PV’s Playhouse – Khans of Tarkir Prerelease Primer

Hello!

Today we’re going to analyze the five clans for the prerelease and I’m going to tell you which one I think is the best.

Before we start, we need to take note of the how the prerelease works. One change from previous events is that you no longer get a set promo card for your faction, but you get one from a pool of rares on that combination. It doesn’t look like they will reveal the pool of rares, so we aren’t going to have that to guide us in choosing a clan.

I have to say that I like this change a lot (minus the not revealing it part, which makes my job in writing this article harder). Having the same promo as everyone else was kind of boring, since a big part of what makes the prerelease an enjoyable experience for me is the expectation about what I’ll get, and having promos of very different power levels also wasn’t fun. This should equalize the colors a bit and lead you to picking whichever clan you actually like more.

One downside to not having a fixed promo, however, is that now it can’t be used for balancing issues. Before, you could have a weak color with a strong promo and a strong color with a weak promo, but now you are just going to have a color that is stronger than another (or in this case a clan) with no way to balance it out. Even then, that’s a risk I’ll gladly take to have some more fun, and I think not having the same rare as everyone else is much better.

Second, we have a seeded booster that contains exclusively cards of a clan. I don’t know the details, but I assume that means it can contain any cards from either of the three colors as well as gold cards from that particular combination. It’s possible that it guarantees a tri-land or a Banner, but, as far as I know, this hasn’t been announced.

Since we have so little information available on what you’re actually going to get, and since a lot of the clans overlap a lot in terms of cards, I’m going to do this a little bit differently and just focus on general thoughts on the format and the clan.

  • Play a 3+-colored deck. I believe that, in this format, there is zero chance you do not play a clan—forget two-color decks, they don’t belong here. While that might make you focus exclusively on the clan you picked, I think there’s a very decent chance that it’s correct to just ignore it. The gold cards are naturally more powerful than the mono-colored cards, but there are surprisingly few of them. If you look at Abzan, for example, you see nine gold cards—five of which are rare and three of which are uncommon (and one of those is only black and white). This means there is only one common clan card, and it even has morph! The rewards for staying in a clan, therefore, should be found in quality and not quantity. You are more likely to open powerful things if you have a seeded pack, of course, but you still open five other packs, and if you see that your power is elsewhere, you should have no qualms about abandoning the clan you originally picked. There is also a chance that the clan promo you open is actually mono-colored (I think?), and there’s definitely (I think?) a chance the rare from the seeded booster is mono-colored, so a lot of the incentive for staying in that particular clan is gone. This makes it possible to pick a “color,” not play that particular color, and still have access to the rare from your pack.
  • Watch your mana. In a format with many gold cards, having good mana is very important. Sometimes, it’s OK to play a worse color combination because that one will let you cast your spells. The way I see it, the power level of a gold-colored set is usually so high that you don’t lose much by playing your second-best set of cards, and you gain a lot by actually being able to cast them. Splashing a fourth or fifth color is perfectly fine, but if you have any cards that cost only colored mana (such as a Charm or an Ascendancy) then I would shy away from lands that only produce the splash color. So I would potentially splash an Abzan Charm in a Mardu deck, but I would not play a Forest in it. I’d need three or four “free” green sources. I would also always play a tri-land that gave me two colors of mana, even if I had no use for the third one. Playing a straight five-color deck is also possible if you have the mana to support it.
  • Don’t worry too much about morphs. Wizards has stated that there are no morphs in the set that “trade up” for less than five mana—so if they have a morph and it’s not turn five, you can assure an even trade if they attack and you block. Most morphs in the set seem to be of the “solid creature” variety, and there are very few effects that are devastating for you. Unless you’ve seen a particularly powerful morph and it’s approaching the point where it can unmorph, do not spend premium removal on an early-game morph. By that I mean if my opponent plays a turn three morph and I have a Mardu Charm, I’m basically never killing it.
  • There is a lot of removal in this set. We’ve been exposed to a lot of sets that didn’t have a lot of removal in them, but the opposite seems to be the case here. In other formats, it’s possible to get decks that simply cannot remove a creature. In Khans, that seems very hard; the tri-color combination means that every deck is going to have access to some form of removal, and almost all of it costs only one colored mana, so don’t count on that one bomb winning you a lot of games.

