A first look at Kaladesh

Posted September 18, 2016 by Andreas Pischner
Categories: General, Next Level Cube

Tags: , , , , , ,

So, we finally have the complete spoiler. When the kitchen table players and the wannabe pros had already begun “brewing” and discussing 40€-planeswalkers and combo-piece artifacts, since the rares and mythic rares were – as usually – known first, I still had to patiently wait for most of the really interesting cards to be shown: the commons and uncommons.

It is still both too early to predict the dynamics of Kaladesh draft in detail and to decide which of its cards will enter my Limited Card Pool, but it’s possible now to start a meaningful discussion at least. As usually, I will focus on the gameplay aspects, although I want to mention that Kaladesh seems to be a really cool world!

The big new thing is, of course… energy counters. What, you expected vehicles? Those are admittedly stealing the show, but it is the new cost mechanic which fundamentally changes how the game is being played!

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My stance on energy is this: I expect it to play well in Kaladesh limited (that is obviously just an educated guess at this point), but it will not enter my Limited Card Pool. See, continuously managing these counters adds quite a lot of busywork to gameplay, and that is only justified if this mechanic serves a central role. For one block, it can do that, but energy does not play well if it is only a small part of an environment, even though most of its designs are somehow self-contained (providing you both with a way to create and to spend energy). Now, I can see a world where Magic would start to use both mana and energy permanently as two different kinds of cost, and I think this would make for a compelling game, but we are not going to live in this world, and this is fine, too.

One way to look at energy is that it is the newest flavor of introducing new gameplay aspects via adding extra logistics. +1/+1 counters, tokens, facedown cards, doublefaced cards and poison counters were among energy’s precursors, and here we go again: With energy counters, Magic puts a new slew of components into its virtual game box (and how embarrassing is it that they actually forgot to print those?) Tokens and +1/+1 counters are the only kinds of those additional components which I use in my Limited Card Pool, because they are the only ones which are generally useful enough to justify the extra logistical effort and the extra mental space they require from the players. Energy counters are actually the third of those additions that I (guess I will) really like, but they are still too fiddly for a minor theme (which they’d have to be in any Next Level Cube that doesn’t feel like a straight Kaladesh rehash).

It’s also relevant that a big energy theme in a limited environment makes playing noticeably harder – at least playing well. There is now an additional resource to be managed, and it works rather differently than mana: With mana, a reasonable default is too use as much of it as possible every turn. With energy, saving up will be a much more attractive alternative, although this can also become a trap. I am optimistic that this will lead to good gameplay in Kaladesh limited, but it could be rough for less experienced players in a more casual cube environment, especially without the glamor of a new and exciting world to divert them.

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Talking about glamor: Vehicles are doubtlessly the coolest new thing in Kaladesh! I will definitely use a couple of those in my Limited Card Pool. I am a bit wary, however, that too many of them could have a negative impact on gameplay, because they warp its dynamics pretty much: Since you effectively use multiple cards to get them active, you need to develop a good board presence. At the same time, they generally block better than they attack, while being invulnerable to most sorcery speed removal (at least before they get to block). All this points to frequent board stalls. Then there is the fact that you need to invest a good amount of resources into an active vehicle, while getting rewarded for this with a fairly strong creature – a description of swinginess. I am convinced that, like equipment, vehicles will become a permanent enrichment for Magic, but they also might prove hard to balance and look cooler than they actually play.

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Finally, there’s fabricate, the inconspicuous third new mechanic. It looks really uninspired, like escalate, but it is a lot more coherent and does not seem quite as disconnected to the set’s other mechanics. I admit I am a bit confused over the design of cards with fabricate, though, especially some really mediocre-looking uncommons with fabricate 2. They would only make sense if creating multiple artifact creatures were really strong, but I just don’t see this – there are a few cards which like a high artifact count, and there is Inspired Charge, but overall I cannot make out a compelling reason for this. My pet theory: Those cards were finalized at a time when vehicles were still crewed by a fixed number of creatures instead of their total power. That would make sense!

