Although I no longer get many chances to play it, my roots as a competitive player are in Sealed Deck. In my days as a Magic Online grinder, before I ever got on the Pro Tour, Sealed Deck was both my greatest joy and my best format. It’s only in recent weeks that a long-frozen part of my heart has been rewarmed. I love Sealed Deck again, and it’s because of Khans of Tarkir!
Every detail of Khans of Tarkir Sealed is deep, challenging, and interesting. From what colors to play, to decisions about splashing, to choosing play vs. draw, to whether or not to block Jon’s morph on turn 5 of game two of round four, there are many, many questions with few easy answers.
The goal of today’s article is to offer a starting point for approaching Khans Sealed. The emphasis will be on striking the right balance of power and consistency as it relates to your mana. Note that I’ll be focused on Khans of Tarkir in particular; you can find a more general primer on Sealed here.
How Does KTK Sealed Differ from KTK Draft?
As is the case with any set, the main difference between Sealed Deck and Draft is the level of focus in each deck. In a booster draft you have the ability to set your sights on a particular coherent strategy and go for it. This is much less the case in Sealed.
This has two important consequences for Khans in particular: First, it means the games will slow down to a point that it’s very difficult to win via an early rush. If you have a very successful draft, sometimes you can get in “underneath the morphs,” meaning that you can play one or more creatures before you get to three mana, and use combat tricks and tempo plays to keep an opponent well on the back foot if their first play is a face-down card. This is much less likely in Sealed Deck, and you usually won’t be fatally behind if your first play is a morph, even when you’re on the draw.
The second consequence has to do with mana. Where in draft you prioritize drafting lands in your color combination, in Sealed you’re at the mercy of whatever nonbasic lands the Fates decide to put in your booster packs. They won’t all fix mana for the same clan, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll match up with the nonland cards you’ll most want to play with. Instead, they’ll be spread across all color combinations.
Choosing Your Colors
While two-color decks are very possible in KTK booster draft, I have never seen a two-color deck in Sealed. In fact, from my experience even three-color decks are rare. Most people touch into a fourth color, and five-color decks are not unusual at all. Generally speaking there can be many compelling reasons to add a color to your deck, and there’s not much stopping you from doing so, especially with the slower nature of Sealed.
I believe that when you open a game-ending bomb card like Duneblast, you’re all but compelled to play with it. Casting Duneblast means winning the game in anything other than very special circumstances. For a late-game card, splashing a color off of about three sources of mana is usually enough. In most Sealed pools, you’ll have access to three sources of any (and every) color without having to play a single basic land of that color. When you open Duneblast, Abzan should be the first clan that comes to mind, but building Sultai or Mardu with a splash should also be perfectly fine.
Duneblast is the best example of a must-play, because it’s the perfect intersection of having only one mana symbol of each color, late-game card, and game winner. However, the same principle applies (to varying degrees) to cards like: Crater’s Claws, Sorin, Solemn Visitor, Zurgo Helmsmasher, Flying Crane Technique, Sagu Mauler, and plenty more. Unless you get unlucky with your mana fixing (which is a real possibility and one to be prepared for) you should do your best not to leave cards like these on your sideboard.
Step One: Do your best to play with your bombs.
In this context, a bomb is a card that has a huge chance of determining the outcome of the game all on its own, at any point that you cast it. These should not be confused with cards that are simply hyper-efficient and undercosted. I can’t say enough good things about cards like Rakshasa Deathdealer, Mantis Rider, and Anafenza, the Foremost, but these cards do not fit into the same category as Duneblast. These cards do have a chance of determining the outcome of a game, but if and only if you draw them and cast them early. There’s less benefit to splashing Anafenza, because if you don’t cast her until turn 6 or 7, she’s hardly better than a common or uncommon creature you could’ve played on that turn instead.
After you’ve got a handle on your bombs, the next things to look for are premium removal and anything that provides reliable card advantage. For my money, the best commons in Khans Sealed are Treasure Cruise and Bitter Revelation. The removal spells that I always consider premium are: Utter End, Abzan Charm, Arc Lightning, Murderous Cut, Dead Drop, Death Frenzy, Master the Way, and Suspension Field. Some, like Ride Down and Savage Punch, can be premium in the right deck. Burn Away, Debilitating Injury, and the other four Charms, in my eyes, are right on the borderline of premium.
Step Two: Do your best to play with your card advantage spells and your premium removal.
So once you’ve considered steps one and two, you’ll have a pile of cards of any number of colors. If you’re lucky they won’t be spread evenly among all five colors. Maybe they’ll be restricted to only three or four colors, or maybe one color looks like it could be expendable (say you’ve gotten no bombs and only one Arc Lightning as premium removal in red).
Your next goal is to get a rough picture in your head of what your mana base could possibly look like. You’ll probably have opened lots of Banners, but you’ll rarely want to play more than one or two. What you really want to look at is your lands. Odds are that any tri-lands you open will wind up in your deck, since you’re still thrilled to play them even if you’re only playing two of the three colors. Your common dual lands will also guide you toward what color combinations and splashes will be possible.
Step Three: Examine your mana fixing in the context of the bombs and premium cards that you’d really like to play with. Your nonbasic lands will give you an idea of what’s possible and what’s not possible.
After this comes the most important step. This is the one where you’ll have to show discipline, and the one where many players will fall into a deadly trap.
Step Four: Make the rest of your deck two colors.
Now, two colors does not need to be a hard and fast rule, but I think it’s an excellent guideline that everyone should do their best to follow. Do not play with basic lands of four or five different colors. Your mana will simply not be reliable if you do. In a perfect world, your deck should be centered around two colors, and your early plays should be in those two colors. Beyond that, you’ll have the option to splash for bombs and premium cards that don’t need to be cast until later in the game, but you should restrict these splashes to whatever extent you can.
