Category: Magic: The Gathering

The MTG Data… Thing

If you know about this, you know what it’s about. If you don’t, boy howdy, trust me, it could scarcely matter less.

Here’s your rough outline: Wizards of the Coast have revised one of their web features, where they released ten decklists that had gone 5-0 at a League that week. Instead, they said, they’re now going to release five decklists, and instead of letting randomness pick them out, they’re going to let a people do it. A people!

Look, on the face of it, people who are unhappy about this, I am actually on your side: In this case, you had More Data, and now you have Less Data. That sucks! That is straight-up a bummer, and if you like Data, less of them is worse than more of them!

And then, the Magic Community had to go and be.

Alright, let’s talk about the goony-as-heck reaction to this, and by inference, the rolled-in reaction to the change of Friday Night Magic because these two things just run straight into one another in the worst hecking way. So! Wizards are now giving you Less Data, which means the correct course of action is to form in large, ridiculous, conspiratorial groups on Reddit and fume at one another about how it’s impossible that Wizards of the Coast functions as a company, because they’re clearly awful and stupid and bad, and let’s throw rocks at them. You should also pen large articles that refer to this as DATA HOARDING and also, while we’re at it, refer to it as INSANITY because that’s classy, especially when the article gets to sit alongside confessional stories of how Magic: The Gathering helped the writer overcome their suicidal depression. Good look.

The use of Hoarding is a fun one too, because Hoarding, we recognise, is a Bad Thing. We know Hoarding is bad and it’s a loaded word because it implies that someone is keeping more than their share, for a foolish reason, that really should be a right to everyone. This is like how America has a Health Hoarding problem, I guess. Point is: You don’t call it Data Hoarding if you’re not trying to imply Wizards of the Coast are sitting on a giant pile of Data like dragons on coinage.

The argument is that Wizards are terrible for this, that they’re witholding the data for nefarious purpose. Now, I’ve also heard that Wizards have asked Starcity Games and MTG Goldfish to stop publishing full tournament decklists, but also done so in the context of asking people. The notion is that Wizards feel an excessive array of decklists in an environment make it too solvable, and they’d rather people write about their decks rather than let people do amateur economics to a huge pile of data points. The people who benefit from huge swathes of decklists are Pro players, people with testing environments, as well. In essence, Wizards have said People in general don’t know what to do with data, and too much data benefits people who are already in position to win.

Next thing: Wizards have also decided to stop giving away FNM Standard Promo cards, and instead replace them with foil two-sided tokens at FNMs. FNM is Friday Night Magic, basically a store initiative to get you  to play the game and bring people together to enjoy the game together. FNM has broadened massively in the past few years – it used to be Standard, or Draft – and now it’s so varied that players can wind up playing Conspiracy or Commander or old formats or Pauper of all things. They’re still going to give away the FNM standard promo cards, but only for the Standard Showdown format they release. People asked for ways to get the tokens, they provided, and they moved the standard promos.

And how do these two things hit each other?

Wizards have said they chose to do this after checking data. And that means we get to watch the highest tier of internet intelligentsia arguing that they need more data to make decisions, but also Wizards doesn’t have data necessary to make this decision. Wizards were asked – via Mark Rosewater’s blog – how much data they were basing it off, and if it could possibly be statistically significant. Wizards’ response was all FNMs since the program started. If you wanted a better demonstration of the MTG community’s amateurish assumptions about how they could handle data vs how Wizards could handle data, you could scarcely ask for more proof.

Bonus: Then people demanded Wizards release that data. Because how else could they believe Wizards of the Coast, if they didn’t provide literally years of data about FNM attendance in every location, along with all the qualitative research and questionnaires they’d done.

