Limited Spotlight: Preventing 3 Common Play Mistakes from Experienced Planeswalkers
Hey folks and welcome back! Apologies for the delay, as it’s been a couple of months since my last Limited Spotlight, and that’s because I’ve been tied up with Constructed set reviews, brewing for events, updating the Limited tier list, and in my role as the site’s main editor; I’m going to do my best to put them out more regularly! Still, my Limited coaching service is still doing great, thanks to my students, and Draft remains my focus and passion when I play Magic.
I’ve noticed common mental missteps across students in my coaching sessions, who are often quite invested/experienced players, and I want to highlight how to spot and tackle a few of them for you now, so that you can level up your game and be best prepared. Some of this is also from experience, and from problems I had as a younger player that I overcame through effort and hard work; I still make mistakes, we all do, but it’s about lessening the frequency of and learning something from them.
While this article is aimed at Draft gameplay, almost all the advice is relevant to Constructed too, and I’ve included special sections for it.
While I expect experienced players to know a lot of what I’m describing intuitively, putting it into practice can be tough and trying out some of the techniques I provide may surprise you. I want to preface this by saying that magic is a ridiculously hard game, and you shouldn’t be down about yourself or feel angry when you make one of these errors. Not all of them are fixable immediately, but they’re simple things which if you have the potential to spot then you have the potential to fix.
First Good Play Syndrome
Here’s a term I coined myself! You might be familiar with Fancy Play Syndrome already, a term stemming from Poker describing people’s desire to make the flashiest play available to them for the sake of fun or to see what happens, without it necessarily being appropriate or the best play in the current situation. First Good Play Syndrome is similar to that, but it instead stems from Chess, where a popular adage is “if you see a good play, look for a better one”. It refers to a tendency pretty much every Magic player has, which is that they hone in on the play that comes to them as a first instinct, the play that immediately looks appealing, rather than bothering to think about it some more. In doing so, they tend to miss more subtle plays: those they’re not used to seeing or those that they need to think about for a bit before coming up with. The players in my coaching sessions have often had the ability to find the right play in many situations, but because they’re essentially playing on autopilot, they miss it a lot because they’re adhering to that instinct. Oftentimes that’s not so bad – it’s called “good play syndrome” because if you’ve played enough Draft or enough magic, your intuition won’t be to do obviously insane things very often, or if it is then that’s a different problem which probably means you’ve learned some bad heuristics (check out another article of mine for an explanation of this).
Spotting the misstep:
Do you often think to yourself immediately after you make a play, “Wait but this play was better, why didn’t I think about it”? Everyone does sometimes, but if you find you’re doing it too much or just going with your first instinct even on really complex turns, that could be really harming you. Magic is a complex game, and it rewards thinking things through – if there are lots of lines available to you on a certain turn, you should absolutely be stopping to compare them and it’s very easy to miss things at first, especially when you’re distracted or otherwise not playing at 100%.
The solution for this one is simple, but it’s going to be hard to get yourself in the routine of doing. You need to stop yourself each time you’re about to make your instinctual first play, and think for a few seconds (more on crucial turns). To start with, you could have a friend watch you; they don’t even need to be able to play magic, all they have to do is say “okay let’s think for a second” every time you’re about to make an immediate play. The important thing is getting this stop cemented in your mind, and while this might sound annoying, it doesn’t have to be for very long – a couple of seconds is enough for me to realise I need more time to ponder.
One useful strategy is to try to assess the most important aspects of the board state again – how much danger is your life total in, what’s the biggest threat on your side and theirs, who is winning on board, what’s your gameplan and does the play you’re about to make fit into that, etc. For example, many times I’ve found myself in the mindset of the aggressor, and then I re-assess the board state and realise that I have to change tactics – I’m no longer winning on the board, they’re favoured in a race, or something else has changed in the last turn or two. This is a really good time to come up with a new plan, and assessing your first good play in the context of that plan can have dramatic results. I’ve often gone from using a removal spell on a creature to push my attackers through to removing their flying threat because we’re about to get into a board stall, and prevented myself from throwing the entire game as a result of re-assessing like this.
Another thing you can do is to come up with several good lines when the board state is especially complex, quickly weigh advantages and disadvantages of each in your mind, and discard them once you deem one better than the other. This is how one picks between lines anyway, but if you force yourself to go through the motions each time then it will become second nature.
