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Nov 07 2014 1:00pm
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Welcome to Ars Arcanum, the MTGO stats-based limited column. This installment is a draft overview of Khans of Tarkir (KTK). For this article, I’ve watched hundreds of matches of KTK draft on MTGO, gathered data points from the games, crunched the numbers, and analyzed the data. As always, I’ll take a look at the speed of the format, the popularity and win rates of the main color combinations, and the key principles of how to draft the format.

KTK has been an interesting nut to crack. It’s been getting a lot of positive press. People are comparing it to Innistrad as possibly the best draft format ever. Every time I draft KTK, I feel like I’m having more fun than the time before. It’s complex, and everyone seems to have a different opinion on what is good, and it feels like there is a diverse array of archetypes and strategies. For myself, I’ve had more fun so far in KTK than any other format, but I’m not certain that it will hold my long term attention quite in the same way as INN did. Either way, it’s still going to be either first or second on my list of favorite formats. But that doesn’t paint the entire picture of KTK; I’ve talked to a lot of people that aren’t quite so enthusiastic about the set, among different parts of the internet and among casual players. For the enfranchised player, this is the perfect set, because it is both complex and fun; but many casual and irregular players have said that while the format is enjoyable, they just can’t figure out how to draft it competitively. KTK is the most skill-intensive draft format in years, and it is hard for people to figure out. Not in the same way that Dragon’s Maze was, which was just hard because the mana was so bad, but hard because there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about the best decks, and because navigating the draft itself requires a very deft hand and a lot of nuance. Hopefully this article will help bridge the gap for a lot of those players, and give them a place to plant their flag and figure out how to enjoy KTK like the enfranchised players.

As a reminder, my philosophy for these articles is to provide data that people can use as a reference tool and discussion starter, but I’ve never intended to write blueprints for drafting a format. These articles cover a specific period of time, and while I dig deep into the data for that period, the data is already out of date by the time you read these articles. The principles hold strong, but the specifics are things that you are going to have to figure out for yourself. Hopefully these articles can point you in the right direction.

With that said, let’s look at the data.

Speed

Ending Turn of Games in KTK Draft

Ending Turn of Games in KTK Draft as Compared with Set Averages

Ending Turn of Games in KTK Draft as Compared with JBT Draft

I always like to start off by looking at the speed of the format. This informs every other part of the format. In my Khans of Tarkir Spoiler Analysis I predicted that this would be a slow format because of the large number of high toughness creatures, because of the low average power per converted mana cost, and because three color decks would require some mana to be eaten up by fixing. This was not a particularly bold prediction, though there were plenty of naysayers, but it turns out that this analysis was spot on. We see no games ending before turn five, and barely any games ending on turns five or six. At turn seven and eight, we start to see games ending, but still significantly fewer than in typical sets. We don’t see the speed peak until turns nine and ten, which are typically where the ending turn graph starts to drop off sharply. We then see the numbers showing higher in KTK for each category throughout the rest of the game.

This is a slow set. Typically, games are going to last about two turns longer than in the typical draft format. In Magic, that is a really long time. It’s the difference between getting to seven lands instead of six. It’s means drawing farther into your deck. But most important, it means you are able to use about 12 to 15 more mana over the course of a game, and it means more combat steps, especially with larger creatures. The biggest cause of these long games is board stalls; this is a format with a lot of high toughness creatures, and it usually isn’t too difficult to clog up the board so that no one is able to attack. This makes creatures like Mystic of the Hidden Way and Archers’ Parapet more valuable than they would normally be, since they can close out long board stalls. It also makes expensive cards more viable. Cards like Duneblast, Pearl Lake Ancient, and even things like Treasure Cruise and Shambling Attendants are significantly better in this set than they would be in other sets, because you know you are going to get enough mana to cast them.

With that said, my biggest worry when I say that a format is slow is that people will dramatically overreact and try to draft incredibly slow decks with nothing resembling a good curve, and that is definitely incorrect in KTK. This is a format about board control, and it is vitally important to establish board control as quickly as possible. Even though the format is slow, it is still important to get things down on the battlefield early and often. Two drops and morphs are key in this set, because they allow to take initiative and shape the battlefield around your plan, rather than just reacting to your opponent. Furthermore, even though the format is slow, ten turns is still faster than most people realize a Magic game lasts, and 53% of KTK games still end before turn 11. On top of that, there are still plenty of aggressive decks that are doing everything they can to prey on the slow decks, and you need to have a game plan against those decks.

