GP Orlando was my second experience with Khans of Tarkir sealed (not counting the prerelease). My first experience was a preliminary PTQ on Magic Online, where I opened a pretty bad pool and punted my way to a nice 2-3 finish. I also drafted once, in a 3v3 with some friends, where I drafted a deck I liked and went 2-1.
I didn’t have any firm evaluations after that small handful of events, but I knew that I liked red cards and white cards. There was plenty of chatter about how this limited format (both sealed and draft) was going to be slower overall, but I still liked the idea of attacking. My favorite cards were, predictably, the cheaper cards that come out quickly, punish slow starts, and keep the pressure up. Cards like War-Name Aspirant, Jeskai Elder, Mardu Hordechief, Seeker of the Way, Mardu Warshrieker that fill out your curve (as long as your mana cooperates) and make blocking very difficult for the opponent to do, were basically the cards I wanted to cast the most. I thought that Ride Down was one of the strongest cards I’ve played with in a while and it made me feel like I always wanted red or white as a base with the ability to splash the third color from either the Mardu clan or the Jeskai clan.
Here is the pool I opened at the GP:
If you’d like to try and build this pool yourself and discuss it, I’d love to hear from you. You can download a MTGO .dek file here.
The first thing I did was scan for bombs, and I immediately found one in the form of Sarkhan. Unfortunately, my other red cards were all terrible (except for Arc Lightning). I couldn’t form an aggressive creature base from any of my colors, and red as a support color was lacking, so I gave up on the idea of playing Sarkhan pretty quickly.
The next bomb card I saw was Abzan Ascendancy. This card is fantastic in both fast and slow decks (as long as they have plenty of creatures), so I started looking at my GBW cards to see if I could make a reasonable Abzan deck. The cards were kinda-sorta present, but I only had one non-basic land that could help with fixing (a single Jungle Hollow), so I gave up on the idea of the Abzan deck.
After that, I started to look at what lands I did have. It looked like I could make a deck with two colors out of the Sultai (BUG) clan, splashing the third, and also splashing red, and have reasonable fixing. Since I had some pretty strong multicolor cards (like Sultai Charm and Kin-Tree Invocation), I started to look at this deck more as the deck I’d likely end up playing.
I’m not sure if it’s because it’s so early in the format that every card seems awesome (or rather, playable), but I had a lot of difficulty cutting down to 22 cards from 30 or so. There are so many cards that seem like they would be awesome in the context of a regular limited format, but something has to get cut.
This was the deck I ended up registering:
It ended up being base U/G, splashing black cards and a couple red removal cards that I liked. The biggest problem I saw was that it had no really strong ways to end the game – no flyers and only one evasive creature, a flimsy Mystic of the Hidden Way.
Some notes about card choices:
Cards I played
Disdainful Stroke, Cancel
I really like counters, even moreso in sealed, and especially if this format is slower. I would have liked to play both copies of Cancel, but I ended up with too few creatures.
Weave Fate (AKA Inspiration)
I had a few nice sources of card advantage (including two copies of Bitter Revelation, a Treasure Cruise, and to a lesser extent Scout the Borders and Rakshasa’s Secret), but I chose Weave Fate because I wanted to play more of an instant speed game. Keep mana up for counters, and if they don’t cast anything threatening, gas up in their end step instead. I felt like this reasoning was sound.
I mentioned that I felt like my deck could have problems closing. The theory behind including this card was that if they found a way to deal with my Mystic (one of my strongest finishers), I could return it and essentially have two copies. It’s a rag-tag bush-league strategy, but I was genuinely afraid that my deck would end up doing nothing after having all its good cards (all one of them) removed.
Red cards (Scaldkin, Arc Lightning, Winterflame)
I felt like the red splash was pretty easy to accommodate, between the three red lands and the 0/3 ramp guy. Besides, my experience in the few events I played so far was that my opponents tended to use “play all my fixing and all my good cards” strategies more often than I expected them to, and hardly ever got punished for it, so why couldn’t it be me? Scaldkin is easy to play since blue is one of my base colors, and Arc Lightning is just plain awesome. As long as I have red, might as well include Winterflame too, since it seems like it’s at least a reasonable removal spell.
