Saturday mornings in Summer 2017, almost invariably, included coffee, breakfast sandwiches, and a long car ride to a Magic tournament somewhere in Maine with my friend, Charlie. I loved Magic as a kid, came back to it in 2016, and felt ready to test my skills in a larger setting after playing FNM for a year. Magic, for the second time in my life, was my primary hobby and focus of all my free time. I imagined myself competing at Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers, then Pro Tour Qualifiers, then the Pro Tour, and then we’ll see. Competitive Magic was very much in my short-term plans and I was open to it being a large part of my life moving forward.
Now married with two children, a third on the way, and a small menagerie that I care for, it’s safe to say that my long-term gameplan has changed. Don’t get me wrong – I still love competing. I prepared for the 2020 Eternal Draft Championship and will certainly do so again in 2021 – but I can’t keep up with much more than that. As someone who truly excelled in the “Mistakes You Can Make in Your 20s” quadrant, this is by no means a sad story. My life has turned out far better than I deserve. But playing Eternal competitively, as great as it is, will remain a wonderful but relatively small part of my life for the foreseeable future.
Evaluating myself honestly, I think I’m pretty good at games like Eternal and Magic. I might even be very good or great when I really dedicate myself to a format. But I’m not excellent. I’m far from excellent. Even potentially great seems like a stretch given how poorly I play sometimes. There’s a chasm between players like me and the elites that I’ll probably never even come close to closing. That is totally, completely fine with me now. I’m aware that I don’t have the time (or energy) that becoming excellent would require. I do, however, think I have a pretty decent understanding of what it would take to become excellent. I definitely know some of the traps that players can fall in to because I had to climb out of them. If you’re like I was in Summer 2017, ready to dedicate time and energy towards these games, I think I can help you avoid some mistakes. Don’t make the same mistakes I made. Be better than me. Let’s talk limited.
Tournament Report!!! (From three years ago)
“Play your bombs.”
^ This is the conventional wisdom when it comes to sealed. It seems so obvious. Of course you play your bombs. But then you find yourself staring at a pile of hot primal garbage with Eilyn, Fearless as your top-end and suddenly playing your bomb doesn’t only seem incorrect, it seems downright risky. So what’s correct?
My Amonkhet sealed pool had two bombs: Glorybringer and Regal Caracal. My white cards weren’t great but the Caracal is, so I followed conventional wisdom and played a Red/White deck with some suboptimal cards. I played five or six rounds, so probably 10-15 games, and never saw the cat. Wasn’t stuck in my hand, didn’t draw it a turn too late. I literally never put it on the stack. “Play your bombs. Great Advice! Fun game. So cool. Glad I prepared so much. Must be nice to draw your rares. Muuuuuust be nice” were undoubtedly some of my thoughts while I watched Charlie draft in the Top 8.
What a horrendous piece of writing this would be if it were a sob story about a time I didn’t draw a card in a tournament three years ago, so let’s get to some conclusions.
These days, it’s easy for me to look back on that tournament, consider everything I know about limited, and decide that I’ll take the same approach the next time I’m in a sealed tournament. I’d build Red/White again given the chance and think it would be correct, but it wasn’t easy for me to see it that way at the time. On the ride home, Charlie probably listened to me say things like this “I’m not sure building my deck that way was correct. Yeah, I had bombs, but I never drew one of them and played terrible cards.” I never drew the Regal Caracal. Only drew Glorybringer sometimes. Woe is me.
True for Me
This is the line of thinking I want you to be aware of because I’m sure I fell prey to it for a while after that tournament: Maybe the conventional wisdom isn’t true for me. Playing bombs in sealed might be correct for most, but maybe not for me. Playing 17 lands in a limited deck might be conventionally correct, but I keep getting flooded in my games, so maybe it’s not correct for me. Yeah, I identify the open colors, but then I never get passed good cards in those colors, so maybe drafting the hard way isn’t correct for me.
I am not special. You are not special (in the probability sense – you’re fantastic as a person). The conventional wisdom is conventional for a reason. It is true regardless of our personal experience. You could flood out every single game for three weeks in a row at FNM…. 17 lands would still be correct. You could put great rares in your sealed deck and never draw them for an entire tournament….. playing your rares would still be correct. We’re dealing with sample sizes that are far too small for us to see the bigger picture in the moment.
This isn’t exclusive to Magic. Do you find yourself saying things like this? “I don’t like to activate Valley-Clan Sage because it always mills my good cards.” Or “My imbue units always get silenced the turn after I play them.” Maybe “I never hit my revenge cards but my opponent always hits them right away.” Really? Always? Helloooooo confirmation bias. Math disagrees.
Refuting Conventional Wisdom
Okay, so we’re in the summer of 2017, I didn’t make the top 8 of this tournament and I’m incredibly unhappy about it. I’m convinced that conventional Magic wisdom is wrong. My recent experience and the very strong emotions I’m feeling are both telling me I’m correct. Human beings are wildly unreasonable creatures when we’re emotional. I’m convinced that playing bombs in sealed isn’t correct for me.
Now let’s imagine I go straight from this tournament to presenting my new findings at a conference:
“Welcome, distinguished guests. Thank you for being here. Good to see you, Mr. Finkel. Dr. Karsten, how are ya? Kai, nice of you to make the trip. So I know math and your collective knowledge spanning generations says that you should always play your bombs in sealed, but I just got back from a tournament and I never drew this Big Cat soooooooo conventional wisdom refuted. Not true for me. Thanks for coming!”
Ridiculous, of course. Let’s have some fun with another trap I fell in to after that tournament: I couldn’t have done anything differently. Couldn’t make myself draw that cat, could I? Just bad luck. Sure must be nice to draw your bombs. Suuuuure must be nice.
It became a running joke over the summer that I would consistently make the top 8 of these tournaments but never win. When that happens, it’s easy to blame luck. I was probably playing moderately above average Magic at the time. It was within the normal range of variance for me to win one of those tournaments based on how I was playing, and that’s what I focused on, but the idea that I couldn’t have done anything differently is comical.
Back then, I would have said that I played really well but got unlucky that day. Sure, maybe I did get unlucky. Fair enough. But not making glaring mistakes and playing perfectly are two very different things. Let’s make it easy to see why this focus is incorrect. Do I really, truly believe, given the exact same set of circumstances, that Ben Stark and I end that tournament with the same record? Really? Seth Manfield couldn’t have figured out how to win one or two of those games without the Big Cat? Luis Salvatto would have been complaining about his bad luck on the car ride home? Reid Duke couldn’t have penetrated the variance of the Southern Maine PPTQ circuit? Come on. Come onnnnnnn.
Imagine it a different way. Now I’m rewatching all of my games with Jon Finkel behind me. Decision after decision, match after match, am I really turning to Finkel and saying “See? Perfect play. I’ve been doing this for a whole year now, Jon. I think I know what I’m doing.” It seems silly when viewed this way, but we are all so comfortable saying “I did everything right” or “I couldn’t have done anything differently.” Really? Martin Juza wouldn’t disagree with some of your choices? LSV would’ve built the exact same deck? Time and again, CCG players revert to “well, I did everything right” or “I couldn’t have done anything differently” Of course we think so. No one intentionally makes bad plays. We don’t know what we don’t know.
