Why Don't I Suck at Limited?



Another pre-release has come and gone, and Time Spiral is the new kid on the block that everyone is talking about, but let's not forget about Coldsnap. It's still a force on the Type II stage and there are lessons to be learned from it, not the least of which is that a single set can stand on its own to provide a dynamic (if slightly wonky) limited environment. In that spirit, here is a somewhat belated account of my adventures at the Coldsnap Pre-release last summer.

The title of this article was originally going to be the slightly less original 'Why Do I Suck at Limited,' but in the six months or so that I have been procrastinating this project, I have participated in about 100 combined drafts and leagues on Magic Online. I don't recommend this approach for anyone, especially anyone as broke as I happen to be. It's addictive out there, and the time and money investment is more significant than it seems in little thirteen dollar/three hour increments, so be careful. But then again, playing a lotta buncha games is the best way to familiarize yourself with the finer points of a set. After all, we learn best by doing.

Still, I lost almost all of those hundred games, despite my best efforts, and I read article after article in an effort to figure out what I was doing wrong. I needed to take a step back and review my draft picks after the fact.

Armed with my prntscn button and ctrl+v, I set out to record every pick of my next draft. I quickly learned that MTGO simply doesn't give you enough extra time to create a picture, paste it to paint, and save it to a file, while also making judgments about which card would be the best in your draft deck.

After four picks, I abandoned the process. I'll need to purchase a program that can handle that for me some day, but for the time being, it's either pick or shoot, but not both. Maybe if I set up dual monitors and got a friend to... But I digress.

The point of that mini-tirade is that when all was said and done, I didn't crash and burn. I took first place in that draft. For the first time ever. I built a powerful green/black/white deck that had a lot of removal and enough late game beaters to charge through my opponents. It was the first time I had ever got past the second round of a draft in MTGO.

Still, people get lucky once in a while. Maybe I just had a bunch of equally inexperienced opponents. So I went to a league figuring that my insufficiency in the speed of my screenshots wouldn't be an issue. I did get a lucky bomb in the form of Ghost Council, but I ended up undefeated in the first 12 games of that league on a great deal more than just the luck of my bomb. (Unfortunately, a crash has since wiped my drive of the screenshots I took pertaining to that particular league, but I'll write about another one in the future.)

Okay, obviously I'd become much more intimately acquainted with the Ravnica block. I had to admit to myself that I was getting better at this, but I was also determined not to let a few wins go to my head. Coldsnap pre-release was the next weekend, and I couldn't afford to lose because I got cocky.


After so much time in the digital world of magic, it feels a bit weird to be actually shuffling through a pile of cards, to have an opponent sitting across from you that you can actually shake hands with, and whose facial expressions you can actually read. I don't care how awesome Version 3 is, nothing can ever compare to the real thing.

Anyway, enough rambling. Let's go right to the card pool.


White
Adarkar Valkyrie
Wall of Shards
Jotun Grunt
Sun's Bounty
Squall Drifter X2
Kjeldoran Javelineer X2
Glacial Plating
Swift Maneuver X2
Boreal Griffin
Gelid Shackles
Kjeldoran War Cry

Blue
Heidar, Rimewind Master
Krovikan Mist
Ronom Serpent X3
Frozen Solid X3
Thermal Flux
Martyr of Frost
Frost Raptor
Rimewind Cryomancer
Survivor of the Unseen
Rune Snag

Black
Krovikan Scoundrel X2
Tresserhorn Skyknight X2
Chilling Shade
Martyr of Bones
Surging Dementia
Balduvian Fallen
Feast of flesh
Zombie Musher
Chill to the Bone X2
Rimebound Dead

Red
Karplusan Minotaur
Skred
Martyr of Ashes
Lovisa Coldeyes
Balduvian Warlord
Cryoclasm
Goblin Furrier X3
Icefall X2
Orcish Bloodpainter
Karplusan Wolverine
Surging Flame

Green
Sheltering Ancient
Into the North X2
Bull Aurochs
Boreal Druid
Simian Brawler
Ronom hulk
Sound the Call X2
Resize
Arctic Nishoba
Aurochs Herd

Artifact
Phyrexian Soulgorger

Multicolored
Vanish into Memory

Land
Arctic flats
Snow plains
Snow Swamp X2
Snow forest

The first thing that jumped out at me with this card pool was the Adarkar Valkyrie. Even without the snazzy ability, a 4/5 flying vigilance creature just plain dominates the board, combine that with the pair of Squall Drifters and a gelid shackles and it's obvious that white is the strongest color and will definitely make some sort of appearance in the final deck.

Removal is king in limited, and although Squall drifter and the shackles don't destroy any permanents, they do help shut down your opponent's ability to prosecute an effective war against your side of the board, both defensively and offensively.

The next thing I look at after bombs, as I suggested earlier, is removal. Black, as usual, was strongest in this regard, and I chose to run that color on the merits of it's two Chill to the Bones alone.

