Drafting with KYT – KTK #4

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Lessons from Ottawa

Two weekends ago I played at GP Almost Ottawa, and I lost. But I didn’t lose as badly as I could have.

Instead of writing another boring tournament report, I thought I would spend this article talking about my Sealed deck build and explaining some of the choices. In the process, I’ll have the opportunity to talk about some cards and how people regularly misevaluate them. Like [card]Kheru Spellsnatcher[/card], which is not a bomb. But more on that later.

First, let’s talk about Khans Sealed deck.

After talking pretty generally about strategy last week, let’s look at what worked well this weekend. At the end of Day 1 there were four undefeated players. I think new players tend to think that the decks which go undefeated are inherently the best. So the first disclaimer has to be that there are lots of elements which lead to going undefeated: luck, skill, and deck quality. All three of these have to be decently high to get it done. But they are certainly an example of decks which work. So let’s dig in.

So, four people went undefeated in Sealed. Two of them were straight Abzan. One was Black/White splashing Green and Red (for morphs and Charms). The last was green based, splashing the other four colours, and playing [card]Trail of Mystery[/card]. This colour distribution is pretty telling. It suggests that the most consistent decks focus on a combination of Black, White, and Green to present an imposing board presence. Both Blue and Red show up almost universally in a support role. I certainly don’t think this tells the whole story of the colour balance, particularly since each clan has a lot of upside and a sees lot of play. However, it takes consistency to be undefeated at the end of the day. Clearly, Abzan takes home that credit.

I think that this Sealed format is really defined by the best decks’ abilities to stabilize. Three of the four decks had [card]Siege Rhino[/card]. The card which has been stabilizing Standard since the set was released. Even more telling, the only deck not playing [card]Abzan Guide[/card] didn’t have one in the pool. That says a lot about where this format is at. The ability to change a race by contributing a large body and recovering a ton of lost life is hugely significant. It is unsurprising that the top 8 contenders often mentioned [card]Siege Rhino[/card] as their MVP. Even though there are more powerful individual cards in the set, the ability to withstand an opponent’s aggressive start and reorient after a rocky draw cannot be overlooked.

Before moving on, there are two last things I want to point out. Firstly, two of the top decks played 18 creatures, while one played 15 (16 if you count the [card]Mardu Charm[/card]). The only one with fewer than 15 was Matt Costa’s [card]Trail of Mystery[/card] deck, which was thinning itself by pulling out its lands and could play all but two of its creatures on three lands (the outliers being [card]Siege Rhino[/card] and [card]Riverwheel Aerialists[/card]). Clearly, creature density is important. As I suggested in my first article, playing a ton of powerful spells is probably not a winning strategy.

Secondly, there was not a [card]Jeskai Windscout[/card] in a main deck. This certainly doesn’t mean that this is a bad card. Yet, going back to the point about stabilization, the decks which didn’t occasionally just lose weren’t playing cards that thrive in a tempo based strategy. That is generally true for most formats – the best decks have a high power level and tons of consistency with cards that are strong in a variety of situations. All this says is that this is a format where these decks are attainable and run rampant. The undefeated decks had their share of [card]War Behemoth[/card]s and [card]Kin-Tree Warden[/card]s. The best decks want to be able to make stable game-states.

The take away from this information is that Khans Sealed format is not the same as draft; the explosive two colour decks are just not as viable. In a long Sealed tournament, the times when your draw doesn’t allow you to curve out begin to compound, and the regularity with which you see bombs add up. It becomes very hard to rely on a deck whose plan is [card]Wetland Sambar[/card] into [card]Jeskai Windscout[/card] into [card]Crippling Chill[/card] into [card]Force Away[/card] and then [card]Arrow Storm[/card] for the win. I wrote about this more in depth last week, and GP Ottawa seems to have really played it out. The five colour decks and the two colour splash decks seem to really dominate the format. That being said, if you open a particularly weak pool I still believe that a tempo based deck, when the draws go its way, has some potential to capitalize on this status quo. It’s not where you want to be, but sometimes it’s the only option you have.

This transitions well into talking about my pool.

MicahSealedPoolOttawa

TXT version for MTGO

This is what I was passed on Saturday morning.

The first thing that I always do with my Khans pools is look at the lands. Here we have seven – which is acceptable – but none that make Black mana. The lack of Black fixing means that if we don’t play the colour then our mana will be significantly better, and if we do play it, it has to be one of our main colours. Looking over at the black cards, there are certainly some exciting ones in [card]Murderous Cut[/card], [card]Debilitating Injury[/card], and the pair of [card]Sultai Scavenger[/card]s. Furthermore, playing Abzan would give us access to [card]Abzan Guide[/card] and [card]Abzan Charm[/card]. However, when looking at the pool, I decided that the power level increase from playing a black based deck would not make up for the decreased consistency we get by playing colours which are represented in our fixing. For this reason, I opted to not play Black. Cutting the colour – and with it access to our best removal – was not easy and may have not been correct. However, in a long game when players are playing haymakers, I judged that I would be at a disadvantage as I lacked true bombs. In fact, the only really explosive card in the pool, [card]Flying Crane Technique[/card], would be essentially unplayable in the Black shell. There may have been a five colour deck here, but I didn’t want to risk it with the mana I had.

So Black was out.

Looking at the remaining colours, Green clearly had the strongest creature base. We had two excellent two-drops in [card]Heir of the Wilds[/card] and [card]Rattleclaw Mystic[/card], powerful outlasters in [card]Tuskguard Captain[/card] and [card]Longshot Squad[/card], and a copy of [card]Savage Punch[/card] which can be a huge tempo play in the developing part of the game.

Red was also a key colour as it had not only [card]Mardu Heart-Piercer[/card] and [card]Jeering Instigator[/card], but a mana symbol in each of our remaining powerful multi-coloured cards. The Heart-Piercer is one of the best tempo creatures in the set, and the [card]Instigator[/card] can completely steal wins. If we were going to get there it was going to be on the back of these tempo plays, and some strong morphs in [card]Efreet Weaponmaster[/card] and [card]Snowhorn Rider[/card].

