Last weekend was the first large-scale limited tournament featuring Khans of Tarkir. The set is also online now and people are already drafting up a storm. More importantly than all of that though, the Pro Tour is just a day or two away so there is no chance I can write about a sweet Standard deck today. But next week!
Khans Limited, especially Sealed, can be a very daunting task to face if you have not tackled Shards of Alara. This is a format where you are not just isolating your best cards and then playing those colors but also isolating your best mana and using that to directly inform your decision.
While I ended up barely missing Day Two of Grand Prix Orlando, my deck was the best I could do with my very mediocre pool and I do think I have a solid grasp on the format. The power level of decks is just much higher in this format, so mediocre pools often look like bad pools as your opponent’s many rares run circles around you.
Defining Your Pool
Most of the time in this format, the contents of your Sealed pool are going to be fairly standard. Some 60-70% of your cards will be mono-colored with another 20% or so being multicolored. From there you have your lands which can make or break your entire pool.
While the mana fixing in Khans is common, it is not like Dragon’s Maze where there is a guaranteed land in every pack. I point this out because if you only look at a subset of packs, it is very possible to believe this. I think my first 16 or so packs had exactly 1 common dual land in them each, sometimes with an additional tri-land.
All of that boils down to lands being present but not promised. I would say that typical pools will have between 5-9 mana fixing lands. If you have two or three, you really did get the short end of the stick, but there are ways to salvage that.
When I first open my pool, I want to have an idea of what I am working with. Laying out multi-color cards might seem annoying, especially if you played Return to Ravnica Sealed where each guild asked for its own pile, Khans is not actually that demanding. In general I want one pile for each color, another pile for lands, and the one main pile for multicolor is fine.
If it helps, you can definitely sort the multicolor into wedges, but each pile is going to be like 2-4 cards. And in general, I favor four- and five-color strategies in Sealed so most multicolor cards are created equally in that regard (more on this later)
After laying out your deck in this manner, you are basically looking to assess the stress points of your mana base. If you have a ton of lands (7-9) and you have incentive to be in four or five colors, do it! If you have fewer lands to fix your mana or all of your rares happen to be concentrated into a single wedge, you should probably be looking to stay in the two- or three-color range.
Five Colors, One Goal
Because Sealed allows for a closed environment where you are going to get your own pool of lands, the risk of trying to properly balance drafting mana fixing versus drafting good cards is not a thing so you can properly just look at your pool and decide if it is worth it.
If you do decide that you would like to play all of your rares, you are basically going to just play every dual land and tri-land that you have and then you want to look specifically at the removal and the morphs in your pool.
There will be some standout creatures that do not have a colorless option, but morphs allow you to have a turn three play all of the time regardless of whether you have gotten your mana together by that point. Then, a few turns later when you have had a few more draw steps to smooth things out, you can just put in your colored mana, flip your morph, and continue as though nothing happened.
Your mana should heavily be influenced by your removal as a result of this. Because most of your creatures are going to cost three colorless mana, being able to cast the Debilitating Injury in your hand on turn 2 is actually more of a priority, so perhaps you want to skew your basic land count to favor black.
If you don’t end up in some four- or five-color deck, you are likely playing just two colors with a splash or maybe a dedicated wedge if you had decent fixing within that wedge. In these situations, the game plan is no longer about just having a high density of morphs and mana fixing but rather having a game plan, usually aligned with that of the wedge, and executing on it.
When I say wedge aligned, I mean that each wedge tends to have a built-in game plan. Sultai very much wants to put cards into its graveyard and abuse that. If you open a pool that you think lends itself to Sultai, check to see how well it can do Sultai. Having some solid removal and creatures might seem like a fine plan, but at the end of the day, those four- and five-color decks are on that exact same plan except they are drawing from a more powerful set of options and are just going to be doing removal plus bombs better than you will.
But what if you are delving? Prowessing? The five-color deck might occasionally have a card with one of those keywords, but it cannot abuse it in the same way that a dedicated wedge can. Only a true Sultai deck is rolling out Sultai Ascendancy on turn three, for example. A five-color deck is generally going to steer away from that because it is a three-mana card that is not a morph. If you happen to have these big wedge incentives, maybe sticking to a wedge is fine.
