Predicting the Limited play of the 5 Clans

May 14, 2014

Greetings everyone!
After a sabbatical leave from Magic due to work commitments it feels good to be back. I went through a period where I had neither no time to play nor read or even pay any attention to Magic, which re-invigorated my will to play, to absorb and compress information at the moment. I also return during what I consider the most exciting period of the year, the autumn new large set Pre-Releases, a large block of new cards, new mechanics and a renovation of Limited game play and fantasy world scenario.

Since the beginning of my sabbatical the plan was always to be available around this time to play in Grand Prix Shanghai. Shanghai is a special GP for 2 reasons. Being Portuguese means I don’t often have access to GPs I can drive to, but working in China for the time being means I am a short 2 hours and a half bus ride to Shanghai, that’s as much as a freeroll GP can be for me. Secondly, but not of less importance, Shanghai is a GP under special circumstances, of the 50 plus GP’s held yearly around the world, only one or two are like this one: A whole new unexplored format on it’s own, with no connections to previous cards, held one week before the Pro Tour, and simultaneously with the MTGO Pre-Release.

A Grand Prix without Pro Tour stats and information reference or MTGO support means you have to rely more on yourself or your networking connections. There are no guide rules as reference, and most of the ideas haven’t yet be proven wrong or successful. If you aren’t connected to a Pro Tour powerful team, and if you manage to solve or at least be ahead of the other competitors this single tournament can be a golden opportunity. Either you’re attending GP Shanghai like me, or you’re an independent contractor for Pro Tour: Honolulu, or you’re just excited for the upcoming Khans of Tarkir Limited play, let’s take a look at what has been revealed and the possible meanings of it.

As I’m writing this article, there are 50 or so cards already revealed, barely much, so where to start?

The Clans of Tarkir

We aren’t currently analyzing the whole block, we’re just focusing on the triple Khans of Tarkir format. If the name of the set means anything, and it probably does, and the way the set is being unveiled and merchandised, I would say Wizards is putting emphasis on the Clans. The set seems about introducing us to a new plane and introducing us the 5 clans at war on it and their own identities. Just like the 5 Shards of Alara, the 5 Guilds of Return to Ravnica, as well as the 5 Guilds from Gatecrash, one of the 5 clans will be your safest entry point, and the one Wizards has prepared and expects you to do it, so of course there will be rewards to embrace all 3 colors of a clan.

Abzan (WBG)

In past gold sets, this color combination often referred to as Selesnya/Golgari was always a solid option for building sealed decks. White and Green provided you with efficient and good mana cost to size ratio creatures, at all stages, as well as good combat tricks, backed up by Black’s removal spells.

The mechanic: Outlast

The first new mechanic happens to be the hardest to evaluate on abstract. There are still two big question marks here, how much depth there is around the mechanic, and how fast the format turns out to be. The slower the format is, the more time you have to grow them, and it seems to be a flavor of the Abzan clan. Second, we’ll need to see how tied together the mechanic is to see if they are single isolated creatures with built in bonus, or if you really want as many cards with Outlast as you can.

An example of that would be the mechanic Exalted, in which you wanted to have in play the maximum cards with Exalted, just to maximize the bonus. The mechanic did not require a glue, Exalted card plus other Exalted cards were good together.

As it currently is, it looks more like Level up: you pay mana to enhance your creatures, and while doing it so, you aren’t playing new cards or you restrain the use of this ability. If your deck was full of Level up, and if all you could do was play them and Level them up one at a time, you would be severely out tempo’d. To maximize this strategy you needed cards to support them, reducing the cost to Level up, or allowed you to Level up quicker, or providing a significant bonus to Level ups. Whether your deck had them or not was the difference between Level up being a high impact mechanic, or random cards in your deck that could grow themselves if needed or you had no better strategic options.

Therefore, and trying to stay away from the Gatecrash Simic ability Evolve, here are some effects probably needed to give a push to Outlast.

 Creature with Outlast, your Outlast costs are reduced by X.
 Creature with Outlast, when a +1/+1 counter is put on it, all Outlast creatures receive a bonus.

There have been only two cards revealed with this mechanic Ainok Bond-Kin and Herald of Anafenza, both provide a small bonus despite adding the +1/+1 counter, so how deep the mechanic could go depends on Wizards’ limits.

Even if the mechanic turns out to be not that much connected or you fail to have that many cards on your pool, this clan feels like it always has enough playables with reasonably enough synergy. You can borrow on-color cards from other clans like Heir of the Wilds who will always be good on it’s own, and it won’t be too hard to have Ferocious yourself. Efficiently costed creatures backed up by removal and combat tricks (still to be seen, maybe they’re on the Jekai clan) have always been a basic recipe for Limited.

Jeskai (UWR)

Of the 5 clans I consider Jeskai to be the one whose flavor was best captured to represent the color wedge. As for it’s playability I’m a little skeptical mostly because how hard it is to design good mechanics that feel Blue and Red simultaneously. What they do have in common is spells. So the past Izzet mechanics were featured on spells, Replicate and Overload. There are 2 problems with this, the first being the power level of singular cards, if it’s strong it’s really powerful like Mizzium Mortars, but at a lower power and common level most of the spells could only do marginal situational effects.

