Thursday, October 30, 2014

Khans Sealed Builds: A Sampler Plate

I wouldn't say I'm a grinder, exactly.  Most PTQ seasons I skip: I don't tend to keep up with standard, and I have never really had a deck for modern (I briefly played pyromancer ascension online).  But every once in a while, limited ptq season comes around, and I see it as an opportunity to test myself against the field, and hopefully some day make the pro tour.

Practicing for these PTQs, to me, consists of a lot of grinding sealed events.  While I do pretty well at khans draft, the last ptq I went to ended in an embarrassing 2-4 fashion, so I knew I had a lot of work to do to even approach where I wanted to be in the format.

My own experience with games of khans sealed has been that it is all about the tempo.  The Player who stays just one step ahead of the opponent and uses well-timed instants to disrupt the opponent has most often come out ahead.  Curving out is preferred, although some pools will make that goal very, very difficult.

There is a tremendous amount of diversity in khans pools.  I've seen pools with all blue-mana fixing and no good blue cards.  I've seen pools that give the pilot an option of a choice between an aggressive deck and a control deck, and it's hard to determine which is superior.  Some pools scream to go three or more colors, where others are more straightforward.  Staying flexible seems key.

In one of my first sealed events, I was presented with a somewhat awkward pool.  Here was my first, rough draft:

There's a lot to like here.  A pair of bloodsoaked champions provide the deck with premium one-drops, a rarity in this format.  Grim haruspex and shambling attendants reward you for when you trade off your attackers.  The removal suite is solid, although kill shot is a bit awkward in an aggressive deck.

However, the deck is forced to play a few clunkers for the consistency of being w/b.  There aren't all that many warriors for rush of battle, and salt road patrol would really rather be in more of a midrange build.  Jeskai student similarly doesn't add much to the clock.  The deck I ultimately registered follows.

Far more midrangey, this deck looks to play a longer game than the first one.  Five two drops give me the opportunity to take advantage of times when my opponent is on an awkward draw, and in this sort of build the kill shots are much more effective.  And the green splash gives me some much-needed fat, and the pump spells synergized quite well with the multiple prowess creatures I had in u/w.  I don't know if you know this, but when a jeskai windscout becomes immense, that's nine damage just by itself.  This deck went 2-1.

Sometimes, you want to follow the mana and see where it takes you.  In this sealed pool, the bulk of my lands supported jeskai, so I looked to see what options I had.  Red ended up being the splash here.  The deciding factor was that red just had no good two-drops, while w/u gave me some premium ones, with the bond-kins and the elder.  The double red on arrow storm was challenging, but with six red sources I got there often enough.  And with three arrow storms and a flying crane technique, the deck had real reach.    This deck wanted to get in there, turn after turn, and simply being in u/w/r, a color combination with so many instants, put fear into my opponents.  Play with confidence!  This deck also went 2-1.

Then again, sometimes you just get a god pool.  With siege rhino, duneblast, and high sentinels of arashin appearing once I sorted by rarity, I knew I was going to try to make it work.  One particularly memorable game had me outlasting a herald of anafenza every turn to produce chump blockers while I worked my way towards duneblast mana.  Since they're rares, this pairing won't often come up, but for at least one glorious moment, they shone together.  This deck went 2-1 as well, losing one round to a very strong evasion-heavy deck which flew over my parapets while I failed to draw my sagu archers.  I would choose to play a deck with this level of power every round, if I could.

Finally, we come to my first 3-0 deck.  After going 2-1 over and over again, I was beginning to feel a bit of the always the bridesmaid, never the bride, phenomenon.  Continually going 2-1 is a pretty good winning percentage, certainly, but to perform well at a ptq, I wanted to put together a string of wins.  This deck had exactly the mix I wanted: bombs, removal, instant tricks, and methods for putting together card advantage, either simply (treasure cruise) or more trickily (dragonscale boon).  With two cheap instants in feat of resistance and force away at my disposal, my fearsome monastery flocks got in for more damage than I could have ever imagined.

In my khans sealed experience, you'll run into aggressive decks more often than you'd expect for sealed.  With this deck, I more than once used dragon scale boon to enhance the power of monastery flock, a play which most red decks won't have a good answer to, if any.