I think the base of Red and Green was pretty clear once Black was removed from the pool. Now the question became whether to focus more heavily on White or Blue. Playing a completely balanced four colour deck was not really an option, particularly when we want to try to beat our opponents in the tempo portion of the game. When laying out the deck I had put Blue in the heavier role, giving access to [card]Mistfire Weaver[/card], [card]Force Away[/card], [card]Singing Bell Strike[/card], [card]Jeskai Windscout[/card], [card]Glacial Stalker[/card], and the morphs. In this deck, the white was for the morphs, [card]Ride Down[/card], [card]Kill Shot[/card] and [card]Feat of Resistance[/card]. However, as the deckbuilding time began to dwindle I realized that I wanted to be more creature focussed, and that white gave me access to a nice outlast package in [card]Abzan Battle Priest[/card] and [card]Ainok Bond-Kin[/card]. Furthermore, the pair of [card]Alabaster Kirin[/card]s interact pretty favourably in the gummy ground stalls that appear in the format.

Here is what I ended up submitting.

MicahSealedDeck

A couple notes on the deck. The first thing that probably jumps out at a lot of people is the 17 lands, as opposed to the normal 18 for this format. Since I had a number of two drops and very few cards which had to be hard-cast over 4 mana (only [card]Arrow Storm[/card] and [card]Flying Crane Technique[/card]), and I had the [card]Rattleclaw Mystic[/card], the 17 lands was a commitment to the idea of trying to beat people in the early part of the mid-game. These mana considerations were also a big part of why [card]Avalanche Tusker[/card] was left on the sidelines. I didn’t trust that he would be regularly cast-able on turn 5 and his low toughness and slow start didn’t fit the game plan. Similarly, [card]Winterflame[/card] was one of the last cuts, as I ended up playing fewer mountains and more plains. I decided that there was a likelihood that I would want to play a white creature and leave up mana for [card]Kill Shot[/card] or [card]Feat of Resistance[/card]. Overall, the mana for the deck worked out well and I never felt I lost to it, even when the draws were not perfect (as always happens in Magic at times).

The last cuts from the deck were a trio of red creatures – [card]Mardu Warshrieker[/card], [card]Canyon Lurkers[/card], and [card]Bloodfire Expert[/card] – for which I simply couldn’t find room. Unfortunately, this meant that I had a hard time triggering the ferocious on [card]Savage Punch[/card] and [card]Barrage of Boulders[/card]. Not having the density of cheap four power creatures was certainly an oversight, and I believe cost me a couple games over the course of the day.

Having sleeved up this naya-splash-blue deck I began the tournament round 1, playing with no byes (one GPT being the only real tournament I had played with paper cards in this format). The deck functioned about as well as I had expected. The cards and tempo were able to carry me past opponents who stumbled, misplayed, and tried to set up powerful late-games. However, when I eventually began facing decks with a density of bombs, I had more trouble. The losses I took were to [card]High Sentinels of Arashin[/card], [card]Siege Rhino[/card]s, and generally, the type of Abzan builds that we discussed looking at the top tables. I was eventually knocked out of the tournament in the eighth round by a ton of morphs and a [card]Ghostfire Blade[/card] versus a few clunky draws and mulligans. I don’t expect that I played that last match perfectly, but the deck certainly struggles when your opponent curves out better than you and also has a stronger top-end.

Overall, it was not a particularly impressive performance. However, it did show that these tempo-based decks have some play it the format. Last week, some people commented that they would like to see some examples of more linear Sealed decks, and I think my GP Ottawa experience delivered. When you don’t open a pool that can play the best strategy in the room – which is clearly the slow stable game and winning with bombs – it is still possible to win more than your share of matches.

Before closing, I want to briefly highlight two cards which I think I have a different evaluation of than some other people, particularly those I saw slinging at the GP. Firstly, I saw a lot of [card]Kheru Spellsnatcher[/card]s in play over the course of the weekend. Usually, I didn’t actually see them until they were moved to the graveyard unflipped. While I’m not denying the card has some serious upside, I think it is best suited to a deck which is comfortable playing it as a [card]Hill Giant[/card] and can consistently have the double blue for its morph cost. Even in these decks, it is not a bomb. This format is often about interacting with morphs during combat. You want to be able to flip your morph for value in the combat step either in order to or in response to changing the complexion of the board. The fact that the Spellsnatcher only wants to be turned face up when there is something on the stack really limits its versatility. It can often be hard to find time to leave up two mana for [card]Disdainful Stroke[/card] in this format, the six mana on [card]Kheru Spellsnatcher[/card] fills a very awkward spot. I’m certainly not trying to suggest the card isn’t playable, but I think people need to stop thinking that just because it can be a blow-out doesn’t mean it is a bomb caliber card.

Secondly, one of my MVPs of not just the weekend but also the last couple weeks has been [card]Barrage of Boulders[/card]. While I certainly don’t think this card is a bomb either, it does a lot of versatile work against a lot of decks. Its ability to just [card]Falter[/card] the opposing team and allow a crashing victory in otherwise stalled boards should not be overlooked. Additionally, it isn’t only the Mardu token deck that is playing lots of X/1s (though the card is insane in that matchup). [card]Jeskai Windscout[/card], [card]Wetland Sambar[/card], [card]Highland Game[/card], [card]Ainok Bond-Kin[/card], and more, all see tons of play and die to the Barrage. There are few true 2-for-1s in this format, and the Barrage has the potential to be even better than that. I didn’t have the opportunity to watch the Top 8 of GP Ottawa (I was driving home), but I hear Barrage did some work there. Again, I’m not advocating taking this card super highly, but I certainly think a lot of people should take some time to reassess it.

Anyways, that’s my GP experience in sum. I hope people find the deck building choices interesting, even if you disagree. This GP really served to reinforce some of the points I have been making over these last couple articles. I think it stands that we should play more creatures, listen to our lands and use them to determine how you will splash, and that the format isn’t exceptionally slow – it is often won in the midgame, either by tempoing your opponent out or by stabilizing. There is also an important lesson here to not let our pools limit us. I was able to do better than I expected by taking the pool seriously, and I think a better player and builder would have been able to take it even further.

Let me know how you would have built the pool differently in the comments or I can be found @Micahgu on Twitter or streaming at twitch.tv/Kahm21.

