By Carrie O’Hara

Howdy! My name is Carrie and I like to draft. Hunter asked me to share my thoughts on Limited with you, so I will discuss an interesting M14 draft I played at Friday Night Magic at Twenty Sided Store on August 16. But first, let’s talk a little theory.

Limited Deckbuilding

Whenever you play a game of Magic, you sit down with a deck of cards that you’ve assembled before the game begins. Constructed formats get most of the attention regarding deckbuilding, but how you assemble your deck is just as important in Limited as it is in Constructed. The difference, of course, is that in Limited you don’t know what cards you can use to build your deck until minutes before you play your first match. Because your options in Limited are constrained by the semi-random cards available to you, many people don’t think in terms of building a Limited deck the way you build a Constructed deck. Instead, you just pick a couple colors and scoop up the most powerful cards you can, add 17 lands, and submit your list.

So how do you actually build a Limited deck? You should have a plan. In other words, you want to know what type of deck you are trying to build as you build it. Your plan can take many forms. You can curve out with efficient, aggressive creatures and attack until your opponent’s life total is no longer positive. You can stall the game and stay alive until you draw and are able to cast a game-winning bomb. Or you can assemble a powerful combination of cards that overwhelm your opponent’s resources, at which point your opponent is either dead or powerless to stop you from making them dead. When you have a plan, you can evaluate your available cards based on how well they advance your plan, rather than simply on raw power level.

If your goal is to win your matches, however, then you need to have a plan that can actually succeed. You want to have a plan that is powerful enough to win—not just in the abstract, but when facing an opponent who has her own plan. Her plan probably involves beating your plan. Welcome to the wonderful world of the Limited metagame! I’m not going to go into detail here about what a Limited metagame is, either generally or in the context of M14 draft, but I will say this: Not only do you need to have a plan that you think can win the game, you need to be correct. Many, many, many games of Magic have been lost by players who’ve chosen plans that are not strong enough to succeed.

A Limited metagame is controlled in large part by the speed of the format, and that speed is mostly controlled by the quality of creatures available. M14 is a slow format. The creatures that cost one or two mana are generally weak, and the three- to five-mana creatures have been spending a lot of time with the toughness fairy. That means most games will last long enough for both players to cast Sengir Vampire, Air Servant, or Woodborn Behemoth. In fact, most games will be long enough to cast Garruk’s Horde. If you plan to kill your opponent before she can cast her bombs, you will need a strong deck with a lot of synergy and evasion. It is possible to draft such a deck, but in M14 it is not easy. You need to open a powerful rare, like Thorncaster Sliver or Bonescythe Sliver, and plan your picks around assembling a makeshift Myr Battlesphere. Casting a bunch of Grizzly Bears is not going to get it done. When you are choosing a plan, you need to know this. Don’t choose poorly.

Drafting a Plan

In most situations, you won’t have a specific plan before the draft begins. You open your first pack, see what you get passed in the next few packs, and start forming a plan in response to the cards you see. If you open a Jace, Memory Adept in pack one, then you have a plan in a box, but very few cards in any draft format are as powerful as big Jace. You will still look for powerful cards to anchor your plan, but you need to properly evaluate the available cards so that you can assemble a deck that can make your plan come to fruition.

Many players like to rank the power level of cards in a set in the abstract. For the strongest cards, this makes sense. If a creature costs five mana, has four power, and evasion, it is going to be first-pick quality in most draft formats. But what about a Sentinel Sliver? The power of that card depends on your plan. If you first-picked a Bonescythe Sliver, then Sentinel Sliver will be a key cog in your machine. If you have a normal deck in M14, then a random 2/2 with vigilance isn’t that useful.

As you draft, constantly ask yourself what tools you need to execute your plan and look for those cards. For each card you could pick to play in your deck, think about both its raw power level and its power level as part of your plan. But you also have to think about something else: availability. A Hive Stirrings might be quite strong in your white-green sliver deck, but if that card is readily available six or seven picks into a draft pack, then you don’t want to spend an early pick to get one. If your plan is black-red sacrifice, you need to pick up a number of cards that provide sacrifice outlets, but there are many to choose from. If you cast Act of Treason on your opponent’s Messenger Drake, it doesn’t matter too much whether you sacrifice it to a Bubbling Cauldron or a Vampire Warlord.

