I've done it for Return to Ravnica, I've done it for Gatecrash. Now it's time for me to do yet another creature/tribe survey for the last and smallest set in the Neo-Ravnica block. Without further ado, let's delve into the Dragon's Maze! As previously, the tribes getting new creatures are listed alphabetically, and then summarized at the bottom of the article in descending number of new additions; and only the cards that feel significant for non-Limited formats, or because of their tribe's history and internal balance, are commented.
Dragon's Maze Infodump:
New creatures: 73
Reprinted creatures: 2 (Wind Drake, Feral Animist)
Creature types: 117
Return to Ravnica Block Infodump:
New creatures: 320
Reprinted creatures: 7
Creature types: 491
Two new Advisors, two heavyweights. As a mythic, Council of the Absolute is a respectable, if not great, midrange take on Meddling Mage. It doesn't affect creatures, which may be unfortunate (although, more often than not, you would use the meddling effect to stop combos or hinder removal), but it's more resilient and comes with an additional bonus that, while very unlikely to be used in conjunction with the main effect, nonetheless gives the card flexibility as you can well put it into your deck as an accelerant for a (noncreature) key piece of your battleplan. Much in the same way, the new Teysa has been moved to late game, whereas the old one was an early shenanigan enabler (Saffi Eriksdotter and Crypt Champion being respectively her devoted BFF and slacker boyfriend). Now she's a defensive behemoth who can block anything, and actually discourage attacking altogether given that any unblocked attacker gets blasted into little flyers that come on her side. She's also sure to slip 4 point of combat damage to the dome every turn without losing any defensive potential, but I'm still not sure that's enough to justify the 7-mana investment, which is kinda big for a creature that's deeply tactical but otherwise a sitting duck for any kind of removal stronger than a Lightning Bolt.
Three of the four new Beasts are more interestingly a Fish, a Frog, and a Mutant. The last one is something that seems more at home in a Commander deck than in any other constructed environment, unless you're doing a Heartbeat of Spring kind of race. But two turns later, which isn't a good thing. But getting a 7/5 beater for 5 in the process, which is impressive in its own right. Maybe seeing Zhur-Taa Ancient's ability as something you necessarily have to exploit is the wrong way to look at it, as it might be more of a hindrance you have to put up with to get such a big midrange body (easily seen as hindrance: the fact that the opponent will very likely get to exploit the mana doubling one turn before you). There's also something to be said about opponents who don't really take advantage of the mana boost (what with all those 1- or 2-drop-obsessed fast aggro/burn decks you can find in every meta), while you're probably ready to getting the most from those X-costing spells of yours.
It looks unassuming enough, as just a Hill Giant with a bloodrush option. But this more or less off-colored Cat (Zoo-like decks and Cat decks are mainly Selesnya-based, but they don't mind going Naya for stuff like Lightning Helix and so) has already proven to be a very welcomed addition to his tribe, stealthily providing a red Giant Growth to any attacking Wild Nacatl or Steppe Lynx. The chances of finding himself actually on the battlefield? Not so high.
On the Clerical side of things, let me introduce you to the Extort Lord (which is also a Zombie) and the Unleash Lady. The former is Titan-mana, but highly defensive, and you'll be able do something with all that extort going around. Hopefully. (It's certainly a bomb in Limited.) The latter is focused to giving haste to all the unleashers, while being a solid hasted hitter for 4 mana herself. She's also versatile enough to have different applications. Hasted Spikes? Grafters? Evolvers? I don't know, she's sort of a Johnny card in disguise, whereas the extort guy is definitely more straightforward.
On top of all that, Sin Collector is a less effective but still useful Tidehollow Sculler, which is never a bad thing. Actually, I'm not even so sure about the "less effective" part, since the Collector doesn't give back the card it exiles. Being limited to instants and sorceries make for a restricted field of action for sure, and the weight of the additional mana is particularly heavy for this kind of effect. Still, it's a nice uncommon that can see play in decks that care about the Human or Cleric type, something that exists even outside of the Tribal builds proper.