Out of the Darkness and onto the Pro Tour!

It has been a long time since I wrote an article and I’m going to be blunt about it and get it over with: for nearly a year, I suffered a slow decline into a very deep depression that has only recently seem to have lifted. I’m talking life-threatening, hospitalized three times in a 6 month period, multiple antidepressant-taking Major Depressive Disorder. Part of me is embarrassed to share this with a wider audience but I know it’s important to bring awareness to mental health issues and do my part to fight the stigma involved with it. I identify as queer and my own participation in the LGBTQ community has taught me a lot about how important it is to be out, so my own queer politics make me feel a little queasy about hiding my mental illness.

I didn’t set out expecting to make top 8 of Grand Prix Ottawa. I had already been to 6 Grand Prix this year, with only one Day 2 finish. While GP Atlanta was my first cash finish, I had spent the year watching other friends reach important milestones, like making PTQ top 8s for the first time, and I was feeling like I had hit a plateau and maybe flailing a bit. Of course, depression and Magic don’t always go well together. I know for other people that Magic provides a social and leisure outlet that can be really helpful in battling depression but for me there were times when it just made me feel awful about myself. Part of that may be from a tendency to being too results-orientated and from pushing myself pretty hard to get better at Magic, however there were certainly times that a loss would trigger cycles of negative self-thought. But despite that, Magic remained for the longest time the one thing I remained interested in doing. When it got to the point where I didn’t even want to play Magic anymore, when even the thought of playing made me feel sick and I was just spending my free time basically staring at a wall, waiting for it to be time to go to sleep, that I reached the lowest point of my depression. This triggered my final trips to the hospital and the stay that resulted in what seems to be the correct combination of antidepressants for me.

I started drafting KTK online that day it came out, while I was still in hospital. It was a sign that things were turning around and that I was able to get pleasure out of doing the things I love again. Probably a day hasn’t gone by that I haven’t drafted KTK and up until about a week ago when I started working at a factory, I was drafting it at least 3 times a day, sometimes more. I’ve moved from Guelph back to my hometown of Hamilton and have been getting out to FNM and some tournaments at local stores. I want to keep Magic fun and not get too caught up in grinding online, so playing at these local stores has been a great way to unwind and make some new friends in Hamilton after being away for many years for university.

Anyway, GP Ottawa was first competitive tournament since GP Portland in August and I didn’t have high expectations. I felt confident I would make Day 2 but hoped for no more than making top 64 because I really wanted to get my first Pro Point. At deck build I was a little disappointed to be having to pass a pool with foil Sorin, two fetches and a [card]Crater’s Claws[/card]. It was the first time I’ve ever wondered if it would be better EV to just drop and take the money cards. You can imagine my surprise when the pool I received also had Sorin and a [card]Crater’s Claws[/card]! After a look through the rest of the pool, which was very shallow in green and blue, I decided the pool was just meant to be a Mardu deck. Just the amount of removal in those colours was enough to make a compelling case: 3 [card]Kill Shot[/card], 1 [card]Debilitating Injury[/card], 2 [card]Rite of the Serpent[/card], 1 [card]Arrow Storm[/card], 1 [card]Crater’s Claws[/card]. The deck was probably one of the easiest pools I’ve worked with and I was happy that I didn’t feel the need to dip into a fourth or fifth colour like a lot of my friends had to do. Here’s the finished product:

jessSealedOttawa1

I cut both of the [card]Rite of the Serpent[/card] because it is pretty slow removal compared to the [card]Kill Shot[/card]s and can’t burn your opponent out like [card]Crater’s Claws[/card] and [card]Arrow Storm[/card]. Playing against my friend’s big fatties Temur deck during our two round byes, I figured out that they would have to be sided in against decks looking to go bigger than me. My sealed deck has no fatties and in fact I decided to play one [card]Krumar Bond-Kin[/card] over a second [card]Leaping Master[/card] just to have one creature that could trade with something like a [card]Snowhorn Rider[/card] or a [card]Glacial Stalker[/card]. I won most of my games by just being faster or protecting Sorin long enough to let his ultimate take over the game. [card]Ankle Shanker[/card], for the most part, did a great job of breaking up board states when all I needed was to get a few more points of damage in. There were certainly situations in which he was a dead draw, but for what my deck was doing, he fit in quite well.

The only other tough decision I had to make was whether or not to play [card]Rush of Battle[/card] in my deck, especially since I had quite a few warriors to go with it. I decided not to play it because I didn’t think it would be good to go below 15 creatures in this deck and all the non-creature spells just seemed so much more powerful. I don’t really like [card]Rush of Battle[/card] or decks that try to use it and [card]Trumpet Blast[/card] so I imagine if I did mainboard it, it would have ended up being the first cut every time I went to sideboard. [card]Bloodfire Expert[/card] and [card]Leaping Master[/card] tended to be the cards I sided out most and I tended to side the two Rite of Serpents in the most, though I think there was only maybe 2 or 3 matches I even sideboarded for them. I had a number of people ask me about the double red splash and I know when I originally posted the deck, the manabase was left out. I never had problems with mana, it seemed to work out pretty well with essentially 4 dual lands to fix.

My most memorable match from day 1 is certainly playing Xavier Allegrucci in round 8. In the first game he had an overwhelming board state with counters on an [card]Abzan Falconer[/card] and [card]Ainok Bond-Kin[/card], as well as a token and a morph. He swings in for lethal and I just block the 1/1 token with [card]Leaping Master[/card] (having had a brain fart where for some reason I thought it was a morph!). I cast [card]Kill Shot[/card] on the [card]Abzan Falconer[/card] and in response he flips the morph to reveal [card]Woolly Loxodon[/card]. He thinks he has the game wrapped up there until I surprise him with the second [card]Kill Shot[/card], destroying the [card]Woolly Loxodon[/card]. In the space of one turn, the momentum just completely turned in my favour and he couldn’t do much more than sit back and watch me follow up with [card]Sultai Scavenger[/card] and go on to win the game. The second game was much more straightforward and I won without much of a hitch but I was impressed with Xavier and how friendly he was. I was so surprised to learn the next day that he is only 17! I was incredibly happy that he went on to make top 8 as well, especially since he had to 6-0 Day 2 and defeat William Jensen in the process.

