Limited Spotlight: 3 Misplays Constructed Players Make in Draft
Hey folks, welcome back! Here’s yet another edition of Limited Spotlight, inspired by my coaching sessions, where I’ve noticed a trend in some of the mistakes my students make. This is the second of these I’ve done, and I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback about the first one; check that out here for some more general misplays! The theme today is a category of misplays I see time and time again: people falling into the trap of not adjusting their mindset to Limited after having played a lot of Constructed. This is a perfectly natural thing, and I’ll go over some of the most common examples, which are easy to improve once you’re aware you’re doing them! I think understanding why is integral to self-improvement, so I spend a lot of time talking about why Constructed and Limited differ in these respects too.
I’ve been enthralled by Limited ever since I began playing in New Phyrexia. With a particular fondness for flashback and cube drafts, I’ve drafted more sets than I can count on every platform through wildly different eras. On Arena I draft infinitely, having profited 40k or so gems, and have made top 50 Mythic several times. Self-reflection and forming good habits are paramount to Limited improvement, and those themes feature throughout my articles.
1. Don’t mulligan too much
In Draft, you shouldn’t mulligan a lot of common hands, even if they’re not that exciting. My students are often surprised by the range of hands I’m willing to keep, from hands that don’t start playing until turn three to those which only have one of my colours available and spells I can cast with that colour, to those where the cards don’t have good synergy with one another. I never do things I might do in Constructed like try to mulligan to bombs or cards that are especially good in the matchup. That’s because those factors are individually much less punishing in Draft, and they play second fiddle to simply having more cards available. Limited decks rely much more on quantity than quality of cards, because the power level of the vast majority of cards in Draft just isn’t that massively different. A good way to demonstrate this is in how busted Companions were in Draft – just having an eighth card, even if in some cases it was merely a decent rather than busted one, made a world of difference. The idea is that, because you’re going to be playing a lot of midrange mirrors, your cards will trade your opponents’ cards pretty evenly – which means that games will often go long and ultimately neither of you will be left with much in the way of resources. Assuming you each draw the same number of lands, the person a card ahead will eventually have a huge advantage.
If you have lots of bombs, that can certainly mean you should mulligan mediocre hands more, but most decks just won’t have that many. Constructed decks have far more and far better ones – they’re built to have incredibly powerful payoffs that will bail you out of being a card or two down. People often like to say that bombs in Draft are these unstoppable cards that always win the game, and that Draft sucks because they’re auto-wins, but that couldn’t be further from the truth – the vast majority of bombs have tons of common options for countering them. So oftentimes, if you were to mulligan to a bomb, you’d just find that they did have a removal spell or a good answer, and you might get some value but ultimately it won’t dominate the game. Oftentimes you can just beat bombs by curving out with good cards (so by having more cards in hand), and then still have the chance to draw your bomb anyway! Since lots of games will go long, having more really good cards to draw into is a huge boon, and having them later will make it less likely that your opponents will be able to answer them immediately.
It is true that mulliganing is somewhat deck-dependent – a dedicated aggressive deck that really needs to curve out and can’t afford to fall behind early should mulligan more in Draft, but let me let you in on a little secret: almost every deck in Draft is just another flavour of midrange. When I say dedicated aggro deck, I really do mean dedicated – low land count, tons of 2 drops, removal and tricks but not so many that you sacrifice creature count, and ideally even some decent 1 drops. Most decks aren’t like that at all – even if your deck is mostly going to be the beatdown, if you have an awkward draw that doesn’t curve out or too few creatures but lots of removal, it’s easy to patch together wins. Almost every deck in Draft runs as much removal as it can get, and that naturally slows down the game – if your opponent is playing creatures and you’re killing them but not capitalising by hitting them afterwards, then you’re both essentially just passing the turn. Efficient removal can break this dynamic by letting you double-spell, but most of the removal is quite expensive. What I’m saying is that if you’re looking at your deck and it has a ton of removal in it and you’re skimping on creatures, you’re not really playing an aggressive deck – you’re also going to run into the draws where you just don’t have many creatures and have to stall and try to draw into them with removal spells. For the most part, you actively don’t want to pigeonhole yourself in Draft, unlike in Constructed – decks are at their best when they play multiple roles well, because you play such a variety of different games just through having such diverse and asynchronous cards.
