Sharzad v4 - The Passion of Tarkir

The dragon is a perfect marriage of power and the will to use it. —Sarkhan Vol

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Playtest (draft) against bots

I began this project on a mechanical level, with the intent to bridge the gap between "blue's historical dominance over the game engine" and the 'legacy-lite' gameplay I want. Blue's broken old spells have been able to 'pitch to force' broken new creatures, and WBRG are getting some really strong and fun new cards, but weren't receiving broken old cards in the past. I thought about this problem a lot last year, and ideas started to come together, but it wasn't until recently that I hit on the solution that just makes so much sense, that feels so easy I can't believe I never thought of it: go back in time and give them some.

I've always liked Sarkhan Vol. He's a compelling character with interesting story beats, and one of the only characters in Magic to like dragons even more than I do. He's enslaved by a dragon, freed, and then gives everything to other dragons, forfeiting the chance to become Khan himself. He's omnipotent but not omniscient, he re-consecrates Tarkir in an intensely political moment of religious's a hell of a story! Thus, "the passion of Tarkir".

I drafted a lot of 3xKTK and a fair bit of all the other draft formats from that block, and the mechanical 'time travel' hook of Fate Reforged, the fulcrum around which KTK and DTK swung, I still think that's one of the coolest bits of block design ever. And so I thought, okay, I have magic's colour pie, and my colour pie swinging around a fulcrum too, so what if that fulcrum was still Sarkhan's dizzying choice? And that set my brain on fire, and Sharzad v4 is the result.

"The Passion of Tarkir" explores a version of Magic where colour identity flows fast and loose, where every colour has access to efficient threats and old-Magic-feeling haymakers, lower curves mean that unpleasant do-nothing variance is reduced for all players, and stack and hand interaction are available in more colours than before. My hope is to not only make mechanical changes to the game engine and how it plays, but to also capture some of the nostalgia and love that enfranchised players feel about Time Spiral block and its loving homage to colour identity "what ifs".

Obviously, WotC has not printed another Time Spiral block all about Sarkhan just for me. As a result, I've gotten to flex my creative muscles and add a few third-party game pieces, custom cards that 'bleed' effects into other colours, and new creature cards that push the tribes I find emotionally resonant (dragons and angels in the sky, elementals and everyone else on the ground) up into 'Legacy constructed' playability. I used to try to make custom cards feel 'middle of the pack', solid cards that could've been printed, but weren't, and which wouldn't have broken any constructed formats. This time, since I wanted to destabilize blue's dominance over Legacy, I had to, uh, "take the limiter off the golf cart". Lots of words words words about this below, which are completely optional to read and even more optional to think about and agree that I'm completely right and a genius for having said.

Dragons are the raison d'être of the Cube, so you'll see a lot of new ones. They rule the skies, and are generally the biggest flier in any board state. Angels also fly, but tend to lose to dragons in combat - however, what they lack in sinew and sorcery, they make up for by interacting with the game engine (gaining life, moving cards between zones, complicating combat). Elementals, anchored by Omnath & friends, are connected to and interact with lands and mana. Human and zombie tribal, key tribes in previous versions of the cube, are much less relevant now - it's all about flying, just like retail limited.
Legacy's fetchland-ABUR dual manabases are more or less "perfect mana", and to replicate that, players need to be almost all-in on really good nonbasic lands. Drafting them would've ballooned the cube's size to 500, and made drafts slower and duller - no thanks! Instead, I've decided to just put fetchlands and dual lands "in the basic land box", but a few dozen of Magic's greatest-ever lands are still in the cube, do still cost a draft pick. Everyone gets a Legacy manabase, but to go beyond that, you're gonna have to draft that Gaea's Cradle or neo-Valakut. Most decks will be incentivized to play one basic land, so those are in the land box as well.

The cube also leans heavily into the "sol lands", lands which tap to make two mana, but which otherwise tend to produce "small games" by either costing lots of life or sacrificing themselves after generating a burst of resources. Ancient Tomb and City of Traitors are legacy all-stars, powering out t1-2 Show and Tells and Initiative Stompy creatures, but they're joined by the Saprazzan Skerry cycle of 'depletion counter' lands. Sharzad v3 tried to use sol lands' colourless mana as a feature, not a bug, by aping the "Eldrazi Winter" that haunted Modern in early 2016 (until Eye of Ugin was banned) and the Eldrazi Stompy decks that continued to haunt Legacy until mono-W Initiative finally solved the question of how to best use the sol lands.
I like to play bad decks in Legacy, and so does most of its playerbase - Legacy is an "undersolved format" which flatters "deckbuilders" who want nothing more than to go 2-1 with something stupid but personally meaningful. Initiative Stompy was different from most of the Bad Brews that haunt the format - it actually solved an unsolved question, how to best (ab)use the sol lands. The Legacy Specialist's wounded pride lined up with a gripe about the differences between normal and multiplayer Magic, when Initiative, designed for 4-player FFA, proved to be a deep and powerful thing to do in a real game of Magic, too. If you're unfamiliar with the mechanic, don't worry, it's really simple to explain (joke): initiative means "venture whenever you'd monarch". Yes, two of Magic's wordiest third-decade mechanics are smashed together; "venture when you'd monarch". What a headache, what a nightmare in terms of cognitive load.

