What Makes a Limited Format Great?

I just got back to Detroit from CFB’s Grand Prix Las Vegas. It was insane, and one of the finest Magic experiences I’ve ever had. I gorged myself on Magic and all-you-can-eat sushi, and spent the weekend hanging with wonderful people. I couldn’t have asked for more.

I was able to play in two Grand Prix. I went 6-3 in the Legacy Grand Prix with the 4c Stoneblade list I wrote about last week, but dropped to chase Pro Points in the Limited GP. I went 11-3-1 and cashed!

Today I want to talk about Limited. There are aspects of Amonkhet that I love and places where I believe it could use improvement. I’d like to share my thoughts on aspects I appreciate as well as throw the ball into the reader’s court to contemplate, discuss, and theorycraft.

Positive #1: Common/Uncommon Synergy Cycles (Cartouches and Trials)

Whoever is responsible for the Cartouche and Trial synergy cycles should get a massive promotion. The design is off-the-charts terrific. These cards make Limited play and card evaluation super interesting.

If at first you don’t succeed, Trial, Trial, again.

First of all, I love the way that they took a card type, Aura, and turned it into a cog for Limited play. Auras are not typically high rollers in Limited but the synergy with the Trials gives them significant upside. Yes, black and green Cartouche are great on their own (as are the Trials) but even the modest ones gain significant value depending on the rest of the deck.

I really hope to see more of these cross rarity synergy cycles in upcoming sets. In fact, I hope design finds a way to incorporate a new version of this type of mechanic into every set from now until forever. It doesn’t have to be Auras and Trials—it could easily be a cycle of creatures with a unique type that interact with a cycle of instants or sorceries.

For example, a cycle of creatures (one of each color at common) with the type Scavenger and they would be the only Scavenger creatures in the set.

2B, Gristly Scavenger
Creature – Zombie Scavenger

The card is fine on its own, just like the Cartouches.

A potential uncommon cycle could be instants or sorceries that trigger from the graveyard whenever a Scavenger enters the battlefield.

3BB, Bury in Sludge
Exile target nonblack creature.

Whenever a scavenger enters the battlefield under your control, if Bury in Sludge is in your graveyard, you may return it to your hand.

I’m just rattling these cards off the top of my head, but it’s just one example of a common and uncommon synergy cycle that I wouldn’t mind seeing moving forward.

My point is, I love the idea of having an uncommon cycle that interacts with a common cycle. It’s brilliant and was well executed in Amonkhet. I hope to see more of this in the future.

Positive #2: Balance and Parity Between Colors

The commons and uncommons define Limited. These are the cards that you will see over and over again and give a format its feel. I recall Limited formats where certain colors and combinations were much better than others and dramatically warped how people played Limited.

For instance, inZendikar block (the first one), black was much better than all of the other colors and black paired with aggressive red cards defined the format. At the Zendikar Sealed GP I played against 7 black Sealed decks. Not interesting.

Amonkhet did a great job of providing depth and balance among the colors and the value actually changes between Sealed and Draft. Black tends to be the best color for building a Sealed pool and white is the deepest color in Draft. But I played against all sorts of combinations at the GP—a far cry from the all black aggro decks of Zendikar!

I prefer formats where all 10 combinations of colors are playable options to ones where there are only 5 options. Gatecrash Limited, for instance, was a format where you could only play certain guild combinations because of gold cards (Gruul, Dimir, Orzhov, Simic, and Boros). It made the Drafts and Sealed decks straightforward because there were only 5 things you can do. Yeah, yeah, you could splash, but you were still playing an Orzhov deck with a couple of Guildgates and a couple of blue cards. It was still an Orzhov deck.

Which brings me to the next nuance of this argument. I understand that certain sets will break from all 10 combinations as playable. Gatecrash, for instance, was a set built around 5 guilds and featured lots of gold cards to support those guilds. The Khans block was about wedges. While I don’t prefer 5 guilds or 5 wedges, I can respect and appreciate it as long as they are all balanced.

The thing I least appreciated about Gatecrash was how imbalanced the 5 guilds were. Orzhov and Boros were much stronger combinations than Simic or Dimir.

I understand that when there is inequality it creates a meta that can be interesting. Boros and Orzhov are known to be much better? It gets overdrafted and leaves the lesser combinations more open. You are talking to a guy who 5-1’d GP Gatecrash, forcing Dimir and tabling Guildmages. But I prefer a format where the colors are more closely matched and Amonkhet does a downright decent job of this. Blue may be the weakest right now but it isn’t by so much that you feel like a dummy for taking a great blue card pick 1 pack 1.