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My overall impression: The power level of the set in limited is comparably low, although there are a few very strong common creatures, like Peema Outrider or Wayward Giant. Fast strategies are possible, especially in Red with support from Hijack and Renegade Tactics, but also in White if it goes wide on token creatures with multiple Inspired Charge. Generally, however, I believe the environment will be on the slow side, with tokens gumming up the ground, and players trying to get vehicles active, which will then tend to stall the board even more, until someone plays a breakthrough card. While I don’t believe that many games will be really fast, I am afraid they will often be quite swingy, with one player getting to “assemble” a big advantage before the other and decisively pressing it.

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For this reason, I am rather sceptical concerning the slower interactions that seem to be built into Kaladesh limited, especially the bouncing of your own permanents – I cannot imagine that you will usually have that much time. On the plus side, I hope this also means that games will be less often decided by bombs, which fortunately seem to reside mostly in the mythic rare and masterpiece slots. Especially, I did not make out any “mythic uncommons” so far, with the possible exception of Ovalchase Daredevil, which looks disgustingly unkillable for a 4/2 creature. Generally, I see a clear power level difference between commons and uncommons.

What are your first impressions of Kaladesh?

Looking back at Eldritch Moon & Take the Crown

Posted September 10, 2016 by Andreas Pischner
Categories: Next Level Cube

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

It’s a bit hard to motivate myself right now, but I do not want to cease blogging about Magic altogether yet. I had intended to write about Eldritch Moon and Conspiracy: Take the Crown from a Next Level Cube perspective, but then my computer died, and I still haven’t completely caught up with re-installing everything I feel I need on it, and working through the backlog of my computer-related activities, of which keeping my Limited Card Pool up to date is one. I finally did the latter – although obviously it’s still pre-Kaladesh yet – and will now briefly mention which designs from the latest two published Magic sets made the cut.

About Eldritch Moon in general: I’m not the set’s biggest fan, at least not from the point of view of single card design. I still strongly dislike double-faced cards for RL play (and, even more importantly, draft); I still believe madness is a too swingy mechanic, rewarding you too much if its pieces come together, and punishing you too much if they don’t; and I still think delirium is just taking up too much mental space in a game. That is already most of what Eldritch Moon is mechanically about…

Then there are tribal matters cards, which I do like on principle. However, for the sake of backwards compatibility I will not adopt human tribal, which would be terribly confusing with many older cards which are humans but don’t say so in print, and wolf tribal can not be separated from werewolf tribal, which would require double-faced cards.

This leaves three tribes I use. Among those, I have zombies firmly in Black. Both Innistrad blocks offer some blue zombie tribal stuff, but that fails to reach the necessary level in both quantity and quality to convince me to put zombie tribal in two colors, since I decided against „splashing“ a tribals matter theme in a secondary color. As for the black zombie tribal designs in Eldritch Moon, they just did not survive the crunch – some are fine by themselves, but lost out to similar cards I already use.

Vampires matter cards, which I also only have in Black for similar reasons, offer a couple good designs though, and so do blue spirit tribal cards. Spirits in my pool still reel from the removal of all arcane cards, and consequently all spiritcraft cards (triggering off casting spirit or arcane spells), which left mostly soulshift as a spirit tribal mechanic – the exception being Blue, which is slowly gathering spirit tribal cards from the Innistrad blocks. I decided I want a clear split in colors between soulshift and other spirits matter, so white spirit tribal from Innistrad is being left out.

I was disappointed by the designs with skulk in Eldritch Moon, although I like that mechanic in principle. With emerge, it was a bit the other way round: I took a fancy to some of those cards by themselves, but realized they would require too many specific support cards in a Next Level Cube if they were to be a meaningful addition. As for escalate, I consider it a superfluous design in a space that is already full of too many slightly varying similar mechanics. With access to 23 years worth of Magic cards, I just don’t need it. It doesn’t help that the more interesting escalate cards tend to be overpowered and/or complicated, with the latter escpecially being an issue if casual players try to play around them.

Like in Shadows over Innistrad, there were some recurring creatures in Eldritch Moon, but I do not like how those affect gameplay, so I do not use them. Eldritch Moon also dabbles in insteries matter, auras matter and equipments matter designs. The first delivered a few nice cards, while the others suffered from not being compatible with my approach to those themes – for example, I do not want to mix auras matter and equipments matter on the same card.

As a final note, I was disappointed by Eldritch Moon‘s only “devilpops” design, which lacked the elegance of those from Shadows over Innistrad.

