Magic History: Khans of Tarkir

Magic Untapped takes a look back at Khans of TarkirMagic: The Gathering's debut set for the Tarkir block.

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Video Transcript:

On Sept. 26, 2014, Khans of Tarkir, the 65th expansion for Magic: The Gathering, released.  It’s the first set in the large-small-large Tarkir block and brought with it 269 cards, a new plane, and a new storyline.

That plane, Tarkir, is one that is influenced by the history and cultures of Asia and features five clans: the Persian-inspired Abzan, Jeskai (inspired by Shaolin Monks of China), the Cambodian Khmer Empire-inspired Sultai, Temur (based on Siberian shamanists), and the Mardu, which were inspired by ancient Mongolia and Japan.

<MARO 6:50-7:08 “So the idea…different things.”>

Tarkir is an embattled world led by ambitious warlords as each clan vies for domination over the others in a war that has spanned a thousand years, taking many lives including those of the plane’s now-extinct dragons.

As for the story, it’s largely focused around the planeswalker, Sarkhan Vol, and his return to his home plane of Tarkir.  But it uses an interesting trope as a means to advance the plot: time travel.

<MARO 2:38-4:17 “I’m a huge fan…of the dragons.”>

These dragons, despite being extinct in Khans, still influence each of the plane’s five clans.

<MARO 7:08-33 “What we did…sort of feel.”>

If you want to read the story, it’s not exactly easy to find anymore as it was released digitally on the Wizards of the Coast website and is no longer there.  Despite that, we were able to piece together a story summary for you…

Sorin Markov, one of the planeswalkers who had originally imprisoned the now-rampaging Eldrazi on Zendikar appears on Tarkir.  Guided by visions of a dark oracle, he is searching for answers of what had become of his friend, ally, and fellow Eldrazi-sealer, the spirit dragon planeswalker, Ugin, as he had not appeared on Zendikar as he had when the time came.

Shortly after his arrival and during his travels to Ugin’s domain, the vampiric planeswalker learned that not only have the world’s dragons gone extinct roughly a century prior, but that Ugin, too, was dead – his bones covered by some sort of ancient magic.  Ugin had obviously been slain a very long time ago, though Sorin knows not by whom.

A little while later…

the mad planeswalker, Sarkhan Vol, arrives on his home plane of Tarkir – his mind and spirit broken while under the servitude of the cruel draconic planeswalker Nicol Bolas.

Shortly after his arrival, his damaged mind begins to be besieged by visions from Bolas’ brood mate, another draconic planeswalker named Ugin.

Roaming the plane, his madness is clear as he infuriates members of the Temur clan before stepping into Jeskai territory.  There, he is greeted by the Khan of the Jeskai -- a woman named Narset -- whom had been guided to him by visions of her own.

Through her gentile nature, Narset is able to calm the mad planeswalker’s mind.  For a little, at least – long enough for Vol to tell her about planeswalkers and about other worlds beyond Tarkir.

He spoke of Nicol Bolas and how the draconic planeswalker had killed his brother, Ugin, years ago on this very plane more than a thousand years ago.

Narset, whom herself had seen visions of other worlds, was familiar with Ugin.  She confided in Vol that the Spirit Dragon was almost literally the soul of her world and, with his death, the world’s dragons soon perished as well and the world was thrown out of balance.

Continuing to help Vol keep his mind clear and calm, she agreed to bring him to Ugin tomb.  It’s a journey that, during which, the two formed a strong friendship.

On the way, the pair is attacked by Zurgo Helmsmasher, Khan of the Mardu clan – the very same clan for which Vol was a general before his planeswalker spark ignited and he, in short, abandoned his post.

Intent on killing the deserter, Zurgo fights with gusto.  Narset does her best to fend him off and injures him.  She instructs Vol to flee through Ugin’s Nexus and promises to guard his escape.  As he departs, Vol accidentally distracts the Jeskai Khan.  It left just enough of a window for Zurgo to lay a fatal blow on the woman.

Horrified at what he just witnessed, Vol continues into the Nexus while cursing Zurgo’s name and promising to himself revenge on the orc.

At the end of the Nexus, Vol finds himself at a what appears to be a gate ablaze.  Then, after a flash of light, he disappears.

And that, in a nutshell, is the story of the first third of the Tarkir block.  Of course, there’s much more to tell about the block’s opening set, Khans of Tarkir, than just the story.

With design led by Mark Rosewater and development by Erik Lauer, Khans of Tarkir, Wizards of the Coast had an interesting ask for the set – an ask based around how the set was to be drafted.  This ask, in a way, is how the time travel concept found its way into the Tarkir block to begin with.

<MARO 2:36-3:27 “One of the things…time travel story.” 4:22-31 “And then…different timelines.”>>

The decision to go with a time travel trope gave the set’s designers an excuse to bring back an old mechanic from the Onslaught block years prior: morph.  Though, perhaps not for the reason some players might think.

<MARO 4:34-50 “So, when we…in the past.” 5:03-10 “An earlier stage…over time.”>

Of course, morph (an ability which all five of Tarkir’s clans have) isn’t the only ability in the set.  There’s also:

  • Outlast, which is specific to the WBG Abzan clan, which puts +1/+1 counters on creatures;
  • Prowess for URW Jeskai, which says “whenever you cast a non-creature spell, this creature gets +1/+1 until end of turn;”
  • BGU Sultai get Delve, a mechanic first seen in futuresight on the cards Death Rattle, Logic Knot, and Tombstalker.  It’s a cost-reducing mechanic that reduces the cost of a spell you cast by one generic mana for each card you exile from your graveyard as you cast it;
  • Ferocious is an ability word for the GUR Temur clan that cares about having creatures in play with power four or greater, and;
  • Raid, an ability word for the RWB Mardu clan that gives a beneficial effect if you’ve attacked with a creature within that same turn.