Abzan

Abzan’s keyword, outlast, makes it a creature-centric clan that naturally has inevitability. You play creatures that are solid on their own and then, if you have open mana, they grow a little bit. There are multiple “outlast lords” that give abilities to guys with +1/+1 counters, so they work like Slivers in that way, except that most Slivers are bad on their own and these guys are not—their stats are fine, such as 2W for a 2/3 and 3G for a 3/3. Considering every outlast guy has not one but two abilities (one static and one activated), you’re not really paying much for those abilities at all. This makes me think this clan is very powerful. Sure, it’s annoying that you basically lose the creature for a turn, but you only need to use the effect once to get huge bonuses, and sometimes it provides something good just for being there.

Other than outlast creatures, it also has ways to put counters on its guys. Armament Corps is a 4/4 for 5 that pumps two of your guys and gives outlast bonuses to both of them—including itself. I think this card is absurdly powerful, and one of the best uncommons in the set—it is a huge tempo swing and a lot of power, something that we normally don’t see together. Your opponent is expecting you to have to tap your guy to get its outlast lord ability, and then all of a sudden not only is it attacking but there is also a 5/5 with an ability staring down at you. This card is probably the biggest incentive to go Abzan, and I keep looking at the spoiler and wondering if I have it wrong and it’s actually a 2/2, because it just seems so much better than its counterparts in every other clan. Other than Armament Corps, we have Abzan Charm, Feat of Resistance, Incremental Growth, and Dragonscale Boon. All are playable and most of them instant-speed, so combat against Abzan is always going to be hard.

One caveat: remember when I said there was a lot of removal in this set? A big part of it can be played instant speed. You might get your outlast lord killed mid-combat and that could turn out very badly for you, so plan for it.

Rares (and here I’m only going to talk about the rares you can get in your seeded pack):

Abzan knocks it out of the park with its rares. Anafenza, Abzan Ascendancy, Duneblast, Ivorytusk Fortress, and Siege Rhino are all excellent and will make any Abzan deck much better. There isn’t really much to say about them because they are all obviously good. Once you get to mono-colored cards, High Sentinels of Arashin can basically never be beaten, and, Herald of Anafenza is not a bomb but you’re always going to play it. Hardened Scales seems playable/good in the right deck (i.e. one with a lot of outlast). The only rare I imagine you will not play is Retribution of the Ancients.

Notable uncommons:

Armament Corps is, again, a huge blowout, but there are other very powerful uncommons in Abzan. Abzan Charm is great—every Charm is, honestly, but Abzan’s is even better due to a) being able to remove bombs and b) the fantastic synergy with the clan. Abzan Falconer offers the best reward for having counters and is a very solid creature on its own, so it’s definitely a premium card for any white deck, but it’s especially efficient in Abzan. Murderous Cut of course is an all-star whether you have ways to power up delve or not. Sultai Flayer is also one of the premium uncommons in the set, having great stats on its own (it triggers for itself) and feeding off your outlast dudes in the late game.

Notable Commons:

Ainok Bond-Kin is probably the best common outlast guy. A two-mana 2/1 is not even bad in a world of morphs, and if you spend only one turn it becomes a 3/2 first strike, which is very powerful. First strike is also one of those abilities that is devastating if you manage to get mid-combat, and it combos super well with the guy that gives deathtouch. Having multiple first strikers also means you’re very hard to profitably attack, so any kind of first strike lord has to be watched.

Savage Punch is going to be great in any green deck, and Abzan actually has ways to utilize ferocious since it only takes one or two outlast turns for it to work. Throttle and Debilitating Injury are unspectacular cards but also serve as decent removal if you’re looking for some.

Verdict: 10/10. I see no issues with Abzan. It has strong cards that go well together and it rewards you for playing a clan with very powerful tri-colored cards.

Jeskai

Jeskai is a very weird clan. It’s spell-based, but then its keyword is only found on creatures, which makes for awkward situations. I want prowess to reward me for playing spells, but I also want more spells to reward me for playing prowess. Rather than being a clan that works with itself, like Abzan, it seems to work somewhat at odds with itself. As a keyword, prowess is not a great one, and a big part of a good Jeskai deck will be balancing how many spells and how many creatures you want access to. Honestly, I recommend not trying to build around prowess—just play your good prowess creatures and then, if you can activate it, great; if you can’t, it’s not so bad.