And yet, the cards are fun, the mechanic offers branching decision points and rewards playing to the board and winning combat steps. In combo-saturated formats, Magic's second-decade midrange threats have increasingly failed to 'cut it' and close games in a relevant amount of time (Siege Rhino lines up poorly against Moat and Dark Ritual into Yawgmoth's Will). I'd like to hope that Initiative has what it takes to bring back the joy of ramping out a midrange creature one turn early and feeling like you're on top of the world, that you just Time Walked your opponent. And with the sol lands mentioned above, decks can play an initiative beater on curve and feel good, or ahead of curve and feel like they're really doing something on par with Magic's ancient broken cards.
Here is an album where you can view all of the customs in the Cube. If you want to talk about any of these designs, please feel free to do so in this cube blog thread! In order to achieve 'colour balanced legacy', orcish bowmasters isn't enough - I have to go back in time and add new and different broken cards.

I'm still putting this all together, and I haven't gotten a real draft together yet (although I've done some 1v1 grid drafts and a lot of goldfishing). But I think that maybe I have done something pretty cool and creative here, and I've tried to start and finish with mechanics, the kinds of gameplay I want to see, with all the fun time travel dilemma stuff tying loose mechanical threads together in a cohesive story.

More to come, more to say another day. Please take a look at my baby, I'm very proud of it. (PS: test drafts dearly solicited)

Sharzad v1A Thousand And One Cube Nights (2014)
v3Dragons and Drazi (2022-2023)
v4The Passion of Tarkir (2023-??)

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brief notes on wasteland

I used to say oh it's awesome to play Wasteland , Wasteland as legacy players agree is one of the "safety valves" of the format - more on this in a second - and is format-defining in legacy and I want my format to feel like legacy, so I played 3 or 4 wastelands in the cube. This led to wasteland based aggro decks going 3-0, or the life from the loam stuff going 2-1, or justified a strong two-colour 'all-around' deck like UW blade or Rock or UR delver or (and the list went on). But here's the catch, and if you tried this for a while maybe you know where I'm going : what the decks with 2+ wastelands were "safe from" was having to win tight, interactive games! at least one game per cube night was being lost on turn 2 or 3 when the unlucky victim stumbled and was later locked out of a second {W}, or even worse, the ability to cast any of their spells at all.

brief notes on ghost quarter

so now i'm running 4 copies of ghost quarter. maybe this time none of the stuff that was true about wasteland will be true about ghost quarter? it would be cool for Cleansing Wildfire to be just shy of stone rain draw a card, or for the recursion loops to in some way have an edge over the xerox-y small game decks by exhausting the other player's basics. basically, I want cards like From the Ashes to be exciting build-arounds. there's no reason why any of these things should work out any different from wasteland but hope springs eternal format
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oh - and here's some cards {X}{0}{X}{0}


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Chris Taylor

My eventual solution to the "wasteland problem" was to just call all wasteland esque cards at all, let me know if you reach something different!
I feel like if you don't enjoy the Strip Mine/Wasteland experience (understandable opinion, they are stupid cards), Ghost Quarter and friends are pretty reasonable in a high power environment where it is nice to be able to answer powerful lands like Tolarian Academy etc. without creating that "well I don't get to play the game today" situation that Strip Mine and Wasteland are notorious for. Also nice for players to answer powerful creature lands even if they don't draw their instant speed interaction.
there's a wasteland i have in my "test eventually" folder that's
T: Add c
T, sac this: destroy target land. each player conjures a Wastes onto the battlefield.

it doesnt help with COLOR screw but you could probably have it conjure a basic of each players choice instead? idea being that the person doing the wastelanding shouldnt go down a land

Chris Taylor

I think you've seen these Saf, but if you are looking into custom wastelands, here's some ideas (Or at least pre-done names/arts):
Boreal Frontier.pngColonist Camp.pngDesolate Barrens.pngDesolate Cradle.pngDusty Canyon.pngFrozen Spires.pngFrozen Wasteland.pngPrimal Desert.png

A few of these accidentally end up countering fetchlands, and some stop opponents cycling their lands? (Just seems cruel TBH), so your mileage may vary
I guess what I'm ultimately looking for with the Ghost Quarters is related to all the velocity (and velocity-limiting) stuff wasteland still does, but I want to reduce the number of absolute nongames created by the first copy of Wasteland. I'm picturing maybe most decks have zero to two basic lands, like 10 (basic land box) fetches and ABUR duals, and a couple more lands they drafted from the cube, but my goal with the ghost quarters is to take a little chunk out of how reliably Wasteland can lock someone out of getting to play a game in its early turns. The idea that I could suddenly also cube From the Ashes alongside Blood Moon is pretty exciting too.

I know I'll pick a design that adds cards to graveyards, but I might try the one that gives both players a token Wastes as well. Thanks for the ideas![/c]
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so, can we do a Hausman or Rotisserie draft of this? this cube is heckin cool but i keep forgetting to finish reading all the things in it, seems easier to experience it
(and way more fun!)
re-transcribed from a discord conversation so please excuse me that it's not as laconic as usual. not editing it beyond what i've done to add a frame narrative. sorry thanks

one day, a student asked Gutei Oshõ about small games. the wise master Gutei Oshõ wastelanded him. On another day, a visitor came to the abbey, and asked the student of Gutei Oshõ about small games. The student smiled, and wastelanded the visitor. Hearing of this, Gutei took away his student's copies of Wasteland; even the judge foil. The student screamed in pain and began to cry. Gutei smiled, and asked the student to consider the difference between a Wastes and a Wasteland. Upon hearing this, the student became enlightened.

safra's commentary: Small games are the ones where the most often you are able to identify exactly one play that caused you to throw the game. On both days the Wasteland was removed from play.

