Hey there! I’m Marcus, Danish Magic player, two-time Pro Tour competitor, bronze pro and Limited aficionado. My approach to playing, thinking about and (now, again) writing about Magic revolves around understanding the broader, general theories of Magic and then applying myself to putting them into practice in the formats as they exist now. Now that we’ve had a little time to find our feet in the Guilds of Ravnica Limited landscape, I thought I’d take the chance to talk about my favourite Limited mechanic in the set and what we can learn from a guild that isn’t always given its due deliberation. It’s time for…
Boros: Building Courage, Conviction and Combat Math
Games of Magic are decided by creatures, in combat. If that is not always true in Constructed formats, especially the older ones, it has almost always been the case for Limited, and in this day and age it is also a big part of the Standard format that makes up most of competitive Constructed tournaments. And when it comes to attacking, no-one makes for better mentors than the Boros Legion, so that is what I want to talk about today. I want to start out kicking off literally talking about Mentor and how it informs our decision-making in Limited, and then zoom out to a more general, philosophical approach to mindsets and how the Boros style can help us in our game in general.
Sounds good? Then strap on your helm, recruit!
Mentor in Limited: Evaluating the value of cards and counters
In its essence, the Mentor mechanic rewards you for something you should already be doing in Limited: Attacking. That, I think, is the first lesson of today (and perhaps the most important one): Attack. Are you attacking enough in Limited? The answer is probably no.
Mentor incentivizes attacking by paying us off with a +1/+1 counter (if we have an attacking mentee handy). That softens the blow if our Mentor creature ends up trading with a blocker, or upgrades one of our other creatures to hopefully trade with a better blocker than they otherwise would have. While it might be hard to measure in card economy, that is “value”, which many Magic players have been taught to love. How much value are we talking? That depends on the mentee. So, to properly evaluate Mentor creatures, we have to know what kind of targets we are hoping to put their counters on. Getting a counter on something like a Hunted Witness is nice, but Healer’s Hawk is definitely the choice 1-drop here. And something like a Roc Charger or a Parhelion Patrol? That’s value.
These cards have a few things in common. The importance of the first and foremost thing here is something which people rediscover every Limited format: Evasion. Flying is just good in Limited. No, it’s better than you think. And you certainly learn to love it when you’re in the market for attacking.
The second, less obvious and probably “less desirable” quality that make these cards great mentees is their low power stat. Obviously, when you are attacking, you want to win an eventual race (again: Vigilance and Lifelink help with this), which means you want creatures with high power. Ideally higher than your opponents’ creatures. But since Mentor checks the mentee’s power against the Mentor creature’s power, mentees become a lot better at enabling the mechanic if they have a low initial power. This is why Fire Urchin is actually an excellent two-drop in Boros despite the entire card screaming “Izzet”, from the spells-matter clause to the whole “uncontrollable elemental art” thing going on. And why Fearless Halberdier was definitely right to leave the Legion: She doesn’t have a lot to learn here.
Evaluating mentees can be boiled down to three things then, at least roughly. How easy is the creature to Mentor on to? How much use can it make of the counter? And how likely is it to survive the attack? With those questions in mind, it becomes quite easy to see how attractive the white birds above are: Healer’s Hawk not only has evasion, but also lifelink: It puts the counter to great use, and it is very easy to Mentor. Roc Charger also starts with a measly one power but is only built to attack due to its ability and evasion. It even helps its Mentor live through the attack! And Parhelion Patrol is the dreamy double: It attacks in the air, it blocks well due to its high toughness and vigilance, and it passes on its teachings if you manage to land a counter on its two-power body in the first place with its own Mentor ability. An unchecked Parhelion Patrol can definitely dominate a battlefield.
Boros’ hybrid common, Fresh-Faced Recruit, joins Fire Urchin at the common two-drop slot worth mentoring: While it is harder to Mentor on to, its static ability means not only that it is quite likely to live through an attack, it can also keep attacking on its own once it gets going, and is probably going to end up either trading up for a better blocker or a removal spell or require the opponent to stay very defensive if they want to dissuade the Recruit from attacking.
Red sadly has very few other good Mentor targets, largely due to its high-power low-toughness profile in the colour pie. 2/1s such as Ornery Goblin and Goblin Locksmith still trade for 2/2s after you go through the trouble of getting a counter on them, and make poor use of the counter outside of “killing a defenceless opponent faster”. You should be able to beat defenceless opponents without them, too, so that’s not worth much.
Indeed, Red – alone and on the gold cards – provide better Mentors than mentees. Let’s take a look at those.
What makes for a good Mentor?
Having identified what makes for a good Mentor target lets us draw some initial conclusions about what to value in our Mentor cards. At this point, I think it important to make a distinction here between “throwaway” Mentors and “sticky” mentors. Throwaway Mentors are cards that you generally count on dying in their first attack. For these to be good, the counter must be worth enough that you are willing to take a sometimes unfavourable trade for the Mentor creature itself. This becomes a lot more reasonable if you get the counter on to a good mentee as identified above.
