A Limited Trip Through Time

Posted in Limited Information on January 28, 2015

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.

What would it be like to go back in time and play Limited?

Normally, when we think about time travel, we think of going way back in time. Or way forward. I've always been partial to going way back in time because you know what's there, and it would even feel foreign to you at the time. If you go too far forward in time, you could accidentally find yourself in a post-apocalyptic dystopian wasteland. I've watched enough dystopian wasteland movies to know that cyborgs and mercenaries aren't where I want to be.

Wasteland | Art by Una Fricker

So that leaves us with going back in time. The weird thing is that we can't go too far back in time, because Limited has only been around for a short while, geologically speaking.

It's hard to imagine a time when we had Magic but didn't have Limited. But that time most certainly existed. Not only were the sets not designed for Limited, Limited didn't exist at all.

I know, right? No drafting! I'm already starting to rethink the decision to go back in time.

So what happened back then? Why did people start playing Limited?

When Magic first came out, it was a whole new type of game that didn't exist before. It was the first trading card game. People had games, and trading cards, but hadn't combined them yet. As such, many of the early players specialized in either collecting the cards (like you would a sports card) or playing the game.

For the early adopters, it was a game like any other. You buy the game, you take it home, you play it, you put it in a closet. Sometimes you take it out again and play it.

It didn't take long, though, for those early players to realize that if they had the better cards, they could beat their friends more often. Thus began the great arms race of Constructed Magic. While it's more commonly expected these days to have a collection of cards from which to play Constructed, this little standoff still takes place in new playgroups to this day.

For many, it's simply a transition to a wider, richer, world of Magic. But for some, they crave a more even playing field against their playgroup, and those groups often turn to Limited. You see, Limited play has this great effect where everyone has the same shot to open the same cards, and this creates a relatively even playing field.

Solidarity of Heroes | Art by Eric Deschamps

The way for you to make that playing field uneven again (in your favor) is to practice, read, listen, learn, and think more than your opponents. I know that you know this because you are one of the people actively participating in this process by reading this column.

First Stop

But where did the first drafts actually happen?

The first drafts actually happened before the game was even released. Richard Garfield and friends were experimenting with drafting the cards way back then. They were primarily doing Rotisserie and Rochester drafts, but this likely seeded the beginnings of Booster Draft as we know it today. The fact is, we don't know for sure who invented it exactly, but as with most things of this nature, it's not that important. The most likely scenario is that some groups started playing in a similar style and over time it caught on. Eventually, some common standards were adopted, and boom, you have the greatest gaming experience ever.

But let's not go quite that far back in time. Limited had some growing to do, still. I recently had a chat with my friend Brian David-Marshall about the old days of organizing tournaments. Brian had a store in New York called Neutral Ground and was a tournament organizer with Gray Matter, where he ran a bunch of tournaments when people weren't really running tournaments. This would actually be a sweet time (and place) to set our time machine dials to now that I think of it. Many of the would-be best players in the world were meeting for the first time at Neutral Ground.

Timebender | Art by Zoltan Boros & Gabor Szikszai

Second Stop

Brian told me about an early Limited tournament that they called Skill Format or something like that, and frankly it sounded kind of scary. I remember something about starter decks and basic lands. Apparently some kid named Jon kept winning all the time.

While this wouldn't be a bad time to stop our time motorcycle (yes, it's a time motorcycle), things actually improved dramatically just a few years later. You see, even though Limited existed from the earliest days of Magic, the card designers in Wizards R&D didn't start thinking about designing a set from a Limited perspective until Mirage block came out. (That's the one with Visions and Weatherlight following it.)

With Mirage, the designers started paying more attention to balancing the colors, having fewer unplayable cards, and making sure that there was enough removal running around. While actually drafting Mirage block doesn't hold up to the awesome formats we get these days, it signaled an important and welcomed shift in the way the game was seen by the people who made it.

Limited was here to stay, and all future sets after Mirage would incrementally move toward crafting great Limited environments. Again, it's tempting to stop the Time Bike™ here and start opening packs (especially since Visions had this little guy floating around) but I think we should aim a little nearer to present day instead.

Last Stop

My ideal past Limited time destination to park the Chrono Chopper™ is 2005, with the release of Ravnica: City of Guilds. When I first started playing Limited, everyone's favorite draft format was Ravnica. I think in many ways that block changed the game for Limited and raised the expectation on what a set could be. I've drafted it a few times since coming back, and have found it a fascinating, deep, and powerful format.

Limited has evolved over the years. Not only are the players better, but they also have higher expectations on what a Limited format should be. In turn, R&D has evolved its processes to meet these standards. It's a great time to be a Limited player, and truth be told, I don't think I'd leave it for any other.

TTSC (Time Traveling Super Computer)

Some strategy stuff before we depart for the week, yes?

Divination | Art by Willian Murai

My old friend, the Time Traveling Super Computer. The TTSC is all about expectations management, really. It's about knowing what you don't know, and using what you do know correctly. But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit here. Let me give you some background on what this thing is, and how it can help you improve at Limited (and at life, perhaps).

First, it doesn't exist. You probably knew that, but the TTSC is something that my friend Ryan Spain and I came up with to illustrate a point. When it comes to choosing a card in Draft, settling on a build in Sealed, or making a play in a game of Magic, you won't often know for sure that it was correct. Especially when the answer isn't obvious.

Enter the TTSC. Imagine we had an absurd computer that could calculate more things per second than any computer we will have for the next 100 years. Also, it travels through time. So the next time you are in a draft, and you have a very close pick that you can't decide on, you just push the big red button on the front of the TTSC, and voilà, you have your answer. What the TTSC does is calculate every conceivable variable, then run iterations of the entire rest of the draft nearly infinite times, in order to tell you if your draft win percentage on average would be higher or lower if you picked one card over another.

In real life, we just can't crunch that many variables, nor can we get a massive enough sample size on which to apply them. What we are really doing is making our best guess at what the TTSC knows. Whenever you make a decision in Magic, you should try your best to approximate what result the TTSC would spit out.

This is because the TTSC looks at things from an average case, long-term perspective. This outlook is incredibly important to your success as a Magic player. How many times have you seen someone play sixteen lands when they should be playing seventeen? They figure that this one time they'll do better with fewer lands, because they just have to hit that third land and everything will be fine.

The TTSC begs to differ. The reason we (usually) play seventeen lands in our decks is because over the long term this will net us the highest win percentage.

That part is pretty straightforward. The interesting part is when we really don't know if a decision will work out for us or not. Maybe you picked a bunch of white cards early in a draft, but now you are staring at a pack with a solid white card and a near bomb in another color. Is it worth it to go off track for the near bomb? Or is it better to stay more consistent by taking the solid white card?

The TTSC knows this, but we don't. What we have to do is use our experience, logic, intellect, and imagination to approximate the TTSC's answer. That's what I meant when I said the TTSC was all about expectations management. Your expectation is not to meet the same criteria that the TTSC meets; instead it's to use shortcuts, heuristics, and tools to approximate the results from the TTSC.

When I find myself in a tough situation, and it feels like there may be too many factors taxing my mental capabilities, it helps me to ask, "What would the TTSC say?" What is the best play, on average, over the long term? That's the question I ask myself every time I play Magic, and it's the answer I'll keep striving for. The player who gets closer to that answer, the most often, will succeed more.

Well, that's what the Time Traveling Super Computer told me, anyway.

Until next week!


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