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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Review: Khans of Tarkir brings some exciting changes for Magic vets

In its never-ending quest to keep itself relevant to modern trading card game players, the venerable Magic: The Gathering series has gone to some pretty interesting places. Few of the TCG's efforts however have been as ambitious as its recently launched Khans of Tarkir expansion. Packed into the expansion's total of 269 new cards are several new gameplay mechanics and strategies, all based around the five powerful clans of the plane of Tarkir. But how well does Khans of Tarkir fit into the core Magic ruleset and, more importantly, how accessible is it?

Setting the Stage

While past Magic: The Gathering expansion releases have often had an accompanying story or setting to go along with them, I can’t remember the last time an expansion’s setting was as deeply worked into the core gameplay as it is with Khans of Tarkir (though, to be fair, it has been a while since I got so heavily involved with a set of the actual physical cards). Khans of Tarkir, as the name implies, focuses on the five warring clans of the tumultuous plane of Tarkir, each of which has its own motivations, its own backstory, and, naturally, its own unique gameplay mechanics.

Wizards of the Coast has done an excellent job of making each of the five clans feel unique from both a story and gameplay perspective. A deck centered around The Abzan Houses for instance, which favors patience by utilizing a new mechanic called “Outlast” that allows a player to pump their creatures up by tapping them, plays very differently form a deck themed around The Mardu Horde whose “Raid” mechanic, which grants bonuses for every creature a player has attacking, favors fast-paced aggressive playstyles. These different mechanics help each clan’s deck stand out on its own and more advanced players can even try blending several mechanics together, creating a hybrid deck that can be tough to manage but can also keep opponents guessing.

More Options, More Power

Interestingly enough, none of the different clan decks in Khans of Tarkir are comprised of one color. A base deck in Khans of Tarkir is actually made from *three* different colors; two colors that normally synergize well plus their common “enemy” color (the core deck for the Sultai Brood clan for instance is made up of green, blue, and black cards). This multicolored approach, when combined with each clan’s unique gameplay mechanic allows players to utilize several different options during a typical match while also focusing on their given deck’s core strategy. 

The multicolored nature of each deck in Khans of Tarkir again helps to make each deck feel different when played and the risk of drawing lands for colors you don’t need or can’t use is offset somewhat by deck-specific land and artifact cards that can grant one mana resource of any of the deck’s three different colors when tapped. Still, the simple fact that these are multicolored decks means players have to be extra careful in how they play the cards they draw, especially if they decide to blend two or more deck mechanics (and color combinations) together.

A Picture Worth A Thousand Words

If you’re the sort of Magic player who liked to admire the artwork of their cards while they play, Khans of Tarkir is one expansion you’ll definitely want to check out. The artwork that is featured on cards in the expansion, which includes work from esteemed illustrators such as Dan Scott, Mark Winters, and James Ryman, perfectly captures the expansion’s theme of clans in eternal conflict. There are obvious inspirations for the art including the armor and weaponry of Ancient Japanese and Mongolian soldiers as well as more fantastical designs such as ones based off of Ancient Egyptian architecture, Japanese folklore, and even old Kung Fu movies. 

Each card also has a large symbol set in as a background to its text window, signifying which of the five clan decks it is a part of. These symbols, while also cool to look at, help to differentiate one clan’s cards from another and help less-seasoned players decide which cards they should keep in their decks should they decide to tinker with them (each deck also contains more generic cards which don’t have a clan symbol). Even if you’re not too heavily invested in the expansion’s story, the flavor text contained on most cards also suits the flavor of each deck and helps to build up the expansion’s theme of constant conflict.

Waters Too Deep For Beginners

In my review of the digital Magic 2015: Duels of the Planeswalkers game, I lamented that the game’s one major fault is that, while it’s a great game for Magic newbies, it doesn’t offer much to seasoned players. Ironically enough, I’d say Khans of Tarkir’s one glaring flaw is the exact opposite; gameplay that’s a blast for players who are already familiar with the core rules but which can be extremely overwhelming to those with little or no prior experience with the series. I don’t mean to say that Khans of Tarkir is completely inaccessible to Magic newcomers, just that they’ll have a much harder time trying to learn both the game’s core rules and mechanics as well as the more advanced strategies and mechanics that make up Khans of Tarkir’s core.

Of course, this problem could very well have been a deliberate move on Wizards of the Coast’s part. Once beginners have had their fill of the basic rules and gameplay systems in Magic 2015, why not graduate to the more advanced Khans of Tarkir? Still, it seems odd that Wizards of the Coast would go through the trouble of developing an entirely new physical card expansion without releasing a digital counterpart to Magic 2015. Both Magic 2015 and Khans of Tarkir are still young however and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest of a digital Khans of Tarkir expansion were released for Magic 2015 at some point in the near future.

Prepare For War

Khans of Tarkir may not be the most accessible Magic: The Gathering set but for those who can master its new triple-color deck compositions and gameplay mechanics, there’s plenty of excitement to be had. The expansion’s overall theme is presented beautifully both in the artwork of the cards and the different gameplay mechanics inherent in each of its five core decks. If Magic 2015 only left you with a thirst for something more engaging or if you simply want to get back in on the Magic scene after a lengthy absence, Khans of Tarkir may be just what you’re looking for.

Verdict: Buy it

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