Probability (and a visual)
Here’s how I look at that Amonkhet sealed tournament now: If we simulated that tournament 10,000 times, there would be outcomes like the one I experienced – never drawing the cat. There would also be results with the opposite outcome, I drew the cat in every game. And every other possibility in between. On that one day, in that one tournament, I caught the bad end of variance and never drew it. Maybe I make the top 8 of that tournament 70% of the time and just happened to hit the 30% that day. Unlucky, sure. But the idea that I couldn’t have done anything differently, that Huey Jensen would have had the same results sitting in my seat, or that conventional wisdom doesn’t apply to me because of my one tournament experience is beyond absurd.
I wouldn’t deprive y’all of the high-quality images you’ve come to expect, so here’s a visual approximation of me sideboarding in Magic in 2017.
Just handing that win percentage over to my opponent for free. Sideboarding was one of my many major areas of improvement at the time (and still is).
Not drawing that cat was unlucky and probably 99% of what I focused on that day. I didn’t focus on the cards I splashed, the choices I made, or the aspects of the game I had control over. I focused on the fact that I got unlucky. Worse, I thought that maybe conventional wisdom didn’t apply to me. Somehow, someway, I’m special. My Magic experience is different from everyone else in the world. In Eternal, in my worst moments, this turns in to “Maybe the shuffler is broken?” because that’s easier to focus on than mistakes I might be making.
You’ve probably gotten unlucky in tournaments. Play these games long enough and we all experience the bad end of variance. It’s going to happen if it hasn’t already. You have to accept this and focus on your own choices, even if you really, truly did get unlucky.
Conventional Wisdom is conventional for a reason. For example, you can put 16 lands in your MTG limited decks and win at FNM sometimes, but math will prove you wrong in the end. You’ll mulligan more hands, struggle to hit your land drops, and you’ll lose more games. It won’t be obvious, and most of us would blame luck, but detracting from conventional wisdom will hurt in the long-run. Math and probability will be sure of it. I’m so guilty of blaming horrible luck when all I’m experiencing is the bad end of normal variance (e.g. dying with a splashed card in hand even though I had decent fixing).
The odds that you’re playing perfectly are miniscule. I didn’t play perfectly then and I certainly don’t play perfectly now. It’s hard for me to see my incorrect decisions – I obviously think they’re correct while I’m making them. Luck, variance, whatever you want to call it, is part of what we signed up for. If you want to be excellent, it’s essential that you focus on your own decisions and not the variance.
I’ll probably never be excellent at these games and that’s fine. But if you want to be, focusing on luck and variance won’t help you get there. You might as well get mad at the weather. It’s there and you can’t change it.
My goal, always, is to help people get better at limited. I fell in to these traps – don’t do the same. I cared so much about those tournaments and desperately wanted to do well. Such strong emotions clouded my judgment. Don’t let it cloud yours. Be better than me. Focus on your choices, grow from good to great to excellent, and when you reach that point – do your pal, Schaab, a favor and help others do the same. Until then, I hope you have an excellent Saturday. Happy Drafting!
I wrote the below disclaimer before I published my original Feln Control article.
-The majority of this article was written prior to the format changes/updates that occurred on August 10th. I haven’t played enough recently to know the major impacts of the update, except for changeestik, which acts as another win condition for this deck. I think most of the article is still relevant given that a major part of your plan is to kill your opponent with a flyer anyway.
At the time, I figured the introduction of Changeestik would have the biggest impact on the archetype I had just written about. I was wrong. The most impactful change, by far, was the reduction of Wisdom of the Elders from 10x boosted to 5x in the draft packs.
“I dig towards my revenge cards in this deck and have played at least 3 Wisdom of the Elders in a list, maybe 4.” This sentence was reasonable when I wrote it. Now I’m thrilled to have a single copy in my lists. Playing Valley-Clan Sage on turn two and then drawing two cards on turn three was such a strong start for this deck. It helped you hit your fourth power and likely play another big blocker in the form of acrid scorpion or hearty warrior. Forbidden Research is a great card but it costs the same amount as the aforementioned blockers. This is an example of how something seemingly small can have a big impact.
Sequence A: Turn 2 blocker, Turn 3 draw two more cards, Turn four blocker (it’s more likely you have one and the power to play it thanks to the two extra cards), Turn five: Lots of options.
Sequence B: Turn 2 blocker, Turn three do nothing, Turn four, probably blocker if you have one – forbidden research if you don’t – assuming you have four power.
On the most recent episode of Eternal Journey, @iplongno mentioned that his Feln decks never seem to come together. Based on the Feln decks I’ve drafted, played against, and have seen streamers play against since the pack changes, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people had the same experience. If you drafted Feln Control after reading my article and it fizzled out: I’m so sorry. Losing slowly is awful. The most likely reason your Feln Control deck didn’t work out was lack of card draw. I promise I didn’t know they were going to change the weight of Wisdom of the Elders.
In practical terms, this makes Step 2: Outvalue your opponent, much more difficult. Forbidden Research should move up in your pick order, same for Wisdom of the Elders in the draft packs, and cards with plunder that you wouldn’t typically want (e.g. yeti taunt patrol) become actively good if your deck is lacking card draw. In Quadrant Theory terms, it makes it more difficult for your deck to break parity (i.e. drawing extra cards is one form of breaking parity).
The weight of the Shadow removal was also reduced, which makes the deck more difficult to draft, but there’s still enough removal to go around. This is a list @patomaru was working on with myself and a couple others in the Farming Eternal Discord, the same list I referenced in Quadrant Theory Part 2 when talking about frogs blocking elephants.
As you can see, removal is not lacking, but where is the card draw? If you pass a Wisdom of the Elders in packs two or three, you better be taking some pretty fantastic cards over them.
The Feln Control deck can still come together. My most recent list above went 7-1 and *I won’t say things like this often* the seven wins didn’t feel all that difficult (ya know what, I think I’ll block with my 0/5s and hearty warriors again. Good choice). This was the game I lost:
The classic Aurapiercer/Wump & Mizo draft deck. I took a screenshot at this point in the game because of how absurd it was, but also because I thought there was a chance that I’d win this game. I killed Severin with Devouring Shadow and the Pack Conjuring I drew the following turn. Don’t remember how I dealt with the Aurapiercer, but the unknown card in opponent’s hand is the Lethrai Falchion (4/1 lifesteal weapon) that they invoked from the Aurapiercer, which is allowed them to attack past the 3/7 Cloudsnake Mount I had on the board. A few turns later, I died to snowballs. If not for the yeti’s ability, there’s a small chance I come back to win that game. It was incredibly fun. And before you look at this game I lost to my opponent’s completely overpowered rares and think about how lucky they were, please give them some credit and consider how extraordinarily difficult it is to draft and construct a deck with those power requirements that not only functions but can survive long enough to cast those cards.
Feln Control is still viable and a lot of fun to play if control is your kinda thing. If you read my article, drafted a Feln Control deck that followed all the guidelines, and your deck still didn’t feel very good, lack of card draw may have been the reason. It’s still a good archetype, but it’s significantly harder to draft now. That’s all for this Sunday morning. Happy drafting! And Happy Football Sunday for fellow sportsball fans. Oh yeah, and best of luck to everyone competing in today’s tournament!
