Playing One-Drops in Limited

Posted in Beyond the Basics on October 26, 2018

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

Creatures that cost one mana are as old as Magic itself. Savannah Lions. Llanowar Elves. Mons's Goblin Raiders.

And 25 years later, well . . . some things about Magic are still true.

Tons and tons of one-mana creatures have been printed. There have been plenty of incredibly strong one-drops which have seen play at the top levels of Magic. After all, if you can impact the game for the cheapest amount you can pay (free spells aside), that's just using your mana wisely. And in Constructed, you have your pick of the litter when it comes to potential one-drop plays.

When you play Booster Draft or Sealed Deck though, when should you be including them? You're only going to have access to a handful. When is it right to jam them in, and when should you leave them on the bench?

It can be hard to know.

There are a lot of factors that go into whether you want to play a one-drop in your deck or not. Let's take a look at this today!

The Cost of a Card

If you could just snap your fingers and materialize a Merfolk of the Pearl Trident out of thin air onto the battlefield, that would be stellar. A free 1/1 has plenty of utility. But, presuming you're not an actual sorcerer, the problem is that mana isn't the only cost to be thinking about here.

One-drops might have the lowest mana cost, but they still cost a card to play. Every card you play in your deck and subsequently draw is at the cost of something else. If you spend a card to play a one-mana creature, you need to make sure you're really getting value out of it.

How much damage does a one-drop need to deal to be worth it?

A kind of one-drop I see played a lot when it probably shouldn't be is a one-mana 1/1 flier.

It doesn't get stopped on the ground! It just pecks away for 1 point of damage at a time! What's not to like?

Well, let's think about it for a moment.

If you have a Suntail Hawk in your opening hand and cast it, you can peck away for 1 damage a turn until your opponent has a flier too. Let's say you're on the play, and they don't have a flier until their fourth turn—that means your Hawk got in for 3 points of damage. This is a pretty common scenario . . . and yet, very few Limited decks would pay one mana to deal 3 damage.

Direct damage to the face with cards like Lava Spike are generally not Limited-playable unless you have other synergies going on (hello, arcane!), or if you can compound their power by playing a lot of them to burn your opponent out of nowhere. And therein lies the weakness here: while Suntail Hawk is much cheaper to cast than Lava Axe, a Lava Axe you draw on turn six is going to generally be much stronger than a Suntail Hawk on turn six. And while, yes, Suntail Hawk can block, it's unlikely to trade with much—it's mostly going to soak up damage.

Even if your Suntail Hawk wasn't blocked for the entire game, it's still not clear that it's worth playing. Its damage output is so much worse than a two-mana 2/2 creature over time. Unless you have ways to enhance it, one-mana 1/1 unblockable creatures like Mist-Cloaked Herald don't generally make the cut for the same reason.

To be worth a card, you are going to want your one-drop to have more potency on attack and defense. One simple way to do that is . . .

The Second Power

The number-one quick heuristic that grabs my eye about a one-drop creature in Limited is if it has 2 power.

1-power creatures have trouble being worth the price of a card as attackers and blockers. They only trade with 1-toughness creatures, which aren't that common in Limited, and even if you do play it on turn one, you might get in for 2 or so damage before it's outclassed—and dealing 2 damage then chump blocking later isn't a card you'd generally want in your deck.

A card with 2 power, though, is a different story entirely.

Bears—two-mana 2/2 creatures, named after Grizzly Bears—generally make the cut to ensure you have a good-looking mana curve. You won't necessarily play them all, and they certainly range in power wildly, but a two-mana 2-power creature is the bread and butter of a Limited format.

If you have a 2-power creature that only costs one mana, you're just being mana efficient. If you're an aggressive deck, it means that you have the potential to get out of the gates early and attack for more damage: a turn-one 2-power creature followed by another 2-power creature on the second turn let you attack for 4 on your third turn.

But even if you're a more defensive deck, it lets you trade with your opponent mana-efficiently. If you can spend one mana for Elite Vanguard and then trade your one-mana card with your opponent's Glory Seeker, that is generally a trade you're happy to make: you got to trade off your one-mana card for a two-mana card.

And it's for that reason that the second power, not dealing a second damage, is important here. There is a tremendous power level gap between, say, Elite Vanguard and Vicious Conquistador.

While it's easy to read them as similar—they both attack for 2 damage—Conquistador really only fits in the most aggressive of decks, or decks leveraging its Vampire subtype. It's significantly worse at blocking, and on the attack a lot harder to get in there with. An Elite Vanguard can attack into a 2-toughness creature; a Vicious Conquistador can't.

