Limited Toolbox—Recurring Riffs, Part 1

Posted in Limited Information on October 16, 2013

By Marshall Sutcliffe

Marshall came back to Magic after discovering Limited and never looked back. He hosts the Limited Resources podcast and does Grand Prix and Pro Tour video commentary.

When I first came back to Magic, it was around the time of Shadowmoor and Eventide. I started chatting with my longtime friend (and now Magic R&D member) Ryan Spain almost daily about it. Drafting, Sealed Deck, new cards, old cards, and card evaluation, all of it. I remember being in awe of the fact that he just seemed to know so much about every set, even though it was freshly released.

As it turns out, he has an excellent mind for game design. His experience with the game also helped him come to conclusions much earlier than I could.

Over the years, I have developed a toolset that has helped me approach the wall of information that a new set can be. When you are first starting out, 249 cards feels like so many. Too many to realistically grasp in a short time frame, even. It wasn't until actually playing with the cards that I figured out what each really did and started committing them to memory.

While I still like to wait to play with the cards before starting to form concrete opinions on a format, I feel like I have a much better feel for the whole thing before I even get a whiff of that lovely new-card smell. I'm going to share some of the tools and techniques I use to help give me a big picture view on new sets.


I don't love the word "shortcut." It carries a slight implication of skirting the system to get where you want quicker than it should rightfully take to get there. Instead, what I look for are practical heuristics that help me group cards or ideas so I can do the heavy lifting up front, then apply it to other concepts down the line. Putting cards and mechanics into logical groups helps take big chunks out of the card pool so you can concentrate on more areas in a shorter period of time.

Every expert-level set has new mechanics introduced in it. Instead of reading every card individually, I'll take an example card with a new mechanic and really try to figure out what is going on with it. Once I have a grasp on the mechanic itself, I'll retain that knowledge and apply it in all of the instances that the mechanic appears. This is a great way to frontload the brainwork so we can knock out big portions of the set quickly.

An example.

There is usually a "Grizzly Bears" variant for creature-based mechanics in a new set. It's true: if you look for creatures that cost , there will often be an example of a 2/2 that has the new ability on it. Usually they are common, but sometimes uncommon.

Grizzly Bears

Don't believe me?

Beastbreaker of Bala Ged
Carapace Forger
Drudge Beetle
Gatstaf Shepherd
Gnarlid Pack
Leafcrown Dryad
Nest Invader
Woodland Changeling

When I see a card like Beastbreaker of Bala Ged—which has a lot going on in the text area—I know that it's just the "leveler bear." Drudge Beetle is the "scavenge bear." Since I put in the time up front to figure out what leveler and scavenge were and how they worked, I am able to quickly assimilate cards like this into my mental card pool instead of needing to tackle every card individually.

We are going to save the rest of the creatures for the next installment of this column, and focus instead on the noncreature spells that fit these criteria.

Old and New

Fellow DailyMTG columnist and Magic Head Designer Mark Rosewater has written and spoken many times about the balance that needs to exist between new mechanics and familiar mainstays in every new set. Put simply, if everything is brand new all the time, players get overwhelmed and can lose interest in the game. If everything stays stagnant and repetitive, players get bored and can lose interest in the game. If a proper balance is struck, you get the worldwide phenomenon that is Magic.

Clearly, it's more complex than that, but at a base level this is how R&D has to approach newness in Magic. How does this affect us, the Limited-minded Nuts & Bolts Spike?

If every single card in a new set was completely novel and new, it would be very difficult to have much of an idea of what was going on in the set before it actually came out. But since some percentage of the set is composed of familiar cards and concepts, we are able to quickly integrate those into our Limited consciousness. This, in turn, leaves more room to address the challenging and complex new cards.

Historically Speaking

There are individual cards—many of which were printed in the original Magic set, Alpha—that still resonate through the cards and ideas we see in sets created in the present day. By identifying this pattern, we can quickly recognize a new twist on an old card and get a head start on our evaluations.

Let's take a look at our first example, Terror.


