Posted tagged ‘Review’

Rating Shadows over Innistrad mechanics

May 4, 2016

Having played with that set for quite a bit now, I have formed my opinions on its mechanics. Note that for the purpose of this entry, I use “mechanic” to mean a rather broad spectrum of gameplay elements, which may or may not be “mechanics” in the sense of a strict definition of that term.

I’ve tried to encompass everything that shows up on more than two cards (and a few things found only on two cards which stood out to me) that isn’t a fixture in Magic yet – so no talking about menace, hexproof, planeswalkers or +1/+1 counters (two of which I deeply hate – guess which?) I will give two grades to each concept: The first for the role that mechanic plays in limited with this set only; and a second for its overall value to Magic as a whole, which will be strongly influenced by how well it is suited for Next Level Cubes (which are the pinnacle of Magic gameplay, after all!)

My rating scale here goes from A to F, with the following meanings:
A: Excellent design with no major inherent issues (cycling)
B: Good design with no major inherent issues (menace)
C: Either good design with some issues, or reasonable but not too interesting design without major issues (landfall, or reach)
D: Either good or reasonable design badly executed, or flawed design with appealing executions as a saving grace (converge, or bestow)
E: Bad design, this mechanical concept shouldn’t exist at all (clash)
F: Terrible design whose existence makes the game noticeably worse (hexproof)

 

By order of felt importance (in limited) to the set:

 

Transform – (A)/F; (A)/F

 

Skin InvasionSkin Shredder

The flagship mechanic of Innistrad-based sets, and immensely popular for flavor reasons. But does it play well? You’ll note I gave transform two grades in each category – the first one is for computer-based play (like with Magic Online), the second one for physical card play. I shouldn’t even need to explain the latter: drafts requiring pre-sleeved cards, players using checklist cards on camera in high-level coverage… Double-faced cards just do not work in real life games, and while that gimmick obviously pays off with regards to marketing, it is just not worth the loss of integrity with regards to gameplay.

This disadvantage, however, completely disappears once you move over to virtual cards being handled by a computer! Being an adaption of a real, physical card game is the only thing which stops Magic from using “cards” with any number of faces (while still retaining their “back”). If that constraint were lifted, additional card faces would be an excellent fundamental tool for any virtual card game. Why you would want to play a virtual card game which does not reprocude the feel of a real card game in the first place is a different question, though… Magic is still about playing with physical cards, or at least simulating that experience for me, so the latter grade applies.

Note, though, that I rate only the basic concept of transform here. Transforming werewolves specifically has its own paragraph below.

 

Investigate – (B)/D; D

 

Press for Answers

The grade in brackets has the same explanation as that for transform – clues are rather fiddly in physical play, and having non-creature tokens abound ups the complexity of gameplay a little too much for my taste. It’s not that investigate didn’t work, but it is just not superior to other cardflow mechanics (cycling, cantrips, scry) by so much that this extra complexity is justified.

That is even true if a computer handles the physical logistics for you, thus no different grades in the latter category. However, if restricted to Shadows over Innistrad limited, clues admittedly play well. They do not compete with other card flow mechanics; they sepcifically synergize with certain cards, and they do not create unwanted interactions with other mechanical themes (namely, artifacts-matter cards, but there are a few more hidden ones, like card draw triggers, for example). Thus, they are a fine fit for one set/block, but I wouldn’t expect or want to see them return. They are not bad, but Magic can do better.

 

Madness – D; E

 

Incorrigible Youths

Yup, madness is inherently flawed. While due to several rules cleanups no longer quite as complicated as it once were, it is still about turning a disadvantage into an advantage if you get specific two-card combos, making gameplay especially swingy. Madness is one of the main reasons I do not enjoy Shadows over Innistrad limited too much, and that is already taking into account that this environment has been very carefully developed to mitigate its swingyness somehow. When it combines with cards from outside that environment, things go completely awry.

For those very reasons, madness had been deemed very unlikely to ever return by Mark Rosewater himself just a few weeks ago (obviously he knew it would return, but had to pretend he didn’t). Shadows over Innistrad was just the perfect fit for it flavorwise – and just as double-faced cards do, madness proves that flavor does trump gameplay if this drives sales better.

 

Delirium – D; E

 

Traverse the Ulvenwald

So, this is supposed to be a kind of “fixed” threshold. Well, I see the issues with threshold, but I hold that those are solvable by careful development (basically, the most important thing is to make the gradient between threshold and no threshold not too steep).

Delirium, on the other hand, looked from the very beginning like it would play badly to me, and it actually plays even a bit worse. It adds so much complexity to drafting and deckbuilding, and even more to actual gameplay! It is much easier to keep track of the number of cards in each graveyard, and also a lot more predictable – if an opponent can cast spells or discard cards, you can usually guess quite well if they can get to threshold, but with delirium you often just do not have a way to even make an educated guess. I am certainly not a fan of dumbing down gameplay, but I found myself way too often dealing with delirium in an “oh, look what just happened”-fashion even on my own cards. This is another reason I do not enjoy this limited format much.

The worst thing, however, is how hard and unreliable delirium is actually to achieve (which was explicitly a design goal, by the way). I’ve seen players mill more than half of their deck into their graveyard without getting there (in a completely reasonable build, for what it’s worth); then, in the next game, play Fork in the Road and block with a Wicker Witch and get it on turn three.

I haven’t yet experience with delirium in physical play, but it is entirely possible that I would even push its grade down to an F there. I remember Tarnogoyf to be annoying enough… I wish they had just brought threshold back instead.

