Hello Again Magic Community,
Welcome back to the Jester’s ReCap. It’s not been the fullest week of Magic News, as hype and speculation comes to swirl almost entirely around the release of a new fall set. However, I am here as always to guide you down the path of Magic News as best I can remember it, just so long as I don’t have to take a moment to check if I’m right. Sometimes the path is winding and full of interesting side roads. This week…ehh, it’s a bit more sparse but I’m sure I can squeeze some amount of righteous indignation and self-indulgent bitching out of it. Oh, and I know just where to start.
That’s right MTGO, come on out. No more hiding beneath Mommy Chaos Drafting’s apron strings. It’s time for me to beat my drum, again. To drag you out in the street and shame you publicly. Our short-lived truce has come to the inevitable point of collapse. And do you know why? Why we are eternally destined to find ourselves at odds like this? Why I keep tilting at this particular windmill even though I’ll never knock you down? Why we will always be enemies? Because you’re so terrible I can’t even bring myself to pity you anymore.
Look at Arena. Look at it. See how it stands, not without flaw, not truly accomplished, but strong and noble in purpose? Oh it lacks card and format diversity to be certain. It’s animations vex some players. Its rotating formats mean player interest waxes and wanes. But unlike you, a fat and gluttonous hog of a king that has grown weak and craven without challengers or usurpers, Arena is strong. It’s is the child prince which has been kept under fine tutelage, not spoiled by privilege. It has been inspired by the other great warriors of the realm, other games of note, rather than by blatant greed. Oh, it will serve the same masters, the same purpose in the end. In the end, we all just make money for WOTC. That’s true of every card, every player, every event and every program within the Magic universe. At the bottom of it they all just exists to make WOTC money. But simply because all Kings are eventually ashes and dust, doesn’t mean we don’t judge them by how they ruled. And just because Arena is basically tasked with the same purpose you are, doesn’t mean we don’t like it better.
It hasn’t won over everyone, of course. It’s so young. So untested. We’re all still hoping for a Faramir situation, rather than an Arthas one. (Yes, I felt comfortable making both those references to fictional princes without explanation. We’re all nerds here and they’re not exactly deep cuts). I, for one, support our new and future king, just so long as he never makes us pay $10 upfront for an account.
Guilds of Ravnica: Mechanics
There are 5 guilds in…uh…Guilds, and as is tradition they are each going to have they’re own keyword. If you’ve been under a rock and missed it, here’s a ReCap:
Selesnya // Convoke – This feels like the hundredth time Convoke has been printed. You remember, it’s the Mechanic with the cutesiest, most afternoon-special reminder text of all time: “Your Creatures Can Help You Cast This Spell! They do that because they are your friends, and friends help each other. Yay Friends!” blah, blah blah. All your creatures are mana-dorks for a Convoke spell. Putting it on instants like combat tricks and removal is a good way to make sure your opponent spends the entire match gripping on to the edge of the table, knuckles white, waiting for the hammer to drop.
Izzet // JumpStart – Jumpstart is like Flashback but designed in such a way that you have to discard a card as an additional cost to flash it back. Which is weird. In original Innistrad, the last time we saw Flashback printed, they were doing all sorts of things in the design space that made inherent card advantage of Flashing back a spell the whole point. Think Twice with JumpStart is not a card anyone is going to play. Nor is Desperate Ravings. But maybe, instead of seeing JumpStart as watered down Flashback, it should just be seen as “fixed” Retrace? Either way, it seems really fair and none too exciting. Any removal spell with this keyword will probably be a top draft pick but other than that I’m not sure how much impact it will make. Izzet players tend to channel the Johnny in all of us, though, so I look forward to someone proving me wrong and breaking the ever-loving shit out of it.
Golgari // Undergrowth – You can taste the lazy on this one. Sometimes obviously untapped design space can actually come from someone looking at it with fresh eyes and realizing the potential. I suspect it went more like this, though:
Earnest Employee – We need a new Golgari Mechanic. This has always been a tough line. Dredge was…um.
Realistic Employee – A shit show still warping a bunch of formats
Earnest Employee – Underestimated, sure. And Scavenge was…
Realistic Employee – Completely ignored.
Earnest Employee – Failed to excite players. So with this one, what Graveyard-centric space is left that can find a good balance.
Realistic Employee – X = Dead Stuff
Earnest Employee – X what? Like Gain X life, or deal X damage or give -X/-X or draw X cards?
Realistic Employee – Sure, yeah, any of those. Ok, that’s lunch.
