Playing for Value in Khans of Tarkir

Posted in Perilous Research on October 2, 2014

By Jacob Van Lunen

Jacob Van Lunen began playing Magic in 1995. He has participated in organized play at every level of competition and was a member of the winning team at Pro Tour San Diego in 2007, thanks to an innovative draft strategy. As a writer, Van Lunen has had more than three hundred Magic strategy pieces published

Welcome back to Perilous Research, DailyMTG's exclusive Magic Online column. On October 6, Khans of Tarkir will be available for Magic Online. As always, this means we'll all be engaging in draft marathons for the two or three weeks that follow.

Prerelease events on Magic Online are great because most players are still learning the new format. Playing in these online drafts will drastically improve your abilities in the new Limited format and will, undoubtedly, make you a force to be reckoned with at your local game store. Today, we'll be discussing some lessons I've learned about Khans of Tarkir Limited in preparation for the Online Prerelease events!

Khans of Tarkir Limited reintroduces classic Magic concepts as the most important cornerstones of our strategy. More specifically, Khans of Tarkir is a format that seems to reward players for accruing gradual card advantage (the overarching strategy of trading some number of cards for some greater number of cards) over the course of the game.

When drafting Theros or Magic 2015, card advantage was obviously important, but the majority of games were won with tempo and consistency. In Khans of Tarkir, it's possible to overrun the opponent with a fast start, but sketchy mana and enticing five- and six-drops are sure to slow everyone's decks down to the point where the game is much more about having more cards than the opponent and much less about being able to play all our cards the fastest.

So, how do we accrue card advantage in Khans of Tarkir Limited? The most obvious sources of card advantage are the card-draw spells. Bitter Revelation and Treasure Cruise are both incredible in this format. Bitter Revelation becomes especially strong with delve cards. Treasure Cruise is often an incredible one-of when our deck lacks other delve cards.

By playing a card and ending up with more cards in our hand, we're achieving the most pure kind of card advantage available. Unfortunately, when we're spending a turn drawing cards and not advancing our board state, we can fall pretty far behind. Luckily, there are sneakier ways of juicing the maximum number of cards out of our spells.

When drafting Khans of Tarkir, instant-speed removal is at a premium, and it's all very good. Why is removal so good? After all, Magic is a game of questions and answers, and asking a question is usually better than potentially having an answer. That's not how things always work out, though. Oftentimes, we'll be spending a lot less mana on our removal spell than our opponent spent on a creature, and sometimes there's an evasive creature that we would absolutely lose to if we didn't have a removal spell. Perhaps most importantly, instant-speed removal gives us an opportunity to attain tangible board-state card advantage, meaning that we can trade a single removal spell for multiple cards from the opponent. Let's take a moment to discuss how we can use our removal to its fullest potential:

On defense, it's important to set people up for blowouts in this format. Let's say we have a freshly cast 4/4 again and our opponent has a 3/3, he or she attacks with the 3/3 into our 4/4. In most cases, this means our opponent has a pump spell at the ready. We don't want to let that pump spell kill our 4/4, so we just take the damage.

On the next turn, we leave open mana for a removal spell. Our opponent attacks again, this time we block. The opponent tries to use the pump spell, and we use our instant-speed removal to deal with the 3/3 and the pump spell for a single card. This play usually works out well because even if a player smells the trap and instead chooses to advance his or her board with another creature, we still get the pick of the litter with our removal spell on his or her end step. It's important to note that this play won't work against the strongest opponents a lot of the time.

When we're on offense, instant-speed removal can often be used to take over a game. For example, if we have a 4/4 and the opponent can't trump it, he or she will likely leave back a pair of 3/3s or a 3/3 and a 2/2 to double block. We attack with our 4/4, let the opponent double block, and use a removal spell on one of the creatures. In doing so, we just used one removal spell to deal with two of our opponent's cards and our biggest threat is still on the table.

In Khans of Tarkir, most of the instant-speed removal costs five. This means that aggressively drafting the best four-drops, cards like Bellowing Saddlebrute, puts us in a great position to set up blowouts. The nice part about this play is that it's usually relevant when the opponent has his or her back against the wall. This play is often the final nail in a coffin as early as the fifth turn.

Against outlast lords, we can set up some huge plays with our instant-speed removal. The opponent may think that all of his or her creatures have first strike or flying, but a timely instant-speed removal spell can quickly leave him or her with a decimated board if we have the creatures already in place.

We should always be looking for opportunities to make these plays in Khans of Tarkir Limited. Using a removal spell just for the sake of using it is generally frowned upon in this format. There are, however, some spots where we'll want to use our removal more aggressively. For example, if we're really far ahead and have multiple creatures on the board and the opponent only has a single larger creature and a bunch of tapped mana, then it's usually correct to just blow the removal spell and continue applying pressure. If we're getting run over and we don't have a better option for our mana, then we'll need to use our removal spells as one-for-one card trades just to survive.

Some removal spells do all the work for us. Duneblast and End Hostilities are both incredibly easy to achieve some huge card advantage with when we're killing multiple creatures. When playing on defense, it's good to try to make even trades with our blocks before firing out End Hostilities or Duneblast; this encourages the other player to empty the creatures in his or her hand or spend pump spells prematurely, and all those extra cards end up in the void once we play our board sweeper.

Another removal spell that does all the work for us is Dead Drop. I knew it was good from the beginning, but the more I play this Limited format, the higher of a pick it becomes. At this point, I think it's easily the best uncommon in the set. One of the nicest things about Dead Drop is the synergy it has with Bitter Revelation, a card with tremendous power that's easy to pick up pretty late in the draft. It's rare that we'll have trouble clearing the other side of the table when we're taking big chunks out of it with cards like Dead Drop.

Khans of Tarkir may play like an old-school Limited format in many regards, but there's another wrench thrown into the machine to keep things interesting. Mana bases are difficult in this format, and taking lands and banners aggressively when we need them is very important. We should be taking three-color uncommon lands over everything except the very highest quality rares and uncommons. Even the enters-the-battlefield-tapped duals that gain us life are second or third picks in most cases. There's a lot of fixing in this format, but only if we're picking it.

With the Magic Online Khans of Tarkir Prerelease just days away, we'll soon have the opportunity to draft as much as we want. In the coming weeks, we'll learn a lot more about this Limited format. Our competency in this Limited format will drastically improve as we start getting Magic Online drafts under our belts. We'll have tons of knowledge that we can bring to our local game store. We'll crush our live drafts and disseminate all the information we've learned online through our live playgroups. The cycle of life continues!

Knowledge is power!

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