- Limited at my LGS
- Limited against LSV
- The Curve
- Curving Out with Commons
- CABS (Cards that Affect the Board State)
- Conditional Spells
- Filling Deck Roles
- The Martin Juza Rule
- Splashing – The Rule of Three
- Draft Mana Base
- Play 40 Cards
- Bending or Breaking the Rules
- Be Boring
1. Limited at my LGS
Friday Night Magic at my LGS (Local Game Store) had two distinct classes of card players: the Drafters and Team Constructed. Though some mages occasionally visited the other side, most spent their Fridays playing their preferred format. When a new spellcaster would enter the fray, each group would recruit the novice to join them.
If a new Magic player listened to the more vocal members of Team Constructed describe draft, they might imagine the drafting process goes like this: Eight drafters open packs. The person who opens the most powerful rare is the secret winner of the draft (unless a more powerful rare is opened in packs 2 or 3 – then whoever opened that card is the secret winner). Miraculously, the rest of the cards dance their way from the packs into the drafters’ 40 card decks. The drafters play the games just in case the secret winner accidentally eats the rare or lights it on fire – but that’s mostly just a formality. The drafter who opens the best rares inevitably wins, prizes are awarded, see ya next Friday.
Jokes aside, I’ve encountered a lot of players who give the same reason for disliking draft: the rares are all that matter (or matter too much).
As I transitioned from new face to known commodity at my LGS, I noticed that week after week, Friday after Friday, the same player was usually 2-0 heading in to the last round. Clearly, this was the best rare-opener at the store. Even more extraordinary, this skill followed him across town where he was regularly winning drafts at a different LGS. What I learned over time is that this player wasn’t great at opening rares, of course. He was great at applying limited fundamentals during the draft, deckbuilding, and games. Friday after Friday, draft after draft, he built functional two-color decks, made high percentage plays during the game, and won regularly.
Despite what some my friends on Team Constructed will tell you, opening good rares is far from all that matters in draft (though it certainly helps). Consistent success in limited comes from following fundamentals. Plain and simple. The same fundamental skills that lead to success at your LGS are the ones that lead to success on the Arena ladder. Today, we’re going back to the basics.
This article is intended to provide the limited deckbuilding guidelines that all dedicated drafters learn and internalize at some point. If you’re a high level mythic drafter looking for an edge in Arena draft, you’re probably not going to find it here. But if you’re like me, veteran drafter, maybe you need an occasional reminder to follow fundamentals. If you’re a newer drafter or just trying to build better limited decks: welcome! You’re in the right place. Let’s Talk Limited!
2. Limited against LSV
Ok, so you can win some games in Southern Maine by following fundamentals, but what if you want to compete at the highest level? Let’s move beyond the LGS and turn the difficulty up to 11. Let’s say you had to play exactly one game against Luis-Scott Vargas. As a handicap, you get to choose one of the following options:
Option A) You are guaranteed to have a bomb rare in your deck.
Option B) You’re guaranteed to have lands and cards to play on turns 1-5 while LSV experiences normal variance.
In a single game scenario, I could see taking the deck with Toxrill, Avabruck Caretaker, Insert Bomb Here and just crossing your fingers. He’s LSV, he probably drafted a good deck and is going to be playing cards on curve anyway, so I might as well take the bomb, right? Sounds reasonable enough. But let’s say you were going to play against LSV 1,000 times. Do you still take the bomb? What about 10,000 times? Are you still taking the singular great card over the guarantee of playing your cards on curve?
Over the course of 10,000 games, I think it would be wildly incorrect to choose option A even if you could pick the rare. You could take Tetzimoc out of retirement, dust off the legendary dino’s old bones, slot him into my draft deck, and I’d still choose the option that lets me play my cards consistently.
