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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Jul 04 2017 12:00pm
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History will show that June 14th, 2017 is the day where Magic’s set fatigue was finally fully realized. Yes, everything in isolation is fine (and probably necessary for Magic as a whole), but at some point you need to give people a break. This is even less important for MTGO (where Archenemy: Nicol Bolas, Unstable, and the various Duel Decks won’t be released), but that’s part of the overall problem: Digital Magic is the future, but as of this writing all we know about Magic Digital Next is that Magic Duels is dead.
 
Of course, then we come to the main things I care about as the writer of Designing Reprint Sets. First, while From the Vault: Transform’s existence is shocking (everyone assumed it was replaced by the Masterpieces; then again, those aren’t a permanent presence now), it’ll be one of the easiest reprint sets ever designed: There are only 92 possibilities for the slots (counting Meld and assuming more aren’t printed), and cards like Delver of Secrets, (Jace, Vyrn's Prodigy), and Huntmaster of the Fells are locks. On the other hand, what the heck is Masters 25? I, along with everyone else, assumed that was Iconic Masters, but instead this is completely different (and taking the normal Modern/Eternal Masters slot). We know even less about this than Iconic Masters, with the only information being that it has cards from every Magic set. Granted, I’m not caught completely off-guard since I had speculated this could have been done with Iconic Masters (and cut a lot of that stuff out before this announcement to save for its own article—at least that article has a much better reason to exist now), but other than that I have no direction to start (even Iconic Masters had the idea of “Commander Masters” and/or “Casual Masters” planted in it). I will eventually get to Masters 25 coverage (almost certainly starting with that “card from each set” article I’m contemplating), but you probably won’t get a full set design for a while—I’m experiencing a lot of burnout from working on designs these days, especially ones where I get almost no direction to start from (as a counterpoint, my next Modern Masters and Eternal Masters designs are fun to work on). Regardless, let’s see where I am with Iconic Masters.
 
Overall Design:
As I mentioned above, determining archetypes for a set with such a large card pool is difficult, especially now that Modern Masters 2017 has shown a new flexibility with archetypes. At this point I’m just following the Eternal Masters template exactly, and while having the ten two-color archetypes isn’t anything special, I’m currently keeping the limited number of gold cards (one uncommon and one rare per color pair, plus assorted mythics). As for the archetypes themselves, I want them to feel like a Commander game, with themes that would show up in that format. As such, I went to EDHREC, looked at the top generals for each of the two-color pairs, and used that as a guide for what themes I want. The problem is that many of the themes have been repeated over and over again—something like WU Auras or WB Lifegain might be unique (at least for Masters sets), but themes like BR Sacrifice, GW Tokens, and UR Spells have been ground into dust with their reuse both in Masters sets and normal expansions. Maybe I’m supposed to use them (since they’re clearly popular), but what’s the point of the Masters sets if they’re the same limited environment every time? I’m also avoiding tribal themes because of Commander 2017. Finally, now that the “card from every set” gimmick has been moved to Masters 25, the card pool I’m working with is everything but the last year of normal sets (so excluding Kaladesh and Amonkhet, but including Commander 2016 and Conspiracy: Take the Crown if desired). Now let’s look at the archetypes.
 
Archetypes:
White/Blue: Voltron
Yes, if you go purely by popularity this should probably be a Blink deck, but we just had that in MM17. Instead, I’m going with another popular archetype: the “Voltron” archetype, where you load a bunch of Auras on a creature that’s hard to interact with and win. Obviously this has plenty of potential pitfalls, especially since most of the ways to interact with these creatures are rare (mostly Wraths). However, I’m taking plenty of steps to hopefully counteract that. First of all, while I do have Hexproof creatures at all rarities, they’re all expensive (five mana, with the exception of the gold Ascended Lawmage at four), and generally not that good in isolation (Whirlwind Adept probably isn’t jumping off the page). I’m also trying to make maindeckable answers, like Kor Sanctifiers and Gatekeeper of Malakir. This is obviously the scariest archetype and might not survive any serious testing (especially now that I’ve changed my RW theme to Equipment), but I like it enough on the surface.
 
Blue/Black: Mill
I feel like I’ve put this in every one of my Masters set designs, but here it feels like the obvious choice (the top decks are either mill or tribal). The problem is that offensive mill is never great in draft, mostly since you can always add extra cards to your deck to combat it (especially since the average card quality is higher in a Masters set). As such, you need a backup plan, and while (Jace’s Phantasm) is fine, the answer becomes self-mill. Sure, I don’t have any specific graveyard mechanics (like Flashback or Unearth), but Psychatog seems pretty iconic (and has Vintage Masters art I believe is online-exclusive at this point to boot). Other than that, Organ Grinder seems much more interesting when it doesn’t have the downside of taking away Threshold, and Psychic Spiral ties the two sub-themes together nicely.
 