Do you actually want to build your Cube that way? Doesn’t that make the fun dragon stuff harder to do?

more notes on big dragons:
-a big/big flyer is a game piece that combat instantly 'becomes' 'about'.
-->this is because they fly over board stalls, and have enough power that one unblockable attacker actually represents a real threat to your entire life total
-tapping out for a big chungus is very hard when you need to protect it with even more mana.
-->this is most clear in UW control mirrors, where the first person to land and stick their 3UW Teferi wins. Casting Teferi is not just something you do at 5 mana; it's something you do when the opponent can't stop you.
-->this is also why most Delver style , prowess style, aggro-control, etc, decks rely on one mana threats and one mana conditional protection (delver of secrets or the 1/1 with infect, spell pierce or vines of vastwood). They need to "always" "have their shields up"; efficiently trading up on mana (I spell pierce'd your wrath, GG) justifies the inefficiency of having to split your turn in a way that's kind of awkward.
---->and this is why I love Daze. more on Daze in a second.

Daze is awesome because it is the smallest game counterspell in all of magic.
The permission player's Daze is a thumb lightly touched to a scale at exactly the right moment. A tax of exactly one mana.
In big games, Daze is useless. You side them out and bring in more Force of Negations or whatever.
My theory of expensive dragons and free spells is best contained in this card, which I had to invent.


The idea is that there are only so many "real" answers to the big/big flyer, and being able to place my thumb "on the scale-shimmer" when Villain finally finds one justifies basically any and all of the tempo loss I've incurred by spending 4 mana on a threat. My four mana dragon could be removed for one mana - but it won't be.
so the big threats, inherently, invalidate some small removal - they just don't die to it. and the free protection spells like any of the Forces, MH2 elementals, Shimmer here, Daze, Dazzle, etc, justify playing the big guys on curve, as soon as they can invalidate the threats already on the board. (as opposed to the case of the 3UW teferi mirror match with Dovin's Veto protection!)

one of the very very strong things you can do in large-cardpool magic is pile up all the free interaction and the broken one mana threats and then a bunch of ways to keep the game from ever outgrowing those one mana threats. legacy landed here.
Another one is to pile up all the fast mana and the "expensive" (but not really that expensive any more!) threats which can't be outgrown. This is Vintage. It's also kind of what I'm trying to do with free interaction (what's faster mana than 'you can evoke this for free'?). But in Cube, everyone's got a mix of the big stuff and the slow stuff, threats from 1-4 mana value, and the broken free interaction tends to go early in each pack (spreading itself around the whole table). So the hyperefficient Khans-era UR Delver deck Bob Huang invented with 4 Treasure Cruise, 4 Force of Will, 4 Daze, 4 Wasteland, 4 Ponder, 4 Brainstorm, 4 Preordain......that kind of like, "S Tier", doesn't exist consistently. Someone's the fastest deck at the table, and someone's the slowest, but if everyone has free interaction, we all get to tap out more often (letting both players reach 'shields up' sooner) (and double-spell in chunkier decks) (cancelling out a bunch of our resources), and then mop it all up with a shields-up Murktide Regent or whatever.

A monk asked Kõyõ Seijõ, "TrainmasterGT sat in zazen for ten cube nights and could not attain the Garfield-nature. He did not become a Buddha. How could this be?" Seijõ said, "Your question is quite self-explanatory." The monk asked, "He meditated so long; why could he not attain Buddhahood?" Seijõ said, "Because he did not become a Buddha."

safra's comment: When you're done with the board stall, cast a flyer.
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dragons of tarkir has 26 dragons and an as-fan of less than one dragon per pack of cards opened. 19.25% of its creatures are dragons and the OVERWHELMING consensus is that this wasn't enough. Partially this is because many of those 26 dragons were not Constructed-playable but also the as-fan (no dragons in any of the common slots in a pack -> maybe no dragons in that pack!), density, sheer numbers to provide a sense of a world overflowing with dragons just wasn't there.

I recently counted up some stuff in Sharzad v4 and was like. oh no i have fewer dragons than DTK does!!!!! 15% of my creatures were dragons, less even than DTK!!!! A total failure of my design goals. Sobbing emoji. Here's what I did about it.

(24 dragons + 6 cares-about-dragons)
-commit to the lore
probably the "easiest" part was just adding more dragons from old Tarkir. I finally wised up to the lore need to have all five Dragonlords in my cube, whether or not I think D-Lord Silly Guy should cost 5 these days. I can fix that, it's NBD, but I can't fix his absence from the world except by undoing it (just like Sarkhan!). WWSD? The solution was easy - I re-added Ojutai and Silumgar, and tweaked a few existing creatures with unique creature types to just be Dragons too. And a couple space-filling designs became french vanilla dragons or started caring about Dragons, and some removal got changed to no longer hit Dragons.
Bonecrusher Giant | Mawloc | Territorial Kavu | Auriok Salvagers | RR Eidolon | Snuff Out | Toxic Deluge | Silumgar's Claw | Qal Sisma Tattooist
(29 dragons + 9)