In all this, one thing Wizards have said is the leading thing that encourages people to be and hang around FNMs is the environment being friendly and nice. That is, it’s not the incentive to play for the special cards that draws people in, it’s something else. It’s the social environment. And imagine, just imagine, and if you’re the kind of person who gets mad about Data and invents conspiracy stories about the company it might be you don’t make the environment friendly. I’m not saying this was targeted, but I am saying if you’re the kind of dickhead who brags about sharking the most casual FNMs you can find to scoop up the FNM standard promo cards, maybe you’re not good at recognising other people’s incentive systems for wanting to avoid playing with you.

I don’t know. Honestly, I do see the problem with giving people too few data. I do see the idea that trying to dissolve the cloud of decklists for raw data scrapers is a fool’s errand because the people who scrutinise that information aren’t, generally, going to necessarily actually notice that they’re not yielding useful results with their predictive models.

The main lesson though, the one thing we can really take away, however is Being kind and friendly helps your FNM.

MTG: Reader Prowess

Did I just f_cking win?

It’s not a line you’re used to hearing yourself say aloud. I said it today, after emptying my hand, tapping the top of the deck and seeing what the deck was going to give me, with an opponent sitting on nine, with a Gearhulk, Hapatra, a pile of scarabs and worse all sitting in front of them. But all I did, with a little fistful of mana, was untap, play three spells looking for a win, and-

Then I had lethal.

Here’s the list:

Reader Prowess

Creatures (20)
Curious Homunculus
Bedlam Reveler
Stormchaser Mage
Firebrand Archer
Jori En, Ruin Diver
Bloodwater Entity

Spells (18)
Shock
Censor
Unsummon
Take Inventory
Strategic Planning
Lands (22)
Aether Hub
Island
Mountain
Geier Reach Sanitarium

First things first, before we go on, these lands are bad. I do not recommend you play this deck seriously if you have this manabase. If you have UR lands already, or you can borrow them, then use those, and then this deck gets a lot better.

The basic gist is just it’s a very rudimentary blue-red tempo deck, which is fine because it gets to play a bunch of cards I really love even if they’re masquerading as something else. For example, Take Inventory isn’t Accumulated Knowledge, and a Prowess deck isn’t a UG Threshold deck but that extended format is long gone and the only place people serve with Werebear is the kitchen table. But while Taking Inventory once, twice, gets you up a few cards, what’s super sweet is Taking Inventory with a Voracious Reader on the table and two in the bin, or, as you may know it, Ancestral Recall.

Shh, I can dream.

You play out one or two durdly creatures, beat for one or two, then go over the top with cards like Firebrand Archer and Stormchaser Mage for the last few points. Bedlam Reveler and Voracious Reader are just great big ground donkeys and they may well be worth cutting, I suppose, but I cannot stop loving the Reader for making cards 1 cheaper.

There might be too many creatures, but I’m a little stymied as to what to get rid of. You could swap some of the cards for more permissive pieces, run Baral, run Supreme Will, maybe shift it to a more controlling shell with things like Niblis of Frost.

BFZ Hindsight – Black, Red, Green, Misc

We’re back, and this time it’s personnel.

Red

Rolling Thunder Dragonmaster Outcast

What’s it tell you when the red cards that stand out at me as pickups are reprints? Neither of these cards are bad, not by any means, though Dragonmaster Outcast is just on the cusp of interesting versus great. Like, I might throw the DMO into an otherwise ramp deck as a singleton tool I could tutor up, or a midrangey deck that’s designed to have some late-game oomph, or something like that. Thing is, if I never play with either card, well… I’m not missing that much.

Green

From Beyond

I’ve been told this card can be sacrificed to tutor up Eldrazi, but by gods I’ve never seen it. A neverending chain of 1/1s isn’t the most thrilling force in the world, but there are enough options in green to go wide that can make it worthwhile. I personally like this as a component in Paradox Haze decks, where you want to have as busy an upkeep as possible.

Retreat to Kazandu

The cheapest of these and the one that’s more generally useful! I like this one with Fertilid.