While you won't always play 2-power one-drops, it's a great first check—and they often make my Limited deck.

Utility Throughout the Game

If the problem with one-drops is that they stop being relevant later on in the game, a great way to help obviate that is if they have abilities built in that are functional later on.

Let's take Siren Stormtamer and Pilfering Imp as examples.

Like the aforementioned Suntail Hawk, both of these gets in for a few damage early. But the big difference lies in their abilities: later on, you can use either of these for a card's worth of value. They let you trade for a card of your opponent's. And that is huge.

If your one-drop can cash in for a card down the road, that's great! It means you can get the few points of damage out of it while it's still relevant, and then turn it into something more meaningful once it's outclassed.

But it's not just about card advantage.

Something like Typhoid Rats is great despite having 1 power because it trades with anything. It's very easy to make a one-mana creature trade with something far above its mana cost. Goblin Banneret is solid because it can be a mana sink later on and trade with those creatures. These are cards that still do something if your opponent casts a 2-toughness creature.

And then, of course, there is Llanowar Elves.

On turn one, this card is just so impactful: it puts you ahead a mana on your opponent, meaning you can be a step ahead for the rest of the game. It adds late game utility by being relevant for the whole game. And while, yes, it's a weak topdeck late in the game, it's tremendous strength early on is worth the risk of drawing it late—which is really all you can ask for in a one-drop. There are very few one-mana plays that are stellar on turn ten, so often the question is, "How strong is this in the first few turns?"

And in the case of Llanowar Elves, the answer is "very."

Finding Synergy

The last thing I want to bring up, and something quite relevant to you Guilds of Ravnica drafters out there, is synergy. Guilds of Ravnica has some of the best one-drops ever in Limited.

Let's take this card: Healer's Hawk.

This is pretty close to a card I was advising you against not playing just moments ago. Yes, it picks up lifelink which is nice—but still, in a lot of Limited formats, I wouldn't generally play this card.

But what flips the script here? Convoke and mentor!

Two of the key things I've mentioned previously in this article are finding that second power and tapping for mana . . . and these two keywords enable both!

It's pretty trivial to buff your Hawk up to a 2/2 or larger with mentor, which makes it quite worth playing. Accelerating out your creatures even quicker via convoke turns your Hawks into Llanowar Elves. And while I'm not saying that I'm going to jam six Healer's Hawks into my decks, it is a card I'll play a lot more often here. Its good one-drop pal Hunted Witness has also often been making the cut for these reasons.

And while this may be what's going on with the current set, finding that synergy is always something to look toward. For example, if there are a lot of Auras, one-drops can become a lot better. Although it's a risky strategy, plenty of Core Set 2019 games were ended by a turn-one Rustwing Falcon into Knight's Pledge. You can always be on the lookout for archetypes or styles of deck that make one-drops better than normal, and rate your one-drops appropriately.

One with Everything

The next time you go crack open a Sealed pool and are staring at one-drops, you can ask yourself how impactful they will be early game, what they're doing late game, and if that trade-off is worth it. If you do play with them, think as you draw and cast them about what impact they're having in the game. Mindfully noticing these things is often the first step toward realizing if they were good choices.

There's a lot that goes into choosing which cards to include in your Limited deck—and when it comes to one-drops, hopefully you feel even better informed.

Have thoughts you'd like to share on this? Any questions? You can always find me by sending me a tweet, asking me a question on Tumblr, or emailing me at Beyondbasicsmagic@gmail.com.

Have fun playing with Guilds of Ravnica—and may your one-drops always show up in your opening hand. Talk with you again soon!

Gavin
@GavinVerhey
GavInsight

Latest Beyond the Basics Articles

BEYOND THE BASICS

October 11, 2018

Do(n't) Play Lands by, Gavin Verhey

One of the very first rules you learn when you start playing Magic is that you can play a land every turn. We learn right away the benefits of playing a land each turn as we move from cas...

Learn More

BEYOND THE BASICS

August 23, 2018

Deck Building with a Brawl Commander by, Gavin Verhey

In a traditional game of Magic, you're playing one-on-one. You've got your library, you draw your cards from it, and those are the resources you have. There's no guarantee you're going to...

Learn More

Articles

Articles

Beyond the Basics Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All

We use cookies on this site to personalize content and ads, provide social media features and analyze web traffic. By clicking YES, you are consenting for us to set cookies. (Learn more about cookies)

No, I want to find out more