, it works.
There are some cards that I just can't pass. And at that point I sigh, shrug my shoulders, and resign myself to three-color awkwardness.
Another pitfall I see players diving into headfirst is not being aware of the guilds and when they come to you. I mentioned it regarding three-color decks in a previous article, but it's also true for single-guild decks. If you are drafting Selesnya in your Dragon's Maze pack, don't get frustrated when the Gatecrash pack feels a bit light on awesome cards. Focus on picking up solid monocolored cards for your deck, and even some mana fixing if it's available. When the Return to Ravnica pack comes around, things should look very good for you. If you have drifted over to Boros because you weren't seeing enough Selesnya cards, your deck can suffer greatly. Try to avoid this trap and you'll end up with a more consistent deck.
Throughout the course of a Limited format, I like to take some time to look back at my card evaluations and see where I missed, and why. It's important to be able to evaluate your evaluations, and it's a skill many people don't revisit often enough. The key is to differentiate between misevaluations you could have seen coming and the ones you couldn't have.
Some formats have little gaps in them where a card just fits right in. The card doesn't look good on its surface, but it finds a home. This is a plausible reason to have misevaluated a card on first glance. The main reason people misevaluate when they shouldn't is that they don't have the skill set yet to take into account the many scenarios that pop up in a Limited format. Or they got too fancy with their thinking, or were simply just wrong about a card.
The important thing is that you constantly go back and figure out what went wrong (and what went right, too). I've decided to look back at some of my evaluations from the Dragon's Maze set review show I do for my podcast. I'm proud of my evaluations overall, but I was off on some of them, and we'll be taking a look at some of those today.
I gave the Squad a C. This is a perfectly respectable grade, something you might consider giving Grizzly Bears, for example. After having played with Haazda Snare Squad, though, I would move that grade up to a B-. The Snare Squad performs quite well in an aggressive deck and is a darn good blocker to boot. I underestimated this utility and overvalued the fact that it costs a mana to activate, and only during attacks.
It's a common trap, the one I fell into. When I think of white creatures that tap other creatures, I think of cards like Blinding Mage. I looked at the Snare Squad and decided that since it couldn't tap on defense, it might not be all that great. What I didn't properly frame was the fact that it blocks quite well and that tapping something down during attacks is still powerful all by itself.
Rakdos Drake got a C from me. I thought this was a fine creature, and while I still think it's all right, I would bump it down to C- or even D+. I was doing a side draft after the last Pro Tour and was chatting with Ben Stark after my draft portion had finished. I asked him what he thought about Rakdos Drake, because something was bugging me about the card and I couldn't quite pinpoint what it was. I felt like it was a good card on paper, but that it was underperforming a bit.
Ben summed it up quite nicely: When you are ahead and attacking, it's only 2 power for three mana. Sure, it's evasive, which is nice, but we get 3 power for two mana pretty regularly in this block. He then went on to describe the Drake when you are behind. You cast it as a 1/2 with flying for three mana and it blocks almost nothing important. Including most of the fliers in the block.
Well, that about described why I was feeling underwhelmed by it. It's not an awful card or anything, but I think its stats on paper look a little better than it plays out in a game.
I gave the Pontiff a B. A very respectable grade, but I think I would give it a B+ today. A few people have told me that it should be an A, but I disagree.
In order for it to be an A, Pontiff of Blight needs to help stabilize a board I would otherwise lose on. A 2/7 does provide a sturdy blocker, but to really maximize on the Pontiff, you need spells in hand and creatures on board.
If you can get Pontiff of Blight on the table in a situation where the board is at parity or if you are ahead, it will put away the game in short order. It's a powerful Magic card, and one I will happily first-pick and then build around. But I have killed people who resolved this spell, just by attacking with my team the next turn. I've lost with this on board. In order for it to get to the A status for me, it either needs to do more to stabilize a bad board state or it needs to be less reliant on the draw step and the number of creatures still hanging around on the battlefield.
This one is kind of embarrassing. I gave Beetleform Mage a C. That puts it on par with Boros Mastiff and Steeple Roc, which is certainly not correct. After seeing the Mage in action just one time, I knew I had underestimated it. Kraul Warrior this is not (and Kraul Warrior is pretty darn good, too).
Beetleform Mage is a powerful attacker and a potent blocker as well. With the power of Threat of Activation on its side, it's very difficult to interact with in combat.
Aside: Threat of Activation is when you attack without using a creature's activated ability, wait until there are no blocks, and then don't even have to use the ability at all. If Beetleform Mage were a normal 2/2 creature, 3/3s would block it all day long. Yet Beetleform Mage almost never gets blocked in this scenario because you can threaten to activate its ability.
Often amounting to an Air Elemental, Beetleform Mage deserves a solid B.
I don't want to spend too much time on this one, as I still don't think it's a great card, but I didn't consider a few options when I rated it. I gave it a D, and while I don't think it's a lot better than a D, it's definitely a bit better than that. I was chatting on Twitter with my friend (and excellent Limited player) Daniel Hanson, and he offered some alternative uses for Dragonshift that I hadn't properly taken into account.
Namely, that you can use it as a combat trick to maybe get a one-for-one from it. While we probably wouldn't play it just for that ability, it's a relevant factor nonetheless and bumps this card up to a C or C+.
As you may have noticed, I like to ask other players for their takes on a card. Sometimes, this information is even offered up without asking. I can take their thoughts, apply them to mine, and come up with my own opinion on the card. That's the goal.
I saved the worst offense for last.
I gave Armed & Dangerous a D. Yes; I incorrectly looked at each side of this fuse card and concluded that since neither side was particularly exciting, the whole card must also be kind of blah.
I was way wrong, though. After losing to it exactly one time, I realized I had been off. I started picking it highly (I have first-picked it) and was winning a lot with it. I think the thing I failed to realize the most was that it can just act as removal if you time it correctly.
Story time. I was playing against BDM in a side draft at the Pro Tour and I got to cast Armed & Dangerous, fused, both targeting my Sluiceway Scorpion. Which already was getting +1+1 from another effect. I attacked into our heavily stalled board and killed eight creatures with that little arthropod. And yes, I got to scavenge him back the next turn, too.
While this may be one of the more abusive things to do with Armed & Dangerous, simply winning the game when the board is stalled is good enough to put this card at a B- level. Remember to just use it as removal sometimes, too; it's not always worth it to wait for the last second with cards like these.
It's a really good time to be a Limited player. Interesting, diverse new sets are released regularly, and more attention is being paid to Limited than ever before.
Make sure you take a moment to acknowledge that the next time you fire up Magic Online or crack some packs at FNM. I know I will.
Marshall Sutcliffe hosts the Limited Resources podcast, does Pro Tour and Grand Prix video coverage, writes articles, and produces strategy videos. Marshall came back to Magic after discovering Limited following a long hiatus from the game, but he enjoys all forms of the game. He lives in Seattle, WA.