A first look at Kaladesh
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?