One thing to note is that you can win while not holding to the clans that are supported.  Don't blind yourself to options outside of the five wedges.  I went bant twice and had success there.  If you notice that your pool has strong mono-colored cards, take a close look and see if these cards are better in an unconventional color-pairing, like I did with bant.

There were more sealed pools, but these ones stood out to me as memorable.  Now, if you'll excuse me, it's off to do some spooky sealed for halloween!  I love mixed-block sealed formats, and although I want to perform well at ptqs, I just gotta have some fun with a goofy format.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tasting the Rainbow: Five Colors in Khans

This past friday night, as I rolled into my LGS, I had a vision: I wanted to play powerful spells and not give a crap what colors they required.  Certainly, the recent episode of Limited Resources, where Kenji advocated for the deck, was an influence.  But I had wanted to try this out for a while, and I wanted to try to put certain ideas I had about the format into action.

One idea I had was that, if I were going to go with five colors, the main color that would be the backbone of the deck would be green.  With highland game and archer's parapet available to that color, you have some two drops which do a lot to help slow down the game and get you to turns 5+.

The second idea that I had was that I just wanted to take a variety of the dual lands, making sure I didn't have too many of any one color.  I knew that I needed to change the way I drafted, taking lands higher, but remembering what I had for lands and prioritizing what I still didn't have wasn't something I had thought about much before.  Thankfully, I was successful in this.

Of course, part of this is because Andy, sitting a couple of seats to my left, had a hunch I'd be going five color.  He had listened to the same podcast and, knowing that I would have as well, drafted under the assumption that I'd be going five colors.  I was also helped by the fact that the packs were just stacked, as disciplined drafters to my left and right took sensible mono-colored cards and shipped powerful multicolor cards that they weren't sure they wanted to commit to.  Here's where I ended up:

I'm not sure if that's exactly how I ended up with the basic lands. I mocked this up in modo to make it easy to see where I was.  I was amazed that, even with 9 non-basics, I still felt as though I wanted the banners for that extra bit of fixing.  And with a grand total of eight five-drops, I wanted the ramp.  With 18 lands and two banners, I certainly had a bunch of mana, and I ran the risk of just flooding out.

Balancing this out was the fact that a large number of cards in my deck amounted to just straight up two-for-ones.  Master the way operated functionally similar to prophetic bolt, and the soothsayer, warden of the eye, and bear's companion added additional value.  While not strictly a two-for-one, armament corps often had enough board impact that I'd name is as an honorary two-for-one.

In round 1, I found myself up against Andy, who had been sensible and played a solid, dependable, consistent sultai deck.  This led to one of the most insane games of magic I've ever been involved with where, in game 2, he resolved not one, but two villainous wealths.  The first villainous wealth revealed a warden of the eye, which allowed him to get wealth back from his graveyard for a reroll. And while I was able to navigate things such that I wasn't dead to his attackers, he had robbed me of all my real threats, and I wound up decking.  Game two took so long, with us both waging an attrition battle, that we ended up drawing the round at game three; indeed, game three began just as the round went to time.

The other memorable games came in round four, where at 2-0-1 I faced Blake's very aggresive Mardu deck.  Whereas the first round was all about value, this round boiled down to a simple game-plan: try to stay alive.  Blake is one of the more excellent drafters at our LGS, and has routinely blocked me from prize in the very last round, so I was hungry to win here.  Still, the odds seemed poor, as I mulliganed to five on game 2, already down a game, on the play.  Three lands, two spells - about the most you can ask for in a hand of five.

And despite being down so many cards, and being up against an aggressive match-up, I somehow managed to find myself holding it together.  An early highland game provided the creature I needed to block, winterflame was cast for full value, killing one threat while tapping down a mardu hordechief for a full attack step, and all the while my numerous life-lands kept my life total from going so low that I would have to make sub-optimal plays just to stay alive.  I needed a very specific combination of spells and lands to win that game, and fortunately the deck provided.

I ended the draft at 3-0-1, earning a very respectable amount of store credit.  But more than that, I felt like I had drafted in a way which prepared me for the current draft metagame.  People just want to beat down in this format, and by valuing incidental life-gain with my picks, I would routinely find myself out of the range of my opponents' reach.  I even gained a full eight life when both my sultai flayer and another blocker traded with my opponents' cards.  While it is possible to draft five color and have only the common-lands providing you with a life buoy, you're certainly running the risk of dropping a round to a timely arrow storm or charge of battle.

