Friday, November 9, 2007

Constructed: Pushing the Limits

Ah, Limited. The sweet smell of the pack being opened, flipping to the back to see that wonderful Vesuvan Shapeshifter. Nothing beats it. Everything about limited just screams fun, skill, and kick ass bombs. But it can be about so much more than that. It can improve your constructed game just as much as your limited game just by playing it. There are four basic aspects of improvement that limited gives to constructed: card evaluation, deck design, smart combat phases/open-mindedness, and keeping pace.

Card Evaluation

Playing limited is important to build card evaluation skills. Playing a card because you know that it is good is much different than playing a card because Mike Flores says to.

Card evaluation is probably the most relevant, and thus the most important skill that can be picked up in limited formats. In draft, you have forty seconds to analyze and entire pack. You must then select the best card from it and pass on everything else, with little hope of seeing other great cards from the pack. Let's analyze a pack as an example:

Magus of the Scroll
Vampiric sliver
Skittering Monstrosity
Truth or Tale
Phyrexian Totem
Moorish Cavalry
Pit Keeper
Gaze of Justice
Aetherflame Wall
Flickering Spirit
Durkwood Baloth
Rift Bolt
Thallid Germinator
Ophidian Eye
Foriysan Interceptor

This pack is tough. I'll analyze it in a vacuum first. The first cards we can drop are:

Ophidian Eye
Foriysan Interceptor
Thallid Germinator
Flickering Spirit
Aetherflame Wall
Pit Keeper
Gaze of Justice
Moorish Cavalry
Truth or Tale
Skittering Monstrosity
Vampiric Sliver

These can all be eliminated as their overall power level is low. Now for the rest of the pack:

Rift Bolt
Durkwood Baloth
Phyrexian Totem
Magus of the Scroll

Since this is in a vacuum, We can assume a 5/5 with no evasion is inferior to reusable removal. We can also assume Reusable removal is better than one-time removal. Here we drop Baloth and Bolt. Between Totem and Scroll, I'd pick Magus because it is cheaper and is more relevant during the entire game, rather than Totem who just gets better in the later game.

So, in a vacuum: Magus of the Scroll

Now, in a regular draft:

We can go ahead and eliminate all the same cards as before, and once again be left with:

Rift Bolt
Durkwood Baloth
Magus of the Scroll
Phyrexian Totem

The first thing I notice is that we have two great cards in red, which basically eliminates it as a color. The player we are passing to will no doubt be in red no matter which of the two cards we pass, so we might as well ignore red, unless we sense some very strong signals or receive a bigger bomb later. Also, as is common knowledge in TPF draft, Black is incredibly underpowered, and is strictly a splash color, unless you draft some power removal. The right pick here, then?

Durkwood Baloth.

You see, evaluation comes down to much more than just "Is this a good card?" It also comes down to noticing signals, avoiding sending wrong signals, and not allow the guy you are passing to dominate the second pack of your draft. It even comes down to which colors are stronger in the draft format, and the pace at which the format is set at. How does this translate to constructed?

When evaluating a card, you need to recognize good cards that aren't hosed totally by a popularly used card in a popularly used deck. A good example of this is Soltari Priest. Before Planar Chaos hit, Soltari Priest was in every Boros deck, and Boros was one of the top decks in the format. Then Sulfur Elemental arrived, and it absolutely hosed Javilineers, Lions, and the ever-popular and hard-to-kill Priest. This takes more than card quality into mind, it takes into mind everything. Now people use Serra Avenger and Calciderm to make opposing Sulfur Elementals into good things rather than bad things. These seemingly "weaker" and "slower" cards have replaced one of the former staples in what was once the dominant deck in standard.

Deck Design

Limited forces you to go on the fundamentals of deck design, Like Hill Giant vs. Grizzly Bears. It's a very important aspect of any format you can play.

Another thing limited contributes to your constructed game is it aids in the deck design process. The easiest way to show this is to provide you with a draft pool, and then build a deck out of it. So here goes:

1 Aetherflame Wall
1 Battering Sliver
1 Benalish Cavalry
1 Emberwilde Augur
1 Flowstone Channeler
2 Ghost Tactician
1 Glass Asp
1 Grinning Ignus
1 Icatian Crier
2 Ivory Giant
1 Jhoira's Timebug
1 Magus of the Arena
2 Needlepeak Spider
1 Revered Dead
1 Rift Elemental
1 Shade of Trokair
2 Sidewinder Sliver
1 Sinew Sliver
1 Sliversmith
1 Subterranean Shambler
1 Vitaspore Thallid
2 Whitemane Lion
1 Chronomantic Escape
1 Dawn Charm
1 Dust Corona
1 Evangelize
2 Flowstone Embrace
1 Grapeshot
1 Imperial Mask
1 Marshaling Cry
1 Mystical Teachings
1 Patrician's Scorn
4 Riddle of Lightning
1 Shivan Meteor
1 Sulfurous Blast
1 Tolaria West
Appropriate # of basic lands.