The most important question to ask yourself is whether whatever 6 card hand you mulligan into is actually likely to be better – if it’s a two-lander, then there’s a very real chance you just mulligan into another two-lander and are down a card. If your hand is missing a colour, even if the second hand has both your colours, you’ll have one less spell to cast, and that might well not be worth it – most of the time even if you’re missing a colour for a while, you can at least cast a card or two, so being down a colour isn’t that big a deal if you don’t need it immediately. If you’re running a good number of sources of the other colour, you’re pretty likely to draw it over the course of several turns, and at worst it slows you down a bit, but your opponents won’t do nearly as much to capitalise on your slowness. It can be hard to visualise what an average 6 looks like, but remember that you’re looking at the middle of the pack rather than either extreme – if your deck has a lot of 2 drops, then it makes sense to visualise a 6 with a 2 drop, but not if it only has like three or four. One strategy is to imagine what your hand would look like if you were to mulligan into it on 6 cards – so you imagine that your worst card is gone and see if you would be happy to keep it on 6. This metric isn’t foolproof – you shouldn’t mulligan nearly as many hands on 6, because being two cards down is extremely rough, so it’s more whether you’re happy with it than just whether you would keep it. But it’s certainly a data point that you might not want to mulligan that hand if you would be happy with it minus its worst card on 6, because there’s a very real possibility you’re just going to be left with that or worse.
Another strategy for evaluating your hand is to see what it needs to draw to be good and how likely that is. I mulliganed a hand of two lands (one of each of my main colours), non-artifact 2 drop, three 5 drops, and Workshop Assistant earlier today, not because I was unhappy to have those cards, but because I needed to draw both lands and spells for it to be good. It was unlikely I would draw both in good time, and Workshop Assistant wasn’t going to help me stabilise at all. What might be shocking though, is how close I was to keeping it – if Workshop Assistant were a cheap removal spell or a 3 drop creature, I would likely keep that hand, depending on whether a) I was on the play or draw, b) my deck had a lot of other 2-3 drops and c) specifically on what the removal spell or creature was. At that point I would have more time to draw into stuff and one land would set me up really well. Whether you’re on the play or draw really matters when you need to draw lands, because an extra draw step massively increases your % to hit. I would still not keep that hand on the draw, since it was just too bad, but I’d be closer.
Why do you mull more in Constructed?
There are a combination of several factors that have made mulliganing medium hands a lot more appealing in Constructed in recent years. There are three most important ones in my opinion: a) the London Mulligan meaning you draw your best cards more often and have fewer unplayable hands, b) power creep meaning that some of your cards are so powerful that they’re worth several cards and can pull you back into games where you’re down on resources just through the sheer efficiency and value they create, and c) formats have been faster in recent years (which is linked to power creep) and mana efficiency has been king.
Most of this doesn’t actually apply all that much to Limited though – it is true that Limited formats have experienced power creep in recent years, but it’s not in quite the same way. In Constructed, there has been a tendency to print cards that are extremely powerful and warp the game by themselves – cards where you need an immediate answer or you’re extremely far behind. It’s easy to see this effect in big swingy cards like Embercleave, The Great Henge, and Omnath, but even the best 2-drops like Runaway Steam-Kin and Priest of Forgotten Gods are like this. If your colours don’t have access to early haymakers, you have ramp so you can play them faster than your opponent can answer them efficiently. Mulligans are much better because of this – when your opponent needs several specific answers to answer your big haymakers, and you’re getting value out of them even if they do, it makes sense to ship hands without them. Plus you have so many, since you can run four copies of all of them and probably have access to several, that you’re pretty likely to find them if you do mull. As the deck that’s trying to answer what your opponent does, if you’re able to do that then it usually doesn’t matter if you’re down a card or two, because you play cards that go way over the top. The classic example of this is planeswalkers – every single planeswalker worth its salt will absolutely slaughter an opponent who is out of gas and doesn’t do anything for a little while. In games where your opponent really won’t take very long to gain a gamewinning advantage if you stumble, it makes a lot more sense to mulligan aggressively.