The secret is that the vast majority of cards in Khans of Tarkir are interchangeable. This is due largely to the morph mechanic, but also because of the fact that there’s a lack of standout commons and uncommons that would vastly overshadow the rest of the cards. (Meaning there’s no Triplicate Spirits, no Cone of Flame, no Gray Merchant of Asphodel, etc.).
No matter what creatures you and your opponent are playing, most of the time your creatures will just trade for theirs, or they’ll simply sit there on the board ensuring that you don’t die before drawing your bombs.
There are some commons like Kill Shot, Smite the Monstrous, Arrow Storm, and Throttle that are good cards that you’re always happy to play with. However, in Sealed it’s important to keep a high density of creatures, so it usually won’t make or break your deck if you have to miss out on playing with Throttle and instead just play an average creature in a different color.
Choose two colors. More often than not they should be enemy colors. You should choose them based on their depth of playable cards and how well they fit with your premium cards and mana fixing. This is where those hyper-efficient cards like Rakshasa Deathdealer might begin to pull you in one direction or another. Your early plays should be in these two colors, and as many of your basic lands as possible should be in these colors. You want to have both of these colors of mana in your opening hand as often as possible, and you want to feel comfortable keeping hands that might be missing your splash colors so long as they have your primary colors.
Remember, the bulk of your cards are interchangeable. Cards like Alabaster Kirin, Alpine Grizzly, Archers’ Parapet, Disowned Ancestor, Glacial Stalker, Leaping Master, Krumar Bond-Kin, Monastery Flock, Salt Road Patrol, and Summit Prowler will be the bread and butter of your deck, but it doesn’t much matter precisely which ones you play. Just choose them in a way that’ll make your mana as consistent as possible.
Building Your Mana Base
As I’ve said, you want your basic lands to be centered around (ideally) two colors. Your splash colors should be mostly handled by nonbasic lands and one or two Banners. Below I’ll offer some guidelines for splashing. Some of these I’m simply repeating and reinforcing from Frank Karsten’s excellent article on the format. Others are my own.
- The lightest splash you can have is for a single morph creature. In this case, it’s not a disaster if you don’t draw your colored mana, since you can still put the card into play without it. Two sources of the color is fine.
- To splash a single late-game spell (like Duneblast), three sources of the color is fine.
- To splash multiple spells, or a card that you’d like to have access to in the mid-game (say Arc Lightning or Siege Rhino), four or five sources is best.
- Say you’ve done your best to make your early plays white and black, but you’ve wound up with green as a clear third color. You have a healthy number of Abzan gold cards and a couple of green morphs. Try to find room for seven sources of green mana, but ideally not with more than two basic Forests.
- “I would usually be looking for 8-10 sources of a main color (with preferably 9 sources if I have multiple two-drops in that color and 10 sources if I had double-casting cost cards).” -This is taken directly from Frank Karsten’s article.
Remember, these are minimum standards for building a mana base. In other words, when you adhere exactly to these guidelines, you’re pushing your luck, but to a reasonable level. A seemingly obvious but often-forgotten fact is that the more times you push your luck, the more chances you have of something going wrong.
If you build a five-color deck with the minimum number of sources of each color, that’s five different chances of getting unlucky each and every game you play. It would take remarkable good luck to navigate a long tournament under these circumstances. The more colors you play, the higher your standards should be for your mana base. Some Sealed pools will simply not be cut out for playing five colors, in which case you should be willing to make some sacrifices.
Remember, there’s a big difference between playing four colors and playing five colors. There’s a big difference between playing two colors with two light splashes and going deep into all four colors. Make your mana base as conservative as you can without giving up too much power.
Here’s a Sealed deck with which I put up a 6-1-1 record at the Super Sunday Sealed tournament attached to Grand Prix Los Angeles. (The draw was unintentional and I fell short of making the Top 4 cut.)
I played all five colors. My only white card was Duneblast, with three sources of white mana. I played three red cards with four sources of red mana (this is by far where I pushed my luck most). I played two blue cards, plus four additional blue morphs with six sources of blue mana, one of which was a basic Island. Green and black were my main colors, with nine and ten sources respectively.
This was a very interesting deck. The first thing to note is that I was remarkably fortunate both in terms of the quality of my rares and the quality of my mana fixing. As I mentioned, some Sealed pools will not even have the remote possibility of playing with all five colors. Even with above average mana fixing, I still pushed my luck a bit, although I believe it was correct to do so given the circumstances.
Here’s how I settled on my final build:
Most of my best cards were centered around green and blue, including Sagu Mauler, Icefeather Aven, and Surrak Dragonclaw. However, I was willing to go pretty far out of my way to play with Duneblast, so I decided to play Sultai with splashes of white and red. Since I wanted to be able to cast my cheap creatures reliably, I decided to make my non-morph creatures and the bulk of my basic lands black and green. I played Smoke Tellers and Alpine Grizzlies over slightly better cards in white, red, and even blue. Although I opened lots of Banners, I only played with one because they’re slow and clunky to draw in multiples. I left a Butcher of the Horde on my sideboard because white and red were my lightest splashes. If things had been even a little different (say I didn’t have Surrak Dragonclaw), I would’ve loved to play with only four colors instead of five.
I hope this has been a helpful starting point for Khans of Tarkir Sealed Deck. I also hope that everyone will find at least a little joy in the format, just as it’s rekindled my love for it. Best of luck in your next KTK Sealed tournament, whether it be a PTQ, a Grand Prix, or simply a Magic Online Daily Event!