The Khans Cards That Could Have Been

Posted in How to Build on February 29, 2016

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

The end of August 2014 was an unprecedented period of amazing Seattle weather. The dry, warm summer led into a PAX party that the world was unprepared for. Ushered into the Showbox in downtown Seattle, all I could see in the theater were pillars of illumination that punctured the dim lighting, and each one marked the spot of a never-before-seen preview for Khans of Tarkir.

My first tweet of that night summed up our collective reaction:

Three-colored clans heralding the return of fetch lands and great common mana fixing ignited a firestorm of excitement. Khans of Tarkir set the stage for the return of Sarkhan Vol, leading to his time-travel journey through Fate Reforged and the new future found in Dragons of Tarkir.

What makes Khans and Fate stand out is how quickly we're about to bid them farewell. Shadows of Innistrad will push both of the clan-tastic sets out of Standard, leaving behind just our memories of unforgettable cards.

You know, like Siege Rhino. And fetch lands. And Siege Rhino. And Mantis Rider. And Siege Rhino. And Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. And Siege Rhino.

The most famous of Magic Rhinocerotidae included, it's easy to recall the standout cards that made a splash when they arrived. But we're also saying farewell to the opportunities that never quite made it through. Not every card is destined for multiple decks and memes across Tumblr, though it wasn't for a lack of trying.

So I spoke to a few names you might recognize to revisit some Khans cards that never quite made it into the spotlight—at least not yet.

Ali Aintrazi, a longtime competitor known to bring the esoteric to success in events, had a legendary idea that never sparked. "Narset, Enlightened Master screamed to me as a build-around-me-type card," he explained. "When I first saw her, I wanted to jam her into some decks with the most busted spells. Narset and Temporal Trespass? Yes please! Narset and The Great Aurora? Sure! Heck, even Narset and just burn spells sounded sweet, especially if we could pair them with Howl of the Horde."

"I tried the card in many places, but it just didn't pan out," he continued. "I feel like the lack of a Brainstorm-type card or even a card that let you scry hindered her. There was also never really a game-breaking spell. Sure, we could chain Temporal Trespasses together, but we could never end the game by revealing something like a Cruel Ultimatum or Worldfire."

Other cards with combo potential drew eyes to themselves too.

"When Khans of Tarkir was first previewed, the card that I thought had the most potential in the right deck was See the Unwritten," said Kevin Crimin, a popular Magic YouTuber dedicated to making decks that go against the grain. "The card reminded me a lot of a mix between Tooth and Nail and Summoning Trap, both of which were powerhouses in their respected formats. Unfortunately, when the card was first released, there really weren't many high-cost creatures that were worth cheating into play. The format was also extremely aggressive, with Goblin Rabblemaster and Monastery Swiftspear demanding early-game answers. When Dragonlord Atarka entered with Dragons of Tarkir, See the Unwritten seemed a lot more promising. And when the previews for Battle for Zendikar started rolling in, I became more excited, as See the Unwritten seemed to be a reasonable means to cheat in big Eldrazi."

Someone should tell the Temur that summoning Eldrazi to your plane is a bad idea.


"However, the majority of the Eldrazi actually wanted to be cast and not just enter the battlefield, so See the Unwritten just couldn't compete with other ramp strategies that could actually cast Oblivion Sower and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger," Crimin explained. "The most interesting deck I was able to create with See the Unwritten tried to pair up Atarka, World Render and Xenagos, God of Revels, creating a massive double strike creature with haste off of a ferocious See the Unwritten."

Kevin Crimin's See the Atarka

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Crimin wasn't alone in his pursuit of a powerful See the Unwritten deck. Conley Woods, among the more notable brewers during his professional career, came to similar conclusions.

"The card reminded me of a cross between Summoning Trap and Tooth and Nail, both of which were extremely powerful cards when placed in the right home," Woods said.

Can you see the resemblance?

"See the Unwritten had the small request of asking for a 4-power creature before hitting maximum potential, but that seemed easy enough to do. Even if you did not meet theferocious ability, See the Unwritten was still very powerful, able to save you a bunch of mana and act like a miniature tutor.

"Originally, I wanted to make use of the milling aspect of the card, as dumping eight cards into your graveyard has some value even aside from getting free creatures," Woods continued. "I went to work combining some of the cooler-looking cards from Khans, many of which could make this list, such as Necropolis Fiend. Here is where my original draft left me."