One Cyclops, one semi-early blocker that can turn into an attacker. It's not bad, especially at common, but you can't really consider it a 4/4 for 3, can you?
Oh yeah, cruelty and insanity! That's Rakdos Demons, baby! Alright, Sire of Insanity's way to have your opponent discard their hand is kinda extreme, particualrly when you consider that you're otherwise getting a Craw Wurm for Craw Wurm mana. And this late in the game, the good things which are bad for your health are probably already on the battlefield anyway. Unless you're facing a control deck maybe? It might be worth cheating into play the Sire via Birthing Pod or something? Reaching a little bit here.
What's sure is that Master of Cruelties is the more interesting of the two. Sure, he's not going to become a chase mythic (in fact, he's barely more than a 1-tix mythic), but what he does spells mythic very convincingly. I mean, resetting the opponent's life total to 1 is nothing to sneeze at (it combos with Lightning Bolt!), more so if you happen to be fighting a lifegaining-based archetype a la Soul Sisters. It has to be noted that the Master doesn't need to connect to activate the life annihilation: he only requires not to be blocked. So, Fog effects don't stop him. Of course, chump blockers do, which is why this isn't a chase mythic after all (if only he was a flyer, uh?). But all in all, it's a good Demon, since all tricks aside, he functions very well as a combat-resistant, inescapable blocker/killer that just waits for the right occasion to put the opponent on the very brink of death.
Just one Druid, but it's a very good one (and not an Elf for once!). Zhur-Taa Druid is definitely the 2-mana accelerant you're glad to use, because he gives mana dorks a whole new purpose, inserting damage in the proceedings. And it's a common, so Pauper might just have found a reason to replace one of the many Llanowar Elves clones after all. True, you need a Gruul-colored deck and both colors out come turn 2, which makes him slightly less effective as a mana source than, say, Leaf Gilder. But he more than makes up for it with all that sweet, sweet noncombat damage he's able to conjure out of nowhere while going about his mana-producing business.
The reason Elementals have such a large count is that they're the creature type that's been chosen for the Maze cycle: 5 monocolored common fatties in Titan-mana range that just can't do anything relevant outside of Limited. Of the remaining two, Scion of Vitu-Ghazi isn't even bad, as it gives you one 4/4 and two 1/1 flyers for 5 mana, with the off-chance to even get something more juicy in place of one of the little birds (like maybe some Wurm?). It's a variant of Cloudgoat Ranger, which although bolt-able still remains the superior choice given the greater board presence and the possibility to connect for 5 evasive damage.
The spotlight is all for another Elemental indeed, a mythic one that's been the veritable wallet-slayer of the set in the early going: the unbelievably sought-after Voice of Resurgence. And when I say "unbelievably", I kinda mean it, because while I see how it's a very strong creature, coming as a simple "bear" and causing turmoil in the opponent's plan (especially if their plan involved counter-magic), then turning into a potentially big threat, all this doesn't really spell "45 tix card" to me (it's almost Big Jace's level, for God's sake!). A case of Standard price inflation for sure, but still quite surprising. Of course, in those fast and furious aggro decks that have been a consistent protagonist of this age's Standard, Deer-Face here is surely something you very much want to drop on turn 2. And not having played with or against it so far, I'm probably failing to see where the "stop casting in the opponent's turn" clause is absolutely worth all the fuss. I'm surely not denying that it's not one of the best creatures in the set, and a brilliant design in and of itself.
Remember the Elves, those little dudes and dudettes who drop fast and, more likely than not, even give you mana afterwards? Looks like Dragon's Maze's idea of them is a bit different, as what we get are two monstrously big pretty girls who are all about tokens. Both of them are interestingly designed and not entirely negligible cards, with Emmara Tandris acting as the patron saint of populate decks (continuing what's sort of a hidden cycle of "mechanical lords"), while Trostani's Summoner is a "pay 1, get 4" discount package, where the package is an incremental serving of bodies from 1/1 to 4/4 (with a few abilities thrown in as a bonus), and the discount isn't that much of a discount since you still have to pay 7 mana. This said, she's one-girl-army who nicely refills the battlefield all by herself, enables populate, and calls for all sorts of blinking shenanigans. But at 7, you know, she's not really Elesh Norn. I suppose putting her at uncommon required a CMC balance, which however prevented a potentially great card to be made. As for the lovely Emmara, maybe there's a token-based Commander deck to be built around her. Not sure, though, as her tokens will still be vulnerable to a lot of stuff, and being a 5/7 vanilla for 7 doesn't really help her case.