So here is what made it, 30 cards all in all:

 

geist-fueled-scarecrow-ashxdrogskol-shieldmate-ashxsanctifier-of-souls-ashxfaithbearer-paladin-ashxsubjugator-angel-ashxolivias-dragoon-ashxwailing-ghoul-ashxstromkirk-condemned-ashxskirsdag-supplicant-ashxgavony-unhallowed-ashxmarkov-crusader-ashxfalkenrath-reaver-ashxthermo-alchemist-ashxderanged-whelp-ashxweaver-of-lightning-ashxbedlam-reveler-ashxnoose-constrictor-ashxwoodland-patrol-ashxswift-spinner-ashxsomberwald-stag-ashxwolfkin-bond-ashxgrapple-with-the-past-ashxclear-shot-ashxmausoleum-wanderer-ashxtattered-haunter-ashxexultant-cultist-ashxnebelgast-herald-ashxlaboratory-brute-ashximprisoned-in-the-moon-ashxdrag-under-ashx

 

Most of these are simply basic, elegant designs on a good power level, something I am always on the lookout for. Some were added to my Limited Card Pool without any specific card leaving to make room for them (although I am continuously culling cards to stunt the growth of my collection in general), while some were direct replacements. Among the latter are Drogskol Shieldmate for Affa Guard Hound, Faithbearer Paladin for Dawnstrike Paladin, Falkenrath Reaver for Goblin Raider, Noose Constrictor for Darkthicket Wolf (but consequently allowing Rootwalla back in), and Tattered Haunter für Vaporkin (for tribal reasons only).

The more specific cards enhance existing themes in my Limited Card Pool: Vampire tribal, spirit tribal, insteries matter, and self-milling (the only kind of milling I allow). Imprisoned in the Moon is especially important as a maindeckable answer for special lands at common. Sanctifier of Souls made the cut as a well-designed, interesting, but not suppressive rare.

Some noticeable cards which I considered lengthily, but didn’t make the cut: Lunarch Mantle and Faith Unbroken are too swingy; Long Road Home is too close too Feat of Resistance; Stensia Innkeeper doesn’t make for a great gameplay experience while not fulfilling an essential function; Noosegraf Mob has a cool concept, but is just a little too strong; Assembled Alphas are a bit too powerful for a splashable creature; and Geist of the Archives makes repeated scrying a little too easy – too much card selection goes against the very idea of limited play.

Now to Conspiracy: Take the Crown! Obviously, I do not care too much about the reprints in there, although I am always searching for updates to cards in my pool with a more current wording (for example, Skulking Ghost from Eternal Masters now saying that it’s a spirit is great). Also, since I do not play multiplayer, the vast majority of original Conspiracy cards make no sense in my Limited Card pool. Even those which do not feature specific multiplayer mechanics are usually not balanced for one on one limited play.

Two cards still made it:

 

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Sinuous Vermin complements my other monstrosity options (Ill-Tempered Cyclops, Ravenous Leucrocota) nicely; and Leovold, Emissary of Trent replaces Sidisi, Brood Tyrant – both designs are a bit loaded for my taste, but Leovold is more straightforward.

Next up is Kaladesh, which has a couple of really interesting designs!

Escaping the Phantom Zone

Posted June 5, 2016 by Andreas Pischner
Categories: Decklists, Lists

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I remember the event only very vaguely: Two years or so ago, for some reason or other, Wizards gifted every Magic Online account (or maybe not every account, but all of mine were among them) a certain amount of phantom points. Those could, as their name suggested, only be used to enter phantom events (limited events where you do not keep the cards you opened).

Well, I’m not one to turn down free limited play and proceeded to use those points up as completely as possible. There were issues here, though: Phantom points could not be traded between accounts, so once I fell below the lowest entry threshold, they sat around useless. I guess Wizards‘ plan was that at that point, people would start to enter phantom events by the alternate method of paying real money (or the equivalent in tickets), but I wasn’t that stupid.

Then, a year ago, phantom points got converted into play points at a ratio of 1 to 6. The upside was that they could now be used instead of tickets for practically every event. The downside was that play points are still not tradable. However, it turned out that I was now again above the entry threshold for phantom sealed (60 pp) on one account, so my “dead” points had been reactivated! (Technically, I can now also use 20 pp to enter 2-player queues, but since I do not play constructed anymore, this leaves only Momir basic, and I haven’t yet tried to get such a queue to fire, which seems an unlikely thing to happen to me.)