TL;DR – Wisdom of the Elders isn’t 10x boosted anymore, it’s 5x; Card draw spells become a higher priority during draft. Deck is still good but harder to draft and build.
Thank you to shiftstoned.com for making the draft pack weighting information easy to find.
You love trivia (You sound great. We should hang out). Twice a week, without fail, you go to trivia night at the Local Grande Saloon. You have a core group that’s pretty reliable but your team, Trivia Tron, is a welcoming bunch that’s never the same twice. Your friends, while all lovely and charismatic people, have different areas of strength that you come to recognize over time. Jeff can’t help you with Shakespeare’s final play (The Tempest) but he is by far the most likely to know the first American-born hockey player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy (Brian Leetch, New York Rangers, 1994). My friend, Ted, knows all of the Oscar winners going back to who cares. My ex’s best friend specialized in emphatically yelling the wrong answers in my face. We all have our talents.
Over time, you come to realize that Trivia Tron does best when all of your teammates know a little bit about everything. The people you are happiest to see on your team have read some books, binged a bit of Netflix, are familiar with the sportsball, and don’t insist they’re correct unless they’re absolutely certain of it. In Be Boring, I argued that you want to draft limited cards and decks with a similar profile: not spectacular in any one area, but reliable, consistent, average to above average in most situations, and usually won’t lose you the game.
You could probably even evaluate your teammates with quadrant theory if you had a spare few minutes and were really insistent on pushing through with this trivia analogy. As luck would have it, I have a special preview prototype card for the 2020 Trivia Team draft. Let’s see how this work of art fits in to Quadrant Theory:
Modesty aside, I’m a fantastic trivia teammate. As you can see, I’m incredibly strong in the 90’s One-hit wonder quadrant, which also includes nonsense and general trivia. If I (visual approximation above) walk in to your LGS on trivia night, you should invite me to sit at your table. If the night’s theme is Speech & Language Stuff or Mistakes You Can Make In Your 20’s, you can probably start celebrating early. But let’s say I walked into a dreadful, joyless building that only has Geography themed trivia. In that dreary place, I’m an anchor of a teammate. You should hide your head and pretend you don’t see me. It takes my brain a few seconds to process words like “southwest” and then I have to double-check myself.
The Jeopardy category is Rivers: “You can do this, Schaab. You can definitely think of five different rivers. The Nile. The Mississippi. River on Firefly was such a great character. Zoey too. And Simon. All of ‘em really. Such a shame. The Nile.”
I’m a strong trivia teammate in most instances, but my game has serious flaws. There are definitely trivia nights and categories where I’m below average even though I’m a great all-around player. I’m sharing my shameful Jeopardy weaknesses with you to help illustrate a general truth: Context matters. A lot. This is true when drafting limited cards, putting together a trivia team, and in most life matters.
Quadrant Theory was originally conceptualized as a card evaluation tool by Brian Wong, former co-host of Limited Resources. LSV expanded its application in a 2018 article and episode of Limited Resources, which serves as the basis for this article. In Part 1, I described the Quadrant Theory framework and how it can be applied to individual cards. It’s a tool that I use to evaluate cards when I look at a new set, am deciding between two draft picks, or doing a chaos draft at my LGS with cards I’ve never seen. The ability to evaluate individual cards is a very useful skill but it’s only one small piece of the limited puzzle.
Pick order lists/ratings/rankings are fun and I always read them. Pack 1, Pick 1 is one of my favorite games. For the most part, though, pick orders are useless after you’ve selected your first few cards. When you’re deciding between two cards in Pack 2, Pick 5, the question is no longer “which of these cards is better?” the question becomes “which of these cards is better in this deck?” Quadrant Theory, when applied to your deck as a whole, can help you answer that question repeatedly as you navigate your draft. You don’t take the card that’s better in a vacuum. You take the card that excels in the quadrants your deck wants to focus on.
Have a Plan
Try as I might, I can’t describe quadrant theory as it applies to deckbuilding without talking about a pillar of LSV’s approach: Have a plan. It’s the concept he talked about on his first episode of Limited Resources and they just revisited the topic in a recent episode. Like a lot of the best gameplay advice, it’s really simple. Have a plan, stay open while you draft, figure out if you should attack or defend, etc.: all simple. It’s the correct application of these simple concepts and a million others that separate the good drafters from the Hall of Famers.
If you have a plan while you draft, build your deck, and play your games, you are miles ahead of some opponents. You should start planning long before you shuffle your cards and consider your opening seven. Start planning the moment you draft your first card. What kind of deck would that card be best in? Think about what you want the game to look like when you cast this card. Think about what kind of cards you need to achieve a game state like that.
When it’s time to pick your second card, you should still just take the best card in the pack. If you’re deciding between two cards that seem close, though, take the one that best fits into the ideal deck you imagined for your first pick. Lean into your first pick, don’t force it. If you’re having a hard time figuring out the difference between leaning and forcing – yep. Right there with you. Welcome to limited. It’s one of the hardest parts of draft because you have to fight against all of your conscious and subconscious biases. If you draft the hard way, sometimes it’s not always clear what your plan should be until later in the draft. That’s ok! That happens sometimes and is part of the learning process. But you should be planning to have a plan at some point in the draft.
If you want to improve your draft process, I highly recommend you find a streamer(s) that you trust and watch their drafts. I want to constantly, mercilessly harass @bettorup while I watch him draft. I can walk away while he’s making his second pick, do some laundry, take the dogs to the park, get dinner started, and when I get back to the stream: Excellent, he’s on pack 1, pick 5. Truthfully though, I joke about it because this is an area of his game that I should emulate. We have all the time in the world to make these choices and I don’t use that time well. You can (and should) ask @bettorup about any card in any of his decks and he can explain why it’s there (see footnote). Find a streamer that you trust, ask thoughtful questions, and then just listen.
If you have a plan, you’re doing great. Now it’s time to think about your opponent’s plan. I played against the aforementioned Bettorup the other day. His first turn: justice source, noble protector. I know he drafts with a plan and every card in his deck has a purpose, so my thought process went something like this. There’s at least two siphoner paladins in the deck. Maybe three. He’s probably playing Argenport. Can my hand afford to play around a turn three siphoner paladin and 3/5 relic weapon? If I do have a way to play around it, can I still use all of my power in the next few turns? If don’t have a way to play around it, it’s time to play my cards and hope he doesn’t have one in his hand. Noble protector doesn’t go in decks that win quickly, so his plan is to make the game go long. My deck also wants the game to go long, but is there a chance I’m actually the aggressor in this game? One of my best cards is Shen-Ra Speaks and that’s useless if he’s going to kill me with a weapon. I might have to go on the offensive even though that’s really not what this deck is built to do. Then again, I have Maeve in this deck, so there’s a chance that my long game is better than his.
This is a different Bettorup decklist. Based on his turn 1 play, I thought I might be playing against a deck that looks like this:
Turn 2, he plays a primal source, and the thought process starts all over again. That game lasted 29 turns. I lost. Siphoner Paladin had nothing to do with it. It was awesome.
