Chasing Whales: Limited Level-Ups from Kaladesh (2016)

No Easy Answers

Luis-Scott Vargas (LSV) and Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa (PVDDR) are inarguably two of the most successful Magic players of all time. As Hall of Famers and mainstays in competitive Magic for decades, it’s safe to say that their player experiences have many parallels: they’ve drafted the same sets, played the same formats, and competed in the same high level tournaments. If there’s a singular way to win games of limited, surely those two individuals know it.

Draft had been my obsession for almost a year when episode 365 of Limited Resources was released (Technically I learned to draft Odyssey in 2001 but it was just another way I couldn’t afford to play Magic at the time sooooo that was cool). I wasn’t familiar with Paulo but was eager to learn how to draft Kaladesh from not one, but two, of the game’s best players. After listening to the episode, I found myself with more questions than answers. They didn’t just disagree on a few individual cards, they disagreed about their entire approach to the format (and did so without arguing, a level-up of its own).

People always want simple answers.  I certainly wanted them at the time. As Huey said on my favorite episode of LR “people want to be told what to do. Like a checklist for how to win games of Magic and it just doesn’t work like that.” There is no The Way.  There are lots of ways. And just because one way works in this format doesn’t necessarily mean it will work in the next.

You might’ve heard me say that context matters. A lot. I repeat this often because, frankly, even really good educators often miss this point. Skills aren’t static – they’re context dependent.  Think of something you’re excellent at. Can you do it equally well in front of a large crowd? How about while someone you hate talks to you incessantly? How about when you haven’t slept or eaten all day? How about when you’ve flooded five games in a row?

A critical component of truly learning a skill is generalizing to different environments – learning to become an excellent drafter is no different. So if you are an excellent Empire of Glass drafter, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be an excellent drafter of the next set (without a lot of hard work). This is true for cards as well. A great card in one format might be mediocre in another.

Today, let’s talk about limited lessons that generalize no matter what set you’re drafting. Let’s talk about draft concepts that helped me improve early in my draft career. Let’s also hope witty introductions are easier in my optimistically well-rested future. Let’s Talk Limited!

Chasing Whales

We’ve all lost games that seemed unlosable. We’ve won games we had no business winning. And we all know why: bomb rares and legendaries. While it is my strong opinion that focusing on the rares is a suboptimal approach to draft, there’s no doubt about the impact these cards have on a game.

Drafters, both in Eternal and MtG, tend to shy away from Primal/blue. This isn’t true for proponents of drafting the hard way or MtG boomers like myself (draft any old school Magic cube and you’ll see why) so I found myself drafting blue like Kaladesh clockwork at my LGS in 2016. It became a joke before the draft even started. Everyone knew it: Schaab is drafting sky whales.

If you’re struggling to remember the tribal whale theme in Kaladesh, it’s because there wasn’t one. Long-Finned Skywhale was a lonely whale on that plane of existence.

The whale I seemed to draft every FNM wasn’t a whale at all – it was a leviathan, but “drafting sky whales” is just so much more fun to say.

Aethersquall Ancient isn’t exactly splashable, so this big boi ended up in my deck every time it was opened at the table. It quickly became clear: when I cast this card, I win the game almost every time. Naturally, I started building my draft decks with a singular focus – Find the whale, play the whale.

We all hope to draw and play the sweet rare we drafted – very few people actively try to make that happen. When you have the best card in either players’ deck, channel your inner Captain Ahab and go find that whale.

“Draw a card” is a much beloved phrase  among card players. “Scout” or “scry 1” aren’t nearly as catchy and, rightfully, don’t grab our attention in the same way. But there are many scenarios in games of limited where these phrases are functionally the same. And I’m not talking about corner cases – they occur with regularity.

Imagine you’re in a close game of limited and sigh with frustration as you draw your 10th power. Now imagine I say “hey, would you like to put that power in the void and draw another card for the turn?” Why yes I would! I would love to take an extra turn! That’s functionally what you do every time you loot away an excess power, put one in the void with Valley-Clan Sage, or Scout a useless card to the bottom of your deck.

In my humble amateur opinion, I think this is one of the biggest differences between approaching Constructed and Draft. Simple aspects of gameplay take on slightly different meanings.

Constructed- Draw a Card: draw a card, stay even on resources.

Draft- Draw a Card: draw a card, stay even on resources, get closer to my best cards.

Constructed players would undoubtedly take great pleasure in watching me play their format. It takes about 5-10 games for me to really switch gears. Before that, I snap-keep truly horrific hands because I’m so fooled by the power level of the cards. Look at how good all these cards are!  Who cares if I’m playing off curve? All I have to do is cast these cards and surely I’ll win! Then I get crushed by Constructed players doing Constructed things.

Because, of course, all of the cards are good in Constructed. When you draw a card, you’re usually replacing one excellent card with another one. But that’s not the case in limited. Some of your cards are game-winners, others are 2/2s.

