I’m Quentin Martin, and I’ll be your source of all Limited information for the foreseeable future. I suppose a brief introduction is necessary so I’ll present my credentials for your conscientious approval. I started playing when Ice Age was still for sale in the shops and before anyone had even thought about drafting. I played my fair share of PTQs starting from back when Urza’s Saga was legal. My first Pro Tour was Invasion Block Constructed in Tokyo when I was sixteen. Like most players, I failed to make day two and simply enjoyed being in Japan. Since then, I’ve put up several successful Grand Prix finishes including four Top 8s. I finally made it to the Sunday stage of the Pro Tour in Prague last year, and, if you read BDM’s “What If?” Week article two weeks ago, almost made a return to it in Geneva. I started off, as I think most people tend to, by playing Constructed; it wasn’t until I attended my first Nationals that I found my way into a draft. But times have changed and now forty-card decks are my specialty, fortunately deemed good enough by the powers that be to enable me to pass on the knowledge I’ve acquired to you.
In the immortal words of Julie Andrews, I’m going to start at the very beginning, because it is a very good place to start. Many different players, indeed many writers of this very column, have conflicting opinions about what makes Magic tick, and almost all of the varying perspectives originate from how people perceive the basics. I’m talking about card analysis or, in layman’s terms, what makes cards “good.” This will be the focus of today’s article.
This is probably a fairly accurate description of how most players get into the game. Others may have been introduced by people who already played and so might have had an accelerated learning process, but I think what happened to me is better for you, at least initially. My reasoning is that if you learn for yourself, starting from a platform of almost complete ignorance, your education is guided by your own intuitive reasoning. It’s not a matter of someone telling you a card is good ‘because it is.’ You know the card is good because you understand the underlying reasons for its strength. If you’ve ever seen anyone pick up a Constructed deck they’ve never played before trying to sideboard a matchup, you will realise they have no idea what they are doing. Whereas the person who is playing a deck he built will quickly exchange the relevant cards because he put them in the sideboard in the first place. The same is even more true for Limited. Play with cards you think are good because you have found them to be so, not just because someone has told you so. Or if they do so instruct you, ask them why the card is good.
One thing I left out in my introduction – I used to be a philosophy student. For this, I hope you forgive me. Cards are “good” because society dictates that they are. Not our society, but the cards’. Cards are good subjective to the other cards that they share living space with. In Mirrodin block, Oxidize was a clear first pick due to the vast number of artifacts that proliferated the block. However, if it were in Time Spiral it would find itself going fourteenth in the booster alongside Molder and Brass Gnat. Juzam Djinn Djinn was a powerhouse in constructed when he was first printed, but in the form of Plague Sliver he has hardly seen any play. The examples are endless.
To truly understand why cards are good based on their surroundings, let’s examine Errant Ephemeron and Looter il-Kor. Before Kobe, most pros thought that the Looter was the better card. In almost any other format it would be, but Time Spiral is so deep in playables that the average power level of a deck is significantly higher than normal, minimising the (still great) impact of the additional card selection it provides. So Looter is still great, but slightly worse than normal, let’s take a look at Errant Ephemeron. He is good because of the Limited metagame, because almost no common can kill him. Only Temporal Isolation, Lightning Axe and Dark Withering are consistently good enough to take him down. He dodges Rift Bolt, Orcish Cannonade, Strangling Soot, Grapeshot, and your average Tendrils of Corruption. He beats every other common flying creature – the only other card that comes close is Castle Raptors. It might even be said that Ephemeron is the metagame-defining common of Time Spiral and, as such, the most defining card.
There are other factors to card evaluation other than the immediate interaction with other cards. Metagame literally means ‘beyond’ the game and is normally used to refer to the analytical speculation of what the makeup of a format entails and how it interacts. In Constructed, this helps in both deck choice and individual card selection. A certain deck might become unplayable if you perceive its nemesis to be the most popularly played deck. In order to combat the most popular deck, you will often add cards to the main deck and, especially, to the sideboard. The same process is applicable in Limited. It is often easier than the future forecast of a metagame in Constructed because there are fewer cards and rarity ensures you will not have to factor some of them as heavily as others.
What does a Limited format reveal? One of the first things that happens is the revelation of the speed of the format. Whether it is fast or slow goes on to effect the strength of the individual cards. In a slow format, cards like Aetherflame Wall lose value whilst cards like Think Twice increase; these evaluations invert with a fast format. What dictates what speed a format is? The cards themselves. If cards like Penumbra Spiders, Thallid Shell Dwellers and Mogg War Marshals are prevalent then this will slow the format down. Conversely, if there are lots of cheap, efficient beaters backed up by an abundance of cheap creature pump and cheap removal, the format will speed up. It is normally only after extensive testing that you really understand the ins and outs of a format, but analysing it from this angle will help you far more than studying a pick order or taking cards simply because, individually, they look strong.
It is often possible to analyse cards by themselves. This is often done at the start of a format when it is practically impossible to assess cards in their social context. There seems to be a basic set of objective rules in Magic that mean that if you pay so much, you get so much. Three mana will buy you a 2/2, four a 3/3 and so on. Various things contribute as well: An additional ability might be worth a power/toughness reduction or the addition of another coloured mana; one mana will draw you a card, but you have to pay three to draw two, leaving all sorts of possible abilities to be tagged along in between; being an instant or having flying often costs you an additional mana, and so on. These are the base costs upon which we intuitively assess cards.
For a slightly larger picture of relevant applications of this new way of looking at how cards are evaluated, let’s take a brief glimpse at Constructed. The basis of Constructed is limited skill selection and card evaluation. Constructed is just a very big Sealed deck, where your card pool is several sets and expansions. For anyone who has tried to build a deck in a new block format, you will know what I mean. Go online now and try and build a deck to play in a Time Spiral Constructed queue. To start with your deck will feel just like a Limited deck. You will play it, and find cards that you don’t like and this will generate ideas to play other cards instead, and so on. It should remind you of how you felt at a prerelease, when you realised that the Keldon Marauders you were playing did nothing game after game, whereas you lost almost every round to Uktabi Drake, a card you had thought unplayable and had foolishly left in your sideboard.
The best and most relevant application of this theory is in Two-Headed Giant. We have two Grand Prix, a PTQ season, and a Pro Tour of Time Spiral Limited 2HG, including GP Amsterdam last weekend. As I have already said, any new format needs new appraisal, so what makes this 2HG format different from any other? It is already an old format. We have drafted it many times before and know what is good and bad – in normal Draft and Sealed conditions! It will be like trying to switch from bass guitar to electric. We have to relearn it, reassess all the cards and the entire format they form. The ball park has changed completely – two players, twice the mana, fifty percent more life – so many changed variables of the normal objective aspect of the game. This is the hardest type of learning – the destruction of what one already knows to replace it with something completely different from the same building blocks. I will leave the topic of 2HG for a later series of articles where I hope to dissect what makes that format work, how different cards have gained and lost tremendous value, how to build Sealed decks, and how to draft it.
Looking at it from this angle it should become obvious how important the ability to recognise the strength of cards is given the eternal flux that results from new expansions continually coming out; and, as a result, how being aware of this will improve your game. It might reflect itself in small things like winning your local prerelease or doing well on the Pro Tour in a new format. Or it could open your eyes to the inner workings of the game that were shrouded to you beforehand and, with this revelation, you might improve drastically as a player and finally win that PTQ and make it to the elusive heights of the Pro Tour. For now I hope this basic take on card evaluation has rung true, and from this solid foundation, I hope to move onto more complex issues safe in the knowledge that the groundwork has been taken care of.