I started off Day 2 drafting in pod 2 with Shehar Shenhar and Andrew Cuneo in my pod, which was a little intimidating. P1P1 I take [card]Arrow Storm[/card], being the sucker I am for that card. I get passed a [card]Rattleclaw Mystic[/card] second pick and a [card]Jeering Instigator[/card] third pick followed up by another [card]Arrow Storm[/card] and [card]Burn Away[/card]. I’m getting a signal that Temur is open to me, but then I get late picks [card]Kill Shot[/card] and [card]Highspire Mantis[/card] that makes me wonder if I should be Jeskai. With thoughts of Jeskai in mind, in pack 2 I first pick an [card]Abzan Falconer[/card] and second pick another [card]Highspire Mantis[/card]. The white does not continue to flow and I abandon the idea of going Jeskai, picking up mostly blue and red cards. The third pack I pick up [card]Secret Plans[/card], sealing the idea that I am going to play green since I already have a fair amount of morphs at that point. I look for fixing for the white cards and manage to find a [card]Tranquil Cove[/card], [card]Blossoming Sands[/card] and [card]Flooded Strand[/card]. This was my favourite deck of the three I drafted on Day 2. It had the most evasion, got a lot of card advantage with [card]Secret Plans[/card] and [card]Dig Through Time[/card] and had the best fixing. Here is the deck:

jessDraftOttawa2

My first match was against an aggressive R/W deck. The first game I stabilized at about 6 life by throwing my worst morphs in front of my opponent’s 2 and 3 drops, making generally unfavourable trades to protect my life total. Once I was able to get some creatures with toughness 3 or greater onto the board, it was easy to take control of the game and win with my larger creatures. The second game I lost just to a very fast hand from my opponent. In the third game, I took control pretty early with a pair of [card]Highspire Mantis[/card]. This forced my opponent to cast Sarkhan into an unfavourable board state and minus Sarkhan to kill a [card]Highspire Mantis[/card]. He chumped my remaining [card]Highspire Mantis[/card] with [card]Alabaster Kirin[/card] to save Sarkhan another turn. He got in for 4 with Sarkhan but was unable to protect him from my flier after that. With my larger ground creatures gumming up the ground, I was able to get in with fliers to win the match.

I next played against Shahar Shenhar in my first feature match. I was definitely very nervous about playing Shahar and being featured didn’t help. He had a very impressive Temur deck, with most of his creatures outclassing mine. We had a close first game where if I had drawn a land instead of [card]Dig Through Time[/card], I could have stolen one of his creatures with [card]Jeering Instigator[/card] and pushed through lethal with an alpha strike followed by [card]Arrow Storm[/card]. Instead, I used [card]Dig Through Time[/card] to get [card]Burn Away[/card] and a land so I could cast [card]Burn Away[/card] to kill his [card]Surrak Dragonclaw[/card] and chump his creatures without dying to trample damage the next turn. I should have kept back both my [card]Jeskai Windscout[/card]s so I wouldn’t have to block with [card]Jeering Instigator[/card] but I didn’t realize this until after I had attacked with one of them. Game 2 I just got run over with very large creatures as Shahar used [card]Trap Essence[/card] and [card]Dragonscale Boon[/card] to great advantage and I just had nothing that could match the size of his creatures.

The third match was where the card advantage from [card]Secret Plans[/card] shined. I was playing against a Sultai deck and both games I just drew so many cards and put too many threats on the board for my opponent to deal with. There was an awkward moment where I had to cast [card]Dig Through Time[/card] to find [card]Awaken the Bear[/card] in order to keep my opponent from wiping out my two [card]Jeskai Windscout[/card]s with [card]Death Frenzy[/card]. Since he alpha striked me that turn expecting all my creatures to die, I was able to put him down to 3 on the swing back and put down [card]Mystic of the Hidden Way[/card] to push through the final damage on the following turn.

I drafted a Jeskai Tempo deck in the second draft. I pretty much got fed the deck, getting 2 [card]Winterflame[/card], 3 [card]Force Away[/card], [card]Mantis Rider[/card] 3rd or 4th pick in the last pack, and some cheap prowess creatures. I was a bit worried about being creature-light at 13 creatures and that I had no real finisher as my largest creature was Scion of Glacers and I did not have any [card]Arrow Storm[/card]s. The mana base was really screwy with no fixing and almost equal numbers of Islands, Plains and Mountains. I did have access to [card]Smite the Monstrous[/card] and [card]Icy Blast[/card] in the sideboard, which I brought in every game. I didn’t have [card]Icy Blast[/card] main because I have generally been unimpressed with it but the matches I played tended to have very clogged board states that [card]Icy Blast[/card] helped to clear for me.

Here is the deck:

jessDraftOttawa3

My first match with this deck was against a 5-colour [card]Secret Plans[/card]/[card]Trail of Mystery[/card] deck. The first game my opponent could not find an answer to [card]Mantis Rider[/card] in time. The second game he jut went way over the top of me with multiple [card]Secret Plans[/card], [card]Sagu Mauler[/card] and other fatties. The third game, I quadruple blocked the [card]Sagu Mauler[/card] with [card]Feat of Resistance[/card] back-up to make sure the Mauler would die. I also managed to get his other main fatty, [card]Woolly Loxodon[/card], by making a bad attack into it while it was morphed with my morphed 0/5 and then finishing it off with the Mardu Heartpiercer raid trigger (my opponent had a [card]Secret Plans[/card] out so there was no option to try to trade fairly). We got into a clogged board state and eventually my opponent got out three [card]Secret Plans[/card] with multiple morphs on board. I love [card]Secret Plans[/card] decks but I know you court decking yourself with two out, so three just seemed insane.

My position wasn’t looking good as my creatures did not line up well with his but at some point I decided that I was more likely to win just trying to wait for him to deck himself. So this led to some interesting lines of play such as pumping my [card]Scion of Glaciers[/card] to 4 to get ferocious on [card]Icy Blast[/card] and using [card]Feat of Resistance[/card] so my [card]Leaping Master[/card] could live another turn to block [card]Abomination of Gudul[/card]. I want to say that I won this match because I remembered I had [card]Smite the Monstrous[/card] in my hand when it came down to my opponent’s last turn before decking himself.

