Limited is, for me, the best way to play Magic. Constructed tweaking and meta-game prediction are aspects of Magic strategy that I typically find linear and boring, and I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around the appeal of Commander. Unfortunately, I actively disliked Avacyn Restored Limited, to the point that I refused to play it, and consequently haven’t touched a real Draft or Sealed game in quite some time. M13 could prove to be better or worse than AVR, but I currently don’t care which way it goes. I have a new set to think about, new synergies, mana curves, pick orders and trick strategies to pore over, and it is exciting to be invested in actual Magic gameplay once again.
Core Set Limited Maxims
Core Sets are inherently more simplistic than the traditional sets that compose one block or another. The mechanics that a core set showcases are always easy to grasp and easy to apply, and color identity is rigidly established. Synergies are obvious, and effects that generate card advantage are even more powerful than they are normally. Just as the cards are designed to teach new players the fundamentals of gameplay, Core Set Limited is designed to be an environment in which these burgeoning players can swim with some confidence. Because of this design, Core Set Limited environments will always showcase fundamental Limited truths. Bearing these truths in mind, one can generate some staple strategic principles that can be used to guide most Core Set Limited evaluations.
Evasion is King
Most Limited games are won by combat. Most combat exchanges are won by the player who can interact more with his opponent than his opponent can with him. It is no secret that flying is one of the more powerful Limited mechanics, but in Core Set Limited, it is even better. Creatures are basic, and the forces that keep the color pie from blurring have prevented divergence and thus empowered those colors that possess natural advantages. In any given draft, there are matchups in which the player with flyers has a significant advantage over the player who has fewer. While R+D has attempted to ameliorate this issue (most notably by printing more cards with reach and designing appropriate Green removal), creatures that fly are still more dangerous than those that don’t. Mechanics that remove facets of interaction from Magic are extremely powerful, and every time you get a chance to deprive your opponent of a strategic choice (such as blocking) for free, you should do so with prejudice.
Removal is Also King
This concept is, again, a prime tenet of Limited strategy. However, just as the power of Core Set evasion is emphasized by the lack of deep synergies and the definition of the color pie, so is the potency of removal increased by the color identity that creatures possess and the safety net it provides. When I say color identity, I mean the differing characteristics of creatures across colors. Blue and White animals fly, Green animals are larger than every other animal, Red animals attack quickly and hit hard, and Black animals provide some kind of utility. Creatures from different colors are most powerful in different situations. Smaller Blue and White creatures are best when the opponent is behind in tempo or resources, Green creatures are great at stabilizing and ending the late game, etc. Removal provides an answer to every creature in every situation. The level of versatile interaction that it guarantees is what makes it so valuable. Whether your opponent is attempting to stabilize, field an early offensive, or dominate through exploiting curve, their strategy can be disrupted through the use of removal.
Mana Curve, is, again, King
Mana curve is the way in which mana is utilized over the course of the turns of the game. A deck with a “good” curve is one that is able to do something with its mana each turn of the game. Mana curves are often defined by the overall strategy that a deck is attempting to employ. An aggressive curve is one that is able to play creatures starting at turn 2 or earlier, and continue dropping them until turn 5 or later, at which point it is hoped that the opponent is overwhelmed. A controlling curve is one that utilizes the early turns by either disrupting the opponent or drawing more cards (more options for interaction), and then spends the later turns decimating the opponent’s strategy with the powerful late game tools it has set itself up to use. Regardless of your specific strategy, it is important to pay attention to mana curve. Ask yourself, “What am I going to be doing at each turn during this game? How will I be using my mana?” A mana curve that is balanced to the demands of a particular strategy is going to guarantee resilience and the potential to punish an opponent who stumbles. The more aggressive Limited environments of the past several years have emphasized just how important curve is, albeit in a way that cedes power to aggressive curves. Remember that every time you pass the turn without using all of your mana, that mana has essentially been “wasted”. You will never get that turn back and will never be able to use the resources of that turn. This doesn’t mean that you should play spells as soon as you can cast them, just to use mana, but it does mean that you should be involved in planning out the best way to utilize your mana when all the right elements fall into place, and how to recover when they don’t.
