Foundations: Parts 1 and 2

Posted in Limited Information on December 26, 2012

By Steve Sadin

Steve Sadin wrote Limited Information for nearly five years before stepping down from the column (but not coverage!) earlier this month. His final two articles create something of a retrospective of his work while pointing out the fundamentals of Limited formats. Steve leaves on a high note with these articles, which we feel are themselves excellent examples of his finest works. We therefore hope you also enjoy "Foundations."

Happy Holidays!

—Mike McArtor Copyeditor,

Foundations, Part 1: Drafting and Building

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!

Foundations, Part 2: Playing the Game

Editor's Note: Although Mike and I have only been working directly with Steve for the past year of his five-year tenure, we are very sad to see him go. I've read his articles for years and have appreciated the lessons he's shared about learning and improving as a Limited player. His contributions to as a weekly columnist will be missed.

As Steve notes below, we will be tasking Pro Tour commentator and Magic podcaster Marshall Sutcliffe with the inimitable task of following in Steve's footsteps and helping to teach the art of Limited—a task I am certain he is up for.

//Trick Jarrett

A nearly five years, my run as the columnist for Limited Information has come to an end. I'll be passing the torch on to the more-than-capable hands of Marshall Sutcliffe (who many of you probably already know from his video coverage at Pro Tours and Grand Prix, as well as his podcast Limited Resources ).

I know Marshall's going to be great (even if he doesn't yet understand that Judge's Familiar is actually a one-mana Lava Axe), and I'm already looking forward to tuning in every Wednesday to read what he has to say.

But before Marshall takes the reins, I've still got some important things to go over.

Last week, I walked you through what I think about when I'm drafting and building my deck. This week, I'm going to go over what I think about when I actually sit down to play.

Always Have a Plan

When you're playing a game of Magic (or drafting/building your deck), it's absolutely crucial for you to have a clear idea of what needs to happen for you to win.

Inspiration | Art by Izzy

Without a plan, you will inevitably get yourself into a lot of trouble (good tactical decisions mean little without an overarching plan). But with a plan you'll find ways to win countless games that would have been completely out of reach had you been playing haphazardly.


When a hand is missing a piece to become functional, you better be in great shape if you draw that piece.
—From "Mulling it Over."

Games of Magic are frequently won and lost before so much as a single spell has been cast. If you keep a bad hand, or you mulligan a hand that actually had a very good chance of paying off for you, your chances of winning can go down by a significant margin.

It should be easy for you to recognize a really good hand or a really bad hand—but how do you know if an imperfect hand is worth keeping?

As I further explained in "How Much Better Do You Need It to Get?"...

The hardest mulligan hands tend to have five lands and two spells or five spells and two lands. Four-land, three-spell and three-land, four-spell hands are usually keepable unless they have a tragic flaw (the flaw could be no action, missing a key color of mana, not fast enough, etc.). One-land, six-spell hands can be a bit tricky, but they are very rarely worth keeping. And I've never heard of a one-spell, no-spell, or seven-spell hand that I'd consider keeping in Limited.

In order to keep a five-land hand (or a three-land, Borderpost, Obelisk hand) you're going to need to have some very good spells. If the hand in question had a Sharding Sphinx or a Tower Gargoyle instead of a Jhessian Zombies, then I would say keep it in a heartbeat. But when your spells are slow, and ultimately comparable to two- and three-drops, then your hand really isn't cutting the mustard.

If a hand has two lands in it, then you have very different questions to ask yourself. Questions like: Are my spells worth it? What happens if I don't draw a land by turn three? What happens if I don't get to four mana until turn six? Are the spells in my hand actually good if I can't play them in a timely fashion? What happens if I do draw my third land by turn three? What happens if ...?

If you discover that your hand isn't that great if you draw what you need, and you're in big trouble if you don't, then that's a pretty sure sign that you should be taking a trip down to six. If your hand is very good if you draw what you need on time, but kind of terrible if you don't, then you've got a tough decision on your hands.

Always ask yourself whether you can recover if you stumble a bit. Well, that depends on your hand and, just as importantly, on your deck.

Always Look to the Future

I've seen players cost themselves countless games because they didn't want to trade a "good card" for an opponent's "bad card"—or because they threw away a (normally ineffective) resource that could have won them the game outright.