Friday, October 17, 2014

How many colors, exactly?

I've done some more triple khans drafts, and have continued to find myself steering away from four and five color builds.  When I first looked at khans, my expectation was that the vast majority of the time I'd be in a three color clan.  As I draft, however, I find that there's more to it than that.  Still, sometimes it is good to be in a clan:

This was what I pulled together at my LGS, a white-black build splashing green for some really, really powerful stuff.  However, in the draft I was too dismissive of just a straight b/w warrior build, which I could have gone into and possible have been even more powerful.  Similarly, I could have used the incremental growth I nabbed in the draft, and gone further into green for more power, but in picking up the powerful cards, I didn't have the picks I needed for getting lands.

In short, this draft gave me the opportunity to go in one direction towards consistency, and in another direction towards power, and I hedged, creating a middle-of-the-road deck.  I think that the deck suffered for this, and I went 1-2.  I was able to win against another just-alright deck due to some well-timed instants, but I got crushed by two mardu token decks that got out of the gate quickly and I was never able to fully stabilize against.

Well, I stabilized to a certain extent, but trumpet blast has a way of putting the last few damage through.  Heck, in round one my opponent played not just one, but two hordeling outbursts plus the ponyback brigade.  Even with me killing a couple of tokens on each of his attacks, he had so many to spare that he could just suicide them in to get me dead.

These round 1 and 3 losses to mardu tokens were disappointing, as I felt that with my early drops I should be able to stabilize quickly and take over the game, but my lands didn't cooperate.  A couple of scoured barrens or jungle hallows would have helped immeasurably.  Lesson learnt, however: I should be taking lands a bit higher, and the tokens deck is real, if it's open and the packs are there.

Going online, I tried as hard as a I could to stay open.  After opening a jeskai ascendancy, I decided to see if I could use it effectively in a deck.  I took the best blue, red and white spells that were being passed to me, and when the dust settled (and I realized that white just was not open) I ended up with a very sweet-looking u/r build.

In round 1, it did exactly what I meant it to do: it punished my four or five color opponent by establishing an early clock with a bunch of goblin pikers and disrupting blocking plans with my spells.  It was close, however, as a couple of the sanctuary lands would negate an entire wetland sambar hit, without costing my opponent much as he didn't have early plays to make anyway.  Still, I managed to pull it out.

Round 2 was interesting, as I found myself against another red/blue deck, which surprised me.  He must have been at the seat directly across from me, as we both had a lot of solid cards in those colors.  These games were all pure tempo, with whoever got on the board first and was able to follow it up with a disruptive spell pulling out the win.  In game three, I felt myself in a good position, as I was on the play and started things off well, but proceeded to just draw lands and die.  His set adrift was particularly brutal as it not only set my board back but also put me further away from drawing my threats and disruption.  One arrow storm or master the way was all I needed to win, but modo was not in a generous mood that night.

The red/blue deck in khans reminds me a lot of izzet in triple return to ravnica.  Canyon lurkers in particular fills the role of cobble brute from the set: a big dumb beater than when supported can hit your opponent for unreasonable amounts.  Flying crane technique does a similar job to teleportal, and singing bell strike and act of treason, in the proper board state, can also help reach through to just end the game.

But what about five color decks?  As a fan of the original ravnica block and the five-color green deck from modern masters, I feel comfortable going deep, and drafting more than my fair share of colors.  Have I become too disciplined?  Should I just loosen up a little?  It's hard to say.  I take the tri-lands very highly, as the last two decks show - they have tri-lands but none of the new sanctuaries.

I wonder if making four or five color works depends on drafting in a field of people trying to be disciplined and go two colors, as if most people are trying to draft a clan, they'll pick up those two color lands to support their three-color plan.  Even the allied life-lands go sooner than you'd think.  Listening to the latest limited resources, I find myself really hankering to go in that route.  Is it good enough to force?  I have a really hard time forcing myself to force: I've really trained myself to try to be receptive to what colors are flowing.  Still, tonight I'm going to keep my eyes open, and try to take lands more highly.