I don’t always think so much about my opponent’s plays. Honestly, if someone I’d never heard of did the same thing on turn 1, I might think “hm, they’re playing bad cards. Their deck might be bad.” When you’re in a tournament setting, though, your thought process can go pretty deep and should consider the opponent’s plan. It’s impossible to know their exact plan, but you can use all the information available to you (i.e. the cards they’ve played) to draw some reasonable conclusions.
Let’s look at which quadrants your typical limited archetypes want to focus on and then we’ll look at some reasonable P1P1 choices and how you can start planning around the
Quadrants to focus on: Developing and Ahead.
Less important: Parity
Least important: Behind
Your plan is to get ahead and stay ahead. Sure, you might play a game on the draw against another aggro deck, but you’re planning to be the aggressor most of the time. Pack 4, Pick 5 you have two reasonable choices for your Skycrag deck: Spellbound Ursine and Grizzled Quickshot. These are both defensible ways to spend 5 power. You could put either of these cards in your deck and you wouldn’t be incorrect, but one is more correct than the other in your typical skycrag deck. Even if you didn’t intentionally draft a go-wide deck, your overall good cards (e.g. mobilization, corrosive dagger) happen to make tokens. There are game states and situations where the bear would be the better card, but most of the time you’re going to get more value out of the 5 power you spent on the quickshot.
Let’s say you didn’t even realize that some of your cards make tokens. All you know is that you’re trying to draft an aggressive deck. Aggressive decks want to focus on two quadrants: Developing and Ahead. So you look at both cards in Quadrant Theory and see which one is better in those areas. It’s important to note that both of these cards perform positively in the two quadrants. Like I said earlier, neither of these choices would be incorrect, but one is more correct than the other based on your build. The quickshot excels when you’re ahead because it buffs itself and at least the one other unit you’re presumably attacking with.
If you didn’t know the first thing about Argent Depths archetypes, didn’t realize there were token synergies in skycrag, and evaluated the quickshot and bear purely in terms of which one performs better in the quadrants aggro decks want to focus on, you’d arrive at the correct conclusion. The quickshot is a disaster when you’re behind, but you don’t care about that. That’s not part of your deck’s plan. When you truly commit to building an aggressive deck, you’re effectively conceding the “behind” quadrant. How cards perform in that quadrant should no longer be part of your card evaluation because it’s not part of your deck’s overall plan.
Quadrants to focus on: Behind
Less important: Developing and Parity
Least important: Ahead.
You’re going to spend very little time in the “ahead” quadrant. Most of your cards are focused on reaching parity. I eloquently described this as “Don’t Die” while writing about Feln Control but I guess you could also call it “Make sure you survive the developing stage.” You want your individual cards to contribute to your overall plan of extending the game. Hearty Warrior does that far more effectively than Galeprowler does.
When you build a true control deck, your win condition can be almost anything. You’ve controlled the board, you have more resources than your opponent, and you just kill them with whatever is left. Bad win conditions are almost a point of pride for control players. I wasn’t kidding when I said False Demise could be your whole win condition in a Feln Control deck. Ideally, you have one or two more ways to win, but true control decks really are built with very few actual win conditions.
“An interesting strategy” an opponent said to me during a game in which I had about 7 power among my 9 units. Developing phase survived, parity achieved. Then I played Water Conjuring, took a Storm Prowler, and killed them with the 10/10 flyer. Invoke can be a win condition, though it’s not a reliable one. Invoking a Storm Prowler wasn’t an exact plan. If the invoke didn’t work out so well, the game would have just continued on until I found one of my other win conditions. You don’t need many – just make sure they’re effective in getting you ahead when the time comes.
@Patomaru, of the Farming Eternal podcast recently asked me how his feln control deck, which was full of removal spells, was supposed to win games. “How well does a 1/1 frog (Two polymorphs and changeestik in the deck) block a 6/4 elephant?” was my way of saying this: When you’ve effectively dealt with all of your opponent’s meaningful creatures, your unspectacular ones can get the job done.
Important quadrants: All of them
Be Boring is a decent blueprint for your typical midrange deck if you’re new to draft. While it does provide a framework for overall deck construction (i.e. curve, cards that affect the board), it also assumed the reader had a certain level of knowledge about archetypes (I often reference taking cards that your deck wants. But how do you know if your deck wants an 0/5?). LSV speculates that most people think aggro is easy to draft, control is difficult to draft, and midrange is medium. He argues that aggro and control are actually easier than midrange. Once you know how to build a control deck, you can apply that formula across formats. LSV says it’s the same for aggro decks. That’s not true ::in my experience:: because I haven’t spent enough time drafting aggro decks. For me, control and midrange are easy to draft. Aggro is difficult. I suspect aggro is difficult for me because I don’t commit enough.
The reason midrange decks are difficult to draft is because there are so many variations. There are aggressive midrange decks and there are controlling midrange decks. Midrange decks that win with flyers and midrange decks that win by going wide. An aggro Skycrag deck wants the Grizzled Quickshot for sure. Some midrange skycrag decks want the quickshot while others want the ursine. There are a million variations of midrange and the specific one that you’re building will change from format to format, draft to draft. That being the case, there are very few heuristics available for how to draft them. While you can almost completely ignore individual quadrants in true aggro or control decks, midrange decks have to be competent in all of them. Lean too far aggressive and you might beat aggro decks, but you’ll likely lose to other midrange decks and definitely control decks. Drift too far in the other direction and you’ll likely fall behind in the developing stage, get behind, and stay behind.
Planning from Pick 1
You want the game to last a long time. A very long time. You want to give yourself enough time to draw this card and make sure you have seven power to cast it. If you reach anything resembling parity, this will destroy it. It typically eats a creature, makes your opponent’s draws worse, and then casually beats them to death as a 5/6 flyer. That is your plan.
A few picks later, you look at a pack with three choices: Blockodile, Hired Gun, and Vorpal Cutter. You can sign me up for that Blockodile all day long. It fits best with my vague gameplan of “make the game go long.” In terms of quadrant theory, the blockodile performs best in the developing and behind, the quadrants I care about most in my control or controllish midrange deck that wants to get to at least seven power. I could see an argument for Hired Gun because it also performs well in developing and behind. I think Vorpal Cutter would be incorrect because it excels when you’re already ahead.
You first picked a Battledriver. Excellent choice. It fits in a wide variety of decks, is an MVP in some, and is powerful enough to consider splashing even if you don’t play fire. Exactly what you want out of your first pick. This card, however, is far more effective in some builds than others. Fire decks are usually aggressive, but this card also allows you to win a later game, so it can go in a midrange deck just as easily. Your general plan is to play a deck with a lot of units to maximize how good the battledriver is. With the same choice as above, a hired gun or vorpal cutter would make far more sense in a stonescar deck than the blockodile. Personally, I’d take Hired Gun for two reasons: 1. I think it’s a better card in a vacuum. 2. It keeps me open to more deckbuilding options because it can go in any kind of deck, whereas the Vorpal Cutter pushes me further in the direction of aggro.