So, Shadows over Innistrad phantom sealed it was! My first effort left me at 2-1, which gave me exactly my entry back to try again, and so I did. This time, I managed to rattle off the required 3-0, and I have now enough play points to enter a “real” draft, because flashback drafts cost only 100 pp. I successfully escaped the phantom zone! (For now.)

The deck that did it didn’t look to great to me, and I still don’t think it is really good, but it worked out well enough. It helped that I played mostly well and didn’t get unlucky:

Phantom Sealed

The madness tricks were, of course, the best thing about this deck. Welcome to the Fold did good work, but Slayer’s Plate turned ot to be my biggest trump, especially in conjunction with Call the Bloodline – racing a 5/3 lifelink creature that just comes back every turn is outright impossble. I played Triskaidekaphobia because I thought I needed another way to win unfairly, not trusting in my deck’s ability to grind my opponent out, but that turned out to be unnecessary. The one game it won me I would almost certainly have won anyway, and I found myself sideboarding it out repeatedly.

Another thing to note is that I actually won one game by transforming my Thing in the Ice – quite a feat considering I have exactly 4 insteries in my deck! Once again, though, I would very likely have won that game anyway if the Thing had just been a 0/4 vanilla creature, which was the function I expected it to fulfill when I sideboarded it in. I did so every game, and I now realize I should just have started it instead of the silly rare enchantment.

I won several games by milling my opponent with Manic Scribe, and here I’m not entirely sure if I would have won those games if the Scribe had been just a 0/3 vanilla creature. I think I would have stabilized the board and put myself in a winning position anyway each game, but then again, the presence of the Scribe changed the dynamics of each match so much that it is hard to say how they would have played out otherwise.

I just realized I have a small backlog of winning deck lists which I forgot to post as an addendum to earlier entries, so I’ll get that done now: The first is still from one of my last OOB drafts. OOB was in my opinion the best draft format in years, but I had to let go of it finally.

Esper Linvala vanilla

Note that I always cast Linvala, the Preserver as a 5/5 flying french vanilla creature (okay, in one case that was only because of egregious stupidity on my part). That was good enough. The mythic rare didn’t really stand out, though.

To Shadows over Innistrad:

Orzhov 3 Naya opponents

Not much to say here, I guess. This time, my mythics were as good as advertised (meaning they were bonkers). Interestingly, I played against opponents running exactly Naya colors every single round!

Gruul

This, however, was a pretty normal SOI deck. Okay, 4 Ember-Eye Wolf is maybe a bit off the norm, but essentially this is fast, focussed aggro with a lot of 2-drops and plenty pump effects. This is how you do it when you have to do without bombs.

I haven’t done very much SOI drafting so far for a number of reasons, one of them being that I do not like the format too much, and another that I have been overplaying the set when I was hyped about the new leagues. Maybe I will get a few more drafts in during the next few weeks, before I will probably give Eternal Masters a shot. It doesn’t seem like a great format to me either, but it will be available for so short that it would be silly of me not to at least give it a whirl!

Eternal Masters – the pointless bestseller

Posted May 31, 2016 by Andreas Pischner
Categories: General

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Eternal Masters is coming out soon, and as the title of this entry says, I do not see its point.

Now, obviously there is a point to WotC putting the set out, since it will undoubtedly sell very well, and a bestseller does not need any additional justification from its publisher’s point of view. But why do people intend to buy so much of this set? What is their point? This is just what I don’t get. I feel forced to come back to the catchall explanation that people are just dumb – quite the easy copout for an analysis; but tried, and most importantly, true.

One especially perplexing fact I noticed is that many people do not even intend to draft the set, just crack open its boosters – that the contents of Eternal Masters were chosen with an eye on drafting it is actually the target of many bitter complaints I’ve seen! Now, not playing limited with the packs you purchase means that you miss out on most of their value. You essentially reduce a game product to a lottery lot this way. I will talk about this approach in a minute, but first let me briefly address Eternal Masters limited:

For one thing, considering the “RL” paper product, it is going to happen only very rarely. The set is being severely shortprinted in relation to expected demand on purpose, and the packs are severely overpriced in comparison to those from other sets with comparable limited play value. Retailers will be stockpiling and sandbagging Eternal Masters boxes, driving up booster prices and decreasing short-term supply even more. Even private end users will be tempted to keep their purchases unopened in the hopes of making profit with them later. This means that both sanctioned and private drafts will be far and few between. Of course, you could buy a box or two with the intent of organizing drafts privately, but unless the lottery aspect of opening those packs pays out, you will still vastly overpay for your draft experience.