Second, since the mechanics were printed on spells, it meant there was a limit during deck construction. Let’s assume the typical 17 lands, 14/15 creatures, 2 Artifact / Enchantment / Aura / Equipment and you had room for 6/7 spells. Assuming games went long enough for you to see a third to half of your deck, that meant playing about 3 of those 6/7 spells, which of those 6/7 they weren’t all Replicate or Overload spells.

The mechanic: Prowess

I consider it an improvement from previous Izzet mechanics. The focus of the mechanic is still on non-creature spells, and it provides the same tension with Instant speed spells, but by having the mechanic on creatures allows you to not being so restrained on the amount of Prowess cards in your deck, in fact you’re encouraged since all creatures in play will benefit from a single spell, but also it provides a visual durable impact on the mechanic, since it was there as a phantom threat before the spell was cast, received the bonus when you played the spell, and probably survived or left a mark in play, rather than the solitary effect of playing a spell and putting it on the graveyard.

The temporary enhancement of Power/Toughness will better be used to attack, if you don’t do it now, next turn it will be gone. As so, Jeskai is shaping to be the second most aggressive clan, probably matching better with the Raid red cards rather than White’s Outlast.

The clan’s trump card Flying Crane Technique was the card that impressed me the most so far for Limited play. It’s not the most powerful card for Limited, but if I was discovering the set by opening packs to play this was the card that would get a :”Wow, really?” reaction from me. As long as you have been attacking your opponent whenever you had a chance, you’re probably casting it for the win.

As for the clan’s Khan card Narset, Enlightened Master I think it’s overpriced, insufficient power/toughness, unreliable in Limited, and probably not worth the card if it requires a chump attack. Maybe if it had a third keyword, perhaps Prowess or Flying.

The Dragon Style Twins however seem more representative of the clan, featuring the clan’s keyword and being a threat to end the game quickly in a blow or two.

Sultai (BUG)

These are the colors that care the most about the graveyard, they also happen to be the colors who let you do the most sweet things, so expectations are certainly high for fans of this combination.

The mechanic: Delve

Delve is more than a mechanic. It’s the engine, it’s the flow of the identity of this colors combination for Limited. You clearly want to put cards on your graveyard because you’ll be rewarded for removing them. Delve achieves that, Delve is the main reason you want to add cards to your graveyard, but it’s also your way to exile them once they’re there. So the Sultai cards could be grouped under these categories:

1- Cards that fill your graveyard: Bitter Revelation, Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, Sultai Ascendancy and the honorable Sultai card See the Unwritten

2- Cards that get a bonus when a card is exiled from your graveyard: Rakshasa Vizier

3- Delve cards, cards that encourage you to fill your graveyard and allow you to exile your graveyard: Empty the Pits, Necropolis Fiends, Shambling Attendants

In a normal Limited game, the normal course of actions, playing creatures, plying spells, attack, block, usually fills your graveyard slowly and one card at a time. You play a creature, your graveyard remains the same. A creature died in combat or you played a spell, that’s one extra card in your graveyard. If your deck has multiple Delve cards, you need to pay special attention to graveyard fillers, because unlike spending mana which gets untapped every turn and ready to be used again, the Delve cost of removing is a limited usage. However, Innistrad wasn’t so long ago, to remind players of effects like “Remove X cards from your graveyard in order to do X”, and how hard it can be to get those cards in the graveyard without assistance effects.

As such, the Sultai will look at cards from a different perspective. For example Bitter Revelation is very similar to Foresee. In the late game, it might be better than drawing 3 cards because you don’t want lands anymore, but it’s not a play you would be happy to make on turn 4 in your Abzan or Mardu deck. In Sultai however, it is a card drawing and a Black Lotus for your subsequent Delve cards, 3 cards in your graveyard can later fuel a Delve spell.

It feels so nice that 2 commons like Bitter Revelation and Shambling Attendants work together, no matter what you did before, if you cast Bitter Revelation on turn 4, you can play Shambling Attendants on turn 5. Even a Necropolis Fiend in case early action has occurred. I’m not much attracted to the flavor of the Sultai clan, but the mechanic and gameplay seems sweet.

Mardu (RWB)

Nothing new here, just an army of renegades from the Boros Fortress who were joined by some less fanatic warriors from Rakdos. If you can visualize the scenario, you probably know how to analyze and properly play with the Mardu. Attack early, continuously and suicidaly.

The mechanic: Raid

Raid seems like a well achieved mechanic both for gameplay and flavor: to keep the attack flowing to ensure it’s swiftness even at the possible cost of the front/early troops. Unlike Bloodthirst where you had to damage your opponent, with Raid you have the option to chump-attack if you’re really in need of the effect, which seems a better additional cost than suiciding your whole line of attack and defense just for the desperate Bloodthirst, and since in recent times pingers are harder to find the verdict seems to pend for Raid.