I made the biggest punt of my life and played through too quickly, forgetting the [card]Secret Plans[/card] triggers that should have gone on the stack when my opponent flipped an [card]Efreet Weaponmaster[/card] to give the [card]Abomination of Gudul[/card] lethal damage. I completely missed that by flipping the Weaponmaster, my opponent would be forced to draw cards from an empty library and even if he would have had three cards left in his library to draw off his three [card]Secret Plans[/card], I completely forgot I could [card]Smite the Monstrous[/card] the [card]Abomination of Gudul[/card] once it became 6 power. It’s an extremely embarrassing mistake and I’m in debt to the spectator, who coincidentally was my round 9 opponent from day 1, who noticed my opponent’s missed [card]Secret Plans[/card] triggers and reported it to a judge. This matter was brought before one of the head judges and after talking to me, my opponent and the spectator, the head judge ruled that my opponent had deliberately missed his [card]Secret Plans[/card] triggers when he flipped the [card]Efreet Weaponmaster[/card] and my opponent was disqualified from the tournament.

When I learned that I would be given the win for the match and was not eliminated from top 8 contention, well you can imagine the shock and the racing emotions. Here I had gone from making a devastating, humiliating mistake to getting a sort of redemption. I won’t lie, at that moment when I learned I would get the win, I just knew I was going to make top 8, it just seemed like it was meant to be at that point. I don’t remember much from the next match because I was still in a bit of a daze over the outcome of the previous match. I remember just making some really tempo-heavy plays against a slower, big creature deck where I just kept putting my opponent a little farther and farther behind on board state. He’d flip a morph and I would essentially timewalk him by bouncing the morph to his hand and I just seemed to have the right removal at the right time. It was really surreal.

After that match, I got a chance to talk with William Jensen about my tiebreakers. I’m really grateful that he was able to explain the situation well enough to me that I felt pretty good about taking an Intentional Draw in the last round if my opponent agreed to it. I was paired against Seth Manfield in the last round of Swiss and right away he said he was fairly sure if we drew that he would be 7th seed and I would be 8th seed so I agreed to the draw.

For the last draft, in my first pack I opened [card]Flying Crane Technique[/card]. I’ve had a lot experience playing with that card in draft and I know it can win you games you have no business of winning, out of seemingly no where. So I took it and figured I would do my best to force another Jeskai Tempo deck. The deck turned out kind of awkward because while I got the removal package I traditionally favour for Jeskai (2 [card]Arrow Storm[/card], 1 [card]Burn Away[/card], 1 [card]Kill Shot[/card], 1 [card]Winterflame[/card]), I did not get the creatures I would have liked.

I don’t like [card]Summit Prowler[/card] at all and having to play two in my deck felt very wrong. [card]Venerable Lammasu[/card] probably should have been [card]Salt Road Patrol[/card] but I worried about not having much of a top-end beyond [card]Flying Crane Technique[/card]. [card]Abzan Battle Priest[/card] was a pretty bad card against Seth Manfield’s deck as it did not line-up well with his low-cost two-power drops so I ended up siding one out in favour of [card]Salt Road Patrol[/card] after game one of our quarterfinals match.

I made some poor decisions with trying to play around [card]Jeering Instigator[/card]. I knew he had it in game two of our match because he kept looking at it and sort of setting aside 3 mana like he was thinking of flipping it. When he cast [card]Barrage of Boulders[/card], I should have just let my [card]Jeskai Windscout[/card] die rather than cast [card]Feat of Resistance[/card] to save it with the prowess trigger. He was able to take my [card]Salt Road Patrol[/card] and put me down to 3 life, finishing me off the following turn with a flying [card]Leaping Master[/card] and [card]Defiant Strike[/card]. The third game I should have mulliganed my hand when I saw I had two [card]Summit Prowler[/card]s and no red mana. I had a [card]Crippling Chill[/card] and maybe a [card]Kill Shot[/card] (my memory is a bit hazy) and I want to just chalk up my bad keep to being tired from a long day.

Anyway, even though I lost in the quarterfinals, just making it to top 8 is a huge achievement for me. It’s more than I had even dared to hope for and I’m still coming to terms with the fact that in a single day I have achieved some of my biggest Magic goals. And all the support and encouragement I received from friends, some of my opponents, people at the event, people on Twitter, well you can’t imagine how good it feels after months of unrelenting loneliness and hopelessness caused by my depression. You have my upmost gratitude for all your kind words. I was already on a strong upward swing out of my depression when I left to go to Ottawa but now things are looking even better. I have a lot to look forward to and a lot of work to do to get ready for the Pro Tour. I’ve never really been a Modern player so I’m going to need to figure out what to play and take a 2 month crash course in the format!

@bloodymessjess

The Approach to Sealed and Draft in KTK

Last weekend I played in a GPT for Grand Prix Ottawa. My plan had been to take notes on the decks I played against and use them as a starting point to write about the archetypes in Khans of Tarkir Sealed. I thought it would be an interesting exercise in seeing what people were playing and function somewhat as a tournament report. Unfortunately, this plan didn’t work out. First of all, after starting 3-0, pairings and tournament size allowed me to double draw into the Top 8, so I only played three rounds of sealed. Secondly, I didn’t play against any really clear archetypes. It seemed that the best way to distinguish between decks was either by the colour they were not playing, or by the big bomb they were playing towards. This has not been my experience in draft at all. Having done some sealed prep for that GPT and now having done a couple additional dailies, I want to address the differences between Sealed and Draft in this format.

First of all, this is a huge topic. Draft and Sealed tend to be grouped together simply by their state as Limited formats. This is reasonable since they use the same card pool in the same ratios, but it ends up costing us when we try to switch between formats. A lot of our play decisions are intuitive. While it is important to be aware of all the decisions we are making – and there is tons of magic literature on how to get better at this – we still sometimes take lines based on our past experiences. This is good. It means that we are used to a format and can process small decisions in the background, saving our mental energy. However, when we are switching from Draft to Sealed, or vice-versa, sometimes these decisions are wrong. It becomes important to re-establish why we feel that something is correct. A good way to do this is by explicitly considering what makes the formats different.