It is a most elusive fish! (That went wherever I did go.) (What? I will always quote that one!). There's something inherently funny in fighting magical battles with armies of Fish. This particular one is also a Beast, evolves, has trample, a reasonable mana cost... Yeah, I'm just featuring it because it's a Fish. Fish, fish, fish, fishy oh!
The Simic surely love their squishy things. Lizards, Fish, Frogs... All so very blue-green, isn't it? This one is a bigger, more expensive Roaring Primadox. Or Stampeding Wildebeests/Stampeding Serow if you plan to bounce green stuff only. And those cost only 4 mana and came with trample too. But hey, it's a Frog! A big, big Frog in Momir colors (which is relevant for Commander) with a hint of Johnny flavor. We can't really be too picky here.
Again, a Giant with sizeable body who fights an opponent creature as an ETB effect would have been a great rare. As an uncommon, they gave him the randomness factor, which kinda ruin it. There are surely cases where you get to have a degree of control over the fight (easiest one: when the opponent has just one creature — provided it's not a 5/5 or better!). But for the cost of an Inferno Titan? Just no.
Over the course of the Return to Ravnica block, and especially in Return to Ravnica itself, we saw Goblins trying to do more than just their basic "attack go" routine. The Dragon's Maze one are a mixed bag at that. Pyrewild Shaman is essentially an instant pumper with buyback. For 5 mana at a time, which is kinda meh but still playable, I guess (the "buyback" effect is even delayable). Goblin Test Pilot is the typical red "look at me maybe killing myself" flavor card (its blue half only provides flying, which is also for-flavor-only because it's all but useless on a 0/2 pinger). On the other hand, Spike Jester is mightily playable as a 3/1 haste for 2. But yeah, we're back in the all-in, Goblin Guide/Goblin Bushwhacker, all too familiar territory of Goblins decks.
God, I love Gorgons. And we also get some gorgeous Volkan Baga art for this one (it's worth looking at a larger version only to realize she's marking her kills on the wall). Still, it doesn't interact at all with the other existing Gorgons, none of which has counters to remove. It's a pity, even if the ability, although a bit overcosted, is not actually that bad. Deathtouch on a 2/5 makes sense too (as opposed to deathtouch on creatures with bigger power, which always feels totally unnecessary), as she can safely block and kill anything up to power 4. Could have been worse, I guess, yet the most recent Gorgons seem to be more quirky and cute than actually deadly. I expected more from the lineage that gave us Visara, Damia and the Sisters of Stone Death!
Here we are, back to witness the Human meta-tribe getting bigger and bigger. This time, they are: 2 Advisors, 2 Clerics, 1 Druid, 1 Merfolk (what the hell, right?), 3 Rogues, 4 Soldiers, 1 Warrior, 2 Wizards (one of which is also an Insect, the only creature with 3 types in the whole block). I stopped caring keeping track of what this "tribe" gets long ago. It just gets anything and everything.
The level of consistency with the Hydra tribe is amazing: they all do basically the very same thing, but the designers are still finding ways to make new ones that feel different. Well, different enough to see the print at least. But I have to say, double strike on a customizable, ever-growing body is kind of exciting, and totally justifies the mythic rarity. It ranks high on the Hydra's food chain for sure.