This comes up all the time in Constructed too! Everything is the same here.
Attacking on Stalled Boards
Combat maths as a whole is one of the most deceptively hard things in Magic play, and mastering the ins and outs of it is crucial to becoming a strong limited player. A lot of this is just practice, but you need to make sure you’re working on the right things – if you can’t spot the play, then you won’t have the chance to practice it. Lethals through a stalled board can be tough for even experienced players to spot, especially over two turns, because you often need to count in weird spots and sometimes you don’t even have lethal, but you force your opponent into making disadvantageous trades by attacking and then are able to leverage that into a win on subsequent turns. People like to say cute things like “maths is for blockers”, but that’s a meme, not words to live by!
In knowing how to do this, you can apply it on the defence – if you’re deciding whether to use sorcery speed removal or save it, you can check how much damage they have and if it’s too much, then you must use it. It’s also a good way to count how much you take when they alpha strike back at you, since that’s often what happens when you don’t kill them with yours, so you need to be prepared.
Learn how to do it properly.
First, you need to soften them up – the more damage you deal, the better your alpha strikes get, so you often want to peck away with a flier or send in your biggest attacker and force them to multi-block before you go all in. If you think you’re ready, do the maths below and see, but it’ll be an instinctual thing after you’ve gone through the motions enough times – if I’m not sure, I’ll check, but I usually rely on the red exclamation mark to go off in my brain after they take another hit, and then I’ll usually make sure.
Now for the alpha strike itself. Here’s a technique to practice for figuring out how much damage you have on any given board state: first of all exclude any fliers or evasive creatures you have (but not that they have), since we’re going to count those separately. Count how many more creatures you have than they do, then add up to the total power of that many of your smallest creatures. That’s the maximum damage you can deal. So, if you have three more creatures, and your smallest creatures are two 3/3s and a 2/3, then you have 8 damage on board, and if they’re tapped out or have no cards in hand or relevant cards on-board, then that’s damage that’s certain to go through. Now we need to adjust that number.
- After that, you can add in flying damage, which works a bit differently – if they have no fliers of their own, then that’s just free damage you can add to your previous total. If they have fliers, then it depends on the size of your flying creatures – if they’re bigger than your ground creatures, you get to remove some ground blockers for your opponent and instead assign them to those. If they’re smaller, which they’ll usually be, then that’s just free damage you add on again.
- If they have lifelink creatures, you need to add up the total power of those creatures and remove it from your number above. So if they have a 3/3 lifelink, it’s 8-3 = 5 damage.
- If they have unblockable creatures, just add that on at the end.
- If you have menace creatures, you can count them as two creatures for this purpose, but it’s not quite that simple – if two of your creatures are still smaller than the menace creature, then you can assign two blockers to it, but if your two smallest blockers are bigger than it then the menace creature gets through and is free damage you can add to the total. So if I have a 4/4 Menace creature and the two smallest attackers I’ve not assigned yet are a 2/2 and a 3/3, the Menace creature is a free 4 damage I can add on, but if the Menace creature were a 6/6, then I’d only be able to add 5 on from the two unblocked attackers.
- If you have trample creatures, check how big they are. If they’re bigger than the smallest attacker they’ve assigned a blocker to (if they’re not, just add the power of that attacker to the total damage), put their biggest creature on the trample creature and check how much damage goes through. If it’s more than the power of the smallest attacker they’ve assigned a blocker to, consider that smallest attacker unblocked and instead assign the second biggest creature to your trample creature then repeat the process. At the end, once less damage is going through than the smallest attacker you’ve assigned a blocker to, add that to the final total. So if I’m attacking with a 6/6 Trample, a 2/3, and a 3/3 and all they have is a 5/5, then I should assign that creature to block the 6/6 rather than to a 2/3 or 3/3, and add 1 to my total damage score.
- If you have tricks, you’re going to use them on your smallest or a trampling attacker so they should always be free damage as long as not all of your creatures are blocked. Add them on at the end.
- It’s often important to have lethal even through a removal spell, and this is easy to check – just pretend your biggest guy is gone, so now you have two more creatures than them rather than three.
I understand that that might sound more complex than it actually is, but if you practice then you’ll be able to count all this rapidly later on.