You don't have a lot of time to look over your cards in a pre-release. Half an hour is hardly enough time to familiarize yourself with a card pool from a new set, so I tend to rush through my first impressions so that I have some sort of deck to fall back on in case I run up against the time wall. Hard decisions have to be made, so you may as well just make them and not look back. I gave green hardly a glance.

I couldn't decide between Red and Blue, so I busied myself pulling out all the white and black cards that I wanted. It can be hard to decide which cards to cut, especially with a pool like this one. I find it's easiest to just sort all of the cards into three piles.

1) Absolutely this must be in the deck.

2) This will probably be good in the deck

3) Maybe I'll sideboard it in sometime.

For shorthand, I think of these as the Yes, Maybe and No piles. When things get really tough, I have to sort the remaining cards into “absolutely” and “almost definitely” piles. When I'm done, only cards in pile one make the deck. All cards in pile three get the axe and cards in pile two only get reconsidered if there are still spots left once pile one is included. When I was done I had something like this.

White
Adarkar Valkyrie
Squall Drifter X2
Kjeldoran Javelineer X2
Glacial plating
Swift Maneuver
Boreal Griffin
Gelid Shackles

Black
Tresserhorn Skyknight X2
Chilling Shade
Balduvian Fallen
Feast of flesh
Zombie Musher
Chill to the Bone X2
Rimebound Dead

That's only 18 cards. A quick glance over the rejects pile held a few decent cards, but nothing especially deserving of a spot. If you have to drop in power level to stay on color, you're better off switching colors or splashing.

Blue and Red were where the rares were, so I dismissed Green a bit too early and unfairly. I completely failed to recognize that Into the North is much, much better than Farseek, especially in a format (and a deck) where it is important to have a base of snow-covered lands.

Red had a decent thing going with the burn. And Martyr of Ash counts as a kind of mass removal. All blue seemed to have going for it was the Rimewind master and a slew of creatures that would be completely useless in my low snow environment. Besides, I really really wanted to try that Minotaur. I splashed for red.

Red
Lovisa Coldeyes
Karplusan Minotaur
Skred
Martyr of Ashes
Balduvian Warlord
Surging flame
Orcish Bloodpainter
Karplusan Wolverine

27 cards. And I really needed to run 17 lands in this tri-color deck. That meant three cards had to go. I cut the Chilling Shade because I didn't have enough snow lands to pump it much, and I cut one of the Skyknights, thinking that Black would be more of a splash color and that BB in a casting cost might be difficult to get a hold of

If I had had another ten minutes, I probably would have seen where I went wrong. The deck I had built was weak on creatures, hence the Soulgorger, but I figured that my slew of removal and combat tricks would help to get me to the late game where my flyers and the musher could evade their way to victory.

And that's precisely what happened, in game one anyway. My opponent had some really powerful bombs that he got onto the board early, and I sent them to the graveyard just as quickly. What Chill to the Bone couldn't get, Skred made up for and the drifters with the shackles were right behind. Once the musher hit the board, it was all over.

Game Two was a bit more ambiguous. I didn't get as lucky with my removal as I had before, but Miss Coldyeyes managed to hit the board with the Warlord, incidentally one of only two cards that her ability could affect. That was enough to lock down the ground battle while my Squall Drifter shaved for point after point.

Whew. Won my first match. That's always a good feeling. But it was hard fought and almost got time called on us, so I barely had time to do what I usually do at this point in a match which is re-evaluate my deck construction decisions. It's not legal to change the deck you began with before your first match, but it helps me learn a bit more about the deck construction process, and I usually find a few things to swap out come sideboard time. Sometimes I sideboard into an entirely different color.

No time for that now though, Match 2 pairings had just been posted. The gangly teenager seated across from me was pretty intimidating, until I saw the gigantic stack of cards that was supposed to be his library.

"Grandma! What a big deck you have!" I exclaimed, fully expecting him to say something like 'the better to beat you with, my dear,’ but he didn't bite.

Instead he said: "And yours is awful tiny."

"Just like my penis." I agreed. Might as well knock him off balance early.

The game started out about how I thought it would. With me sending in some early hits while he struggled to get his sixty card, five color clunker up and running. I got a little scared when he hit me with the Sunscour. I mean, he had won his first match after all, but he had a harder time rebuilding his board than I did. Game two is hardly worth mentioning. He conceded after turn 5 because of manascrew. It's unfortunate, but with a deck like that, he was asking for it.

But then pity got the best of me, that and an unfounded sense of confidence in my deck, I was undefeated after all. Rather than spend the time I needed to evaluate the decisions I'd made during deck construction, I spent the rest of the round helping him out with his.

"You have a very limited number of good cards in this format," I told him. "You need to make them count as much as possible. That means sticking to the 40 card deck rule. 23 cards, 17 lands. Not a shred more." There are exceptions of course, a bunch of Ravnica bounce lands or mana artifacts allow you to drop to 16 lands while a four color deck running on just plain basic lands and no fetch is going to need 18 or 19. But I didn't want to confuse the poor kid. Besides, we were already well into our next argument about the merits of Sun's Bounty.