Sure, there will be games where I draw and cast the bomb, but it’s not like LSV is going to scoop just because I played a great card. The best way for me to beat him is to use all of my mana on turns 1-5 and hope that he can’t do the same because he’s stuck on resources or drew poorly. Over the course of so many games, he’ll definitely experience the bad end of variance. He’ll get stuck on two mana while I spend five or six per turn. He can’t leverage his play skill nearly as much if I’m casting multiple spells per turn while he’s casting one. Over such a long stretch, I think you’d win far more games against the hall-of-famer by choosing option B (playing your cards on curve) instead of option A (having the bomb rare in your deck).
Obviously, I wouldn’t get a much needed handicap if I were to see LSV on Arena. There would be no guarantee that I hit land drops and play cards until turn 6 or 7. What I can do, though, is build decks that maximize my chance to replicate option B in that game and any other. You can’t make yourself open better rares, but you can build decks that allow you to consistently cast your spells on curve by following fundamentals. Over your next 10,000 games, your focus should be to build draft decks that have a good chance to mimic option B. That’s all you have control over and, I would argue, what really determines most games of limited.
You can win a lot of games by building boring, functional two-color decks with decent creatures and interaction. You can sit down and draft a deck with the potential to win games in any format, even one you’ve never seen. To start, we’ll focus on the broad aspects of building consistent decks (with the potential to do broken things).
3. The Curve
Gavin Verhey explained the importance of The Curve beautifully in this article: How to Build a Mana Curve.
Quick version: You want variation and distribution when it comes to your cards’ casting cost. You want a certain number of cards that cost 1 mana, 2 mana, 3, 4, 5, 6+. Most decks will have far more cheap cards (1-3 mana) than expensive cards (4-7 mana). The following 7-win decklists are from my VOW drafts. You don’t even have to look at the cards. Just look look at the curve graphics in the top left corner of each list.
Note the 1, 2, & 3 mana columns compared to the 4-6 columns in all instances.
If you looked at all the 7-win MTG decklists over the past year, my guess is most of them would have a similar distribution. You maximize the chances that you’re able to spend all your mana on turns 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 if you focus on your curve. You don’t even have to play great cards, just play reasonable cards on curve and you’ll have a chance to win a huge percentage of games. Almost all limited decks are built/drafted with a curve in mind and you should be considering it on some level during the entire draft.
One aspect of Gavin’s article I want to emphasize is that you should think about what turn you expect to cast the card instead of just its casting cost. Cards like Adamant Will and Lantern Flare can fool you because they’ll show up in your 2-drop column but are extremely unlikely to be cast on turn two. So your deck might have eight cards that cost two mana but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have eight turn two plays.
Curve graphics can also be deceiving, as seen in the last deck example above (Draft Deck 22), where the curve appears higher due to a pair of five-mana spells meant to be discarded.
4. Curving Out with Commons
Outsmarting your opponent feels really sweet, but the reality is most games of limited aren’t won that way. You’re a smart person playing against other smart people. You’re not going to outthink them all the time – nor do you need to! Sometimes you win just because you played your cards on curve. It’s boring, but that’s the truth. Jon Finkel doesn’t lose 35% of his Pro Tour matches because he makes bad decisions or get outsmarted 35% of the time. He, and other players of his caliber, get the bad end of variance just like the rest of us. When that happens, you want to be the player who is playing impactful cards on turns 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Be boring. Take unexciting cards that fill out your curve. Pay for your next draft! Here are some examples of curve out sequences that can happen with just commons.
Note: These aren’t necessarily the optimal starts for each archetype because I wanted to show a variety of cards. That being said, any of these sequences will put you in a competitive position to win a game of limited. For more on how to build specific archetypes, see section 5.
- Turn 1: Traveling Minister
- Turn 2: Ragged Recluse
- Turn 3: Kindly Ancestor
- Turn 4: Heron of Hope
- Turn 5: Sigarda’s Imprisonment a blocker, play Blood Fountain, crack the blood token and transform Ragged Recluse on end step.
Four creatures on the battlefield, gained some life, played a removal spell, and set up well for future turns.