The most valuable cards in Limited are ones that are both powerful and unique. These cards can be the foundation of a strong plan or play an important role in assembling a synergistic plan. The best way to build your deck around a plan is to pick up powerful, unique cards early, and assemble the right combination of support cards to tie the deck together.

The Actual Draft

So let’s look at a deck I drafted at Friday Night Magic a week ago. This was a nine-person pod, and the pool of cards I drafted was not one of the strongest in my M14 Limited career. I went 1-2 in matches, although I split the final round to win one prize pack. I chose this draft, however, because I had to adjust my plan in response to being cut off from my colors, and then make some unorthodox deckbuilding decisions. Also, this deck was a lot of fun to play.

Mr. Clean

Creatures (13)
Festering Newt
Capashen Knight
Banisher Priest
Griffin Sentinel
Pillarfield Ox
Deathgaze Cockatrice
Dawnstrike Paladin
Siege Mastodon

Spells (10)
Quag Sickness
Liturgy of Blood
Celestial Flare
Mind Rot
Grim Return
Planar Cleansing
Diabolic Tutor
Lands (17)
10 Plains

Sideboard (15)
Master of Diversion
Charging Griffin
Sentinel Sliver
Vampire Warlord
Nightwing Shade
Sliver Construct
Mind Rot
Solemn Offering
Altar's Reap
Bubbling Cauldron
Divine Favor

So, how did I end up with this deck? Why did I play two Festering Newts and a Pillarfield Ox while two Master of Diversions and a Charging Griffin sat on the sidelines? Am I really playing a spell in my deck that does nothing but gain life?

My first pack had the following cards: Planar Cleansing, Thorncaster Sliver (foil), Opportunity, Chandra’s Outrage, and who cares about the rest. Both of those red cards are quite strong, but the two best are Planar Cleansing and Opportunity. Blue is the strongest color in M14 Limited, and Opportunity is the best blue card other than a few of the rares/mythics. White is the weakest color, but Planar Cleansing is both very powerful and very unique. I’ve drafted a lot of blue decks in this format, but I hadn’t yet had a chance to play with Planar Cleansing. It pains me to pass an Opportunity, but I decided to take Planar Cleansing and build a deck around a plan of stalling, forcing my opponent to commit all their cards to the board, wiping them away, and finishing the game with whatever I held back to play after my sweeper. If you can cast Planar Cleansing when your opponent has emptied their hand onto the board while you have three cards left to play, you have essentially cast Opportunity anyway.

I was hoping to supplement my plan with Blightcaster/Auramancer/Quag Sickness or life gain plus Angelic Accord. Unfortunately, I was passed a steady stream of powerful blue cards and the strong white-black synergies didn’t make it around to me in big numbers. I did manage to pick up a few powerful cards and a decent assortment of removal, but it became clear in the first pack that I was not likely to get a strong  “normal” deck. Pack two was slightly more open since the player to my left was scooping up all the blue cards after I passed him that deck in pack one, but still nothing great came around. At this point I realized I was not going to win many games by beating down, so the aggressive white creatures I did get, like Master of Diversions and Charging Griffin, weren’t going to help my plan very much. I had to look for defensive cards to keep me alive until Planar Cleansing.

Late in pack two I saw a Millstone. Now there’s a win condition for a slow deck! From that point, I took the best blockers I could find: 2/4s and 2/2 deathtouchers. My main creature win conditions were Siege Mastodon and Capashen Knight. Both of those are quite good at beating down after a board sweeper.

Other than blockers and removal, I was looking for ways to stay alive and find my win conditions. Congregate can gain a lot of life when the board stalls out, and since I wanted to encourage a board stall to maximize Planar Cleansing, Congregate actually had a place in my deck. Then I got a gift in the last pick of the draft: Diabolic Tutor. Normally I don’t like that card in draft, but it was perfect for this deck.