Meanwhile, Limited power creep has been more like “there are fewer bad cards in each pack” and “Wizards hasn’t been as afraid to experiment with complex designs and putting more varied effects on commons and uncommons” – much of it can be better defined as complexity creep than power creep. It’s still rare for cards to snowball in the same way as in Constructed, as that just wouldn’t be healthy for Limited environments, where less efficient and powerful answers are available (not that it’s been particularly healthy for Constructed either, even with those…). What this means is that your opponent isn’t likely to be putting cards that say “answer this or you lose” out all that early, so you can afford to keep weaker and slower hands. Cards in Draft that win the late game almost effortlessly are usually rares or mythics, or have some other problems associated with them like requiring synergy, so you just don’t see them that often. Instead, turn 10 of your average draft game is often still very competitive, with the player
Another common heuristic in Constructed is to “mull to a hand with a plan”. This is where you visualise the path the game will take, and try to imagine how you’ll win it with this hand – so if your hand curves out 1, 2, and 3, clearly your plan is the standard aggro plan which is to remove their creatures and beat your opponent before their deck really comes online. The problem with this in Limited, is that the games tend to be a lot more dynamic – both you and your opponent’s deck will be comprised of a lot of moving, flexible pieces. The removal spells don’t perform more than one role in your aggro decks – they can’t go face, and you don’t have enough to reasonably burn your opponent out without creature pressure. So if your aggro plan isn’t working, you really do have to fall back on playing a slower game and removing their stuff, and that’s an extreme example. That means that while it’s better to have a hand with a plan, it’s also fine to have holes in that plan – because as I said earlier, you’re never really that far behind if you just miss a drop, and just having more cards will pay off in the long run.
Note that I don’t really talk about mulling in Best-of-Three or post-board in this article very much; that’s because I’ve already done an article which incorporates the subject, so feel free to check that out!
2. Play the odds
There’s actually a lot of different misplays contained within this – the primary one that everyone knows is that you’re supposed to play around cards a lot less in Draft. That’s beacuse the card pool is so big and you have so little information on your opponent’s deck that there’s a ton of things they could have, and you wouldn’t know until you ran into them. Additionally, playing around specific rares and mythics is certainly not worth it – the chance is miniscule of actually running into that specific card, so you really need to have seen it to play around it. That being said, I think people overemphasise not playing around things a bit too much – you still definitely want to play around commons and uncommons (but mostly commons), and if there’s an effect that’s bad for you that multiple commons can create, you definitely want to play around that effect.
I sometimes see people say stuff like “well I lose to a removal spell if I attack here, but meh it’s draft, I’ll just jam”. That can certainly be right but removal really isn’t an uncommon thing, so in spots like that, you really want to consider what removal spells your opponents could have. First, that means what common removal spells in their colours, but also how likely they are to have those – if you’ve been attacking them with a Ghastly Gloomhunter a bunch and they haven’t been using their mana that well, your opponent is very unlikely to have Subtle Strike in their hand (unless they just drew it, which you shouldn’t play around because the chance of them drawing that specifically this turn is quite low). So that can mean you’re a lot safer to put an aura on the Gloomhunter than you otherwise would be, but then you need to consider that they could just have a bigger removal spell. The lower their life total and the more annoying this Gloomhunter or other creatures in play have been for them, the less likely they are to have not used that removal spell by now, but in a lot of spots it makes sense to wait and try to bait out the removal, especially if you’re already presenting a fast clock. On the other hand, if you saw a bunch of artifact removal from them in game 1, and have yet to play an artifact that’s worth killing in game 2, you should be relatively sure that the first one you play is going to die very quickly. In spots like that, if you can afford to, you can try to draw into another weaker artifact before deploying your artifact bomb, or you can just accept that and try to get some value on the same turn before it dies. If you just want to slow your opponent down and tie up their mana for a turn, then that can absolutely be worth playing the artifact too, but only if they’re ahead and pressuring you, and you’re reasonably sure they won’t just ignore it for a while.