 

Skulk – B; B

 

Furtive Homunculus

Finally, a good design! It is obviously not something most people think about when Shadows over Innistrad mechanics come up, but that might actually be a good thing – well playing mechanics tend to be rather unobtrusive than spectacular. I have found skulk mattering quite a lot, though, and it is also something the colors Blue and Black really need (a simple shared creature keyword).

 

Two or no spells – E; E

 

Hinterland LoggerTimber Logger

This is the werewolf transform trigger mechanic, which I am addressing separately from transform in general. Now, admittedly, these triggers often create interesting gameplay decisions. But this is just what keeps this mechanic from getting a straight F! Werewolves are incredibly punishing towards both mana screw and mana flood, and extra punishment for those two greatest scourges of Magic is definitely not what this game needs, so here we have yet another major reason I dislike Shadows over Innsitrad limited.

 

Milling – C; C

 

Crow of Dark Tidings

This mechanic has two rather different applications: Milling yourself, or milling your opponent (even though some cards can do both). Now, milling your opponent is a straight F in my book – it is an alternate win condition that is very hard to interact with. Milling yourself, however, which is what I am rating here, has really interesting applications by using your graveyard as a resource, although this can and definitely has be overdone (dredge probably being the worst example…) What it comes down to is that this mechanic has a few issues, but I’m really happy about some existing designs.

 

Discard as cost – D; C

 

Call the Bloodline

This is the flipside of madness, because (some of) those cards actually play better without the obvious, major benefit with which madness provides them. Interesting effects with discard as a real cost play well, and minor synergies with threshold, delve, spell mastery, scavenge, unearth, flashback etc… still make them interesting for deckbuilders.

 

Clues-/ Investigate-matter cards – D; E

 

Erdwal Illuminator

WotC taking a new mechanic to the next level in the very first set they use it is probably a consequence of switching to a two-sets-per block model. Such cards are obviously highly parasitic, which should explain the latter grade. I also do not like their effect on drafting and deckbuilding too much, though – it is one (good) thing if you should always be on the lookout for synergies, but another (bad) thing if you have to fully commit to an archetype to get a competitive deck. The classic uncommon buildaround enchantments tend to make both drafting and gameplay worse. People like them because they make drafting decisions easier, and because they sometimes lead to broken decks, but they add extra variance to both drafting and gameplay, and they are usually very hard to interact with (which again means worse gamplay).

Buildaround enchantments are the final major reason I dislike Shadows over Innistrad limited, and some of those fall into this category. Making investigating explicitly matter has led to several problematic designs, so my first grade is correspondingly low.

 

Instery-/ Noncreature-matters – C; C

 

Cathar's Companion

This is a theme that includes prowess. One thing I do not like about it (and also not about prowess) is how it somehow randomly mixes up “noncreature spell” and “instant or sorcery spell”, which is especially pronounced in Shadows over Innistrad. I really prefer the cleaner version only caring about insteries, but I had to grudglingly accept prowess as a contributor to insteries-matter-themes in my Next Level Cubes. Still, this is what makes the difference between a B and a C for this mechanical theme in my book.

 

Human tribal – C; D

 

Intrepid Provisioner

Tribal as a mechanical concept is a B in general, but its execution differs from creature type to creature type, and from environment to environment. In Shadows over Innistrad, the various tribal themes tend to be a little too subdued, and the specific effects a bit too all over the place. Humans are among those who work a little better, though. On the other hand, human tribal is a pain in open environments, since humans exist plentifully in all five colors, and a great many older cards have this creature type without showing it on the typeline.

 

Wolf / Werewolf tribal – D; E

 

Howlpack Wolf

I am already not impressed by this tribal synergy in Shadows over Innistrad. Outside of that environment, there is just too little further support, and also you are effectively forced to use “two or no spells” cards, which is bad, as are double-faced cards in general.

 

Vampire tribal – D; C

 

Stromkirk Patrol

Vampire tribal in Shadows over Innistrad doesn’t reach critical mass without tapping into other problematic themes. However, some of the designs help out the already existing vampire tribal cards nicely.

 

Zombie tribal – D; D

 

Compelling Deterrence

Zombies might be the least noticable tribal synergy in the set. Also, putting most of those effects into Blue makes them less useful for wider environments. This may change if blue zombie tribal reaches critical mass some day, but we’re still far from that point.

 

Spirit tribal – C; C

 

Apothecary Geist

Like Human tribal, spirit tribal seems to affect play a bit more often than the other kinds in Shadows over Innistrad, and it is useful in wider environments to give that tribe an additional synergy component beyond soulshift and spiritcraft (with the latter effectively requiring you to use arcane spells, which just isn’t something you want).

 

“Creature flashback” – C; D

 

Nearheath Chaplain

By this I mean creatures with abilities that include exiling them from your graveyard as a cost. In most cases, they produce one or more tokens. This plays reasonably well, but in the context of the entirety of Magic design, I prefer similar, straighter mechanics like flashback, scavenge or unearth, because cards in graveyards having abilities already add considerable complexity to gameplay.

 

Second color costs – D; E

 

Geistblast

These are two cycles of one-colored cards which provide additional value via abilities with mana costs in a different color, with the allied-color cycle featuring tribal creatures, and the enemy-color cycle noncreature buildaround spells. In Shadows over Innistrad, they stand in for the lately ubiquitous two-color uncommon cycle. With such designs, I feel it is important that their usefulness with access to only mana of their color compared to having access to both colors is balanced out well over the color combinations, and that they also fulfill roughly similar functions in deckbuilding. This is in my opinion not the case here – the cards range from good maindeck candidates to mostly unplayable withouth their second color, and from mostly just providing solid creatures to requiring/enabling highly synergetic decks.