-more rewards for having a dragon in play
Scale-Shimmer is something I'm very happy with, but one card does not a mechanic make. Dragon's Fire likewise. Kolaghan's Command is awesome but the other dragonlords' commands haven't aged so well. So I came up with Dragonlord's Will, as seen on the following cards:
Dromoka's Flourishing | Ojutai's Unbinding | Atarka's Conquests
And then I tweaked a black spell, too:
Beseech the Dragonlord
(29 dragons + 13)

more dragons in the art
Redmand | Force of Habit
(29 dragons + ~15)
It's still a work in progress but I think I'm headed in the right direction. I think I'm setting the goal of 40-45 dragons-or-dragon-matters cards in the cube, or about 10.5-10.75% of all cards, for an as-fan of ">1".
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As part of getting Sharzad v4 together, I wanted to make sure I was paying enough homage to the original three sets that I liked so much. Without any cards from what I’ll now call (nearly a decade later) “Old” Tarkir, my Planar Chaos of Tarkir cube would be a less honest, less loving, less homage-paying thing. So I googled, you know, “best cube cards from Tarkir” to see which cards I was obviously forgetting, in retrospect, oh yeah these guys can hang with the Legacy power level stuff I guess. I got three good results, the top three results on Bing: wtwlf123’s set previews, @DaveJudgment’s “Essential Tarkir” on CubeCobra , and a 2015 thread here on RipLab.

The RipLab thread is pretty confusing. FlowerSunRain opens it by declaring that Seeker of the Way is the best card in the set that gave us Treasure Cruise? Really? Soulflayer the best card from FRF? The set with colourless finisher extraordinare Ugin, the Spirit Dragon? The set that gave us Monastery Mentor? The Standard-defining ‘choose Khans or Dragons’ Siege enchantments? Were we even playing with these cards, or just posting about them? I think given the benefit of hindsight even Flamewake Phoenix might edge out Soulflayer for me. Gurmag Angler definitely does; B is less than BB, and that’s all there is to it. Inspiring Call, FSR's pick for Dragons, wasn’t even the best Green Instant from DTK, the set that gave Modern both combo Anafenza AND Collected Company to define the coco melira combo deck. No offense meant to FSR, whose thread this is, but I hope that the crucible of time has shown what from Tarkir block endured and what hasn’t. In some small way, I want to take the efforts I’ve spent on re-evaluating Tarkir block in 2023 and ‘correct the record’ here on RipLab.

Zurgo Bellstriker was Wtwlf’s #1 card of DTK. He calls it “one of the best aggro 1-drops of all time”, and says that “until we have 9 Goblin Guides, this card isn’t going anywhere”. I love the guy too, Zurgo Bellstriker is in my cube 8 years later. I think it's interesting to compare the good read on Zurgo to the next card.

Prowess, as hyped up in FSR’s first post in the thread, turned out to be amazing. One of Magic’s most evergreen mechanics, Prowess is allowed to appear in any set, anywhere, with any flavour. It’s hard to imagine that it’d be that way if they’d kept the original playtest name for the mechanic, “kung fu”. Prowess is amazing. But back then, even heavily power-motivated players didn’t quite get the implications. Wtwlf’s #18 (!!!) card from KTK is every-format-allstar Monastery Swiftspear! Wtwlf writes in his marks against Taylor Swiftspear that “Our red aggressive decks are typically loaded to the gills with creatures; much more of a swarm aggro strategy than a tempo-type aggro deck. It also can't take full advantage of spells that need (or want) to be played as instants for full value. I don't know how often this creature will spend its time as a 2-power attacker in a deck that's not skewed to take advantage of that ability specifically.”

The medium-sized gold creatures were also, IMO, misunderstood. Here on RipLab we were obsessed with the ceiling on Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, and later, once the ‘36 Rhinos’ deck came out in Standard, multi-format beefcake Siege Rhino. Wtwlf123’s KTK preview puts Siege Rhino at #13(!). He writes: “A good creature, and probably the highest estimated value from any of the cards in this color combination[...]540-630 for me.” Siege Rhino offered so much value that you could build around cloning it, but that raw value was also the final grain of sand on the pile that got Birthing Pod banned in Modern (voice->rallier->rhino, ‘fair pod’, was maybe even better than kiki pod?) and which even gets registered sometimes in Vintage(!) Sidisi has been completely outmoded by other, newer titans, and then even just new sultai commanders. RipLab cooed and awed over the Sultai value 4-drop before catching on to how good the Abzan one was, Wtwlf123 was obsessed with the potential of Yasova Dragonclaw (his #4 card from FRF), and I think almost everyone missed how consistently Delve cards would just cost one mana. A 2014 ‘what does this set have for Vintage players?’ article misses the forest for the trees about, of all cards, Treasure Cruise:
Clearly, this card is not going to slide into any/all blue deck(s) as a “value” sorcery speed Ancestral Recall, so what decks might have interest in this? The answer to this is in decks that can fill the graveyard early and often so to maximize the chance of casting this for 1-3 mana in the early part of the game. Early speculation on this card was in favor of seeing this in Dredge, though I am skeptical about this[...]I could see Delver decks experimenting with one of these to see how good it could be.