Welcome to the weird, weird world of Insects. While Woodlot Crawler is more of a curiosity, as protection from green is still something you don't see too often (and forestwalk too! That's some professional green hate!), Skylasher's huge set of skills is certainly impressive. I'm not sure what role these sort-of bears should play, though. I mean, Skylasher can trump counter-magic and act as instant removal (plus board presence) against stuff like Snapcaster Mage, Vendilion Clique, or a transformed Delver of Secrets. But I don't see it take sideboard slots for that, if not maybe on an equipment deck where it can then hold blades? Of course, these opposing hate bugs are still more Constructed playable than Beetleform Mage, which is just something you'd play in Limited. But oddity for oddity, what about him being a Human Insect Wizard? That's just bizarre.
The Simic experiments in genetic engineering already created a Snake Elf (not to mention, all the other assorted monstrosities), so it's only fitting (?) for the current guild champion to be a Human Merfolk. Our boy Vorell here (yep, he's a guy; that's not a bra, it's breast armor) is also very interesting from a Johnny's perspective, since it's a more resilient, legendary version of Gilder Bairn — minus the ability to double planeswalker loyalty, which is something they don't want for us to do anymore. It's not the kind of thing you'll see in a lot of super-competitive decks (except for Commander, I guess, where he can easily lead sick builds), but it's undoubtedly powerful. I mean, just the list of stuff he comboes with would require a full article!
Minotaurs, a.k.a. Which New Ways To Abuse Didgeridoo We Got This Time? Two solid ways, apparently. Blaze Commando is frail for its cost, but the ability is sweet, if a bit hard to work into a deck that includes a midrange beater of this kind. But you can make it work. On the other hand, Boros Battleshaper, once you have it for 3 (and uncounterable at instant speed!) thanks to the abovementioned Australian instrument, is definitely a blast. Well, all things considered: It's a powerful beater that messes with the combat phase, entirely in your favor (when it's your phase, if you don't want to attack, you can just use the ability on an opponent creature — and if there aren't any, you WANT to attack!). Warfare versatility, your name is Minotaur.
Back in the old Ravnica block, Mutant was the poster tribe for the graft mechanics. Now that Simic got evolve, it's nice to see that there's a Mutant that plays well with its older brothers (even more than Cytoplast Root-Kin itself). The interaction between this one and anything with counters on it is actually worth some deckbuilding study, because a 3/2 for 3 that doesn't require further resource investment and just works to create stronger board positions seems safe enough to give it a try.
We're used to consider Ogre kind of a hopeless tribe, and then we get this guild champion to make us reevaluate the big dorks entirely Okay, maybe not entirely, but at least in his case. Ruric isn't something you immediately want to put into your deck, since there still are those damn Titans (and Consecrated Sphinx and Wurmcoil Engine) to compare him with. But he sure is scary, because he essentially stops every noncreature spell except the one that'll kill him, and even that one is causing 6 damage (so, at the very least, you did 6 damage for 6 mana, which is more than what you would do with any Fireball-like spell). And while he waits for his "final doom with a vengeance", he's a threat the opponent can't just ignore, as he swings for 6 while still blocking, thanks to vigilance (I don't know why he also has reach, but it's nice of him to block flyers too, I guess). As a top-of-the-curve in a creature-heavy deck (noncombo Birthing Pod included), our burly friend Ruric appears to be very playable indeed.
I like when Plant gets combined with the more unlikely of the other tribes. It's sort of a Swamp Thing concept, I guess: vegetation that reshapes itself as whatever else the occasion dictates. In Ravnica, that apparently means a vegetable Hound that somehow blocks flyers. It's delightfully outlandish. Too bad it's just a bad scavenge card. Plants are heavily associated with the Golgari guild, indeed (the life-death cycle and all), so the other one is a Skeleton that does an absolutely terrible attempt at dredge. Yeah, these plants are just something you'll easily forget. Like, after you finished reading this sentence.
We get only one Rogue of substance, but it's a nice design, a "card thief". Anything with flash and a ETB effect is always good in my book, although the mana cost here is a bit high, and you have to wait until the opponent actively draws something more than their regular card in the draw phase. So, it might not be the more playable Rogue ever, but the design is still good to me. (It's a bit baffling why he's so high-powered, though. As a 1/1 for 2, it would have been a much stronger card.)