Rot Shambler

The Green, Not-Quite-As-Nice Zulaport Cutthroat. Still, the Rot Shambler is cheap and it’s functional. There are a few of this card raound, including Unruly Mob in white, but this is the one that’s in Green, and at this price. You might cut Rot Shamblers early in a deck, but you should at least have had them in there at some point.

Multi-Colour

Brutal Expulsion

You might notice I’m into the utility effects, and this is a really nice one. Brutal Expulsion is a tempo card – as bounce tends to be – but it’s a powerful example of a two-for-one and it’s remarkably choice-heavy. This card has two modes (do one or both) that open up two more modes (return/deal) and then each of those two modes have two more modes (spell/creature and planeswalker/creature). It’s really interesting, and it’s easy to see situations where you’re able to use this to score a really cheeky play.

Basically, think about the number of times your board could be hosed by your opponent having this.

Catacomb Sifter

3/4 for 4, benefits from anthem effects, death triggers, brings its own death trigger. I tried to not like it, but it’s hard – this sifter is just really robust and good.

Fathom Feeder

Behold, the Ingest card worth remembering. This little utility creature has just enough stuff going on that I’m happy using it. It’s a deathtouch creature and it’s cheap, so if you’re grinding behind a card like Oversold Cemetary or with a card like Corpse Dance, it can trade upward. It’s a card draw creature you can just pour mana into and at a pinch it can be a win condition for an infinite mana combo.

Ulamog's Nullifier

This is one of the processors I wish was better. Or more specifically, I wish I could find better general-purpose ways to feed it. Still, while Mystic Snake was a good creature for keeping a hold on tempo, the Nullifier flies, meaning that it can give you some reach. I know in my tempo-based aggressive fishy decks, I tend to grind out at around 8ish damage, and that’s when the game stabilises. Fliers like this let me move around stabilisation and it’s such a nice price!

Shame it’s so hard to use.

Oh well!

Kiora, Master of the Depths

Shout out to Kiora who is in the two colours with the most useful Proliferate spells, and Doubling Season. I like most Kioras and this is a Kiora. It’s not like she has to do much but advance your mana, protect herself (by untapping a blocker), then explode in a pile of tentacles. I almost don’t like how simple Planeswalkers are, I mean this is just… grossly good.

Blighted Woodland

Blighted Fen

Blighted Cataract

And lastly, three really nice, robust little colourless lands that are worth having as a one-or-two in your decks that are that colour.

Wrapup

I don’t want to sound like I’m down on Battle For Zendikar. I tried to make sure I only talked about cards I liked, and I am a generally downbeat kind of person who favours slower, grindier decks rather than big and exciting moves or sharp-edged combos. The set was good, the set was fine – but it’s kinda amazing going back and looking at it in hindsight and learning how many cards there were in that set that were just ehhhh. Every set has its duds, but – wow.

Still, there are some prizes when you’re going back to grab some casual cards.

BFZ Hindsight – Colourless, White, Blue, Black

I want to write about Hour of Devasation, but the card images aren’t up on Deckbox yet so I can’t use my neat little mouseover pop. I would write about Amonkhet cards I like, but they’re mostly going to change based on their interactions with Hour

Hey, who wants a SUPER LATE look at Battle for Zendikar?

Ah, poor BfZ. We’re in this period of New World Order, this post-Metamorphosis era, the followup to the amazing Khans of Tarkir and… another set. It’s the first exception to the rules, like Rise of the Eldrazi before it, the one that was meant to set the new normal and, uh, sort of didn’t, oops. The one that had to live up to Zendikar, a set that was massively popular and had beloved mechanics and also introduced some truly gut-busting problems to the standard environment.

Battle for Zendikar, buddy,

Battle for Zendikar was always going to push uphill both inside and out. It had to live up to something amazing, hold a banner for the new direction of Magic: The Gathering, be approachable for everyone new, satisfy the people who were  established and old and walk in the immediate shadow of KHANS OF TARKIR. And then you had the people inside Wizards who were told ‘hey, you know that stuff you may have been postponing to next set? We can’t do it, because we’re trying to make the sets simpler.’

boy.