Terror is an original card from Alpha, and we still have variations on it to this day. Here are a few examples:

Cradle to Grave
Dark Banishing
Devour in Shadow
Doom Blade
Eyeblight's Ending
Go for the Throat
Hideous End
Horobi's Whisper
Last Gasp
Rend Flesh
Ultimate Price
Victim of Night

As you can see, riffs on Terror have been a consistent theme throughout the history of Magic. The black removal spell appears often, and identifying its existence early on is a key piece of information as you familiarize yourself with a new set.

It's also worth noting that sometimes there simply isn't a cheap, black, removal spell in a set. This is also a key point to identify early on as it means that your big, splashy bombs will be safe from this kind of removal. It also hints that perhaps Auras will be slightly better in the format, as will be aggressive strategies.

A lot of information can be gleaned from the presence and power level of the Terror effect in a given set. And Terror is just the beginning. Let's examine some more examples.


You'll hear people ask, "What is the Lightning Bolt of this set?" Translated, they are really asking what the cheap, instant-speed burn spell is for the set. It will often carry with it new mechanics from the set, but sometimes it's just a variation on casting cost and relative power level.

Here are some of the myriad examples that have been printed over the years:

Annihilating Fire
Brimstone Volley
Burn the Impure
Burst Lightning
Galvanic Blast
Lightning Strike
Magma Jet
Searing Spear

Again, just as important as its power level, casting cost, newly added mechanics and rarity, is its existence in the set. Sometimes there isn't an example of this kind of card, and that information is crucial to how the format plays out. When combined with other pieces of information—what the Terror effect in the set looks like, for example—you can form a quick look at what the removal looks like in a new format.

More examples? Sure!


Ye olde pump spell. The original—and perhaps the best—pump spell, Giant Growth or similar effects appear in nearly every set.

Barkshell Blessing
Fistful of Force
Joint Assault
Might of the Masses
Mirran Mettle
Mutagenic Growth
Prey's Vengeance
Savage Surge
Titanic Growth

Pump spells are less important to the overall picture of a format than the cheap removal spells we just talked about, but any information is good information when it comes to scaling the cliffs of a newly released set. Keep an eye out for particularly good pump spells in formats where combat happens early and often. Or where the mechanics of the set itself reward such things (read: Theros).


And now we get to my favorite, Unsummon. While admittedly not the best type of card in Limited, these effects bring a certain joy to me like few others can. The best of all worlds is when an Unsummon effect is attached to a creature. In the right format, though, a regular old "bounce spell"—as they are referred to colloquially—does just fine.

Let's have a look at some recent examples of bounce spells:

Consuming Vortex
Vapor Snag
Voyage's End
Whirlpool Whelm

Determining the presence and power level of a bounce spell in a given format can help determine the viability of Equipment, Auras, decks based on cheap evasive creatures, and even the potential viability of mana ramp strategies.


Not every one of these examples comes from Alpha. Pacifism effects—white, enchantment-based removal—have become a staple card type used in many sets. Pacifism effects are notable because they are a different type of removal than most; they let the creature stay on the battlefield, but render it neutralized in combat (and sometimes even more). This effect may seem worse than just outright killing a creature, but there are a surprising number of cases where it is preferable.

Bonds of Faith
Bound in Silence
Cage of Hands
Faith's Fetters
Oblivion Ring
Prison Term
Recumbent Bliss

Again, the mere presence of a Pacifism effect can be telling about a format. Using Theros as an example, we can see that there simply isn't a Pacifism effect available. My assumption is that it was forgone because it would be too punishing to bestow-based strategies. Imagine piling two bestow creatures on one of your creatures only to get three-for-oned with a Pacifism effect. Pretty brutal.

Quick Aside: How sweet would a Pacifism-type bestow creature be? You could play it on your side as a creature or on theirs as a removal spell. We'll stow that idea away for now and get back to business.

I think that R&D probably wanted us to feel relatively safe running our bestow creatures out there, hence no Pacifism effect for Theros. If you were astute enough to notice this early on, you would have even more information that bestow was the real deal, with almost no downside—something that it may have taken others a bit longer to figure out.


There are many more. I'll list a few as examples here, but I want you to find some for yourself as well.


Don't freak out, I know all too well that they don't print cards of this power level any more. The core, though, is the "blue card-draw spell" for a set. Divination has become the default of late, but the cost and added benefits vary greatly with cards of this type.