- Turn 1: Persistent Specimen
- Turn 2: Sporeback Wolf
- Turn 3: Weaver of Blossoms
- Turn 4: Rot-Tide Gargantua, sacrifice Persistent Specimen
- Turn 5: Flourishing Hunter
One of the more absurd starts. Four creatures on the battlefield with 15 power among them and opponent had to sacrifice a creature. Oh, and we gained four life.
- Turn 1: Voldaren Epicure
- Turn 2: Blood Petal Celebrant
- Turn 3: Belligerent Guest
- Turn 4: Bloodcrazed Socialite
- Turn 5: Falkenrath Celebrants
You’re also allowed to play removal spells in your BR decks. It’s recommended actually. But just playing common creatures on curve leaves five of them that can attack for 15 total, 9 of which has menace. Plus, you’ve made four blood tokens and pinged your opponent for one thanks to Epicure.
- Turn 1: Persistent Specimen
- Turn 2: Doomed Dissenter
- Turn 3: Stitched Assistant, sacrifice dissenter, get a 2/2 zombie
- Turn 4: Bleed Dry
- Turn 5: Rot-Tide Gargantua, sacrifice Persisten Specimen
Killed one creature, opponent sacrificed another, we drew an extra card from Stitched Assistant, and we still have nine power on the battlefield across three creatures.
- Turn 1: Lantern Bearer
- Turn 2: Kessig Flamebreather
- Turn 3: Abrade and Ancestral Anger
- Turn 4: Repository Skaab, sacrifice Lantern Bearer and get back Abrade
- Turn 5: Abrade and Lanterns’ Lift (or hold up a counterspell).
The most unusual of the sequences. This looks nothing like the UR decks I’ve drafted but that’s not saying much. By the end of turn 5, you’ve attacked for 8 in the air, pinged three times, drawn an extra card, and removed two small threats.
- Turn 1: Lantern Bearer
- Turn 2: Toxic Scorpion
- Turn 3: Spore Crawler
- Turn 4: Cruel Witness
- Turn 5: Moldgraf Millipede
Another strange one, but I find UG to be a strange archetype so maybe that’s why.
- Turn 1: Play Traveling Minister (TM)
- Turn 2: Play Parish-Blade Trainee. TM attack for 1.
- Turn 3: Play Daybreak Combatants, targeting itself. TM target Trainee, gain a life, attack with both, get a counter on Trainee. Attacking for 7.
- Turn 4: Play Estwald Shieldbasher. TM target Combatants, gain a life, attack with both, get a counter on Trainee. Attacking for 6.
- Turn 5: Play Lacerate Flesh. TM target Combatants, gain a life, attack with three creatures, get a counter on Trainee. Attack for 11.
Other than Traveling Minister, these cards are unimpressive. But potentially attacking for a total of 25 and playing a removal spell by the end of turn five? That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.
- Turn 1: Traveling Minister
- Turn 2: Dawnheart Disciple
- Turn 3: Gryff Rider
- Turn 4: Hookhand Mariner
- Turn 5: Wolf Strike, pump Snarling Wolf
I’m not sure Gryff Rider has been in one of my decks yet, but it gets pumped twice in this sequence thanks to Dawnheart Disciple’s trigger. Originally had Snarling Wolf as the turn 1 play, but realistically Traveling Minister is miles better given that you want to play creatures pre-combat to get Dawnhart Disciple’s trigger and can’t threaten to activate the wolf.
- Turn 1: Snarling Wolf
- Turn 2: Hungry Ridgewolf
- Turn 3: Fearful Villager
- Turn 4: Hookhand Mariner
- Turn 5: Lightning Wolf + Flame-Blessed Bolt
Honestly? Hookhand Mariner is just a beast and would also be my choice for turn five play. Lightning Wolf is playable but only here for the sake of variety.
Oddly enough, the RG deck from section three didn’t have any Snarling Wolf, Hungry Ridgewolf, or Fearful Villagers. Draft decks can be built all kinds of ways. That’s what makes it so fun.