What a rough ride.

I’m not saying BFZ is bad. I mean, every Magic Set does better than the last one, more or less, and there are going to be big booms and medium booms and some sets are only going to be small booms and that’s okay. But BFZ is a set I fear is going to be a bit… Kamigawan in hindsight. That’s not a comparison meant to damn it, but think about all those ingesters who really aren’t quite good enough to play outside of their block environment. Think about the processors who are probably only ever going to see niche application if like, Suspend goes bananas. Think about Rally, which doesn’t even really work in Commander.

still.

Still.

There are cards in this set I’m really glad to have, regardless. So let’s talk about them a bit.

Colorless Eldrazi

They come first because that’s where they appear in the Wizards Card Image Gallery.

Endless One

Hi there, Endless One. You’re a kind of embarassingly generic, basic critter, aren’t you? Still, you combine well with any cost reducers (like Animar, Soul of Elements), you’re a bear that does more – I mean, I liked Kavu Titan of all things, and Endless One is a more flexible Titan. That doesn’t trample.

Scour from Existence

Sometimes you just need something gone. If you play a big mana deck that’s full of mana acceleration and slow recursion and you need an ultimate all-purpose tool – and I do – then you might want some Scour Power. Also it’s common. If you put this in your cheapo cube, you will be surprised how often you want just get rid of this thing, please. A favourite in my green recursion decks that pump lands out of the library and wipe things out piece-by-piece, keep it in mind as one of those niche tools. It’ll show up in some sideboard sometime and you’ll be left kinda surprised.

White

Inspired Charge

This just reminds me of Doc a lot.

Planar Outburst

One of my favourite things to keep in my back pocket when I build decks for bigger casual formats is the block-format wraths. Wraths are great, and often you can find corner case wraths that are both really cheap (like, a cent on MTGO) and can suggest an entire deck around them that makes that wrath work. I had fun using Winds of Rath alongside the Ravnica enter-the-battlefield auras, for example. This one’s got a good price and reminds me of Desolation Giant, which was a mediocre 3/3 that could give you a wrath on the back end for 2RRWW. This on the other hand offers you the Wrath up front, at 5, and gives you a 4/4 beater to finish with if you can blow up the world at 8.

I love this card, I love that the first one extends the game so you can get to the second one.

Retreat to Emeria

You want to remember this effect exists if you play with cards like Perilous Forays.

Oh heck I just realised Converge was in this set! Wow, boy, did I forget about that entirely?!

Anyway,

Blue

Coralhelm Guide

Ooo, this is deep in the tank. I’m a fan of blue fishy decks, durdly stuff, and when you design those decks for multiplayer, you actually prefer creatures that have some potential for politics, or some flexible utility. With that in mind, though, this is one of those creatures I don’t think I’d put in a 60 card deck. Good in 40, good in 99, not… good in 60.

Halimar Tidecaller

I like this critter mostly because it can get back a handy pile of utility cards like Clutch of Currents, Encircling Fissure, Ruinous Path, Scatter to the Winds, and Roil Spout. Like, there’s a deck there even if you never plan on using the Awaken for those cards.

Scatter to the Winds

Handy card, not amazing, but handy. If you’re playing in the bigger formats, this can be a second Draining Whelk.

There’s the blue and white done. Yeah, that’s all.

Sorry.

Black

Smothering Abomination

Now this is a bit of a bargain. I’m a big fan of this beefy doofus, with its 4/3 body and its specifically niche card draw rules. There are a few creatures that care about when a critter dies but not so many that care about when you sacrifice. This critter also provides its own sac outlet, and worst case, it cycles (though slowly). I’m almost always trying to find places to make this slow draw engine work.

Don’t forget that it flies! I keep forgetting it flies!

Wasteland Strangler

I miss cards like Nekrataal and Shriekmaw, and that means whenever a new black creature that can kill things is printed, I give it a try. This creature joins Vengeful Rebel as ‘awkward enough to not be that good.’ Still, black at least has the means to exile a lot of cards from an opponent casually, making the Strangler feedable.