Three new Shamans: one Goblin and two Elves. And that's it.
What a nice couple of Shapeshifters we have here! Ætherling is an improved version of the classic Morphling: bigger, non-boltable body; flickering over shroud, so it can escape sweepers as well; and unblockable over flying, which is pretty self-explanatory (one might argue that it makes it slightly weaker in defense, but oh well). Still, it's 6 mana now where the old one was 5 CMC. Just one mana might not seem too much given all those improvements, but the step between 5 and 6 is kinda heavy. Still, I like it. And I like even more Progenitor Mimic (which rhymes with Simic!), although it suffers from the same cost issue: you have to spend 6 full mana in order to get the ultimate clone, the clone that keeps cloning itself! The damn new legendary rule that will be enforced with M14 makes it suddenly a bit weaker, which is unfortunate, but other than that, it just makes me giddy to copy something and then have the opponent deals with it soon or be overwhelmed. It's the one case where you can afford to go unprotected, if that means presenting the opponent with a threat that's going to win the game if not stopped. Plus, you can always copy Sphinx of Jwar Isle!
Other than the Plant Skeleton, we get this kinda clunky midrange Skeleton that regenerates for (ugh!) 3, but punishes blocking. This might have it combo with... ah, forget it, it's just Clunky McClunkerson.
Among the 9 new Soldiers we got the 2 Minotaurs, plus 1 irrelevant Vedalken, 1 semi-irrelevant Viashino, and 1 truly irrelevant Zombie. Most of the others are irrelevant too (and Human, so twice as irrelevant), except for these two guild champions, which are both impressive. The Azorius one, Lavinia, is the "detain overlord", and under the right (and not so uncommon) circumstances, she can really get you close to a Time Walk. Plus, she's a 4/4 for 5 with a relevant protection. Playable is her middle name. Same goes for the Boros guy, Tajic, which similarly makes the best out of his guild's mechanic, turning itself into an impressive 7/7 indestructible for 4. And even when battalion isn't active, he does his job as an indestructive roadblock. Both need the right kind of deck — WU Control for Lavinia, some kind of Boros Deck Wins style of deck for Tajic — but both shine in them as the relative curve toppers, although none of them is entirely decisive: you don't need Lavinia to buy tempo in WU Control, as much as Tajic can be either unable to play the role of the main finisher (something like Thundermaw Hellkite seems more like it), or just a case of win-more.
Well, that's one underwhelming Sphinx, even considering the rarity. It's defensive, but its power is abysmal for a 5-mana flyer, and its ability just pays dividends if you're actually attacking with a plethora of tiny creatures, otherwise it will be almost irrelevant one way or another. Definitely not the most accomplished member of this glorious tribe.
Are there better ways to hinder all the opponent creatures? Hell yeah. Are this Spirit's body and lack of other abilities overcosted at 5 mana? Absolutely. So why am I featuring this? No answer.
A sacrifice outlet that activates for no cost is always a good thing. In this case, the effect is useful enough, although more situational than, say, with Viscera Seer or even something like Bloodthrone Vampire. The main problem with this Thrull is the high CMC, which makes it cumbersome if all you wanted is a way to trigger death effects. Still, it is a Thrull, and that makes it more interesting than it should be. Granted, if you put it in a deck together with all the other Thrulls, I don't know that it accomplishes much, since most of them already have ways to sacrifice themselves to generate effects. But still.
The second legendary Troll after Thrun, and the second high-profile Golgari Troll after Lotleth Troll. And Varolz lives up to both of them, not to mention actively interacts with their very abilities. Because what Varolz essentially does is scavenging everything, which means making the untouchable Thrun and the regenerating trampler Lotleth even bigger, while putting to some use what you discarded to the latter (unless it was something that was already meant to come back, like Squee or Haakon, but you'd still get the option there). On top of all that, he's fully capable of sending stuff to the graveyard by himself, which makes him a great sacrifice outlet as well, for a reasonsable CMC. All in all, he's a great card, bound to create crazy board statuses: you really want to try and combo him with something like Death's Shadow, especially if one of his mentioned brothers is involved. Yeah, that would be +13/+13 for 1 mana. Not bad, right?