- Turn 1: Lantern Bearer
- Turn 2: Drogskol Infantry
- Turn 3: Binding Geist
- Turn 4: Cruel Witness
- Turn 5: Nurturing Presence + Sigarda’s Imprisonment
This is probably a more proactive sequence than most UW builds will have, but applying pressure with flyers has won a game or two of limited throughout its history.
Following fundamentals doesn’t guarantee that you’ll always play cards on turns 1-5 like the sequences above, but you’ll be surprised how often you do if you build decks with a good curve and consistent mana base. You don’t always have to do broken things to win games – but you will lose every game in which you can’t cast your cards.
5. CABS (Cards that Affect the Board State)
On episode 296 of Limited Resources – A Fundamental Approach to Limited, hosts Marshall Sutcliffe and LSV give excellent insight into a number of topics, including building CABS decks. An overarching theme of CABS and the fundamental Limited Resources approach is that it allows you to build functional decks with a good chance to win games almost every time you finish a draft. This approach isn’t very exciting. In fact, a lot of “correct” draft choices are incredibly safe and boring. But here’s the thing: you get to make interesting decisions in almost every game you play. That’s exciting. You get to win more games and draft more decks. That’s exciting! Be boring during the draft and deckbuilding. Have your fun while you’re making more meaningful choices and winning games more often.
As usual, I’ll recommend that you listen to the episode so you can hear directly from LSV – though I believe Marshall came up with the concept so credit to him (discussion about fundamentals starts around 58 minute mark).
CABS decks consist of three things: creatures, removal spells, and combat tricks. That’s it. No card draw or fancy enchantments. Just creatures, tricks, and removal. Marshall and LSV are quick to note that this isn’t the optimal way to draft, and that’s certainly true (you would never draft Glorious Sunrise, for example), but it’s a very good starting point for drafting and building limited decks.
A quick aside: I spent a lot of time memorizing specific cards and interactions from the current MTG limited set when I first started drafting. While that time wasn’t exactly wasted, your time is far better utilized learning concepts that can apply across formats.
We won’t delve too deep into the three card types involved in CABS decks: creatures, removal, and combat tricks. Your deck should mostly be creatures. Your removal should be unconditional (more on this later) when you can get it. Your combat tricks should be… tricky.
A very basic breakdown of a typical* 40 card draft deck:
- 17 lands
- 16-18 creatures
- 3-4 removal spells
- 2-3 combat tricks
(*This is a stock framework – good for drafting Core sets. These numbers are not specific to VOW. Every format and archetype are unique, so the numbers are constantly changing. If you’re interested in learning how to draft specific archetypes of the current set, Sam Black’s Drafting Archetypes podcast is wonderful and aptly named. He’s a fantastic educator who explains what’s important and why. Can’t recommend it highly enough if you want to get better at drafting specific decks.)
Rather than breaking down how many creatures and spells go in each VOW archetype, we’re going to focus on some examples of cards that don’t fit CABS theory. The truth is that any combat trick is better than a dead card in your hand, so let’s take a look at potentially dead cards. You can increase your win percentage significantly just by not putting narrow or suboptimal cards in your deck. Minimize mistakes to maximize win percentage applies to both gameplay and deckbuilding.
You want your cards to be playable, and worth the mana you spent, as close to 100% of the time as possible. Every card is good sometimes. You want cards that are good all the time or a majority of the time. Don’t ask yourself what it could do. Ask yourself what it’s likely to do most of the time.
Cards that gain control of an opponent’s creature temporarily (e.g. “threaten” effects) have made their way into a lot of limited sets recently and range wildly in value. Price of Loyalty was a key piece of the best deck in AFR, while Mascot Interception and Shackles of Treachery were marginally playable at best in Strixhaven and Kaldheim.
Your default setting should be to avoid cards like this and others that provide temporary board presence. Unless you’re killing your opponent that turn or sacrificing their creature somehow, using a card to steal a creature temporarily usually isn’t worth the cost. If a set has cheap or free sacrifice enablers (hey, sepulcher ghoul), that’s when it’s time to pay close attention to cards like Bloody Betrayal.
