If you’ve read my article from last week, you’ll know that we began a discussion about single card decks in Limited by plunging into a history lesson in self-referential cards like Squadron Hawk. But those aren’t the only types of cards that lend themselves to building a deck around picking the same card over and over again. Today, we’re going to look at some other all-in, single-card strategies that have existed from format to format. We’re also going to do a little math surrounding the frequency of each card in an average booster draft, and we’ll wrap up by talking about the conditions necessary for these strategies to work.
Other All-In, Single-Card Strategies
Outside of the examples from last week, a few limited archetypes have persisted throughout Magic’s history that often encourage or require mass quantities of the same card to function well. These strategies range from fringe to well-supported, depending on the strategy and the format.
Various tribal decks have existed in Limited over the years in various forms. While these don’t explicitly rely on having a bunch of creatures with the same name, they do care about having a bunch of creatures with the same type. In Amonkhet draft, for example, if your deck has four or so copies of Binding Mummy, you’re probably in good shape as long as most of your other creatures say “Zombie” somewhere on the card. Still, you’re going to want to nab as many copies of Binding Mummy as possible.
This is where the Slither Blade deck we mentioned comes into the equation. Hyper-aggressive decks often rely on many copies of a single card even when it doesn’t explicitly combo with itself, since there are often only so many common creatures in a given color that scream “hyper-aggression”. In Amonkhet, there happen to be more of these creatures than in most formats, but Slither Blade is unique in that it’s bad outside of hyper-aggressive decks and it’s in a color with few other hyper-aggressive creatures. These factors make it an ideal candidate for a single-card deck.
Affinity from Mirrodin fell somewhere between tribal and hyper-aggression, and it was so potent and unique that it deserves its own category. Cards like Frogmite and Myr Enforcer were unstoppable when you drafted a bunch of them and turboed out a bunch of vanilla beaters before your opponent could put up their defenses. It helped enormously that these cards were artifacts themselves, so that they helped bring each other out and also so that you could eventually bring their cost down to zero mana.
When dedicated mill decks have been successful in Limited formats, they have often required you to accumulate many copies of a single card. Champions of Kamigawa brought us Dampen Thought, one of the first and only viable pure mill strategies in Magic’s history. While Dampen Thought wasn’t quite self-referential, it might as well have been, as the card just wasn’t viable unless you got a bunch of them. The idea was to get as many Dampen Thought as you could, as well as supporting cards like Glacial Ray and Peer Through Depths that helped you dig for more copies of Dampen Thought or slow down your opponent’s assault, all while splicing Dampen Thought and slowly milling your opponent out. You would even splice Dampen Thought onto Dampen Thought sometimes! When Dampen Thought was reprinted in the first Modern Masters set, its new common rarity made the deck much more consistent in the way of getting copies of Dampen Thought, but a bit trickier in that there were fewer Arcane cards to splice onto.
I mention burn because even though it’s rarer to see a pure burn deck succeed in limited than it is to see mill, it is possible. I was blown away at an Oath of the Gatewatch Grand Prix when my opponent shot my life total down to zero almost entirely with copies of Consuming Sinkhole, then did it again the next game to win the match. Extremely fringe, yet extremely effective.
How easy is it to go all in on one card?
In last week’s article, I shared a conversation I’d had on Twitter with a few Magic players, including Travis Woo. I promised I’d share the rest of the conversation this week:
Ignoring the flipped order of my reply tweets, you may be thinking, “Wow, that’s a useful statistic. Can I calculate it for any card in any context?” It turns out you can! To calculate the chances of opening at least x copies of a single card C in a draft, you just need a few figures:
- The total number of cards T of C’s rarity in the set. This varies slightly from set to set, and has historically fluctuated significantly as Wizards of the Coast has changed their design philosophy.
- The total number of cards N of C’s rarity in each pack. In most modern sets, the average pack has .125 mythic rares, .875 rares, 3 uncommons, and 10 commons.
- The number of packs P of that set that will be opened each draft. For example, in a Large-Large-Large draft, P = 24.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll ignore extraneous factors like foils or double-faced card slots. Using these figures, the formula is as follows:
x = BINOM(N/T, x, P)
BINOM is the cumulative binomial probability function, which takes the probability of an event, the minimum number of successes (i.e., number of times C is opened) required, and the number of chances you have for the event to occur. You can use a webpage like this one to calculate this function; it will also tell you the probability of opening exactly that many copies of C at a table, and the probability of opening at most that many copies of C.
When is it right to go all in on a single card?
Of course, none of this archetype analysis or math even matters if you can’t identify the situations where it’s right to go all-in on a single card. In my experience, the following qualities are necessary for a card to be the next Dampen Thought or Slither Blade:
- Self-synergy- The bulk of what this article is about. As we illustrated above, various strategies exist where cards can be self-synergistic, but you’re never going to want to go all-in on a card that doesn’t work well in multiples to begin with.
- Appropriate mana cost– Often, a card gets better when you have more than one, but it is too costly or inefficient to base an entire deck around. A good example of this is Self-Assembler from Kaladesh. While this is a card that obviously gets better in multiples, you wouldn’t survive to cast them all if you had more than three or four copies in your deck. Obviously, this is format/card dependent. Aurochs Herd, a very similar card from Coldsnap, proved to be a legitimately strong archetype when you drafted enough of them, despite costing more mana than Self-Assembler. The difference is probably owed to the fact that Aurochs Herd’s stats just lined up better against its format than Self-Assembler’s did.
- Good enough, but not too good– Obviously, you want the card you’re going all-in on to be good enough to play- a deck full of Chimney Imp doesn’t sound too appetizing. However, you’re never going to be able to go deep in draft if the card you’re going for is a high-pick format staple. Ideally, you want to choose a card that’s mediocre in most strategies, but extremely strong in one particular deck- yours. That way, you can make sure you can pick up enough copies to make your deck’s all-in-ness shine. The reason why Slither Blade surprised so many people, by the way, is exactly this; the card is terrible in most decks, even aggressive ones, but suddenly gets much better when you’re an extremely aggressive deck with a bunch of cheap auras, and you also have a ton of the 1/2 creature.
Personally, I enjoy Limited formats that allow you to go extremely deep on a card every once in a while. They give you something to do outside of the spread of midrangey goodstuff that permeates most sets. I hope you enjoy them too, and I hope you can spot opportunities to go deep on these kinds of decks the next time you draft a new set!
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