Foundations, Part 1:
Drafting and Building

Posted in Limited Information on December 5, 2012

By Steve Sadin

Five years ago, Quentin Martin stepped down as the Limited Information columnist, giving the position back to former writer Noah Weil. Noah had written the column for nearly a year prior to that point, and while he was happy to take up the position again for a little while, he knew he wouldn't be able to commit the time that a weekly column required for more than a couple of months.

The fact that Noah was only going to be writing the column for an interim period gave me an opportunity to audition to be the (then) new Limited Information columnist.

For 2008 Steve, the idea of sending in an audition piece was both a terrifying and exciting proposition.

Izzet Guildgate | Art by Noah Bradley

At first, I didn't want to send in anything, because I knew that if I wasn't selected I would be devastated. But I wanted the role so badly I was willing to set my fears aside just long enough to write and submit an article entitled "A Guide to Cooperating: How and why to cooperate with your neighbors in Draft."

At the time, I was a college student and, after reading a bunch of books on negotiation, I had become enamored with the idea of cooperation for mutual gain. So I decided to apply the concepts (as I understood them) to the way I approach Limited—ultimately emphasizing these key points:

  • Pay attention to what your neighbors are doing.
  • Pay attention to what your neighbors think you are doing.
  • Always try to cooperate early.
  • If all else is equal and you have the choice between doing what the person to your right wants you to do and doing what the person to your left wants you to do, side with the person to your right. The person to your right has your back for two packs, and you might be able to move the person to your left out of your color(s).
  • And lastly, always try to make sure you can agree on at least a couple of things with your neighbors.

Once I had finally submitted the article, all I had to do was wait for it to get approved for publication by (former editor and current R&D editor and playtester) Kelly Digges, then wait another two weeks for it to see publication,... and another two weeks to find out if I had gotten the gig.

If I said I wasn't hounded by constant self-doubt during this period, that would be a dog-faced lie. (All right, I'll admit it—that one was a little bit ruff, but bear with me.)

So after a month full of awful sleep, and dozens of Lorwyn/Morningtide 8–4s on Magic Online, I got an email from Kelly Digges... I had gotten the job!

I was overjoyed, and my head was buzzing with ideas for article topics, questions, and new ways to look at things. As a college student, and a professional Magic player, this was the perfect position for me.

During my first couple of years on the column, every part of the writing process was exciting and energizing. The moment I finished one article I would get to work on the next one (if I could even wait that long).

But, over time, other responsibilities started creeping up on me.

When I was in college, and then when I was working from home as the Content Manager for StarCityGames, it was easy for me to balance all of my responsibilities AND draft dozens of times a month...

But when I took a (fun, but time-consuming) job that required me to go to an office five days a week, and travel on a fairly consistent basis, I found myself struggling to find time to play anywhere near as much Magic as I wanted to. Not only did this make it increasingly difficult for me to write the column, but it also meant that the time that I spent writing was explicitly time that I couldn't spend playing Magic.

If you're reading this, I don't need to explain to you why Magic is an amazing game.

And while writing this column has meant the world to me, I've reached a point in my life where I'd rather play Magic than write about it (at least for the time being). So after nearly five years, the time has come for me to pass the column on to someone who will (hopefully) enjoy it, and appreciate it as much as I have. Who that is will be revealed soon, so stay tuned.

But before I go, I want to leave you with the foundations on which I've built my understanding of Limited.

Deck Construction Fundamentals

If you follow these simple rules, you will be able to consistently build competitive decks. Of course, drafting and building great decks will require a lot more care and effort, as mentioned in "Magic 2013 Sealed Deck Fundamentals":

Play exactly forty cards

While you technically CAN play as many cards as you want to in your Sealed Deck, I would strongly advise against it. When you play with exactly forty cards, you maximize your chances of drawing your best spells and the lands you need to cast them.

Play seventeen to eighteen lands

It can be tempting to shave lands from your deck, particularly if you have a lot of good cards you want to play with. However, doing so can lead to disastrous results.

Yes, there will be times when you can get away with playing sixteen lands in your deck, but unless your deck is exceptionally fast and almost exclusively full of cheap spells, seventeen to eighteen lands will be the way to go.

...and "Colorflux"...

Stick to two colors, or two colors with a light splash, unless you have an abundance of mana fixing

As a general rule of thumb, you want to have eight to eleven mana sources for your main color(s), and two to five mana sources for each of your splash colors.