Tying into very specific synergies also makes this kind of design practically unusable outside of the environment they were created for, thus the E grade here.

 

Equipment matters – D; C

 

Militant Inquisitor

This is another synergy which just doesn’t seem to really kick in in Shadows over Innistrad limited, but whose designs help that theme in a greater context.

 

Vessels – D; C

 

Vessel of Malignity

I am always more strict with designs which are part of a cycle, but do not work well in that capacity. Power level differences between those enchantments are just way too high. Cannibalizing the cycle for different environments should have merit, though.

 

White sacrifice – D; D

 

Bound by Moonsilver

I give this its own grades because it is quite unusual for White to sacrifice things as a cost, and while the synergies in Shadows over Innistrad are obvious, it still doesn’t really fit into the color. I like Angelic Purge as an exception, but making this a recognizable theme was overdoing it in my opinion. Also, the cards feel like they are just good by themselves and not like a theme you want to build around – they tie into many different synergies, but nothing stands out.

 

Creature recursion – C; D

 

Ghoulsteed

These are creatures returning from the graveyard. Sanitarium Skeleton is the most ubiquitous of those, but the ones where you have to discard to bring them back play even more synergetic in this set.

I am wary of recurring creatures, though, and you do not always want to up the count of exiling effects as much as Shadows over Innistrad does. Unkillable creatures should be a big exception in my opinion, not a fledged-out theme.

 

Lands to graveyard – D; E

 

Crawling Sensation

This is a minor theme in Green caring about lands going to your graveyard, putting them there in unusual ways, or having them in your graveyard to get them out again. I don’t like it. It is one more unusual thing to keep track of during gameplay, and another rather random synergy producing swingy effects. For example, while Stoic Builder is a fine design, Groundskeeper will oscillate between useless and gamewinning in the same deck from match to match.

 

Bite – B; A

 

Rabid Bite

This is how I like to call “one-sided fight”, after its most basic (green) version so far, Rabid Bite. It is something Green desperately needed for years.

 

Devils – B; B

 

Dance with Devils

Tokens with activated abilities are admittedly a bit fiddly – for that reason, it took me quite a while to take to eldrazi scion tokens. However, these devil cards are just really cool and play very well. I hope there will be more of them in Eldritch Moon – at least one more design seems really obvious.

 

Showlands – E; D

 

Choked Estuary

This is the rare cycle of dual lands. They play almost no role whatsoever in limited at rare, and they are just bad lands outside of that environment, with no chance to enter the battlefield untapped when it matters most (when you finally topdeck your sorely needed land). They do help aggressive two-color decks to start their curve with a one-drop, which is something few other dual lands do, but that is not enough.

 

So, that’s it! Those grades are rather low overall, which shows that I am not especially pleased with this set. I like its flavor, and I was impressed by the way it has been promoted, but its gameplay has been disappointing to me.

Magic 2013 review for my limited card pool, part 2

July 3, 2012

This is gonna be another long ride, so let me just post the link to part 1 and get into the action:

Attended Knight – a fine card, but just not interesting enough for me. There’s a difference between a card which provides you with multiple creatures and a creature with an additional 1/1 tacked on, and I found the latter doesn’t play that great.

Guardian Lions – a 5-mana defensive card. No thanks.

Healer of the Pride – a 4-mana creature not even really great on defense, but in some situations able to drag out a game indefinitely. Repeated lifegain is annoying and shouldn’t come by too easy or efficient.

Odric, Master Tactician – It seems some players love these cards which, after reaching a certain threshold, just win. I hate them. Note that Odric is already a very efficient body by itself.

Rhox Faithmender – White really has a theme in Magic 2013 consisting of trying to win because your opponent falls asleep. Just another card bent on dragging out a game indefinitely.

Sublime Archangel – already too powerful without the third ability, beyond broken with it.

Touch of the Eternal – And yet another card to stall the game endlessly. Just disgusting.

War Falcon – I very sparingly use cards referring to two different tribes ( I believe Stonybrook Banneret is actually the only one left), because they force me to use both tribes to make sense. Also, I retired the knight tribe, and soldiers don’t need this.

Augur of Bolas – this is just too random, and other than – for example – Faerie Mechanist, doesn’t support its theme both ways. Will play badly.

Spelltwine – too unreliable and quirky.

Switcheroo – this would make sense in Red, since Red lacks outright control effects (and has an abundance of little dorks to spare), but Blue can just steal creatures and tends to play less of its own. Also, most blue control effects I use can later be undone with enchantment removal, but this can’t. Less reliable but more frustrating for your opponent – I pass.

Diabolic Revelation – a single tutor effect is already something to watch out for, since tutoring tends to make games revolve around the same cards every time, but in an environment without clear bombs will often play as a kind of toolbox effect and reward skill and creativity. Tutoring for several cards, however, will nearly always set up the same (winning) sequence of play. Undesirable.

Disciple of Bolas – Depending on the game state, this can be a card you cannot afford to cast or a card winning you the game on the spot. Interestingly, Momentous Fall, while similar, takes the edges from both of these extremes, being more flexible but not quite as advantageous (since it doesn’t provide you with a creature). If Black needed card advantage as badly as Green does, I might give it a second thought, but it doesn’t.