The big issue here is that unlike outlast, the prowess mechanic actually seems to cost mana, as far as casting costs are concerned. With outlast, you get a 2/3 for 3 with two abilities; even if you do not get to use outlast, it’s a real Magic card. With prowess, you get 1/2 for 2, 3/1 for 3, and 4/2 for 5. You need to use prowess early for those guys to match up with regular cards, and, if you’re playing spells, you aren’t playing more creatures. The clan isn’t good not only because prowess is an unimpressive ability, but because adding prowess to cards make them cost more than they otherwise would.

Rares:

Jeskai rares are, ahem… medium. Narset is kinda mediocre, Mantis Rider and Sage of the Inward Eye are good cards but not spectacular, and Flying Crane Technique is potentially a game-winner. Its mono-colored cards are a little better, I think—Thousand Winds is the best morph in the set, being an awesome creature in both modes, and Master of Pearls and Dragon-Style Twins are also good.

Notable Uncommons:

Highspire Mantis is a card we’ve seen before, except it cost 2UG instead of 2WR. It was excellent then, and it’s excellent now, whether you’re Jeskai or Mardu. Warden of the Eye is a solid card-advantage card but doesn’t come close to Armament Corps, and then you have the good red removal—Arc Lightning and Burn Away. Master the Way is also very good, as is Winterflame, and Ride Down is especially important because you want instant-speed removal spells with Jeskai, so that you can trigger prowess mid-combat.

Notable Commons:

Bring Low is especially good in Jeskai, since, again, it’s an instant that triggers prowess. Force Away is also pretty good here, for the same reason and because Jeskai seems to be an aggressive archetype, where bounce is good. It has the word “ferocious” in it but you shouldn’t care much about that. The best white common, however, is an outlast dude—you’re going to play him, but he’s not going to be as good.

Verdict: Incredibly mediocre. This clan seems like it doesn’t reward you for playing it—the reward for assembling a combination of Jeskai cards is almost non-existent and its rares aren’t very good either. Most of the good cards in this combination are actually mono- or two-colored. I’d stay away.

Sultai

Sultai as a clan is very interesting, but I fear it has two very big problems in Limited. The first one is that delve cards not only lack synergy with each other, they synergize negatively with each other, because the more you have the less likely you’ll be able to play them. This creates a somewhat absurd scenario in which a delve card is actually better in a non-Sultai deck than in a Sultai deck. I know that my Hooting Mandrills, for example, is going to cost roughly four mana in most of my Abzan and Temur games, because it will be the only card with delve in my deck and it will not be competing for food with anything. If I cast Hooting Mandrills for four mana in a Sultai deck, however, when am I going to cast Dead Drop?

The second issue is decking. Sultai is an archetype that wants to mill itself, but you only run 40 cards in Limited, and, though I don’t think you’ll actually get decked very often, it’ll mean that you have to watch out for it. Sultai Soothsayer is a great card, but I don’t want to be unable to play it because I’ve already played two Scout the Borders and a Taigam’s Scheming this game.

Rares:

The Sultai Rares, again, are pretty bad. Sidisi is very good, and Rakshasa Deathdealer is a solid two-drop, but again there is nothing spectacular. Empty the Pits is very bad considering it has to compete with other delve cards, so you’ll basically never see a huge one, and Kheru Spellsnatcher and Dig Through Time are also very mediocre. The best two rares in the clan are probably Hooded Hydra and Necropolis Fiend, but the Hydra is a mythic and as such I have to imagine it cannot appear in the seeded (I assume the Khan is the only mythic that can show up).

Notable Uncommons:

Murderous Cut is excellent here as well, albeit worse than in any other black deck because of the delve conflict. Incremental Growth and Sultai Flayer are both good, but worse here than in any other deck because there is nothing special going on with them in a Sultai deck. Icefeather Aven is not in your intro pack but is fantastic for you (and for anybody else really).

Notable commons:

If you’re going all in on Sultai, I imagine you want cards like Scout the Borders, so that you have a semblance of a deck, but even then they are not that exciting because there is no huge guy you can follow up with on turn four. Treasure Cruise does seem pretty good as just a late-game Concentrate in Sealed deck, but again I have to question whether it’s not just better in a deck where the graveyard is not being used by many other cards. The usual removal/bounce spells are good here, but not particularly better than in any other deck. Embodiment of Spring is also quite decent at blocking early on and making sure you can cast your second and third delve spells.