Which brings me to the way I approach plunder in limited. Plundering your cards into power doesn’t draw you any closer to your best cards. Plundering your power in to treasure troves does. That’s why my default plan is to use plunder as a way to draw extra cards in the late game, not cast my cards in the early game. I suspect there are deckbuilders out there who successfully use early plunder to build greedier decks. I’m not saying that’s wrong – I’m saying I dont know how to do it.

So why do some Drafters always seem to have bombs or the answers they need? One possible reason: They dig for them.

Forbidden Research doesn’t just draw three cards and make you discard two, it draws you three cards closer to your best card(s). When you activate Valley-Clan Sage in the late-game and it puts a power you don’t need in the void – your 0/5 just moved you forward an entire turn cycle in terms of drawing your most relevant cards. Before I was the President* of the Valley-Clan Sage Fan Club**, I was the President of the equally exclusive Aether Theorist fan club in Kaladesh.

*Self-assigned Title
** Fictional Organization

Remember, the whole goal was to find and play the big sky whale, so I put an absurd number of undesirable cards on the bottom of my deck while I turbo-scryed toward Aethersquall Ancient.

Sometimes it’s pretty clear that you have the best card in either players’ deck. When that’s the case: find it.

A pod of Skywhales in the wild (my collection)!

Trusting Opponents

Pastor Tim is a good man. His naturally kind demeanor might lead one to believe he’s a Pastor in the same way that Aethersquall Ancient is a whale, but no, he spends his Sunday mornings preaching to a congregation. Also a dedicated family man, Pastor Tim only occasionally joined us at FNM to play Standard or Modern.

Shortly after Kaladesh’s release, I watched Pastor Tim play against a mutual friend. They talked casually about various cards in the new set and what impact they might have on Standard, including a narrow counterspell called Ceremonious Rejection. Pastor Tim expressed curiosity, politely nodding his head while his opponent gave a quick rundown of the new card.

Game two, after sideboarding: opponent casts Aetherworks Marvel.

Pastor Tim: “Ceremonious Rejection”

Pastor Tim is a good man, but he’s also a cardboard assassin. He had an entire conversation where he pretended not to know about a card that was already sitting in his sideboard. Essentially, Pastor Tim told a story. Without directly telling him, Pastor Tim told his opponent that he doesn’t have Ceremonious Rejection in his sideboard. Huh? What? New counterspell? Color me intrigued.

This happens less frequently in Eternal because we’re not face to face with our opponents, but your opponents are telling you a story. If they don’t play a unit in the early turns of the game, the story they’re telling you is “aw shucks! I’m so unlucky this game” when in reality they might be holding a sweeper.

If your primal opponent keeps holding up 3 power, the story they’re telling you is that they have biting winds. It’s up to you whether or not you believe them.

In general, your opponents don’t want to give you information – they want to conceal it.  But sometimes they’ll tell you a story about cards they’re not actually holding. Don’t trust information from your opponents. Don’t listen to a word they say. Even if you’re sitting across from the local pastor.

Playing Around Cards

PVDDR recently ranked the 10 best Magic players of all-time and listed LSV as 4th on the list. Paulo said one of Luis’ strengths is making lesser players believe he’s holding cards he doesn’t have. He tells them a story. And because he’s LSV, a lot of people believe him. Earlier in my playing career, I’d believe any story my opponent told me and play accordingly. I lost a lot of games that way.

Here’s a typical progression for a CCG player.

1. You don’t play around anything.

2. You learn that you can play around cards – then play around everything.

3. You let the game decide when to play around cards. Context matters. A lot.

I intentionally learned every combat trick in the format when it was released and shudder to think of all the games unnecessarily lost to cards my opponents weren’t holding.

Here are some extremely simple pieces of information from Hall of Famer Ben Stark that helped me get over this hurdle.

Statement One: your opponent doesn’t always have everything.

Statement Two: you can’t beat everything.

Statement Three: sometimes your opponent has it, and when that’s the case you just say “good game.”

Bonus: When our opponents get really lucky, we don’t think about all the times we’ve gotten lucky. It all evens out in the end. I try to notice when I draw the perfect card to balance this out in my brain.

Statement One is a mathematical certainty. Your opponents dont always have everything even though there are undoubtedly times when that feels like the case. That’s how small sample sizes work. I used to put cards in my opponents’ hand all the time. Now I pretty much never do unless their game actions give me a reason to.

Statement Two is where the learning happens. You can’t beat everything – your job is to figure out what you can beat. This is the hard part.

Let’s go back to Argent Depths draft. Your Justice opponent has attacked you with all their units and 5 power available. Let’s say the format only has three Justice tricks: Audacious Ruse, Wind Conjuring, and Unbreakable Tradition.

Which one do you play around?

First, do you have any concrete, factual reasons to believe they’re holding one of these cards? Have they left up 2 power on previous turn to indicate they’re holding Audacious Ruse. If so, think about what would happen in combat if your opponent has it. Can you minimize its effect in some way (e.g. Triple blocking, using your own fast spell)? Then think about what happens in combat if they have Wind Conjuring, then Unbreakable Tradition.