Witness of the Ages
I needed to fill up my creature count, and this seemed like the best one available from all the non-auto-plays. It can be played as a morph, it doesn’t have any strict mana requirements, and it has a reasonable toughness (unlike Krumar Bond-Kin).
Cards I didn’t play
Green pump spells (Awaken the Bear, Become Immense, Incremental Growth)
My deck was certainly not very aggressive, and it was lacking creatures to begin with, so I kept cutting them one by one until they were all gone. I can see Incremental Growth and Become Immense being awesome in curve out strategies, but I feel like a green curve out strategy in this format is hard to come by.
Other card advantage spells (Treasure Cruise, Bitter Revelation)
I didn’t feel like I’d have enough graveyard to reliably use Treasure Cruise, and I felt like tapping out and losing 2 life to get 2 cards would be a tempo death trap. (I’m still used to the tempo slugfests that RTR and Theros were.) A lot of these initial ideas I had were wrong, and I’m trying to hold off until the end to reveal my updated evaluations, but wow I was wrong about both of these. They are very strong.
Discard spells (Despise, Rakshasa’s Secret)
I felt like these would be better out of the board, and since I’m still so used to tempo decks, I didn’t really want a useless discard spell in the mid-game when most of the cards are on the board.
As you can probably tell by now, thanks to the previous few formats, I’m scared to death of tempo decks. This card is obviously awesome if you can cast it for 6+, but I sort of automatically dismissed that idea because getting to 9 mana has been pretty rare in limited lately. For that reason I left this card in the board.
Doofy black creatures (Kheru Dreadmaw, Rotting Mastodon, Kheru Bloodsucker)
Of these, the Rotting Mastodon was the closest to make it in the main deck, but was one of the final cuts (in favor of Sagu Archer I think). I didn’t feel like I had enough creatures sitting around to make the Dreadmaw super effective, and I didn’t like the Bloodsucker for the same reasons in addition to its ability seeming a bit overpriced to me.
I was happy with my deck, but luckily before my first round got paired, I was able to meet up with my good pals Vishu Doshi and Peter Ingram, and we all decided to have a deck clinic and fix each other’s decks. Luckily mine was first. After some collaboration, these are the changes they suggested:
They suggested to swap in the 11 cards in the rightmost column of the main deck section for the 11 cards in the rightmost column of the sideboard section. Basically they wanted to cut the red nonsense, the counters package (and the reliance on blue overall) in exchange for cards that were actually powerful and could potentially provide another reasonable gameplan (Bloodsucker finisher, a bigger butt for Kin-Tree Invocation, and Villainous Wealth). It was settled that I would swap these 11 cards after every game 1, and then perhaps make some other adjustments based on what I saw.
I stuck to the plan and changed my 11 cards for game 2, and it worked – sort of. I managed to defend the ground with my stronger creatures, but I was having trouble actually winning, aside from a ping from Archers’ Parapet every turn. Eventually I drew Villainous Wealth and cast it for a ton and got two Ponyback Brigades. I won the game by comboing out with Kheru Bloodsucker.
The problem was that I won game 2 in extra turns, so the match was going to be a draw, which left me at 2-0-1.
My round 4 opponent was awfully chatty. He had yet another 4 color play-all-my-lands-and-rares deck. He destroyed me in the first game with Savage Knuckleblade and a pile of other creatures with 3 toughness, while I failed to draw lands after mulliganing.
I stuck to the plan for game 2, with the special edit of bringing in Kin-Tree Warden over Death Frenzy since I didn’t see much he had that would actually die to it, while the Warden could block a kKuckleblade effectively.
The plan worked, and I was able to quickly Despise his only good creature (Herald of Anafenza) before he could play it. From there I set up a defense and slowly won the game with Mystic of the Hidden Way. There was a scare on one turn where he played Roar of Challenge on a Woolly Loxodon and took out a couple of my guys while dealing me a ton of damage, but he didn’t execute that turn very well and I was able to survive with plenty of breathing room.
