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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
May 01 2017 12:00pm
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So...Iconic Masters is a thing, I guess. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this set. Six booster sets (plus Commander) is standard now (and since it’s two Masters sets instead of one Masters set and Conspiracy, this should require less design work), and “Commander Masters” (more on that in a second) isn’t a bad concept in the abstract. The idea of an old-school no-spoilers Prerelease is also neat in the abstract, even if it causes some logistical problems (again, details shortly). There’s always the worry of reprint set fatigue though, especially on more-casual cards that are more likely to be constrained by supply rather than demand. The $10 MSRP is also very concerning, as it’s going to be difficult to find enough good cards to fill that in paper, while on MTGO I doubt any pack could fulfill even a $4 pack price, much less the $7 it’ll likely be.

 

So what is Iconic Masters going to be? Our two sources of information are the HASCON Prerelease article and the set information page, and they don’t give us much. The main elevator pitch is highlighting powerful/iconic spells from Magic’s history (name-checking the five iconic tribes of Angels, Sphinxes, Demons, Dragons, and Hydras specifically), as well as “one of the most iconic and power-packed Draft experiences yet!” This pretty clearly points to “Commander/Cube Masters”, and that sounds like a good idea, I’m worried. This concept has problems with both of the main goals of a Masters set: reprinting value and creating a good draft environment.

 

What is the formula for an expensive card? In general, it involves one or more of three factors: power level in a supported format, extremely low supply, and/or a place on the Reserve List. Before we started, let me make this crystal clear: This is not the set where WotC relaxes the Reserve List! Even if you think WotC can/wants to, you don’t do it in an environment where information is sketchy (our “spoilers” over HASCON weekend will be scattered, and probably full of fakes regardless). The other two reasons also aren’t that well-positioned for this set. Next, the poster child for low supply (in paper) is Portal (mostly Portal Three Kingdoms), but they certainly aren’t “iconic” and likely won’t be in the set in large amounts (they could get sprinkled in; I could easily see a Zodiac Dragon at mythic for instance). As for “supported format”, that’s much more nebulous (Commander-focused cards can certainly get expensive, as can old cards mostly used in Commander these days), but the top end will always be slanted towards competitive formats, especially with the Reserve List hanging overhead and P3K moved mostly out of the range. Again, I certainly could find enough cards to make the set valuable enough in paper at least (though it’ll take a lot of digging, as I don’t have nearly as much of a sense of what Commander cards are valuable), but I don’t know how appealing it’ll be to the masses.

 

As for the draft format, I have two words for you: Legendary Cube. This cube format attempted to recreate the feeling of a Commander game in Cube format, and it was disliked so much that its return last year was aborted partway through and replaced with Legacy Cube. Granted, a lot it was based on problems that can be fixed (the “only Legendary Creatures” restriction was ditched during its second run, and they attempted to cut down on color fixing to create more decks than “5C Good Stuff”), but the inherent problem of “Limited format where the game doesn’t ‘start’ until Turn 5+” seems difficult to solve (and anything closer to a normal format either makes the “iconic” cards don’t matter or has their implied density ruin the balance). Of course, WotC has at least attempted to solve these problems (unless they’re pulling a really big prank on Hasbro and the player base—though part of me really wants this to be Un-3 now), so it’s time for me to solve them.

 

Iconic Creatures:

Since we only know one piece of information about the set, that’s as good of a place as any to start. We know that an “array” of each of the iconic tribes will be in the set, so I’m taking that to mean they’re spread throughout each of the rarities. My plan is to make each tribe have one common, two uncommons, two rares, and one mythic, which should hopefully provide enough as-fan to get the “iconic” feeling without overwhelming the rest of the set (as these are mostly big creatures, and while the set will have larger/more-expensive creatures than average, there needs to be some low end). This has many problems though, mostly due to numbers—there have been over a hundred Dragons and Angels, but not nearly as many Sphinxes and Hydras. The more popular tribes also have more tribal support, and more importantly have obvious common representatives (even before considering rarity downshifts in many cases). Let’s go over each of the tribes and see what challenges we have.

 

Angels:

We’re starting with a large category: 138 Angels (just a note: these numbers don’t count Amonkhet, but count Reserve List cards I can’t pick), 100 of which are mono-white. Common is very easy though: Seraph of Dawn typifies what I want in this large, slower Commander Masters. Uncommon poses an interesting question though: do I want Serra Angel? It’s the ultimate iconic, but not only is it boring and near the top of the Limited curve, it just showed up in Eternal Masters. I have it for now, and I’m more unhappy about the Emancipation Angel I’m pairing with it (most of the other choices either duplicate Serra Angel or Seraph of Dawn). Rare combines the unknown Angel of Finality with the superstar Akroma, Angel of Wrath, and while I currently have Modern reprint Archangel of Thune in the mythic slot, I’m wondering if this shouldn’t be Avacyn, Angel of Hope, or even Akroma (just for Limited balance).