Carrier Thrall

I don’t know where this tradition of 2-drop black critters that die and give you a dork came from, but of that genre, This Is One of Them. I really like this one though! He’s a bit fragile but he’s also pretty cheap – later in the game, at this price tag, with the scion, he’s two death triggers for (basically) a single black mana. Death triggers are good, too, because:

Zulaport Cutthroat

Hail the enduring prince! Zulaport Cutthroat is one of my favourite creatures, heck, my favourite cards from this set. I’ve always been a fan of this style of deck, where, once the game is stalled and my opponents have control, turning my losing position into a winning one – cashing in cheap creatures and going over something as fiddly as ‘combat.’ Zulaport Cutthroat can be part of a combo, or it can just fit into other strategies as a way to punish bad blocks or sacrifice fodder.

Such a fan.

MTG: The Grubby Aristocracy

I can’t believe I’m playing Standard.

Here’s a deck I’ve been playing and having fun with (that is not the same as winning) in the casual room:

Grubby Aristocrats

Creatures (28)
Doomed Dissenter
Smothering Abomination
Carrier Thrall
Zulaport Cutthroat
Plague Belcher
Sifter of Skulls
Baleful Ammit

Spells (8)
Vampiric Rites
Grasp of Darkness
Lands (24)
Blighted Fen
Mortuary Mire
Geier Reach Sanitarium
21 Swamp

This deck does something I’ve been a sucker for years: it gets value off cheap durdly creatures. Normally, an Aristocrats build relies on reusing a sacrifice ability, such as my favourite junk drawer creature (Carrion Feeder) can provide. Thanks to my main exposure to MTG culture these days being through Loading Ready Run’s Tap Tap Concede, I’ve been picking up their lingo – such as calling all those grindy, value-driven graveyard/sacrifice dorks-and-beef decks ‘Aristocrats’ style builds.

There’s no doubt a lot of good stuff to durdle around with in standard right now, and I’m happy to keep playing with them, but this built has a manabase I can scarcely beat for price: It’s cheap as heck.

The main thing you want to do with this deck is barf cheap creatures on the board, then feed those little creatures to the much bigger, much scarier creatures like the Plague Belcher and the Ammit. Shout out to the lifelinkodile, I love this thing so much. If you throw -1/-1 counters onto an Eldrazi Scion, you can sacrifice it in response to some other effect, like its own ability, by the way.

I’ve been considering putting some cards in that let you haul out of the graveyard, because the main thing this deck can do is run out of gas or be stranded with nothing but a Smothering Abomination to play. If this deck could have Death Denied, it absolutely would have it in place of Smothering Abominations. Not that they’re all that bad, but every time one of them has gotten rolling I’ve felt a tiny bit like I’m just getting more of what I already was getting

Nephilim Design

Note: This article will not contain any unsolicited designs for Magic: The Gathering.

nephilim small

“Could you explain how each of the Nephilim work in regards to the Color Pie? This could be less mechanics based and more focusing on how the lack of one color affects each of them.”

“No, I can’t. That’s one of the biggest problems with four-color design.”

deathwish318 and Mark Rosewater

Ooo, oo, teacher! Pick me! Pick me!

Continue reading

The Khans’ First Onslaught – pt3

When I compare Onslaught to Khans of Tarkir, it is doing so with a knowing eye of the imperfection of the comparison. Khans of Tarkir was not a tribal set, not in the same way that Onslaught tried to be or Lorwyn was. Indeed, Onslaught and Lorwyn stand on a spectrum of tribality. Onslaught has a lot of tribal – but Lorwyn is bursting with it. Lorwyn is the set that Onslaught looks at and says hey there, whoah, maybe ease back on it a bit.

tribescale01

Honestly, Lorwyn‘s tribal theme is overwhelming. There was basically no option to draft that set if you didn’t open a bunch of lords, for example. The tribal themes meant that mechanics connecting types were really explicit. Some tribes just had ways they worked and they were nice and obvious. Some cards were meaninglessly bad without tribal support. Some cards were overwhelming. You could draft the first booster, find no lords, and just drop, because the format was that twisted around them. That is some messed up junk!