Public Execution – this is basic, massively overcosted black creature removal with a bonus which will very seldom be of any relevance. Not useful at all to me.

Veilborn Ghoul – Black has numerous options to recur creatures, for example Necrosavant and Haunted Crossroads. The Ghoul sits in a strange spot – inefficient in every game revolving around tempo, but providing nearly unbeatable inevitability in really long games. It doesn’t make the cut for me.

Vile Rebirth – okay, it can be a cheap 2/2 with flash in Black – is that a good thing? I’d probably only use it as graveyard hate in a cube, and for that I have much more reliable alternatives in that color which do not only remove creatures (Offalsnout, Cremate).

Xathrid Gorgon – slow, hard to deal with and completely taking over the game in a few turns without actually ending it. What a terrible design!

Chandra’s Fury – does two things at once but none of them well. I prefer more elegant designs.

Firewing Phoenix – 4/2 flying for 3R is already as good as I find acceptable in this color. The relatively cheap return cost pushes the card far out.

Krenko, Mob Boss – even though MTGSalvation posters are (as could be expected) too stupid to see this, Krenko is of course a goblin lord! However, he is a card of the kind “slow, but spinning out of control fast”, which I hate. 4 mana isn’t nearly expensive enough for a card which can win a game on its own.

Mindclaw Shaman – extremely swingy, which I abhor.

Slumbering Dragon – Aside from shenanigans involving counters directly on it, just another of those cards punishing an opponent for trying to end the game. I suppose the EDH crowd loves this stuff…

Thundermaw Hellkite – Just to put things into perspective: I’m not going to obsolete Fire Elemental. This dragon is beyond all reasonable power levels in limited.

Boundless Realms – something is really, really wrong when players pay 7 mana for a ramp spell – you ramp up to 7 mana to end games! But of course, I know, there is EDH, where games start with 7-mana creatures… This is completely pointless in limited.

Elderscale Wurm – And yet ANOTHER card preserving your life total ad infinitum. Well, at least this one enables you to actually end the game in the meantime, but Green has much less ridiculous ways to do so at its disposal.

Fungal Sprouting – why not just put a fixed number of tokens into play? Why make this card that situational? I usually avoid this mechanic (power matters) and this is no exception.

Mwonvuli Beast Tracker – I’m wary of tutors, and this sets off my doesn’t-play-well-alarm – it will likely almost always find the same creature each game, and in Magic 2013 limited, most likely an especially annoying one. But even aside from the tutoring issue, I would never want a card for my pool which forces me to analyze every cube I build for the distribution of several keywords.

Primal Huntbeast – hexproof. Nuff said.

Timberpack Wolf – name-calling, specifically its own, is a no-go for my singleton cubes. Also, this kind of card drafts horribly.

Yeva, Nature’s Herald – one 4/4 for 4 with flash is strong enough. Giving all your green creatures flash just makes attacking too hard for your opponent.

Yeva’s Forcemage – a little boring, especially since the bonus will in many situations be wasted.

Trading Post – there’s way too much going on here (and I’m not allowing 0/1 tokens). This card will, in casual drafts, often have two players reading it for 5 minutes, then have one player overwhelmed with options read it again every turn.

So, those were the cards I do NOT want for my pool – now to the ones who made it (still in order of the pictures in the card gallery – this is no chart):

1. Captain’s Call – the next step after Raise the Alarm, maybe a bit on the expensive side, but still very playable. It will push out my old favorite Icatian Town, which is a bit clumsy and produces tokens with a silly creature type.

2. Downpour – it’s a shame that Blue does this better than Red (compare Unearthly Blizzard), but things just are that way, and it’s the red card which is underpowered (I only keep it because of arcane). This is perfectly elegant, typically blue and in just the right power spot.

3. Talrand, Sky Summoner – I shudder to think what a blue deck untapping with this could do in constructed, but in limited, it is a really nice “lord” for the sorcery/instant theme, although certainly at the upper end of the acceptable power spectrum.

4. Talrand’s Invocation – great, elegant token producer.

5. Void Stalker – so, Blue is getting ever worse countermagic, but is now allowed to have creature removal instead? I should make sure I get my hands on one of those before everyone realizes just how strong this 2-drop is. However, in limited, it is important that all decks have access to creature removal (see Avacyn Restored as an example for an environment where removal is too sparse – shudder!), and this makes more sense in Blue then Psionic Blast, which I retired for that reason.

6. Cower in Fear – a simple effect missing in Magic way too long (at least in Black). -1/-1 isn’t so strong that it needs to be symmetrical. This will push out Shrivel and Stench of Decay as a nearly completely superior alternative.

7. Crippling Blight – a Weakness version that actually makes sense! Usually, -1/-1 either kills a creature or is not worth spending a card on it. This is an ingenious design!

8. Mark of the Vampire – A simple, useful lifelink aura was missing, and Black could do with another playable aura intended to be used on its own creatures. Also, good power level here.

9. Murder – yes, this was also missing. Black could already kill almost anything in a number of ways for two mana, now it can finally kill anything for three mana!

10. Cleaver Riot – I wrecked my mind a long time to find reasons why this isn’t just a much stronger Relentless Assault. There are reasons, but they’re not convincing at all. Relentless Assault was always disappointing. This won’t be.

11. Dragon Hatchling – another card which was just missing. Surprisingly strong for a red common creature, but Red really can use it, especially in the 2-mana slot.