 Either that, or I guess I'll just take all the hordeling outbursts.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Breaking the Format: Boros aggro in triple Khans

I never meant to go boros in my first khans draft.  I see these beautiful, beautiful black-green midrange strategies, either in sultai or abzan, and my heart goes all aflutter.  I see a one-mana 0/4 with upside and my eyes perk up.  So it was with some surprise that I found myself in boros aggro, an archetype that I didn't think was even possible in triple khans, let alone any good.

It all started off with a bit of a dud pack. Abzan falconer was, I believe, the pick.  Wanting to try out the falconer, I tried to take as many simple, good white cards that I could.  When red seemed to be open, I decided to move in, theorizing that I would leave myself open to splashing either blue or black, depending.

Well, fast forward a couple of packs, and I never saw a card which was good enough to bring me into a third color.  Meanwhile, I had been picking up some late trumpet blasts, more out of curiosity than any serious strategic considerations, and I had ended up with the following monster:

Creatures: 12 total

1 Monastery Swiftspear              1 Timely Hordemate
                                                  1 Highspire Mantis
2 Seeker of the Way                  1 Summit Prowler
1 Ainok Bond-Kin                     1 Mardu Warshrieker
1 War-Name Aspirant            

2 Abzan Falconer
1 Mardu Hordechief

Spells: 11 total

1 Defiant Strike                      2 Bring Low
                                             1 Burn Away
1 Suspension Field                1 Arrow Storm
1 Feat of Resistance

2 Trumpet Blast
1 Act of Treason
1 Dragon Grip

I had one mystic monastery which I had taken early on in the draft, thinking I might want to be jeskai, but that never materialized, so it just served as a humble guildgate.  After getting the round one bye, I proceeded to go 2-1 in matches, so clearly the deck had some power behind it.  Indeed, my one loss was to a similarly aggressive jeskai deck, in the final round.  It was the first round where my low creature count really cost me, as he was playing similarly low cost threats, but he had slightly more interaction in the form of removal and the pure tempo crippling chill.  Had I hit some more of my early drops in that game, I might have prevailed, but with a mere five 1-2 drops, my luck ran out.

I don't expect this to be a common strategy.  In fact, I'd wager that 95-98% of the time you'll be drafting a wedge, so you might go through this format and never draft a two color strategy.  However, I think it pays to be open to the possibility.

That was my first draft of the format, at last weeks FNM.  This week, I had what I would consider a more typical khans draft, and in fact almost a polar opposite to the deck I drafted above.  Here's the list:

Where last week's deck was designed to be fast, last night's was designed to be slow.  Whereas last week's deck had only one mana-land, this week's had five.  From red/white to the opposite: BUG, and from seventeen lands to eighteen.

The draft started off with the rattleclaw mystic.  I hoped to situate myself in that clan, to make that card as good as possible, but red started to dry up right quick.  Meanwhile I got passed the spellsnatcher and the mystic of the hidden way, cards that excited me.  With eighteen lands and a rattleclaw, "getting" someone with the spellsnatcher seemed very viable, and with as stally as khans can be sometimes, the unblockable morph has a ton of value.  Starting off the first few picks green/blue left myself open to two clans, and when I started to see some really late but decent black cards, including very late kin tree invocations, I decided to go in.

I had noticed that the sultai wedge had a "toughness matters" subtheme, and I decided to explore that.  I would've loved to have the sultai flayer, or an extra disowned ancestor, but the deck ran smoothly as it was. Dragon's eye savants was a surprise hit for the deck, hitting for two when I didn't have the invocation, and hitting the board as an 0/5 when I did.

Ultimately the deck performed well, going 3-0 after a first round bye (what are the odds, the second week in a row???)  The third round in particular was instructive, as on game three I chose to draw against a similarly midrange temur deck.  I was able to establish good blockers, and bide my time with the spellsnatcher.  With an archer's parapet and morphed spellsnatcher on board, the pressure was on him to play something swingy to get ahead.  The card proved to be temur charm.  Unmorphing not only got me the temur charm, but saved me a 4/4 token from getting gobbled up.  With the knowledge that his next play would just get mana leaked, he scooped 'em up.  In the end, the only thing I could complain about was archer's parapet not having reach.  I mean, come on! Look at how tall that tower is!