In Development – Great Crossover Potential (MEP content)

Limited is the Chevy Cobalt to Constructed’s Corvette.

I wrote that on twitter last month after returning home, semi-plussed, from a Scars Sealed PTQ.

It wasn’t sour grapes. Magic is fun. I played Magic. I had fun. There were good people around and I got to spend some time teaching a fellow player how he could have fogged his opponent for a turn by a well-placed Tainted Strike. Nonetheless, I came home with a sense of washed-out fun, and it coalesced into that thought. I’m sure racing almost any car is pretty fun, but wouldn’t it be more fun to be behind the wheel of that Corvette?

This, in turn, led me to ponder yet again why people prefer the formats they prefer….and why they’re better at some formats than others. All of a sudden, this sounded like a Magic Effectiveness Project question.

After all, my lassitude about Limited may mirror your confusion with Constructed. But, whether we like it or not, sometimes we’re going to play in that “other” format, whether it be at a modern-day mixed PT, or a PTQ season that doesn’t quite match our tastes. Or, notably, the new mixed-format MTGO PTQ sets.

So how can we apply what we love in one format to the other?

In other words, can I learn to love Limited as much as you do?

A reminder – good at what we love

Back in the article that spawned the MEP survey and articles like this one, I talked about the notion of playing to your strengths.

As discovered by the fine folks at Gallup, we do our best when we play to our strengths. Backing this up, our strengths tend to be thing that we are not simply mechanically good at, but also things that we genuinely enjoy doing. So if you’re good at something, it’s probably due to a combination of some kind of aptitude and a desire to keep doing it.

In other words, it’s not that I don’t like Limited because I’m not great at it. I’m not great at Limited because I don’t like it.

This leads to the logical conclusion that if I’m going to be better at Limited, and the dedicated drafter is going to be better at Constructed, we have to see if there’s anything we can legitimately love about the “other” format. We can then apply that to being actually better at it.

That’s what I’m going to talk about today.

Expanding on the MEP and collecting your impressions

The point of the initial MEP survey, to which so many of your generously responded, was to provide a basis on which to start understanding what makes us good at Magic. I didn’t imagine I’d find any global rules. Rather, I was hoping to pull out factors that made us excel at individual parts of the game.

So when I turned to the MEP survey data to ask about what differentiates those who prefer Constructed or Limited, I was thinking that perhaps I might see things like, “adaptability” as factors for Limited specialists, and “planning” for those who prefer Constructed.

And, indeed, I saw some of those things.

However, the single strongest factor linked to any kind of preference for Limited versus Constructed was cost. That’s unsurprising, but also, well, not so helpful in explaining what makes someone better at one format or another. After all, money doesn’t make a player better at Vintage. It just makes them able to play it.

However, the other information in the MEP replies did provide a solid ground on which to build last week’s survey, which asked all of you to answer five simple questions:

1) If you had to choose, would you rather player Constructed or Limited?
2) What’s the best thing about Limited?
3) What’s the worst thing about Limited?
4) What’s the best thing about Constructed?
5) What’s the worst thing about Constructed?

The results from that survey form the basis for this week’s exploration of why we like Constructed or Limited, and how we can apply what we love in one to maybe, maybe appreciating the other.

Your impressions, organized

First, let’s start with the high-level result.

53.5% of you would pick Limited
42.6% of you would pick Constructed
3.9% of you don’t care

Given the purported preference of Magic players for Limited, this relative lack of bias for that side of Magic play might be surprising. On the other hand, this survey was largely replied to by people who read my writing, which I have to imagine means we have more than the typical percentage of Constructed aficionados.

With the rest of the replies, I grouped responses into generally similar categories to see which concepts would float to the top. For discussion purposes, I’ve taken the top categories and grouped them thematically in today’s article. Hopefully, the grouping makes sense, and helps us see how Limited and Constructed play interact on the same points.

So, with that idea in mind, here are the highlights from this most recent MEP survey.

NASCAR and F1, part 1

In introducing this article, I made Limited into a Chevy Cobalt and Constructed into a Corvette. I have no idea if the Cobalt is a good or bad car, having never driven one, but the idea was this – in my mind, Constructed is about racing with a car that’s been tuned until it hums, and Limited is about picking some random cars out of a grocery store parking lot and seeing who can win with theirs.

