Creature Strategy in Khans Limited

I am not a professional Magic: The Gathering player.

In fact, until recently I didn’t even necessarily play Magic a lot. While I have been playing for a long time, my focus in the game has always been Limited. That is not to say that I haven’t played Constructed or that I won’t, but when I get the opportunity I tend to seek out Limited events.

An element that has always pushed me towards playing Limited is finances. As a student working part-time, I always have to think about paying for rent and hydro instead of cardboard. This budget means that I often can’t buy four of a card that a deck really needs; however, I can budget for one draft a week, or month depending on other expenses. The unwillingness to play an inferior Constructed deck hints at another element of my game: I don’t like playing suboptimally.

Generally, my Magic playing reflects that of many people with busy schedules and tight budgets. When I can afford it, I will buy a couple tickets on MTGO, trade them for packs and draft. I then sell my rares and attempt to draft again using my winnings, stringing together drafts until I’m dry. With this process over the last couple years, I have been able to win maybe higher than my share of 8-4s (perhaps one in six) and average 2-1 in Swiss. While this rate has been sufficient to reduce costs somewhat, it is not nearly enough to continually keep drafting.

However, with the release of Khans things have been different. I have been making it to the finals of my 8-4’s, if not winning them outright. I am playing every moment of free time (I have now started streaming) and am running at a slight profit. While there are many potential reasons for this (weaker competition, relatively small sample size, getting lucky, playing better), there has been one change that I have made that I truly believe makes the difference. But before I get to that, I want to talk about how people learn Limited.

Most people start their experience with Limited Magic by learning card evaluation. This makes sense, as when it comes to deck construction the better deck will play better cards. It is impossible to play better cards if you can’t identify what they are. So we are taught the concept of BREAD: bombs, removal, evasion, aggro, dregs. Despite the flack it gets, BREAD serves as a useful heuristic for not completely screwing up. New players learn to take bombs over removal, but removal over everything else. The importance of evasion is emphasized. These techniques can result in strong draft decks, across multiple formats. Evasive creatures backed up by strong removal is often a recipe for success. This is clearly the first stage of learning to play Limited.

The next step that people often learn is how to draft a strategy. Once people are capable of distinguishing between good cards and bad cards, and can put them on a scale, they are told to build a deck with a plan. It is often said that a good Limited deck isn’t just a pile of cards. It is a deck. It has a strategy. This is often a challenge for players to conceptualize and serves to distinguish great players from good players. A great player knows when to take or run a worse card because it is what the deck needs. Sometimes this manifests through the mana curve. This is why we lay out our decks in this format, to make sure we have enough three-drops and not too many sixes. It is the experience of playing a [card]Wetland Sambar[/card] over a [card]Warden of the Eye[/card] because we need more two drops to fight morphs. Finding the holes in one’s deck and how to fix them is a very difficult skill. Watching pro players play mediocre cards because of their deck’s requirements is often how we are able to see their actual abilities. This process of deck building and playing with a plan is where most players apply the majority of their energy when trying to improve.

However, I want to take a step back and look at a lesson that we learn early in our Magic careers and then all too often forget, particularly as we play increasingly complex constructed decks. Everyone has had the experience of looking through a new player’s kitchen table deck and seeing way too many [card]Giant Growth[/card]s and not nearly enough [card]Grizzly Bears[/card]. When pointed out, the new player normally asks “Well, how many creatures should I be playing?” This is the question that has reformed Khans for me as a format.

Over the last couple sets (with the possible exception of M14) the quality of the spells in Limited has been amazingly poor. While there are certainly standouts in each format, for every [card]Lightning Strike[/card] you could get (maybe one or two), you would get multiple [card]Rage of Purphoros[/card]es and [card]Spark Jolt[/card]s. The removal was weak and conditional. This led to people playing a lot of creatures. Particularly in Theros with the presence of bestow, it was not uncommon for people to play 18 or 20 creatures in a deck, with a couple poor removal spells or combat tricks to round it out. It also meant that everyone had lots of creatures, resulting in lots of dudes bashing into each other. Now we have two years worth of new players used to playing creatures because they were good, not because they are creatures. Both Ravnica and Theros blocks taught the lesson: play your best cards. This would manifest in a couple strong spells and a bunch of monsters.

Khans block has completely changed this dichotomy, and I believe players are suffering. In Khans of Tarkir there are amazing spells across all rarities. Removal like [card]Debilitating Injury[/card] and [card]Arrow Storm[/card] take center stage, but [card]Throttle[/card] and [card]Bring Low[/card] are well positioned with the multitude of morphs. At common we have cards such as [card]Crippling Chill[/card] and [card]Force Away[/card]. [card]Feat of Resistance[/card] is an amazing combat trick. As we move up in rarity, [card]Murderous Cut[/card] is fantastic and can do a ton of work. We even get efficient removal like [card]Suspension Field[/card]. And we haven’t even mentioned powerful and well-positioned noncreature spells like [card]Raiders’ Spoils[/card], [card]Trumpet Blast[/card], [card]Rush of Battle[/card], and [card]Act of Treason[/card]. The worst removal spells are as good as some of the best ones we have had in recent formats. This causes a big problem for players who have learned to play only recently.