It should be quite straightforward what defines these cards: Most of the budget of their casting cost go directly towards the power stat, rather than evasion or other means of survival. The typical case for these cards is that they get in one attack, mentoring onto another, stickier creature, and then trade for an opposing creature, often at a slight disadvantage. Again: The case of a defenceless opponent is pleasant but quite irrelevant when evaluating these cards. You should evaluate them based on whether you are happy getting one good attack out of them.
Where it gets exciting is when we get to “sticky” Mentors: Creatures that not only excel at providing that +1/+1 counter, but also surviving to tell the tale (or repeat the feat). For good reasons, these cards are more difficult to play both in terms of rarity and colour requirements.
First Strike is a good way of making sure high-power low-toughness creatures survive combat, it would seem – more on this a little later. Parhelion Patrol from earlier also qualifies due to its evasion, and in the case of Boros Challenger, raw cost efficiency in stats (with instalments!) and a big behind goes a long way, too. Of course the mythic rare Aurelia has the whole package and is an absolute monster in any Boros deck.
While not every deck might want access to an unlimited supply of Blade Instructors or Hammer Droppers, these “sticky” Mentors are generally also just very good cards to include in most decks – although one of the reasons they excel in dedicated Mentor/Boros decks is because they, like Parhelion Patrol, not only are good Mentors but also great mentees. If you are building/drafting a Boros deck in Limited, I would include as many of them as I could, play my good mentees and supply with at least a few “throwaway” Mentors. As for the rest of the spells in the deck, you should now have a good idea of what the archetype is trying to do, and which non-creature spells support the strategy…
Maximizing Mentor: Selecting the Surrounding Spells
Your non-creature spells should ideally either turn a “throwaway” attack into a favourable attack and/or enable your “sticky” mentors/mentees a safe attack. I’m just going to say up front that we have a word for a good category of cards that fulfil both of these functions, and that word is “removal”. “Removal is good in Limited” keeps being true, doubly so for efficient removal.
But apart from that (because we can’t always end up with good creatures, a good curve and good removal), here are some cards that, informed by the above discussion, might fit better into your deck than it looks like at first glance:
here’s no such thing as “throwaway attacks” if your opponent can’t block, and if you’ve managed to correctly build your deck with “sticky” creatures and creatures that take proper advantage of even a single +1/+1 counter, Gird for Battle can enable powerful attacks on what would otherwise be an unexciting turn of combat while still leaving you mana enough to add additional threats (or blockers in the case of a race) to the battlefield. Cosmotronic Wave closes the ball either immediately when you cast it or in one of the coming turns if you get enough damage and value in counters from a single unopposed attack.
Combat tricks should be cheap and efficient – in general, but especially in a deck like this – and, if they pump power, can double as tempo plays at sorcery speed that enables mentoring onto a larger creature while forcing an opponent into taking a ton of damage or throwing away a creature by chump-blocking, thus effectively trading for a card any way. Sure Strike and Take Heart excel at this function and I am not sad to include a few copies of each if your creature count holds up. You can even consider Auras like Maniacal Rage or Candlelight Vigil if you are up to the Boros “Always Be Attacking” M.O.
Closing thoughts: The Boros playstyle and lessons from Mentor
I want to end this by taking a bit of a step back and look at not only what we’ve learnt in terms of in-game playstyle, but also what more general lessons we can take away from the assertive style of play that Boros offers and engenders in us as players as people.
First of all, while the “throwaway” moniker might not be flattering, the truth is this: Most of the creatures in your Limited decks are there to attack, and a lot of attacking means a lot of trading off for blockers. That is not inherently negative. Practice being aggressive with your creatures and become better at evaluating not just what you are happy trading for, but also what you are content trading for. And remember to count the times when your opponent doesn’t make the block and you get to do damage “for free”. And bring a few combat tricks.
But: Don’t just practice how often you attack. Practice how you attack. A big part of being assertive in a game is in being convincing in your game actions. Your bluff attacks and throwaway attacks become better if they look like the attacks where you have a trick or are happy to trade. Of course you should still take the time to do combat math (it is not just, as the saying goes, “for blockers”), but I can wholly recommend attacking often and with conviction. Whether it is a “throwaway” Blade Instructor into a Tenth District Guard or a Tajic that you really don’t want to have to give First Strike this turn into that same Tenth District Guard.
Be brave and experiment with this – especially in low-stakes situations or practice – so that you can pull it off with conviction in situations where it actually matters. A lot of opponents will respect it, and sometimes they will be right to.
And this advice to be assertive and act with conviction also applies to basically all other aspects of the game and, indeed, of life. Don’t get me wrong: Don’t be brash or exploitative. But decide what you want from a situation, what outcomes you will be happy or content with, and then act with conviction to bring about said outcomes. You’ll get what you want more often than you think, often at a lower risk than you initially might have feared. And, sometimes you will fall short. We all lose games of Magic. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, especially not if you did the math. A big part of conviction is persistence (the Boros would say, “zeal”?). The Boros know how to learn from their mistakes as well as from their betters.
Be like the Boros.
Until next time,