Fortunately, this doesn't have to happen to you. As originally mentioned in "Card Advantage: A Brief Overview," as long as you remember that...

It doesn't matter where a card (or a token) came from; once it is in your hand or on your board, you should treat it with just as much respect as you would give to any other resource.'ll be able to properly evaluate the game state as it actually is, instead of as you think it should be.

Ask Questions!

About a year into writing this column, I wrote an article called "Some Questions You Should Be Asking" that (unsurprisingly) went over the types of questions you should be asking yourself when you're playing a game.

I would strongly recommend for you to read the whole article, but for now, let's just take a look at an excerpt:

"Is it right to attack this turn?" "Should I use my Giant Growth here?"
"Should I take the Terror or the Pacifism?"
"Should I main deck my Naturalize?"
"Should I landcycle this turn or play my two-drop?"
"Should I Shock my opponent's Llanowar Elves?"
"Should I sacrifice all my artifacts to Thopter Foundry to try to kill my opponent next turn?"

I'm sure you both hear and ask yourself questions like these all the time when you play Limited. Why am I sure? Because every one of these questions needs to be answered in order for your game (or draft, or deck construction) to progress.

But these types of questions don't actually mean anything.

To put it in non-card terms, if someone asked you "Should I drop out of Harvard three weeks before graduation?" It would be very easy to say "no" immediately. But if the person is considering dropping out of school to star in Transformers 3, then the question becomes much more interesting.

These questions are questions about what you must choose to do, not why you should make decision A or decision B (or perhaps a non-obvious decision C).

In order to make proper decisions, you need to ask the right questions. So, instead of asking yourself "Should I Giant Growth here?" you should ask yourself things like "Is there a better time for me to cast this Giant Growth?" and "What happens if my opponent also has a trick?"

Playing Around Tricks

When you're deciding how to attack or block, and your opponent has mana untapped and cards in hand, you're going to need to respect the fact that your opponent could have a combat trick or a removal spell in his or her hand. Once you've taken that possibility into account, you can figure out whether or not you actually care. As I originally talked about in "Sealed Deck Decisions"...

Does my opponent have a trick? Do I even care?

You have a Sentinel Spider and your opponent's only creature is a Knight of Glory. Your opponent is playing white, so you know he or she might have Show of Valor—but how much should that fact ultimately affect your play?

If you have a trick of your own, like a Searing Spear or a Titanic Growth, then you might hope your opponent has a Show of Valor so you can two-for-one by casting your own trick in response.

Searing Spear
Titanic Growth

But if you don't have your own trick, you're going to need to figure out if it's worth it for you to play around the possibility that your opponent could have the pump spell (or removal spell) you're concerned about.

  • Do I want to get the trick out of my opponent's hand?

If the answer is "yes," either because you have a more valuable creature you want to protect or because attempting to play around it will have a more deleterious effect on your game than your opponent actually casting it would, then play into it!

  • Am I ever going to be able to play around this trick?

If a given trick is going to be just as good next turn—and the turn after, and the turn after that, as it is right now—then you might as well play into it. Even if your opponent does have it, you won't be losing any value.

  • Do I think there's a good chance my opponent doesn't have the trick?

If you doubt your opponent has a given combat trick, then you shouldn't be too concerned about playing into it (of course, if you can afford to play around a given trick without giving up too much then that's usually going to be better for you).

Figuring Out When to Use Your Removal

Creature-removal spells are a precious commodity when you're playing Limited. If used properly, they're invaluable. If used improperly, however, they can become a burden.

Going back to "Sealed Deck Decisions" again:

So before you cast your removal spell, stop to ask yourself:

  • Am I likely to win quickly if I kill my opponent's creature now?
  • Am I in danger of dying soon if I don't kill my opponent's creature?

Of course, there are a lot of follow-up questions that are worth asking (such as: "Am I likely to get a better opportunity to use my removal spell later?")—but if the answer to both of these questions is "no," then you should probably hold your removal spell.

Defusing Bombs

One of the reasons why it's so important to hold on to your removal spells is because you don't want to lose immediately if your opponent happens to have an exceptionally strong creature in his or her deck.

