Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir happens this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in Honolulu, Hawaii! The big professional Magic teams have been holed up in various Hawaiian houses trying their best to get a feel for the Booster Draft format while everyone else is putting together drafts in real life or on Magic Online .
As a play-by-play commentator in the booth at the Pro Tour, I have a lot of preparing to do myself. The most important thing for me is getting a decent handle on what works and what doesn't work in the new format. What are the early standout cards? What has been over-performing in the early stages? What are the strategies that may be overlooked?
I get this information in two main ways.
First, I draft. I play in Prereleases to get a feel for the new cards, but I do as many booster drafts as I can from the time the set is released until the lights go up and we go live on Friday morning at the Pro Tour. I'm unusually bold with what kind of decks and cards I draft in this early stage of the format.
The tendency for most people (myself included) is to find something that works and stick with it. Eventually, most people will branch out into other strategies but it's scary, and drafting what you know usually brings more immediate success.
I have to fight that urge and boldly push in new directions every time I draft. Since it's not possible for me to get in a high number of drafts, every single one counts. Khans of Tarkir was a little different because I got to do commentary on a pre-Prerelease on Magic Online while doing coverage of the Magic Online Community Cup. That helped immensely, but even then it doesn't make up for drafting myself.
Second, I ask around. I ask pros, coverage people, my friends, writers, bloggers, Twitter followers—anyone whose Magic opinion I trust. It's a mistake to take what everyone says at face value, but given enough opinions, I can start to feel out how people are viewing the new set. Even if they end up being incorrect, their opinions still matter since many of the players at the Pro Tour won't get a chance to play as much Khans Draft as they'd like before Day One begins.
The other big concern I have before every Pro Tour is simply remembering the card names. It doesn't take long to remember them, and I know the cards by a description of what they do, but it can feel like I'm back in elementary school studying from flash cards sometimes. Somehow, it always works out by the time I'm in the booth.
I've been busy gathering all of this information, and I'll be sharing it with you today in the hope that it will make your Pro Tour viewing experience even better.
There are three main strategies that the players will be considering when they sit down on Friday morning to draft.
Strategy One: Three-Color Decks
This is the most obvious strategy to take in this Limited format, as the entire set is built around three-color pieces of the color pie called "wedges," or clans in Khans.
There are ample color-fixing options available for each clan. The uncommon cycle of "tri-lands" offer the best fixing in the set, and they are clan-specific.
The common dual-land cycle fills out the color-fixing lands nicely and can make for some really solid three-color mana bases.
While the cycle of banners is also good at fixing your colors while mana ramping, I don't expect to see them much in the feature match area. They're simply too slow for most draft decks, and they're up against every morph in the set for capturing the three-drop slot in the deck. This format has proven fast enough to properly punish cards like the banners.
This brings us to the many three-color commons and uncommons that reward you for sticking to one clan. The most powerful cards in the set are almost exclusively three colors. There are the charms, the cycle of uncommons that cost five mana total (two colorless and one each of the clans' colors), the cycle of morph creatures that turn face up for five mana (again, two colorless plus one each of the clans' colors).
If that wasn't enough incentive, the rares are even better, and there are plenty of them in the clan colors.
Three colors seems to be a sweet spot in this format, as there is just enough fixing available to justify it, while the power level you get in return makes it worth it.
One mistake with three-color decks that I have already seen many people make is undervaluing mana fixing. It's tempting to keep taking good cards for your deck while passing good fixing options, but when everyone is scrambling for fixing in pack three, it can come back to bite you. The top pros will balance this out by taking more fixing early in the draft, thereby keeping themselves more open and setting themselves up for a potentially big payoff in pack three.
To go one level deeper on the three-color clan decks, the best ones are actually two colors, but with a splash. Thanks to the mana fixing options running around in this set, you can have an essentially "free" splash if you keep your deck to two colors with a little of a third. (A "free" splash is one where you don't have to put any basic lands of your splash color in your deck since you have enough sources of that color from cards that also produce your main colors.)
Another great thing about this strategy is that you can splash just the morph cost for some morphs cards. This way, if you don't happen to have, say, the red mana needed to turn Ponyback Brigade face up in your base white-black deck, you can still play it as a morph, thus mitigating the risk of including it in your deck.
I expect that most decks we see will be three colors—and the better ones will be two main colors with a splash—and will run eighteen lands pretty often. The best pure three-color builds will have plenty of morphs.
Strategy Two: Two-Color Decks
Two-color decks give up a lot of power, but in exchange they get both speed and consistency. Simply casting your spells on time, every time, can give you a big leg up.
Two-color decks can beat up on slower, clunkier, three- (or more) colored decks pretty easily. When many lands enter the battlefield tapped, and when many creatures are 2/2s for three mana, any type of good curve out will put the opponent on his or her back heels.
I am looking for the aggressive color pairs to shine here. White-black seems to be a frontrunner as it gets access to both Chief of the Scale and Chief of the Edge—two of the better two-drops in the format.
During the draft, the two-color drafter doesn't have to worry about picking color fixing and can bolster his or her deck in either power level or flexibility as he or she goes.
Strategy Three: Five-Color Decks
Yes, it's time to put on our diving mask. Some people are going to try to go deep at the Pro Tour. I've seen this happen in two main ways thus far. The first way is when someone thinks it's the best strategy and simply prioritizes lands over everything but the most powerful spells. The second is when someone gets horribly off track during the draft and ends up just throwing his or her hands in the air and going the full five colors.
Either way, I have drafted with and against this deck and I think it's the real deal. It is not, however, the best way to play the format. While I do consider it a legitimate strategy, the cost is high. You take on additional risk during the draft portion, and your matchup win percentage gets kind of crazy.
If you end up playing against a slightly faster deck in your round, you'll be happy with your five-color deck. If you end up playing one of the two-color decks we talked about earlier, you are likely in big trouble.
If other people are also attempting to play five colors at your table, it can get ugly. The main way this works is that you take mana fixing lands higher than the other people in the early packs.
This, of course, facilities you passing good spells. So you are left taking the leftover spells on their way back around the table. This isn't all bad. If there happens to be one clan that isn't getting any love at your table, you can scoop up some powerful stuff later than you may expect it.
You also get access to virtually any bombs you open in pack two and pack three. That can significantly level up your deck's overall power level. And make no mistake, that's what the five-color deck is all about: Power. The goal is to get to the mid- and late-game where you can overpower your opponent with superior spell quality.
One major consideration with a five-color deck is morphs. Five-color decks in this format are essentially morph decks. The idea is to play a tap land or two to kick off the game, and then start slamming morphs. They will interact just enough with your opponent that you can stretch the game to the point where you start turning them face up and pulling ahead in the game.
Two-drops become important for this deck as well. If your first play is a face-down morph creature versus an aggressive deck, you are going to have a hard time winning the game (especially if on the play).
Like I said: I consider playing five colors viable, but not the best way to approach the format. (Although it is perhaps the most fun.)
While it's fun to go super-deep at your local game store or maybe in a Magic Online queue, the players in Hawaii are playing for prestige and a whole lot of money. This draft format will reward consistency and restraint over greed and risk. I look for the top drafters to take this into account when they sit down at the draft tables on Friday morning.
I hope you will join us on the coverage of Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir!
Until next week.