Room for Improvement #1: The Imbalance and Inequality of Rares

Rares and mythics are often much, much more powerful than commons and uncommons. It’s why they are rare and mythic rare, because they break the natural balance of the format with their bustedness. We don’t want to see cards that break this balance so badly at common or uncommon because they warp games around them too much.

My biggest gripe about Amonkhet is there are too many regular rares that break the balance too much.


Also, not all rares and mythics are created equally.

I did a quick breakdown of the rares and mythics in Amonkhet and put them into 4 categories:

Feels Mythic and Typically Breaks the Game: 9

These are the bombs you expect to win the game when you play them and are not immediately answered.

Also worth noting is that these are all single color, which means that they can go into more decks, and that increases their overall value in a Sealed pool or a Draft pack.

Feels Rare (i.e., Better Than Most Uncommons): 30

Better than uncommons but not on the level of the top tier. Also, some have major color constraints, which brings down in overall value since they can’t go into decks that are not specifically two colors.

I was pretty generous to get to 30 cards in this category: Prepare // Fight, Cut // Ribbons, and Never // Return are cards, that if they were uncommons, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. They’d obviously be great but do they feel more like rares than Lord of the Accursed or Scaled Behemoth? I bumped them into the higher category for the sake of argument.

Feels Like an Uncommon or Worse: 24

These are cards that are basically like opening a card that ranges from an uncommon to a bad card in the rare spot.

The most important aspect of this from a Limited play perspective:

  1. There are a lot of game-breaking rares that are above the power level of most of the mythics.
  2. There are a lot of disappointing rares to open.

One of the aspects I like least about Amonkhet (and there is a lot to like) is helplessly getting run over by the insane cards. The cards on my top tier list will kill you by themselves and will be better than everything you are doing.

I went 11-3-1 at the GP and I lost a round to Glorybringer and a round to Angel of Sanctions. My opponent played the card in at least 2 of our 3 games and there was nothing I could do about it.

I don’t mind that from a mythic, but it is disturbing on a regular rare because it comes up much more often.

Second of all, if these cards are so powerful and warp games so hard, why are they not mythic? Look me in the eyes and tell me that Combat Celebrant is more mythic than Glorybringer? What in the world is going on?

Here is another thing to think about when it comes to card design:

The card is completely miserable to play against in Limited because it hits so hard, is evasive, is difficult to deal with, and generates card advantage with embalm. It is one of the most powerful cards in Limited, but what purpose does the card even serve other than frustrating Limited opponents?

It’s arguably better than almost all of the mythics as a regular rare but is completely unplayable in Constructed. I’d propose making a card like this more powerful and moving it to the mythic slot. At least then it would serve a real purpose:

Creature — Sphinx

4/5, Flying
Glyph Keeper cannot be the target of spells.

There are reasons for this card to exist because it would add something to Standard. Don’t focus on the stats because they are arbitrary—my point is that if the card is going to be so dominant in Limited, make it good enough for Constructed and then make it mythic. The same goes for Archfiend of Ifnir.

Last but not least, there are too many weak rares. If the set does a great job at balancing parity of the commons and uncommons, having rares becomes a tremendous advantage since the commons and uncommons of each deck will often be a wash.

There is no worse feeling than having to play a Sealed pool with weak sauce rares or even worse, no rares. A higher density of rares that feel like rares (as opposed to weak rares) would balance Sealed pools and Drafts better, in my opinion.

I’d love to see land cycles moved from rare to uncommon. It’s such a feel bad to open Guildgates as rares when other people are getting Glorybringers and Glyph Keepers! I know rare lands sell packs but they have a big cost to the Limited format.

First of all, more fixing creates more options in Limited and better game play. Second of all, do weak dual land cycles really sell packs? I understand why fetches and shocklands should be rares. It makes sense. But some of the softball Standard dual lands are not worth enough money to really impact anythingr.

Overall, I’d give Amonkhet Limited a grade of B+. I might have liked it better if I’d ever had the busted rares or mythics in my pools at a GP or PT, but I never got a single one in any of the events I played in. I sure did play against them a lot though… those are the breaks. I’d like to see some of that variance mitigated by making the truly game-breaking Limited cards mythic so they are not so prevalent in Sealed decks and Drafts.

Other than that, I think there are a lot of positives with how Wizards is designing Limited formats. I’m looking forward to seeing whatHour of Devastation adds to the mix.

What do you think? What would you like to see in a Limited format moving forward?

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