These elements of strategy should be kept in mind when drafting any set, but are especially important when drafting Core Sets. A Core Set is always about returning Magic to its more basic nature in order to instruct a new generation of players, and thus those strategies that are most powerful in their simplicity shine with renewed strength. Keep these ideas in mind when playing any Core Set Limited format.
Archetypes of M13
Based on the few drafts that I’ve been able to jam under my belt, I’ve been impressed with the depth of M13, especially when considering that it is a Core Set. There are a number of archetypes to build, and each one has it’s specific merits.
Black/ White Exalted
Black and White are typically not the best colors to blend in draft, as their strongest cards often require double colored mana in the earliest turns of the game. They also stand against one another on the field of flavor, and that stigma might dissuade some players from marrying them to one another. Remember Blue/Green in AVR? That color combo has long been regarded as weak and clumsy, but it was easily one of the best strategies in that environment. Black and White are unified in M13 by Exalted, with 4 commons and 4 uncommons between them boasting the ability. There are also several black and white creatures that become significantly more powerful than regular creatures do when Exalted begins to do its work. White has a number of first strikers, black has an unblockable attacker, and both have lifelinkers and flyers, all at common and uncommon. Both colors possess solid removal, and work well together in terms of curve. This archetype will initially be very popular, as Exalted is a mechanic fondly remembered from Alara Block, where it proved its mettle in both slower and quicker limited environments.
Blue/White or Blue/Black Flyers
This is one of the most simple, tried and true archetypes in Magic’s history. Take advantage of flying creatures, deploy a few defensive idiots to soak up damage when it really matters, and guarantee victory with counterspells, tempo manipulation, or card advantage, or possibly all three. This archetype is always tried in the first weeks of every Limited format, and always seems best in Core Set formats. The archetype in M13 seems refreshingly fluid—it can either be an aggressive strategy or a controlling one. Welkin Tern, Bloodhunter Bat, Aven Aquire, and Wind Drake are all great commons for the strategy, and the uncommons available are actually unreal. Talrand’s Invocation, Sleep, Vampire Nighthawk, and Arctic Aven are all easy first picks, and Switcheroo is better than normal as well, assuming that you are switching their good creature for one of your defensive idiots, namely Kraken Hatchling, Guardians of Akrasa, Fogbank, Giant Scorpion, etc. There are more than enough counterspells, removal, early creatures, and Archeomancer-advantage to build different versions of this strategy. It also helps that flyers play nicely with Exalted, which appears on cards that you would naturally include in the deck anyway. I’d predict that this archetype will be popular throughout M13’s Limited tenure.
Green was widely disparaged in M12, but it seems to be primed to make much more of an impact in M13. For one, its creatures, which are supposed to be the largest around, are actually the largest around this time (around). Centaur Courser is significantly larger any other common creature around his mana cost, and going through 3 packs of Timberpack Wolves means that they’ll probably be equally as large. Green also gains Sentinel Spider, a card that it has long needed to compete against flyers. The spider serves the important function of stabilizing while applying pressure, something that only Green rares have been able to do in the past. I think that it will be fairly common for Pacifisms to sit in White player’s hands until this spider comes scuttling onto the field, so don’t depend on him completely, but be thankful that he has finally replaced Stampeding Rhino. Green has Core Set removal in Prey Upon, and Deadly Recluse serves as a great tool with which to stymy early aerial assaults. It also has a fair share of utility cards at Uncommon, such as Mwonvuli Beast Tracker and Roaring Primadox. The Beast Tracker has a fantastic target in Sentinel Spider, if nothing else, and the Primadox interacts favorably with Yeva’s Forcemage, Bond Beetle, and Elvish Visionary, to mention only green commons. It also completely voids Pacifism and Encrust, two effects that often reduced Green’s potential. Rancor is about as absurd as it seems, and I don’t think I’ll be passing it too often.