In fact, if I were to choose a word to best describe KTK block, it wouldn’t be slow; it would be mana-intensive. I have won so many games of KTK simply because I played a land on each of the first five turns, put some stuff on the board, and unmorphed a big creature. My primary draft partner, Zach Orts, and I have even realized that five land hands with a morph are almost always keeps in this format, because even if you start to flood out, you’ll usually have something important to do with your mana. KTK gives you a lot of chances to use mana, but it also gives you a lot of ways to make use of that mana, and the person that uses the most mana over the course of a game is almost always going to win. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to overemphasize the importance of morphs in this format. Every morph is playable, but especially the morphs that can flip up for five or more mana, since they have such a dramatic impact on the board in the late game. Abzan Guide, Abomination of Gudul, and Woolly Loxodon are some of my favorite commons in the set because they allow you to play something to impact on the board, while also essentially letting you draw a high powered creature in the late game.

Popularity

Popularity of Archetypes in KTK Draft

Enemy Color Pair Popularity in KTK Draft

Color Popularity in KTK Draft

Before going into popularity, I do want to talk about one weakness in this particular study. This is a set focused around the clans, and it features multicolor to an extent. However, for a multicolor set, this is definitely the least “multicolorish” of the bunch. When we talk about Abzan as a clan, it’s important to remember that this is an umbrella that includes WBg decks, BGw decks, and WGb decks. This causes a particular problem with the data in this study. It’s difficult to distinguish between a deck that is WB splashing green, vs. a deck that is BG splashing W. This means that the data relating to the clans is not necessarily precise. I tried to build in some tools to differentiate between these decks, but unfortunately it was just not possible to create a method that accurately reflected the difference in those decks. Basically, keep this in the back of your mind as you read about the clans.

It’s not hard to look at these charts and figure out what people are drafting in KTK. Abzan is the deck. It’s drafted 1.25x as often as the next closest deck, and about 1.6x as often as the rest of the other three clans. Nearly a quarter of all decks in the format are Abzan decks, which means you will likely see two Abzan decks in a given draft. There were also many drafts that I watched in the data gathering where four of the decks were Abzan based. On top of that, the next most popular clan shares WB with Abzan. These colors are being drafted heavily.

This has an interesting impact on the format. The Abzan deck tends to be grindy (though it can be fast), and having such a large chunk of the format revolve around that deck has an overall slowing effect on the format. It is the epitome of midrange, and leads to a lot of board stalls, which is where outlast starts to shine.

The thing I find interesting is that the two next two most popular combinations are both in the aggressive slice of the format. Both Mardu and Jeskai decks are mostly focused around killing your opponent quickly. A lot of Mardu decks do this by going wide and overwhelming their opponent with sheer numbers. The Jeskai decks tend to use evasive creatures and tempo spells to land a powerful threat early, and then keep their opponent on the backfoot. It can generate large bursts of damage to win out of nowhere. Neither of these decks are particularly comfortable going into the late game, though there are certainly builds of these decks that can go pretty long.

With that said, the numbers between Jeskai, Temur, and Sultai are all so close that it is essentially a statistical tie. Each draft will usually feature one of those decks on average. They are certainly drafted, and they have people that like them a lot, but they aren’t drafted with quite the intensity of the other clans. Finally, I decided to show the popularity of the five color decks and the two color aggro decks. The five color deck has become more and more popular over the past few weeks, but it still doesn’t score very high on popularity on this study. Basically, there just aren’t enough lands in the draft to support a lot of five color drafters. A drafter can get forced off of this plan simply by virtue of being in a pod where the clan drafters value lands highly. Two color decks also show up infrequently, but often enough that they are a force in the format.

Historically, Abzan is one of the most heavily drafted decks that I have ever look at in this article series. Relative to the format, it is just crazy how often people want to be in that deck, and this warps the entire rest of the format around the deck. We would certainly expect to see Abzan’s win rate affected by this overdrafting, probably dropping it  somewhere in the range of 5 to 15 percentage points, but it’s impossible to know what kind of win rate it would achieve if it were only drafted a little less frequently.

Now that we know what decks people are bringing to the table, let’s take a look at how those decks are performing.

Colors and Archetypes

Win Rate of Major Archetypes in KTK Draft

Win Rate by Enemy Color Guild Pairs in KTK Draft

Win Rate by Color in KTK Draft (does not include 5 color decks)

Draft Savage Punch.

These charts are full of juicy details, but one key factor should jump to the front immediately, and it is that green is the strongest color in the format. In fact, I think that Savage Punch is the best common the format. I had Debilitating Injury rated higher at the beginning of the format, but I’ve moved up Savage Punch for two reasons. First, it is in the best color, and second, it just kills a wider range of creatures.  But let’s dig deeper into the data.

One thing you might notice on the chart for the colors is that all of them are above 50%. This is because I didn’t include the data from the 5 color decks in their categories. There wasn’t a practical way for me to divide the 5 color decks up by the density of each color in those decks, so I just cut it out of the color win rate calculation. Because the win rate of 5 color decks is so slow, that bumps up the rates of all the colors.