As I explained, the last two blocks taught players to play all of their spells of a certain caliber. Well now we have a paradigm where there are more spells at that level. The result of this is players, even good ones, playing a lot more spells.

“But Micah,” you ask, “why is this bad if the spells are good?”

The problem that arises is one of efficiency. In Khans, the prevalence of Morph means two very important things: 1) Everyone has a lot of three-mana 2/2s; and 2) because of all of these 2/2s the two-mana, two-power creatures are very playable (more on them in a bit). The removal on the other hand is rarely this cheap. The only two-mana removal spells are [card]Suspension Field[/card], [card]Debilitating Injury[/card], and potentially [card]Murderous Cut[/card] or [card]Crater’s Claws[/card]. Thus, to respond to the mass of two-power creatures with removal, you have to do so with more expensive spells.

When you spend more mana than your opponents to answer their cards, you are going to fall behind as they get more value than you for each land they tap. This efficiency gap gets even greater when the spells you are playing don’t directly impact the board ([card]Act of Treason[/card] and, god-forbid, [card]Goblinslide[/card]) or augment your creatures ([card]Raiders’ Spoils[/card]). Not only are these inefficient but, as you play fewer creatures in your decks, these augmenting spells decrease in power. The lesson of the format, then, is to play more creatures.

Let’s go back to the new player’s question: “How many creatures should I play?” Unfortunately, this doesn’t have a clear answer (how could it?). The basic answer is “more.” Play more creatures than you think you need. My opinion is that, to stay ahead of the efficiency curve, you should play at least 16, but I prefer to play 18 or 20. Interestingly, this compares to the number of creatures a lot of the good decks were playing during Theros block.

From the lesson of playing more creatures, we can draw a couple ways to build better decks in Khans:

1) Play more two-drop creatures.

As I addressed in my discussion of the morphs, the two power, two-mana creatures are very powerful in this format. This is true for two reasons. One is the entire point of this article: people are playing fewer creatures. When people play fewer creatures, and the ones they are playing are more expensive, a two-mana creature can represent significant damage. Often in this format your two-mana creature will go unblocked two or three times. That’s two mana for four to six damage. If Lava Axe were two mana, I assure you it would see a lot more play.

Secondly, people play a lot of morphs. Therefore, when the two-drop does get blocked, it will often trade with its blocker. If you get in for four damage and then eat a morph, that is a ton of value for your two mana. Furthermore, because the morph creatures have a rule that they can’t profitably trade with 2/2’s for less than five mana, the two mana creatures can often battle with creatures much more expensive than themselves. Since these stay relevant longer, can get in for damage, and still have an impact when drawn late in the game, we should play more of them. In an aggressive deck I look to play six or more.

2) In more controlling decks, play creatures that block well.

This is something that people are definitely catching on to. The 0/5 and 0/6 creatures are very important to controlling decks. Why is this? Because they can extend the game efficiently. These creatures cost two or three mana and can block creatures much more expensive than themselves indefinitely without intervening spells or abilities. This is why they are often more important than removal spells and can’t simply be replaced by one. When the removal is strong but inefficient, it is important for the control decks to have an efficient option to extend the game, so that the impact of their higher-cost cards can be felt. So, because of the efficiency argument, even control decks should play more creatures, just different ones.

3) Prioritize the cheap removal spells.

The last point isn’t about the creatures themselves, but about what removal spells to prioritize and why. Lots of people understand that [card]Suspension Field[/card] is better than [card]Bring Low[/card] but may not conceptualize why that’s the case. It isn’t just because the Field can answer an X/6 that [card]Bring Low[/card] can’t; it is because the Field costs only two, so it can answer threats efficiently, before you are dead. This means that we should prioritize the four spells I spoke of earlier: [card]Suspension Field[/card], [card]Debilitating Injury[/card], [card]Murderous Cut[/card], and [card]Crater’s Claws[/card]. These spells are significantly better than their text suggests, and their mana cost makes them more valuable than more flexible, instant speed threats.

Overall, the lesson of Khans is to play like we have been for the last two years, even if the spells have gotten better. The goal should be to play significant numbers of creatures but shift the types of creatures based on the strategy we want to employ. If we want to play an aggressive deck, play creatures with greater power; if we want to play a control deck, play creatures with greater toughness. While these rules are not hard and fast, and there are certainly decks that want a greater spell density (the Jeskai prowess deck for example), they provide guidelines a player can use to level up their Khans Limited game.

A final note on efficiency in Khans: since the entire format is built around creatures that, on less than five mana, fight fairly with 2/2’s, all the 2/3’s for three mana are excellent. The ones that have significant upside such as [card]Mardu Hordechief[/card] are amazing. While people seem to be talking about the power of this card, I see it going later and later in 8-4s online, so I think it’s worth reinforcing. This is one of the better three-drops in the format and should be picked in the first third of the pack at the latest.

Hopefully this article has been insightful for people who are struggling to find a consistent way to win in Khans. Until next time, play more dudes.