The first thing I notice about this draft pool is its horrendous mana curve. We are going to have to run some sub-par creatures. It's also going to have to break the golden seventeen-land rule and hit eighteen because we want to hit five mana quickly. We're going to need to use all the creatures we can to support the good non creature burn we have: Grapeshot, Sulfurous Blast, and the four Riddles, which are amazing in the high-curve deck we're going to probably end up with. Evangelize is one of the bombier cards we have, so we're going to use it. That leaves us with:

18 lands
4 Riddle of lightning
1 Sulfurous Blast
1 Evangelize
1 Grapeshot

I think the Emberwilde Augur is a good choice for this, as it's burn on a stick. I also like the Giants and the Shade, as they're burnish creatures that have haste, and the Giant helps riddle if hit. Magus is a definite add because it's big, meaty, and has a good CC for riddle, plus is built-in removal. With the additions of these cards, we're up to thirty, which means we need ten more. We should use the Needlepeak Spiders, because they trade with 3/3 fliers and 4/4 ground forces, and they beat for four to inch your opponent lower and lower. Now I add the Benalish Cavalry and the two Whitemanes as tricks and beats. Flowstone Channeler allows us a smoother curve, being another three-drop. Next I'm adding Sinew Sliver and Battering Sliver. Battering acts as fat and helps out Riddle. Sinew has some synergy with Battering, is a bear, and helps smooth out the mana curve. For the final few cards, I add Grinning Ignus as sort-of acceleration, and as Grapeshot feed. To top it off, Subterranean Shambler Combos very well with Whitemanes, so we'll use it. This puts us at forty cards:

8x Plains
10x Mountain
2x Ivory Giant
1x Shade of Trokair
1x Emberwilde Augur
1x Sinew Sliver
1x Benalish Cavalry
1x Grapeshot
2x Whitemane Lion
1x Flowstone Channeler
1x Grinning Ignus
2x Needlepeak Spider
1x Subterranean Shambler
1x Sulfurous Blast
1x Evangelize
4x Riddle of Lightning
1x Magus of the Arena
1x Battering Sliver

The basic strategy of this deck, as you probably picked up before, is to beat your opponent as much as you can, and then save up to burn them out. This is made easy with four Riddle of Lightning, especially if you can hit things like Riddle off of a Riddle. It has neat synergy with Shambler and Whitemane, and they also save your dudes from Sulfurous Blast (which acts as another burn spell).

So, how can this be applied to constructed? Well, aside from the manabase which is usually much more complicated in constructed, you can see you need to still focus your deck. If you can focus a pile of random cards into a deck with a purpose, you can focus every card legal in the format into a good deck. It's about finding and selecting the gems in the pool, and using them, which is MUCH easier in constructed than in limited. Heck, this draft deck can be compared to Boros Deck Wins (albeit on a slower curve, but this is limited), with the quick aggro beats and the burn to back it up. This deck hopes to win by turn seven, which, in constructed terms, is turn four-ish.

Smart Combat Phases/Open-mindedness

 Limited helps by allowing you to keep an open mind on the game (and the board) and help finding alternate ways to handle a situation.

 Well, limited forces you to make decisions a lot more than constructed does. There is a lot of variety in the cards, and you take a lot more into consideration. This keeps your mind more open for when you are playing constructed. It allows you to realize there is no set way to play Magic, and limited is very good for helping one realize this. It also helps you play on the fly because really, you have no choice.

One of the most difficult things for new limited players to realize is the fact that anything is an option. Cards that you'd NEVER expect to see getting played in Constructed formats run rampant, such as Ivory Giant or Needlepeak Spider. You need to be ready for anything, no matter what color your opponent is playing or how good you think you are. I've played against red/blue decks that played a forest on one turn, and then at my end of turn they made three tokens with sprout swarm. I was definitely not prepared for that, and it cost me a game I thought I had in my hands. Make sure you thoroughly go over your sideboard for something that can help against things you don't expect. This can be translated to constructed, but not exactly. Just make sure your sideboard is prepared and can handle just about anything, rather than just one deck that gives you issues.