A personal favorite of mine. Let’s talk about two extremes that might occur in an Argenport deck after first-picking this card. Drafter A first picks Oskar and then just continues taking the most powerful cards in each pack. At the end of the draft, they have no ways to sacrifice creatures. Drafter B first picks Oskar and then highly prioritizes any card that allows them to sacrifice their creatures.
With Drafter A’s approach, they would most likely end up some with some powerful sacrifice synergies by accident. If they just took good cards, there’s probably at least a siphoner paladin or grisly contest somewhere in there. If you first pick Oskar and then just take boring, good cards throughout the draft, you’ll end up with a playable deck. That’s why I advocate for that type of approach for newer drafters. Most people, however, start out approaching draft like Drafter B.
The issue with Drafter B’s approach, focusing so heavily on cards that sacrifice, is that their deck ends up with cards like Contaminating Ritual, Urgent Missive, and Piercing Grief. Cards that utterly fail in Quadrant Theory. “But Schaab,” one might say, “who would seriously put those cards in their deck?” Thank you for asking, person I’ve invented to help prove my point. Me. I would. Hello, my name is Schaab, and it has been approximately three months since I’ve drafted a Mysterious Waystone deck.
Taking cards like Urgent Missive over actual playable cards because you have Oskar is forcing it. Taking your first Devour or second Grisly Contest because you have Oskar is leaning into it. It is incredibly easy to look at a card like Oskar, think “I should have a plan. My plan is to sacrifice creatures,” and then draft a deck that is good at sacrificing creatures but bad at everything else.
If you have a Primal deck heading in to pack 4 and open this card, it should be good in your deck. If you draft this card in pack 1, it should be phenomenal. Why? Because you should be drafting with a plan. That plan is to take any dumb ground creature and give it wings. Here’s why it matters during the actual draft: Let’s consider a card like False Demise in a Feln deck. If I already have a Vengeful Flight, False Demise moves far down on my list of priorities. I still want one, but I’ll live without it. They cost the same amount of power, lead to the same endgame, and I don’t want too many of those cards in my deck.
If my Vengeful Flight-less Feln deck needed a piece of recursion, I would take False Demise over a card I love, like Acrid Scorpion, without hesitation. But in a similar scenario, no recursion but I have a Vengeful Flight, now my deck has flying scorpions. I’d like a False Demise, but my higher priority is making sure I have high quality targets so that my rare is the best card in either players’ deck.
Oh yeah, and this card has revenge! When you play with this card for the first time, you might be surprised by how hard it is to find two good targets. You usually have one ground target on the board but the odds that you miss on your second Vengeful Flight is far above 0%. It doesn’t feel great when you give your cheerful shepard flying. Trust me.
If you draft individual cards based strictly on quadrant theory, you’ll never draft this card. It’s conditional and best when you’re already ahead. It’s horrendous when you’re behind, which is exactly the kind of card I’d usually recommend you avoid, but consistently passing this card because it doesn’t perform well in quadrant theory would be a mistake in my opinion. It fits perfectly in to the decks that I want to draft: Don’t die, don’t die, don’t die, kill you.
Some of your most educated friends, the people you expect to be great trivia teammates, leave you feeling disappointed more often than you expect. The trend, you realize, is that they might as well have been dead during the years they were getting their advanced degrees. Nikki is really smart, but she has no idea, not a clue, what happened in the world from 2009-2015 while she was in pharmacy school. When they’re good, they’re great, but they’re also surprisingly useless sometimes. Let’s look at a specialist of limited:
If you read my work and follow my general drafting advice, you could easily find yourself with a deck that has SpellStorm Stranger in it. It fills a spot on your curve, it blocks well, it can attack, it’s great during development. You could follow all of the guidelines I’ve written about and very easily end up playing Spellstorm Stranger – a card I almost never play. Here’s why: In this format, Valley-clan sage blocks just as effectively, it’s cheaper, and is better in the late game. For an extra power I could play Hearty Warrior, which excels in the same quadrants as the stranger but is far more effective. I never play Spellstorm Stranger and it has nothing to do with the individual card itself. It’s a card that fits a lot of my own heuristics and recommendations, I’ve played it in previous formats, but almost never put in my decks these days. Context matters. A lot.
I never play Spellstorm Stranger for the reasons I just mentioned, but it would have been one of the cards I’d be most excited to draw if I had one in my above Feln list. If you’d like to look at the deck again to figure out why before you continue reading, please feel free.
I don’t know which card has caused my opponents to immediately concede after I cast it most often, but I’m guessing lightning storm would be up there. Such a satisfying card. It was great in this list because it killed so few of my own creatures, but let’s remove one of the Hearty Warriors and add a Spellstorm Stranger. Now, the lightning storm in my deck has the potential to deal three damage to all the creatures on the board instead of two. That is a massive difference in limited. Two damage to all creatures is usually a good value play. Three damage is a game-winner if you set it up well. The problem, of course, is that lightning storm applies to both sides. Three damage will kill most of your opponent’s board, but it will do the same to yours, right? Right? Not this deck. Lightning storm dealing an extra damage wouldn’t cause it to kill a single unit on my side that it wouldn’t have otherwise. My only at-risk units would still be 2 cheerful shepherds and a Devious Drone. A spellstorm stranger, in this deck, would have turned lightning storm into a one-sided hailstorm. That’ll win you most games of limited.
You don’t want a card like Spellstorm Stranger in most of your draft decks these days, but there are always exceptions. The stranger is a decent card with the potential to make one of my other good cards great under specific circumstances. The exceptions are hard to see, but you’re guaranteed to miss all of them if you’re not drafting with a plan.
*In the Schaab household, this became a reference based on The Walking Dead character. It’s become our version of “Karen.” For example, my children call all blue jays “Rick” because they’re very mean birds. My apologies to all Ricks out there.
If you’ve made it this far and you’re somehow thinking “You know what I need? More mangled trivia analogies written solely for the author’s amusement,” I’ve got you covered. If you’re here to level up your game, class is dismissed. If you’re here for nonsense, here we go.
One night, all of your friends and acquaintances show up to the LGS so you split into different teams. Trivia Tron has a very good chance of winning heading in to the final question of the night. Category – the 90s. Your hopes of winning diminish as the host says “In the hit TV series ‘Full House,’ John Stamos’ character is the lead singer of what musical group?” Rick, a friend of a friend that has stayed quiet most of the night, suddenly pays attention and says “huh? Oh, you mean Jesse and the Rippers? Definitely Jesse and the Rippers.” Trivia Tron wins trivia night! Hoorayyy!
The win feels great. Everyone in attendance basically forgets that Rick was useless the rest of the night. Even you completely forget all of the times he derailed the group with his bad stories. The only thing anyone remembers is that Trivia Tron wouldn’t have won without him. You tell Rick he’s welcome anytime and invite him back next week. He graciously accepts your invitation and then twice a week, without fail, Rick shows up. The first couple of times you see him, you’re thrilled, but you quickly realize that Rick is – uhhhhh – not good at trivia. As far as you can tell, he’s not good at anything. He only knows about 90s television and it’s hard to keep him focused.
Rick: “So then Urkel invents a machine to turn himself into Ste-fan Ur-kel, who is much cooler than Steve Urkel, and Laura Winslow is totally in to Stefan”
You: “Rick, the question was ‘what is the capital of Sweden?”