Don’t do this.
Even in a set with so many bombs, thirteen cards is a third of your deck! how do you know you won’t just exile it? Even if you don’t exile it, spending mana and a card to search for another card is almost always incorrect. You need to be finding a true bomb (e.g. Toxrill) in order for tutoring to be worth it – and you need to not exile thirteen cards first.
Buildaround uncommons are one of my favorite components of a limited set because they allow for varied deckbuilding and gameplay. Crawling Infestation looks like it enables graveyard syngergies while also providing creature tokens but it’s just way too slow for most draft games. I’m sure there are drafters out there who can make it functional, but you’re much better off just playing a 3-drop creature instead of a slow enchantment.
Laid to Rest is another tempting buildaround enchantment that isn’t going to be worth the mana you spent most of the time.
Dormant Grove, however, is a beast of an enchantment with very little help.
At least Crawling Infestation makes 1/1 tokens – this card doesn’t do much of anything until it flips. Filtering your draws is a powerful effect and the creature it flips into is powerful but neither of those components make this card good. The fact that it costs mana to activate makes it too slow and its flipside creature is too vulnerable.
Making this card work and winning games of limited sounds incredibly fun, and a good project if you’re going to draft the set a couple hundred times. Otherwise, don’t attempt this.
6. Conditional Spells
Not all removal spells are created equal – those that can only target creatures that meet certain requirements are referred to as “conditional.” The easier a condition is to meet, the better the removal spell is. You want to minimize the amount of conditional removal in your deck, though conditional removal is almost always better than no removal at all if you’re stuck in that spot. Some examples:
Fierce Retribution has a conditional mode for two mana and an unconditional mode for six mana. Awesome design, great limited card.
Efficient damage-based removal at instant speed. Destroying an artifact (usually an equipment) can be a very relevant mode.
Inefficient damage-based removal. Costs three more mana than Abrade but only does one additional damage, plus it’s sorcery speed. That’s why Lacerate Flesh is playable-but-replaceable while Abrade is a perfectly good P1P1.
A lot of limited sets have a removal spell that specifically targets flyers. Sometimes they’re great, sometimes they’re unplayable. I haven’t been maindecking Crushing Canopy but it might not be a terrible idea with so many bomb enchantments in the format.
Green gets this type of removal in most recent limited sets. Wolf Strike is known as a “bite” card because your creature deals damage but doesn’t receive any. Cards where both creatures deal damage are known as “fight” cards. These cards seems great when they work but are much higher risk than more traditional removal spells. I’ve found this especially true against better competition. Wolf Strike might lead to a blowout against inexperienced drafters, but finding a window of opportunity to get value out of these cards is extremely difficult against elite drafters.
This is the goal. This is everything you want: unconditional (not technically, but functionally), instant speed, and exiles.
Again – the goal is unconditional removal – but we’re drafters. Most of the time you just take what you can get.
7. Filling Deck Roles
“What does my deck want?” is constantly on my mind after I’ve decided what colors I’m in. If I’m drafting Blue/White, my deck is trying to play cards out of the graveyard in a long game. It just wants to survive the developing phase and doesn’t care about being aggressive. If I’m drafting White/Green, I want to impact the board early to apply pressure and enable Training.
At the very least, I ask myself what my deck wants in between packs, though it’s something that’s always in the back of my mind. Sometimes it’s specific, like seeing that my deck needs 2-drops so I have to take them over almost everything else in pack three. In other cases it’s vague, like my deck really wants a piece of interaction or two out of pack three to be complete.
Here’s the CABS deck role checklist.