12. Smelt – why did that take so long? (And why can’t it exile the artifact to line up with Erase?) I retired Shatter LONG ago but didn’t have a perfect replacement – Smash to Smithereens is fine, but shows an aggressive bias instead of general utility. Now I have it. Incidentally, this also means that I no longer need Crush.

13. Sentinel Spider – I already explained it in the comments: I don’t like Spiders much, since they tend to bog the game down. However, this one allows you to attack while still protecting you from flyers – it’s actually an inferior Serra Angel (which is okay in Green). I’ll take the opportunity to add a big spider to my card pool which doesn’t play terribly.

14. Chronomaton – I am SO happy about this card! Energizer was just too bad, and I really missed a useful generic artifact 1-drop. This is it!

15. Staff of Nin – artifact-based card draw which is more efficient than Jayemdae Tome is a useful tool. For 6 mana, the additional ability isn’t too strong. I didn’t intend to at first, but now that I think about it, I will not just use the opportunity to retire Urza’s Blueprints from my pool (very clumsy, and not needed for an echo theme at all), but also get rid of Mind’s Eye – a card I love, but which punishes some cards randomly too harsh (cantrips and card filtering like Compulsive Research) and is otherwise not an interesting alternative to the Staff.

16. Cathedral of War – I’m always on the lookout for good designs of colorless lands, which make drafting and deckbuilding more interesting. This one’s really nice, even if not used in a cube with an explicit exalted theme.

And that was it! Remember that, as a reaction to the ever-growing amount of available cards, my standards have become really high in the meantime. I ruled out quite a good number of cards which play perfectly fine in limited, but weren’t among the very best options. Nonetheless, a core set is usually a great source for generic, useful cards, and while this wouldn’t be true in almost any other area, in this aspect Magic 2013 hasn’t disappointed me!

Magic 2013 review for my limited card pool, part 1

July 3, 2012

Wizards have posted a gallery with all cards from Magic 2013 – time for me to decide which cards I want for my limited card pool!

107 cards are new, but only a small fraction of those will make it. Many fall to the wayside for similar reasons. I’ll get to those cards first, in this part of my review. In the second part, I will talk about those cards which didn’t make it for more specific reasons, as well as to those which actually made it!

1. Functional Reprints

These aren’t really new, just given a new name and maybe other creature types:

Battleflight Eagle – I keep Welkin Guide, which is also a cleric.

Warclamp Mastiff – was once Tundra Wolves, but I run the superior Mosquito Guard.

Faerie Invaders – I didn’t use Spire Monitor (which is a fine card, but not essential enough to make the crunch among a plethora of blue flyers), and I won’t use them, especially since I retired the faerie tribal component from my pool.

Flames of the Firebrand – I keep Arc Lightning.

Krenko’s Command – I keep Dragon Fodder.

2. Slight Variations of existing cards

Close enough to allow for very easy comparison:

Ajani’s Sunstriker – While stronger isn’t always better, I see no reason to power down Knight of Meadowgrain.

Crusader of Odric – a colorshifted Scion of the Wild, made more splashable. I don’t see the need for colorshifting – admittedly, it’s no bad fit in White, but it fits even better in Green which has fewer interesting tribal synergies. The splashability does it in, anyway.

Hydrosurge – a colorshifted Shrink, which admittedly makes more sense in Blue, its confusing flavor notwithstanding, but in any color just too weak.

Master of the Pearl Trident – no longer boosting your opponent’s merfolk, but that was never my main issue with this card. The thing is that granting mass islandwalk just randomly wins games against some players while being useless against most others. I am happy with Merror Reejerey.

Craterize – An overcosted Stone Rain and at the same time a greatly weakened Demolish. This card has no right to exist.

Magmaquake – essentially a Fault Line variant, which was already too efficient scalable mass removal. Explicitly referencing planeswalkers, which I don’t use, doesn’t help.

Searing Spear – Lightning Bolt is fine, thanks.

Ranger’s Path – I didn’t use the superior Skyshroud Claim either. If players spend 4 mana for ramping in limited, they deserve something like Thran Dynamo.

Serpent’s Gift – I kicked out Lace with Moonglove for being too clumsy. The same card without the cantrip is really not cool.

3. Fulfilling similar functions

Comparison to other cards isn’t trivial here, but was still the thing coming to my mind first and the most important factor in my decision:

Faith’s Reward – In limited, this is mainly a trick, not an engine card, just like Second Sunrise. While it allows you to make an all-out attack and then recoup your losses (other than the symmetrical Sunrise), it will too often be an answer to removal which proves to clumsy.

Griffin Protector – Goldnight Commander does it better, synergizing with a lot of creatures both ways.

Show of Valor – while the bonus is correct for a white Giant Growth, the mana cost is not. Both Moment of Heroism and Mighty Leap give a much more interesting bonus than the extra +0/+2.

Archaeomancer – I want my Sorcery/Instant theme in Izzet, not just Blue, so I prefer Izzet Chronarch. Also, the 1/2 body tacked onto the Call to Mind effect is, while useful, too insignificant for me. That’s why I keep the narrower Anarchist and Scrivener.

Courtly Provocateur – I actually don’t want Alluring Siren more powerful for more mana. I like that 2-mana utility creature just fine.

Encrust – okay, Claustrophobia doesn’t stop non-creature artifacts and doesn’t stop activated abilities, but that’s just not as relevant as tapping the creature immediately. I’m quite wary of removal which doesn’t help you against blockers – it tends to bog games down.