Both would actually be pretty fun racing experiences, and you’d have good reasons to prefer either over the other.

I mention this because one of the essential divides between Limited and Constructed might be described like so – Limited is NASCAR, and Constructed is F1.

Some 18.6% of you cited a “level playing field” as one of the best things about Limited.

At a given tournament, this is essentially true. If you went to a PTQ during the most recent seasons, you began with six Scars of Mirrodin packs. No more, no less. Everyone got the same thing, everyone got the same amount of time to build their decks, and that was that.

The appeal here is clear. As in NASCAR, games should all come down to the skill of the driver rather than the car. Of course, as Robert Duvall taught us in Days of Thunder, stock cars aren’t stock, and Limited card pools aren’t either – but more on that below. In principal, though, many of you feel that Limited makes it a “fair fight” for everyone at the tournament.

However, 33.3% of you cite the ability to play the cards and deck that you want as the best thing about Constructed. Sure, there are rules – like in F1 – but as long as your deck fits within those rules, you can tune it up as much as you’d like. Putting a Jace or Gideon in your deck is just as much your choice as putting a Honda or Ferrari custom engine in your car.

What’s worth pointing out here is that the Constructed lovers aren’t saying “I want to crush people who can’t afford better decks.” It’s just a simple desire to play with the cards they want to play with.

So, we have one clear axis of division – level playing field or choice of cards?

NASCAR and F1, part two

But that division comes down to something else, of course. Money.

The single biggest negative mark against Constructed is its expense. 47% of you say that Constructed is just too darn expensive. And this idea of expense ties into the level playing field, with some portion of respondents complaining that someone can just “buy the best deck and win.”

This is both true and completely inaccurate. It’s true for a lot of FNMs and other local settings, where the one player who is willing to lay down the cash for a current tier one Standard deck does have an edge on everyone. At the same time, it’s not true in the broader context of Magic. A bad player with four copies of Jace nonetheless remains a bad player, and will get stomped each and every round by actual good players who are running their own top tier decks.

This may seem like a fine point, but it’s one that I like to keep in mind. The problem is not “pay lots of money, win.” Instead, it’s “pay lots of money to get in, but once you’re there, skill matters.” I think it’s good to keep this in mind because it focuses us on what we can actually do about it. There are no magical decks that make bad players good – or else Paulo, Brad, Luis, Josh, and our other players here wouldn’t be able to consistently perform because someone out there would pay lots of cash for that giantkiller deck that would take them all down.

Still, the barrier to entry is legitimate, and clearly frustrating.

On the other side, about 9% of you specifically said that you like how cheap Limited is. And, on an incremental basis, it certainly is. Ballpark fifteen bucks for a draft – less than half a Vengevine, maybe, and you’re set for a bunch of cards and three matches of Magic. Not bad at all, and who doesn’t have fifteen bucks in their wallet most days?

One thing I’m curious about, but which is a topic to explore on another day, is how much it costs to be good at a specific Limited format. Imagine we have a Constructed deck with a retail (not eBay) sticker price of $600. That’s forty drafts right there. If each Constructed event is $5, then we need to play 60 events to spend as much, total, on Constructed as we have on Limited (any more events after that and Constructed is now cheaper). This leaves aside the issue of cards remaining useful throughout Standard, Extended, and Legacy, and of being able to sell or trade off some of your Limited haul, but it’s an interesting benchmark.

No plan survives contact…

Taking a step away from money, what else really tickles us about our favorite formats?

21% of you adore the preparation and planning that go into Constructed play. You love plans, you love testing and optimizing those plans ahead of time, and you love smashing your plan into the opponent’s plan and seeing how things turn out.

I totally get this. It’s definitely on my list of why I love Constructed. It’s also why I tend to loathe real-time strategy games. It’s so much more fun, for me, to test and develop a plan and then try to enact that plan – or something based on it – in the game.

On the other hand, 19% of you cite the need to adapt as your favorite thing about Limited. You’re the folks who like figuring out how to make a mediocre Sealed pool work, or who want to read signals, change colors as needed, and make the draft work for you even if the person feeding you is a making crazy choices. Similarly, the variability of Limited play in-game works well for you, as your plan is tenuous at best, and you need to work around your opponent’s bombs and other key cards.