Revisiting these cards has cemented my understanding that Tarkir is one of the most important blocks of all time. I mean, did you see the cards I just linked? Holy shit! And the stuff that jumps out to me now, when I skim through a cubecobra list sorted by Elo rating, re-read wtwlf’s previews, look at my own cube, read the scryfall card file sorted by descending rarity, looked at the SCG archives......I think is largely not the stuff we were psyched about in 2015. Modern Horizons changed Magic, and it’s time we looked back at Tarkir block with post-MH2 eyes. These sets had incredible value cards at affordable mana values, really elegant pieces of sideboard interaction, gave Magic Prowess (!!) (and experimented with bringing us Ward, too – Chris T and I spent years designing cards with “Frost Titan tax”, a mechanic we named ‘Chill’, which for me was a desire sparked by my foil Icefall Regent), it was the ultimate home of Future Sight mechanic “Delve” (ever heard of it?????), reprinted the Onslaught fetchlands, enabled new competitive combo decks, renamed the wedges with strong new names that stand alongside the Ravnica and Alara ones as defining those colour combinations for Magic as a whole.

And the BLOCK DESIGN! It's a triumph. Other sets have designed the block around draft order, around a narrative hook, around a mechanical hook, whatever. Big-small-small, big-big-big, But Tarkir is unique for how it uses the middle set, a "small set", from when we had those, as a pivot for the time travel narrative. The draft format tells the story over half a year, returning the dragonlords and then resolving their control of all of Tarkir. You could draft 3xKTK (and everyone did, a lot), or KTK and FRF, the 'pivot', or, finally, FRF and DTK (but NOT KTK). The finality of replacing the Khans pack with a Dragons one felt really really awesome. And it was mechanically necessary; WoTC were struggling to solve the problems of drafting small sets and of 'third set fatigue'. The Tarkir pivot is, IMO, a home run answer to these game design constraints. It should be acknowledged more as part of Tarkir's excellent game design.

Gerry Thompson, in a 2022 “the untold stories from developing DTK” article, in the middle of announcing that he did not do his playtesting job very well ("I was wrong[...]I didn’t build many, if any, three-color decks[...]I suppose I thought the test to get the job in the first place was the main hurdle[...]And yet, I apologize for nothing."), mentions a plan Erik Lauer had for Standard's best colour combos to mirror the narrative waning of the 3-color wedges into the 2-color post-Khanfall clans:
Erik wanted the first set to highlight the wedge cards and decks, eventually weaken them over time, and then potentially introduce something to power them back up toward the end of their life cycle. It’s a cool plan, but how do you accomplish that?

The biggest part was limiting the amount of playable two-drops, which sounds weird. That would encourage folks to play manabases where the first two lands could enter the battlefield tapped, as they knew they were unlikely to be punished. After Khans, the sets would have a higher focus on introducing some playable, cheaper cards, which would eventually lead to folks playing fewer than three colors. Over time, three-color decks would become few and far between.
Isn't that cool? We start with a big exciting wedge set, tri-lands at uncommon, the fetchlands at rare, everyone's playing tapland, tapland, go, and then finally the Standard-defining Atarka Red deck (built around Swiftspear, Temur Battle Rage, and Atarka's Command) gets to exist once the whole block's out.

Plus, hey, Siege Rhino.


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dragons in: Scourge of Nel Toth, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon (does this count?), Scion of Draco
big lizards that aren't dragons in: Marauding Raptor, Thrasta, Tempest's Roar, Swooping Pteranodon, Ghalta, Stampede Tyrant

4 packs of 12, 6 drafters, leads to the following as-fan #'s (i.e. each player opens 4x12=48 cards; this is the number of these cards they see in the packs they open)
-Dragons: 3.7
Humans: 4.9
Angels: 1.5
Elementals: 2.6
custom cards: 8
cube tag "lore": 4

so, therefore, in a 288-card 'normal draft' for 6, in total we should open:
29 humans, 22 dragons, 15-16 elementals, 9 angels, 48 custom cards. That's a couple more "custom" cards than I think I realized a full draft would entail; it's, like, a sixth of the draft (16.6 recurring %). I guess that's okay? I'll keep an eye on the custom cards as-fan and try to keep it below 17%. Maybe down to 15% if I can? I'm definitely almost done building v4, something I've been saying to myself for months now, so probably I should just get more eyes and hands on it at this point. Gonna order the custom cards from MPC and try to draft before the new year.
Gerry Thompson, in a 2022 “the untold stories from developing DTK” article, in the middle of announcing that he did not do his playtesting job very well ("I was wrong[...]I didn’t build many, if any, three-color decks[...]I suppose I thought the test to get the job in the first place was the main hurdle[...]And yet, I apologize for nothing."), mentions a plan Erik Lauer had for Standard's best colour combos to mirror the narrative waning of the 3-color wedges into the 2-color post-Khanfall clans:

"Erik wanted the first set to highlight the wedge cards and decks, eventually weaken them over time, and then potentially introduce something to power them back up toward the end of their life cycle. It’s a cool plan, but how do you accomplish that? The biggest part was limiting the amount of playable two-drops, which sounds weird. That would encourage folks to play manabases where the first two lands could enter the battlefield tapped, as they knew they were unlikely to be punished. After Khans, the sets would have a higher focus on introducing some playable, cheaper cards, which would eventually lead to folks playing fewer than three colors. Over time, three-color decks would become few and far between."