The set also has a warrior tribal sub theme.

Though, five mechanics for five clans wasn’t the original idea for Khans of Tarkir.  In fact, the Tarkir block wasn’t even supposed to have five clans when Wizards was initially designing it.

<MARO 5:13-55 “Originally, there were…a wedge set.”>

A wedge set, by the way, means that each three-color faction features two allied colors along with that pair’s enemy color (for example, white-black-green).  The shape this pairing makes on the Magic color pie is that of a wedge, hence the name.

And, as could be expected, there are a number of cycles tied to each wedge, including (among others):

  • Khans, which are the heads of each clan.  They are the mythic rare legendary creatures Anafenza, the Foremost for Abzan, Narset, Enlightened Master for Jeskai, Sidisi, Brood Tyrant for Sultai, Zurgo Helmsmasher for Mardu, and Surrak Dragonclaw for Temur;
  • Ascendencies, which are rare enchantments that are tied thematically to each clan’s mechanic;
  • Wedgelands, which are uncommon non-basic lands that come into play tapped and can tap for any of each wedge’s three colors;
  • Charms, which are instants at uncommon that cost one of each wedge’s color and have three wedge-related modes from which its caster can choose, and;
  • Banners, which are five uncommon artifacts that can produce any of each wedge’s colors.  They can also be sacrificed to draw a card.

Beyond the wedge-specific cycles, there are also others of note worth a mention, such as:

  • Reveal morphers, which is a cycle of five creatures at common with morph that can be flipped at a cost of revealing a card of its specific color from its controller’s hand;
  • Life-gain dual lands, which is a cycle of ten non-basic lands that tap for a two-color pair and gain its controller one life when they come into play, and;
  • Allied color fetch lands, which are reprints of the same cards from Onslaught and can be sacrificed along with the paying of one point of life to search your library for any land with a specific basic land type:

Beyond the cycles, Khans of Tarkir has a number of other single cards worth a mention:

  • Crackling Doom, an above-average removal card in Standard that also sees play in Modern Mardu Pyromancer decks;
  • Deflecting Palm, a card that was overlooked at the time but has since gained notoriety as a sideboard staple card in Boros burn decks;
  • Dig Through Time, a card that’s now banned in Modern and Legacy that serves as an all-too-good way for combo decks to find the pieces they need;
  • Hardened Scales, an enchantment that deals with +1/+1 counters that became the focus of a very competitive deck in Modern by the same name thanks to its interaction with the card Arcbound Ravager;
  • Jeskai Ascendency, which has seen a rise in popularity in the Pioneer format;
  • Mantis Rider, which was heavily played in Standard Jeskai aggro decks of the time and still sees occasional play in Modern and Pioneer today;
  • Monastery Swiftspear, which immediately became a staple in burn and red aggro decks regardless of the format.  It became banned in Pauper in 2023 as a means of slowing down such decks;
  • Rattleclaw Mystic, a mana-ramping creature with morph that was great in Temur aggro decks in Standard at the time;
  • Siege Rhino, a hugely powerful card in Abzan decks that dominated Standard at the time.  It was often complemented by cards like Abzan Charm, Duneblast, and Wingmate Roc;
  • Treasure Cruise, a card-draw card with delve that could be cast for a single blue, netting its caster three cards in exchange just like the Power Nine card Ancestral Recall.  It’s banned in Legacy, Modern, and Pauper. And;
  • Utter End, a staple removal spell in Standard at the time that still sees occasional play in Commander and Oathbreaker;

Khans of Tarkir, as one might expect, also has a number of promotional cards associated with it.

The set’s launch promo is Dragon Throne of Tarkir.  Game day participants were given a full-art Heir of the Wilds with top-eight finishers also being awarded a full-art, foil Utter End.  The set’s buy-a-box promo is an alternate art Rattleclaw Mystic.

As for the set’s prerelease cards, well, Wizards of the Coast decided to do something a little different in this block.  Rather than everyone getting the same card or the player of each color getting a specific promo tied to that color, in Khans of Tarkir players could get one of 40 possible rares as their prerelease promo.  If you do the math, that’s eight per each of the set’s five factions and included the likes of:

Oh, and by the way, did you know that Khans of Tarkir wasn’t supposed to be the set (or even the plane’s) name when they were designing it?  Instead, it was slated to be called Warlords of Khanar.

<MARO 5:39-52 “Basically what happened…change the name.”  5:54-6:09 “It’s happened in the…something for something.”>

One of the times in the past where this had happened was with the set Urza’s Saga, which was supposed to be called Urza’s Odyssey that, for one reason or another, had to be changed.

But, in getting back to Khans of Tarkir

<MARO 12:45-13:17 “Khans of Tarkir was…for other sets.”>

So, is Khans of Tarkir one of your favorite Magic: The Gathering sets?  What about your thoughts on the block as a whole?

Let us know in the comment section.

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And, as always, thank you for watching!

Barry White

Barry White is a longtime Magic: The Gathering player, having started in 1994 shortly before the release of 'Fallen Empires.' After graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno, he went on to a 15-year journalism career as a writer, reporter, and videographer for three different ABC affiliate newsrooms.