A New Frontier: Testing Boundaries – Khans of Tarkir
“A New Frontier” is a new series of articles based around the recently created MTG format that uses only cards with the new border from the M15 set and onward. In these articles I plan on following the results from tournaments, talk about viable decks in the format, as well as powerful cards. I hope to do at least an article each month with updates on the format, results, as well as the current status of its popularity. Please keep in mind that these are merely exploratory articles and that the Frontier format is still trying to find its footing. It could end up doing very well and develop a following like EDH has, or become just another footnote like Tiny Leaders.
In my previous think piece, I talked about (in depth) what Frontier would be like without the M15 expansion. By and large I felt like the set could be lost and it wouldn’t change the format too much, although a few of the Tier 1 and Tier 2 decks would be hurting. Today’s topic covers what the format would be like without Khans of Tarkir. Not the block, but just KTK itself. Now Mark Rosewater originally commented that if HE had made the Frontier format, one of the things he would have done was get rid of the fetch lands. This might mean getting rid of the entire block, or just the fetch lands themselves. I’d like to think of only getting rid of KTK as somewhat of a compromise. Mark gets to make a fetchless format, but most of the format remains intact. Intact but shaken to its very core. I have to admit that it would be interesting to see a format without Fetchlands. We all know how much of an obstacle they were to Modern and Legacy before the reprints happened in KTK and Modern Masters 2017, but it we cut them out of a format entirely would it still be fun to play? Outside of fetchlands, just how big of an impact does Khans of Tarkir make on Frontier and what would the format be without it? Let’s take a look.
A Frontier Without Khans of Tarkir
Let’s address the elephant in the room first. We all know that cutting fetchlands from the format would make 4 color decks almost impossible. No more Abzan Red, no more Mardu blue, and even 4C Control would lose quite a bit of consistency. The new 3 color decks would be a lot more fair, and there would definitely be an increase in pain land, fast land, and check land usage. I don’t think the usage of battle lands will change much, as they are still relatively easy to use to your benefit.
Another type of deck that’s greatly affected by the loss of fetch lands are graveyard ones. Suddenly Dig Through Time, Treasure Cruise, and any other delve deck lose a turn or two to draw cards. Delirium decks are also hurt somewhat, as they either have to play Evolving Wilds or more discard effects in order to get that land into play. Cycle lands might see more play if this happens as well, since they can be discarded into the graveyard. Sure these types of decks can still work, but they’ll have to expend a lot more resources in order to do it.
Bottom line is that the format would survive, but that some cards and archetypes would be GREATLY affected by it. If it was only the fetches that god banned, it would make all those Delve cards alright instead of insane. Fatal Push might get somewhat worse (but still good), as well as the other Revolt cards, and the focus would shift more on overall synergy of colors instead of splashes of powerful colors.
Not only would Abzan aggro take a hit, but many sideboards looking to stop Rally or other graveyard decks would be hurt by not having Anafenza. Some Human Collected Company decks would definitely feel it, but by having one less boogeyman to worry about, Rally would definitely see a resurgence. It’s already put up some good results in the last few months by players reading the metagame well and people dropping graveyard hate, but without Anafenza the Foremost aggro decks become a lot less scary to Rally.
As I stated about Fetchlands, Delve cards would be hit pretty hard without them. But if we went ahead and cut out Become Immense as well? It’s become somewhat less popular since Fatal Push and other quick removal came out, but Atarka Red and Pummler/Energy decks still rely on this card for those huge damage turns. It’s basically an automatic win with Temur Battle Rage. Without that combo, control gains a huge foothold against these aggressive decks. You can still win with speed, but those 3rd turn wins simply wouldn’t be possible anymore. Mono red would still be playable, but I think the Ramunap Red versions or BR would become the normal since there would be no reason to play Naya or GR outside of Atarka’s Command.
Dig Through Time has been a staple in control decks since Frontier’s inception, and losing it would hit control rather hard. They’d still have their Anticipates, Pull Through Times, and other various card draw, but they’d merely be peaking through time instead of digging through it, and it would become A LOT more mana intensive. I’m sure they could make it work, but the archetype would lose a lot of its potency without it. I’d guess that pure control decks would suffer, but decks like Esper Dragons could make a comeback as they focused on winning with cards like Dragonlord Silumgar and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon.
We haven’t seen or heard from Hardened Scales for quite some time in Frontier, but it’s still there. Being able to double up on Hangarback Walk, Walking Ballista, Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, or any other counter effect is huge and can get out of control very quickly. Without this card, that deck simply ceases to be. Sure you could technically still play a GW beatdown deck (probably not bad), but it would lose a lot of power.