2. Removal Spells
3. Combat Tricks
When I draft/deckbuild, here are the essential roles that I’m thinking about and looking to fill in my deck:
3. Top End/Win Condition (This can be something like Flourishing Hunter, not a splashy rare. It can also be cheap cards like Kessig Flamebreathers and cantrips)
Those three always stay, but certain archetypes have other roles that need to be filled. My mental list for Blue/Black, for example, would probably look like this:
1. 1 & 2 drops that enable exploit
2. Interaction (preferably Bleed Dry & counterspells)
3. Exploit creatures
4. A way to get ahead on resources (Blood Fountain, Scattered Thoughts)
A Red/Green deck probably has a mental checklist like this:
1. Two-drops that are wolves
2. Interaction (removal and combat tricks)
3. Bigger wolves
I know I always mention two-drops first but that’s because they’re so important.
Once you figure out what colors you’re in, you should determine what roles need to be filled in that specific deck. The further you are in the draft, the more you should be looking to fill roles instead of just taking the best card available.
If the decks you draft consistenly have a good curve, a mixture of creatures and spells, and cards that impact the board, I promise you will have the opportunity to win more games, even if the cards you’re playing aren’t great.
8. The Martin Juza Rule
This is a draft guideline that exists because of deckbuilding constraints. The Martin Juza (MTG Hall of Famer) Rule is how I learned it and what I call it in my head while I draft, but Gavin Verhey attributes it to Charles “Aceman” Dupont, so credit to him if he’s the originator.
The rule is as follows: All other things being equal, draft the cheaper card. If you’re deciding between a 2-drop and a 4-drop halfway through pack two and you’re really not sure which one to take, take the 2-drop. This is only meant to be a tiebreaker. If it’s close, if you’re really not sure which card is better or which one your deck wants, just take the cheaper card. It’s unusual to finish a draft and find that you have too many cheap spells. Casting multiple spells per turn is usually a sign that your game is going well. If you’re not careful and just keep taking the most powerful card in the pack, though, it’s easy to end up with a deck full of cards that cost 5, 6, or 7 mana. All other things being equal (i.e. quality, role), take the cheaper card.
9. Splashing – The Rule of Three
Conventional wisdom is that you want at least 3 sources of a color for every card you splash. So if you want to splash Halana and Alena in your BG deck, you need three red sources. If you’re splashing the legendary partners and Rending Flame, you need four red sources.
One very important note is that you don’t want to just add three Mountains to your deck and call it good. Your mana base will be horrendous, you won’t draw your primary or secondary colors consistently, and you won’t have any fun. If you have an Evolving Wilds and a Weaver of Blossoms, though, you can count those as red sources and only add one Mountain to your deck.
My personal bar for splashing cards is high because the cost of a potentially dead card is significant. I’ll jump through a couple hoops to splash Rending Flame if my deck is light on removal, but I won’t compromise my mana base to splash it if I’m otherwise loaded with removal spells. Not being able to cast your cards obviously hurts your win percentage, but it’s also incredibly un-fun. I’ve lost plenty of long, complicated games that were really enjoyable. I’ve never lost a game with uncastable cards in hand and thought it was fun. Those games are miserable.
In general, you want your splash cards to be impactful later in the game. It’s usually incorrect to splash for something like a 2-drop, even a very good one, because your chances of playing it on turn two are so slim. This isn’t true for removal spells like Fierce Retribution which can be good on turn two or turn 20.
The Rule of Three applies when the card you want to splash requires a single color to cast. You shouldn’t be splashing for cards with double mana requirements. There are definitely some bombs worth splashing for in VOW, but most of your decks will be better off as strictly two colors.
Players are usually tempted to splash when they open pack 2. Even if you’re confidently in your colors, it’s early enough in the draft to take a powerful rare and say “eh, I can splash it.” While this can be correct sometimes, the cost of taking that card and splashing it isn’t free. It costs you the on-color card you were going to draft.
Watch Ben Stark’s stream. You’ll see him draft slightly less powerful cards that are in his colors instead of a potential splash card every single time.
Dr. Karsten and the math on splashing: To Splash or Not to Splash in Limited
10. Mana Base
This section wasn’t in the original publication of this article but has been added because we all need to remember this. All of us. Every single one.