It’s a lot to consider. Trust me – I sympathize. It gets easier with time… But it also gets worse. Let’s add Finest Hour and Victor’s Cry now. So now there are five combat tricks for us to consider.

If you have no factual reason to believe they’re holding a specific card, you have to consider all of them. In most cases, it’s extremely unlikely that you can play around every possiblity. You have to make the play that’s good against most of them. If you find a line that beats every trick but Victor’s Cry, that line has an 80% chance of working out and you should take it.

Here’s the hardest part: if you really did figure out a line and block in a way that beats everything but Victor’s Cry, that decision is correct even when they have Victor’s Cry. You can’t beat everything. Make the play that beats the most things. When they have it, you accept your loss and say good game.

Another quick point: if you can’t beat a card, pretend it doesn’t exist. Let’s imagine some insane hypothetical – all of your blocks are bad against Martial Efficiency. If you can’t beat it, pretend it doesn’t exist and hope they don’t have it.

One more: Playing around rares is a luxury that should be reserved for when you’re extremely far ahead – when you’re in “How do I lose this game?” mode. Otherwise I never play around rares or legendaries.

Emotions Matter

Hall of Famers are real people, just like us. Hearing Paulo talk about his flaws comforts me and gives me hope. He contrasts his thought processes when he’s winning/losing in a tournament – to be honest, I completely forgot about this part of the episode but it really hit home when I relistened to it for this article. When things are going well, PVDDR thinks through all possibilities and what might happen if his opponent is holding a specific card. But when things aren’t going well and he’s in a bad mood, he’s more likely to say “well, they probably don’t have it” and play into it without thinking through all the outcomes. Paulo and I have something in common. Hoorayyy.

Remaining analytical after tough losses is hard. Not just for us, but for the best of all time. Every aspect of playing this game is harder when you let frustration enter your thought process. My brain’s favorite way to waste my time is calculating what percentage of power in my deck I’ve drawn when I flood. An extraordinary waste of time and mental energy. But I’m aware of it so it’s easier to catch myself, refocus, and concentrate on the game. I strongly considered deleting that last sentence based on how rarely it happens in practice.

Lessons From 2021

You can’t beat everything. You can’t beat parenting, teaching, husbanding,  sanity, sleeping, and elite Eternal drafters all at the same time. It’s just not possible.

The 2021 Eternal World Championship announcement entered my inbox the Friday following Mrs. Schaab’s return to work. A week I’d just spent as the only adult in a house with a newborn, two young schoolchildren, and two dogs who are needy enough to qualify as people. “Eternal Draft Tournament” is an exciting set of words for me but context matters. A lot. At the time, the phrase “prepare for big draft tournament” was similar in appeal to “sleep outside for the next three months” or “go to dinner with talkative strangers.” No thank you. I’m all set.

Part of becoming a great card player is becoming aware of your flaws, and time certainly gives you plenty of opportunities to learn what those are. I shouldn’t stay up until 2 in the morning drafting Eternal – but I will. I shouldn’t let a bad day of drafts affect my mood – but I will. I shouldn’t let myself get frustrated by the fact that I don’t have adequate time to prepare – but I absolutely will.

I’ve always liked Eternal. I’ve grown to love it this past year thanks to a fantastic community and great draft formats. At no point has playing Eternal ever felt like something I have to do, it’s always been something I want to do and I intend to keep it that way. Writing about Eternal causes me no stress. It’s always a positive EV way to spend my free time. Losing games to variance and my own bad decisions…. Not the best.

Is it possible for me to spike and win May’s draft tournament? Of course! It’s possible for a lot of us. But it’s extremely unlikely. Just like it’s possible that a triple faction legendary makes your draft deck if you take it pack 1 pick 1, but the odds aren’t good. So I’m making the Seek Power of decisions and sitting this one out.

The series of articles I wrote for Empire of Glass was fun and I’ll probably follow that structure when the next set is released. So while y’all are pouring your mental energy into tournament preparation, I’ll be here in my rocking chair teaching people how to make hookshots from half court. I’ll do the theory crafting, y’all play the games. You experience the highs and lows of bomb rares, I’ll update my Birds of Maine field guide as the spring flocks return. You keep reading, and I’ll keep writing even when I’m not playing much. To be clear – I’m very content with missing the tournament because I’m very happy to be your Draft writer, so there’s no reason to feel bad for me. Best of luck to everyone with their tournament preparation and happy drafting!

– Schaab
Valley-Clan Sage Fan Club President
Draft Enthusiast
Exhausted Individual

To directly support more content, please check out the Let’s Talk Limited Patreon.

Oh! We ordered a PC, so I’ll start streaming again when that arrives Streaming from mobile was doable but I’m very optimistic about the change in platform. I write and operate the blog 100% on mobile, so a whole lot of things should be easier in the near future which is very exciting for me.

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