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PV’s Playhouse – Khans of Tarkir Limited

Hello!

Last week, Frank Karsten wrote his usual article about his Limited pick order—this time with controversy. From the responses on Twitter and on the article itself (and from just talking to people), it seemed like teams disagreed widely on many key points of the format. Most people on our team, for example, thought green and blue were the two worst colors going into the PT, whereas Frank’s team thought they were the two best colors. This is not just a preference for an archetype—it implies a strong difference in how many of the top players fundamentally see the format. Other than this, we also get cards like Dead Drop, which Owen’s team says is the third best uncommon and Frank has in the same group of cards as Swift Kick; and Trail of Mystery, which Ari Lax’s group thinks is a first-pick bomb whereas Frank has it in playable/mediocre.

I think this is a great thing. It has been pointed out that this makes the format look like Cube, where you can kind of draft anything, and I like that. I like that the format hasn’t been “solved” and that there isn’t one strategy that is clearly superior.

That said, my general inclination is to disagree with most of Frank’s opinions on individual cards this time around, as well as some of his individual conclusions. That’s great, because it gives me the opportunity to write my own article on this Limited format, rather than just repeating what he says.

There are two general points that I think help explain this format:

Toughness

My first guiding thought in the format, and the thing I think should shape your evaluations of every other card in the set, is how easy it is to get a high toughness blocker. There are multiple ground guys at every cost above 2 and all the morphs become good defenders once you hit five mana. This means two primary things:

  1. Ground creatures really aren’t as good as you’d think. 2/2s for 2 and 3/3s for 4 are still going to be decent cards, and you’ll play them most of the time, but they seem better than they actually are because this is a “morph format”—traditionally associated with 2/2s for 3. While it’s true that those guys are a major part of the format, they also happen to unmorph to something that kills 3/3s for 4 the great majority of the time, giving you a one- or two-turn window until your guys become completely outclassed. If you have a 2/2 and a 3/3 and I have a morph and five mana, you really can’t attack me, because the odds are that I’ll just eat one of your guys for free.
  2. Board stalls are very common. There are many blockers and few attackers, and it’s not uncommon to see decks that have more removal than you have evasive threats. Once a player gets behind a wall of powerful blockers, the game escalates to a point where both players can draw their entire decks and, unless they have a trump, no one can do anything. Evasive creatures such as fliers and Mystic of the Hidden Way are better than normal, but what I really want in my decks is a card like Barrage of Boulders, which means I will win any stalled game. I think Frank’s list has Barrage of Boulders criminally low.

In this format, you should always be aware of decking. In my experience, there are more games in this format that end in natural decking (sometimes helped by delve enablers) than in any other format in recent memory, and you should play accordingly. This is not to say it happens a lot, just to say that, sometimes, it happens—which is a lot more than normal.

A way to get an advantage in decking wars is simply knowing who is going to deck first. Iif you can do it without actually counting decks in the middle of the game, all the better. You do this by counting their deck in the beginning of the game and then either keeping track of all card drawing or discreetly counting their hand/board/graveyard. Try to avoid grabbing their deck and counting it, because it gives it away that you think the game might go to decking, which might give them information or prompt a different reaction from them. Surely if you had a card like Crater’s Claws in your deck you wouldn’t be worried about that, for example.

At the PT, I had an interesting BW mirror match that ended up in decking game 2. We both drew all our cards and no one could win because we each had more removal than the other person had fliers. I was going to be on the play game 3, and I scoured my sideboard for a way to break a stall—in another color if I needed to—but I couldn’t find anything. Knowing I had no way to actually push through a stalled board, I decided to board up to 41. It ended up not mattering, but I don’t think it hurt me much either, and I liked the fact that I could play the game knowing I was not the one who had to be pressured into actually winning. An extra card is a very small cost for changing “lose by default” to “win by default.”

Mana

As with any multicolored format, mana is a big deal. To me, there are two approaches regarding mana in Khans—either you care or you don’t. If you don’t care, you’ll draft a normal deck—a two-color deck, perhaps with a splash, and a normal mana base. Basically, a deck that could pass for an M15 deck. Here, as has been said already, you’re better off with enemy colors (since they make branching out to a third color easier), but you can realistically build any combination.

If you care, then you suddenly have access to a myriad of powerful cards that other people aren’t going to take early—or at all.

Look at it this way. If there is a Jeskai Charm, RW or UR people might want it, but they might not, since they lack the lands to reliably cast it or they don’t even know which combination they want to be; perhaps they also have cards that could lead them toward Mardu or Temur. If there’s an actual Jeskai drafter, he’s going to take it, but how many Jeskai drafters are there? How late is that going to be?

Now, imagine this same scenario for every Charm and every decent three-colored card. Those could all conceivably go pretty late, despite having the power of first picks. If you have awesome mana, you are in position to get all those powerful cards. There is, however, a glaring problem with this strategy: if you are taking the mana, when are you taking the cards? If you’re taking the cards, when are you taking the mana?

It’s very dangerous to start a draft with Mantis Rider, Armament Corps, Sidisi, Mardu Charm, and Icefeather Aven and expect to play all of them. What if you don’t get the lands later? Even people who aren’t four/five colors still want them, and one tri-land is not going to be enough to justify playing four colors. You might end up with great cards and an unplayable mana base, in which case the whole strategy backfires (or you could be like my round 1 opponent who cast t4 Sorin + t5 Temur Charm off five different basics, coupled with Island plus double-blue spell the following turn). If you take lands super early, then sure. Imagine you start with two tri-lands and three duals and then you’re almost guaranteed good mana, but then are you going to have good spells? You did just spend your prime picks on cards that set you up for the future but don’t do much by themselves.