So, we have planners and adapters? How can they ever get along?

Kicked around by fate

One of the big selling points for Constructed is getting to play the cards we want to play.

Generalizing from this, 9% of you say that “reduced luck” is one of the best things about Constructed. You see the ability to choose your weapons as you go in as something that levels the playing field, offering an entirely different take on that concept.

In fact, 41% of you, including many of you who clearly prefer Limited, cite the inability to control your card pool as the worst thing about Limited play. Many of you complained about getting smashed by bombs while all your rares were pointless dual lands, and we had a certain amount of bitterness about “idiots” getting to win on the back of good cards.

We’ve probably all had the “bad pool” experience, and I think I’ve heard more than once the estimate that 10-20% of the Sealed pools at a PTQ simply can’t make top eight, which is awfully disheartening.

On a related note, 22% of you think Limited is too random even when we aren’t talking card pools. “Random” factors here include the people feeding you in draft and the variability that happens when both decks are full of one-ofs. For many of you, it makes everything from the draft onward feel like it’s out of your control.

So we like to feel like things are under control, and it disturbs us when Limited reminds us that they aren’t.

Variety is the spice…

The counterpoint to “randomness” is its good-guy twin, “variety.” If the downside to Limited play is that you can’t predict what each draft, game, or draw will bring, the upside is the exact same feature. Similarly, the perception of variety has a big impact on how we feel about Constructed.

22% of you say that “variety” is the top selling point of Limited. In fact, this was the most popular positive comment about Limited. You appreciate that each new tournament, match, and even game is different from the last. You also appreciate getting to use a much wider swathe of cards than we tend to get away with in Constructed, including cards that are “bad” in Constructed play. Finally, you like that the value of cards is highly relative in Limited, more so than in Constructed.

On the Constructed side, 16% of you love to research and crack the metagame. You find your appreciation of variety in watching how the metagame shifts, and in trying to adapt to it.

Naturally, the evil twin of the variable metagame is the stagnant metagame, which 19% of you cited as the worst thing about Constructed.

That’s awesome, but what can we do with it?

Having broken down the highs and lows of Constructed and Limited, as filtered through all of you, can we now bring these thoughts together to provide bridges to help players who primarily appreciate one format gain more access to the other?

I think we can.

On level playing fields

Oh, cost.

As I saw in the initial MEP results, cost remains the biggest driver of players preferentially playing Limited. And as a lifestyle choice, I don’t fault this at all.

However, if you want to, say, play in the upcoming PTQ season to qualify for Nagoya, or in the ChannelFireball Winter Series, you need to play Constructed.

I won’t discuss ways to make Constructed more affordable here, but they exist. You can trade for cards, buy cheaply, and pick up cards with an eye toward having decks across multiple formats.

The real take home, however, is that if you feel like competing in Constructed, you really should make the effort to have a fully competitive deck. If you don’t, you are wasting all of the money and time you subsequently spend preparing for and attending tournaments. Essentially, you need to commit.

Committing may even mean pooling resources with your friends and borrowing cards. It just means making sure you have the actual cards you need.

We all have plans

The one top-scoring common feature of both Limited and Constructed is the idea of planning. Limited players like to plan under pressure, building their decks and adapting their game play. Constructed players like the long plan, cracking the metagame, optimizing decks, and testing matchups.

These are two sides of the same coin.

In fact, that’s very much what I wrote about recently. Planning is planning is planning – it just happens on different time scales.

Constructed fans tend to think that Limited is nearly random…but it’s not. It’s just condensed. You have to plan on the fly, but you’re still designing decks and responding to the hints of a metagame, even if that metagame is “signals from my fellow drafters and cards I’ve passed.” You can research and have general plans going into an event, and once you’re there, you very much need to have a plan. In fact, some players complained that “too much” depended on your initial draft or deck build in Limited…in other words, the plan was the most important thing.