Earnest Employee – I don’t think we actually designed anything yet.
Realistic Employee – It’s called Undergrowth, ok? That’s a Golgari word. Come on, this thermos full of scotch isn’t going to drink itself.
Boros // Mentor – What if we took “Evolve” but you had to attack? And because it’s based on attacking, it doesn’t care about toughness. There, you understand Mentor. I don’t hate this design. It’s simple and straightforward. It seems tricky to benefit from. At the very least, you have to be attacking with two creatures for the pay off of one +1/+1 counter which is an underwhelming payoff. On the other hand it’s repeatable, to a point. Anyway, M19 has already felt like a long dog day summer of Red White Aggro beats so maybe Boros can just chill on the back bench for a set.
Dimir // Surveil – Strap in, unsurprisingly I have a lot to say about the absolute undeniably best keyword in the set. First, Surveil is another in an apparently growing list of mechanics built around attacking Scry’s self-esteem. First Explore came around, but being only available on creatures and it never really being pushed for competitive probably soothed Scry’s stinging pride a little bit. Surveil doesn’t appear to have any such mercy in it’s heart. It’s is just straight up Scry, but the bottom of your library is replaced with your graveyard. “Graveyard?! Why, whatever am I supposed to do with cards from there? How ever will I turn cards placed in my graveyard into a valuable resource?” Complained anyone who has has played more than one, but fewer than three games of Magic. Some people might say Surveil is Win-Win because either the card ends up on top of you library where you want it or in your graveyard which is basically an extension of your hand at this point. But Scry was already a win-win because either the card was on top of your deck where you wanted it, or it was out of the way of the thing you did want. This is Win-Win+, or Win-Win-Win? The point is, holy crap I hope you like watching people Surveil because there are absolutely people who are going to play Surveil on every possible card in their deck. Even if that deck does jack shit, it’s going to be like heroin for a certain class of player who doesn’t even like winning at Magic, they just like reducing variance to almost fetishistic degree.
As if simply taking Scry and beating the shit out of it while sleeping with its spouse and raising its kids wasn’t enough, Surveil actually has even more going on. It directly feeds, you might notice, two of the other five Mechanics in this set. Here’s a simple Flowchart for you,
Are you Playing Monowhite in Guilds of Ravnica? —– No —–> Play Surveil.
Geez, WOTC. I know Cipher was considered a flop and the unnamed “Grind” mechanic got a bit hairy at times but you could be a bit less obvious in favouring a particular Guild. If Boros is being asked to sit one out for the sake of the other players, Dimir is being fed the ball like LeBron James playing on my High School Basketball Team. I hope the colour pips for Dimir cards are restrictive because otherwise Draft is going to be a nightmare. 7 players in Dimir losing to the guy Convoking out Giant Badgers or whatever in Selesnya.
Bolas Minion Rundown
I was going to do my usual story breakdown, but the “Vivien Reid Tortured by Vampires” thing hasn’t really been doing it for me. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a bunch to like there. Vampires are fucking monsters and being treated like it, always a plus. We’re only three chapters in, though there’s still time for Elenda to show up and “save” them which will piss me off to no end when it happens. Vivien herself isn’t a terribly interesting character, but she hasn’t had much chance to develop and she at least has understandable motivations (“Bolas killed my whole world and so I would like to murder him. Also, Fuck Vampires.”). Plus, the Arkbow is something I wouldn’t turn my nose up at in a DnD game. It’s a genuinely interesting tool for a hero to have.
“My Bow Shoots Fire Arrows.” says the first, incredibly boring player.
“MY Bow shoots Ice Arrows.” says the second, who has least played Zelda one time.
“My Bow shoots the ghosts of dead world.” Says Vivien.
Finally, and this is not meant as a criticism I swear, Cassandra Khaw has this floppy, florid prose thing going on that I find genuinely hilarious. No really, I am not complaining or being facetious in anyway, I would kill to be able to produce this:
“What have—” Vivien spat blood. The words came together with effort, syllables clotting like fat, chunkier and chalkier than she’d recalled such things to be, a coppery flavor permeating her throat. “What have you done?”
This is just one of many, many examples. There are VERY few mediums where writing like that would not only be considered acceptable but a genuine success. The Serialized Adventures of Lady Jungle Wizard in the Court of Effete Vampires is about the only place you could get away with it and not only did Cassandra recognize that, she goddamned reveled in it. She took this thing to the mat and beat the shit out of it. Kudos, Miss.
