A recurring theme in Magic is innovation. Whenever a new format is introduced (Limited or Constructed), players scramble to make sense of it. At first the most simple, obvious, and traditional strategies emerge. Players take strategy cues and card values from previous formats and re-apply them to a new crop of cards, mainly exploiting the ones that are most blatantly powerful. Sometimes a new combo or synergy will be discovered, but only first appears in an unrefined form.
After this first wave is digested and understood by way of event coverage and the Internet, and players' general experience with the format increases, strategies begin to evolve. And re-evolve, becoming even more subtle and specific. Until the format changes again.
There are patterns to these evolutions. Let's look at how to take a strategy to the next level.
Recognizing a decklist's weak spots: In order to improve on a deck, it is valuable to be able to pinpoint the current version's weaknesses. Cards that are underperforming can be switched out. Strategic flaws may be able to be shored up. The best way to discover a decklist's weak spots is to playtest against popular decks, and look for recurring patterns in your losses.
It's also valuable to know other decks' weak spots (especially valuable is if they have any outright Achille's heels). The more familiar you are with how other decks tend to win and lose, the more you will be able to exploit this. The best way to learn other decks' weak spots is to either try playing them and noting when you are most fragile (and what cards you regularly find devastating), or to play against them and look for patterns in your victories or near-victories.
Looking at the options: Cards that would not usually be very good may turn out to suit a specific deck or purpose very well. When I have a deck I am trying to improve, I will often scour card lists for available sets looking for possible inclusions. It's sometimes useful to narrow your search down to specific casting costs (IE, only look at the spells that cost 1 or 2 mana, if that's a spot you're trying to fill).
Recently, noted deckbuilder Patrick Chapin replaced more vanilla 2-drops in his Block-constructed G/W deck with under-the-radar Amrou Scouts capable of fetching Bound in Silence. Sometimes a good card will be without a suitable home for so long that people forget it exists.
Fusing decks: A key way in which new and strong decks are regularly made is by incorporating two previously independent strategies into the same deck. This is especially possible with extremely compact combos (4 copies of Illusions of Grandeur and 4 copies of Donate is only 8 cards, but drawing one of each is a lethal combo for an opponent at 20 life or less). The first Illusions/Donate decks were mono-blue, but later versions would incorporate Necropotence for devastating results. Another example are strategies with a marquee feature (Glare of Subdual + creatures) that can be flexibly integrated. The opportunity also exists when two originally separate strategies contain several overlapping cards. If one deck in the format centers on Psychatog with blue reactive instants, and another deck centers on Isochron Scepter and blue reactive instants, a fusion would be fairly convenient, and would add an entire other aspect to each strategy.
Incorporating the metagame: your deck should be acutely tuned to the metagame. Both the logical metagame (the way the format naturally breaks down over time), and the specific metagame (the reactive trends). Sometimes a deck will be good in general, but weak against the field as it has shaped up.
Many smart changes are the result of trying to sharpen a deck against specific existing decks. Sometimes this just means the inclusion of more focused maindeck and sideboard choices. Other times it might open the door for a strong silver-bullet engine (Tutors, and a selection of one-ofs powerful against specific decks), or suggest a certain strategic direction (the metagame's entirely control decks; maybe you can get away with playing extreme anti-control that loses to aggro).
Increasing speed: one thing to always consider when deciding if your build can be improved upon is speed. Can you design your deck to be faster? Consider whether you could add mana-acceleration, rituals, and cheaper cards, without ruining the deck's long term chances.
Some breakthrough decks are only notable because they do what an existing build had done but more quickly.
A sudden (and correct) change in either direction can make a stale deck dangerous.
Experimenting: Where do those out-of-left-field combo decks come from? Continuing to try new things even when established decks exist allows the potential to stumble across powerful unanticipated strategies.
Re-evaluating rares: Once you (and everyone else) have a general knack for a Limited format, it is time to review the set's rares and uncommons. You will not get as much of a chance to try these out as a set's commons, but you still want to be informed as to how good they are if you are forced to decide whether to pick one. Reconsider bombs; how good are they exactly in the particular format? Do they seem as good as the top commons? Reconsider especially so-called junk-rares; are these better than they seem at first glance, and better than people are giving them credit for? These can be especially valuable discoveries, as you'll often get a shot at grabbing one if anyone opens one at the table.
I remember Mike Turian letting me in on his appreciation for the unappreciated rare Last Laugh, during Odyssey/Torment/Judgment Limited. I'd never played the card, but based on his tip, I did, and it was amazing!
Fostering pet cards: Allow yourself to play favorites with commons. If something seems really good to you that isn't accepted as good by the general consensus, don't be scared off, rather, accentuate this difference; try the card out and keep an eye on it. If it is consistently as good as you perceive it to be, then that's a piece of the puzzle you have access to that other people are ignoring.
Applying new archetypes: Beyond just color pairings, there's a lot of room to take decks in different directions in Limited. First of all, every Limited format seems to have a few quirky extreme archetypes (Lightning Rift and all cyclers in Onslaught Block, Dampen Thought-based Control decks in Kamigawa Block, Martyr of Ashes & Icefall land destruction decks in Coldsnap, etc). Sometimes a certain junk rare will facilitate an extreme draft strategy. The more creatively you approach drafting, the more you stand to gain by appreciating and understanding fringe archetypes.
Second is being able to take existing and common archetypes in extreme directions. For example, you might decide, if drafting Red/Black, to heavily prioritize taking removal and discard, even if it means ending up with a deck with only five or six creatures. Or drafting Red/Green with heavy priority on cheap creatures and tricks. These sorts of decisions, if you are able to glean which ones are consistently successful, can give you a serious edge on someone sticking to the standard.
Testing theories: Along the same lines, it is valuable to consider and test drafting strategies such as (seen in Strategies and Techniques for Booster Draft) forcing certain archetypes you feel are powerful, being passive or aggressive with colors in the draft, or deciding how valuable it is to cut people off the format. Different strategies are more potent in different formats.
Join me next week for what will be the final article in the Academy series!