We have this example then that Tribal, mechanically, can go too far. Khans did not go that far – Khans sat on the other side of Onslaught – there’s clearly a tribal subtheme, there’s some thing that connects some creature types together, but it’s not the same Lorwyn-style Lords-And-Chaff design.

tribescale02The thing that makes this comparison work to me is that the Khans style lets a player connect to the essence of tribal, it works with tribal, without actually needing tribal mechanically. And it does that by touching on the essence of what makes Tribal exciting and compelling – it does it with identity.

The thing is, players are drawn to Tribal mechanics for some reason. Even when those cards don’t seem to have any mechanical commonality, or even problems between two cards that share types, players will often stick cards together because they have that commonality that they feel is important. Goblin Balloon Brigades do not care whether or not they are alongside Goblin Goons, but there are people who will put them together.

Khans of Tarkir does not have an intense tribal theme – not really – but it does include a number of cards that are strong on characterisation. They have feel and they have identity. If you make a Mardu deck, within the space of Khans, you get the feel for how the Mardu cards work. You know what Mardu means. This deck will feature goblins and warriors and probably a demon or two? But it’ll still feel Mardu. You know how to feel Mardu. You attack. You punish. You do not retreat. Power and aggression and honour, all in a pile of terrible violence, tumbling down over the heads of your opponents. That’s Mardu.

Same thing with the other clans – they stand apart, and with their clan mechanics – even as only a few cards in a deck – they hold a feel together, and they give players an identity to connect to. These clans serve to unify under a theme the way that tribal cards do, without necessarily creating the tightly-wound mechanical problems you saw in Lorwyn, or the confused overspreading you’d see in Onslaught.

Khans managed to be tribal (in the mind of the player) without being tribal (in the mechanical constraints). And then you could see all the cards designed for enemy-colour pairs that could fit into different clans, and marvel, momentarily, at the sheer work that went into making sure Khans of Tarkir stood apart from its history.

 

The Khans’ First Onslaught – pt2

It’s really weird for me to look back and see it like this, but Onslaught is the end of history, in Magic: The Gathering. The new card face had to happen at some point, it wound up working out, and all that, but nowadays, it means that there’s this short, sharp dividing line between Onslaught and Mirrodin that marks one side of the line as ‘the broken times’ and the other side as ‘acceptable for an approachable eternal format.’

It’s not hard to summarise what Onslaught was meant to do. It wanted to establish the morph mechanic and the idea of returning mechanics, it wanted to be a creature-combat focused set that used tribal mechanics, which were already popular with players. It sought to bring something players already liked (tribal) into a space with something new and possibly worrying (morph).

I’ve said in the past that creatures used to suck and it’s not entirely true. It’s more that the 1% best creatures of the history of Magic tend to either be outright broken (Psychatog) or about as powerful as creatures now. The bulk of the rest of creatures, however, tended to be really bad. Token creatures, for example, were seen as a complex rules mesh, something you couldn’t really use very often.

There was also the way that you’d be left with interactions in the set that left me wondering just why.amc gssIn case you were curious, yes, this is a two-card interaction where a very commonly played, good rare card from an earlier expansion kills all your lands when you play the Ambush Commander.

The Ambush Commander has the same cost and size as Siege-Gang Commander, a tournament staple. The Siege-Gang Commander lived alongside the Goblin Sharpshooter, too! But the Ambush Commander was garbage that got you rather badly rekt and the Siege-Gang Commander is still a titan at its job. This is when we were told that red didn’t get good, big creatures, too!

