Seven Tips To Improve Your Limited Game

From Pro Tour and Multiple Limited Grand Prix Top Eighter Matteo Orsini Jones

The internet nowadays is awash with lists of tips and tricks that will revolutionise your finances, shred your body fat, or get your fat body shredded. This article will do none of those things, but what it will hopefully do is make you think about the way you approach Limited Magic. If you’re lucky, it might even make you a little better at it. If you’re a competitive Limited player (aspiring or just-about-there), then this is the article for you. Some of these tips might seem obvious, whilst others might seem to go against everything you hold dear. My one hope is that they make you think; whether or not you want to take the advice is entirely down to you.

And so, with that out of the way, here are my seven tips to improving your Limited game, from a former Pro Tour top 8’er to a future.

1. KICK it! (Keep it consistent, K?)

Nowadays, with so many splashy bombs and interesting mana fixers, it’s incredibly easy to slip into splashing a third, or fourth, or even a fifth colour. But be warned: it’s a trap. With Standard decks running four-colour manabases and three-colour three-drops like it’s going out of fashion, it can be tempting to try the same tricks in Limited. Sadly, herein lies our problem: Limited is not Constructed, and unless you have a playset of four different dual (or triple) lands, it’s just not going to work the large majority of the time.

Watching Joseph and his technicolour dreamdeck destroy opponents can make it hella tempting to play three, four or five colours yourself, but try watching a couple of games over Joe’s shoulder and you’ll notice that half the time he’s losing to two-drops with a Yore-Tiller Nephilim and Scion of the Ur-Dragon stuck in hand.

As a general rule, consider how many colours you could play, and then play that many minus one. If you want to splash an extra colour, then let your lands decide which colour that is, not your spells. Avoid, also, splashing aggressive cards: Forerunner of Slaughter is great in a red-black deck because it’s great on turn two. In a red-blue deck splashing black, it’s more than likely an underwhelming seven-drop.

2. Real decks have curves

“How could I lose? My deck has 13 two-drops and a curve that stops at four!”

“How could I lose? My deck has three dragons!”

Heard that one before? Truth is, no matter how aggressive or defensive your deck, it needs to have a curve that’s skewed towards two- and three-drops and tails off into the five-, six- or seven-range. The type of deck will dictate the type of spell in each range, but the spells still need to be there. This holds more true in Sealed than in Draft, given that Draft gives you a little more control over the archetype you’re building, but that’s not to say it isn’t incredibly important in both.

An aggro deck prefers to have cheap creatures and powerful, reliable ways of getting creatures off the board, like Demon’s Grasp or Roiling Waters. Control decks prefer to have cheap, efficient removal spells and powerful, expensive creatures that dominate the end-game. Midrange decks prefer to grind out some value before realising they can’t win and going to get burritos. But that’s a discussion for another day.

If somebody tells you their deck has a ‘low curve’, chances are they’ve simply misbuilt it.

3. Hold on to your removal

And then hold on a little longer.

This tip is becoming something of a village bike, being passed around from generation to generation by players who like to think of themselves as the next cardboard Ghandi: selflessly passing on gems of wisdom that will one day be printed over an inspiring backdrop and revolutionise the way we think.

But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s still very much an important aspect of Limited play. It’s an epiphany that that every budding competitive player has at least once in their life—Last Gasping that two-drop was possibly not the best idea—but it’s one we’ll continue to have so long as they keep printing fewer hard-removal spells and greater numbers of ridiculous creatures.

If you’re ever unsure as to whether or not you should be firing off a removal spell, the answer is probably no. Obviously, as with all things, there are exceptions: feel free to pull the trigger now if it ties in nicely with your gameplan. Which leads us seemlessly onto…

4. Have a gameplan

And the second prize for the tip that gets repeated so often people want to punch something when they hear it goes to…

But seriously, make a friggin’ gameplan. It doesn’t matter if it changes during the game—in fact, it’s highly recommended that it does—but every single play you make during a game of Magic should be made in consideration of how it affects your gameplan. Ever since Mike Flores’s seminal work on ‘Who’s the Beatdown?’, this trope (or should I say tripe?) has become ingrained into the discerning Magic player’s vernacular. But the concept is simple: if you don’t plan to win this game by racing, that two-drop sure as hell shouldn’t be attacking.