Isn't that cool? We start with a big exciting wedge set, tri-lands at uncommon, the fetchlands at rare, everyone's playing tapland, tapland, go, and then finally the Standard-defining Atarka Red deck (built around Swiftspear, Temur Battle Rage, and Atarka's Command) gets to exist once the whole block's out.

Plus, hey, Siege Rhino.
I love the fact that standard basically ended up working out that way, too. Basically every deck was three color during Khans, and whittled down to being 2 colors by the end of the format with Origins (except for Abzan, good ol' Abzan became more controlling but still played three colors to the end). It was fun to watch Burn morph from a weird Jeskai Tokens deck into arguably the best red aggro deck in a standard without Lightning Bolt of all time.

I think it's vital to state the importance of Theros block cards in keeping Khans block standard ticking along. When Theros rotated in favor of the almost universally unplayable Battle for Zendikar, all of the hard work that went into crafting the perfect diminishing colors standard was thrown out the window. Indeed, we went from a world where literal Siege Rhino was required to make Abzan viable, to a world where every deck was 4 color because the new set only printed 5 good cards: bad tap lands that happen to be fetchable. The reality was that the Thoughtseizes, Lightning Strikes, Coursers of Kruphix, Elvish Mystics, Goblin Rabblemasters, and various other cards were vital to preventing the format from devolving into gold soup.

And that, my friends, is how we went from the best Standard of all time into one of the worst.
"lore bible"

Kolaghan's Brood (expansionist, empire, marauding warbands)
Silumgar's Brood (isolationist, decadent, slaves and zombie slaves)
Dromoka's Clan (gardeners, unsiegable, dragon worship)
Ojutai's Clan (authoritarian, isolated in their mountains, the study of magic)
Atarka's Families (a meritocratic confederacy of familial clans, hunters and highway robbers, classic red-green society stuff)

Shaolin School (independent, kung fu, accepts refugees) [look like shaolin monks] (see footnote)
the Steppe nomads (independent, poor, nomadic herding families) [look like mongol/uzbek steppe people]

Sarkhan, the Blue Sky and Verdant Earth, Fulcrum of Time {U}{B}{R}{G}
Narset, Sole Witness, Historian of What Was Lost {W}{U}{B}{R}
Ugin {8}

The Wandering Emperor{W}, Jace{U}, Liliana{B}, Chandra{R}, Garruk{G}, Wrenn{R/G}{G}, Teferi{W/U}, Kaito{U/B}, Minsc{R/G}, Kaya{W/B}, Dack{U/R}, Oko{G/U}, Grist{B/G}

KTK / ANTEPASSION: In the distant past, Bolas slays Ugin. Without Ugin's influence, the Dragon Tempest wanes. The clans eventually out-reproduce and defeat the ancient Dragonlords. Sarkhan planeswalks away from certain death in a skirmish on Tarkir and pledges himself to the greatest dragon he can find in the multiverse; Nicol Bolas. "Disillusioned by his servitude to the villainous, conniving, [un-noble] Bolas", and with Narset's help, "Sarkhan wandered into a tomb and back in time". (dailymtg; Nexus of Fate)

FRF / THE PASSION OF TARKIR: Sarkhan intercedes between Ugin and Bolas. Ultimately, Bolas wants the dragons to die out to prevent any of them from growing to challenge him. Maybe Ugin survives, maybe Ugin is trapped in Ugin's Nexus or something ("For hundreds of years, Ugin slept, encased in the cocoon of stone and magic Sarkhan had created using a shard of a Zendikari hedron"), but the Dragon Tempest survives Bolas' meddling. In the original Magic story Narset sacrifices her life to create the Nexus, in a very badly written story beat where somehow her kung fu is worse than Zurgo's. It comes out of nowhere just so the story can have emotional weight; pretty stupid. I have better plans for Narset, so in my story she survives, and her return to Tarkir stands in counterpoint to Sarkhan's.

POSTPASSION: Sarkhan returns to 'his present' in a world of Dragonlords. The ancient Dragonfall is now the Khanfall, when the Dragonlords conspired to Red Wedding the khans of the clans. Daghatar of the Abzan offers the Clan to Dromoka to rule; Reyhan of the Abzan leads a brief resistance. Ojutai's magic is so cool that the Jeskai, armed with the certainty of prophecy, surrender almost instantly. Some monks flee to found the Shaolin School in an impregnable Jeskai stronghold. The Sultai backstab each other until they're all slaves of the new Silumgar Brood, the loose coalition of the Temur falls apart organically over the passage of time, and the Mardu warbands now raid in Kolaghan's name, empowered by her incredible lightning magic, ambushing caravans and slaughtering.

SHARZAD: Narset planeswalks back to Tarkir and recognizes almost nothing. She finds the Shaolin School and tells them of the ancient past. They tell her about the present, about their fear that the Dragonlords will never change or die, and that her home will stagnate with them, forever. She vows to do something about it. Sarkhan is doing his own thing, growing stronger forever, and spends a lot of his time in dragonform. He eats a mammoth or whatever; he's chilling. Narset and the Shaolin welcome a steady trickle of ex-Ojutai monks and former Atarka shamans. Somehow....Ugin and Bolas are here! Wow! It's a once-in-a-decade storyline mashup event!

PLANAR CHAOS: Well, gee, I sure hope so!