One of the best Dragons in this period of magic was a 6 mana 6/5 with flying and haste and that’s it. One of the other best Dragons was a 7 mana 5/5 that was mainly used to cycle lands out of your library and almost never played. And these are the golden headliner cards! One of the best green creatures was a 4/4 for 4 that gained you 4 life when it died – and that was all!

Oh, and Astral Slide and Lightning Rift were in this format. So to was Akroma’s Vengeance, a mega-wrath with cycling, and Wrath of God, a wrath which was wrath. There was also Kirtar’s Vengeance, if you needed to run twelve wrath effects. If you were in black, there was Mutilate and Infest. Red had Pyroclasm, which would wipe out all the 2-toughness-or-less cards. Simply put, if you wanted to mop the creatures off the board, you were covered, and control decks had ways to force you to over-extend, too.

So.

Wizards of the Coast created an environment that was meant to be about creature combat and the interaction of creatures, where there were numerous tools to clear the board. This meant that in order to be good you either were clearing the board or winning before board sweepers. There wasn’t a deck that fast in black, or white, or green, or god help you, blue. Green had all these dorky little elves that needed to live to tap to work (and got wrathed) and no reach after the wrath. Black had Nantuko Shade and Cabal Coffers, it was on the side of the mass-murdering. White soldiers? God bless them, they were set up for the world of creature fights, not realising they were outclassed.

No, you needed speed.

You needed haste. gwc

Goblin Warchief was part of a cycle, which was composed of Goblin Warchief and four cards that sucked too much to matter in standard, because they didn’t get you turn three kills. Goblin Warchief is a god-damn monster, a creature that blew out the doors when Scourge arrived.

There really was no fix for Goblins. You built a control deck to kill it, or you got killed by it, or you played it.

The creature-based standard of simple mechanics and tribal attacking and blocking led to the generation of which Mike Flores once said ‘who blocks?’

Then Mirrodin came out, and it all got worse.

The Khans’ First Onslaught – pt1

The gamer is a beast prone to seeing patterns, and games are part of feeding that mental need. Some games, like Magic: The Gathering are absolutely rife with this, thanks to cycles and a system of supposedly uniform costing and structuring effects. Any player of a certain time invested with has a general idea of what things should cost, even if they don’t agree with Wizards’ mere rulings on that idea.

When I played the game most actively, buying boosters (and not drafting), I did so with the desire to dig down under the surface of the game and come to understand it. More often than once would I point out old cards and new cards, seeing the way new ones had some element of rules connecting them – a behaviour that wasn’t particularly obnoxious (I tell myself now). I often claimed that the three eras of Magic’s brokenness had been a period of overpowered control (early Magic), overpowered combo (Urza’s), and overpowered Aggro (Affinity). I was…

Optimistically, I had a somewhat simplistic view, but it was an interesting idea. One idea that’s been stirring in my head for a little while, however, is that Khans of Tarkir is the proper replacement for Onslaught. To talk about that we’re going to have to first chatter about just how messed up Onslaught was.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Onslaught, that block is a god-damned mess. First things first, it was a block with a tribal theme where the two blocks on either side of it explicitly did not service the same groups of tribes, meaning that the set had to rely on its own cards, or on long-term mainstay cards from the core sets. Fine if you were an Elf deck looking to slot in Llanowars (oh wait they cycled out), not so fine if you were playing Soldiers. Odyssey was full of Dwarves and Centaurs, and Mirrodin was full of who fucking cares, Affinity is happening, it is right around you right now it’s in your eyes it’s in your hair who cares about your Onslaught Tribal Zombie Deck Bullshit. This meant the set had a ‘parasitic problem’ – where the bulk of what the set did it did within itself in Standard and there was very little reason to add cards from any other set.