Prowess is even easier to spot as that generally comes across as a very aggressive strategy that actually looks for two-drops and actively avoids morphs as they are just inefficient for three mana. The make-up of a good Jeskai aggro deck is generally 13ish creatures, 10 spells, and it wants to keep as close to two colors as possible just to have consistent draws. The four- and five-color decks just cannot run that type of shell and be successful.
Find your niche and embrace it, otherwise, find the best cards and play them.
A Different Kind of Technique
Morph is in Khans of Tarkir. While I love the idea of a shell-game mechanic that keeps players guessing and effectively extends your hand to the battlefield from a deep, strategic level, I hate it for so many other reasons. If you thought that the change in behavior that miracle brought about was bad, morph should really irritate you.
When you failed to bluff each and every draw step as a miracle, you lost some small interaction value, but the game went on. When you forget to reveal a morph, you lose the game. That is so big. 99% of game losses that come from this will be completely innocent and are not cheating in the traditional sense, but yet it is a penalty that basically has to be enforced with a broad brush stroke to discourage legitmate cheaters from trying anything.
This does lead to a format where you need to be hyper-vigilant not only in your play, but in your game actions and behaviors.
At the Grand Prix, I watched as player A fell very far behind in game three and eventually just decided to pack it in and concede. He picked up his cards and began putting them into his deck box. Player B shook his hand and did the same. At this point, player A shot his hand into the air to call for a judge. Sure enough, player B did not reveal a morph as the game had just been conceded to him and it was not on the front of his mind.
At this point, the judge basically has no other option than to issue a game loss to player B despite no malicious action on his part. Player A could easily have been fishing for this as his out which is something the judges also need to consider, but it still demonstrates that even after you have won the match, you can still lose the match.
Play slow and deliberate as losing in this manner is the actual worst. And I should know.
I found myself at 5-2 and in a feature match this past weekend. I had managed to get the match to game 3 but my opponent opened on Ghostfire Blade, which is a huge beating in this format. Soon, a Watcher of the Roost came down face down for him and it was promptly equipped, flipped over, and turned into a huge flying threat.
I found myself on the back foot but dealt with some of his threats and managed to sneak out Sage of the Inward Eye. This allowed me to catch up in life and begin racing but I knew I would need to cast the Flying Crane Technique in my hand in order to actually win this game. The next turn I drew my 6th land but it came into play tapped. I led with Suspension Field on a blocker, attacked with a bunch of lifelinkers to put my opponent to 7 and myself to 16. I played a post-combat Ponyback Brigade face down and passed the turn, knowing that if at least three of my guys were not killed this turn, I had the win.
My opponent simply outlasted a couple of cards and played a face down card, tapping out.
I untapped and went for the win, which I expected to be met with no resistance. I attacked with my creatures and announced that before blocks, I would be playing Flying Crane Technique, giving my creatures lifelink, doublestrike, flying, and untapping them. I tapped my six mana and picked up my hand.
But I didn’t find Flying Crane Technique there. I looked on the table to see if I didn’t pick up a card, but it was not there. I looked on the ground, thinking I might have dropped it. I was sure I had not magically seen the card in my hand when it wasn’t there, right?
I picked up my hand again and counted it, but it was the correct number. I then noticed a Ponyback Brigade in my hand. Did I draw my second one for the turn? That seems weird.
Holding back the urge to scream, I reached for my morph and slid it to the edge of the table before peeling it up like any poker hand. I stared at the card and then flipped it over before looking up at the judge who looked back down at me and the Flying Crane Technique laying on the table.
“You have committed an illegal game action and I have to issue you a game loss…”
And that was my tournament. A black mana symbol was confused for a blue one and I had lost a match I was certain to win. Embarrassed, I shook my opponent’s hand and walked away.
Obviously that was a terrible mistake to make and is one I regret heavily, but it was also just an honest mistake. The same mistake you make when you put your ice cream in the fridge and not the freezer. Morphs are unforgiving. Protect yourself.
After all, it’s a morph eat morph world out there and your opponent has 5 mana open…