From the Limited perspective, Constructed games can feel very set. It’s rock-scissors-paper, right? But if you take a step back, you can appreciate the need to plan around what’s actually going to be present at your next event, both in a broad sense (which archetypes) and more narrowly (Frost Titan or Grave Titan as a finisher in U/B Control?). Even within specific matchups, you have significantly more ability to adapt and react than you might believe. Consider Paul Rietzl bringing in Relic of Progenitus against Thomas Ma at Amsterdam. It was quirky and surprising, but also helped turn what was supposed to be a one-sided stomping of Rietzl into his first sweep on the way to sweeping his way to the winner’s circle.

Less luck

In a way, this is more of a common weakness than a common strength. We might summarize it as “bad players blame luck.” But that’s a little too general, because a lot of the players who find a given format too random – be it Constructed or Limited – don’t say that about their format of choice.

Essentially, the more you find yourself blaming luck, the more likely it is that you don’t (yet!) understand the format you’re complaining about.

I think we should all be highly suspicious whenever we catch ourselves calling something “luck-based” or “random.” Is it really? Or have we not yet figured out how to best buffer ourselves against that format’s specific take on the randomness that is present in every variation of Magic?

Luck, planning, and you

So my take home is this:

Planning is a universal Magic strength; it’s just the timeframe that changes.

Randomness is a universal Magic issue; it’s how we deal with it that changes.

If we can keep these universals in mind and ask, “How can I apply my knowledge of planning and change to this format in this timeframe?” I think we can start enjoying – and thus, doing better in – every format of Magic.

You’ve seen the highs and lows summarized above. What do you take home from it? Have you found a unique way to apply your love of one format to better your skills in another?

magic (at) alexandershearer.com
parakkum on twitter

17 thoughts on “In Development – Great Crossover Potential (MEP content)”

  1. Most people would be amazed at how many Magic cards they could afford if they, when not on a date, drank water instead of cokes, gourmet coffees, and alcohol.

  2. No one will be amazed by what is straightforward and patently obvious, bowman.

    Many people like you might be amazed that many of their Magic-playing peers are dealing with crippling student loan debts, or medical debts, or just straight-up poverty. The economy is not good and not everyone has a large luxury budget that they can divvy up between gourmet cakes and collectible card games.

    Regardless, I don’t think Shearer’s intent was to paraphrase Boggemes’ terrible last article when he said that you have to be willing to commit. Rather, the thesis of this article is that you can develop important Constructed skills by playing Limited, and vice-versa. This is certainly true. Moreover, many of the big events tend to be multi-format. And what are you going to do if you qualify at a Constructed PTQ, and find out that the event you’re attending is Extended and Draft? If all you’ve ever practiced is Standard Constructed, now you have to learn two whole new metas. Not a good situation for success.

    One thing that I find curious is just how many players feel that Limited is less expensive than Constructed. Every season has a couple of low-cost tier one decks kicking around; a few months ago it was RDW, and now it’s BR Vamps (I hesitate to say Argentum Quest, but maybe I’m overestimating its variance.) You don’t necessarily have to play the $600 deck to get in to Constructed, but you do necessarily have to drop $15 in cash or credit every time you draft. That adds up. MTGO players know full well that if you want to go infinite, you play Constructed, not Limited; the math is pretty similar for real life. If you can consistently crush your weekly Constructed FNM, then pulling in prizes is essentially a revenue generator. I tend to play my local FNMs like I (try) to play MTGO: rack up store credit by playing the most competitive deck I can feasibly put together on Constructed nights, then use said credit to pay for drafts or sealed on Limited nights.

    If you’re a player who was disheartened by the reign of decks like Mythic or Superfriends, which indeed were astronomically expensive, and feel like you’ve been priced out of Standard – take heart. There are ways to still win, and a good Magic player always plays to his outs. The release of Mirrodin Besieged will shake the meta up a bit, so February will be a great time to research what the next inexpensive tier one decks will be and get in early. You can then ride that mild initial investment through the whole season. It’ll more than pay for itself, and you won’t even have to buy Jaces.

  3. “I totally get this. It’s definitely on my list of why I love Constructed. It’s also why I tend to loathe real-time strategy games. It’s so much more fun, for me, to test and develop a plan and then try to enact that plan – or something based on it – in the game.”

    I found this paragraph amusing, since my two loves, for the past year (in the case of RTS much longer), have been standard constructed and real-time strategy games.