For game 3, I made another adjustment. I decided that I didn’t want Villainous Wealth, because I’m likely to die quicker than usual against his unusually tempo-oriented 4 color deck, and also because he showed me Force Spike and Temur Charm which could potentially make me very sad if I tried to tap out for a huge Wealth. In its place I added Cancel, since I wanted to be able to stop Roar of Challenge (or the Temur Charm on its creatures-can’t-block mode), the only thing that I saw that could penetrate my awesome defense.
I think that reasoning was at least reasonable if not correct, but I got punished maximally for it. He immediately had the Herald of Anafenza on turn 1, and spent several turns making tokens as well as a huge guy while I drew a lot of lands and very little action. I drew the Cancel, which (if it were Villainous Wealth) I would have been able to fire off for 6 the turn before I died, but I instead died with it in hand. Pretty tough beat.
I actually messed up as well – once I saw Herald of Anafenza in game 2, I should have brought Death Frenzy back in. I’m not sure if it would have saved me in that third game, but having a card that more or less slows the bleeding from an early token maker would have been a lot more useful than a stupid 1/1 that regenerates.
My opponent in round 5 had an aggressive Mardu deck.
I died very quickly in game 1 to a 3/1 2R prowess guy with the +2/+0 regenerate for 2B enchantment that I just never had a reasonable answer to.
I stuck to the plan for game 2 and it was going quite well – I set up my usual defenses, which were a bit flimsier than normal this game (since I was relying heavily on a Sagu Archer) and I was able to stabilize at around 10 life.
He drew an answer for the Archer (Rite of the Serpent), then kept the assault going with a Gurmag Swiftwing, which I felt compelled to immediately kill with my Death Frenzy, rather than get drained low enough to die to Arrow Storm or something. Then my opponent rebuilt a board consisting of a Bloodsoaked Champion and a Mardu Heart-Piercer vs. my Shambling Attendants. He made the aggressive play of attacking both of his creatures into my 3/5 and I made the obvious block, only to see him burn a Feat of Resistance on the Heart-Piercer just to force through 2 damage. I’m drawing lands at this point and need to draw something nice to continue to stabilize. He adds an Unyielding Krumar to the board and passes. I draw and it’s Villainous Wealth, which I can cast for 6 (thanks to my outrageous flood), and I get….
Furthermore, thanks to the wording on the card, I had to cast all of the spells (all two of them) inside the resolution of the Wealth, so I couldn’t make the super optimal play of going to my second main phase, casting the Dasher, and putting the Snakeskin on it. I had to put the Snakeskin on my 3/5 and cast the Dasher right away, and since I didn’t anticipate getting that card from Villainous Wealth, I had to move to my attack step and attack it right into his board of beefy blockers while I was obviously tapped out. Not a pleasant gameplay experience for me.
I died in two more attacks after that and dropped from the event.
I was extremely disappointed. At no point did I ever come close to winning a match.
More importantly, what did I learn from the event?
Well, the edits that Vishu and Peter suggested to my deck definitely made it better. I felt a huge difference. It’s strange being conditioned by cheap tempo cards into thinking that cards like Bitter Revelation are too slow, only to have a format come around and make cards like that awesome again. I have never been particularly great at Limited, and evaluating these specific cards so poorly really calls to attention my lack of fundamentals. It makes me wonder if it’s even possible to improve them at this point. I’ve been drafting and building sealed pools for ten years, and having hit my skill ceiling already is a very real and scary possibility.
A lot of people were saying that the format is all about mana, and I agree. Decks are playing 18 lands, mainly (in my opinion) to accommodate the need to play a certain number of sources for each of your three (potentially four or five) colors. Hitting all your drops to make sure you can unmorph your face down creatures and cast your bigger spells is also very important. If you have good mana in this format you are content, but if you don’t you are absolutely miserable. This is the reason that I didn’t want to play the Abzan deck in my pool (even though it might have had the strongest overall card pool) because, without much fixing, I felt like I would just lose to mana over and over. Of course I’m sitting here second guessing myself, wondering what it would have been like if I just played it and hoped for the best.