In the end, it’s a trade-off. You take good lands to be able to play great cards that you get late, but you’re passing up great cards to begin with to do that. If you pick a tri-land over, say, Pine Walker, and then you get passed a very late Savage Knuckleblade pack three that you can play in your deck because you have the tri-land, have you even gained much? You gave up a good card for the promise of a good card. Perhaps it was better to just have Pine Walker and a random morph instead of Knuckleblade.

In the end, the multi-colored decks are more hit-or-miss. If you get the right lands configuration and you have a reasonable draw, you will be advantaged against most 2-3 color decks. If you don’t, you won’t. Both approaches are valid and it’s up to you to choose what you want to do with the packs you’re getting, but to be a good drafter you have to be able to draft both styles, as no deck is better enough that you’d rather be that even in the wrong position.

My inclination is that people as a whole care more about mana than I do, so most of the time I’d rather be the person that doesn’t care. I don’t want to fight them on it and I certainly don’t want to draft a deck that requires that I get them later in the draft. At the PT, I could rarely see a land going around after picks 4-5, and, since I was not willing to take them that early, I ended up with few to no lands at all in my decks.

This is OK, as long as you draft accordingly. If you don’t prioritize lands, then don’t prioritize multi-colored spells either. My first deck was straight BW. I had 17 basics, but who cares? As soon as it became apparent that I wasn’t willing to prioritize lands as much as other people on the table, I realized I would have to draft a deck without them, and that’s what I did. What you can’t do is go halfway. Don’t spend many good picks on lands to have a change of heart in the middle of the draft, because then you will have missed good cards from your two colors and will not have enough lands to justify fully playing a third or fourth color. In the second draft, something similar happened. My second deck was UG splashing for a morph and a Murderous Cut, off two non-basics. That was also an OK scenario to be in.

The Colors

Now that we’ve been over the general strategies, a little on the colors. I think colors are somewhat close in this set. Frank says blue is the best color and, as a result, has a top five list of commons being all blue. I think that’s a bit too much. Even if blue is the best color (which I disagree with), there’s no way I’m picking Crippling Chill over the good commons from the other colors.

He also thinks green is the second best, and, as a result, says UG cards are better than normal because they are in “the combination you want to be in anyway.” I think that’s very dangerous because you start evaluating every blue and green card better than they naturally are (after all, you want to be UG), and then the color keeps looking better and better, because, surprise, all your top commons/uncommons are in that combination, so you want to be that even more—it’s a circle that never ends and culminates with UG being INCREDIBLY BETTER than anything else due to inflated evaluations.

My team thinks that white is the best color and that green is actively bad, with blue being second worst. I agree that white is the best color but do not agree that green is bad, and I think they’re all close, so you really can draft anything. I would only use color as tiebreaker if the cards were super close, and then I would lean toward the white card. If I think, say, the red card is even a bit better, I’ll pick that.

Here’s my top 3 commons of each color, in order:

White

3 – Kill Shot
2 – Feat of Resistance
1 – Ainok Bond-Kin

I think white has a lot of good commons (and that’s why it’s the best color) and you could construct an entirely different top 3. This is an evaluation my team completely disagrees with—they do not think Ainok Bond-Kin is that good. I think it’s a good two-drop, with late-game applications, and I want an excuse to play those. I want two-drops that I can afford to play, and that’s one of them, so I pick it highly. It also goes well in any sort of white deck, offensive or defensive. Some people like Jeskai Student more, and I know that Ben has Mardu Hordechief as the best white common in the set. I think it’s a good card, but the 1/1 body is so irrelevant most of the time that it’s further down on my list.

Blue

3 – Jeskai Windscout
2 – Mystic of the Hidden Way
1 – Force Away

I like the evasive guys from blue, and it’s possible that Frank’s team is right and Mystic is the best blue common. I think it’s a crime that they don’t have Force Away in the top 5 blue commons/uncommons, though. In a format where people spend mana and time unmorphing guys and (to a lesser extent) outlasting them, instant-speed cheap interaction is really good. I can’t imagine this card being worse than Crippling Chill (which is in their top 5).

Black

3- Rite of the Serpent (maybe?)
2 – Disowned Ancestor
1 – Debilitating Injury

I think the top 2 is clear, but the third best gets a bit fuzzy. I think that I’d take the first Rite over the first Mardu Skullhunter, Krumar Bond-Kin, or Sultai Scavenger, but I’d certainly take any of those over the second Rite, and also over the first depending on what I already have.

Red

3 – Leaping Master
2 – Arrow Storm
1 – Mardu Warshrieker

Leaping Master is another “two-drop that you can afford to play,” so I like him, even if he demands two colors. Arrow Storm is good removal/finisher and Mardu Warshrieker is an excellent tempo play, even if 3/3 is not a great body. If Arrow Storm cost 4R, it would be the best card, but 3RR means sometimes you can’t play/cast it, so I have it a bit lower. In a deck that’s already base red, I’d take Arrow Storm over Warshrieker most of the time.

I also like a couple of other cards here. Barrage of Boulders, again, is an incredible finisher and one I’d like as a one-of in most of my red decks.

Green

3 – Longshot Squad
2 – Savage Punch
1 – Woolly Loxodon

I’m a huge Loxodon fan. It beats any morph in a fight and kills them quickly. It’s also very splashable. One or two free sources and you can already play him to good effect. It’s possible Savage Punch is better, but I’m taking the first Loxodon over that.

3/3s aren’t that good a body in this format, but Squad does attack for one or two turns and then grows a little bit while providing some sort of defense against fliers. He’s not a bad card by any means, but he’s worse than he would normally be.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for today. I hope you enjoyed it and see you next week!

PV

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