5. Creatures are not pacifists

“Playing against British players is great. All their creatures come into play with Pacifism already attached.”

-Olivier Ruel

This was something Olivier Ruel said to me, years ago, on his way to top 8ing Grand Prix Brighton in 2009. Although it was said tongue-in-cheek, the point he was making was anything but a joke: creatures that neither attack nor block in any given turn cycle might as well not be there.

It’s easy enough to work out whether or not an attack has value. Are you winning the race? Does the opponent have good blocks?

But what a lot of players overlook is whether that same creature is likely to actually block next turn. If all your opponent has is flyers, then just go ahead and send it into the red zone. Sure, they might just put a 2/5 in front of your 3/3, but they might also think you have a trick and take the damage. Or, they might block for a few turns and start playing like you don’t have the trick, then you blow them out when you draw it.

So, remember, there are two things to consider at the start of combat on your turn, how effective will my attack be, and how likely is it that I’ll block next turn?

6. Be a calling station

Possibly the most controversial tip on the list, but one that’s never failed me: playing around stuff is really not that important in Limited.

In Constructed, it’s a whole different situation. Chances are, if you’re playing against a tier 1 or 2 deck, you already know 80% or more of your opponent’s deck. You know their gameplan, and you know the cards that are good against you. You can play around certain cards or certain lines of play because you can be pretty sure that your opponent’s going to make them.

But in game 1 of a Limited match, what your opponent’s going to to is anyone’s guess (including their own, a lot of the time). Sure, if your opponent’s making the world’s worst attack that will blow you out if and only if they have a specific combat trick, then go ahead and play around it. But the rest of the time? Focus on what’s on the board: the creatures, their interactions, the combat maths.

Trying to guess what your opponent has and playing around it can actually lose you games, where perhaps you didn’t attack for lethal in fear of (Roil’s) retribution. The games where you attack and get blown out really sting—they’re the ones you really remember—but realistically they don’t happen all that often. Play sensibly, and play logically, but don’t play over-cautiously unless you can absolutely, definitely afford to do so. Drop your goods on the table and see what your opponent can do about them.

7. Write it down

The best way of handling the guesswork of knowing what to play around? Remove the guesswork entirely. If you ask pros about this, you’ll get a diverse range of answers as to how much they write down during a game, but one thing holds true for the vast majority of them: they write something down.

Some take a note of every single card played against them, down to the basic land arts, so that by the end of a 3-game match they have almost perfect knowledge of the opponent’s 40 cards. Others write down every spell, so they can know what creatures to expect on what turns. I simply write down any removal spell, instant, or creature with flash: things that might ‘get me’. Trust me, it makes playing around their combat tricks a whole lot easier when you know what they are. It’s no longer a case of playing around, but more a case of playing directly towards. That frees up your brain cells to focus on what you need to do about the cards they have, rather than what those cards are.

It can also help to write down their creatures when it comes to sideboarding: if they had a lot of aggressive two-drops, it gives you a good idea of the rest of their deck. Which leads nicely into…

Bonus tip: Your sideboard is a thing

Seriously, the number of people who snap-submit for game two on Magic Online is shocking. It’s less common in real life, where people usually reach for their sideboard in solidarity after they see me having a glance through mine, but it’s obviously when they’re just moving cards round for the sake of it. You have a lot more cards at your disposal than the 40 you shuffled up, and it’ll do you no harm to have a look at the very least. Even if you opponent’s deck didn’t throw up any warning alarms, what are the chances that you built your deck perfectly on the first go?

And that concludes my seven tips to improving your Limited game. Agree or disagree with anything? Let me know!

And, if you’re feeling generous, we’d love it if you could follow us on Twitter or Facebook, or possibly even Patreon?
Also, if you haven’t before, why not give one of our podcasts a go? They’re all on this site.