This also connects to another point, which is to always make sure you have a smart combat phase. This is about as simple as making smart blocks, correctly using your removal, remembering to do things on declare attackers phase, and smart attacks. Why does it connect? You don't know if your opponent is holding a Venser's Diffusion, or an Ashcoat Bears. His morph can either be Fathom Seer, a Coral Trickster, or it can even be Vesuvan Shapeshifter while you have down a Spectral Force. You need to be prepared for any of these options. So this says that, in a nutshell, limited helps a constructed player stay sharp.

Keeping Pace

 Playing limited is more than being a netdecking machine. There, you get to improve abilities that constructed doesn't offer. For example, mix synergy with other cards, mana curve, archetypes; all of that in less in less than 20 minutes in Sealed Deck, and less than 40 seconds in Booster Draft, which requires A LOT of skill to understand and perfect.

Speed is an aspect of the game that relates to card evaluation, but in a different way. You need to concentrate on making the fastest deck possible, as quickly as possible, and, in the case of draft, pay attention to signals and make the correct pick in less than 40 seconds. It exercises your mind so much, that if you do it enough you'll start to view cards in a different light, and start to recognize combos and synergies about them that you otherwise wouldn't. Here's an example pack, you have 30 seconds to pick.

The situation: You're in a TPF draft with forty second picks, on Future Sight. You're in RGu, and you need more removal and evasion creatures. You're almost positive the guy on you're passing to is in red, since you got cut off from it last pack. Here's the pack:

Magus of the Future
Sword of the Meek
Spellwild Ouphe
Gift of Granite
Kavu Primarch
Unblinking Bleb
Gathan Raiders
Sarcomite Myr
Edge of Autumn
Quiet Disrepair
Death Rattle
Blade of the 6th Pride
Oblivion Crown

Looking at the pack, the first reaction is to take Magus. Unfortunately for us, though, it is somewhat color intensive and blue is only a splash for us (It's not exactly spectacular in Future Sight, either). There is little left in the pack if blue is gone, so we're onto our next colors. We need evasion and removal, but alas, there is no evasion. We see Ghostfire, Primarch, and the Always spectacular Gathan Raiders. This is a fairly easy decision, since we need removal; here we take Ghostfire.

Another situation:

The situation: We're in a TPF draft (with forty second picks), where it's pack one pick one. The guy next to us is loud, obnoxious, and he says he's going to try and force red/white. We need to decide whether or not to believe him, and still evaluate and make the correct choice. Here's the pack:

Serra Avenger
Evil Eye of Urborg
Tromp the Domains
Opaline Sliver
Trespasser il-Vec
Rift Bolt
Viashino Bladescout
Pentarch Ward
Drudge Reavers
Search for Tomorrow
Deathspore Thallid
Aetherflame Wall

What's the right pick here?

Looking at this pack, we have two bombs. Bombs almost always dictate your first picks. We now must think: are we going to get hosed of white? Serra is better than Tromp, but do we want to risk getting absolutely hosed of its color? We need to choose here. What do we take?

I take Serra. If this guy DOES end up in white, we still have time to recuperate. It's only the beginning of the draft, we still have time. Your first pick doesn't always dictate what you get, but it can help set a path. Arguments can be said in the other way, as ShadowS does. Here's what he had to say:

 If you *knew* he was gonna hose you of white, I'd take Tromp.

Is that it?

 I feel that lots of things that can be applied to limited are relevant in constructed (or at least the smaller constructed formats like t2 and block); knowing a set in detail is very useful for limited. It can also help you to analyze how an opponent is playing, whether they play conservatively, or just have no more gas in hand for instance. It also helps you conclude when and if to bluff, which is definitely useful. Oh, one more thing--cards which are good in limited can often be very good in constructed, even if ruled out by most pundits (see Glare of Subdual). So in sum, limited makes you a better player and improves your deckbuilding ability.

The entire point of this article was to show something that not many people realize: you do not need to practice one format over and over to get better at it, but rather that you need to practice your skills over and over to get better. Sure, constructed requires some skills more than others, but so does limited. Limited stresses some very important skills, but can sometimes have a negative effect on your overall gameplay if you overload on it. Keep this in mind, and you should be fine.