Your friends who were there on the night of your epic victory say things like “If only Rick were here!” and “Remember Rick? He was awesome! I wonder what he is doing tonight.” You find yourself repeatedly telling people that Rick is terrible. I get it, you explain yet again, Rick was great that one time. Wouldn’t have won without him. But trust me, that was a one time thing – he’s awful. .
The Ricks and the Mandrake Shamblers of the worlds have their moments. Your brain, my brain, our brains have a tendency to remember the times a card was good and forget all of the times it was bad. And once people have an idea in their heads, believe me, they will dig in their heels and stick to it even if your friend, a usually reasonable stick figure is screaming “TRUST ME, RICK IS TERRIBLE! HE GOT LUCKY ONE TIME! IF HE STARTS TALKING ABOUT SAVED BY THE BELL I AM LEAVING!” Try to remain objective about cards, even if one helped you win a particularly cool game or was great in a small sample.
The difference between specialists and Ricks is that spellstorm stranger is a begrudgingly playbale card without any synergy but can be quite good in the right deck. Mandrake Shambler is probably good in aggressive stonescar decks that care about having 5 power, just like Rick is tremendously valuable on 90s night, but he’s a disaster everywhere else.
Ken Jennings (Bombs)
I’ll take “Uncommons that play like rares for $2,000 Alex.”
The answer: “A double shadow cards that costs five power. A 5/4 unit drains your opponent for 3 when it enters. Has a shade that can do the same”
The temptation for me to talk about Severin whenever I want an example of a card that’s good in all quadrants is strong. Fate was happy to provide me with another example in the form of a shiny Feartracker while I was drafting the above Feln deck. Have y’all seen this card!? Good to see you, friend.
It’s Round 1 of Trivia Night (Developing). Are you happy to see Ken Jennings walk into your LGS and join your team? Check. It’s turn five (Developing), are you happy to see Feartracker in your hand?
It’s Round 3. Trivia Tron and two other teams are competing for the lead (parity). Do you invite Ken Jennings over if he swings through those saloon doors? Sure do. It’s turn 10, you and your opponent have 10-15 life and a couple creatures on board. Are you happy to draw Feartracker?
Round 4 is over. You’re going in to the final question of the night and Trivia Tron needs to get it right in order to win (Behind). Can we phone a friend? Sure, let’s throw more references out there. The article has become a circus. Do whatever you want. Hello, Ken? You’re below 10 life, your opponent is at 12. They’re attacking you with a 3/3 flyer, you have no profitable attacks. Are you happy to draw Feartracker?
Trivia Tron is in the lead (Ahead!) as you wait for the final question. If you and your nemesis, Hogaak Pack, both get it wrong, you’ll win. You look towards the door. I don’t understand why Ken Jennings keeps showing up here, but also why is he so late every time? Surely he can afford to get his car fixed. Does he have horrible time management skills? Anyway, great to see you Ken! Could always use your help. Back to Eternal, your opponent is going to be dead in a few turns unless they draw an answer to your singular threat. Are you happy to draw Feartracker?
Feartracker is, in my analytical opinion, straight up bananas. I have no larger point. I was just really happy to have an example that wasn’t Severin. Maybe my larger point is that very few cards actually earn the “bomb” title. In my view, that word is reserved for cards that excel in all four quadrants. If you start perceiving significantly fewer cards as bombs, you’ll naturally stop losing so many games to them, which is nice.
As the night winds down, members of Trivia Tron become relaxed, more easily distracted, and occasionally drift off into rambling monologues with no real point. Fittingly, it seems that’s how this article will also end.
You wouldn’t invite me to Geography night. You shouldn’t invite me to Art History night. I’m no Ken Jennings, but I might be Feartracker – which is now, and probably always will be, the coolest sentence I ever write about myself.
With very few exceptions, cards don’t fit neatly in to neat categories of “good” and “bad.” All cards are effective a certain percentage of the time. The best cards, the Ken Jennings of the world, are effective 99% of the time. The worst cards are effective 0.05% of the time. All other cards fall somewhere in between.
Thinking about which quadrants your deck wants to excel in is one framework that you can apply during the drafting process to help figure out which cards you want. All aggro decks will focus on Developing and Ahead, so those are always a safe choice if you’re drafting aggro. All control decks should focus on behind and parity. Looking at how your deck performs in different quadrant, and how important each one is to your specific plan, should inform all of your draft choices.
“I’ll take ‘Eternal Articles with Strange Endings’ for $1,600, Alex”
Answer: Quadrant Theory, Part 2 – Deckbuilding and Planning.
Thank you again to @Bettorup for letting me use his decklists for my content. Check out this footnote for a good example of why he is one of the people I trust for card evaluation.
I struggled, I really did. For days, weeks, leading up to Grand Prix Providence, I found myself floundering in areas where I usually excel. I questioned all the methods and strategies that I’d been successful with in the past. Changing my approach didn’t lead to better results. Nothing seemed to be working. No matter how much I thought about it, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t solve the puzzle. How, just how, do I make my friend, Charlie, understand that Trove of Temptation is an atrociously bad limited card?
I could not have been more excited to play in GP Providence, my first large MTG tournament. Not only was it limited, but it was team limited – an incredibly fun and interesting format that I’d be playing for the first time. I’d spent about two years drafting multiple times per week at my LGSs, listening and re-listening to episodes of Limited Resources, watching old Pro Tour drafts, and consuming all the best limited content I could find. I had, for sure, done my homework. My body – I swear to you – deflated just preparing to write about this particular limited set: Ixalan. If you’re unfamiliar with MTG, imagine you spent two years studying Rembrandt, Picasso, and other masters of their craft only to find out that the art contest you’ve entered is actually a paint-by-number with five colors. There have been a lot of great MTG limited sets in the past few years: Ixalan wasn’t one of them. Still, my team made day 2 (due in no part to my personal record), I got to meet some world-class players, and the entire weekend was a blast. I just wish it were a different format.
My team was not at risk of putting a Trove of Temptation in one of our decks. Good teammates listen to each other, my feelings on the card were well known, and Charlie wouldn’t put Trove of Temptation in his deck just like I wouldn’t put a card in my deck if he were adamant that I shouldn’t. It’s not uncommon for Charlie and I to disagree on cards. In fact, you benefit from being around people who will challenge you constructively. If your ideas are sound, they should be able to withstand some interrogation. Often, to prove my point, I’d explain myself with probability and math. This way, even if my explanations weren’t 100% clear, I could bring Charlie around to: “Ask Schaab about it if you really want to know. He’ll explain it in nerd terms.” But we couldn’t reach an agreement, even with nerd terms. Towards the end of the weekend, Charlie would casually bring up Trove of Temptation just to watch me get frustrated by my inability to explain myself as well as I wanted to (He’s the kind of person who attacks with 0/1’s to “send a message”). For every scenario I described, he’d describe a reasonable counter. For every answer, a response. He didn’t even try to convince me that it was good – just argued that it wasn’t that bad. It was like playing against a control deck that never played a win condition. I couldn’t explain why I hated this card so much.
