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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
May 25 2017 12:00pm
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Welcome back to Flashback Favorites! It’s been a while since the last Flashback drafts (mostly since the Throwback Standard Gauntlets have started in earnest), and we have an interesting specimen this week: Triple Mirrodin. This puts me in a strange place, as while I did do an article for the set (and even did a couple videos), it was only my second ever Limited article (and first for a non-core set). While you can certainly see the foundation of my style, it was very rough. In addition, my view of the format has been calibrated a bit since that article sixteen months ago, so while the facts have changed, this should be more than a simple remaster. On to the Limited analysis!
Before Mirrodin was invaded by the Phyrexians, it was defined by one thing: Entwine Artifacts! Of the 110 commons in the set, 49 are Artifacts (the 50th colorless card is Cloudpost), meaning almost 45% of the commons can go in any deck (and at higher rarities artifacts have even greater proportions, taking up over 50% of the uncommons and rares). Wizards of the Coast did try to mitigate these effects by making five common cycles of artifacts that go through the colors, but it didn’t work that well (the Artifact Lands and Mana Myrs just produce mana of a given color, and the Spellbombs all cycle for generic mana). There are many counters though, as green has a “Protection from Artifacts” subtheme, both red and green have enough artifact destruction (and yes, Shatter is easily first pick-able in this format), and other cards interact with artifacts like Neurok Spy and Auriok Transfixer. Conversely, if you can avoid artifacts almost entirely, you can blank a large portion of opposing decks (though you’ll likely struggle for playables, especially since the average card quality is lower than modern sets). Now that we’ve covered the big picture, let’s get to the mechanics:
Affinity (for Artifacts):
This is the most important mechanic in the set, defining the format. If you have cards with Affinity, every artifact becomes like an extra land, in addition to its intended functionality. This is very powerful, especially when 40% of the common artifacts are 1 mana or less. Normally a mechanic like this would be about balancing the number of cards with Affinity you play with the number of artifacts you have. However, of the six Affinity cards at common, four are artifacts themselves, meaning that balance isn't there (and it can lead to a snowball effect, if you're casting multiple artifacts for free). In addition, there are three complete cycles of cards at common that allow you to cut back on the number of basic lands you play: the artifact lands (Ancient Den), the Spellbombs (Necrogen Spellbomb), and the mana Myrs (Copper Myr). This means that you can get to 40-50% of your deck being artifacts easily (even 60%+ in a great deck), especially in triple-Mirrodin draft where you have multiple packs of these cards.
This mechanic continues the flexibility started by the number of colorless artifacts, and allowed Wizards to fit more spell effects into fewer total color slots. However, since this mechanic appeared only on instants and sorceries, it doesn't tie into the artifact themes of the set. Instead, the cards have to stand on their own, and they generally do, especially Blinding Beam at common and Grab the Reins at uncommon.
Sure, this is an evergreen mechanic now, but Mirrodin was actually the debut for equipment. While nothing has really changed rules-wise with equipment, the one thing that has changed is their power level, as apparently WotC doesn’t know how to balance new artifact subtypes. Comparing cards like Bonesplitter and Viridian Longbow at common and Loxodon Warhammer at uncommon to what we get in current sets is night and day. In addition, since all the equipment cards are artifacts, they tie into the themes of the set (especially Affinity). However, you still need creatures to equip to; don't go overboard on equipment (especially the mediocre ones like Leonin Scimitar and Vorrac Battlehorns) unless you're going for maximum artifact synergies.
Other than appearing exclusively on artifacts, Imprint doesn't really have a place in the set, especially since it doesn't appear at common. In addition, they all work differently, imprinting a card from a different place and doing vastly different things, so it doesn't make sense to discuss them as a whole.
White's main theme in Mirrodin is interacting with equipment, primarily though the Leonin (Cat creatures). Simple cards like Skyhunter Cub and Leonin Den-Guard aren't awful vanilla cards but are far above the curve when equipped (not even considering the absurd equipment in this set). In addition, while Auriok Bladewarden doesn't mention equipment specifically, it is obviously insane with a Bonesplitter or Vulshok Battlegear (and Angelic Page is still a good baseline). On the anti-artifacts side, Auriok Transfixer not only does a good Goldmeadow Harrier impression but also taps down artifact lands.
