MTG: The 2021 Mechanic Toybox

2021 was a big year for Magic: The Gathering product. There was a truly stunning amount of new stuff put out there, including the MTG: Alchemy digital-only product.

Largely, I played none.

I played some! I have some commons-only starter decks for playing with my niblings, to teach them how to play the game, but I haven’t bought anything new from the company. I don’t know, it’s not a high priority to me to buy cards, to get the physical things. I think my MTGO collection has swelled a little, a few dollars dropped on a few cheap cards from recent sets to play around with them.

I did, however, also make 365 (and more) custom magic cards, one a day, shared to Reddit, and that was the thing that represented my main engagement with, my main play of Magic: The Gathering. That meant every time a new set dropped, it presented me with a bunch of new mechanics, new ways to format cards, and new card faces, that I could use to play with creatively.

What tools did I get to play like this, in the year of 2021?

Extremely Meh

First up, here’s a bunch of mechanics I don’t see myself using for much:

  • Blood Tokens: The actual thematic space of ‘blood’ is really useful – you can do a lot of things with different kinds of blood, in different stories. As expressed here, though, blood is kind of heavily linked to vampires and the madness/discard mechanics. While there’s definitely other mechanics that can be linked to it, it feels very much tied to just vampires and just the aristocracy that are capable of extracting it in vials.
  • Daybound and Nightbound: Another tightly linked mechanic to the existing Innistrad lore. Great tool for doing Innistrad werewolves, and there are definitely going to be other mechanics that can be tied to it, but this feels like an Innistrad mechanic.
  • Disturb: It’s a small thing but I feel that Disturb cards needing a triggered mechanic on their second face to keep them from being reused is leaving the keyword incomplete. I can understand good reasons to not tie them together, but it does make the mechanic feel incomplete to me. I feel like I’d rather have made the Disturb side into a sorcery or instant, and maybe then creating a token alter of the original card. It’s not nothing, but it’s less interesting to me. I can already see a way to do things I want to do with this mechanic, but not a lot. Maybe a theme for a month.
  • Training: Mentor, but less vulnerable to removal. It’s the G/W, where mentor is the R/W Training.
  • Exploit: I really liked Exploit, but I already really liked it. I didn’t see any new expansion on it that was unpredictable or surprising to me.
  • Modal Double-Faced Cards: These work just fine, but they’re hard to design well because I don’t think Wizards have perfectly dialled it in. I think the best form we can have at the moment is where one or other side is a land.
  • Magecraft: A big ole whatever. Something I think was a missed opportunity here is that the green space here should have been about becoming something fixed rather than growing – like, when you cast a spell, this becomes a 4/4 – so that way you’re not encouraged to vomit cantrips into it, and make the playstyle meaningfully different to red and blue’s relationship to spells.
  • Lesson/Learn: This is a cool design space with a very specific flavour where a lot of cards need to be by definition kind of weak, but I do like the way you can make a toolbox and the things to reach into that toolbox.

Disliked

  • Flavour Words: Look, anything in the Forgotten Realms expansion is going uphill for me. These eat space on the cards to explicate things that aren’t necessary.
  • Coven: I mean sure, it’s fine, but I feel like this is less about a coven gathering together and more just a utilitarian ability word for limited play.
  • Cleave: This shouldn’t be called Cleave. I like the idea of this mechanic, reconcepted as ‘Redact,’ because blue and white are the best colours for setting rules? But Cleave doesn’t feel like it fits at all.
  • Venture into the Dungeon: Needs a whole subset of cards to work with, neither those cards nor these cards can experiment much as it is, and yeah, it’s also tied back heavily into Forgotten Realms.
  • Pack Tactics: There’s a bunch of these, like Formidable, Ferocious and so on, but the only one that’s really stuck in my opinion is Battalion.
  • Dice Rolling: Hard ew.

Really liked

  • Ward: Hey, blue got a new creature keyword, that’s great, they need that. Does it patch the blue-black and blue-red holes it had? No? It’s redundant with blue-white again? I mean, that doesn’t make it bad, but that’s still pretty cool.
  • Class: I like these but I wish we’d seen them in both Forgotten realms and then next time along in Strixhaven to represent a thing a bit like a saga but where you have to invest the energy to advance, rather than the story just going onwards.
  • Foretell: I designed a mechanic identical to this many years ago, and my version cost 3, so I both think I was too cautious and that I was on the right track. Mine was called ‘scheme’ though, and it was a blue-black-red mechanic for setting things up ahead of time, like traps and conspiracies. This is even better as a flavour because it lets you show different cultures’ ideas of predicting the future, which chains neatly into:
  • Boast: This mechanic, as a keyword, does a bunch of stuff I want it to do: It hides a timing restriction so you don’t have to spell it out, it hides a use restriction, same vibe, and it gives you a lot of interesting possible types of mechanics, and the flavour can be worked across most colours as long as they’re willing to attack. I can definitely see a use for it.
  • ‘Cremate’: This is a little unkeyworded one from Kaldheim, but there are a few like Masked Changeling that use this idea of getting mileage out of old cards. I like this as a way of making perfectly good cards in the early game useful later on, and a way to push down the price on cheap cards. Masked Vandal probably isn’t better than Reclamation Sage, but it does present an interesting question about what you put in your deck, and when you want one or the other. There are absolutely games that have been lost for Masked Vandal not being Reclamation Sage, just as much as there are games where the Vandal being cheap let some deal-breaker play work.
  • ‘Pseudosurge’: This is a bit of a low-key mechanic in standard right now, which I like best in white – it rewards you for casting your second spell each turn. That’s a cool triggered effect that lets you choose when to activate something, but also rewards you for having lots of cheap spells in the late game. Check out cards like Clarion Spirit, for example.
  • Decayed: Excellent mechanic for creating a mobile game state. Decayed creatures don’t stag up the ground, but they do demand a blocker, but they don’t demand a big blocker. Fortunately, ‘slightly crap’ zombies can work in a lot of different locations and worlds.

This is kinda what you expect. Some good, some bad, some mediocre, some stuff I immediately want to play with.