Two Orzhov Vampires, one Dimir one. The latter is a complement to offensive mill strategies: the effect is strong, easily milling 10 cards per attack, but I'm not sure that the mill decks will be really interested in playing him, as they would rarely play Nemesis of Reason as well, which is similar. Tithe Drinker is nice enough for a common, combining lifelink with extort on a fast creature. It really pushes you to add white to any Vampire deck.
Of course, the definite argument in favor of an Orzhov Vampire deck is Blood Baron of Vizkopa, which is scary in his utter simplicity: he's "just" a midrange lifelinker (threfore something you can't just ignore, as it greatly unbalances the game at every swing) who's impervious to almost all the spot removals more commonly played. Seriously, after I faced him once in a Modern battlefield (and in Legacy it wouldn't be that different, let alone in Standard), and pathetically succumbed to his relentless attacks (he even mocks you by becoming insanely big right before killing you!), I tried to come up with a removal option that might deal with it. The best one seems to be Mizzium Mortars, which doesn't even make too much sense if you're only splashing red, preventing you to exploit the overload; if that's the case, you may well just go with Flame Slash, which is what I did, as appalling as it sounds. A green-based deck with several big guys capable to trade with him (and, possibly, Beast Within) remains the best insurance against the deadly Baron. That, and sweepers. This guy is single-handedly forcing changes to maindeck and sideboard compositions, because if you can't stop it, chances are he'll kill you.
The Dragon's Maze Warriors are: 1 Elf, 1 Giant, 1 Goblin, 1 Human, 1 Insect, 1 Skeleton, most of them pretty irrelevant, plus Ruric and Varolz. And the latter two are going to be remembered (and played) more as members of their other tribe, honestly. I guess Spike Jester might make sense in a fast red Warrior deck splashing black, though.
I'm playing Weird! How cool is to be able to say that? And with all the weird Weird love the new Ravnica bock has shown, we're now able to choose between 7 of them, which is more than twice the number we had going in. The last two members of the group are the slower ones, but arguably the most interesting. Fluxcharger uses the typical, and typically Izzet, interaction with instants and sorceries (we really need an official collective name for this: nonpermanent?) to swing for 5 flying damage, which isn't bad. When it does, it becomes very fragile, but when it doesn't, it's a solid blocker. Of course, the real star here is Melek, Izzet Paragon. First of all, because, hey, it's a legendary Weird! But its ability is neat, too: it's essentially a Future Sight (or, if you want, a Garruk's Horde) for instants and sorceries. And more, because it casts the spell from the library twice. Granted, we're back in 6-mana creature territory, which makes it hard to exploit competitively, but the effect is powerful enough in the right deck, and I can see it becoming a staple in Commander, where deck manipulation and card advantage are particularly crucial.
New Wizards on the block. If we take out our peculiar Human Insect, that gimmicky Goblin, one double-French-vanilla Vedalken (even if you can do worse than a flying hexproof creature for 4, admittedly), a very important Zombie, and the legendary Weird, we're left with this Deputy of Acquittals. Which is almost a functional reprint of Whitemane Lion, except you have the option to skip the bouncing, at the cost of two colored mana of different colors rather than just 1W. A honest trade, I guess, and it's still Pauper-legal, so it might see play there and within tribal decks that like bouncing shenanigans and can take advantage of tribes larger than Cat.
"Lord of Extortion" apart (which is first and foremost a Cleric, I'd say), the only other relevant Zombie is Blood Scrivener, which is being celebrated as "the new Dark Confidant". Of course, it's far from that, as it's a Dark Confidant that only works if your deck unloads your hand insanely quickly. Before that, it's just a 2/1 for 2 that does nothing. But if your deck is able to burn all the fuel very fast, then the Scrivener is really good at making you spit out more threats at twice the speed, with a negligible loss of life compared to "Bob". Are Zombie decks the right home for this kind of strategy? They might be.
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