The mana base in your typical draft deck, the mana base that every pro and high level drafter will recommend you use at your starting point, the 17 mana split with 9 of your primary color and 8 of your secondary color – is atrocious. It’s the best we’ve got, but it really is terrible.
New players always want to cut lands because they hate flooding. Guess what happens then? You mulligan more. And you cast your spells less consistently. And you lose more. And it’s so hard to see this over the course of a draft, or five drafts, or ten drafts, but you just have to trust the math and accept that 17 lands is correct – but still bad.
If you view your mana base as a fickle, untrustworthy, unreliable pile of trash, then you’re far less likely to mess with it. The true cost of splashing cards isn’t just the potentially dead card in your hand, but also the compromise of your mana base which, again, is horrendous (but recommended!).
So thankful for Dr. Karsten (I heard Marshall call him “Frankie Digits” once and that’s a Pack 1 Pick 1 nickname): How Many Lands Do You Need To Consistently Hit Your Land Drops
11. Play 40 Cards
Always play 40 cards if you want to build competitive decks. You can play more than 40 cards if you’re alright with making your deck just a little bit worse but that’s the decision you’re making.
12. Bending or Breaking the Rules
A saying I learned from a college professor (but a quick Google search attributes similar quotes to Picasso and the Dalai Lama, who likely said it first) goes roughly like this: You have to learn the rules so you know which ones you can bend and which ones you can break. This applies well to both writing and deckbuilding. When a new set releases, most drafters draft fairly basic decks with interaction and a decent curve. Once you learn a format, though, you start to figure out which rules you can bend and which you can break. You figure out what you can get away with.
Most decks have cards that cost more than three mana. The above deck’s plan was to play an early threat and then counter everything.
Mono-red decks with 15 lands are viable with enough Kessig Flamebreathers and cantrips (i.e. cards that draw another card when played), though sadly I don’t have a decklist available.
Truthfully, I haven’t been breaking the rules much in VOW draft. The cards are already broken. When there are so many powerful cards, make sure you can cast yours consistently.
13. Play Skill
“But I NEED those cards!” a person I’ve invented to help my argument said to me. “I NEED the rares to beat the really good players!”
This is completely understandable – and probably reinforced by experience for most of us. If you’ve ever beaten a drafter you consider to be much better than you, a bomb rare or two might’ve helped your cause. But this is not The Way. First picking more rares, building around them, and hoping to draw them during the game is not the answer to beating great players (though I will admit it’s correct more often than usual in this format given the power level of some individual cards).
Developing play skill is a long and arduous process that requires absurd amounts of losing. If you and an elite player both sit down with rare-less 40 card decks, winning that game is going to be a grind (and probably won’t happen). But if you rely on rares to win drafts, you’ll never develop that play skill. The decision tree is much larger with a good curve and consistent mana base because you have multiple options per turn. We all know what it’s like to be mana screwed – your plays are scripted, you cast one spell per turn, and you don’t make a lot of meaningful choices. But with creatures on the battlefield and spells in hand, you get to make decisions. You enter combat with multiple lines of play available and have to figure out which one is best. You figure out what works and what doesn’t. You get to enjoy the game.
If you recognize that developing playskill isn’t a commitment you want to make, maybe you can’t draft too often and would rather just build around the rares, I think that’s fine. Part of what makes Magic great is that we can all enjoy it in different ways. Draft whatever way makes you happy!
But if you love drafting, want to play on the Arena Mythic ladder, and are committed to the process that requires – then you need to draft decks, not cards. Great draft decks beat great cards (Umezawa’s Jitte and a few others notwithstanding).
14. Be Boring
You’re going to lose games to rares in Vow draft and it can feel awful. I get it, I really do. Those losses sting the most and stick with us the longest. Worse, it can seem like great players always have rares in their deck. There are a few reasons for this.
1.) High-level drafters (Ben Stark, William Jensen, Martin Juza – not me. I do my best impression of them) prioritize being able to cast their cards and build decks accordingly. They’re usually able to cast their rares when they draw them.