Jace’s Phantasm – I don’t think Zephyr Sprite needs any bonus, especially not such a potentially large one.

Tricks of the Trade – yes, it does things slightly differently than Spectral Flight, but not different enough, and overall worse. Actually, I like that Flight doesn’t make the creature outright unblockable.

Watercourser – Blind Phantasm is a benchmark creature for me. Blue won’t get any clearly superior card in my pool. For comparable gameplay, I have Water Servant.

Blood Reckoning – For me, it’s Hissing Miasma – cheaper, not splashable, and not mentioning planeswalkers.

Bloodhunter Bat – This one, being splashable, is actually a bit too strong for my taste. Also, it steps on the toes of too many other cards I use: Highway Robbers (important Mercenary), Blind Hunter (important Orzhov creature) and Falkenrath Noble (iconic and elegant).

Liliana’s Shade – I don’t think Black needs a creature providing it with extra land. Other than that, I already have Nantuko Shade and Primeval Shambler, both of which I like more.

Goblin Battle Jester – even with the activation cost, this ability is just much more awesome on a 1/1 for 1 mana (Intimidator Initiate) than on a 2/2 for 4 mana.

Reckless Brute – I prefer the more solid Ronin Houndmaster and the more extreme Lightning Elemental. This is just in the spot in between with a drawback I don’t like, taking away a decision from you.

Rummaging Goblin – So, the red Merfolk Looter has to be inferior TWICE. Why? Well, good thing Mad Prophet exists!

Wild Guess – this isn’t card draw, just card filtering, and not nearly as useful as Blue’s See Beyond, although it does stock your graveyard a little more. I prefer Dangerous Wager, which, in the right deck, is actually card draw.

Bond Beetle – sorry, but Ironshell Beetle at least guaranteed you a decent creature as a baseline. This doesn’t.

Predatory Rampage – effectively an Overrun, and that is just too much power.

Roaring Primadox – in contrast to its predecessors (starting with Stampeding Wildebeests), it doesn’t require you to bounce a green creature, and is consequently splashable and a little less powerful, but I found that repeated self-bounce just doesn’t play well, being either too annoying for you or (with good bounce targets) your opponent, with little middle ground.

Spiked Baloth – War Mammoth is too boring by today’s standards, and while this switches around damage potential and durability a little, it is not an improvement.

Thragtusk – Much more powerful than Penumbra Kavu, which is already a strong card. This is too strong.

Gem of Becoming – Since the connection to Nicol Bolas is irrelevant when discussing this card’s play value, this is a really clumsy mana fixer put randomly into Grixis. Yes, it can find you a card more than Armillary Sphere, but only in this exact combination, and for 6 instead of 4 mana total. And I found even the Sphere too clumsy.

Hellion Crucible – after playing with Gargoyle Castle for a while, I realized that I didn’t actually like lands sacrificed for tokens instead of just becoming manlands, like Stalking Stones. It is, among other things, a question of elegance. Crucible requires you to use counters AND a token – and all that for a card whose function it just is to give you a creature in a landslot. Why not just use Ghitu Encampment? I see that the 4/4 is bigger, but the Encampment is more reliable in practically every way.

4. Exalted in Black

I’m not actually averse to exalted in Black. So far I have it centered in White, dipping a little into White’s friends Green and Blue, but a juxtaposition in White and Black makes sense to me as an alternative. The thing is, I need a critical mass of black exalted cards for that, and I just don’t like my choices that much:

Knight of Glory – admitted, it’s not black, but it only makes sense when paired with Knight of Infamy. Otherwise, Aven Squire and Sigiled Paladin are better choices.

Duskmantle Prowler – okay, haste in Black isn’t exactly an abomination, but a bit of a strange baseline for a black exalted creature. I could live with that card, but I’m not too impressed.

Duty-Bound Dead – sorry, this is just terrible! Why does the regeneration ability have to cost that much? Maybe I would even have liked that card more without it – at least it would be more honest, just providing an exalted bonus with little additional use.

Knight of Infamy – Makes only sense in an environment with exalted in Black and White, but that is exactly what it’s for! No extra incentive for me to want it, though.

Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis – just too powerful. This would have been impressive without the triggered ability, but it’s way over the top with it.

Servant of Nefarox – okay, but not especially attractive. Overall, the black exalted cards just fail to convince me that they would enhance a limited environment.

5. The friendly cycle

I like monocolor cards which get better when played with another color. In fact I keep a 40-card cycle of those in my pool, in addition to 10 cards with off-color flashback and lots of hybrid and multicolor cards. Thus, I was at first glad to see this cycle and began to determine which cards I would take out for them. It took me a while to realize that I wasn’t actually happy with these new cards; that I either liked the candidates I already had more or would have doubled up on quite similar effects. Also, I had made it a priority to vary the way these cards referred to their friendly color – mana spent, kicker, activated abilities, looking for basic lands, looking for permanents – and an influx of five cards doing things the Hedge Troll way (yes, originally Sedge Troll, but I kept the Selesnya version) upset that balance:

Prized Elephant – perfectly balanced, but too similar to Hedge Troll, which I prefer. Would have had to shove out Seed Spark (a no-go – I already have way too few non-creatures in this cycle) or Rhox Meditant (which is a very nicely balanced card itself).

Arctic Aven – actually too powerful for my taste to be part of this cycle, and too similar to the more elegant Sejiri Merfolk.

