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 Akroan Crusader there is a very reasonable argument to play our second swamp and hold Pharika’s Cure instead of playing an Island into Shipwreck Singer. 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 Snowhorn Rider 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 Valley Dasher. 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 Crippling Chill on turn five or a Bring Low 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. Flying Crane Technique 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. Crater’s Claws 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. Arrow Storm 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. Mystic of the Hidden Way 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. Trumpet Blast 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 Hordeling Outburst, Ponyback Brigade, Take Up Arms and Mardu Hordechief 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 Lava Axe. 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 Trumpet Blast, the question of your deck’s role when you are building becomes even more important.
5. Act of Treason 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 Act of Treason 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. Rush of Battle is a reasonable way for the white deck to end the game, while Kheru Bloodsucker 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, Awaken the Bear 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.