2.) Great drafters maximize the value of their best cards. If an elite drafter starts building around Howlpack Piper in P1P1, it will perform like a bomb every time its cast because the deck will be built to optimize it. I’d guess we all try to do this on some level, but the best drafters are muuuuuuch better at it than most of us. So when they play their rares/mythics, it hurts more.
3.) If there’s a way to play a sweet rare that adheres to deckbuilding fundamentals, great drafters will find a way. And when their mana base doesn’t support that sweet rare, they put it in their sideboard where it belongs. So yeah, infuriatingly, great players seem to have more rares and there are some reasons for that.
But let’s be sure to acknowledge something else: It’s very possible you lost because you got unlucky. Of course there are games where I feel like I outplayed my opponent, my overall deck was better, and then I lose after they play Avabruck Caretaker. The enlightened perspective is that variance just didn’t go my way that game. Sometimes you lose to bomb rares. That’s part of what we signed up for
My reaction in the moment is usually something more like: “OH COOL! FUN GAME! SO GLAD I DID ALL THAT HARD WORK!” and then I rage draft (0-3, usually) because I’m a flawed individual and I’m working on it.
The larger truth though – the one that takes so many games of limited to learn – is that your ability to apply drafting and deckbuilding fundamentals will decide far more of your next 10,000 games than the number of rares your opponent plays against you.
The next time you draft a 7-win deck, or just a streamlined deck that functions well, take a look at some of the rares you were able to beat. Though each set has some exceptions, good decks can – and do – beat good rares consistenly. Sometimes I’ll be annoyed after being beaten by a rare or mythic, but when I’m honest with myself I often realize I would’ve lost to any comparably costed card my opponent played. Then the question becomes “why couldn’t I answer my opponent’s threat?” If I had answers but didn’t draw them, that’s unlucky. If my deck just didn’t have many answers, it’s possible my deck wasn’t very good because I drafted poorly.
If you’re newer to draft or looking to build better limited decks, here’s my advice: Be Boring. Try to draft two-color decks with a good curve and cards that impact the board consistently. Take the 2-drop that your deck wants even though it’s not exciting. The truth is that increasing your win percentage doesn’t always look flashy. No one at your LGS is going to grab their buddy and say “come here and check out this game! Schaab is using all of his mana, like, EVERY turn!” You don’t always have to outsmart your opponent. Sometimes you win games because you cast cards with your simple, efficient 2 color deck while your opponent hopes their mana base works out. Boring is correct a lot of the time. Boring wins games. You know what’s not boring? Games of Magic with interesting decisions. Drafting boring decks will provide you with a lot of those.
Learn the rules for building consistent decks. Apply the rules. Internalize the rules. Make it to Mythic with the rules.
Then figure out how you can break them.
About the Author
Schaab fell in love with Draft when he came back to Magic in 2016. These days, he’s mostly F2P on three Arena accounts. Life responsibilities prevent him from being a tournament grinder or taking Magic too seriously, so he happily considers himself a successful casual player.
LetsTalkLimited on Twitch. Haven’t streamed in a few months but just upgraded my internet so might try again soon. I’ve really upped my Twitter game lately (I’ve been posting more pictures of animals).
You can contact me with comments, questions, or feedback at BeBoring@letstalklimited.com
My content is a labor of love to help others get better at draft that will always be free. The best thing you can do is help other people (draft is really hard) but financial support is always appreciated. Thank you!
One thought on “Be Boring: A Guide to Building Better Draft Decks (Crimson Vow Update)”
One thing that really helped me put of the rare-drafting mentality was tracking how my previous drafts had gone. I wasn’t screenshotting my decklists, wasn’t tracking what I faced, just writing down what seemed significant about the deck to me, what cards notably overperformed or underperformed, and how many wins I got. It took time, but being able to see how few games were actually decided by bomb rares helped me enjoy the game a lot more.