Harbor Bandit – I like this one, but I think I like Shoreline Salvager even more, and I wouldn’t take out Ribbons of Night for it.

Crimson Muckwader – a bit similar to Slavering Nulls, and would have had to push out a non-creature (Dark Temper).

Flinthoof Boar – too similar to Kird Ape.

There are a few more cards which can be grouped together and dismissed fast:

6. The rings

To my taste, they are just too unwieldy. Maybe they aren’t bad in a slow environment, but then again, slow environments usually play badly, and anyway they just don’t evoke the feel of a simple bonus for players using a certain color, which takes away the main incentive to use them:

Ring of Evos Isle

Ring of Kalonia

Ring of Thune

Ring of Valkas

Ring of Xathrid

7. Too expensive

I never use cards costing more than 8 mana – that is enough of a goal to reach via ramping and provides a player with enough power (note that the following cards aren’t even worth ramping into):

Omniscience

Worldfire

8. Planeswalkers

I never use those, because they have way too much impact on any limited game:

Ajani, Caller of the Pride

Liliana of the Dark Realms

9. Milling

I exclude alternate win conditions:

Mind Sculpt

Sands of Delirium

Okay – 59 out of 107 cards down! I promise to tackle the rest soon.

A short Planechase 2012 review from a New Level Cube perspective

June 5, 2012

Well, I already mentioned I intend to acquire Beetleback Chief and Elderwood Scion. Red can certainly use some medium-size token production, and I love it when there is a balance between a token-producing creature (allowing reuse with bounce and the like) and the tokens it produces (which means they should feel like a major part of the creature, not tacked on as a minor bonus as with Ambassador Oak or Voice of the Provinces). Selesnya needed a good, solid medium-sized creature able to turn games around (or let’s just say a strong 5-drop which can hold its own against monowhite or monogreen 5-drops like Serra Angel or Ant Queen).

But what about the other cards which didn’t make it? (MTGSalvation has a spoiler only for the new cards from this set, which is a great service Gatherer doesn’t offer – have a look!) I’ll sort them in three groups:

1. Perfectly usable in Next Level Cubes, but I don’t want/need them

Illusory Angel: Nothing really wrong with that card. However – what’s the point? Why not just use Air Elemental? Making it splashable is not a plus in my book. Encouraging players to sandbag their spells also isn’t something I want to encourage. Allowing broken starts with 0-mana spells? Is that a desirable thing? Punishing players for topdecking their big flyer into an empty hand? I already learned that Skyshroud Condor doesn’t really play well (and the issue was not that card’s power level). If I want big, undercosted blue flyers with a disadvantage, I can go to Phantasmal Dragon, Living Tsunami, Extravagant Spirit, Illusionary Servant, Sea Drake and Stitched Drake. That’s plenty of choices (and already excluding some very environment-specific like Esperzoa and some which I don’t even use, like Serendib Efreet or Fettergeist). I just don’t see in which way Illusory Angel specifically could enhance a limited environment.

Sakashima’s Student: Well, I like ninjas. And I like clones. But I don’t see any incentive to combine the two unless it’s power, and I don’t think Clone needs to be more powerful. A ninja should have some kind of saboteur ability, not just cost reduction.

Preyseizer Dragon: Well, Devour actually doesn’t play THAT interesting. I keep it on a very short list of selected cards (Thunder-Thrash Elder, Skullmulcher, Tar Fiend) as an option for players drafting decks which synergize with it, but I don’t like to focus on it too much – creature tokens, as well as creatures which can come back from the grave, have their inherent uses, and it’s much more interesting to keep them around for those most of the time than to always use them in two-card combinations to assemble big creatures. It’s also not coincidence my devour creatures of choice are all splashable – they should be options for an archetype, not just for a color. And then, the Dragon is already a strong card without devouring anything, but if it gets to devour a couple of tokens, it will probably end the game with its next attack. That’s not broken for a 6-mana creature needing some assistance and requiring you to put yourself at some risk, but it is also not at all to my taste.

Brindle Shoat: This card has two major functions: “Don’t attack me, I’d just get a good creature out of it – oh, and by the way, don’t bother killing this thing either” and “See, I am SO clever – I play this card which has the disadvantage of needing a sacrifice, and I actually turn that into an advantage!” I don’t like either of them. I’m fine with creatures you need to kill twice (and thus can use as sacrifice fodder without too much risk), like Young Wolf or Penumbra Bobcat, but I don’t like the Rukh Egg style of creatures sitting back idly, stalling the board and waiting for you to draw that clever card which turns them into a significant threat.

Dreampod Druid: Face it, outside of multiplayer this card is kinda boring. Also, it is somehow counterintuitive – if I enchant a creature, I do so to turn it into a big threat, and if I am to get a special reward for enchanting a specific creature, I expect that reward to make my big threat more impressive – see Metathran Elite or Aura Gnarlid as examples – not to produce 1/1s as a byproduct. But then, I have already largely moved away from the idea of this kind of creature, at least with the aura theme: I don’t feel the option for your opponent to get a 2-for-1 needs to be announced that clearly, and I don’t believe a deck full of creatures which require auras on them to be impressive plays too well. Thus I vastly reduced that theme (and took it completely out of Green).

Baleful Strix: In contrast to Tidehollow Strix, this isn’t an all-around good creature, but another sit-around like Brindle Shoat: “Go ahead, attack into it / kill it – you’ll use up a strong card of yours, and it has already replaced itself.” Obviously, in multiplayer this kind of cards encouraging other players to leave you alone while you accumulate your resources to play your worldshaking spells have a place. (God, I fucking hate multiplayer dynamics.) In an interactive duel, they’re just annoying. This strix is a little overpowered, and a little more undesirable. I’ll keep the other, thanks.