Black/Red: Punisher
Oh boy. This color pair is the main reason why this design isn’t as timely as I wanted it to be. When you look at the EDHREC archetypes and take out the tribal decks you’re left with three themes: discard/Madness (doesn’t fit well in “Commander Masters”, and would probably lean too hard on Shadows over Innistrad block), sacrifice (done to death in both the previous two Masters sets and many of the recent expansions), and “Punisher” (the slang for cards where your opponent chooses from two individually strong choices). This is certainly something original, but not only does giving your opponent choices seem bad in a Limited context, the quality of those cards dwindles greatly once you go past Browbeat and Vexing Devil (you’re left with the Masques block “Rhystic” cards like Rhystic Tutor and awful Odyssey block cards like ). I was stumped by this (and ready to do BR Sacrifice yet again) until I realized what one of the actual Commanders was: Kaervek the Merciless. That inspired me to take the archetype in a slightly different direction: punish the opponent for playing big stuff, in an effort to stop the format from being purely “whoever goes biggest wins”.

I feel like this archetype will be defined by Parallectric Feedback, a rare I shifted down to common. In order for the Punisher cards like Dash Hopes and Skullscorch to matter, I think the deck will have to play like a burn deck, and I’m worried about that being too non-interactive when I want people to be able to play these expensive cards. Overall though, I’m surprised this deck is working as well as it has.

 
Red/Green: Landfall/Ramp
Another frequent sight in my Masters designs, a ramp deck is an obvious choice for “Commander Masters”, especially since we know there are a lot of Hydras in the set already. Kicker is also a nice choice, though I do worry that the set will feel too much like Zendikar with both that and Landfall—hopefully I have enough Battle for Zendikar Landfall cards and Time Spiral/Invasion block Kicker cards so that isn’t the case. I’m also conflicted: at its heart do I want this deck to be more about Plated Geopede or Lifeblood Hydra? I’m trying to balance that by having a lot of my land-fetch cards be ones that don’t actually ramp you, like Evolution Charm and Satyr Wayfinder.
 
Green/White: Tokens
Another archetype that seems like a repeat from MM17, but while that archetype focused on Populate, I want this to just be a swarm of small tokens. However, if you avoid Populate, there isn’t much else to go with to unify the theme besides generic swarm support. I’m also surprised there aren’t many good green token makers, and many of the ones that exist are tied to mechanics. I did find Sporemound (assuming it can be retrofitted to get Landfall) as a nice repeatable source of tokens, as well as the surprising find Saproling Infestation. Of course white has plenty of token producers, but the flashiest has to be moving Conqueror's Pledge to uncommon.
 
White/Black: Lifegain
While this theme is obvious, I’m surprised at how few synergy cards there are, especially before Battle for Zendikar’s subtheme. Sure, Serra Ascendant is a nice reprint (as is Archangel of Thune), but Angelic Accord might not trigger that much without the guaranteed 4 life chunks present in M14. I also wish I had room for Roiling Horror, but it’s not worth a rare slot and seems too good for uncommon. This probably needs a lot of iteration, but I need to get this set done so I can move on to other things.
 
Blue/Red: Spells/Storm
As I mentioned above, this feels like the default UR archetype, and I struggled to find a way to differentiate it from previous attempts. I made it into a Storm deck late in the process, but the payoffs of Grapeshot and Brain Freeze feel like “way too good” and “not good enough” at the same time (notably, I don’t think there’s been a format with Brain Freeze in all three packs). I also like increasing the reliability of Storm (and Prowess triggers) with the pair of Arc Blade and Reality Strobe.
 
Black/Green: Graveyard Value
I feel like I’m doing the impossible here: make a graveyard deck work without many/any graveyard mechanics. I mean, is this supposed to just be the Spider Spawning deck? My idea is that it should just be a value deck with a lot of Gravediggers (including the deep-dive Sylvan Hierophant), but there isn’t much excitement. Does this need a graveyard mechanic (Flashback, Unearth, even something like Scavenge) to go over the top? If UW is most likely to be overpowered, this is archetype that’s probably underpowered in this first draft.
 
