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By: char49d, Jimmy Smith
Sep 26 2011 1:56am
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Blue is the hardest color to play in limited.

Merfolk Looter

Kermit was wrong, it's not easy being blue.

I always find it funny that the impression amongst most mages is that decks running blue are harder to play.  The way some people revere blue, you would think your I.Q. could be derived from the amount of counterspells in your deck, but obviously that isn't true.  Blue isn't always harder to play than any other color, just like combo or aggro decks aren't easier to play than control.  Blue does however have a disproportionate number of skill testing cards.  I define a card as "skill testing" when it requires you to make a lot of decisions, and not just easy decisions, like "which one of us should draw three cards?"  The hardest cards to use are those that give you more choices without an obvious advantage, namely filter cards.

BrainstormPreordainJace, The Mind Sculptor

While the best filter card, Brainstorm, hasn't been legal in a while, and his slower buddy Jace recently got laid off, M12 draft still has the stepchild of the filter family, the looter.  This is one of the most powerful and misunderstood cards in the format, and while it isn't as good as it was back in M10, that just makes it harder to use, and more powerful in the right hands.

Most people grasp the obvious benefits of Merfolk Looter.  We have all had games where we drew 10 land, and our opponent drew all spells and we flooded out in miserable fashion.  Looting prevents that from ever happening.  As long as we have a Merfolk Looter in play, we can discard our excess lands, hopefully turning them into spells.  The longer the game goes, the more of an advantage this is, since presumably our opponent doesn't have this luxury.  That's certainly a neat trick, and a reason why Merfolk Looter is such a great card, but that's the tip of the iceberg.  Using a looter just to loot away excess lands is like owning a Lamborghini and using it just to drive to church on Sunday, it's nice, but it can do so much more!

Looting while you draft

PlummetCombustCelestial Purge

A card like Merfolk Looter can and should influence your deck before you build it.  I'm already a big fan of the extremely powerful limited removal cards like Deathmark, Celestial Purge and Plummet, since they are available much later than traditional removal like )Pacifism or Shock, and can be more powerful.  The obvious problem is, these can be "dead" cards depending on what your opponent is playing.  With a looter or two, these can be maindeck cards, since Merfolk Looter provides you an outlet to get rid of them in game one.  The only color hoser I wouldn't run maindeck is ironically the blue one, Flashfreeze, since it is by far the weakest.

Generally in M12, there is a focus on an aggressive curve, and cards like Stormfront Pegasus are valued higher than mower powerful cards like (Griffen Sentinel) because efficiency and aggression are more important.  Slower cards like Greater Basilisk usually wheel, while Garruk's Companion or Lurking Crocodile or even Runeclaw Bears can go sooner.  Not with Merfolk Looter!  While it is still important to have a curve and be able to play some early defensive creatures, prioritizing powerful cards like Greater Basilisk or even unpopular finishers like Sutured Ghoul or in some circles, Overrun, can yield huge benefits.  You are not only more likely to be able to find your bombs with an active looter, but if you start with one in your hand and it looks like you won't have to time cast it, you can simply ditch it for something else.  It even facilitates splashing, so picking up a powerful card like Doom Blade or Pacifism is even more appealing.  Not only is it easier to find the splashed lands and removal with a looter, but if you have the card stuck in your hand with no way to cast it, loot away!

Loot Before you Build

Each turn you take where you loot, you should be gaining an advantage over your opponent.  Because of this, you generally want games to go longer, so defensive cards and finishers are more valuable.  (Giant Spider), Roc Egg and Amphin Cutthroat are all cards I would rather have than Bloodthrone Vampire or any bloodthirst creature outside of red.  Skywinder Drake is a great card, but it isn't as high a pick since it doesn't do a great job defensively.  You can afford to be a bit chooser in your spells because unlike most decks, you want to run a lot of lands.