Sai of the Shinobi: On the MTGSalvation boards, people seem to be holding a contest who can decry this equipment the most. Well, that’s the same crowd which usually laments that new planeswalkers are underpowered, so what should one expect? This is actually quite a reasonable card – you spend 1 mana only once, and afterwards this will mostly be always enhancing exactly the creature you want it on for free. Moving it around “manually” is a bit more expensive than with Leonin Scimitar to compensate for that. This is actually the card which came the closest to make my card pool, but in the end I realized that I just didn’t need yet another equipment similar to the Scimitar, and I prefer the more elegant version. (Also, moving it back and forth manually all the time plays better, in my opinion.)

2. A little over the edge or around the bend

Felidar Umbra: With lifelink and totem armor, I’m still on board – that’s fine, and I might have replaced the slightly dull Eland Umbra with it. However, the switch is a little too much, effectively protecting any creature you want for two mana, and also allowing you to use it both on attack and defense (and maybe in between on a pinger?)

Mass Mutiny: Well, duh, outside of multiplayer a 5-mana Threaten.

Dragonlair Spider: A 6-mana creature with reach? Just what I hate. Oh, and of course it’s sitting there, making you largely unassailable, while at the same time building up a token army. What a typical multiplayer card. Just what I hate. Oh, I already said that.

Etherium-Horn Sorcerer: Cascade is, in limited, random, swingy and most of the time overpowered.

Indrik Umbra: Well, okay, it is a 6-mana aura. It’s allowed to be powerful. But this is a bit too close to a one-sided Wrath of God, and it even stops your opponent from playing creatures afterwards. This is not how games should play out. That totem armor gives it some protection against the 2-for-1 risk makes things even worse.

Shardless Agent: Cascade is, in limited, random, swingy and most of the time overpowered.

Silent-Blade Oni: So it’s a lategame ninja. Hm. I don’t like that so much, but it’s okay. It’s also neither completely uncastable nor unusable if you’re forced to pay its full price. Fine. Goes well with the fact that it’s a lategame ninja – you can topdeck it and put it on an empty board without embarrassing yourself. But then, it has a really swingy saboteur ability. In a normal limited game, this will often yield nothing of substance (since it’s a lategame ninja), but sometimes flatout win the game by stealing your opponent’s strongest  card. Well, I guess in multiplayer it will be consistently impressive, allowing you to cast someone’s Emrakul or the like, which I suppose is fun… (did I mention I hate multiplayer dynamics?) Anyway, this is just too swingy.

3. You must be kidding me!

Krond the Dawn-Clad: Actually, I could have stopped just after reading this mana cost – I draw the line after CCC for monocolored (and hybrid) cards, CCDD for two colors, and CCDE for three colors. Yes, I want my players to be able to actually cast their cards reliably. But okay, let’s have a look at that flying, vigilant 6/6 – that’s acceptable for a 2-colored 6-drop. What’s that? If enchanted, it turns into a significantly enhanced Visara? Of course.

Maelstrom Wanderer: Cascade, cascade, cascade, cascade, cascade, cascade… Don’t interrupt me! I’m designing “fun” cards! Well, okay, two instances of cascade must be enough. Let’s just make sure that any additional creatures which show up this way can attack alongside this 7/5 with haste. Admittedly, sometimes this is just a 7/5 with haste for 8 mana which nets you a Lay of the Land and a Fertile Ground. And sometimes you get to Prophetic Bolt the only relevant potential blocker out of the way and get to attack with this and a Krosan Tusker. Just what an 8-mana creature should be about, fluctuating between disappointing and flat-out gamewinning. NOT.

Thromok the Insatiable: Yup, you got that right – this thing can devour two creatures and will still be smaller than a Streetbreaker Wurm. Oh, and of course it can devour three creatures and then be a noticeably overpowered 5-drop! Well, you can actually do better things with those 3 creatures, even if you really want to sacrifice them. But what about sacrificing four creatures? Isn’t geometrical progression impressive? And isn’t it fun to eat up all your board and then either win with a creature with 2-digit stats or lose to a Voyager Staff or Unsummon (not to mention actual creature removal)? Wait – it isn’t. At all.

Vela the Night-Clad: So, I’m giving all my creatures intimidate. That sounds really powerful, but might not help too much if I have few creatures. Well, let’s put that effect on an almost reasonably sized evasive creature for 6 mana then. What? This is already game-endingly good? Then how about throwing in some life loss for your opponent if he deals with your now hard-to-block creatures? That’s it. Let’s jus put Intimidation, Nihilith and Blood Artist on the same card. Sounds like a great idea, since all of those are already quite strong in limited. Oh yes, intimidate is a bit weaker than fear, and you don’t gain life and nothing out of your opponents’ creatures, bit did you notice this triggers not just from your creatures dying, but leaving play? Ain’t that cool? (No.)

Fractured Powerstone: Let’s roll over and die. I mean, let’s roll the planar die.

Yes, I realize this set is not targeted at me, but caters to the need of quintessential Timmies, producing a series of spectacular events while giving the players very little control over what is happening. That concept IS fun, if it refers to sex, but I do not play Magic as a surrogate for sex …well, I am just not part of this set’s target audience. Let’s keep it at that.