Something that I keep coming back to is the power level of this set. The average card is very good and the strong commons are surprisingly close to bombs. The cycle of common tri-colour morphs are all cards that can be absolutely game defining; and they are common; and there are five of them. Overall, we can expect to not only have enough playables, but to have too many. This is a trend that has been going for a couple sets now. We are no longer having to scrounge through our extra cards for a 22nd or 23rd card. Instead, we are staring at our deck trying to figure out what we can cut.

Playing with a stronger card pool doesn’t simply make the average card better; it also makes the average deck more focused. This happens because our cards are able to perform an increased number of roles – because they are stronger overall. When we choose to play cards that aren’t able to do multiple things, it is because they are exceptionally good at one thing. In aggregate, this means that we need fewer cards to make our deck function and are able to choose particular auxiliary cards that will have a defined effect on the game. In draft, we see this constantly. The Black/White warrior deck plays a lot of very powerful warriors. A card like [card]Chief of the Scale[/card] is able to work as a lord that enables your warriors to attack profitably and as a 2/3 for two which can block morphs favourably. Since the deck has access to a strong two-way card like this, it can afford to spend slots on more narrowly aggressive cards like [card]Raiders’ Spoils[/card] and [card]Rush of Battle[/card]. This is a defining element of Khans’ draft.

I had expected this to hold true for Sealed, which is why I had planned to talk about archetypes. We already know that this didn’t work out. Why not? In past sets, Sealed formats have diverged most drastically from Drafts when the latter is focused on very narrow strategies and the overall card quality is lower. In Avacyn Restored, the Sealed format was completely different from Draft because the most powerful Draft decks were linear Red/White human and Green/Blue tempo decks. In Sealed, we were unable to get the specific cards en masse which enabled these strategies. Clearly though, this isn’t the case for KTK since we know that the average card is powerful and the strong decks are often simply colour and speed based: Mardu Aggro, Jeskai Tempo, Sultai Control. Why then is Sealed so different?

The answer is in the fixing. Since the average card quality is so high and there are two full cycles of very good colour fixing lands, our ability to play strong cards goes up. In Sealed, we often will have access to so many exceptionally strong and versatile cards that we no longer need to play the linear cards at all. Our ability to be adaptive trumps our need to be direct. When we open our six packs and see that we have 7-9 dual lands, our ability to simply cherry pick the best cards from each colour increases greatly. The cost of being greedy goes down. Furthermore, the strongest cards in this format are almost universally gold coloured, so we are incentivized to play our duals regardless. Once we are playing the duals, the cost of playing more colours is decreased even further.

This is why I believe that so many people are playing four or five colours in Sealed. It is why so many of these decks are at the top tables, and it is why we see so few truly linear decks. The questions we now want to ask are “how do we use this information to build better Sealed decks?” and “what do we do differently than in Draft?”

The first thing we have to do is understand what our lands allow. Before we go about just jamming all of our best cards into a deck we have to both understand what we can support, and understand the cost of each colour. If we only have one or two blue duals, then playing blue as a main colour requires that we play six to eight islands, that’s six or more lands that don’t make other colours. Every colour we play has both a cost (in having to consistently get another mana type) and a benefit (in increasing the power level of our deck). In order to decide whether a colour is worthwhile we have to balance these two. If we have a ton of duals then the cost is low, and if the colour’s cards are significantly better than the cards we would be playing otherwise, then it is most likely worthwhile. However, the inverse is also true. It is important to recognize that each card we add replaces a card that would otherwise fill its place. Sure [card]Snowhorn Rider[/card] is very powerful, but how much more so than [card]Glacial Stalker[/card]? Perhaps trying to play it off our one red dual and a mountain isn’t worthwhile for the upgrade that it represents over the blue morph. We need to acknowledge that there is a cost to playing all of these colours. Jay Lansdaal wrote an excellent article about this for ManaDeprived following GP Orlando.

So how do we play a deck that has a super high power level, but can still play its cards? The best strategy I’ve found is to play one or two colours and splash off of these. This strategy is highly benefited by morphs. If all of our cards are either White or have morph, the cost of not hitting our colours on time is relatively low, but the upside for hitting our colours is very high. Furthermore, if we have a high density of one colour, it ensures that we can be playing spells which will bridge the gap to the point where we can play our haymakers.

That is the second part of the equation: we have to have haymakers. The cards which we are playing off of our additional colours can’t just be good – they have to singlehandedly have a profound impact on the game regardless of the state it is in. In the case of the big bombs this is obvious. It is very clear that [card]Duneblast[/card] is game changing. The difference between a [card]Tuskguard Captain[/card] and an [card]Abzan Falconer[/card] is less so. In this case, the Falconer is a worthwhile splash (assuming we have the mana) because the ability to make a group of creatures fly is good both offensively and defensively. It can completely change the complexion of the board and the combat math when it hits the battlefield. Conversely, the Captain’s effect is only relevant on offense, a 3/4 trampler is significantly worse on defense than a 3/4 flyer (after they have outlasted). This is the reason why I’ve found [card]Ankle Shanker[/card] to be a bad splash – if we are slowing down our deck to play another colour, we want cards which thrive in the game type we are trying to set up. We want to splash two-way players like Dwight Howard, not a bunch of James Hardens.

If the strategy is to go big when our mana can reasonably support it, what do we do when it can’t? We have to reasonably expect that the top tables of a tournament are going to have decks with decent mana and powerful threats. So, if we can’t join them, we have to go the other direction. While the linear decks are less prevalent, that doesn’t mean they are impossible. When building these decks in Sealed, we just have to be prepared to consistently run into large powerful plays in the late game. Someone in the room has [card]Sagu Mauler[/card] and [card]Surrak Dragonclaw[/card]. How do we plan on beating them?

