If you love Limited Magic, you probably know of the podcast Limited Resources. I have been a loyal and eager listener for years. Some folks have more time for podcasts than others, but I urge everyone to listen to the latest episode. In it, hosts Marshall Sutcliffe and Luis Scott-Vargas welcome Owen Turtenwald on the show for a fantastic discussion about evaluating cards in the context of Limited. Much has been written and said on this general topic, but this show takes it to a new level.

Owen explains how to adjust your card evaluations based on the context of the format and its metagame. Not only that, he demonstrates the degree to which contextual information should affect your evaluations. He cautions against overcompensation, and highlights the sort of cards that fluctuate the most—both from draft to draft, and format to format. Few skills have more direct application in the quest to succeed at competitive Limited.

I won’t rehash the episode here—go listen. As an introduction, however, I will share one of Owen’s insights. Fumigate is among the most powerful Limited cards available. It would be a bomb in basically every modern draft format. Its exact power level fluctuates from set to set, but rarely enough to make it anything less than a bomb. In both Kaladesh and Aether Revolt Limited, Fumigate might be less powerful than in others, but not by much. Cutting it from your deck because you think it is situationally weak is a big mistake.

Let’s build on that. Consider this card:

Ridgescale Tusker is one of the best cards in Aether Revolt Limited. You know that. If you see one in your first pack of a draft, you are going to take it almost all of the time. Other than a few great artifacts and rare/mythic bombs, no card is better to start a draft. If you get passed one in the first pack, you will almost certainly snap it up and move into green. If you see one in pack two but aren’t already drafting green, you’ll either move into green or sheepishly pass it along to a lucky drafter on your right. The card is so good that you hardly have to think when you see it in a pack. So it must be easy to evaluate, right?

Not so fast. You take Tusker and move on, but what do you do after you have one in your draft pile? To answer that, let’s go back to Owen’s analysis of Fumigate. He notes that if your deck is full of cheap, aggressive creatures that flood the board, Fumigate will be worse than it normally is. Not very much worse, so you still play the card. But the degree to which Fumigate works in concert with the rest of your deck influences how powerful it will be.

So besides the fact that Ridgescale Tusker is a stone cold bomb, an efficient beast with a free Oath of Ajani tacked on, what else do we know about it? Well, it’s a five-drop creature that costs two green mana to cast. If you didn’t know what else it did, you might think it was a mediocre card in this format. Why? Because there are twenty-eight five drop creatures between Aether Revolt and Kaladesh. Let’s break those down into tiers:

Tier 1: Angel of Invention, Multiform WonderRidgescale Tusker, Verdurous Gearhulk

Tier 2: Airdrop Aeronauts, Arborback Stomper, Cataclysmic Gearhulk, Cloudblazer, Cultivator of Blades, Dawnfeather Eagle, Maverick Thopterist, Lifecraft Cavalry

Tier 3: Ambitious Aetherborn, Bastion Mastodon, Experimental Aviator, Hightide Hermit, Lathnu Sailback, Lightning RunnerRiparian Tiger, Self-Assembler, Skyswirl Harrier, Sly Requisitioner, Wayward Giant

Tier 4: Dispersal Technician, Foundry Assembler, Prizefighter Construct, Reservoir Walker, Salvage Scuttler

That’s a lot of five drops. But what’s more, that’s a lot of playable five drops. The first tier are first picks, though you might get passed Angel of Invention or Verdurous Gearhulk in pack three if you are lucky and draft open colors. The tier two cards are a little more plentiful because of both lower average rarity and more restrictive mana requirements, but they’re all respectable early picks.

Where it gets interesting is tier three. These cards are all solid! Not amazing, but they are very playable and win games. This mass of five drops are close to interchangeable. They each offer a different mix of stats and bonus abilities, allowing you to customize your deck as you see fit.

The only bad ones are in tier four, but even those aren’t Chimney Imp. Dispersal Technician and Reservoir Walker are solid and provide real value. They only end up down here because of the glut of better options in the three tiers above. Foundry Assembler is awful, but it’s colorless and can be cast for two or three mana—if you have Chief of the Foundry or Efficient Construction, it probably makes the cut. Salvage Scuttler and Prizefighter Construct never see play, but it’s not like they are stone-cold disasters. In a lower-powered draft environment, they might make it into some decks.

The point is, you will have more than enough five drops in your draft pool. I haven’t even discussed the non-crerature ones, some of which are vehicles that serve a similar role, along with Shrewd Negotiation and Confiscation Coup essentially being creatures as well. Very few draft decks want more than two or three five drop spells. With all these options, the value over replacement of all but the elite is small. You can pick up a few from tier three very late in the draft, and even if you don’t play them maindeck, you can adjust your threats after game one based on what your opponent is doing. Lathnu Sailback and Wayward Giant make a happy tag-team depending on whether you want that extra point in power or toughness.

So what does all of this have to do with evaluating Ridgescale Tusker? First off, the abundance of other options does make Tusker less amazing than it otherwise would be. Not enough to move it out of the best of the best, but enough to alter your draft strategy once you pick that Tusker for your deck. If you have a Tusker, you really don’t want more fives—you want cheaper creatures to cast first, both so you survive to play Tusker and get more counters when you do.

That’s not a revolutionary statement—you should draft cheaper creatures over five drops as a general rule. But in those rare situations where you have a choice between Tusker and a cheaper power uncommon—Untethered Express, Vengeful Rebel, Hungry Flames, Gifted Aetherborn, Thopter Arrest—think about how easy it will be to fill the top of your curve versus the role that those other cards would play in your deck. In pack two, once you know a third of your available pool, any of those cards could be more important.

At lower power levels, the same questions arise, both in draft and sideboarding between matches. I’m not telling you to take and play worse cards. I’m telling you that using Owen’s evaluation tools can clarify what the better cards are. Pick orders are nice, but battle plans don’t survive first contact with the enemy. Card evauation is a dynamic process at work from the beginning of the draft to the final sideboarding decisions of your last match. Master this skill and profit.

Good luck! I’ll see you in Orlando.

Carrie O’Hara is Editor-in-Chief of Hipsters of the Coast.

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