A less common one is when people put bad cards in their deck because they envisage some combo or synergy that isn’t actually that likely to happen. In Constructed, this happens all the time – people play individually weaker cards to support their curve or bolster a synergy, because the payoff or the plan of their deck is so powerful that it’s worth it. But in the game of incremental advantage that Draft is, the payoffs are not going to be that ridiculous for the most part – you might draw a couple of cards, but they’re not going to win you a game by itself, and in the spots where you don’t draw the synergy, then you’re essentially down a card if the card is especially weak.
This is why I’m not very high on cards like Decoction Module in the average deck – sure, I might have five or six cards in my deck where I can gain some value in the late game with it, but in plenty of games, I’m not going to reach the late game or be disadvantaged in it because I’ve been down a card until then. My cards haven’t been trading evenly with my opponent’s cards, because I just haven’t had the time to use this Module. Also bouncing my cards and replaying them is nice, but it’s unlikely to produce really colossal amounts of value. At best, I might make a bunch of energy, which isn’t that great if I don’t have lots of good late game payoffs, or get a Servo or two, but this is merely going to be fine rather than win me the game. I only really like to play Decoction Module in decks where I have several especially busted enter the battlefield triggers (like, say, Cloudblazer!) or am making exceptionally good of the energy it creates, and well preferably both.
I almost never play Woodweaver’s Puzzleknot, unless again my energy payoffs are truly busted like multiple Whirler Virtuosos or Longtusk Cubs, because the card is just horrible when you don’t draw those cards, and I need the energy to be very likely to be worth a card in the average game. If you’re not sure which cards are good and bad, my Limited Tier Lists (Zendikar/Kaladesh) give a rough overview.
When deciding upon what synergies you want to bank on in the final deck, you really need to go with the numbers – if you’re going to play a bad card, you need it to be either decent with lots of cards in your deck or busted with a few, and just making a Servo or two with Aether Swooper is enough to fall into decent but nowhere near busted.
3. Don’t give up!
As I just explained, games often go long in Draft and it’s much harder to establish a gamewinning advantage than in Constructed. Even if you take a turn or two off, miss some land drops, are losing for most of the game, all it takes is a couple of bad draws from your opponent and you’re back in it! Turn 10 of the average draft game is still really competitive, with the player who is ahead trying to capitalise on their lead, and the other player trying to re-establish control. I find it works wonders to adjust your mindset a bit – when you’re behind, you’re seeking to establish parity in a draft game rather than gain a massive edge, as you’re trying to do in Constructed. Draft is all about incremental advantage, rather than immediate victory.
People talk about how an issue with draft is that the cards don’t have much comeback potential – that it’s hard without sweepers and big lifegain cards to pull ahead. The issue with this reasoning is that you’re almost never that far behind in a Draft game – all you need is one removal spell, or some card draw, or your opponent to fade a couple of draw steps, and you can be in the driver’s seat again! Games really don’t end until they’re over, and my students are often shocked by how many games we win just by playing them out – that’s because they’re used to it being being so much rarer in Constructed! I find that with best-of-one Arena, it’s easy to get into the mentality that if you’re behind and you’re not playing a Control deck or some other deck that’s really good at coming back, you should just concede and move to the next game, because your chances of winning are so low, but none of this applies to Draft at all, and you’ll sacrifice a ton of equity by playing this way.