In this context the efficient removal spells become even more important. One card which has probably the biggest gap between Draft and Sealed is [card]Force Away[/card]. While it is good in Draft, it is pretty much essential to any linear blue deck in Sealed. When your opponent expects to stabilize by flipping their [card]Abzan Guide[/card] at six life, being able to remove it and their eight mana investment for only two – while perhaps also adding to your board – can be back breaking. Another card which has a lot more value in Sealed is [card]Rite of the Serpent[/card]. We are much more likely to run into the guy with two [card]Snowhorn Rider[/card]s and two [card]Abzan Guide[/card]s than the girl with four [card]Mardu Hordechief[/card]s. When these beefy dudes are trying to stonewall us, a Rite can completely crush their plan. The linear deck has to be prepared to tussle, because no one is missing powerful cards – there are just too many in the format.

So what exactly are we doing differently than Draft? In Sealed we have to be prepared to face higher-powered, less focused decks. Our opponents are more likely to be playing versatile bombs than powerful snipers. In Sealed Raider’s Spoils often lives in sideboards. With this expectation we have to choose one of three angles to beat whoever sits down across from us. We can go more powerful, more consistent, or more linear. Practically, this means that if we look at our packs and see great fixing then we might want to play all of the colours and the strongest cards. If we see less than great fixing and a pair of deep colours, we might want to make a point of not trying to splash a fourth or perhaps even third colour. Finally, if our pool seems to be missing the top end all together, we should try to put together a linear plan which can beat a less optimized opponent.

These options may seem obvious. As we become stronger as players, they become increasingly intuitive. What we should be doing though, is being aware of the choices we are making and why we are making them. As well as our play decisions, this awareness applies to choosing our decks. In Sealed, the deck we build is a choice. Let’s be aware of the choices we make.

Speed of Khans of Tarkir Limited

This week I want to talk about the speed of Khans of Tarkir Limited. Before I delve into the format specifically, I think it’s important to understand what speed really means. Discussions of whether a format is “fast” or “slow” are commonplace when trying to assess a format. These conversations are particularly prevalent when a format is new. The question being asked here is really one of timing. People want to know if matches are regularly being decided by a bunch of small creatures in the early turns (quickly reducing one’s life to zero), or if the games regularly go to late turns and are decided by expensive spells. The speed of a format can really be determined by answering the question of “When is it most important for me to be using my mana to create threats appropriate for that turn in the game?”. While this may seem complicated, all it asks is whether playing a two mana creature on turn two is more or less important than playing a six mana threat on turn 7 or 8. This is a format’s speed. A slow format forgives you for not playing relevant spells until late in the game, while a fast format punishes you for not having relevant spells in the first couple turns.

Format speed acts as a short cut for understanding how to build our decks. If we know a format tends to be slower we can choose to make card choice decisions which favour the late game. In a fast format, we have to have a plan to survive and interact on the first couple turns. Knowing the format speed also allows us to meta-game against it. In a slower format, perhaps we can build a fast deck which will punish people for not interacting early in the game. Knowing a format’s speed is akin to knowing the metagame of a constructed tournament; it allows us to tune our decks to successfully interact with what we can reasonably expect our opponents to be doing.

This knowledge also helps us during gameplay. If we know the general tempo of a format, we can make better and more informed mulligan decisions. Sequencing plays is a critical skill in Magic and relies heavily on knowing what will be happening on subsequent turns. If we can have an idea of when our opponents will be deploying their most threatening cards, we can play around these without even knowing the contents of their decks. Theros block was an excellent example of this, particularly triple Theros. When we were playing with three Theros boosters, the one drops were not particularly strong, but they enabled incredibly powerful starts with the Ordeals. From playing the format we learned that the aggressive decks in the format were very fast. Consequently, if we are on the play and our opponent plays a first turn [card]Akroan Crusader[/card] there is a very reasonable argument to play our second swamp and hold [card]Pharika’s Cure[/card] instead of playing an Island into [card]Shipwreck Singer[/card]. We need to be aware that the format can be fast and that surviving (with the Cure) is more important than playing a powerful card for the later game (the Singer). These decisions are lead by knowing both the cards in the format and the speed of the format.

That brings us to the question of Khans, is it fast or slow? So far, the general conversations I have been hearing have been suggesting that it is a slow format, or at least a slower format. This argument makes sense, particularly on the surface. I’ll try to reconstruct it. I assume it goes something along the lines of: there are a lot of powerful cards for the late game that can dramatically change the tone of the game. Additionally these cards can also be played as Morphs early in the game to help you survive to the late game. Empirically, the games tend to stall out and the ground gets full of a lot of big dudes, so the game doesn’t end until the later turns. Therefore, the format is slow.

From my brevity and derision, you might have guessed that I don’t agree with this assessment. To understand why, let’s go back to how we defined what the speed of a format is. The speed isn’t determined by the turn that the game ends on. It is determined by which turns the most relevant spells in the game are cast. I’m going to explain that in KTK it is not the cards that are cast on turn 7-10 that win the game, it is the cards that are cast on turn 3-5. This is even true for many of the games that end past turn 10. That being said, like any discussion of a format, I’m writing about it in general. There will certainly be games which are slow and are truly determined by an awesome 7 drop, and there will be games which end on turn 5 to a blazing fast start. Generally Khans is a middle speed format, perhaps even leaning towards the fast side. This means that the cards you play before turn 6 radically impact the game, and very realistically can be the determinates when deciding the victor.

Like most discussions of this format, it is important to start by talking about Morphs. By this point I think there is little dissension that Morph is the defining mechanic of the format and must be a relevant factor in every decision we make. In terms of format speed, Morph definitely influences a set to be faster. The ability encourages people to play a creature on turn three. It increases the number of creatures in the game, and encourages people to have early attackers. It also makes people play other creatures which can favourably interact with Morphs early in the game. In my last article I advocated playing two drops for this reason. For the same reason, three and four mana creatures which outclass Morphs become enticing. Playing all of these early creatures with base power of two or more, lead to a faster format. Morph also has an interesting effect on big creatures: it gives all of them pseudo-haste. Since your 5+ drop is already in play, when you flip it up on turn 5 it can attack immediately. This ability to crash in with huge creatures earlier than normal has a significant, and I think under-discussed, effect on the format’s speed. Normally we are used to having a turn of peace to deal with a 5/5 that has just hit the battlefield. However, when your opponent slams their fifth land, flips their [card]Snowhorn Rider[/card] and crashes in, that is five damage we may have not been prepared for.

So Khans is not a slow format, at least not the way we want to play it.