Thing is, the whole story feels like a holding pattern. A bit of a time sink until we get back to what’s really going on, which is Bolas’ incoming invasion. While we’re waiting, why don’t we look at some of the tools he has in his arsenal right now. Other than, you know, being the strongest living thing in the Multiverse with unlimited knowledge, power and time. Here’s a mook rundown:
Tezzeret – Tezzy is an Artificer from Esper. Hmm, maybe that was redundant. Anyway, after showing up in Kaladesh, the Tezzmanian Devil has been hard at work fusing his own body, and potentially his Planeswalker Spark, with the Planar Portal. You are looking at Nicky B’s newest bus driver, capable of moving whole armies of Magic-Resistant Undead from one Plane to another. He’s also a bastard who tortured Jace, which Jace now remembers so that the characters can have something to talk about.
Tez had a hard knock life growing up on Esper. His mom was a prostitute, which is funny if you’re twelve and play a lot online games, but is mostly tragic. His dad was an abusive asshole who told him basically ‘might makes right’. And his “friends” named him because his parents couldn’t give two shits, so he’s called the Esper equivalent of “Shiv”. He’s named for the act of stabbing some dude to death. I don’t remember who and I promise you it doesn’t matter. The point is, Tezzeret is an asshole in the mold of every asshole who ever lived and he has a list of excuses for his shitty behaviour as long as his distended, magic-infused murder arm.
Ral Zarek – Ral is an Izzet Mage and he’s a dick. Dragon’s Maze was not the best time to be paying attention to Magic‘s story, so I’m probably going to get these details wrong, but let me take a Tezzeret at it anyway. Ral is the one character guaranteed with the most “screen time” in the upcoming set, so sorry for getting the indisputably most important part wrong, but there is no way in hell I’m reading a wiki about this asshole.
Ral Zarek wanted to be Maze Runner for the Izzet guild but was sidelined by Niv-Mizzet for being a total jackass. Instead, he acted as a liaison and co-coordinator for the other Guilds to do their part for the Maze. He’s impossibly jealous of Jace because Jace is smarter than him, so you can imagine how god awful petty he’ll be now that Jace doesn’t have half his brain lopped off like the world’s most Mary Sue lobotomy patient. He also created a way of tracking Planeswalkers coming and going from Ravnica, but I don’t remember how many he identified. At least Gideon, Jace and Liliana for sure. Nicol Bolas mentioned Ral off-hand at the end of Hour of Devastation, but as far as I know, we aren’t sure how deep he’s in with the Elder Dragon.
Liliana Vess – I’ve talked about this one at length and she’s the most recent recruit, but basically Lili is in the best place for her. If you want a side to ultimately lose in a conflict, make sure Lili is on that team. Lili lives to betray. She eats, sleeps and dreams betrayal. She is not a Betrayal dilettante, ok? She’s an old pro. If you want to make sure Lili is doing the most damage to a team, put her on that team. She is undoubtedly looking for the first opportunity to jump ship from Nicol Bolas and join back up with the Gatewatch. We just have to hope it takes her a while to figure out how, otherwise she’ll switch sides too early. Then it’ll be time for her patented Double-Reverse Treason and she’ll sell the good guys out again.
Vraska – Ok, so those who read regularly know I am all about the S.S. Blue Gorgon. Jace and Vraska’s clumsy, plodding romance might be my favourite subplot from the past year. They both screwed it up a bunch. They both handled it like real people and their ultimate goal was not some undying, Romeo and Juliet “our love will outlast the universe” bullshit. It was just a quiet coffee date in a bookstore. Yes, yes a thousand times yes.
This is somewhat complicated by the fact that Vraska doesn’t remember any of that happening. The only way to have a mole inside Nicol Bolas’ operation is to have her mind wiped so she truly believes she’s a devoted and obedient follower of the smuggest Dragon this side of Middle Earth. She’s also proven herself to be capable, intelligent, and not above wasting some poor bastards in pursuit of her goals. She, I believe, is now the leader of the Golgari swarm. So of all the tools in Nicky B’s arsenal, I think Vraska might be the most dangerous. I’ll bet dollars to donuts giving her all her memories back doesn’t go swimmingly either. Call it a hunch. But if this ends with the Gatecrash having to kill her in self-defense, I will never stop bitching about it.
Whew! Long one this week, but I wanted to do the Bolas Roster Rundown right. Let me know what you think or if I missed anybody. Have a great couple weeks, and remember: your comments are the sunshine I need to photosynthesize and remain free of aphids.