However, it gets much harder when it’s not about lethal but about how much you can force them to lose, or whether you can set up lethal next turn. If you’re not dealing enough damage to kill them this turn, then it’s time to look at whether they could be making better blocks – how much life will they have at the end to work with, and what happens if they make a configuration of blocks that ends with them taking more damage but kills more of your creatures? If the blockers they have left can kill you on the swing back, it doesn’t matter how low their life total is at the end, so you can’t make that attack if that’s the case. If they can’t kill you and you still have more attackers than them next turn, no matter how they block, then it’s worth considering whether you can set up two-turn lethal and whether that’s worth going for – you will lose many Draft and constructed aggro games if you don’t spot two-turn lethals. If I have three 3/3s and they have a 4/4, but they’re on 9 life, then that attack is often worth making – I’ll deal 6 damage this turn, and then I’ll kill them if they don’t draw a blocker for next turn. Even if they do, I can find a removal spell, burn or a trick, and the damage will prevent them from hitting me back and force them to play safe for the rest of the game. If they have to chump block with more than you’re losing in the attack to survive, and you live through them swinging back, then that’s probably a good attack (unless you’re playing around removal spells and such).
If the attack is good but you die on the swing back, then check whether it’s still good if you leave enough blockers to survive back – just minus that many attackers and look again; generally you want to leave the smallest creatures you have back to block if you’re trying to maximise damage, but don’t lose to their tramplers either!
I can’t tailor the combat maths for every single situation, but that gives you a good starting point on what you should be looking for and looking to practice. A lot of this is about bothering to do the maths, but once you have an idea of how much damage they’re taking on a certain turn then it’s very easy to adjust it – if you play a 3/3, you just add an extra creature to your side so now you have three more attackers than they have blockers instead of two. Trust me when I say that practicing all this makes it so much easier; I usually do most calculations in a few seconds now but I found them hard early in my draft career.
Alpha striking comes up less, because boards are stalled less often and in some matchups you have to commit less onto the board to play around sweepers, but if you’re playing any creature deck then you’re eventually going to run into an aggro or midrange deck, where all of this is really important. Learning combat maths is just as useful here.
Holding onto removal too much/using it on things that don’t matter
Removal is your bread and butter in Limited. While it’s not all draft is about and there definitely is such a thing as too much, you want several good pieces in every deck, and good usually means “low on conditions” and “not too expensive” – this isn’t Constructed where we can afford to select the best of the best, but cards like Legion’s End and Easy Prey are weak in most Draft formats, because they don’t hit enough, and you can’t afford to have many copies of Secure the Scene or Finishing Blow in most Draft decks (fewer in a faster format like M21), since they’re expensive enough that they actively compete with creatures for slots and often you will have better 5-drops.
Removal is a strange one, because it’s common for inexperienced draft players to go from undervaluing to overvaluing it – they learn not to use their best removal spells on random 2/2s that they can just block and that won’t be relevant a turn or two from now, and that their life total is a resource made for this purpose. After that, they tend to overcorrect, and I see even a lot of experienced players doing this in Draft – they begin to hold removal in their hand, waiting to hook a shark, but they die to the small fry gnawing at their toes as they do so, sometimes even with two or three kill spells in hand. Whether you should bite the bullet and kill the small fry is contextual, and the hope is you have blockers and other mechanisms in your deck (like more conditional/worse removal spells even) to avoid doing so, but if you end up taking 8-10 damage from it rather than snapping it off, then that is often (but not always) a mistake. Similarly, not using your mana in the early game can often enable your opponents to snowball out of control – Wraths are not a common thing in Draft, so your best way to catch up is to double-spell, so you need to ensure that the two spells you cast will catch you up. Often that won’t be the case if your opponent curves 2 drop into 3 drop into 4 drop, and you’re hanging onto your removal spells because the 2s and 3s don’t individually represent that much damage.
Unconditional removal spells like Murder are good because they have the option of hitting creatures early and late, they’ll be good whenever you need them, so it’s a misconception that you shouldn’t use them early – if you don’t have a different answer to their 2/2 and your deck isn’t well set up to answer it, then what is your plan other than to remove it? Are you just going to sit there taking damage and losing the race forever? Your life total is a resource, not something that doesn’t matter – in taking too much damage from this 2/2, you’re still losing a key advantage. Maybe you’ll be able to kill the next two creatures they have, but eventually you’ll be on 2 life and at that point you will have to remove it, or 5 life and they’ll just have a burn spell or a trick. You cannot win games by preserving your disadvantage.
