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Sequencing in Limited

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to sequence properly in Limited. On the surface, Limited is about drafting a deck with a strong curve, making sure that there’s a good balance between creatures and spells, and being able to press your advantage while still interacting with your opponent. If you can maximize those fundamentals, you’ll already be ahead of many players. But getting those simple elements down can take years of practice.

Drafting itself isn’t the only way to get better at Limited, though. In-game decisions make up a lot of how the winner and loser of a game of Limited are decided, yet each game of Limited is so varied in terms of order of cards played that it’s difficult to summarize what you should do on any given turn when you have many options at your disposal.

The best generalization is that planning your plays to set up the best possible offense and defense on sequential turns will maximize your board impact. That’s important because almost every single game of Limited is determined by who has a better presence on the battlefield. To try and convey this idea more concretely, I was reminded of an excellent article by than Reid Duke. In it, he explains what he calls “line-up theory” where your goal is to make sure your answers and threats match up best versus your opponent’s. Today I’ll discuss some sequencing and line-up theory in Limited using Shadows over Innistrad cards and examples, but you can apply these ideas to any set in the future.

Casting the Right Creature

If there’s one important takeaway today it’s that playing the right creatures at the right time within a game of Limited is the best way to improve your game. Shadows over Innistrad is actually intuitive in terms of this sequencing because of Werewolves. You almost always want to deploy a Werewolf before another creature because the potential to transform it grants so much more power to your board than any other possible play. The one time this is usually incorrect is when mana efficiency would dictate holding that Werewolf until later.

Let’s say you cast a 2-drop on turn 2 and draw a Lambholt Pacifist turn 3 but also have a Wicker Witch and a land in hand already. You’ll want to cast the Wicker Witch even though it’s a worse creature than the Pacifist if you have a 4th land and another 2-drop, since you can play 2 spells the following turn and have an even bigger board presence. Mana efficiency is a tried-and-true way to get ahead in a game of Magic.

But if your hand is slower and you can play either the Pacifist or the Wicker Witch interchangeably on turns 3 and 4 as your only spell each turn, then you’ll want to play the Pacifist first because you’ll have a more significant board sooner. You’ll have 2 unused mana over the course of those turns regardless, so find the best way to mitigate that. Of course, the more 2-drops you have in your deck, the more likely you’ll want to play the Wicker Witch turn 3 to have the potential to cast 2 spells turn 4 even if you don’t yet have that capability on turn 3.

In the above example, on turn 2 the 2-drop creatures you have access to play are Moorland Drifter and Quilled Wolf. Which one should you play first? This is where Reid’s article comes into play and is at the core of Limited sequencing. Both these creatures are 2/2s, so what’s the difference? Here you want to play Moorland Drifter every time. Imagine that after you play your 2-drop your opponent follows up with a 2/2 of their own. You want to be able to attack on your next turn and you’d be much happier trading a Moorland Drifter versus a Quilled Wolf that can eventually use a strong activated ability. If you have the potential to lose a less valuable resource you’ll generate a slight advantage, and if you can do that multiple times over the game, you’ll have a compounding advantage that could be the difference between winning and losing.

Planning for Attacks and Blocks

You’re on the play with a GW draft deck, it’s turn 3, and you have the option to play either Militant Inquisitor or Dauntless Cathar. Which is correct to play? That’s a pretty loaded question, and as usual the correct answer is that it depends. The first question you have to ask yourself is what your opponent is likely to do. For this you need some format knowledge, and understand common sequences from the various color pairs in the format.

Let’s consider what to do if you’re up against a UR spells deck. You’re clearly the aggressor here since you have the ability to put on pressure early but have a far worse late game. Play the Dauntless Cathar and start attacking! More importantly, your opponent will be unlikely to punish you playing the creature with less toughness because they might not even have a creature to play on their turn 3 to block at all.

What about the same situation but when you’re against a GW mirror? I think this is close, but playing the 2/3 first will be better on average. It again all comes down to common sequencing and format knowledge. GW has a lot of 3/2s for 3 that are good at trading, but even more important is that it has many 3/3s for 4 mana. If you play your 2/3 first and your opponent plays a 3/2, they can either trade or not and then you can follow up with a 3/2 of your own next turn that can trade or attack back. This 3/2 has the ability to interact with your opponent’s 3-drops and 4-drops while the 2/3 can only trade with their 3-drops. By playing the 2/3 first you give your opponent the opportunity to trade and then you’ll have a better 3/2 for sequential turns.

If this seems confusing, it’s due to the fact that sequencing around potential plays by the opponent is very difficult and dependent on what exact cards they actually have. The narrower the range of cards, the easier it is to plan, and why line-up theory works much better in Constructed where the possible cards your opponent could have is much smaller. But despite the difficulty, by understanding the format and common play patterns, you allow yourself to make an informed decision and make an unintuitive play of casting a 2/3 to attack before a 3/2, which looks to be a much better attacker.

What if you take the same situation and have access to a Confront the Unknown? This makes casting the Militant Inquisitor first even better. On turn 4 you can attack into an opposing 3/2 and trade 1 mana for your opponent’s 3 mana, and you still get to play another 3-drop! If you play the 3/2 first here, then you’ll just trade with all your opponent’s 3-drops despite having a combat trick that could have been useful if you had sequenced better. What if you have Strength of Arms instead of Confront? Now you have to look ahead 2 to 3 turns to see what you’re planning to do each turn. Do you want to trade Strength next turn for your opponent’s 3-drop or save it for a bigger combat later? This will mostly depend on how much mana you’ll be spending each turn. If you have a 5- and a 6-drop in hand, you’ll want to trade your Strength away whenever you have any extra mana since you won’t be able to later on. In that case, play the 3/2 first since Strength will trump any opposing 3-drop and you’ll hit for more if your opponent is stumbling. But if you think you want to save the Strength, you might want to cast your 2/3 to trade with your opponent’s 3-drop and use Strength to help your 3/2 beat another creature, say a Solitary Hunter your opponent plays and blocks with on turn 4.

Conclusion

Note how in every scenario, you’re thinking about what creature you’re planning to attack with the next turn, what your opponent might play to block with, and what you will then follow up with as a response. In this sense, you’re both planning for your attacks and blocks, and what you play is dependent on the matchup, your other cards, and which threats and answers you want to use first so that you’re left with the best board over the course of several turns rather than just the single turn you’re actually in at the moment. This actually makes sequencing much harder. Imagine for a moment what Magic would look like if every creature had haste. You’d always play the biggest creature first and try to win a race. Not a very interesting game, nor one I think any of us would want to play for long. When you add the complexity of sequencing to Limited, you’ll see there are vast implications and decision trees due to something as simple as which 3-drop you choose to play.

This all sounds pretty hard and complicated, but it’s a skill you get better and better at with practice. One aspect of sequencing that often gets overlooked is considering what the opponent might do next, and what common play patterns are present given the colors they’re running. If you start to consider those problems, you’ll notice that you’ll have more profitable attacks and blocks over the course of a game rather than just the next turn, and that your creatures will be utilized much more efficiently rather than trading down when they don’t need to.

Once you start to consider these trends you’ll also be able to sequence better for tougher plays. You’ll be able to set up delirium faster, have better double blocks, create mana efficient trades 2-3 turns down the line, enable re-tricks and 2-for-1s more often, and maintain tempo advantages throughout more turns. I hope this article gave you some ideas to ponder, and even writing it reminds me how much I still need to consider in game because it’s always possible to get better at the small things.

Next game, which 3-drop creature are you going to play first?

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