In the generically good category, I mentioned Blinding Beam above, and it's important to note it isn't just Frost Breath, as the “doesn't untap” effect affects all your opponent's creatures, even if they are tapped after Blinding Beam is cast. There are also the standard efficient fliers, which also work well with the equipment sub-theme in white, though it is important to note Skyhunter Patrol, Leonin Skyhunter and Slith Ascendant are all double-white, which means they only fit into a dedicated white deck (and not a deck playing a bunch of random artifact lands and Myrs for Affinity purposes). Finally, Arrest is a higher pick than normal (which was already high), as there are a lot of creatures with activated abilities in this set and no cheap enchantment removal outside of Annul.
Blue is the one color that gets cards with Affinity, so it's clearly attached to the large numbers of artifacts plan. In addition to Somber Hoverguard and Thoughtcast, cards like Neurok Familiar also further that plan. Blue also has a lot of cards that are good against artifacts: while Inertia Bubble isn't the highest-quality removal, both Looming Hoverguard and Domineer feel very undercosted for the era, especially Looming Hoverguard—sure, Time Ebb-ing a Frogmite isn't great, but what about a Vault of Whispers? The one problem with blue is that if you aren't on the Affinity plan, there isn't much for you other than the power uncommons and a couple reasonably-priced evasion creatures like Neurok Spy.
Black is in a very strange place. Its main theme is to have lots of artifacts for cards like Nim Lasher and Irradiate, along with a minor focus on those artifacts dying with cards like Disciple of the Vault. However, the problem is that the cards just aren't worth the payoff unless you're truly all-in: Irradiate is overcosted slightly, and the Nim cards are an unholy trinity of being very overcosted at their base (Nim Shrieker is a 4 mana 0/1 flier!), inherently fragile (all of them are X/1's, even the rare), and aren't artifacts (meaning you can't just stack five of them in a deck and expect to get to the artifact density necessary to make them good).
Black's problems aren't just related to their lackluster ties to the artifact theme, but go even deeper: Fear is awful in this format (Dross Prowler feels like a vanilla 2/1) and Terror is worse when half the creatures are artifacts (though it’s still good removal). There also just isn't the depth you want from a color—everyone knows about Chimney Imp, but cards like Contaminated Bond and Relic Bane are also clogging slots. The big payoff for going black (other than splashable removal that can be stolen from you) is supposed to be Consume Spirit at common, but that wants you to be near-mono black, and that isn’t practical. Yes, an artifact set makes it easier, but everyone else wants all the good artifacts, and blue just does things better when things don’t go perfectly—compare Somber Hoverguard with the Nim creatures for example.
As would be expected, if blue is the best friend of artifacts, then blue's enemies should hate artifacts the most, right? While both red and green have many Shatter variants, red expresses its hatred in a weird way: a large artifact sacrifice subtheme. The theme isn’t great though, since you want artifacts on the battlefield for Affinity and thus won’t activate Krark-Clan Grunt that often (though the threat of activation makes it a decent card). Instead, the highlight is Spikeshot Goblin, the best common pinger since...Sparksmith in the previous block. Regardless of how common overpowered pingers are, Spikeshot Goblin is easily the best red common, and combined with all the Shatter variants (even Goblin Replica), Electrostatic Bolt (only three rare artifact creatures aren't killed by it, and it’s still a shock against non-artifacts)), and Grab the Reins (it's a Ray of Command, a Fling, and a 2-for-1 all on the same card), red has the best colored cards by far individually (though the synergy of the Affinity cards might be better).
While red may have had a complicated relationship with artifacts, green is firmly in the hate category. This takes two forms: the Tel-Jilad Elves (notably Tel-Jilad Archers: a Giant Spider which tacks on protection from artifacts for only a single mana) and multiple “free” Shatter effects (Deconstruct refunds its mana, while Viridian Shaman is attached to a meaningful creature). The problem with green is the depth—outside of the cards I've mentioned and a couple bomb rares (notably Glissa Sunseeker and Troll Ascetic, as well as a couple of build-arounds like Molder Slug) there isn't that much depth. This is mitigated with all the artifacts in the set, but then you have the problem where your green cards aren't interacting with your artifacts.