Tarkir is a wonderful block, as I say two posts above this one! WotC's Tarkir is larger than mine, has more societies that ebb and flow into each other, but God, it's so fucking empty. It feels like a 2000's era MMO; there's plenty of space around the margins that you're just not, like, supposed to look at. Five real-world societies inspired the different-feeling clans, but the effect on me is that we're at a Tarkiri, like, Model United Nations meeting. Everyone has their characteristic racial traits and social dynamic and cultural dress and none of it intersects; aside from a few deft stories-on-cards, the clans mostly do their own things in isolation. Are they geographically near each other, or far away? It's hard to say! The central issue for me is one I can only articulate in terms like those at the beginning of Tolkien's iconic lecture BEOWULF: THE MONSTERS AND THE CRITICS; "the particular is on the outer edge, the essential in the centre[...]Beowulf was not designed to tell the tale of Hygelac's fall, or for that matter to give the whole biography of Beowulf, still less to write the history of the Geatish kingdom and its downfall. But it used knowledge of these things for its own purpose—to give that sense of perspective, of antiquity with a greater and yet darker antiquity behind. These things are mainly on the outer edges or in the background because they belong there, if they are to function in this way. But in the centre we have an heroic figure of enlarged proportions." Enter Sarkhan Vol.

Fate Reforged is the fulcrum around which KTK and DTK pivot, right? In a sense, with this project, Sharzad is the pivot between Khans block Limited and 2010s Legacy Constructed, when I was playing MODO and 15-proxies paper Legacy. And it's also a pivot between Magic's canonical history and the alternate history ("go back in time and give them some") my "broken WBRG spells" come from. 3xKTK interpellates, through games of Limited, the vying for power of the 5 tricoloured clans. Story goes into cards, and playing cards tells novel stories. Sometimes there's an Abzan Ascendancy, sometimes the Temur are on top, but the two players of the card game are interpreting a power struggle between five ostensibly equal factions. I wanted to tell a smaller and more human story, so Sharzad v4 initially focused on the Crux of Fate and Sarkhan's decision, with some of the cube representing 'old Tarkir' and the rest of it representing the overwhelming new present. That wasn't really human enough, the story wasn't emotionally resonating, and two wasn't quite enough choices, so I focused on Sarkhan's emotional beats - he's sad, then he time travels, then he's happy. I realized I needed Narset as a counterpoint who could be happy and then eventually sad or angry or whatever. Now, a soup of colours provides a backdrop for the story's key characters to warp gameplay around themselves, interpellating the story via gameplay, and telling "1,001 cube nights' worth of stories". Sarkhan's ult brings all the dragons back to life! When Narset exiles your graveyard on ETB, it represents a break with the past, or whatever? Stories have been told in looser and even more ad hoc ways than this! Ultimately, I hope, Sharzad is a mechanism for telling stories about Magic's past and future, and for de-territorializing the boundary between them.

the Jeskai Way is very obviously just Shaw Bros' Shaolin Temple with the numbers filed off. Is there a real Shaolin temple, which is a real religious monastery where monks live? Yes! Could Magic ever publish cards that refer to their obviously-Shaolin as Shaolin? Obviously not. They have lawyers! But at the same time, the real Shaolin and the Shaolin of the historical kung fu dramas are pretty different. And the enduring myths of Shaolin's martial prowess turn out to be, uh, myths. So, am I messing things up by introducing Earth to Tarkir? I don't know. There's a part of me that's sympathetic to that argument, that it could somehow be insensitive or jarring.

But I really think it's fine? The Jeskai are Shaolin from the 80's Shaw Bros flicks, so to me, kung fu is already part of Tarkir as a setting (see also Prowess' playtest name being "kung fu"), and I think it's way more fun to pay homage to that part of my youth than it is to pretend I don't recognize it when I see it. I'm gonna say "Shaolin School" instead of "Shaolin Temple", just in case, but I think it's a flavour win. What do you think?

DRAGONS IN: Treasure Sorter, a tweak to Dragonstorm
OLD TARKIR IN: Rally the Ancestors, Treasure Cruise (replacing Ancestral Vision), Disdainful Stroke, Alesha, who Smiles at Death
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When they pulled the switcheroo on us, i'd already become a fan of KTK and its somewhat more relatable humanoid characters. Dragons, idk, those are end-bosses in an RPG. Ain't dragons supposed to be ancient and, in many worlds, forgotten/semi-mythical? if the weather's always dragons then the weather is boring!

Woulda loved if KTK was the patched-up timeline and DTK was the ancient timeline!
Woulda loved if KTK was the patched-up timeline and DTK was the ancient timeline!
It's a fair point! But, of course, I happen to disagree about the dragons. So much of Magic story and lore is about the Good Guys Working Together to Defeat An Ancient Evil. I find Sarkhan restoring the dragonlords really interesting because to me, uh, and I don't know if this was clear in DTK the set, but I think life mostly gets worse for everyone except the dragons (and their favourite toys) after Sarkhan does his thing. To me there's something much more compelling about exploring the consequences of Sarkhan's choice if they are impactful but dismal, and his antipathy about everyone else's raw deal is compelling too.

I gotta quote Tolkien about Beowulf again, sorry, but I think its some of the smartest stuff anyone's ever said about stories with dragons in them. I, too, "have been caught by the fascination of the worm".
[early Beowulf] had these two primary features: the dragon, and the slaying of him as the chief deed of the greatest of heroes[...]A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men's imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold. Even to-day (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm. More than one poem in recent years (since Beowulf escaped somewhat from the dominion of the students of origins to the students of poetry) has been inspired by the dragon of Beowulf, but none that I know of by Ingeld son of Froda.