Enter: Quadrant Theory. Why is Trove of Temptation such a bad card? It excels in one quadrant and it’s the one I care least about. Beautiful in its simplicity. I’ll explain further.
2. Introduction to Quadrant Theory
Quadrant theory is a method of card evaluation originally created by Brian Wong, former co-host of Limited Resources. Its application has since been expanded by current LR co-host and occasional Eternal streamer Luis Scott-Vargas. The original articles are excellent (especially Marshall’s intro for a life level-up) and I highly recommend you read them. I’ll try to briefly explain what Quadrant Theory is and how it applies to Eternal.
Quadrant theory breaks down games of Eternal (MTG, but you know what I mean) into four phases:
1. Developing: Turns 2-6. In general, players are casting their cards on curve.
2. Parity (Equality): Not much is happening. Both players are playing “draw, go.” More on this later.
3. Ahead (Winning): You’re accruing some kind of advantage with each turn, either on the board, in life totals, or cards. If the game continues this way, you’ll win.
4. Behind (Losing): The opposite of winning. You’re chump blocking, losing life each turn, or your opponent is drawing extra cards.
Before I provide examples of some cards that are good in each category, I want to clear up a misconception: Cards aren’t placed neatly into individual quadrants. Let’s place my talents in to quadrants:
As you can see, there are moderately shaded areas for Playing Eternal and Writing. These talents are dwarfed by my far more important ability of getting animals to like me. You’ll notice there is a tiny yellow mark in the “making visuals” section. It’s techically something I can do, but you really don’t want me to.
Let’s use some awful visuals to discuss two very similar cards: Dunediver and Dune Phantom.
Dune Phantom (Is the card’s real name, apparently. I just call it Phantom Ambusher in my head, so that’s what I wrote down.
Dunediver gets a little bump in the “ahead” and “parity” categories because it has a whole one attack. If you’re ahead because you have one creature and your opponent has zero, drawing Dunediver will pull you slightly further ahead. Not so with Dune Phantom, so it’s not represented at all in the “ahead” category. They’re about equally good while developing. Dune Phantom is slightly better while you’re behind (I didn’t mean to make it so dramatically better in the “behind” quadrant. See: Schaab’s Talents – Making Visuals) because one of the most common reasons you’re behind is dying to a flyer.
3. Developing (Turns 2-6)
Trail Maker gets a high mark for developing because it’s fantastic if you play it on turn 2. It fixes your power AND ramps you. It does pretty much nothing to break parity. It has a score in both ahead and behind because it can attack and block.
Atrocious in the developing stage. You don’t want to be sacrificing creatures in the first few turns. Bad when you’re behind because you have to sacrifice a creature, putting you further behind. It’s best when you’re ahead, and those are the cards I’m least interested in.
A+ developing card. Not so great if you’re trying to attack your opponent…
Wisdom of the Elders
To see why this card is bad in the developing category, go ahead and cast it on turn three while your opponent plays literally any unit.
You’re ahead, which means you probably have at least one creature that won’t be blocked. Rally will deal at least two damage and put you further ahead. Sometimes you have a lot of creatures and it puts you way ahead. It can certainly break parity. It’s horrendous when you’re behind because it’s not a creature and the +2 is unlikely to matter. You can probably think of a scenario where this card is good from behind but you really want to focus on what your cards on doing on average. Through that lens, if you draw rally when you’re already behind, most of the time you drew a dead card.
You have to be ahead for this card to be good. If you’re behind (your opponent is attacking you), you’re staying behind. If you’re ahead, you’re pulling further ahead. You want cards that are the opposite of that. If you’re putting your card in this deck, maybe you really are finding yourself in a lot of true racing situations. So stop putting it in your deck (There are always exceptions, of course, but really don’t put it in your deck).
People, myself included, often evaluate cards through a Best Case Scenario lens. We see a cool card, think of the situations in which it would be good, and our brains go “That’s what this card does.” What does Siege Train do when you’re behind? Who cares? Get out of here, nerd. CHOO CHOOOOOOOOOO! Siege Train was my Pack 1 Pick 1 for my first draft of the set, and I would be a liar if I told you that I read the card and said “hmmm, it’s not all that great when you’re behind because it has reckless.” There was no part of my brain that thought about being behind. Whos’s planning on being behind? I can’t hear your negativity over the sound of this train I’m about to play CHOO CHOOOOO!
Quadrant theory, seriously, helps remind me that I am not always going to be ahead in games. Sometimes I’ll look at a new card and immediately think it’s busted. But then I apply quadrant theory and I imagine what the card is like if I’m behind, which gives me a better idea of what the card is going to do on average. It’s so easy to judge a card by what it does when it’s best while ignoring the situations where it’s bad. Quadrant theory helps remind me of those situations.
What separates a true bomb from a really good limited card? The ability to bring you back from behind. Svetya is an incredibly good limited card. Severin is a bomb. I was lucky and had both in a deck recently. My opponent was crushing me and I was going to die in a few turns. Svetya, while great at destroying parity, wasn’t going to save me. Severin was the better draw (and the better limited card), I topdecked it, and won a game I had no business winning. Why? Severin is excellent in the “Behind” category (also ahead and parity and developing) like all true bombs are.
6. Parity (Equality)
This is a tough one. I immediately picture a full, stalled out board with 8-10 units on both sides, but that’s just one type of parity. You and your opponent could each have a single unit or no units and you would also be at parity. If you showed an experienced player the board, they wouldn’t be able to tell you who is attacker and who’s the defender. That’s parity. It’s the part of the game where you say “I sure hope I draw something good.” The cards you’re hoping to draw are good at breaking parity.
This card crushes parity. If you and your opponent are both counting on the top of your deck to break parity, this card puts you far ahead. You get the best of those three cards and, at that point in the game, there’s a good chance the two cards you discarded weren’t going to help you. You just saved yourself from drawing those cards. This card makes me groan when my opponent topdecks it, which is how I know it’s great at parity.
Can help break parity more than a vanilla unit because of its repeatable effect. As long as your stage of parity involves at least one creature on each side of the board, siege provision will help disrupt that. Terrible when you’re behind. Can pull you further ahead if you’re ahead. Awful while you’re developing.
Don’t play this card while you’re developing if you can help it. That’s how you know a card isn’t great in the Developing quadrant. If you don’t want to play your card on curve, it’s bad in the development quadrant (e.g. Mightweaver, Wordly Cleric, Natural Order). When you’re behind, this card says “3/3” and that’s it. PSA: While that last sentence is true, this card is great. If you’re at parity and you draw this card, you’re going to quickly be ahead in most scenarios.
7. Racing and Roles
Given the literal infinite number of game states that are possible, people often find Parity too broad of a category. Former Farming Eternal contributor, Brian Grasher, found it helpful to include “racing” as its own separate category. Including racing in Quadrant Theory is a new idea to me and one that I’ve recently seen arguments for on the Farming Eternal Discord. Arriving at correct conclusions quickly isn’t my specialty so I’ll need some more time to think about it, but here’s my initial reaction: I agree that Parity is too broad but disagree with the solution of making Racing its own category.