    This could be because I tend to automatically avoid the RTS games, or situations within those games (1v1 being most common for this) where the best strategy is clear, its just a matter of you executing it. In other words, the reason I like constructed and the reason I like RTS is, to my mind, the same; I develop a plan, run it into my opponents plan, check what went well/badly, and do it all over again.

    Its interesting to me that the only limited format I liked in the past year was ROE…mostly because I could almost always build a decent grixis control list, which again made it a case of find plan—>execute plan—->evaluate results—-> adjust plan, etc.

  4. @bowman & Jim: That’s pretty much the point about committing. If being able to play constructed demands not going out drinking with friends or stacking up my student loan even more, I myself am not going to make that commitment.

  5. I guess as a mature player who is also new to the game my reason are slightly different. I play constructed to test a deck, FNM brings 25 – 30 players and you can beat that. I like limited because it usually brings a different community of players and that means be around players who like the mental challenge of the unknown. I just started to play Commander and guys get to play casual magic without the stress of having to win. As far as cost goes, I don’t play deck types that require expensive cards to be good. I mean it’s hard to borrow Jace’s when everybody’s playing Blue. However during a particular FNM I have leant my white Planeswalkers if I am playing mono-red that evening.

  6. So I used to play alot of constructed during mirrodin through lorwyn. But I have to say that when mythics came out I did get priced out. I could handle the ‘expensive’ mana bases during ravnica and can appreciate that mythics reduced the prices of rare lands but that was easily overshadowed by the price of the said mythics.

    When goyf hit its ridiculous price, I could still play a tier 1 deck that didn’t have to play goyf and still be very competitive. Goyf was an unforeseen super money rare that should only happen once every decade. But now constructed feels like every set has a goyf and EVERY deck is full of them.

    I still think that constructed and limited are equally fun formats but not equally as accessible if you want to play on the highest levels. I attended GP Nashville and had a blast since all my friends could come without needing to scrabble a deck together with one of us barely missing top 64. But I will not be attending GP Atlanta despite that I absolutely love extended right now, because my friends and I could only put together three complete decks.

  7. Everytime a set comes out you send $90 on a pre-order of 36 boosters. That gives you 36+ junk rares that you could trade for 1-2 of high value cards to switch around in w/e deck you were playing before. If your entire deck just rotated out. (RDW-scars) then you picked the wrong deck when you were buying cards.

    and maybe if you can’t afford jaces/mythics you should quit netdeckin’.

    Netdeck= proven best decks.
    jace= proven best card (in stdr)

  8. The problem with cost is that the prices are too far skewed. In standard formats of just a couple years ago(pre-mythics) the most you needed were playsets of cards that topped off at 20-25 dollars. Even if you didn’t open any of these expensive cards it was still fairly easy to trade up to them if need be, trade 2 $10.00 rares for that bitter blossom you need, or trade that play set of Chameleon colossus. For those 3 thoughtseizes. In todays standard you need either Jace at 80-100 dollars each or you need Primeval Titan at 35-40. Not to say that those are the only two cards you can run in this format but if you want to win odds are you are running one or the other. The problem being that its really hard to trade up for Titans and pretty much impossible to trade up to Jace nothing else even goes for a Third of what one of those is worth, except for maybe the other card atop the pyramid. So your option is either trade 27 cards (assuming they are constructed staples valued at around 15 dollars each to get 4 Jaces leaving out the other pricey mythics as ill address that next) or shell out 400 in cash…which no matter how serious you are about the game is insane for 4 pieces of card board. People who read this will say…you can trade other more expensive cards for Jace. The problem is you’d have to trade away 10-15 of these 35 or so dollar cards to do it. But I’d be willing to bet the guy who has multiples of these value cards to make this trade already has the jaces or the budget to buy them. So good for them the 100 mythic issue doesn’t really affect them. But what about everyone else?

    The next best option would be…trade up to mythics, then trade those for the Jaces? That’s still loosing you a bunch of cards and taking longer as you need to find people with multiple top dollar cards who are willing to trade them away for several mid value cards that they probably already have. Not likely but a guy can dream I suppose.