Apart from that, Eternal Masters will actually not even constitute a great draft environment once its novelty wears off (which is, of course, less of a problem since such drafts will be unavailable again so fast). To summarize: The format will be very fast; the quality of your deck will depend a lot on your skill of opening many key uncommons for your archetype; and single games will often be decided by opening draws (since the format is fast) or by higher-rarity bombs. While many people do not mind such shortcomings as much as I do, this certainly doesn’t make for a play experience worth paying roughly four times the normal amount for a draft!

(Oh, and just for the sake of completeness, let me point out that sealed is even more expensive and generally less fun than draft, but especially less fun with Eternal Masters since this is a highly synergy-based format.)

The long and short of it: While drafting the set is, as always, the best way to get value from it, it is still heavily overpriced, and a rare opportunity many people will not even seek out.

But what about cracking those packs? Aren’t there a lot of heavily sought after cards in Eternal Masters? Well – actually, no! Or at least they are not as heavily sought after that buying these packs would be justified.

You see, the real chase cards of that set tend to be at least rare, and usually mythic rare (no big surprise here). And that is in a shortprinted set where boosters cost about four times as much as normal! How much value do you think you can realistically expect to open? Also, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that with any set in short supply, the best way to get value from a booster is to keep it sealed and sell it later. Yet again, for some reason, many people believe that Eternal Masters is a product where you can expect to open packs and sell their contents with a profit – and this is also true if people intend to keep those contents for themselves, because by definition, they could have gotten them cheaper on the secondary market.

No matter how you slice it, the contents of a set’s packs will never be worth more than the unopened packs. While this is of course true for every set, it’s much more noticeable when pack prices are so high – and also, the real value of packs lies in their gameplay when you use them for limited. I would argue that paying about 10€ for about three hours of gaming, while potentially getting back a significant portion of your entry via card values and winnings is not too bad a deal – compare it to attending a sports event, or going to a movie or to a club, and you’ll see that your spendings are well justified for the entertainment value you get. But this is obviously much less true if you are spending 40€!

You need to understand that playing limited with packs as you open them is the only way to extract entertainment value from them. Yes, of course you can put the cards you opened in casual or constructed decks or cubes and entertain yourself with playing them that way, but you do not need to crack packs for that. There is a secondary market for single cards, and it is always cheaper to buy the cards you need directly than trying to get them by opening boosters.

Thus, if you plan on opening Eternal Masters packs only because you want cards contained in that set, you are at best stupid – and at worst, you have a serious gambling problem if you enjoy the thrill of buying expensive lottery lots with terrible expected value!

But are there reasons for people who are not stupid to be happy about Eternal Masters? Well yes, there are, but some of them are doubtful, and none of them involve buying and cracking packs. Just in the way that WotC is happy about putting out a bestselling set, many retailers will be happy about their profit margin reselling it; and chances are, some private customers who are lucky and/or clever enough to get those packs at not too high a retail price will be able to make a moderate profit by reselling them (unopened) down the line, too.

Now, if reselling unopened product is the only way to profit from buying Eternal Masters boosters, there is still the question why players (in contrast to traders or speculators) celebrate the publishing of that set! Well, they of course expect certain cards in high demand to get less expensive when their supply is increased. Note, though, that you would still profit from this effect (if it comes to pass at all) the most by not buying any Eternal Masters product directly, but instead getting the cards you need from the secondary market!

That is a rather restrictive and cynical way to “enjoy” a new set, though, and it is based on relying on (many) other people to be dumb enough to buy it. It doesn’t seem like a great reason to celebrate Eternal Masters enthusiastically, either.

…oh, what is this I hear? The great thing about this set is that it makes eternal formats (in paper) more accessible? It’s right in the name Eternal Masters, right?

