A systematic guide for success. The More You Know. ~~~~*
Like many others, I'm always looking for an edge on my competition, even at prerelease. There are a ton of resources out there in the weeks before a set release. Dev from Strictly Better MTG does a prerelease primer. LSV and Marshall of Limited Resources do a commons and uncommons set review followed shortly by a rare and mythic episode as well. LSV reviews the set by the colors in ChannelFireball articles.
Like I said, a ton of resources. And I try to catch up on every one I can, Limited Resources in particular.
But here's the thing: not everyone has that kind of time. Not everyone enjoys those content creators. Not everyone knows about all the avenues of information out there. Even if you walk into prerelease well-informed, you don't really know how much of that information you'll retain. What I'm trying to say here is that everyone, at some point, needs to be able to evaluate cards with nothin' but their own noggin if they want to do well at any limited event.
Standard, Modern, and Legacy all value different attributes in new cards and it is important to be able to evaluate cards for every format you're interested in, but each one's a bit different and it would take a lot of time to go over them. In this article I'm going to be focusing on limited.
The first thing to consider doesn't even involve looking at the cards! It's the perspective you're going to be viewing cards from. There are a few different ways to handle this that have become popular, the two most notable being B.R.E.A.D. and Quadrant Theory (QT). There are other acronyms people use, other theories, each with their own following. Some people say BREAD and QT are worthless. Some swear by them.
I think everyone needs their own way to handle perspective.
Personally, my perspective of evaluation is something between BREAD and QT. BREAD wants you to value (B)ombs and (R)emoval highest while understanding the need for (E)fficiency and (A)ggro and knowing when you've got a (D)ud. QT wants you to evaluate cards by their utility in each of the four boardstates (or quadrants): opening, parity, advantage, or disadvantage. I like to find bombs and build my deck around them while picking up on-color removal whenever possible.
My advice to you: the newer you are to magic and the less familiar you are with limited, the more useful those perspective theories will be. The more experience you have, the more you'll be able to realize when cards don't fit neatly into the buckets those theories provide and act accordingly.
Let's take one of the cards from last set, Ravnica Allegiance, as an example: Ill-Gotten Inheritance.
Ill-Gotten Inheritance, or IGI, is deceptive at first look. Costing 4 cmc and providing inevitability might make you think it's best suited for long-game decks. In Ravnica Allegiance, specifically, that means Orzhov. Orzhov loves to wear down the opponent with high-value creatures and targeted removal to take care of bombs or early threats. IGI also gains you incremental life, meaning it can take you out of the burn danger zone if your opponent gets a good start, too. Sounds great, right?
Well, yes, but not entirely. It's not a terrible option for Orzhov. There are certainly cards I'd play it over. To be honest, however, IGI is actually best at home as a finisher in a Rakdos deck. 4 mana, while higher in the curve for an aggro deck, is still easily attainable. Ravnica Allegiance is light on enchantment removal, meaning once it's down, it's gonna stick. And 1 damage a turn is much better when that one damage is a fifth of their life total as opposed to a twentieth. Also, an aggro deck makes much better use of that activated ability. Reach is key for aggro so you can end the game before they have a chance to stabilize.
As I said, it's important to see beyond initial impressions and know when cards don't fit easily into categories.
In each limited format, there are a few set archetypes that define the strength of each color combination. Again, looking at Ravnica Allegiance, the archetypes were BR (Rakdos) aggro, BW (Orzhov) afterlife, UW (Azorious) control, UG (Simic) +1/+1 counters or Adapt, and 3-5 color Gates. There were other viable strategies as well, like the Clear the Mind mill deck, but those are the primary ones. Generally, you'll be able to find the list of archetypes on a community website somewhere (CFB often has an archetype list up fairly early), but we're here to learn how to evaluate these ourselves.
Honestly, nailing down archetypes is going to be impossible without at least some degree of knowledge of the set. You can't sit down with nothing more than a sealed pool and figure out where each color combination is taking you because the picture you have is incomplete. What you can do, however, is look at the synergies in front of you, and decide whether or not you have the critical mass required to run a deck based on that synergy.
Generally speaking, 8-9 payoff cards is the minimum you want in a limited deck before devoting yourself to a certain synergy. If you're looking to get servos and proliferate triggers off of Saheeli, Sublime Artificer and Flux Channeler, you'll want at least 8-9 noncreature spells. More is, of course, always welcome, but if your build-arounds aren't strong enough to win the game on their own, you'll want more of them as well.
Outside of constrictive synergies and absent an overarching knowledge of the set archetypes, you'll want to make decisions based on the three basic archetypes: aggro, midrange, and control. Are all your strong cards high CMC? Do you have good removal and blockers for early game? Try control. Do you have efficient cards? Maybe some tempo plays? A good curve? That's midrange. And if your deck has great early game plays with a lot of creatures, aggro is probably the way to go.
I know most of what I've said here is fairly abstract and tricky to visualize without the cards in front of you. What I'd like to do now is give you something a little more concrete, some specific data you can use as a baseline to evaluate the cards you're seeing in limited.
Creature Quality - In most cases, creatures are judged by their floor moreso than their ceiling. The floor is the worst-case situation for any special abilities they may have plus their power/toughness compared to their CMC. A creature with X/X power/toughness that has CMC X is a good creature, based on the baseline. Not great, but playable. An aggro creature with Menace or Deathtouch is good. A defensive creature or a creature that's easy to trade off with Lifelink is good.
Common Spells - Bounce effects are very common, but their usefulness varies wildly from set to set. In War of the Spark, the common blue bounce spell Callous Dismissal is good. The amass works find on its own or with more amass, and two mana is generally the CMC that a deck wanting to play bounce wants to cast that bounce at. Bounce spells are best either in tempo decks like Simic that want to win relatively quickly without much removal or control decks that have powerful plays a turn or two later but need to survive to get there.
Fogs are almost universally worthless. Do not play them.
Draw spells are best compared to Divination. Paying 3 to draw 2 is good, and decks wanting to draw cards will almost always play at least 1 copy of it. Draw spells with a better rate than that or instant speed are great.
I'm not going to get too much into removal, as it's a huge subject on its own, but typically unconditional removal less than 4 CMC is great, while 5 CMC is good and 6+ CMC depends on what other text is on the card. Conditional removal is often good if the condition is by CMC (unless it's one or less) and it can be fine if it's by power or toughness. 3 is the sweet spot for that condition, much higher and it becomes less useful.
Combat tricks are usually good in aggro decks. Sure Strike is a solid trick that just about any aggro deck will enjoy playing 1 or 2 of. You'll want tricks that can finish off an opponent with an unexpected burst of damage or act as removal during combat. So +1/+0 or +2/+0 aren't so useful, and first strike is a valuable addition.
That's all I've got to say about evaluating cards. I hope you learned something useful somewhere during this rant. If you're looking for more limited resources, again, refer to the examples I mentioned at the beginning, specifically CFB and Limited Resources. Until next time, remember to first-pick the guildgate.