Ghostfire Blade is an absolute beating in UR Ensoul Artifact decks, but it also does some work in mono black Eldrazi (or any other Eldrazi beat down deck for that matter) and in some Vehicle based decks. I’ve already said that UR Ensoul Artifact decks would lose a lot of power without the namesake card (Ensoul Artifact), but this would be the nail in the coffin for that archetype. Vehicle decks would be fine and could replace the extra damage with some other type of effect, but I think that those fast aggro decks like mono black Eldrazi would take a hit. It would be alright, but being on the fringes already this loss wouldn’t help it much.
Another original staple of the Frontier league, Mantis Rider was a force to be reckoned with for quite a long time. Be it Jeskai humans, Dark Jeskai Skies (flyers), or any of the Jeskai tempo decks, Mantis Rider was always there. Quick, fast, and big, it was a terror to match up against since most decks don’t play a lot of flyers. A pair of these could finish you off very quickly if you didn’t have blockers or removal for them. There are a number of other 3 drops that could probably fit into those decks (Monastery Mentor) or other flyers (Stormchaser Mage), so the strategy would make due albeit at a slightly lower power level.
This would be a BIG hit for mono red aggro decks. Atarka Red, Ramunap Red, UR Prowess . . . all of them would not only slow down a bit, but also power level wise. Being able to pump it up at will with a non-creature spell in an aggro deck let you deal a whole lot of damage very early on. Without that pressure, other decks would be able to stabilize much easier. Red aggro decks would still be strong, but I think they’d lose a few win % points here and there which would mean you’d see it less and less making top 8s and top 16s. Bomat Courier and Zurgo Bellstriker could pick up the slack, but they wouldn’t be as strong.
Be still my heart. A Frontier format without Siege Rhino would be a travesty, but we have to consider it. Abzan decks have been hanging on by a thread in recent metagames. They used to be at the top consistently, but better removal, better creatures, and better control decks have kept the archetype in check. I wouldn’t say it’s Tier 2, but definitely locked in that Tier 1.5 position. If Khans of Tarkir was cut, I think the strategy would slide to tier 2. The loss of both Rhino and Anafenza would be too much. The archetype might recover after a few more sets if some good 3 and 4 drop Abzan colored cards are printed, but it would definitely be rebuilding its former glory for a while.
Even though this card was absolutely busted in every other format it was played in, strangely enough nobody plays Treasure Cruise any more in Frontier. Decks that would benefit the most from it, such as UR Prowess, Jeskai Ascendancy, or UR Sphinx’s Tutelage simply aren’t good enough to compete in the current metagame. Dig Through Time is vastly superior at instant speed, and most blue decks have more versatile card advantage options. It could get better in the future, but losing it wouldn’t affect Frontier at all.
I would probably rank Murderous Cut as the 2nd best black removal spell in Frontier behind Fatal Push. It kills anything, and due to fetches and economical removal you can realistically cast it for 1 mana as soon as turn 3 (if not 2). It hasn’t seen too much play recently, but I think quite a few black decks use it in their SB to supplement their Pushes (myself included). Having less creature removal options at instant speed, especially those that aren’t double colored like Grasp of Darkness, would be a boon for beatdown decks like Abzan Aggro, Vehicles, or mono red.
Sorin, Solemn Visitor hasn’t seen any play since Abzan beatdown and Mardu midrange used it in their main boards back in DTK standard, but I still think losing it would impact the format greatly. With easy access to huge amounts of life gain, many midrange decks would become more susceptible to burn or red aggro decks. Damage would stack up more quickly, and it would be hard for most decks to stabilize. Coupled with the loss of Siege Rhino, I’d expect red decks to become more brazen and look for ways to toss damage at you relentlessly. Cards like Fling, Atarka’s Command, and Impact Tremors could become a lot better. Decks like Pummler Fling/Battle Rage decks get better too.
Other Cards that Might be Missed
These cards haven’t seen much play, in fact some haven’t seen any at all, but I still think they deserve a mention. Just because there might be a better option out there now, it doesn’t mean that the format would be better off without it.
- Abzan Charm – best instant speed exile card for big creatures, and the card draw is also great. Would hurt Abzan decks.
- Abzan Falconer – one of the finisher cards for Hardened Scales. Gives everybody flying so you can make an alpha strike. With Scales going to, it’s kinda moot to worry about Falconer.