You'll notice if you have a long attention span and a good memory that I have a Sun's Bounty in my card pool as well and I didn't even think about playing it. Recall shmeecall, Life gain isn't good. I'd much rather draw a Swift Maneuver, which will probably be used to kill one of his creatures one way or another, but he wouldn't listen. He insisted that the ability to keep gaining life over and over should the perfect conditions happen to present themselves made running three Sun's Bounties worth it.

"Tell you what,” I said, “Run one and see how it works out. Just promise me that every time you draw it, you think about what it would have been like to draw that Swift Maneuver instead."

Third match was rough.

I lost the first game pretty handily. Okay, it was mostly because of mana screw, I should have known better than to hold a hand full of red and black cards with only two plains, but he had a darn good deck. He was undefeated after all.

Game two I fought a bit better, he was short on mana this time and I was
picking up everything I needed. I won, but I wouldn't have if he'd had a better first draw. He had this awesome combo going with lightning serpent and grim harvest where he would hit me with the serpent, leaving enough mana open to recall the harvest when the serpent went to the graveyard at end of turn, then he would bring back the serpent with the harvest and do it all over again. I managed to hold it at bay with the Soulgorger, but that was just a lucky draw, and I could only keep it out for two turns anyway. I won that game and the next the merits of zombie musher plus pure luck. Lots of pure luck.

On the fourth match I played against a jovial blue mage with a lot of annoying counters. My removal outpaced his board development by a slim margin. If I hadn't won the toss and opted to play first, that lack of tempo might have swung things his way. The second game came down to the Adarkar Valkyrie, who just plain hadn't been showing up very often in the earlier games. On turn six I drew the second plains I needed to drop her, but my opponent was sitting on four untapped mana and six cards. I knew he had at least two counters in his deck.

"This play is probably going to determine the outcome of this game." I announced, partly because I wanted to see his face. He was a pretty good poker player though. He kept his features neutral and neither reached for his lands nor glanced at his hand. No help there. Okay, let’s get logical.

The last game went on long enough for me to know that he had At least two Rune Snags and one Martyr of Frost. Did this set have any other counters in it? I wasn't sure, but I thought it probably did. What it came down to, though, is that if I didn't play the Valkyrie then, he would have more opportunities to draw into his counters if he hadn't already. He did have six cards in his hand, but he still had at least 30 cards in his deck, which meant the odds were in my favor. It was a risk, but it was a risk that would only increase with time. I played the Valkyrie.

And it resolved successfully. Turned out to win the game, match, and second place in the 43 person flight. But even if it hadn't, it was the right play.


Only now, writing this. Looking over my card pool, do I realize that I made a serious blunder during deck construction. Red was completely superfluous. Red gave me two hard casting cards, one of which, Lovisa Coldeyes, was rarely useful and the other, Karplusan minotaur, was unpredictable.

Neither card was very helpful on the board, and it would have been much better to have substituted some large green beaters. Or even some of blue's removal. Heidar would have been ridiculously good at dominating the board, and frozen solid is just as good at removal as Skred is, better sometimes. I'm not complaining in the least. I'm ecstatic that I went undefeated in such a large flight, but I have to admit that it was at least partly the result of dumb blind luck, and as a player it's my job to minimize the impact of luck as much as possible.

The best deck I could have made with this particular card pool would look a bit more like this:

White 8
Adarkar Valkyrie
Kjeldoran Javelineer
Squall Drifter X2
Glacial Plating
Swift Maneuver
Boreal Griffin
Gelid shackles

Black 7
Chill to the Bone X2
Tresserhorn Skyknight X2
Zombie Musher
Chilling Shade
Rimebound Dead

Green 8
Into the North x2
Sheltering Ancient
Boreal Druid
Simian Brawler
Ronom Hulk
Resize
Arctic Nishoba

Artifact
Phyrexian Soulgorger

Lands
Arctic Flats
Swamp 4 (two snow)
Plains 5 (one snow)
Forest 6 (one snow)

This will work a lot better because green fixes all the problems that the deck had before. Snow mana is much more available, allowing the inclusion of the chilling shade, and two into the north allows the deck to function with a strong black presence without running a lot of swamps. There are six cards that could provide a source of black, and a boreal druid for colorless snow mana.

Meanwhile, Green also includes big ground beaters, allowing you to lock down the ground battle while building up your strength in the air. Besides, resize is more awesome than either Skred or martyr of ashes. At least, in this context. All the Cumulative Upkeep-ing makes it likely that you’ll be choosing when your creatures hit the graveyard too.

Hindsight is, however 20/20. The deck I built wasn’t bad. It did win me 18 packs after all. I just wasn’t the best deck I could have built, and if I had been in a Pro Tour Qualifier, chances are good that deck would have been taken to task a few times.

Now I just have to figure out what’s the most fun I can have with 18 packs. Maybe I’ll hold a draft…

When I do, I’ll be sure to tell you about it.

-Ryan Van Cleve

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