And if you know for a fact that your opponent has a great card, or worse yet, several great cards, you may need to adjust the way you play in a fairly severe manner. From "Defusing Bombs"...

Make it Quick (If Possible)

If your opponent's deck has Overrun, and you don't have a Cancel, a Safe Passage, or a Fog, then you are probably going to lose if the game devolves into a cluttered stalemate.


It doesn't matter if you are playing a white-blue deck that you thought was going to beat people by stalling up the ground and then flying in for the kill late, late in the game. If your opponent has an Overrun, everything changes.

You are going to have to play aggressively.

When you know that your opponent's deck has a card, or several cards, that you cannot reasonably deal with, you are going to want to try to end the game as quickly as possible. By ending the game quickly, you minimize the chance that your opponent will be able to cast his or her game-breakers.

So if you have the chance to make reasonable attacks against your opponent's Overrun deck, you must do so. If all goes according to plan, you will be able to kill your opponent before he or she is able to cast a lethal Overrun, and even if you are not able to kill your opponent that quickly you might be able to force him or her to trade enough creatures with you that by the time your opponent draws Overrun he or she won't have enough creatures for it to be lethal.

Admittedly, this is an easier task for some decks than others. And it might turn out that your white-blue deck does not have any profitable ways to get aggressive. In that case you have to play your deck the way it was intended to be played and hope for the best.

Don't Play Around a Bomb if You Can't Afford To

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when dealing with an opponent who has a bomb is not to let the bomb beat you when your opponent hasn't even drawn it.

Your opponent might have an Ant Queen in his or her deck that you absolutely cannot beat if it remains active, but that doesn't mean that you don't want to Deathmark the Stampeding Rhino that he or she cast on turn five.

If that Stampeding Rhino is going to clock you over the head for (at least) 8 damage before you can do anything about it, you better just Deathmark it then and there. Sure, your opponent might plop down an Ant Queen on the next turn, but if you were going to lose to the Stampeding Rhino anyway, your cost-benefit doesn't work out at all.

Sometimes you have to put yourself into a position where you will lose to your opponent's bomb. It's much better than putting yourself into a position where you will lose even if your opponent doesn't have said bomb.

Beware of Fancy Play Syndrome!

Oh, and before I go, I need to remind you about the dangers of "Fancy Play Syndrome!"

Fancy Play Syndrome occurs when you make plays, draft picks, or deck building decisions that are too complicated for the level of opposition you are facing, or when you come up with overly creative solutions for a problem when a straightforward approach would be far more effective.

If you try to bluff a novice opponent by attacking your Jade Mage into Sengir Vampire, then you will probably induce a block and a chuckle from your opponent (who is quite amused by the fact that you would attack your littler creature into a bigger creature).

But if you make that same attack against a seasoned veteran, that player will understand that there is a strong possibility that you have a Titanic Growth (or at the very least a burn spell) and will carefully consider that information when deciding whether or not to block. While this more experienced and more skilled opponent might still choose to block, you can sleep easy knowing that there was at least a reasonable chance that you would have been able to steal 2 points of damage with your bluff (which might be hugely important if your plan is to end the game quickly).

If you try to force Mono-Green at a Pro Tour, when you are surrounded by players who you suspect have a huge distaste for green, then you could end up with a particularly awesome deck while your neighbors fight over the other four colors. But if you try to force a Mono-Green deck at a draft full of relatively inexperienced players who don't have a great understanding of the format, or strong color preferences, then you will probably end up with a disaster on your hands (when you would have been able to put together an excellent deck if you had just sat back and paid attention to what color(s) seemed to be open).

A tendency to overestimate your opponents, and/or a temptation do cool things (simply because they are cool, for your own amusement, or to impress others) can allow you to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as easily as the most boneheaded of mistakes.

Farewell, For Now!

I'll still be doing coverage at events, drafting on Magic Online constantly, and tweeting about Magic (@SteveSadin). So if you want to know what I'm up to, follow me on Twitter. Heck, now that I'm done with the column, maybe I'll even do a draft walkthrough! :)

And remember: as long as you have a plan, constantly ask yourself (the right kinds of) questions, and remain aware of Fancy Play Syndrome, you should be able to win (and learn) a lot when you play.

Happy Holidrafts,
Steve Sadin

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