The Clan Win Rate chart basically sits in three tiers. We have the top tier, which is all at a statistical tie with Temur, Two Color, and Abzan all leading the way. Then we the second tier which includes Sultai and Jeskai in basically a tie hovering around 50%, with Mardu very close behind. Finally, we have 5 color that is just bring up the caboose.

The most important thing you should notice about this chart is that Abzan has a really high win rate considering that it is one of the most heavily overdrafted color combinations that I’ve ever studied. It clocks in at almost a 60% win rate, despite still making up a quarter of the metagame. In fact, about 12% of Abzan’s matches were against the mirror. This means that in around one out of eight of its matches, it is automatically getting a 50% win rate. Excluding those matches, Abzan comes in at 59%. However, being drafted so heavily certainly dilutes the quality of those Abzan decks a little bit, and we can only imagine that it would be performing at above 60% if it was drafted in the same range as the other decks in the field. I think that it is safe to call Abzan as the best deck in the format, and it is certainly the defining deck in the format.

With that said, people are only going to be drafting Abzan more and more heavily. If it keeps performing well even when drafted this heavily, people are just going to stick to it and keep forcing the deck over and over. Drafting Abzan is a great skill to have, but I think it’s important to understand how the other good decks are functioning in order to have a backup plan in case that deck doesn’t come together.

 The other two decks that are performing very well are Temur and Two Color Aggro decks. I can say that it warms my heart to see Temur performing so well. Simic is my guild, and UG decks are where my heart lies, and I like to see a UG based deck performing so well. Of course, you have two main flavors of Temur; one is the RG Apline Grizzly + Savage Punch deck that just tries to play giant creatures and hit hard, and then burn your opponent out with Arrow Storms in the midgame, and the other version is the UG deck that’s a little slower, but tries to land big threats and then keep creatures off the board with bounce spells while you attack for huge swings of damage, and then finish off your opponent with an evasive creature like Jeskai Windscout and Mystic of the Hidden Way. Temur basically plays big creatures for cheap and smashes face with them, while backing it up with tempo spells. This deck is particularly well suited in the metagame. Aggro decks are being ground into chunks by the huge number of Abzan decks in the field, and Temur can definitely be fragile if your opponent just hits the board running faster than you do. However, Temur is particularly well positioned against Abzan. Abzan wants to clog up the ground, but Temur has efficient evasive creatures. Abzan also tries to control the mid game by flipping up large morphs or using outlast to make large creatures, and the blue tempo spells are good at making your opponent’s waste time and mana on those cards.

Another deck that would be easy to overlook is the Sultai deck. It’s coming in just a hair under 50%, but I think that number is deceptive regarding its true strength. Sultai shares enemy color pairs with two clans; Abzan and Temur. Those are the two best performing clans in the format, so it seems strange that Sultai would perform so much lower. My theory is that since Temur and Abzan are more popular than Sultai, they are leeching away a lot of Sultai’s powerful cards. I think that the best Sultai decks aren’t really built around the Delve mechanic, but instead take advantage of the best parts of both Abzan and Temur, and pair them up with a few really powerful card advantage spells in the late game. I also think that people are shying away from Sultai because they’ve seen Temur and Abzan be popular, so they are naturally drifting towards those color combinations when a Sultai deck would have been a better fit for their draft seat. I would not be surprised if Sultai ends up being one of the better decks down the stretch.

The last deck that I want to talk about is the 5 Color deck. This deck performed very badly in the games that I watched. Over and over again I would watch decks built around Trail of Mysteries or Secret Plans just lose because they either couldn’t put together their mana quickly enough to build up a board presence, or because they simply didn’t have enough depth to the cards in their deck. However, I think there is a tremendous disparity between the way this deck performed and the expectations that people have for the deck. Among enfranchised players, it is a pet deck, and a lot of pro players have been talking about how strong it is. I know that a lot of people have tried to go into the format forcing the deck. It’s been called the best deck in the format many times, and it seems strange for it to put up such poor results in this study, but I think there are two important reasons why.

First, the 5 Color deck is a very difficult one to draft, build, and play. I think one of the reasons why there is such a difference between pro players estimation of the deck and its actual performance is because when it is in the hands of a great player, it’s going to be a lot better than when it is in the hands of an average player. The 5 Color deck requires players to make a lot of subtly nuanced picks during the draft portion, but those picks can make a huge difference in the power of the deck. It is an exercise  in balancing power level with consistency, and a lot of the skill in drafting the deck comes from intuitively knowing the line between when you should take a card for its power and when you should take a land to make it easier to cast your spells. Inexperienced players will tend to skew towards to different problems with the deck, they’ll either take lands too high and end up without enough powerful cards to win their matches, or they’ll take multicolor cards to highly and not end up with enough fixing to cast their spells reliably. It’s also difficult to put together the mana bases for this deck, and to figure out which cards exactly are the most important to include in the deck. Finally, the deck is also difficult to play, because it requires a player to sequence their spells very precisely, or face imminent disaster. All these factors add up to a deck that is just stronger in the hands of experience drafters, and it’s not hard to see why pro players would experience a lot of success with the deck, while the bulk of regular players would fail miserably with it.