Verdict: Again, incredibly mediocre. I want to be rewarded for having a clan, not punished. Having my cards working against each other is a big downside, and there is nothing that gets better by playing many Sultai cards other than the occasional self-mill. Add that to a couple of bad clan rares and I don’t see why you’d ever pick Sultai.

Mardu

Mardu is an aggressive clan that only plays one way. Raid is usually easy to trigger, since any attack—even a chump attack with a lowly token—will get the job done, but you have to keep in mind that you will usually not have a creature in play on turn one. In Constructed, you can assume War-Name Aspirant is usually going to be a 3/2 for 2. In Limited, it’s very rarely going to be that. This could present a huge problem if you are drawing first, since I can imagine many games in which you go “turn two 2/2 or 2/1” and are matched by a 2/3 on turn 3. At this point, what do you do? You can’t really attack into their guy to get a raid bonus, but, if you don’t attack, it’s possible that your next guy will also not be strong enough to attack past whatever they have, creating a snowball effect in which eventually you just have to suicide a couple guys.

The key to having a good Mardu deck will probably be having a good curve so that you can profitably attack, and recognizing when you have to pull the trigger and just play your guys without their raid bonuses. I think the raid creatures are mostly fine—even 2/1s for 2 are, again, decent in a morph world—that you shouldn’t go through many hoops to try to activate it (i.e. don’t play a bad one-drop to trigger turn two raids), but it’s a good bonus if you do get it.

It’s also important to realize that, even though you aren’t full Abzan, you still have two thirds of the clan, and can pick up some important synergies; early drops that potentially grow are perfect cards for the Mardu deck because they enable early attacks while still being useful in a late-game stall.

Rares:

The Mardu rares are pretty good. Zurgo is easy to kill but will hit for at least 7 before it dies, Ankle Shanker makes blocking impossible and Butcher of the Horde is an unstoppable beast; the Ascendancy is good and Crackling Doom is a fine if unimpressive removal spell. Jeering Instigator is an uncommon-level card, Bloodsoaked Champion is not fantastic but provides a way for you to trigger raid on turn two without any cost, and Wingmate Roc is one of the best cards in the set—though unfortunately I don’t think you can open it in your seeded pack, since it’s mythic.

Notable Uncommons:

Mardu Charm is fantastic, since it’d be great if it was just WRB 4 damage and the two creatures mode might actually be relevant for the clan. Mardu Roughrider is a fine card that is pretty good on offense, and Mardu Heart-Piercer is a small Flametongue Kavu in a deck that definitely wants to be attacking by turn three. I also really like Bellowing Saddlebrute, as it’s a very powerful creature for its cost, basically dominating combat on turn four; you will likely have triggered raid but, even if you haven’t, it’s still a fine card. Timely Hordemate is also good because I suspect Mardu decks will have a lot of two-drops that are meant to be trading, and it even gives you the option of suiciding a guy on turn two only to bring it back on turn four. Ride Down is another pretty important card when all you want to do is attack anyway.

Notable Commons:

Here I’m mostly looking for a good curve and cheap removal spells that will let me attack and still play a creature. If you have a ton of two-drop raid guys, for example, then Mardu Hateblade gains a lot of value as a guy that can come down on turn one to trigger it while not being useless in the late game. Removal is always good, as are ways to finish the game such as Trumpet Blast in a deck that’s full of tokens.

Verdict: Pretty decent. There is a lot of overlap in Mardu cards, so there is nothing that you absolutely need, as long as you make sure you have a good curve and don’t play too many bad cards just because of raid.

Temur

Temur is, in theory, all about playing big guys, but the reality is that there’s no reason to focus strictly on that and you could very easily just play a normal Temur deck with a decent curve. Ferocious offers great bonuses for some cards, but it’s rarely needed, so I wouldn’t go very much out of my way just to make sure I can trigger it (i.e. I wouldn’t play a card that doesn’t fit my deck/curve just because it’s another 4-power dude). The key to a good Temur deck will be to not focus excessively on the late game; you need some early drops or Jeskai/Mardu decks will demolish you.