Wrong. Totally wrong! Whenever I see that point being brought up, I am reminded of the endless and pointless discussions I had on Zeromagic a couple years ago when I stated the obvious by saying that constructed Magic would get more expensive with the advent of mythic rares. (A thousand idiots cannot hear sense…) It was simple back then, and it is simple again now: The accessibility of a format depends mainly on the accessibility of its hardest to get staple cards. You know, those on the Reserved List, which Eternal Masters does not touch, and which no future product ever will. If highly sought after cards from the new set become less expensive (and that is still an if – rarity downshifts like on Elvish Vanguard aside – since there will not actually be that many additional copies in circulation, they will not be very cheap at all, and the hype generated by the set might well increase demand to the point where it cancels this additional supply out), this is still at best a drop in the bucket compared to what you need to spend on Reserved List cards.

By the way, any hopes for an eternal format without the Reserved List have just been officially dashed (again), but even if that came to pass, it would certainly not be what people wanted – the whole point of eternal formats is that you get to play with your old cards!

So – in which way could Eternal Masters possibly make legacy or even vintage more accessible? Would you call a major influx of budget players who try to compete with no-reserved-list decks against a field of “real” legacy decks an improvement? And this is already an unrealistic best-case scenario based on the assumptions that a) Eternal Masters will make at least assembling those decks noticeably cheaper, and b) many people will be content to compete with the enormous handicap of restricted card and deck selection!

Note also that any somehow competitive deck of that kind would per definition come to make up a large part of the metagame, incentivizing people to heavily metagame against it and thus making it worse again. If such a thing happens in a remotely healthy format, players will react by switching from this popular deck to a choice not affected by the metagame backlash – but this hypothesized no-reserved-list player group is by definition not able to react to a metagame change in that way. I don’t know about you, but if I am effectively restricted to a single deck choice which is increasingly getting hated on in a format, I will probably react by giving up on that format. (And once people actually do that, the metagame will stabilize and become healthy again! See, there is just no such thing as a healthy metagame which features a large amount of budget-restricted decks as a requirement.)

In my opinion, this best-case scenario is still quite a bad-case scenario, while not too likely in the first place. But let’s take a look at the alternative: Due to the Eternal Masters hype, actually more people might become attracted to eternal formats, and they might intend to enter them on equal footing! Well, obviously they need staples from the Reserved List for that, which means those become more expensive – and by that, I mean at a noticeably faster rate than they already do long-term! This would make eternal formats actually less accessible, because more players starting to invest in format staples will have two predictable effects:

1) It will lead to a larger fragmentation of these cards – meaning that fewer people will own the required number of copies, because more people will be in the process of building up their collection (which in most cases will never be completed). This will decrease the number of really competitive players further.

2) It will incentivize both retailers and private speculators to hoard cards from the reserved list, since their price is bound to go up for a while (an effect accelerating itself, obviously).

Now, of course, there will be a point where the ever decreasing accessibility of those formats will outweigh the hype, and the pendulum will swing back again – players will lose interest, people will start selling those expensive cards instead of collecting or hoarding them, and prices will go down again. But at no point in that cycle will an eternal format ever support more competitive players than it did before, because the total supply of reserved-list cards stays constant (actually, it decreases slowly since cards get destroyed or lost). I do not know what your definition of an “accessible” format is, but it should be based on either the total number of players it can support, or on its entry cost. None of these factors are influenced positively by Eternal Masters, and as I just explained, it is even likely that they will be influenced negatively for a while.

This has been getting long enough, so let me summarize:

Because the Reserved List is there to stay, vintage and legacy are doomed to die, and Eternal Masters doesn’t change this a bit.

Opening packs of Eternal Masters means that you are wasting money. This is even true if you factor in entertainment value, since those boosters are absurdly expensive, and it’s especially true if you’re interested in single cards, which you could by definition get cheaper from the secondary market.

Oh, and of course Eternal Masters does not contain a single new card, meaning it does absolutely nothing to enrich any constructed format.

In conclusion: From a player’s point of view, Eternal Masters is completely pointless! It only exists to sell itself.

And just because someone might note that Magic overall only exists to sell itself: Yes, of course, but packs from “normal” sets like Shadows over Innistrad provide both reasonable entertainment value for your spent money if drafted, and they enrich constructed formats since they contain new cards. Thus, they are not pointless.

Eternal Masters, though, is.