There are in the poem some vivid touches of the right kind[...]but the conception, none the less, approaches draconitas rather than draco: a personification of malice, greed, destruction (the evil side of heroic life), and of the undiscriminating cruelty of fortune that distinguishes not good or bad (the evil aspect of all life)[...]
in fact it is necessary, that his final foe should be not some Swedish prince, or treacherous friend, but a dragon: a thing made by imagination for just such a purpose. -JRR Tolkien

Appeal to authority, I know, but he writes about this so cleanly and brightly. The dragon, which you dismiss as the "end-boss in an RPG", is the archetypal and most beautiful example of such an end-boss, no? Of a phenomenal, heroic, otherworldly battle with an indefatigable and monstrous foe? Would it really be better if the story were Sarkhan and Zurgo's political machinations for the throne of the Mardu? I don't think so, and I think probably you don't think so either. Would that be fun? Sure. But the fun would, I think, be smaller and less exciting compared to dragonslaying and so on. It's because the dragon is so iconic a villain (or representation of the amoral cruelty of nature) that I think stories about them are so worth telling, will always be worth telling.

My dragonlords share DTK's dragons' draconitas (quasi-Latin for 'dragonliness') but improve on WotC's small gestures towards draconian amorality (the dragons aren't immoral; they have an alien and ironclad moral code, but it very much is not ours). And I just don't think that's boring, sorry! Maybe there are boring stories about dragons but I don't intend to tell any. Y'know? My Narset agrees with you that the dragonlords kind of suck and she'd rather go back to being Khan of the Jeskai Way. I'm hoping to convey not so much 'business as usual' or even 'this sucks now' but 'this fucking sucks and we're stuck with it'.
(Here are some cards I think show my idea of the consequences of Dragonlord rule)


i walked back a whole swath of my custom cards one more step. based on limited data their power levels feel about right now.

OLD TARKIR IN: Death-Greeter Champion, Stoke the Flames
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GARFIELD GREAT: the color system articulates not only mechanical structure of the card game, but is a deeply evocative and emotionally resonant way to articulate different styles of gameplay and what they 'mean' 'for cards'; a structured approach to the color pie in Magic's early years became the foundation for not only later Magic design but also CCG design in general; Dr. Richard Garfield PhD did this best and first; all the stuff Maro said about the color pie in 2003; we're all here because we think the color pie is good game design; anyone here could go on much longer than this; etc.

BUT HIS DRAFT WASN'T PERFECT: Black getting to destroy Villain's enchantments now (but not her own, which represent 'deals with the devil') is a huge success in adding mechanical space to a colour while also delivering the same kind of flavour home run Dr. Garfield did. However, as I never get tired of repeating, Blue has the lion's share of the game's ability to directly interact with the game engine (controlling your draws, interacting on the stack, alternate game-zone-related-wincons like mill) and despite another promising dalliance with White countermagic of late, WotC has, in my eyes uncharitably and unfairly, kept control over the shared stack and your own deck locked down in Blue, the colour that also had early Magic's strongest cards on rate.

'RICHARD' HORIZONS: The Modern Horizons-led push to introduce more free spells into formats that hadn't been defined by them (but which was also happening simultaneously in Commander with C2020) is, IMO, good. Free spells mean both players can double-spell and reach 'shields up' state with a lower threshold of lands in play, leading to individually swingier turns and a more layered and interactive midgame.

SHARZAD SOLUTIONS: in sharzad i build on this third-decade-of-Magic acceleration and I add nitrous oxide. A few custom cards add mystery and wonder to the awesome weird old cantrips and counterspells I already love and get screwed by; colours still have weaknesses, but the idea is that 'more decks' do 'more things' in more zones of play, while keeping the primary/secondary/tertiary vocabulary and tech that establishes the colour wheel. Black has discard but NOT counterspells; green has elves and stack interaction but fewer fight effects; red becomes the primary colour for spells combo (especially Dragonstorm), loses some of its density as a burn colour, and cares about basic lands now. White gets the angels - a family affair that moves cards between game zones while also chump blocking Tarkir's many dragons, and blue remains more or less the same except that it has a three mana Initiative beater now because blue gets a broken creature every once in a while, and doesn't need any help in the past.

COUNTERSPELLS, ish: 6{W}, 14{U},0{B},2{R},2{G}

So here's another dumb thing I threw a lot of spare time at; based on the success it seems to have in cubes that try to 'draft constructed decks', i want to put the fetch-dual manabases that modern and legacy are built around in the land box at a 'free' opportunity cost. Fetchlands are, too often, always the correct choice in a pack, and there are plenty of amazing lands that are too strong to provide at no opportunity cost, so those are still in the packs. So far this works okay, but it means I need a lot of copies of these $$$ dual lands. As a result I am proxying 100 duals and 80 fetches.

I haven't figured out how much I'm repeating the KTK fetchland arts but a lot of the typed duals are, like, landscape paintings I like (with particular emphasis on painters of the steppe and the Group of Seven). The actual duals are so ugly, y'know? That double-line thing is distinctive, and charming, but it's not exactly beautiful. Tarkir had some really beautiful land art, a who's who of the game's great modern land artists, I wanted to reuse that as well.
50 duals - card images with print border. zip
50 duals - card images . zip


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