What does this mean for how we approach this set? First of all we have to decide our roles. This step is crucial and I get the sense that newer players don’t think about this enough when they are building their decks. Lots of Magic education discusses the issue of “Who’s the beatdown?” but when we sit and look at our decks laid out, there is a tendency to assess if it is good or bad, or perhaps at most fast or slow. We should also ask ourselves if we’re looking to be the aggressor. The answer to this helps us not only decide how many cards to play at each mana cost, but what we are looking for those cards to accomplish. The non-aggressive deck may want five two-drops just like the aggressive deck, but it probably doesn’t want [card]Valley Dasher[/card]. We should be asking ourselves who’s the beatdown not just in the game, but while we are building our deck, deciding to play or draw, when making sideboarding decisions and when choosing whether or not to mulligan.

In my last article I wrote about how even the non-aggressive deck wants to play lots of early creatures in KTK. Today, I want to discuss some of the unique elements of the aggressive decks in Khans. I should add the disclaimer that these are the decks that I enjoy playing in Khans and the decks that I have been most successful with. I find that while the elements change slightly between colours and decks, the style plays out fairly similarly. The goal is to play creatures on curve on turns 2, 3, and 4, and then back them up with powerful Morphs and key removal spells. Note that not a ton of removal is necessary (just one or two spells at the right time), perhaps a [card]Crippling Chill[/card] on turn five or a [card]Bring Low[/card] and a two-drop on turn six. These decks are usually able to get in significant damage early in the game, rapidly bringing your opponent down to 4-8 life. However, because of the general card quality in the set, you will often stall out. It is very common for the game to stall out, with your opponent on very little life, but with powerful creatures. I usually find myself with 3 or 4 creatures, facing the same number across the table; if I get to a point where I have one or two more creatures than my opponent for just one turn, I’ll win.

The concept of reach in Magic is an important one for any aggressive deck, but is particularly important in this Limited environment. In general, the idea is that aggressive decks often need to find an alternative way to get in the last five points of damage once their creatures become outmatched – a common occurrence in Khans. Luckily, KTK has a couple powerful tools to help us finish the job.

1. [card]Flying Crane Technique[/card] counts as reach, but it is essentially cheating to list it. This card is an absolute bomb and can let you reach all the way up to 20 life (or more) to end the game. While it is silly to try and plan on this being your avenue for the last couple points, I’m listing it first because it is essentially the effect we are trying to replicate. [card]Crater’s Claws[/card] is another card that falls into this category, which is versatile and can win otherwise unwinnable games. It’s also only one colour. Please keep passing me this card.

2. [card]Arrow Storm[/card] is a common which seems to be attainable in the average draft. Having one to two of these in your deck is very powerful. The removal element is often their primary function, as they enable you to remove a blocker and continue to get in for big chunks. The five damage output matches very well against most of the big threats in the format. However, the ability to go to your opponent’s face really puts it over the edge. When the board is stalled, martyring one of your two drops to burn out your opponent is an excellent way to close out a game. I will happily play 2-3 of these and count them as both removal and reach. That is a lot to get out of one card.

3. [card]Mystic of the Hidden Way[/card] seems to keep going up and up on people’s lists, with Stanislav Cifka calling it the best common in the set. I think this popularity has a lot to do with the recognition of the importance of having some reach in the format. With the tendency to have the board positions stall out, two swings from the Mystic can often close out the game. However, because this card is so popular, it is becoming harder and harder to get. The blue aggressive deck really wants one of these and thus I would be comfortable first picking it out of a medium-powered pack.

4. [card]Trumpet Blast[/card] is similar to the Mystic in that it appears to have rising stock. There was a time where it was easy to pick up more than you needed in the average 8-4. Now it seems that you have to dedicate a pick to it. People are definitely starting to respect the cards power in the token deck, taking them high and building around them. I definitely agree that with some combination of [card]Hordeling Outburst[/card], [card]Ponyback Brigade[/card], [card]Take Up Arms[/card] and [card]Mardu Hordechief[/card] it becomes a great way to get in those last couple points of damage in a big wide swing. However, I definitely think that it is being overrated in decks not focusing on this strategy. If a deck is not playing a ton of creatures or ways to make multiple creatures it is fairly underwhelming. Additionally, people seem to look to hold it to use it for lethal. I would suggest that if you are attacking and don’t have anything else to do with the mana, getting 6 damage for one card and three mana is a pretty efficient [card]Lava Axe[/card]. Unlike the other three cards I’ve discussed, this is one where there are on-colour, aggressive decks that probably don’t want it and definitely don’t want it in multiples. If you are considering playing [card]Trumpet Blast[/card], the question of your deck’s role when you are building becomes even more important.

5. [card]Act of Treason[/card] is a card which has been fairly underwhelming in past formats. This is a format where it shines. The scenario which I described earlier is a creature arms race, where the aggressive deck is looking to get more creatures than the opponent for one turn. In this scenario [card]Act of Treason[/card] functions as two creatures, as it subtracts one from opponent and adds one to your side. This can often mean the difference in the game. There are also a number of excellent bombs in the format, stealing them even for a turn can go a long way. I think this card is particularly well positioned in the format and look to play one in every red aggressive deck.

While this list places a lot of emphasis on red cards (it is the best colour to add reach) other colours have some good options as well. [card]Rush of Battle[/card] is a reasonable way for the white deck to end the game, while [card]Kheru Bloodsucker[/card] can close it out for a black based deck. Green has Archers’ Parapet which is an interesting option for green based aggressive decks. While it doesn’t necessarily follow your early game plan, it is excellent in a race scenario and can quite easily get in the last 5 points (albeit over several turns). That being said, if you have multiple Parapets it might be worth considering how aggressive your deck actually is. In the true aggressive green deck, [card]Awaken the Bear[/card] is probably a more consistent way to go over the top.

Overall, I think it is important to really understand the type of deck one is playing in Limited. We don’t go into a Constructed tournament without a clear plan, and a draft deck is no exception. Just because we are using a limited card pool doesn’t mean we aren’t constructing our decks. Hopefully we can work towards the point where, when asked, we can always explain what our deck is trying to do, and how it is planning to combat the opponent’s strategy.

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.