Artifact/Colorless Commons
I mentioned it above, but most of the power in the artifacts comes from the cycles of cards, and while I talked about how the mana Myrs, the artifact lands, and the Spellbombs were especially good in the Affinity deck, the Replica cycle is also reasonably powerful despite being overshadowed a bit. With the exception of Elf Replica, all the Replicas pair a reasonable body with a relevant activated ability (and even Elf Replica is the best Demystify in the format). Unfortunately the final artifact cycle of Golems doesn't live up to the other four cycles, as the creatures are overcosted for their bodies and the abilities don't add enough value to the equation (except possibly Hematite Golem, as the firebreathing ability is both reasonably costed and repeatable—because red needed even more playable cards). To round out the creatures, the Affinity creatures are obviously important (along with Steel Wall, an important cheap creature), but after that the quality drops off a lot. A lot of this is due to the drawbacks on artifact creatures—sure, the Clockwork creatures aren't awful, but Goblin War Wagon shows a colorless Hill Giant is too powerful at this point in Magic's history.
As for the non-creature artifacts, I've already talked how powerful the Spellbombs and artifact lands are, but it can't be overstated how playable cheap artifacts are. Even something as lackluster as Slagwurm Armor or Tanglebloom is playable if you have enough Myr Enforcers, Thoughtcasts, and/or Nim Devourers. Speaking of cheap artifacts, you can't overlook Scale of Chiss-Goria and Tooth of Chiss-Goria, which are free combat tricks which play into the Affinity deck's plan. Finally, there's one non-artifact that's important to discuss: Cloudpost. This is a powerful effect, but you'll only see around 2.4 Cloudposts per triple-Mirrodin draft. If you could get four or five Cloudposts in a mostly mono-colored deck they're certainly worth running, but they're not worth spending early picks on a hunch, and since they're worth a nickel you probably won't see them around the 10th-12th picks.
Artifact/Colorless Uncommons
Unlike the common creatures which were a big sea of mediocre cards past the top tier, the uncommon are generally either good or cheap. On one hand Cathodion is well above the curve now that its downside was removed alongside mana burn, and Mirror Golem either dominates combat (imprinting a creature, especially an artifact creature) or is immune to most removal (most of the Shatter effects are instants, especially the good ones). On the other, Ornithopter and Myr Mindservant are awful creatures, but they're certainly better than Tanglebloom, and thus are still fine in the Affinity deck. Even the downside creatures are better for the most part: Clockwork Vorrac never becomes useless, and even though Goblin Dirigible looks awful compared to the modern Gold-Forged Sentinel, a 4/4 flier is much bigger that most other creatures, and the untap cost isn’t too much of a downside in the late game.
The non-creature artifacts also include a lot of virtual Darksteel Relic analogs, but the upper tier is dominated by repeatable effects. Each color has a shard, and with the exception of Heartwood Shard, each of the effects is worth at least a decent percentage of a card. All of the Shards are worth running in their colors, and Skeleton Shard is worth it in any deck that isn't hyper-aggro and has a couple artifact creatures, especially if you have a couple of free black sources (like a Chromatic Sphere or Leaden Myr). In addition to the Shards, you have the classic Icy Manipulator, as well as the amazing Nuisance Engine—seriously, even if they're 0/1's they're artifact creatures! The Talismans are also good for the same reason as the mana Myrs, and they're harder to kill to boot.
Like most older sets, there isn’t a full set of color pair archetypes, and the multitude of artifacts makes “generic” decks play similarly (and I’ve already mentioned each color’s theme above). However, there is one remembered archetype: the Affinity deck. This deck goes all-in: Artifact Lands are first picks over almost anything, Affinity cards are minimum-cost in most cases, and every one mana artifact is playable. This does suffer a bit from the Spider Spawning problem (the deck is vastly overdrafted), but there is enough redundancy such that multiple people can get decent decks. Otherwise, a green and/or red anti-artifact deck exists, the typical UW Fliers works well enough, and red’s sacrifice theme isn’t that awful.
Triple Mirrodin is a nice format to bring back: Pros like the combo-centric nature of the format, lots of commons have value (particularly the Artifact Lands), and Chalice of the Void provides a lottery ticket for people to hope for. Next time you see me I hope to have my Iconic Masters done (before the Hour of Devastation Limited Review/Treasure Chest Update), but it’s been a difficult design to get through for many reasons—hopefully I can get more inspiration soon.  Maybe Announcement Day will have something for me to write about also?

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