Core Exercises

Posted in How to Play Limited on June 26, 2018

By Luis Scott-Vargas

Luis Scott-Vargas plays, writes, and makes videos about Magic. He has played on the Pro Tour for almost a decade, and between that and producing content for ChannelFireball, often has his hands full (of cards).

One of my favorite parts about a new set is trying to figure out what's going on in Limited (as for my success, the jokes make themselves, so go for it). Today, I'm going to take a look at some of the themes in Core Set 2019 and give you an outline of what to look for when you first hop in. We will start general, then examine some of the louder themes. Let's get to it!

Core Skills

When drafting a core set, there are a few fundamentals you want to keep in mind. Core sets are a great place to get into Limited, as they are a great mix of solid cards that play in a straightforward manner and themes that offer a more intricate drafting experience.

When drafting a deck that doesn't have a strong theme, which is a good place to start, try and aim for the following:

  • 17–18 lands
  • 15 creatures
  • 3-plus removal spells (as many spells as you can get that stop opposing creatures)
  • 2–3 combat tricks, miscellaneous spells, and/or Equipment

Prioritize removal, creatures with evasion, and creatures with good stats. If you draft a deck with something close to the above ratios and a solid curve, you'll do fine in just about any core set, and I expect M19 won't be drastically different. Make sure all the cards you draft affect the board (i.e., are creatures, removal, or combat tricks), and don't worry about getting fancy.

Here's a good mana curve to strive for:

  • 5 creatures that cost two mana
  • 5 creatures that cost three mana
  • 3 creatures that cost four mana
  • 2 creatures that cost five or more mana

Mana Curve

Spells aren't usually counted as part of the curve, though cheap removal can make up for a lack of early drops.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's focus on some of the specific themes that stand out. While there are themes in every two-color combination, some are louder than others, and I've selected three of the most promising to discuss today.

White-Black Life Gain

Gaining life can be pretty sweet, but it's not usually a great goal in and of itself. You can gain as much life as you'd like, but if you're behind on board, you will eventually fall. However, that changes when you get rewards for life gain, and there are plenty of those in M19. A life gain deck seems very real, and its pieces can be divided into two separate groups.


Ajani's PridemateEpicure of Blood

Nightmare's ThirstRegal Bloodlord

The payoffs are a good place to start, because if they aren't worth it, then the whole deck isn't worth it. Luckily, these are, as they are a good spread of threats and answers that pay you generously for gaining life. Ajani's Pridemate is the most powerful incentive, as it can get out of control quickly, but any of these cards is a sufficient enough reward that you should prioritize life gain once you have it. Another strength of this deck is that all of these cards are pretty good even with a light life gain theme, so you aren't forced to fully commit in order to reap the benefits.

So, how are we gaining life?


Ajani's WelcomeDaybreak ChaplainDwarven Priest

Herald of FaithLeonin VanguardRevitalize

Child of NightLich's Caress

This is only a partial list, as there are a ton of ways to gain life in this set. That's a very real upside to drafting this deck, as you won't lack for ways to enable your powerful cards. One of the ways to evaluate the various themes is by difficulty, and life gain is not a hard theme to land. That's one of the reasons I believe it's going to be a loud theme, as it will be present in just about every draft.

Which enablers you want will depend on which payoffs you have. Ajani's Pridemate rewards consistent life gain but doesn't care about the amount, while Nightmare's Thirst is at its best when you can gain a lot of life at once.

What It Looks Like:

Because life gain has such a strong mix-and-match aspect, and because so many of the cards are perfectly serviceable on their own, this deck isn't too tricky to draft. It'll most often manifest as a white-black deck that happens to have one to three payoffs and two to five enablers, though the more dedicated (and lucky) versions will edge toward five-plus payoffs and eight-plus enablers.

You can also draft this deck without being specifically white-black, as some decks will play one or two white enablers and payoffs in something like white-blue, or black ones in black-green (or any other combination using white or black). The strength of the life gain deck is how flexible it is and how low the opportunity cost is.

Black-Red Sacrifice

Like life gain, this deck is comprised of payoffs and enablers. Here, the strategy involves sacrificing creatures for fun and profit, ideally creatures the opponent played. This is a much more specific theme, as sacrificing creatures is much harder to set up than simply gaining life, but there are some very nice payoffs here.


Brawl-Bash OgreThud

Blood DivinationRavenous Harpy

The one-shot payoffs (Thud and Blood Divination) aren't as exciting as the recurring ones, but both types are quite powerful. When you have ample amounts of fodder, these cards are absurd, and you can easily overpower the opponent. Where they get really busted is when you have Act of Treason, which is by far the best of the enablers.


Act of TreasonReassembling SkeletonDragon Egg

Goblin InstigatorDoomed DissenterSkyscanner

Act of Treason really makes or breaks this deck. When you get two or three Acts and a couple sacrifice outlets, you easily crush all opposition. Stealing their creature, hitting them with it, and then tossing it into the graveyard is a huge swing, and all for three mana. What makes it even more powerful is that most people at the table won't want Act of Treason—you can often spend early picks on actual removal, then get what is effectively removal much later in the draft. Reassembling Skeleton is the next best, as it offers an infinite supply of bones to pick, and the enablers drop off after that. Still, like the life gain deck, if you get a good mix of these two categories, your deck will run smoothly and be powerful. One note is that black-red is a little bit more committal, as you can end up with more awkward cards in your deck if you don't get there, so keep that in mind. If the deck isn't open, you may have to abandon ship, as half-measures don't work as well as in life gain.

White-Blue Artifacts

Aethershield ArtificerTrusty PackbeastAviation Pioneer

Skilled AnimatorScholar of StarsAerial Engineer

The last deck I want to focus on is the artifact deck. Here, the enablers are all pretty simple—they are simply artifacts. As such, I just pulled out some of the payoffs worth mentioning. This deck rewards you for making small and cheap artifacts, though some of the cards don't care about what artifact you have, as long as you have one.

This deck is the most "normal" of these decks, as you don't really need an excuse to play solid artifacts in your deck, and most of these payoffs function pretty well even with a low artifact count. The deck looks geared toward evasion and value, which lines up with how white-blue tends to function in most sets. Sometimes you'll be a little more aggressive, and sometimes you'll just have three Scholar of Stars and try and keep trading with the opponent.

Staying on Theme

One similarity all these themes have is that they can fit into decks without taking too much space. Black-red is the most demanding, but all of these themes can be as few as four cards while still very much changing how your deck plays out. That indicates a wide open Draft format, where you have synergy available without it being mandatory. That lines up with previous core sets, and is my favorite kind of Draft format (Dominaria feels this way as well).

There are many more themes than these three, but these stood out to me and are a great place to start. Good luck!


Latest How to Play Limited Articles


October 3, 2019

Throne of Eldraine Draft First Picks by, Luis Scott-Vargas

Welcome back to Pack 1, Pick 1: Throne of Eldraine edition! Today, we are going to look at the cards you want to see staring back at you when you crack your first pack. As with any pick-o...

Learn More


October 1, 2019

Adventuring into Eldraine Limited for the First Time by, Marshall Sutcliffe

From the first look at the cards in this set, you can see that the designers had some fun with this one. With fairy-tale flavor everywhere, you'll stumble on cards that you didn't get the...

Learn More



How to Play Limited Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All