Red/White: Artifacts/Equipment
Another difficult archetype to figure out—this was a typical “Go Wide” deck for the longest time, but that overlapped with GW Tokens. Instead, I looked to Modern Masters 2015 for inspiration with its Equipment theme, but while that deck primarily abused pumping double-strikers and used Living Weapon to get Equipment (and Metalcraft density), here I’m getting an advantage by circumventing large Equip costs with cards like Kor Outfitter and Auriok Windwalker. A nice piece of synergy is down-shifting Hero's Blade to common, as not only is it a cheap Equipment with expensive Equip cost (and decent stats otherwise), it works well with my attempt to put in more Legendary creatures than average. I also have a minor Metalcraft theme, but since I’m not overloading the set with artifacts, they’re focused on late-game bonuses rather than cards that rely on them to be remotely playable (Blade-Tribe Berserkers and Dispense Justice rather than Rusted Relic and Dispatch)—though let’s be honest, it mostly exists to give Mox Opal another printing in a desperate attempt to give this set some value.
 
Green/Blue: +1/+1 Counters
Another difficult archetype, as a lot of the ground was covered in Modern Masters 2015, and cards like Doubling Season, Hardened Scales, and Vorel of the Hull Clade don’t work well in limited. There also isn’t much value in the archetype outside of Doubling Season. I went with Evolve and some +1/+1 counter synergies like Crowned Ceratok and Inspiring Call, but I’m not happy with this, even though it feels like the only choice—maybe I should just go with Proliferate synergies instead?
 
Rarity Downgrades:
One of the biggest problems with “Commander Masters” is that if you want things to feel “big” you generally need higher-rarity cards, and the only way to accomplish that in limited is with rarity downgrades. However, I feel like my current lineup has problems, both in color balance and amount. In particular, I have fifteen rare → uncommon downgrades, far more than any set other than Vintage Masters. I also don’t have many common → uncommon upgrades, but that’s a typical problem with my designs even before you consider that this set wants to be “big”.
 
Mechanics:
After watching Modern Masters 2017 cut back on the number of unique mechanics in the set (only ten mechanics, and eight have more than the minimum three cards), I resolved to try to do the same with this design. However, I think I pulled back too far, since I only have six mechanics (Kicker, Metalcraft, Evolve, Landfall, Suspend, Storm) and just use those a lot (there are 18 cards with Kicker, which feels like a lot for a Masters set, but Zendikar had 25 with Kicker in a slightly smaller set).
 
Iconic Tribes Update:
With the announcement of Masters 25, the Iconic tribes (Angels, Sphinxes, Demons, Dragons, and Hydras) feel like they’re even more fundamental in the design of this set. However, I feel like I already am pushing the number of these big creatures you can put into a set, especially since Sphinxes and Hydras just don’t have that many members. I also don’t know where you would put them since they can’t all be rare (without tanking the value of the set worse than it already was set up to be). The main change I’ve made since my initial design is to give each color a big iconic creature downgraded from rare to uncommon: Angel of Retribution, Cerulean Sphinx, Pit Spawn, Shivan Dragon, and Lifeblood Hydra/Heroes' Bane (not sure which is bigger in context). The other change is that I’ve moved two of the rare iconics to gold slots (Bruna, Light of Alabaster and Harbinger of the Hunt), and while I wish I could give each iconic tribe a gold card, there just aren’t enough slots and those rares have to perform important roles for the limited archetypes.
 
Money:
The biggest problem with “Commander Masters” always has been trying to make it stack up value-wise to a (recent) Masters set. However, I think I’ve done reasonably well in that respect, at least at first glance. Let’s start with the mythics:
 
Archangel of Thune:
Is this supposed to be something more flashy like Avacyn, Angel of Hope? I chose to go with something that hasn’t been reprinted yet, and has synergy with Limited as a bonus.
 
Nahiri, the Lithomancer:
Another “neat synergy with Limited” choice, but this could easily be something more exciting, maybe even another Angel?
 
Consecrated Sphinx:
This is probably the biggest lock of the set, even with its recent Invocation printing, as it’s a casual all-star in an iconic tribe.
 
Ancestral Vision:
Time for our first mythic competitive players want, but it fits well here since Ancestral Recall is an iconic spell (and a Suspend spell is hard to reprint).
 
Ob Nixilis, the Fallen:
I was having trouble finding a decent mythic Demon until rediscovering this gem, especially since it is hard to reprint (because of Landfall).
 
Demonic Tutor:
This was originally Grim Tutor, but that isn’t especially iconic (and fits better in Masters 25 where it’ll be hard to find a Starter 1999 card). I was surprised at how much this card has climbed though—even the Revised version is above $20.
 