- Crackling Doom – Another card that saw a lot of play in Dark Jeskai and Abzan Red back when the format first started. New removal and a changing metagame away from big creature decks like Siege Rhino has since made ineffective or cost prohibitive.
- Disdainful Stroke – Still sees play in some control sideboards, so it would hurt them but not much. There are plenty of counterspells to choose from.
- Hordeling Outburst – Any red based tokens deck, and of course Atarka red decks would hurt the most by losing this. Dragon Fodder is still in viable, but not as strong.
- Jeskai Ascendancy – Jeskai Ascendancy never really took off in Frontier, and it never will without cards like Sylvan Caryatid from Theros with hexproof built in so you can protect your combo. If KTK is cut, we’ll never be able to try the combo again.
- Rattleclaw Mystic – We’ve already lost Elvish Mystic in M15, so losing Rattleclaw would most likely mean that creature-less ramp decks would be the only way to go. We’d still have Leaf Gilder, Shaman of Forgotten Ways, and the new Dino-dork, but Rattleclaw’s huge burst of mana would mean ramp decks would probably be unable to compete against aggro decks.
- Savage Knuckleblade – Damn strong card, but never found a home in Frontier. No big impact from losing it.
- See the Unwritten – an incredibly fun card that will only get better as enter the battlefield effects increase, but hasn’t seen any play outside of jank decks. Nothing lost except for potential.
- Stubborn Denial – big enabler for Temur decks against control, works well with Tasigur as well in Sultai, but hasn’t seen much play. Minimal impact if we lose it.
- Utter End – Good sideboard card against planeswalkers, artifacts, and enchantments, and without the negative effect of Anguished Unmaking from SOI. Makes playing planeswalkers better in the format. I would think Nahiri, Gideon, and others get better.
- Wingmate Roc – Another life gain card that made it incredibly difficult for red aggro decks, but without the option of playing it in your deck those types of decks would gain more of a foothold in Frontier.
Tons of decks will take a hit and drop in power level if Khans is dropped from the Frontier format, and others will cease to exist. The decks directly affected will be:
- All blue control decks
- Red aggro decks
- Abzan Aggro
- UR Ensoul
- Eldrazi aggro decks
- 4 Color decks
- Jeskai ‘Skies’
Khans of Tarkir clearly makes up a huge amount of current Frontier decks, and by cutting it we’d be losing another 2-3 archetypes on top of the 1-2 from cutting M15. Would the format still be competitive? Well, decks like Elves, Bant Company, Delirium, Aetherworks, Saheeli combo, and versions of mono red would still be viable, and I think control would be be able to survive as well. Most of the great removal would still be intact, so powerful creatures from Fate Reforged onwards wouldn’t run away with the metagame, but it would be incredibly difficult to run any 4 color decks. It would reduce the many variations of decks we currently have, and other decks would be reduced to their purest forms (Rally would have to be Azban or Sultai most likely, 4C control would probably become Grixis or Esper, etc).
Personally I’d be fine with this shake up if it meant Wizards of the Coast would recognize Frontier as a real format. I wouldn’t like it, but I’d accept it. If they want to prevent the problems of modern happening again (like Fetchlands becoming an obstacle to entry because of the price), they’ll have to make a clear line that separates the two formats. Eventually we’d have super powerful 4 color decks again like we did in Khan block standard, and we’d lose all semblance of a balanced metagame. While it doesn’t look that way at the moment, it’s a possibility. By keeping Fetchlands out of the format WotC would be able to balance it more easily and print more effective answers for powerful cards. Who hasn’t prepared a sideboard for a certain match up only to have it destroyed by a card you couldn’t anticipate?
Well, I know many of you would like me to continue talking about the Khans block, but I really don’t want to turn this into a 5000+ word article so I’ll leave you with the promise that I’ll continue this thought piece in the near future. Look for the second part of this article talking about Fate Reforged and Dragons of Tarkir sometime in the next week or two! Until then, be sure to follow me on Twitter for updates about the Frontier Untap league, as well as Frontier events happening in Tokyo at Hareruya. There are two large events coming up in January, a “Win a Nintendo Switch” special Frontier event, as well as another God of Frontier trial. I expect both to average about 40-50 players, so we should get some good results from these tournaments to look at, as well as the 44 person Untap League Top 8 results which should be available in the first week of January.
If you have any comments on today’s topic regarding taking Khans of Tarkir out of Frontier, please feel free to comment below. How would it affect you? In what way could you see the format moving if these changes were to occur? I’d be interested in hearing some other opinions. Until next time, happy holidays and a happy New Year!