The second problem with the 5 Color deck is one that I’ve harped on over and over in this series, and it’s the problem of effective strategies vs. powerful strategies. The 5 Color deck is an example of a powerful strategy. When it comes together, it is a work of art. You land an early Trail of Mystery, and then you drop 3 or 4 morphs, maybe you slam a Secret Plans and hold off your opponent while you start flipping up your morphs. If everything comes together, you are going to demolish your opponent in a deluge of card advantage. Those games make players feel powerful, it leaves you with this adrenaline rush because you just demolished your opponent, and there was nothing that they could do. However, other times the deck just won’t come together, probably because the mana didn’t quite work out. The problem is that this messes with our psychology as humans. It’s easy for us to remember the times when the deck performs beautifully, but we’ll be more likely to sweep the other times under the rug, and just pass it off as getting unlucky with our mana. One of the biggest problems I see with people’s Magic game is that they think that powerful decks are the best decks, and they overvalue power when they are talking about Magic, and when they are drafting the cards for their decks. On the other side of the coin, I love to draft effective decks. For example, one of my favorite cube decks consists of fair White and Green creatures with Ajani, Elspeth, or Parallax Wave. It’s not the kind of deck that wins on turn two, but it always puts up good game against any deck, and it is effective at barely betting opponent’s with regularity. It’s also a boring deck. It’s the kind of deck that people often avoid. However, I have found that success in limited is found on the back of effective decks, rather than just powerful ones. The showiness of the deck is not something that you record on the match slip; it doesn’t matter if you drew 15 more cards than your opponent, or if you attacked them down to negative 20 life. The only thing that matters if you get 2 in the win slot. The best performing decks in this study are the ones that can consistently and effectively do that.

 

With all of that said, I think it’s also important to notice how even the win rates are in this format. All of these decks are performing very closely to the 50% mark except for 5 Color. A few archetypes are standing out above the others, but not dramatically so. One of the important things I’ve noticed about this format is that it makes it possible for players to approach it from a lot of different angles and still be successful. I would be hesitant to say that any one particular strategy is the best way to draft the format, and I suspect that over the lifetime of the format, we’re going to see metagame shifts that make each strategy the best for a period of time. This is one of the most open formats I’ve ever seen, and perhaps that is why I’m enjoying it so much.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Thanks again for reading. Her are my conclusions and recommendations for the format.

1.      KTK is a fairly slow format. Seven drops are playable, though you still want to focus on having a low curve.

2.      KTK games often develop into stalled boards. Having cards that can punch through these board stalls for the win is especially useful. Outlast creatures, evasive creatures, and card advantage spells are all particularly strong because they are so good in these situations.

3.      Play 18 lands and play first. This is a mana intensive format, and it is important to you hit three and five mana on time. More KTK games are decided on this than anything else. However, morph initiative is also important, and being the first person to get down a morph, and then the first to attack with five open mana gives you a tremendous advantage.

4.      Abzan is the best deck in the format. It has plenty of ways to clog up the board, Outlast is particularly well-suited for board stalls, and it has removal to pick off evasive creatures. It also has plenty of card advantage spells to gain an advantage in the late game.

5.      Temur is a strong foil to Abzan, because its commons are particularly well-suited to fight Abzan’s key strategies.

6.      While 5 Color decks are very popular among pro players, they are probably too difficult for the average player to draft effectively.

As always, you can follow me on twitter @oraymw for updates about articles. I’ve also put up a Tumblr account at http://oraymw.tumblr.com/ where I post links to my articles. You can go there and subscribe to the RSS feed, and then you’ll be able to get updates whenever a new article goes live.

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1 Comments

Clans by Hearts at Wed, 11/12/2014 - 11:01
Hearts's picture

"When we talk about Abzan as a clan, it’s important to remember that this is an umbrella that includes WBg decks, BGw decks, and WGb decks."

Is there a particular reason why you dont include WBG in this description ?
The default meaning of playing a clan means WBG to me (no splash), though I do agree that playing BW with g-splash means you are playing Abzan (a clan) but that is beneath the umbrella of WBG(no splash).

What does "splash" mean anyway ? Its so subjective in my experience.

That said, I do find your articles very good and enjoyable, keep up the good work !