I’m back from a long night of a midnight prerelease for Khans of Tarkir. My big pulls from the Sealed event were a foil Meandering Towershell and an Utter End. While not great, it could have been much worse. While hearing about what I opened probably isn’t why you’re here, understanding what I saw may really help you when the prerelease comes around on MTGO or you find yourself in another KTK Sealed event. I noticed things didn’t go quite as most people expected.
Unpacking the Box
With the seeded boosters you were pushed pretty hard towards a specific clan. While in the past (M15), I wasn’t as fond of this set up but the change to one of eight foils for each clan means you didn’t go into it knowing you were going to open a Phytotitan, which is good because that guy pretty much sucks. It meant you were free to pick any clan you wanted without facing preset disadvantage in packaging. It seems that each of the clans had enough good cards that you weren’t really setting yourself too far ahead or behind by picking any specific one unless you ended up with a Trail of Mystery.
When I opened my Abzan box, I was moderately disappointed by the results. Looking at my first build I had one three-drop. My white was fine and my black was okay but my green wasn’t very impressive. I really wanted to make use of my Siege Rhino, since a 4/5 trample for four mana is really impressive, especially with the slight Grey Merchant payoff. Get out of here Rumbling Baloth, there’s a new beast in town. As expected, I started to build out my three-color deck with my Azban tri land and BG refuge, and a handful of green cards to go with my Rhino.
Wait, This Deck Sucks
This is when I realized there was a problem. It turns out it wasn’t just my problem; it was a problem that echoed through almost every game I played all night and it started with the wedges. It’s important to realize that the prereleases were Sealed, not Draft. What I say here will apply less in Draft, because it is possible to end up with six or more on-color tri and refuge lands. However, there will be competition over these cards and they will be picked very highly in Draft, which could lead to a very similar problem. The issue that was encountered throughout the room was that three-color decks in Sealed just plain suck.
The problem with three-color decks in Limited can be pointed out very easily when you compare them to three-color decks in Constructed. In order to create a stable mana base for Esper Control in Theros-era Standard, players would use the full suite of 12 shock lands, 12 scry lands, and three Mutavaults. Control was viewed as vastly inferior before it had the third scryland, and until the full set was there, its mana base was a little shaky. There’s two things I’d like to point out here. First off, every land these decks have (besides man lands) tap for two colors. The second thing is that these decks generally didn’t really need to cast anything until a turn-four Supreme Verdict. In Limited, sitting around until turn four is often fatal, as one of the primary strategies is to play your entire hand as fast as you can. The catch-up features if you fall behind are generally few and far between in Limited. The only three-color decks to have a major impact on Standard in the last year were all control or midrange decks, not aggro.
In Sealed, you don’t have 85 percent of your mana base made up of dual lands. You’ve probably got one wedge land and one or two refuges. You could add in a banner, which essentially guarantees you’re doing nothing until turn four. Your chances of having access to all three colors on turn three are actually incredibly low. Try taking six forests, six mountains, and six islands, shuffling them up, and dealing them out until you have all three colors of land a few times. What you’ll find is that at three lands you only have a 26-percent chance that you have all three colors. At four lands, you’re up to 52 percent and at five lands you’ve got about a 70-percent chance of having all three colors. Assuming you’re running an 18-land deck, you’ve got a 23-percent chance that you won’t have that fourth land on turn four and a 38-percent chance you won’t have the fifth land on turn five.
All this math means that on turn five, you’re only looking at a 43-percent chance that you’ll have all three of your colors—assuming you have just basic lands. Adding in tri lands and refuges will help this number a bit but you’re going to need to add more than just a couple sources to balance out your mana base. This brings me back to my Siege Rhino. At 1WBG, with a balanced manabase, I probably wouldn’t be able to cast the Rhino reliably until I had five or six mana on the table, which would often wouldn’t be until turn eight or so. While a 4/5 trample with upside for four sounds good, the likelihood of having the colors to pull it off with the lands in my hand made this card far less impressive. If Rhino cost me six mana, he’s still a creature I’d stick in my deck, but I’d never consider adding a color to get him in there.
The Rhino isn’t the only card that suffers from this problem. Cards like Anafenza, Sidisi, the Ascendancies, the Charms, Mantis Rider, Savage Knuckleblade, Crackling Doom, Trap Essence, and Butcher of the Horde all have the appearance of being highly efficient cards. To a lesser extent, all the five-drop wedge cards are still risky, with a 30-percent chance of really being a six- or seven-drop. In Constructed, the downside is mitigated by having tons of dual lands, but without this luxury in Limited, we need to analyse all these tricolor cards as what they really are: five or six drops.