Most decks in the format function well on 16 lands, although decks with more than a couple 5 drops might play 17.  With looter, 17 is a must, and 18 is often correct, sometimes even 19.  You can always cut a land when you are on the draw in game 2 or 3, but having extra lands is advantageous, since it leads to fewer mulligans and flooding won't be a problem.  You can also keep a one or two lander on the draw since you are more likely to hit lands on each draw step.  Playing 2-3 more lands might not seem like a big deal, but a mulligan in limited drastically reduces your chances of winning, anything that can  be done to reduce them is extremely worthwhile.


Finally, there is the decision of when to loot, by which I mean at what point in your turn and at what point in the game or with your hand is best. 

Firstly, most people incorrectly loot at the end of their opponents turn, because we are trained to use activated abilities like goblin fireslinger, during our opponents end step.  This is almost always wrong.  You want to loot during your first main phase before you play a land, because it will give you the maximum amount of information to plan out your turn.  The only time this isn't true is when you may need use your Merfolk Looter to block, or the weird corner cases where you don't want to give away any information by discarding a card, both of which are extremely rare.

The other, perhaps most important decision, is when is it correct to loot?  There are times when it is obvious, such as when you need to make a land drop, or when you have extra land and can already play all of the spells in your deck.  The real question is, if I have the correct mix of land and spells, should I still loot?

The correct answer, of course, is maybe.  Before you slam me in the comments, hear me out.  Without knowing the contents of a particular hand and deck, it is impossible to know whether or not looting is a good idea, however, there are some extremely good guidelines on when to use a looter in these situations.  If the average power of a spell in your deck is greater than a spell in your hand, loot.  So if I have a Goblin Piker in hand, and I don't immediately need it in play, chances are the average spell in my deck is better, so I would want to loot even if I didn't have any land to throw away.  The other time it is good to loot, even without excess lands, is if you have an extremely powerful spell in your deck that isn't in your hand.  I'm talking about Overrun, Mind Control or any Titan, the usual suspects.  These cards are so powerful you generally want to keep looting regardless of your hand in order to find them, because they will swing the game in your favor.  Even if my hand is all spells and I have the land to play them, I would still want to loot because I'm going to either draw a land which I can discard, or I'll draw a spell which will let me discard the weakest spell in my hand, and either way I'm getting one card closer to my game ending bomb.

This might seem like a lot to think about for a mere 1/1 for two, but that's why Merfolk Looter has been one of the best limited blue commons ever printed, and why she is so misunderstood and misevaluated.  While it is true that she loses some of her luster in a faster format, you can use that to your advantage and have the stronger deck for it.  Even though M12 as a draft format is soon to lose the spotlight, the principles or looting or filtering are the same in every set, and these type of filter cards show up in almost every limited format.

Good luck, and good looting!


Great to see you writing by apaulogy at Mon, 09/26/2011 - 10:30
apaulogy's picture

Great analysis of a very misunderstood common. I have been recently trying to rid myself of my remaining m12 packs, but I keep doing well in Sealed events. Anyway, one of the reasons is because I saw some using the Combust/Deathmark/Plummet trick that you highlight here. I was like, "Oh, he knows he is going to loot those away." I started to do the same thing. I find myself using them more often than I thought I would.

Good insight.

gamemaster32's picture

well written, focused, analytical, valid, and useful. Amazing work sir!

I look forward to your future writing.

actually playing aggro is by seydaneen at Mon, 09/26/2011 - 17:13
seydaneen's picture

actually playing aggro is much easier than playing control or combo

Emotionally perhaps but each by Paul Leicht at Mon, 09/26/2011 - 20:14
Paul Leicht's picture

Emotionally perhaps but each has its pitfalls and learning curve and some people think better with one type than the others. by walkerdog at Mon, 09/26/2011 - 20:25
walkerdog's picture Really? Jones/Ruel, Shuhei/Gadiel, and Kenny/LSV disagree that aggro is not the easiest deck to play.