 

Sphinxes:

This was actually the easiest tribe to decide by far, and you wouldn’t think that when there are only 38 members (25 mono-blue), and the only common is the mechanic-locked Jwar Isle Avenger. However, Horizon Scholar seems perfect as a rarity downshift as it holds its own and isn’t complex at all. Belltower Sphinx is a fine uncommon (which I’ve considered downgrading in previous sets), but the riskiest pick in this group is downgrading Cerulean Sphinx—maybe this should be Goliath Sphinx instead? Rare isn’t trivial either, as most of the Sphinxes are the same—I like downgrading Windreader Sphinx (which probably shouldn’t have been mythic in the first place), but Sphinx of Lost Truths isn’t that great (I’m mostly picking it since I think I want Kicker anyway). At least the mythic is easy, as this set would want to reprint Consecrated Sphinx regardless of the iconic theme.

 

Demons:

There are 90 Demons (72 mono-black), and there’s a surprising amount of variety, especially at lower rarities. There were two blocks with tribal aspects, and while the Avacyn Restored ones aren’t that unusual, the Kamigawa ones mostly have the paired synergy with Ogres, and I don’t think I want to go that far. Of the two commons (none are reasonable downshifts), Soulcage Fiend is the best of a bad bunch, as the vanilla Renegade Demon will quickly get outclassed. Razorjaw Oni is a reasonable uncommon (and one of the few Kamigawa Demons without Ogre synergies), but my downshift of Halo Hunter feels like it’ll be reverted before my final draft, as flavorful at it is. The rares/mythic aren’t that special, but Rune-Scarred Demon is the card that needs a reprint, (Demon at Death’s Gate) is an interesting downshift (and might lead to a sacrifice theme), and Shadowborn Demon is one of the few Demons worth being mythic (and has synergy with Shadowborn Apostle).

 

Dragons:

Seemingly the largest category by far, there are 164 Dragons, but shockingly only 75 are mono-red (that was many fewer than I expected). Furnace Whelp is an easy downshift to common, but my next downshift seems crazy: Shivan Dragon. Again, this is another true iconic card, but it certainly can’t be rare, and it doesn’t seem that crazy for this set (remember, I already downshifted Cerulean Sphinx). The one problem is that it fills the generic Dragon void, but Shockmaw Dragon is different enough. The rare choices are hard though, since most of the Dragons feel very similar—I’m trying Thunderbreak Regent even though it might be too aggressive, and Knollspine Dragon at least looks different than the normal Dragon (though maybe it should be Shivan Hellkite instead). As for the mythic, I speculated about Zodiac Dragon, but I don’t think it’s great for reasons other than value (it’s awful, and it doesn’t even fly), and instead want the splashy Utvara Hellkite instead.

 

Hydras:

Oh boy. Not only are there only 34 Hydras (the lowest of the iconics), only 23 are mono-green and of those the only uncommon is Domesticated Hydra (and none are common). It’s not even like there are easy downshifts, as there’s no simple X/X for XG (which Slime Molding says can be common) that’s a Hydra—the closest are Protean Hydra and Feral Hydra, and thankfully the latter feels reasonable. The rares/mythic are easy though, as Khalni Hydra needs a reprint and the combination of Genesis Hydra and Managorger Hydra covers a decent range. Uncommon seems impossible though, as while Heroes' Bane doesn’t seem like an awful downshift for a “big” set, I am clueless for the second choice. Is Lifeblood Hydra better or worse than Pelakka Wurm? Is Sprouting Phytohydra too annoying to show up in every draft? Or do I just want a “bad” X Hydra like Vastwood Hydra? I’m going to start with Lifeblood Hydra, but it’s clearly subject to change.

 

Conclusion:

This set is going to be very hard to design, even harder than Eternal Masters. Even before you consider the problems of developing for a format everyone has a different definition for, this set will have the strangest sales trajectory of any set in the Modern era. Think about it: we’ll see the HASCON prerelease, get the full spoiler soon after (presumably, if WotC wants to avoid fake spoilers), and then we’ll jump head-first into Ixalan (which itself will have an accelerated schedule with the early World Championships—heck, we’ll probably see a lot of Ixalan previews at PAX West the week before). How do you market a set that will be old news by the time it’s available to the public while focusing on cards with a casual emphasis?

 

That said, I do have some ideas for mechanics and cards I want to include. I mentioned Kicker earlier when including Sphinx of Lost Truths, but it should work well in a format where you want flexibility. Similarly I think I want Suspend, as that (along with some other Time Spiral block cards) feels like a way to get some “iconic” spells into the set without breaking the Reserve List (aka yes, this is where Ancestral Vision is almost certainly being reprinted). The biggest problem seems to be finding draft archetypes, as my “crutch” of tribal themes probably won’t happen due to Commander 2017 being entirely tribal-focused. Either way, expect a full set list sometime soon, almost certainly before the Hour of Devastation limited article (though not necessarily the next article, as a Flashback Draft might be announced).

 

Vincent

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