    The problem isn’t the existence of mythics, its how much better they are than all the other rares, which isn’t to say that they shouldn’t be good, if you removed Jace from the format, we’d have a very healthy market where no archetype would be unattainable. As a quick anecdote after an extended break from magic I came back to the game when morningtide came out, with zero cards to my name(stacks full of old commons and uncommons not included) played in one draft and purchased one box of lorwyn and one of morning tide along with two sealed decks, and in the same night was able to trade for 90 percent of the faeries and lark list that were among the best in standard at the time. If I did that today with a box of M11 and Scars I’d be lucky to get away with a completed boros list….

  9. Why do anyone try to compare real time strategy vs. turn based games?

    It’s an exercise in futility. The type of skill set that one needs to compete at top level are different.

    If one wants to make a point that certain has “more of (insert what you think is relevant skill here)” than the other without taking some exhaustive look at each representative situations / samples, then he / she is going to sound ignorant.

    Which is the case when the author of this article decided to include that line : “It’s also why I tend to loathe real-time strategy games. It’s so much more fun, for me, to test and develop a plan and then try to enact that plan – or something based on it – in the game.”

    Regardless of what your intent was, you are portraying that strategical or tactical aspect of RTS to be 2 dimensional and reactionary compared to magic. Which is totally untrue – and you further take away from your own credibility for discussing RTS by saying you loathe RTS games.

    You should really watch some pro level starcraft 1 tournaments – where strategies / build orders are streamlined and there is a clear metagame for each map.

    Pro-tip: Don’t make comparisons to something that you know nothing about.

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  11. Thanks as always for all the great comments, everyone.

    The cost issue is obviously going to remain the primary differentiator between Constructed and Limited play. As I hope you noticed, I wasn’t saying the trite “suck it up and pay your cash!” comment, but noting that there really is a minimum entry level for Constructed play. A lot of the most frustrated remarks and ideas I saw about Constructed were clearly the consequence of players who have attempted to get into competitive Constructed in a piecemeal fashion.

    Whereas you can incrementally play Limited, and you’ll mainly “suffer” from the impact of your incremental lack of skill (a handicap that should decrease with each event), it’s tremendously hard to incrementally play Constructed, since a tier 3 (4?) deck will be such a handicap.

    I’d be interested in a follow-up, which I may do next week, simply asking, “How old are you?” along with “Do you play Constructed?” It would be more direct to ask about household income, I suppose, if you all aren’t too uncomfortable with that. I do tend to wonder if part of the pricing issue we’re seeing with Constructed also has to do with players like me who are returning to the game as mid-early-career adults, who have disposable income that we didn’t have when we were first playing.

    Anyway, that’s for a later date. Now, for some individual replies:

    @gordy12791 – This is one thing I really love about looking at how individual people approach things – in this case, how we approach games. For me, RTSes feel super-ad-hoc, and I prefer something like Valkyria, or to date myself, Laser Squad, where I get to pick my team ahead of time and then attempt to take down the mission. But, of course, as with my tendency to not play Limited, not playing many RTSes after being turned off by a number of them may mean that I haven’t found the ones that would work well for me.

    @Greatbox – Pro tip back atcha – read more carefully. I may have been saying something about my own biases, and the whole point of this article. My *impression* of RTSes and how they play and my *impression* of Limited may both be showing some skew that I hoped to correct by checking in with the opinions of people who love those games. Now, I don’t want to get into any computer or console games these days, but I recognize that my biases should be factchecked against the feelings of people who know more about them than I do.

    For the record, the only console games I’ve really played a lot in the last couple years are Valkyria, and the whole “Lego X” family of games (Star Wars, etc).

    @Harrison – Glad you appreciated it, even though it necessarily was going to have some redundancy, in a sense. That said, there’s a significant difference, at least for me, between what we know anecdotally, and what we can learn from actually surveying the community.

  12. I have long prefered standard over limited. I love having the ability to not just out play my opponent in a game but in card choice as well. My favorite aspect of magic is taking this okay card and this mostly crappy card and making them a power house or at least figuring out why they can’t be. Occasionally I find something really good. Most time I don’t. My best experience playing magic was watching the metagame change at my local fnm spot on account my deck idea. That look over and over again of, “your playing what?” Then watching them scramble as they realize, “oh crap, I got nothing for that!” Keep playing friends. We all have our reasons.

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