The 7 Traits of Highly Fun Limited Formats

Kyle Massa
February 26, 2018
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Is there a formula for great Limited sets? Today, we're going to do our best to answer that question.

For starters, we're going to consider some of the all-time greats. Think Innistrad, Khans of Tarkir, Shadows Over Innistrad, Hour of Devastation, Rise of the Eldrazi, and others. (It could be too early to call, but I might even add Rivals of Ixalan to this pool.)

What makes these Limited formats so fun? What do they all have in common? Let's take a look.

1. Controversy

A little argument keeps a format fresh. When players can't come to a consensus on which cards are best or what the optimal strategy is, it gives formats much more longevity.

Consider triple Kaladesh Draft, for instance. Drafters could not decide if it was a fast or slow format. Often, this decision came down to which of the following you'd be happier to first pick: Prophetic Prism or Renegade Freighter. If you picked the former, you probably thought the format was slow enough to permit splashing. If you picked the latter, you probably thought aggression was the best way to win. This is the kind of controversy that keeps sets interesting, even after numerous drafts.

Even on an individual card-by-card basis, controversy is important. A great recent example: Form of the Dinosaur. People are super split on this card, labeling it either a bomb rare or unplayable. I've played it multiple times and I still can't decide whether or not it's good. Without cards like this, we'd be missing out on interesting debates.

(Side note: If this card appeared in Unstablewould the picture instead depict a human transforming into Barney? Possibly...)

2. Strong Common Removal

Sets with good removal at common almost always play better. In Hour of Devastation, for instance, Unquenchable Thirst, Ambuscade, and Open Fire gave you hope against almost anything your opponents might cast.

I'm careful to specify strong common removal, not overpowered common removal. I'd consider Doom Blade, for example, just too good to be printed at common. When ubiquitous unconditional removal is so easily available, players are disincentivized from investing in big threats. This tends to lead to overall less fun Limited formats.

Cards like Innistrad's Bonds of Faith play much better. Though it's still efficiently costed and able to answer the occasional scary bomb, Bonds of Faith isn't completely unconditional. Plus, it gives players a chance to bounce the enchanted creature or destroy the aura itself. It promotes further interaction, which creates good game play.

3. Mana Fixing

One reason triple Khans of Tarkir Booster Draft became a hit was its ample support of three, four, and even five color strategies. Many subsequent sets have followed a similar formula (Sailor of Means, anyone?). Some of the best sets ever contain cards like Evolving Wilds, Traveler's Amulet, the aforementioned Prophetic Prism, and various flavors of dual lands. 

Furthermore, mana fixing keeps one's options open throughout the draft. In Rivals of Ixalan, selecting Treasure producers in packs one and two means you can splash almost anything you open in pack three. Want to splash Regisaur Alpha in your blue-black deck? Go for it. Now that's what I call fun.

4. Bomb Rares

Though I've gone over this a bit more in previous articles, I think it's worth touching on again. Despite bomb rares being oft maligned by the average Limited player, I believe they actually liven sets up.

Take Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh, for instance. Though he's difficult to interact with and wins many games, I think he's still good for the set because he requires a lot of investment, as do many bomb rares. Players must build their decks around him to accommodate his high CMC and color demands. Furthermore, his presence in the set generates exciting moments unlike most others. Sure, when a player cast Sifter Wurm in Hour of Devastation Limited, you'd be delighted or frightened depending on what side of the board you were on. But that's nothing like Nicol Bolas making an appearance.

All in all, bomb rares make Limited sets more interesting, even if they sometimes take over the game. They give us vivid memories and help vary gameplay. Plus, they give us something to complain about later on.

5. Successful Build-Arounds

Many players consider triple Innistrad Booster Draft the best Limited format ever. And what was one of the set's hallmarks? Build-arounds!

What makes build-arounds so awesome? For starters, they often create deck archetypes all by themselves. Sailor of Means, for instance, enables Rivals of Ixalan drafters to build super wacky decks that couldn't function without it. The Sailor provides three important functions to its namesake deck: fixing, ramp, and blocking girth. No other card in the set offers the same, and certainly not for the same price.

In addition, build-arounds present fun deck-building challenges for those who enjoy them. Shadows Over Innistrad's Rise from the Tides, for example, blatantly encourages players to draft far more instants and sorceries than might normally be advisable. So in any other deck, picking between Stitchwing Skaab and Jace's Scrutiny might be an obvious choice. But when you've already drafted Rise from the Tides, you now have an interesting choice. Do you take the overall better card in Skaab, or do you power up your build-around by taking Scrutiny? It's these decision points which make build-arounds so much fun to play with.

Of course, you might be thinking that every set has build-arounds. And you're right. But not every set produces successful ones. Amonkhet's Nest of Scarabs comes to mind as an example. The card has really cool flavor and appeared to be powerful, but the format became so aggressive that it was just never able to shine.

So when defining great sets, the mere presence of build-arounds isn't enough. They have to be successful!

6. Plentiful Playables

Limited decks are never as powerful as Constructed decks. But that doesn't mean Limited players want to play with bad cards (even if we sometimes do). The best Limited formats contain numerous good cards.

Rivals of Ixalan Draft is made more fun by its high density of playables. Just look at your draft pool when you're done with your picks. You'll usually have 26 or 27 cards you'd be happy to play in your deck. This gives players more options in deck building and more latitude to spend early picks on speculation. When a set contains few playables, drafters often can't afford to spec on open colors.

Just one set ago, triple Ixalan Draft showed us how ugly the other side of this coin can get. Case and point: the winged fellow pictured above. Cool art. Bad card. One mana 1/1s with evasion are notoriously alluring to less experienced players. However, they're only good when you cast them on the first turn. Yet in Ixalan, Blight Keeper made main decks often. Granted, this was in some part due to the fact that triple Ixalan was such an aggressive format. But since there were so few playable cards, we were often forced to play junky creatures like the Keeper. If Ixalan had more playables, we probably wouldn't have been forced to play such embarrassing cards.

Another advantage of high playable counts in Limited formats: sideboard slots. If you can be sure you'll pick up enough cards to form a playable deck, you can afford to spend picks on cards you'll only need for specific matchups. In Rivals, for instance, taking Dark Inquiry is a fine pick, since it's so powerful against the expensive bombs of the set. In triple Ixalan, taking a sideboard card meant you might come up with only 22 playables. Not where you want to be.

7. Variable Gameplay

Magic is at its best when each game feels fresh. When all different types of decks can excel, we know we're in a good place.

In Rivals of Ixalan, black-red pirates is a powerful aggro strategy. But we've also got a strong midrange option in black-white vampires, plus excellent control options with the various Sailor of Means decks. Any are viable, which allows players a chance at drafting any kind of deck.

I hate to dump on triple Ixalan Draft, but it was quite instructive in the "here's what not to do" sense. Example: aggro decks were the best. And since they were the best, they were realistically about all you could draft if you wanted to win. Not super fun.

Conclusion

If you're loving a particular Limited format, it's probably due to some or all of these qualities being present. Our current draft format, Rivals of Ixalan, certainly exemplifies many of these traits, which is why I think it might be an all-time great. 

Kyle Massa is a writer and avid Magic player living in upstate New York with his fiancée and their two cats. When he's not writing, you'll find him down at the East Greenbush Flipside store jamming booster drafts. For more of Kyle's work, visit www.kyleamassa.com or follow him on Twitter @mindofkyleam.  

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