Second, Onslaught was when Wizards had realised that maybe just maybe ten years of Counterspell and Draw-Go strategies might not be ideal for encouraging new players. So Onslaught cratered the power level of blue in its traditional areas of power, and tried to address them elsewhere. This didn’t work – it didn’t diminish the presence or power of Blue, because Odyssey block had just happened, where between Psychatog, Wake, and a full set of good, high-power blue card draw and counterspells, Blue had more than enough power to bully the standard environment. This meant that blue’s tribal interaction was actually reserved, mostly, to dirdly little fliers and drafting red, for some great removal spells. Blue in block constructed was basically nonexistant – even with Voidmage Prodigy in the pool, there was no reason to dick around with the empty-feeling wizard tribe when you could be dropping turn five Kilnmouth Fucking Dragons.

(This was a weird block).

Blue wasn’t the only colour that sucked, though, because black had two tribes, both of which were ordinary outside of draft. In draft? Black was strong, with a bunch of good, resilient zombies and aggressive strategies that crashed in to the redzone. Big enough to block for one turn, then burly enough to charge into the red zone. Then constructed happened and Black had to, uh.

Well, Black still had Cabal Coffers and all the good stuff from Odyssey Block. So black was fine – it just gained almost nothing from Onslaught Block.

You might imagine then that I’d be big on a set where apparently, Blue and Black sucked ass, but the thing is, the other colour that was hosed in this scenario was green – which couldn’t really compete on a tournament level with even blue and black. This was an old day of Magic, where even bad removal was pretty damn good – and green’s colour pie was mostly ‘3/3 creatures for 5 that make 6 drops better.’ Basically, three of the colours were either building into places that weren’t good, or relied on the sets that came before or after them to support a block that was trying to make them less powerful.

The third problem was that Onslaught was the first showing of Morph. Morph was a ghastly fucking mechanic when it first came out. The problems of morph hadn’t been shaken out yet – there were too many situations where a morph was a coin flip. Morph creatures as 3 mana 2/2s were the standard for the other colours – meaning that you would often get 3 mana 1/2s with abilities, or dirdly little 1/1s with a morph ability that would never be relevant. Morph was treated as a special ability, an advantage worth giving up some major points for, creating this landscape of 1/2 and 2/1 creatures. When you stepped out of the draft environment though, there were maybe two morphs whose effects were costed worth your time for actual play – Willbender, and Exalted Angel. Willbender didn’t even exist in a world where it could thrive – it’s been played primarily in older and eternal formats because of its niche power application.

Fourth, Onslaught was trying to be a creature set, a tribal set, back when Wizards were still just struggling with what made creatures good. Time has not been kind to the creatures of Onslaught. In the set there’s a cycle of legendary creatures, known as the Pit Fighters, who at the time we looked upon with awe and hope, only to find, in play, they were god awful. With a few exceptions, it was a generation of creatures that couldn’t match the removal in the world they lived. Particularly sad is the history of Silvos, Rogue Elemental, an 8/5 trampling regenerator – in a block where no black removal allowed regeneration. Nor did the white regeneration. Nor did some of the red removal. Nor did the blue removal. These were meant to be headlining creatures, too!

I guess the final mark against Onslaught though is the real blindspot period its development had. I haven’t the exact details but I’ve heard Rosewater and others refer to the number of things that ‘surprised’ them between Onslaught and Odyssey block. Now, the failure of Mirrodin block is well known and very well understood – Affinity was a titanic powerhouse. But the blind spots in Odyssey block were somewhat subtler – the powerhouse mana control deck lurking in Mirari’s Wake or the overwhelming control represented by Cabal Coffers – or, of course, the odd-one-out in its cycle, Psychatog. In case you’re unfamiliar, Psychatog was an uncommon, part of a cycle, and quite possibly one of the strongest creatures ever printed.

This isn’t to say Onslaught didn’t work. It was a good enough set – but it contributed very little to the greater formats. It’s a deeply flawed block, but it has heart. There’s good idea. There’s good intentions in this set. It wants to be a good block, it’s not a deliberate effort to slow the world down like Mercadian Masques was (and maybe Kamigawa was as well). But we’ll talk more about the high points of Onslaught more later.