Balefire Dragon:
Yes, this is a random mythic dragon, but it’s worth something and is distinct from the other dragons.
 
Daretti, Scrap Savant:
Hooray for another awful red mythic! The set needs some planeswalkers, it has Limited synergy, and at least it feels mythic (unlike other red Masters mythics like Comet Storm).
 
Khalni Hydra:
If you haven’t looked at casual cards recently you’d be surprised that this underwhelming card is over $10 in paper—I know I was certainly surprised the first time I saw it. I guess everything in Rise of the Eldrazi just gets a price bump?
 
Lotus Cobra:
Hey look, a Lotus! Lotus Cobra is yet another Landfall card (that I’ve tried to reprint multiple times with the other Landfall cards), and works well enough in a Limited context such that the iconic-ness of it is a bonus.
 
Lord of Extinction:
Another super-casual card (though this one justifies its price take), the only worry I have about it is that it out-shines the Iconic tribes (I’ve tried to make all the big creatures Iconics so they stand out).
 
Ral Zarek:
This is probably the laziest slot I filled—we need a Planeswalker, here’s one that hasn’t been reprinted.
 
Akroma's Memorial:
Is it strange to have both Akroma, Angel of Wrath and her memorial in the same set? Either way, this is nice casual card, and there aren’t many other good choices.
 
Mox Opal:
Moxen are very iconic, and since Metalcraft is hard to reprint I might as well get this in there, especially since there aren’t many other Moxen I could reprint (surprisingly there are only ten, and of them six are on the Reserve List and two are silver-bordered).
 
Dark Depths:
This is probably the biggest surprise of the list—how are turn two 20/20’s iconic? The key is that in the context of this set you’re playing it fairly, and a 30 mana 20/20 feels like the big play that this set wants.
 
While the mythics seem underwhelming at first glance, the rares are where I’ve surprised myself. When you combine the cards that are important casual staples (Doubling Season, Rhys the Redeemed, Serra Ascendant) with competitive cards getting their one chance at reprints alongside their mechanics (Living End, Flusterstorm, Orim's Chant) you actually end up with a decent amount of money—in fact, Flusterstorm is actually the most expensive card (in paper) in the set, so we have another Damnation situation (three important cards in one color, so the one that feels least mythic is at rare). Even so, the totals only lead to the rare slot being worth 80% of the pack in paper as of November 2016 (as a reminder, my general target is 120%, and I’m using that date since it’s likely close to when the set was finalized), and online is even worse as always (just over 30%). I’m sure I could add more value with some minor upgrades (simple example: swapping Demonic Tutor for Grim Tutor increases the slot value by 16% in paper alone), but it would be difficult to get to that total without straying too far away from the theme (especially online). As always, you can see the full breakdown of the set here if you’re interested in really digging into my design.
 
Overall I’m glad I finally got this set done after so many delays—it’s very difficult, and I doubt I’m going to get much of anything right (other than the obvious locks like Doubling Season and Consecrated Sphinx), but I finally have it out there, and I shouldn’t have to look at it again until the prerelease at HASCON in September (and they better release a full set list afterward—I really don’t want to have to hunt for spoilers, even though I know I’ll do it anyway that weekend). Of course, that doesn’t mean I have time to rest, as I have plenty of articles still to write for the rest of the year—here’s a general idea of what to expect:

* Hour of Devastation Limited Article
* Hour of Devastation Treasure Chest Update
* Masters 25 “Card From Each Set” Article (this probably will be two articles at least; I’ve started it and am past a thousand words before even getting to Ice Age block)
* At least one Flashback Favorites article (probably more; I don’t know how many more Throwback Gauntlets there are)
* From the Vault: Transform Design Prediction (assuming I can get two thousand words out of it)
* Iconic Masters Design Review
* Ixalan Limited Article
* Ixalan Treasure Chest Update (assuming there is one—the lack of Masterpieces means there doesn’t need to be an update, and we better know what’s going on with Magic Digital Next and MTGO by this point—I expect it to be a panel at HASCON)
* Masters 25 V1 Design Prediction (I hope I can get this out by the end of the year, but no promises)
* Iconic Masters Limited Article
 
Hopefully I can get this done—it doesn’t seem like a lot, but as I said in the beginning, I’ve been experiencing a bit of burnout recently—hopefully that was just with regard to Iconic Masters, and not reprint set design as a whole. Until then, see you next week with the Hour of Devastation Limited Review.
 
Vincent

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