Would You Splash for That?
When we start to analyse cards, one of the most important parts of analysis is the casting cost. If we took a single card, we could assess the potential rating of that card at various casting costs to see how valuable it really is. For example, Mantis Rider is a 3/3 creature with flying, vigilance, and haste. At three mana, this is a great creature, probably a A-/B+. At four mana, it is still a very solid creature that earns a solid B. At five mana, you’re looking at a card you’d play but aren’t totally thrilled about, around a C+/B-. At six mana, Mantis Rider would just be playable, but not in anyway impressive and is a C-/C.
The big question with a creature like this is not if it is a good creature on turn three. It is if it is a creature worth throwing your entire mana base off for. If you were playing a solid GR deck, would you splash for a Mantis Rider if it cost 4U? I know I wouldn’t. It would make me want to play blue, but I wouldn’t be splashing a color just to include a Vigilant Drake. When you decide to add a color to your deck, you generally do it for a very powerful card. Adding a Doom Blade, a couple of Lightning Strikes, or a Banishing Light can make a deck more powerful. Adding a couple of Swamps or a Verdant Haven so you can cast your Garruk, Apex Predator is a valid splash.
Three-Color Good Stuff is Bad
The most common deck I saw at the prerelease was what I would call “Three-Color Good Stuff.” Players took their box and played the best cards in the three colors they had signed up for. This left people with bad mana bases and lots of cards they were unable to play. The most common complaint I heard all night was people getting mana screwed, even though they were running one or two banners, their tri lands, and one or two dual lands. Across 30 players, I was the only one playing two colors, and I rolled faces.
I’d wager that the problem with these decks wasn’t the fact that they were running three colors. We often times run three colors in Limited, at least when we can get a couple mana fixers and have a decent splash. The difference is that what works is a splash. What doesn’t work is trying to make a balanced three color deck using all your cards from three colors. Having three mana fixing lands is feasible, having six is going to be incredibly rare. Two or three lands that provide the color you want allows for a free splash, but it doesn’t allow you to just run equal numbers of each color card. The problem with these decks was that they were trying to run three colors equally. Most opponents I faced had at least one game with multiple turns spent wishing they had a specific color of mana. My opponents were mulliganing about half the time and about half the time after that had to go down to five.
If I went for three-color good stuff, I’d have added my Siege Rhino, Incremental Growth, Longshot Squad, Alpine Grizzly, Meandering Towershell, and possibly an Abzan Guide. These are all good cards but none of them really justify a splash, much less a true move into three colors. While I would have gained power, I would have lost consistency. When I looked through a few of my opponent’s decks, I found that they could have successfully cut down their deck to two colors with a splash for big multicolor cards like Charms, Zergo Helmsmasher, Ankle Shanker, Ponyback Brigade, and Flying Crane Technique, and/or solid splashable monocolor cards like Murderous Cut, Smite the Monstrous, Arc Lightning, and Burn Away. They would have lost some decent cards by trimming a color down, but this is always the case in Sealed. Their decks would have been much better overall.
I think the best path to take in KTK is to build a two-color deck and keep your eye open for the splash to make a wedge. There is a specific advantage to running enemy colors, in that you have two possible wedges to splash towards. WB can end up Mardu (BWR) or Abzan (WBG), while WG can only add B to become a wedge. I’m curious to see if combinations like BR aggro, WG outlast, UB prowess, RG fatties, or UB delve are strong playable options. I don’t see any reason they wouldn’t be if that’s how the cards fall. But remember that each enemy combination has two deck building options. WB outlast and WB raid are very different decks with a very different game plan, but both are quite viable. Also, the double-color gold cards are all enemy colors.
Whatever you do, don’t stick six of each wedge’s basic lands into a deck and grab every good card that comes in your colors. Your manabase won’t actually allow for that. This isn’t a multi-color set where you’re going to be forced to play a large number of gold cards. Most of them are at rare or better, meaning you won’t reliably see them in your draft. Even when you do, don’t be fooled that your three-mana, three-color spell is going to show up on turn three. At turn six or seven, many of these cards become simply acceptable rather than irrationally strong.
Marc DeArmond is a currently a Middle School Math Teacher and the host of the Casually Infinite podcast. He started playing Magic back in Unlimited during 1993. His interests are trading up in value and playing limited on MTGO. He is the author of Casually Infinite, which discusses how to continue to play Magic Online without spending money. He is currently a Level 2 Magic Judge.
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