Conley Woods's See the Unwritten Mill

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"Much of this deck has rotated, but there are still a lot of cool graveyard synergies running around to abuse this strategy with," Woods said, before turning to what See the Unwritten might enable in its twilight hour of Standard. "With Eldrazi Ramp being popular these days, it might be best to try to use this simply as a means of saving mana. With a Thought-Knot Seer in play, this finds two creatures, and you could be looking at anything from Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger to Dragonlord Atarka. That is an exciting output and is reason enough to not sleep on this card, even in its lame-duck period in Standard."

Another card that eluded Woods's grasp was Humble Defector. "Humble Defector escaped as one of those cards I was sure was going to see play. Just using it and then casting a sweeper is not a terrible use of the card in a color that doesn't get much card draw, but there were also more extravagant uses," Woods explained. "For example, if you can untap Humble Defector with its ability on the stack, you can activate it multiple times before giving away control of the card. You can then sacrifice or return the Defector to your hand to allow for use later on before your opponent ever gets control of it.

"Early on in Fate Reforged Standard, I wanted to use this interaction and loaded Humble Defector into a shell with a ton of untap effects. Kiora's Follower, Triton Tactics, and Jeskai Ascendancy all untapped the Defector," Woods explained. "Further, I added a tutor package in Chord of Calling to allow for a bit of a combo finish. This particular list wanted to get some number of Chasm Skulkers out, then tutor for Sage of Hours before Polymorphous Rushing your Skulkers into Sage and then taking a bunch of extra turns with all of those +1/+1 counters you have."

Conley Woods's Humble Untapping

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"Unfortunately, none of these ideas ever really caught on, and Humble Defector ended up seeing more Modern play than Standard," Woods said. "I still think the card is one of the more interesting tools given to red in quite some time."

Chasing dreams wasn't limited to Constructed. Powerful cards beckon in drafts, as Limited Resources podcast host and coverage commentator Marshall Sutcliffe shared.

"I drafted the ever-loving heck out of Khans of Tarkir (it's in my Top 5 of all time), and even then there were some stones left unturned," he said. "The card that always eluded me was Empty the Pits. You see this insane instant that costs XXBBBB but has delve, and your brain just starts churning on how to make maximum Zombie tokens. Add to that the fact that it's a mythic rare, so you know you won't get a chance to draft it too often, and you've got something to chase after."

"The card seems very powerful on the surface, and in fact it is. But that casting cost, even with delve factored in, is rough," he explained. "Basically you have to be nearly mono-black in a format that wants you to be at least three colors, and you need a way to dump cards into your graveyard for maximum effect. It was a tall order, to be sure.

"Given that the only real time you get to go for this is when you get it early in pack one—and that doesn't happen too often—it never came together. Empty the Pits is still out there, waiting for me, and one day I'll live that dream."

Josh Lee Kwai, cohost of the weekly Commander podcast The Command Zone, also had a dream for a card that never came true.

"When I first looked at the previews for Khans of Tarkir, I had pretty high hopes for Deflecting Palm," he said. "It seemed like the perfect answer for all those times when someone drops Eldrazi Conscription on their 'Voltron' commander and swings at you for a billion, right? Plus the politicsquotient seemed off the charts: once you've played the card, your playgroup will always live in fear of it! That Voltron player probably won't even attack you when that big turn comes because who knows, you might have Deflecting Palm. This card had my name written all over it.

"When the set came out, I added Deflecting Palm to a few of my more defensive decks—ones that want to sit back and be reactive—and anxiously waited for my chance to spring it on an unsuspecting foe," he continued. "And I waited.

"And I waited."

Eventually Josh pulled the card from the deck where it had once seemed most promising, resulting in this list:

Josh Lee Kwai's Cromat without Deflecting Palm

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99 Cards

"Turns out that'all those times' when the Voltron thing happensreally isn't that often," Kwai explained. "Perhaps when you take 21 commander damage to the face out of nowhere, the experience is so explosive that your mind blows it out of proportion. It makes you think it's commonplace when in fact it's pretty rare. And even when it does happen, sometimes you're tapped out,or someone has a counterspell. Basically, I found myself most often casting Deflecting Palm to begrudgingly prevent 5 or 6 damage. Yay.#WorthIt, as they say. Eventually I took it out of my decks altogether."

Whatever your format and however you play, Khans of Tarkir and Fate Reforged leave a legacy of both warmongering Rhinos and the reaching choices that never had their chance. But that doesn't mean their day is over. Come back tomorrow when Gavin Verhey and Melissa DeTora find ways to use Khans to buttress Cube, Commander, Modern, and more.

What will you miss most when darkness falls again this spring?

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