Blue/ Red Control
This is the archetype that I am most excited to experiment with, as it isn’t often playable. Just like Black/White, Red and Blue seldom see each other in a favorable light. This time around, however, I think they’ll work out their differences. Archaeomancer really shines in this strategy, as it can re-buy Tempo manipulation, removal, card draw, counterspells, or some more powerful effect. Wall of Fire and Kraken Hatchling will provide excellent early defense support, although flyers could be a potential problem. Between Switcheroo, Flames of the Firebrand, Volcanic Geyser, Talrand’s Invocation, Furnace Whelp, and Arms Dealer, there are a number of uncommon options with which to close out a game. Faerie Invaders seems quite good in this format so far, especially in any deck that likes holding up counterspells. Chandra’s Fury is a card that I wasn’t sold on initially, but would now easily include in any controlling deck’s main core. There are a fair number of common/uncommon creatures that it deals with handily, and at instant speed, it’s easy to pick up additional value in combat. It is definitely one of the better Lava Axe Variants we’ve seen in quite some, and has its place in more strategies than simply aggro alone.
I’d like to conclude by mentioning a few of the more powerful uncommons, and to point out that the uncommons of M13 are, on a whole, really, really strong. Obviously uncommons are assumed to have an increased power level, but in M13, almost all of them range from being playable to powerful, with half of them perfectly acceptable first picks or mini-bombs. This isn’t always the case, and it should be kept in mind when sitting down to a draft. Here are just a few to which you should pay special attention.
Vampire Nighthawk and Arctic Aven
When Nighthawk debuted in Zendikar, it was quickly recognized as the best Limited card in the set. Really. There was not a single card that you ever, ever, ever took over Nighthawk, even rares. While that set was painfully fast, Nighthawk’s power will not be much diminished in slower formats. A flyer that provides 4 point life swings each turn and battles successfully with their largest creature can never be taken lightly, and should be available to take after 2nd pick. The Aven is similar in application. It is all but impossible to race, and is in an allied color pair that makes up a popular archetype. When drafting or building a sealed pool, you must find ways to beat these cards, as you will be playing them more and more the further and further that you advance into a tournament.
Ever wonder what Arya Stark felt like when Ilyn Payne hacked off her Father’s head while Joffrey stood by with his crown, smug and grinning? Play this against your opponent, watch their face break, and you’ll know. This removal spell is completely devastating, and is something that you must be wary of whenever any Black mage hits 6 mana. 2 is something of a magic number, and most of the time, the loss of power will be enough to completely nullify all attackers and destroy all of them with blockers that are suddenly are much less innocuous than they seemed. It can be cast during their combat or during yours, making it quite difficult to play around. This card will almost always be a two-for-one when cast, and has the potential to just be Plague Wind. Hell, sometimes it just Fogs them for the win. It is also one of the best cards to splash from this set. I’m pretty sure that the only non-rare I’d take over Public Execution would be Flames of the Firebrand, and even that might be wrong. Trust me. Give this card a whirl, and see why the Starks and the Lannisters will never forgive each other.
I love this card, but not because it is good. It certainly is, but what makes me happy is that Mind Control is finally being balanced. In other Core Set Limited formats, the only card worth taking over Mind Control was a Titan, and even that could be argued. Switcheroo is still quite powerful, but not nearly as oppressive. Remember, if you respond to the spell and destroy the creature that they are attempting to exchange, the exchange is nullified, and you retain control of your own dude. I dislike the name of the card a fair bit, but I appreciate what R+D has done for Limited balance by creating it.
Cower in Fear
This card is much more powerful than it first appears, and can easily blow out combat by itself, even if it doesn’t kill anything directly. A solid first pick that has the potential to perform like a bomb.
That’s all I have for now, other than to reiterate how excited I am for this new format. While Core formats do tend to get a bit stale as the months wear on, anything is a welcome reprieve from Avacyn Restored Limited. Also, the rares don’t seem nearly as oppressive as they have been in the past. A few mythics are unbeatable, but nothing like Sorin’s Vengeance or Grave Titan, although Garruk and Jace still linger. Regardless, I hope this article has quickened your Limited curiosity as much as writing it did mine. Thanks for reading!