Amass the Components
Council of the Soratami
Jace's Ingenuity
Mysteries of the Deep
Petals of Insight
Tezzeret's Gambit
Thassa's Bounty

This one tends to vary the most in terms of total casting cost, and it's important to keep a close eye on that. Even spending three mana for a Divination is too much to ask in the more speedy formats. Slower formats tend to reward outright card advantage. Opportunity in Magic 2014 Core Set is a prime example. There are formats where Opportunity would be nigh unplayable, but in a super-slow format like Magic 2014, it shines.


Counterspells—the name is so ubiquitous in Magic that we just call all spells that counter things "counterspells"—can range from pretty good to unplayable depending on the format, so keep a close eye on how much it costs and what exactly it counters.

Bone to Ash
Corrupted Resolve
Essence Scatter
Mana Leak
Remove Soul

The main consideration is mana cost when it comes to counterspells. Two-mana counters that can get creatures are vastly preferable to anything costing three mana. Furthermore, four mana counters are very difficult to play effectively.


Threaten effects have an interesting place in Limited. Namely, they are used one of two ways:

  1. Aggressive decks use them as finishers to temporarily remove a blocker and create an attacker.
  2. Decks with many sacrifice outlets use them as removal spells. The creature is stolen, and then sacrificed, so the defending player never gets it back.
Act of Aggression
Act of Treason
Mark of Mutiny
Portent of Betrayal
Traitorous Blood
Traitorous Instinct

You'll want to note overall speed of the aggressive red-based decks as well as availability of sacrifice outlets in the format when looking at the Threaten effects. Rarity also counts here, as you can see Threaten effects can be common or uncommon, and this is an important distinction when looking at things like the sacrifice-themed decks. If it's at common, you can pick up three or four Threaten effects for your deck. If it's at uncommon, it's going to be much more difficult to get enough to make that strategy worth it.


Generally referred to as "Mind Rots," black discard spells have been around since the early days of Magic

Fill with Fright
Gruesome Discovery
Mental Agony
Mind Rot
Mind Sludge
Noggin Whack
Pulling Teeth
Splitting Headache

Mind Rot effects are generally better in slower formats where people are playing expensive spells. Since two things are needed to resolve a big, expensive spell—lands and the expensive spell—discard spells jump up in value as the opponent is forced to discard one or the other of these. In faster formats, it's often the board that you are more worried about as opposed to the cards in your opponent's hand. It can be too cumbersome to spend mana and cards without affecting the board.


There are even more: Wrath of God effects, Naturalize effects, Control Magic effects, Pyroclasm effects, Edict effects, and Reanimation effects.

I'll let you dig up some of the history and information there for yourself. I think you'll find that by looking back into the game's history, you'll gain a big advantage in the current day.

Here are some key points to take away:

  1. Sometimes there won't be an instance of these cards in a set. This is meaningful. An absent often-repeated effect is missing for a reason. Try to figure out that reason and you can get clues about the way the format works.
  2. Pay attention to casting cost. Not all of these effects are created equal. Just because there's a Lightning Bolt style card in a set doesn't mean that it's as good as Lightning Bolt. Heck, it may be better—the key is that you recognize, digest, and remember that it's there.
  3. Look for new set mechanics attached to familiar spells. Some of the most powerful and interesting cards from a new set are made up of effects we know combined with the effects we don't yet know.
  4. Remember that this tool allows you to quickly assess familiar card types so you can spend more effort addressing the cards that you have never seen before. Use the extra time to go deep on new cards.

In the next installment, we'll be using this exercise to examine often-riffed-upon creatures from Magic's past. Try to think of some examples before next week, and relate them to Theros.

We can compare notes at that time.

Until then!



Latest Limited Information Articles


January 6, 2016

A Surge of Support by, Marshall Sutcliffe

Last week we blew your mind with five unreal uncommons from Oath of the Gatewatch. This week we'll be scaling things back a bit. After all, we have to leave you with some surprises from t...

Learn More


December 30, 2015

Five Amazing Threes by, Marshall Sutcliffe

I'm sitting in a cafe in Barcelona, sipping on a freshly squeezed orange juice while I go over the Oath of the Gatewatch preview cards for this column. I almost spit some of said orange j...

Learn More



Limited Information Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All