What Raid really needs are early drops. There have already been revealed two cards with Raid with mana cost 2: War-Name Aspirant and Mardu Skullhunter. These cards are mediocre without Raid, if your deck doesn’t have 1 drops you are using them to curve out and ensure Raid for turns 3 and 4. However, a first turn 1 mana drop, followed by War-Name Aspirant is probably going to panic more than half of the opposing opening hands. So far, the only on-color 1 drop is Ruthless Ripper, which other than ensuring a turn 2 Raid, I would probably prefer to play it as a Morph.

A Triple color environment is a double edge sword for the Mardu strategist, can be beneficial and can backfire. With clans accessing multiple colors and capable of doing neat things, this usually comes at the cost of tempo, either by setting up a game state position or building the mana. Plus, all the mana fixer lands at common and uncommon comes into play-tapped which can sometimes give a free Time Walk. In formats like this, there’s an agressive strategy to punish greediness and keep the format in a speed balance. The problem might be, if the Mardu decks aren’t focused enough or will also be in need of Red, White and Black mana in the first 3 to 4 turns. In a card by card symmetry, turn by turn mana optimization ratio, Mardu, just like similar strategies, is out-powered, especially in Gold cards formats.

Final detail, the common dual lands gain 1 life point. Is it one extra adversity for Mardu, or a late twist because aggressive strategies were too strong? Whatever it may be, so far I haven’t seen a single Mardu card I could possible open that would tempt me into playing this clan but there has to be a Mardu “Finish him” spell comparable to Duneblast or Flying Crane Technique still to be revealed. I would still probably pass.

I do believe in an aggro strategy to punish the slower decks, but I feel Mardu not to be the best, but instead a 2 colors Raid strategy (R/x), I don’t think in a 3 colors deck vs 3 colors deck aggression being the key to victory.

Temur (formerly RUG I guess)

With so few Temur cards revealed yet, 4 Gold, 4 Green (1 Green card is marked as Abzan Hardened Scales) and two X spells, one each in Blue and Red Icy Blast and Crater’s Claw, the clan has yet to reveal his full clan identity, because so far it feels very Green: good creatures, some with borrowed abilities from Blue and Red, but most notably distinguishable for their enormous size.

Cards like Icy Blast, Icefeather Aven and Rattleclaw Mystic seem to indicate a tempo based strategy. And speaking of Rattleclaw Mystic it’s one of the cards I believe to see play in Standard, and alongside with Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix will give an edge in deckbuilding to Green based Triple Color decks.

As for Limited, I will always play Rattleclaw Mystic in my Sealed deck, period. Isn’t that the definition of a 5.0? In terms of power, it doesn’t mean it’s better than other cards in the set, but it seems very hard to find a Sealed deck (at least a Sealed deck I would want to play with) where I wouldn’t find a room for it, like let’s say Solemn Simulacrum

The mechanic: Ferocious

The concept isn’t new, it has been seen around with small changes either in the power threshold or the triggering moment/status checking, and isn’t that hard to judge. Aside from very specific cards like Temur Ascendancy, the remaining Ferocious related cards are already good on it’s own. Since playing big creatures as soon as you can is something beneficial and you actually want to do that even if you don’t care about getting Ferocious, when you achieve it you’ll feel more like it was a happy coincidence. So it’s a win / win situation, you’re playing Ferocious cards that are good on their own, and you’re playing good creatures because that’s what Green does, and more often than not you’ll be rewarded. It is a big advantage not having to play sub-optimal cards just to fuel a mechanic.

Unlike other clans, there hasn’t been a single common Green or Temur card revealed yet, so the impression is more based on feeling than analysis.

Choosing a clan for the Pre-release

If I knew nothing about the Clans nor Khans of Tarkir (which is no longer the case) and I was given a choice of these 5 color combinations I would choose.

1- UWR(Jeskai)
2/3 – BGU (Sultai) / GUR (Temur)
4- WBG (Abzan)
5- RWB (Mardu)

If I had to choose a Clan by it’s flavor, having read about them but not seen any cards:

1- Jeskai
2- Abzan
3- Temur
4- Mardu
5- Sultai

But we have already seen almost 25% of the cards, so some conclusions can be drawn. In terms of classifying the clans by it’s speed I would rank them:

1- Mardu – Aggro
2/3- Jeskai / Temur – Tempo
4- Abzat – Aggro-Midrange
5- Sultai – Midrange

If I take in consideration my affiliation to these color combinations before Khans of Tarkir, my sympathy towards each clan identity, the way I like to play my Limited games, and note that not everyone values each variant the same, I have Jeskai as my first choice. Since I’m probably going to play 2 or 3 Pre-releases I would also like to try Sultai, and then Temur if I have the chance.

As usual in this preview articles all the conclusions are theoretical and need confirmation by gameplay, and not only that but having only 25% of the cards available for analysis required some amount of speculation based on past sets. Nevertheless, the challenge of writing this article turned out to be quite an enjoyable experience. Stay tuned to MTG Madness for more articles on Khans of Tarkir.

Thank you for reading!

Tiago Chan

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