Four time GP Top 8 competitor Harry Corvese insists that the format is about blocking rather than attacking, and that the magic number is 5 toughness. After the main event, I played one side draft (using my free draft coupon) and did two 3v3s on Sunday, and I’m not confident that is a completely accurate assessment. I lost plenty of games over the weekend, in both draft and sealed, and they came in both varieties of tempo-you-out and defend-and-close. I think that the most important thing, for both aggro and control decks, is to have some way to close the game out. The format seems to have plenty of good ways (both bleeder and haymaker ways) to close games out, whether it’s setting up defenses with Archers’ Parapet and bleeding them to death, or sneaking through with a Mystic of the Hidden Ways, or putting on as much pressure as possible and then closing out with something like Barrage of Boulders or Roar of Challenge, and when assembling your deck I feel like it’s important to pay particular attention to how you plan on closing the game out when the board comes to a stall.
All things considered, I don’t really like the format very much. I think having to pay so much attention to your mana is extremely stressful. It feels really bad to pass a fantastic uncommon (something like Ride Down) in favor of a tri-land, but you can’t really risk just not seeing any other fixing or you could end up with an unplayable deck, so every draft decision has a lot more riding on it than usual. For sealed, the lands you open basically dictate the deck you can make, so if you open cards in great colors but not any lands to support it, you are pigeonholed into either making a deliberately underpowered deck that can actually play Magic, or just rolling the dice and hoping your mana cooperates all day.
I also hate the feeling of drawing up opening hands that are more likely than not to be missing a color (since you have to manage 3+ colors instead of just 2 with an occasional light splash). I mulliganed a lot this weekend, and I’m particularly averse to mulliganing. Harry and Ari Lax were both discussing the theory that keeping 2 landers, especially on the play, is basically a death sentence, since you could risk drawing a color that you already have or possibly just not draw any lands at all. I hate the idea that this theory could possibly be correct, but I’m thinking that it’s closer to correct than it is to incorrect. While 3 mana is the magic number to be able to play creatures with morph face down, you really want to be hitting your drops to 5 so that you can start unmorphing your awesome morphs and playing your strong cards, so leaving it up to chance with a 2 lander is even riskier than normal, even with 18 land decks. When you add a large number of 2 land hands into the pool of possible 7 card hands that you have to mulligan, that leads to many more games where you will be dissatisfied with your opening hand and have to mulligan. Of course taking a mulligan isn’t an auto-loss, but there are mulligan statistics and they are not exactly reassuring.
I also have a theory of my own. Sample sizes in Magic are small to begin with, and they are especially small for this set, with only a tiny amount of events and exposure to the cards thus far. For the first few weeks of this limited format, any given player is only going to have, at most, 20 or so data points to draw conclusions about the format from (and more realistically around 10). If you always jam 4 colors and your best spells into your decks and happen to be blessed and draw all your mana all the time (which is easier than it sounds in a 10-event sample size), you’re going to think that playing 4 colors has very little risk attached to it. Similarly, if you’re drafting modest 3 color decks and getting color screwed or mana screwed, it’s going to warp your perception of the format to the point where you would consider taking tri-lands over top tier commons and uncommons. Who is correct? What can you believe? I honestly don’t know. What I can say is that I don’t find this particular process of discovery very fun or interesting.
I have to decide how much work I want to put into this format pretty soon. The rest of this PTQ season, the last traditional one ever, is KTK limited, and there are a handful of GPs that use these cards (some of which that would be foolish for me to skip, like GP Baltimore), so I can’t realistically attend any of these events if I plan on ignoring the format. I also already made plans to attend GP Nashville with Ben Friedman and Joe Demestrio (who themselves already booked travel and such), so I’d feel absolutely awful having to make them scramble for a replacement third. At the same time, if I hate the cards and am not good at the format, making them drag around a giant mopey brick that can’t win all weekend could potentially be worse, for them and for me. We’ll see.
If you have any thoughts or ideas about the format and want to have a constructive, meaningful discussion about it with me, I would love to hear from you.