Describing what to do here is tough, because the situations are so contextual, but I gave some advantages above of when you should use removal – other decks don’t need to use it on 2/2s because they can deal with them in other ways soon, but if your hand isn’t set up for that and your deck isn’t good at doing that, then it doesn’t make sense to keep taking hits. Sometimes, using it will just mean you lose to their next thing, but the hope is that you draw into something. The more removal you have, the less you should hang onto it: if you have a bunch in your hand and deck, just use it, because you’re going to draw more and you’re not losing much in the mean time – if they play a bigger fish, you still have that covered. Having a bunch of removal in your deck is a good reason to use it as well – if I only have 20 cards left in my deck and five removal spells, then even if I only have one in hand, either I want to wait for a more situational one to deal with the lower value creature or, say if I’ve taken some damage already, it’s fine to snipe it now. Sure, some games you’ll just lose to their mythic bomb after you use a removal spell, but they’re not that likely to have that and taking a bunch of damage means the 2/2 is still a problem and the subsequent creature they play becomes more of a problem – you’re forced to remove that an every creature they play, if you’re low on life.
I often ask myself the question “what’s the biggest problem on the board?” because that tends to change dramatically as the game goes. If you have a problem covered by setting up a trade or doing something else like taking away a resource they have that’s making it a problem e.g. if it’s a looter or an Escape creature, or they’re just going to run out of that resource soon anyway, then that’s either not the biggest problem or you’re in a fine spot. Sometimes, the tapper that’s preventing my 7/7 from attacking when they’re on 14 is a much bigger problem than their 4/4 flier that I can double block, even if that 4/4 flier is usually a much greater problem. Maybe their bomb is an A on my tier list and their tapper is a C, and you hesitate to kill the latter for that reason – well I hate to slight my own work, but it wasn’t intended for the situation you’re currently in and that’s a terrible reason! This might seem obvious, but it’s easy to fall into these traps in a game, and asking yourself that question on big turns helps you avoid that – even if it’s just “oh the problem is still this dragon, just like five turns ago”, that didn’t cost you a whole lot of time.
If the problem is something you can’t actually answer like a Teferi’s Tutelage, then you’d better come up with a plan – something you can draw into, start trying to race, find some way to turn your disadvantage around. This is also a fantastic way to avoid tilt – I always feel a lot more relaxed when I have a plan and the game doesn’t feel hopeless, even if it might not necessarily work out.
You should use your mana most of the time here; removal isn’t as scarce so your removal spells and other answers aren’t as important individually, and most decks will have plenty. A control deck won’t have many blockers or other answers to their creatures, so if you have to Eat to Extinction a one-drop then you do it. That being said, if your plan is to just sweep away one-drops, you can afford to take a bunch of damage before you do – it’s much more commonly right for control decks to take 8-10 damage from an early creature, because their catch-up mechanisms are so much better. Your opponent should be playing mostly cards you care about, but if they have a Scavenging Ooze they can’t put a counter on because you keep exiling their stuff, then you can afford to ignore that and do other things like sculpt your hand and gain life to mitigate its attacks for a long time.
A midrange deck that doesn’t have as much removal should function more like a draft than a control deck when using it, but you’ll have ways to gain life or otherwise stabilise later so it makes sense to have removal ready for their key threats rather than removing their early creatures if you can afford not to. Meanwhile, an aggro deck needs to assess how much of an advantage they gain from using removal to push through attackers now versus expanding their board and using that removal later or just trading – if you have more creatures in hand and not as much removal, then it makes sense to just trade, unless your creatures are particularly high value.
I fell in love with Limited ever since I began in New Phyrexia over nine years ago. With a particular fondness for Flashback and cube drafts, I’ve drafted more sets than I can count on every platform. On Arena I draft infinitely, profiting on gems massively, and have made top 100 mythic many times. Self-reflection and critical analysis are paramount to Limited improvement, and I emphasise those aspects in my articles and in each session of the Limited coaching service I provide.
If anything was unclear, please ask me questions! If you liked this article, consider leaving a comment! I have plenty of material for follow-ups, and it’s so helpful to know whether people found this useful and interesting.
Check out some of my other Limited content:
- Limited Spotlight Series (scroll down on this page; these were written ages ago but cover general concepts, so people will hopefully still find them useful)
- M21 Limited Set Review (White and Introduction)