A third look at Kaladesh

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I concede that Zeromagic has seen times where I was more creative with my titles…

There has been a weekend with two limited Grand Prixs since I last talked about Kaladesh, and I also did a few drafts – with moderate success, going 2:1 thrice. Extrapolating from that experience and the information available online, I can now weigh in on the discussion about its dynamics, especially the speed of the format.

Players seem to be really divided on that topic, so here is my take: The format is a bit faster than I expected at first, but I wouldn’t quite call it “fast”. Let me explain my idea of how I categorize formats into fast, slow or medium fast: Essentially, it is about focussed aggressive decks being advantaged or disadvantaged, which translates into the number of aggressive decks supported by a table being higher or lower than the number of dedicated lategame decks.

The mere existence of aggressive decks doesn’t make a format fast – there were aggressive decks even in the notoriously glacial Magic 2014 – and neither does the average goldfish kill. Also, the necessity to run 2-drops doesn’t mean a format is fast (although the absence of that necessity certainly means it’s slow!), because almost every draft environment since at least a decade has been tempo-conscious.

The relevant question is how difficult it is to stop those aggressive decks! In Zendikar, that was nearly impossible – you were forced to race instead, since blocking just didn’t work. In Theros, blocking was also hard, because there was quite a lot cheap evasion, because heroic and bestow made creatures very big very fast, because combat tricks were strong and efficient, and because removal was expensive and inefficient. Those were fast formats. I would also count Shadows over Innistrad among the fast formats before Eldritch Moon was added to it.

Battle for Zendikar, on the other hand, was a slow format, because it wasn’t too hard to get into the lategame, and so was Khans of Tarkir. But where does Kaladesh fall?

Well, that set is sending a few conflicting messages. On one hand, the thriving creatures really want to attack; two of the three common vehicles are cheap, efficient beaters; and the combat tricks are very strong. On the other hand, there aren’t that many cheap evasive (like Welking Tern) or overpowering (like Steppe Lynx or Plated Geopede) creatures; the number of 2-drops is actually not that high (and some of them play more of a defensive role); the removal is comparably efficient; big, cheap creatures to brickwall weenies are plenty; fabricate gums up the ground with tokens; and while especially Red has a few ways to close out a game against a single big blocker, it has little burn that can go to the dome to finish off a player without combat damage.

Usually, people tend to underestimate the speed of a new draft format, so when several pros are now going on record saying that Kaladesh draft is fast, that gives me pause. But then again, other pros are saying exactly the opposite, and playtesting dynamics can sometimes give rather skewed results. I believe that the following might have been happening here: Too many people who thought the format to be slow (and slower than it actually is) drafted too durdly decks. That gave those players going for an aggressive approach two advantages: Firstly, their decks were stronger than they could expect if their archetypes weren’t underdrafted. Secondly, their opponents were easier prey than they would be if people were aware that they needed to add to the board early and consistently instead of fooling around with Puzzleknots and other spells without board impact. If the number of aggro decks per table increases, and everyone is aware that they need to field an early defense, things might even out a bit.

My current prediction is that Kaladesh draft will turn out to be medium fast, like Dragons of Tarkir was. In a slow format, you will usually get away with dropping your first creature on turn three on the draw, while in a really fast format, you need to get on the board as early as possible and cannot afford more than two or three cards that cost more than four mana. Medium fast formats are about maintaining board presence in all stages of the game, forcing you to both run a good number of cheap drops (or cheap removal) and a powerful lategame, ideally escalating from two-mana plays to five-mana plays without a hiccup, since taking a turn off might cause you to fall behind and not get a chance to come back. That was how Dragons of Tarkir played out, and so far, Kaladesh reminds me a lot of that environment. You can still draft quite aggressive decks, but you can also draft decks which are able to stop those.

This is my stance right now, but I am still in the process of absorbing and analyzing information.

For those who care, a few words on another topic: I have reconsidered some choices for my Limited Card Pool.



Saheeli’s Artistry will not make it – I like the card, but it is not too original or essential, and I just noticed that it would be the only creator of noncreature tokens in my pool. For that one card (which would also only show up every third draft in a cube, since it is certainly a rare), this extra complication isn’t worth it.



I am still sad that I had to remove Jayemdae Tome from my pool, but it just got never played, because it is so slow. I am afraid that the same is true for Whirlermaker, but then again costing one mana less is some help, and immediately adding board presence (albeit just a little) might just make the difference. I’ve seen the card crop up in a couple lists, and although I am still not convinced of its validity in Kaladesh, some of my cubes might create an even more favorable environment for it, so I’ll give it a whirl.



On the other end of the spectrum, Key to the City is a bit powerful for my taste, and it is also a bit close to the more elegant Jalum Tome, but it might still be a good option for a cube with an overall higher power level. I do have an opening for a low-cost rare artifact, and the Key might be a decent choice.

A second look at Kaladesh

Posted October 3, 2016 by Andreas Pischner
Categories: Next Level Cube

Tags: , , , , ,

More than two weeks have passed since my first look at the set. I am still not much wiser regarding its limited dynamics, not having participated in its paper prerelease, but I have made up my mind which cards I want to use in my Limited Card Pool.

Even though I ignore energy, and reject vehicle-specific cards as too parasitic, Kaladesh has a lot to offer to me! The set’s designers focussed on elegance, and they largely succeeded. Vehicles themselves and fabricate, but also artifacts-matter and counters-matter cards create or support themes I like, and additionally there a a couple very simple, but well executed cards. Overall, Kaladesh features 53 new entries in my Limited Card Pool, which is quite a lot, considering that I consciously try to stunt its growth (ideally, its size would remain constant, but there are still a few spaces to fill) by cutting cards to make room. Actually, vehicles are the one thing explicitly adding a new dimension to it by introducing a new card (sub-)type – generally, Magic has a limited number of themes its designs can care about, and while some of those are still vastly underexplored (like lifegain matters), others are already nearly saturated, so that new candidates for my pool tying into them are essentially pushing other cards out.

These cards made it:















As always, I put a lot of thought into every single inclusion or exclusion, but since most of you do not care for most of those thoughts, I am not going to bother with the work of explaining all my decisions in detail. However, if you have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer them in the comments!

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!


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.


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.


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!


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.


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:




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:




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!