You can splash a single high-quality card like an Arrest, an Explosive Impact, or a Hypersonic Dragon with as few as two or three ways to produce the required color of mana.

However, if you want to play three or four cards in your splash color (or you're trying to splash a card that requires multiple colored mana like an Armada Wurm), then you're going to want to include four, five, or more ways to make the required color of mana.

Armada Wurm

Play at least twelve creatures and make sure that at least fourteen or fifteen of your cards cost four mana or less

Barring exceptional circumstances, without a critical density of creatures, you'll have a lot of trouble establishing a meaningful board presence against anyone. And unless you can actually play your spells in a timely manner, you're just going to get blown out by anyone who gets anything that even resembles a fast start.

Parsing Your Sealed Pool

When I get a new Sealed pool, I go through a lot of different steps. However, I think the first three steps I go through (as outlined in just my third article for DailyMTG) are by far and away the most important:

1) How many cards I'd be OK playing from each of my colors.

Every card that would be considered playable falls under this category. Sure, you might not want to play all of the cards that get counted in this category, but the number that this category generates allows you to figure out what color combinations are physically possible.

For example, you might have seven awesome black cards and seven awesome blue cards, but if you don't have any other playable blue or black cards you simply aren't going to be able to play them both as main colors. Heck, if you only have seven of each you might not be able to play either of them as main colors unless you have another base color that can act as an anchor by providing you with a lot of playables.

When I am separating out my playable cards I will also organize them by mana cost. Sometimes you will have two colors that each have a bunch of good cards, but if neither of the colors have any two- or three-drops you're going to have to look elsewhere to fill out your deck.

2) How many cards I'd like to play in each of my colors

During this step I figure out which of my playable cards I actually want to play. While a Gray Ogre is always going to fall under the "playable" blanket, the odds that I will actually play it are pretty low.


3) Which cards I'm willing to work to play

In my final first run-through step, I determine which of my cards are worth trying a little bit harder to play. This could mean a light splash for a banishing or two, or turning a somewhat weak color into a base color in order to support a double-casting-cost bomb.

Sometimes, this simple process will practically build my deck for me (especially if my deck is pretty bad or very good). However, the most frequent outcome that I get when using this sorting process is that I will be able to eliminate an entire color and reduce another color to, at most, a splash. This leaves me with an average of 3.5 colors' worth of options to build from. And let me tell you, building a deck from 3.5 colors' worth of options is about nine times easier than trying to build a deck while looking at all of the colors.

When you're building your deck, it's also important to keep in mind—as originally discussed in "Colorflux"—that,

Sealed decks are generally slower than Draft decks. Sure, you'll occasionally find a good beatdown deck in Sealed—but for the most part, Sealed Deck games tend to last several turns longer than Booster Draft games in the same format.

Because Sealed Deck games tend to go long, players will have more time to draw and cast their best cards. Consequently, it is crucial for you to play as many answers (and bombs) as you possibly can.

Why Splash?

If you're going to splash a third (or even a fourth) color, you need to gain access to a card—or several cards—that are noticeably better than in-color options.

If you have a mana fixer (be it a common like an Izzet Guildgate or a rare such as Steam Vents), that should make it pretty easy for you to splash a single off-colored card by playing your mana fixer AND an additional basic land of the appropriate color.

Izzet Guildgate
Steam Vents

But unless that off-colored card (or cards) is significantly better than your on-color option(s), you should be very wary of making that move, as adding additional colors greatly increases the risk that you will clog your hand with spells that you simply can't cast.

So unless you're getting a bomb rare, a new victory condition, or a multi-purpose removal spell, just stick to two colors. You won't be disappointed.

Power and Peril: Drafting a Three-to-Five-Color Deck

While many Sealed Deck formats are slow enough to encourage you to splash a third color if it gives you access to more powerful cards, the same can't be said for most draft formats. As originally discussed in "When to Make a Splash":

When you're drafting a many-colored deck, you are going to have access to the majority of the powerful cards that get passed to you, but you have to spend a good number of early picks on mana fixing. The theory is that you will more than make up for the picks that you had to spend on mana fixing by vastly increasing the quality of your other picks.

When this works out, it's great...

