How important is mana in Khans of Tarkir Sealed? It's not a question of having it– every Limited deck wants to cast its spells – but of the lands making it. Just three of fifteen Sealed Last Chance Qualifier winners played banners, but everyone included some number of nonbasic lands.
What is the texture of these decks? Ari Lax, seven-time Grand Prix Top 8 player including his win in Nashville in 2013, had a few things to say about it.
"There are four decks in Khans Sealed," Lax explained. "The first deck is the deck where you open seven to ten duals that are pretty reasonable. You get to play your best twenty-two cards and have a really good long game."
"The second deck is you opened four lands, or seven lands and not enough good stuff, but you have fliers. There's a lot of ground stalls, especially at three mana in Sealed, so you're like blue-white-red flying over."
"The third deck is you opened a Draft deck. You get to attack with creatures, things like Ponyback Brigade and Ainok Bond-Kin. You have a really good curve and you just pound in attacks."
"The fourth category is like half the decks out there: My mana didn't line up or I didn't open enough."
Lax takes a pessimistic approach to the mana situation, based on his experiences thus far. "In the dark, like a third to a quarter of the pools have a really nice deck with its colors, but half are decks praying to have their mana every game. Half of the field is going to be losing half their games to their mana."
Is it all doom and gloom? What can a player do to deal with this? "You should be willing to board around this," Lax said. "If you have the choice between consistent but mediocre versus powerful but inconsistent, you should board into the same deck as your opponent and fight their fight.
With so many lands at common, each giving you life for playing them, does the life gained matter? "The life is a big deal," Lax said. "It's really hard to attack in Sealed because of it. In other Sealed formats the default assumption is to attack with creatures and go aggro if you open a poor pool, but opponents start with like 23 life. You need the fliers to really pull it off."
Of course, one player's opinion is just that: Theirs. We turned to another player and well-regarded Limited specialist: 24th-ranked Pro Tour Hall of Fame elect Ben Stark.
How much does the mana matter to Stark? "A ton. I think there's so many good cards across all the colors you really play what you have the mana for," Stark explained. "Everybody's been looking at my [Sealed] deck and saying it's good because of my rares, but I don't have the lands to play them. I just lost both my games because I didn't have the Swamp to play them."
Is that how you handle when the mana mismatches the strong cards? Stark had a different approach from what Lax shared. "With six packs of this set you're going to have good cards. You want the lands to match. You never want to build your worst deck because it's aggressive," Stark explained. "You can never beat your opponent's cards if it goes their way. Let's ignore the 20% of the time their draws are that great, and focus on the 80% of the time when it doesn't go their way. You can punish their bad draws with midrange plays too. If they stumble they're not going to beat your five-drop with their three-drop: You should always build the best deck you can."
Do the Banners help you play the best deck? "I'll play one if I have to get the three sources from it but I'm not happy about it," Stark said. "I think it's pretty solidly an eighteen land format and you do not want to play that."
Why is Stark so confident about playing eighteen lands? "You have great mana sinks with morph and outlast, and you can't afraid to miss a land drop because everybody has these five and six drops from morphs," Stark explained. "If you're stuck on three lands casting two-drops they're going to hit five mana and unmorph their five and six drops. If you're flooded you can unmorph things and keep it close; if you're mana screwed you just lose."
So how do you handle the worst case scenario where there aren't exciting rares and there isn't the mana to match them? "It really just depends. You just build the best deck you can. There isn't even a majority of the time answer: You just need to cast your spells," Stark said. "Some of the Sealed GPs I've played in and done well with bad pool have been because my opponents can draw bad or have bad mana. You don't have to go crazy, you just build the best deck you can and see what happens."
So two players form a set of anecdotes. These are believable anecdotes, but still just two points of perspective in a complicated format. Going three should help confirm some of the story we've seen so far.
Neil Reeves, a two-time Limited Pro Tour Top 8 player recently returned to the Magic spotlight, is just the gentleman to enlighten us.
What does Reeve think of the mana situation? "It's the only really thing that matters. All the cards are so powerful that if you can cast them you win the game," Reeves declared. "The more lands you get the more mana you get, which means the more powerful your deck gets. You can just play more things."
How much does it matter that your lands sync up with your best cards in Sealed? "You can have a very good sealed pool in three colors if you open rares in just those three colors," said Reeves. "The vast majority of the decks are going to have good cards spread across multiple colors, like Villainous Wealth and Duneblast. With the right dual lands you can just add Villainous Wealth to your deck: You get one more finisher, one more bomb in your deck that just wins the game virtually for free."
If the lands help put more powerful cards into decks, does the life gain they provide along the way matter to? "It's two-fold: There's two reasons aggro decks can't exist in the this format," Reeves explained. "One, if you opponent is four-color they start off at 24 life. Two, if you start off on a curve draw everyone else gets three-mana 2/2s to play. Their cards become must better than yours since you're still playing 2/2s later but they're flipping over absurd three-color morph cards. You can't get ahead because everyone has Grey Ogres to block with."
Without aggressive decks around do that improve what the Banners can do for you?
"The Banners couldn't be less playable," said Reeves. "You can't give up the tempo loss of playing a banner on turn three rather than a morph. Even though you can cycle it, it takes a whole turn to do it. I have yet to put a Banner in my deck and I hope I never have to put a Banner in my deck, and I would recommend to everyone to not play them. If you can play two spells in a turn – a Banner and a morph on turn five – maybe it's okay, but I just don't want to play them."
So how do you handle the worst case scenario: Unexciting rares without any lands to support you? "At that point, you want to go two-color and splash a third. Pick a clan – like Mardu since red, white, and black have the best removal – and there you play your two-drops and three-drops. If you don't have the bombs and lands, you have to hit your curve and hope you get there. Everybody's playing five colors so maybe they'll stumble."
Land matter. Play your powerful cards. If all else fails stick to a clan. It might be more complicated than that (Hint: It is.) but if you needed a place to start these three won't steer you wrong.