Rares

Temur rares are mostly good. Surrak is awesome—it’s the biggest Flametongue Kavu ever and it even gives trample to your other big guys that might need it. Savage Knuckleblade is pretty hard to beat on turn three, and Avalanche Tusker is a nice five-drop but I’m not sure it’s a rare-quality one. Trap Essence is a glorified—and sometimes worse—Cancel, See the Unwritten is good if you have ferocious and bad if you don’t, and Rattleclaw Mystic is the most un-rare-looking card I’ve ever seen (though he is good). Crater’s Claw is great, as all Fireballs are, and Icy Blast is a good finisher.

Notable Uncommons

Icefeather Aven immediately comes to mind as the most game-breaking, since both of its modes are way ahead of the curve. It’s better morphed, but don’t be afraid to play it on turn two, especially if it’s going to help you trigger some red raid guys. Snowhorn Rider is pretty decent, since it will beat almost any other creature in combat for five mana, and Bear’s Companion is also a fine five-drop. Sultai Flayer should be particularly great here, even though it doesn’t have 4 power, because it gains you a lot of time to stabilize with your big guys. The two UR removal spells: Master the Way and Winterflame are also great, though Master the Way is a little worse here than in Jeskai because you are going to have other things to do at five mana.

Notable Commons

I’m a huge fan of Embodiment of Spring here, since it blocks reasonably well and accelerates you into more powerful things. All the red removal is good, the blue bounce is good, and Savage Punch is good. Overall very obvious things—good removal and good creatures are good.

Verdict: Pretty good. Temur as a clan doesn’t need a great game plan, but I think the colors match up well. You have some fliers and some bounce from blue, some raid guys and some removal from red, and good solid creatures at all points from green. UGr is one of my favorite Limited combinations overall, since it usually means good guys plus splashing a removal spell, and having a clan should only mean things get easier for you. Again, the key here is just not to focus too much on ferocious—just play a normal deck and ferocious will happen for you.

So, that’s it! Here’s my final order:

# 5 – Sultai. There is simply no benefit for playing Sultai—it actually makes all your cards worse, and the rares are bad. I would stay away from it.

# 4 – Jeskai. The clan ability is not actively bad, like the one from Sultai, but it’s not great either. The creatures just don’t have good stats on their own and I don’t think there’s much benefit to playing this color combination over any other. I would also stay away.

After Jeskai, there is a huge gap until you get to the other clans—like, really big. Keep in mind that it’s always possible for a Sultai or Jeskai deck to be very good, and it’s certainly reasonable that a Sultai deck wins the prerelease, but, speaking averages, I think they are by far and away the worst choice. Mardu, Temur, and Abzan are all very playable and somewhat close to each other in my mind.

#3 – Mardu. I think Mardu is third, but it’s pretty close to Temur and definitely playable. The only reason I have Mardu third and not second is because it’s a little one dimensional and you might have trouble if you don’t get an advantage early, but it’s definitely possible to have a good Mardu deck for all stages of the game, and your rares are good. So it’s basically a tie for 2nd/3rd here. One huge benefit of going Mardu is that, if things go wrong, it’s much easier to move into Abzan and still retain most of your seeded pack, whereas Temur would require you to move into Sultai—but that’s an even better argument for Abzan and, if you think that, just pick Abzan.

#2 – Temur. I think Temur is a little bit better than Mardu because it’s less one-dimensional; you can have attack and defense, and the Temur cards seem like they are just a little bit better to me. The way I see it, Temur is the alternative for those who do not want Abzan, because it’s different enough while also being good. If you play two prereleases, I recommend Temur and Abzan, so you get to experience every color.

#1 – Abzan. I think Abzan is the clear winner here, with a bigger gab between 1st and 2nd than between 2nd and 3rd. The keyword is awesome (as are the cards it’s on), the cards go well together, you have a great collection of rares, and you can build either aggressive or defensive decks; even better, you can switch from aggressive to defensive within the same set of cards, in the middle of the game, and that’s fantastic. I especially like that a lot of the cards you already want to play happen to be three-mana 2/3s, which should give you a natural edge against aggressive decks like Jeskai and Mardu.

It’s also very important that, if Abzan fails you, you can always go Mardu and still utilize a good number of your seeded pack, so your plan “B” is also great.

Well, that’s what I have for today! I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and good luck at the prerelease!

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