Thank you all for the by char49d at Mon, 09/26/2011 - 21:42
char49d's picture

Thank you all for the responses, this is my first real attempt at an article and I hope it was informative or at least interesting. I want to do draft videos but I'm going to wait for Innistrad to come out, since core sets are almost never drafted once the next set comes out. I wanted to do a focus on limited that I thought would be relevant to this draft format while simultaneously remaining relevant through Innistrad, and looting seemed like an obvious choice given the set mechanics.

It is a shame they didn't unban Jace in Extended because I had a great article planned on just him, but if he is only legal in the two eternal formats I don't think he has enough appeal or relevance and those formats are by far my weakest.

@Seydaneen - I respectfully disagree, I think decks are only as hard to play as the decisions they present. I have recently found aggro decks to be fairly challenging to play properly, particularly since Zendikar block when many decks used landfall triggers requiring turns be planned out well in advance and lands properly utilized as spells. While I regret we don't have as many excellent filters, Gifts Ungiven and Fact or Fiction style cards anymore, I'm excited to play with Forbidden Alchemy, and I wouldn't be surprised if it and Thirst for Knowledge made a big impact on Modern after Innistrad. As I said in the article, it isn't blue itself that is harder to play than other colors such as red, just a disproportionate number of cards in blue color that create complex decisions. I certainly wouldn't be bothered if they were to bleed the color pie in that regard.

Historically blue's decision by walkerdog at Mon, 09/26/2011 - 22:34
walkerdog's picture

Historically blue's decision trees have been really complex but also insanely over-powered if you can solve them. The last 5-8 years hammering of blue has made it still-awesome but much less stupidly late-game dominating compared to the first 15-or-so years of magic.

For rating. I want to knock by walkerdog at Mon, 09/26/2011 - 22:35
walkerdog's picture

For rating. I want to knock a fireball off for being so brief when you could have presented some situations but I do really like this article for what it does.

Thanks, I actually submitted by char49d at Mon, 09/26/2011 - 22:43
char49d's picture

Thanks, I actually submitted it with that as a concern to the editor. My worry was that it is a strategy article and that including too much information would either make it overly obtuse or too boring.

My first draft of the article had sample hands but it is very hard to evaluate looter in a vacuum and I had too many paragraphs explaining the hand itself rather than the decisions.

Thanks for the criticism and I agree with you, I just wasn't sure how to solve that particular problem with this article. Hopefully as I write a bit more about magic I can flesh out articles better without diluting the content, I'm just not quite there yet. Thank you for the praise as well.

I understand. Just present by walkerdog at Tue, 09/27/2011 - 00:15
walkerdog's picture

I understand. Just present your scenario for drafting or looting (in this case) and why you would pick to do or not do a particular choice. People may disagree but this is the best discussion to have.

Alternatively, you could by MMogg at Tue, 09/27/2011 - 16:44
MMogg's picture

Alternatively, you could record some videos with commentary as to where you Loot and why. This comes up in "Pro" draft videos as well and they usually are fairly articulate about when to use it and their rationale for what they discard.

If you find it difficult to draft and record, you can find a friend/clanmate and play matches after the draft using the draft deck.

If I am going go record a by char49d at Fri, 09/30/2011 - 06:23
char49d's picture

If I am going go record a draft, the only way I could be sure this comes up would be to force blue, and that doesn't guarantee I get a looter or ever draw it.

I have overall not been impressed with "Pro" draft video loot rationale, with the notable exception of Anton Jonsson who I disagree with, but whose opinion I respect. I do not think there is enough room to talk about something like this in a video and it really requires an article to get at some of the intricacies unless they simply happen to come up in a game you are playing, which is something I can't orchestrate.

This is one of the few aspects of magic I think the pro community, as a whole, isn't very good, at least from what I have seen. I think most players are more comfortable with filter cards they get to use more consistently like Brainstorm or Ponder.

Never being in the same situation is part of what makes draft the most difficult and skill intensive format in magic.