I was also quite happy to get two Mind Rots. That card is a fringe playable in most Limited formats, but is quite good in M14 because the format is so slow. It is especially good if your opponent knows you have Planar Cleansing and tries to keep good cards in hand. I only played one in the main deck, opting to try out Grim Return instead, but I boarded in the second Mind Rot most of the time. The only time I ever cast Grim Return, it got countered.

The Games

Round one I faced Luke Richardson playing red-green beats featuring Chandra, Pyromaster. Game one, my opponent flashed in Briarpack Alpha at the end of my fourth turn, enchanted it with Shiv’s Embrace, attacked me for six, and passed the turn. I cast Pacifism and basically won the game on the spot. It ended up going long, with my Millstone and his Chandra combining to exhaust his deck while I put up enough resistance to stay alive, fueled by a timely Congregate. Game two he curved out and beat me before I could set up much of a defense.

Game three, he played two lands and an Elvish Mystic. I killed the Mystic with a Festering Newt. He never drew a third land, and time was short in the round, so I went into beatdown mode with an Auramancer and a Banisher Priest. Even when you have a plan in deckbuilding, you have to adapt to the circumstances of the game. It’s never fun to lose to mana screw, but Luke had a great attitude. Next round, I was able to watch as his deck did what it was supposed to do and he beat down hard.

Round two, my opponent was Manho Kwok, piloting mono-black. He had been sitting three to my right during the draft, and was part of why I didn’t see good black cards. (The person to Manho’s left drafted black-white, so you can see why I struggled to find playables.) Game one he crushed me with a Fireshrieker and enough creatures to kill me quickly. Game two was similar. I had Planar Cleansing in hand, and five lands in play with three Plains, but I failed to draw a sixth land in the two-turn window I had before death. Even though I was thoroughly beaten in this match, I still enjoyed my deck and felt like I was one or two good draws away from taking control of both games.

Finally, in round three, I was paired against Justin Beckert and his blue-red Opportunity deck, aka the deck I usually like to draft. Justin and I have played some sweet Cube matches but never crossed paths in a sanctioned booster draft, so we were excited to play each other. Of course, he had Elixir of Immortality in his sideboard, so I was not exactly the favorite. He also had at least two Archaeomancers and two Volcanic Geysers. Despite this, we had an amazingly fun three-game match.

In game one, he played an early Regathan Firecat and proceeded to bash me with it while Dispersing, Time Ebbing, and Frost Breathing every blocker I ran out. Eventually I bit the bullet and slammed Liturgy of Blood on the stupid thing, then used my extra black mana to Mind Rot his hand. That, plus a Congregate after we built the board back out, bought me a lot of time. It also bought Justin a lot of time to draw a Volcanic Geyser and kill me.

Game two I was able to set up my defenses. Mind Rot nabbed his last two cards, which were both good. On his turn he drew a Divination, cast it, played a land, and passed with one card in hand and three mana untapped.  I had a sideboarded Duress, but for some reason I decided not to cast it. Somehow I convinced myself he had drawn a four- or five-drop creature. Not casting Duress is so bad in that situation anyway, but of course he actually had Opportunity! As good as it feels to hit Opportunity with a Duress, it feels about the same (at least in absolute value) to punt that Opportunity away. Later on, Justin’s board was Water Servant and Air Servant to my nine lands. I untapped and played Death Servant, aka Quag Sickness plus Auramancer. Who needs Planar Cleansing? It was awesome. I eventually won by beating down with a Siege Mastodon and Capashen Knight.

Game three came down to a race to see which artifact hit play first, my Millstone or his Elixir. Eventually, with two cards left in his library, Justin drew Elixir. I had 10 cards left. We kept playing just for fun, even though I was doomed. I drew Millstone with four cards left, and he Negated it. I flipped over the rest of my library: Diabolic Tutor and three lands.

So that’s my story of drafting a mediocre deck built around one very powerful card. I didn’t quite get all the cards to execute my plan, but I got enough that I was able to have fun and compete anyway. And that is the power of drafting with a plan.

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