If you begin down the rabbithole of consuming CCG content, it won’t be long before you become aware of “Who’s the Beatdown” by Mike Flores. Like many concepts that make one great at limited, it’s fairly simple: In a game, you’re either the attacker or the defender and should play accordingly. Correctly identifying which role you’re supposed to occupy is essential and shifts throughout the game. If you and your opponent are both attacking past each other, only one of you is correct. First, look at the math on the board. Are you going to kill your opponent first? If so, cool. But then why is your opponent attacking? Presumably they can also do math and realize that this won’t work out in their favor. So why do they think they can win this race? One of you is wrong.
You have two 2/2s and your opponent has a Sage of Sands. You have two cards in hand but no power available. Your opponent attacks you for five, you take it, and they pass the turn. You didn’t block with your 2/2s, so Vroom Vroom you’re racing! No. You are not racing. You are behind. Often, when people describe their racing situation, they’re describing being behind. You’re not racing the Sage of Sands – you’re losing to it. Not only are you losing to the math on the board, but you’re not even making your opponent consider what might be in your hand by racing. Let’s imagine you just held the creatures back, didn’t play a power, and passed the turn back to your opponent with three cards in hand. If I’m the one attacking, there are so many possibilities for me to consider now. What are the cards in their hand? Can I afford to lose my 5/5 if they have something? Maybe the answer is yes, so I attack anyway. But that 5/5 might be my only way to win the game and I can’t risk attacking into two creatures while my opponent has power available and cards in hand. In the situation described above, even if you can’t do anything about the 5/5 that’s attacking you, remember: your opponent doesn’t know that. The more experienced your opponent, the more likely it is that they’ll make you have it. But against a lot of players, I promise you, they will stop attacking if you have blockers and open power. Then you have time to keep drawing cards and find your answer.
When people find themselves in a bad spot, they think they might as well race because they’re in a losing position anyway. Your opponent might not know that. Fake it. Pretend you have two blockers and all your power for a piece of interaction in your hand that’s not actually there. Your opponents, sometimes, will stop attacking you. It might not be a great chance to win, but it’s probably better than just losing to the math that’s on the board. It’s easier to look at a loss and say “eh, we raced and it just didn’t work out.” It’s much harder to admit that you misunderstood your role and should’ve made different decisions. In most cases, racing is a situation in which one player misunderstands their role.
Playing to Outs
Another game state that people often call racing: Playing to your outs. When your opponent is dealing you five damage per turn and you’re only dealing them three, you’re not racing – you’re losing. That being said, there are times when your best chance to win the game is to keep attacking your opponent for three and hope (PLAN) that the top of your deck helps you out. But in this scenario, you should know which cards you’re hoping to draw that can help you push through. If you’re not thinking about which cards can actually help you win the game, you’re not racing, you’re just losing slowly. If you watch high level players at this stage in the game, you’ll probably start to see them make odd decisions. They might block with some of their “better” creatures to stay alive and play in a way that doesn’t make a lot of sense. That player is playing to their outs. We don’t know it, but there’s a card or combination of cards that they’re hoping to draw off the top of their deck. And when that player wins that game, they didn’t win the race – they were behind, put themselves in the best possible position to win that game (even if the chance was very small), and it worked out.
8. Quadrant Theory and Deckbuilding
Quadrant Theory and Deckbuilding
Quadrant Theory as it applies to deckbuilding will be covered in a follow-up article. I have always used quadrant theory as a card evaluation tool, so I want to make sure I know what I’m saying before I talk about it as a deckbuilding tool. When I helped newer drafters at my LGS, they undoubtedly got tired of hearing me ask “What does this card do if you’re behind?” It’s common for people to say things like “I’m trying to build an aggressive deck.” Cool, so what happens when you play against another aggressive deck? Or what if you just happen to be on the draw in most of those games? Maybe your intention was to draft an aggressive deck, but you didn’t draft Constructed Burn. Limited doesn’t work that way. Your roles aren’t clearly defined the way they often are in constructed. Your role can change from turn to turn and has to be constantly reevaluated.
Most of the time, you didn’t build an aggro deck, you built a midrange deck that leans aggressive. There are exceptions to this. On Episode 69 on Farming Eternal, @hatsonlamps discusses cutting Lightning Strike from a Skycrag deck. I’m making these numbers up, but my sense is that most Limited decks break down something like this:
True Aggro: 5-10%
True Control 5-10%
You’re playing midrange most of the time. Maybe you’re playing aggro midrange, maybe you’re playing controlish midrange, but you’re most likely playing a midrange deck against another midrange deck. This is why you want cards that are good in multiple quadrants – because you don’t actually know what your role is going to be when the game starts. Here’s an example of something boring: Rebel Sharpshooter. Experienced drafters love a 3/3 for three. I’m happy to play it on turn three, it attacks well, and it blocks well. Now, there’s also text on this card. If it becomes bigger, it suddenly becomes much better in the “ahead” quadrant because now it’s an excellent attacker while only being a slightly better blocker. This is a card that can go in to any deck, but leans aggressive and will be better in that style of deck. Rebel Sharpshooter can hold her own in the other quadrants but it really excels when you’re ahead or trying to attack. Good most of the time, better when you’re enacting your gameplan. Fill your deck with cards like that.
9. Final Thoughts
While I love the idea of breaking down the Parity quadrant further, my fear is that players will evaluate their games like this: Am I ahead, behind, or racing? I think that’s the wrong question. Racing isn’t a game state. You’re ahead, behind, or at parity and unsure of which one you are. Figuring that out is one of the many hard parts of limited.
Happily, I think advocates of including Racing as a category and I reach the same conclusion: You want cards that are good in multiple quadrants. I’ve heard people say things like “sometimes you’re winning the race and sometimes you’re losing it, so you want cards that are good in both situations (i.e. flexible).” That’s just another way of saying, “You don’t know if you’re going to be the attacker or the defender, so you want cards that are good in both situations (i.e. flexible).” If you find yourself losing a lot of races, it’s possible that you’re misidentifying the games where it’s correct you to the be the defender (even if you built an aggressive deck).
So, why is Trove of Temptation a horrendously bad card? Let’s put in quadrant theory: It’s only good – not even great – in one quadrant (ahead) and that’s the one I care least about when I’m evaluating limited cards.
You don’t know if you’re going to be the attacker or the defender in your next game. You might be the attacker turns 2-7, then the defender turns 8-10, and then the attacker again. That’s how limited works. You’ll find yourself ahead, you’ll find yourself behind, and you’ll find yourself at parity. Those situations will happen frequently, so you want cards that are pretty good in all of them. Quadrant theory helps me evaluate cards more objectively because I know my brain is immediately going to think of all the situations in which the card is great and disregard the rest. Quadrant theory reminds me to ask myself “what does this card do if I’m behind?” which isn’t a question that comes naturally. It can help you determine what a card will do in a majority of games, not just the ones where it shines. I find it a helpful framework for card evaluation and am looking forward to learning more about it as a deckbuilding tool. For now, I’ve got a train to catch. CHOO CHOOOOO!
This article is more format-specific than the other two. Sadly, this deck is harder to draft now because Wisdom of Elders and the Shadow removal in the draft packs are no longer weighted as heavily. Feln Control is on the advanced end of deckbuilding. Not an archetype for novice players.