...But sometimes things don't work out like you might have hoped. One of the nightmare situations that can occur when you are drafting a many-colored deck is that you don't get the mana fixing you need in order to be able to cast your spells in a timely manner (or at all, as the case may be). When this happens, you're going to have an incredibly awkward deck that can compete, but only if it draws the right pieces.

Even if you get the fixing you need, you still have to be concerned with your mana curve so you're not getting blown out left and right before you even get a chance to cast your most powerful spells.

Generally, the happy medium lies somewhere between two and five colors. Two and a light splash or one heavy base color and two supporting colors are pretty failsafe ways to draft a good deck. But when the situation calls for it, you shouldn't be afraid to go for a hyper-aggressive two-color deck, or an absurdly powerful five-color deck.

Making the Rest of Your Deck (and the rest of your draft picks) Better

When my friend Brian David-Marshall explained, "Good, cheap spells make the rest of your deck better, whereas expensive spells and splashes place a burden on the rest of your picks and deck in exchange for powerful effects," he completely changed the way I look at Limited.

While expensive spells tend to be very powerful, unless an expensive spell is going to play a crucial, irreplaceable role for me, I always gravitate toward the cheapest cards early in drafts. As described in "Making the Rest of Your Deck Better":

Taking cheap spells early will leave you with a lot of options as the draft progresses. Once you have a bunch of early drops, you are then free to pick up more things you can play quickly, in order to build a very aggressive deck. Or you can pick up some cards for the middle or higher end of your curve to finish out with a fairly typical-looking deck.

Those early drops put you in a position where you can take advantage of pretty much any opportunities that present themselves to you.

While picking up cheap spells will allow you to proceed in all sorts of different directions, taking expensive spells will constrain your options as the draft progresses.

If you go into the third pack and you have a bunch of mid- to late-drops and very few cards that have a relevant effect on the board on the first three turns, you will be desperately looking for early plays to fill out your deck.

Not only will your picks be constrained, often forcing you to take even marginal early plays over almost anything else, but if you don't get those early drops you're going to be in a world of hurt, forced to sit down and do battle with a terribly slow stack of forty cards.

Making Your Picks Matter

At the end of the day, you need to be fast and/or powerful to win.
—"Mana Zoom"

And in order to ensure your deck will actually have what it takes to win, you need to be making sure your picks really matter. As I wrote in "Making Your Picks Matter":

When you are drafting a deck, you want to do everything you can to ensure that each card you take could have a noticeable impact on your deck. Sometimes, this means drafting cards you know you probably won't end up playing.

Keep in mind that being forced to give up on picks that you had previously made (either because you wound up drafting a very different deck than you originally thought and/or because you got passed a bunch of high-powered cards that made some of your earlier picks irrelevant), and actively wasting picks (or using picks for cards that are replaceable), are very different things.

While either scenario will ultimately end with you leaving cards in your sideboard, you shouldn't be afraid to take cards that could lead you to abandon some of your earlier picks (particularly if doing so could lead you toward drafting a better deck).

Understand What Your Deck is Actually Capable Of

There's a big difference between drafting a good deck and drafting a collection of abstractly powerful cards. However, just because a card is "good" doesn't mean it's necessarily good in your deck. And if your deck is looking "bad" then it becomes absolutely crucial for you to take steps to draft a deck that can actually win, as originally discussed in "What's Wrong?":

When your decks just aren't coming together properly, but you stubbornly draft in the same way you would if everything was going according to plan, you're going to end up with a lot of helpless decks.

You don't want to go into battle sporting a deck that's just inferior, across the board, when compared to the decks you know you are going to face.

But as long as you don't lose sight of the fact that your draft isn't going well, you should still be able to put together a deck capable of winning—so long as you are willing to make some sacrifices.

This might mean exposing yourself to two-for-ones with your Spectral Flights. Or you could accept the fact that your mana isn't going to be great in order to play with twenty-two really good spells.

Spectral Flight

Or you might just cut the majority of your high-end cards and your best defensive cards in order to build the most aggressive deck you possibly can.

Whatever path you decide to take, just make sure you have an idea of how you are going to win. This might require you to get a bit "lucky," but that's far better than resigning yourself to eventually losing with your directionless deck.

After all, if YOU can't see yourself winning with your deck, you probably won't.

One More Before I Go

I'll be back next week with my final Limited Information column to go over what I think about when I'm physically playing games.

I'll see you then!

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