Cheater Hater's picture
By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Jul 13 2021 12:08pm

This is going to be a difficult set for me to evaluate objectively. Not because of the power level (which is actually the step back that’s necessary minus a few outliers), but because both the flavor and mechanics are awful. No, I don’t play D&D and haven’t liked the idea of this set from the beginning (especially since it’s replacing the core set), but somehow it’s worse than I imagined, as it’s the closest thing to a black-border Un-set since Future Sight, and there are a ton of pointless words on the cards that do nothing for someone who’s trying to learn the set without that D&D reference. If this was the supplemental set for the year it could serve its purpose of attracting D&D players without degrading actual Magic for people who care. Instead, it’s a Standard set, and I’m seriously thinking about sitting out this cycle entirely. Still, I’ll have to care about these cards eventually, so I might as well look at the Limited format. Let’s start with the mechanics.




For a set clearly aimed at beginners, Dungeons are one of the most complex mechanics we’ve seen in a while. You have three dungeons to choose from, each with their niche. Lost Mine of Phandelver is the “default” dungeon with decent rewards while being relatively quick. Dungeon of the Mad Mage is an extremely long dungeon with big rewards at the end if you’re doing a lot of venturing. Tomb of Annihilation is the quickest dungeon to complete, but is very punishing (especially if you’re taking the quick path). White and blue have the most dungeon cards, but every color but red does a lot of venturing, so you’ll see it a lot.



And here we have the most-Un Magic has ever been. Even ignoring all the logistical concerns in paper and the problems with explicit luck-based mechanics in Magic (Modern Horizons 2 had a very minor coin-flipping subtheme and even that was pushing the boundaries), the execution seems off. Most of the cards at lower rarities have minor scaling effects like Spiked Pit Trap and Sylvan Shepherd, and they’re split into essentially a coin flip with divisions of 1-9 and 10-20, often with a third bigger effect on a 20. Thus it seems pointless with all of the problems with explicit randomness and none of the swingy benefits. However, you can mostly opt out of it, since the dice-rolling cards are heavily biased in red and blue, which is also where all the build-arounds are.



The mana artifacts are evergreen now, but as you might expect, the D&D set has a ton of it, as well as a subtheme caring about mana from treasure. Black and Red have a ton of treasure-makers, and green does naturally, though notably blue doesn’t have any (unlike in recent sets). This means colors that don’t normally ramp/fix have a ton of options.


Pack Tactics:

Exhibit A on why the flavor words are awful: hidden in a million one-of’s there’s an actual ability word (that might technically still be called a flavor word, because giving equivalent things multiple names is bad). Pack Tactics is a variant on Ferocious, caring about attacking with six power of creatures. It seems like it would be difficult to get (especially since the creature with Pack Tactics has to attack regardless), but the relatively minor triggers mean it’s probably obtainable in the red/green deck that’s built around it.



The one thing I actually like about this set (even though the flavor still makes no sense), Classes are essentially enchantments with Level Up. The uncommons classes are all fairly simple and most go with an archetype, and they seem playable as good mana sinks.



White/Blue: Dungeon Value


This deck has a ton of venture triggers to savor, and is almost certainly going to dive into Dungeon of the Mad Mage—doubling those later triggers with Hama Pashar, Ruin Seeker is the dream). The problem is that you have to work to get those triggers, as most of the low rarity cards like Veteran Dungeoneer and Bar the Gate are one-time triggers. The notable exceptions are the easy to block Shortcut Seeker, the clunky Secret Door, and the premium Planar Ally. It seems like there isn’t much of a way to go “over the top” in this format outside of the various dragons (and the uncommon ones are clunky), so this could be a good way to get value, but it could also be too slow.



Blue/Black: Saboteur Value

If you just look at the signpost Krydle of Baldur's Gate it’s not clear what Dimir’s theme is, but the set has more saboteur creatures (creatures with effects that trigger when they deal combat damage) than most, along with ways to make creatures unblockable. However, the problem with this strategy in general is that if you’re continually hitting your opponent with creatures you’re probably winning anyway. Yes, equipping Soulknife Spy with Thief's Tools is neat, but something you generally don’t build a deck around. The card quality is good, and the cards work together—You Come to a River is the obvious spell support where both sides work well, along with other cards like Scion Stygia and Baleful Beholder that let your creatures get through, so maybe it’s good enough to work.


Black/Red: Treasure Aggro

As typical as Rakdos Aggro is, Kalain, Reclusive Painter is a heavy incentive to make the “pay with treasure” theme work, especially when you have other benefits on otherwise fine cards like Jaded Sell-Sword and Hired Hexblade. You also have the easiest steal & sac archetype in a while, as Sepulcher Ghoul (note it’s the rare instant-speed pump/sac at common) and Deadly Dispute are common, while Price of Loyalty is a straight Act of Treason with upside. You also get good traditional pieces, with decent removal (Grim Bounty has built-in synergies while Farideh's Fireball gives reach)) and versatile pump like You See a Pair of Goblins. My only concern is that you won’t get enough Treasure (since most of the cards are high picks), but even without that it seems good.


Red/Green: Midrange Ramp

Pack Tactics is the star of this archetype, but you can satisfy that in two different ways. The way I think the deck wants you to do it is a more aggressive strategy, as Targ Nar, Demon-Fang Gnoll clearly points in that direction. If you’re going that direction, the large amount of haste in the set is the star, with Hulking Bugbear and Dire Wolf Prowler as the stars of the surprise triggers. However, the ramp tools in this set are also good with the multitude of Treasure along with traditional ramp cards like Neverwinter Dryad and Find the Path, with Owlbear serving as a good midrange ramp target. This feels like it could be good just based on raw stats, even if the synergies don’t wow me.


Green/White: Lifegain

Recent lifegain archetypes have been focused on gaining larger chunks of life, but as Trelasarra, Moon Dancer shows, we’re back to lots of smaller pieces of lifegain being good, most typified by Prosperous Innkeeper and Sylvan Shepherd. It’s not just repeatable sources though, as there are a ton of creatures that give you life incidentally like Priest of Ancient Lore and Dawnbringer Cleric. The one concern is that there aren’t that many payoffs. Celestial Unicorn is the only common and isn’t great, and while the signpost and Cleric Class are good, that’s essentially it. I’m repeating myself a lot, but if there isn’t a way to go over the top gaining lots of life is good.


White/Black: Turbo Dungeon

While the white/blue dungeon deck wants to savor the dungeons, Orzhov wants to complete one as fast as possible. Barrowin of Clan Undurr is the obvious star with a major effect, but even something as simple as Gloom Stalker or Dungeon Crawler works well. However, don’t go too fast, as while Tomb of Annihilation is technically the fastest way to complete a dungeon, at least in Limited the Oubliette room isn’t worth the massive sacrifice, and then you’d be fine just completing Lost Mine of Phandelver. Otherwise it isn’t much different than the other dungeon deck: repeatable sources of venturing are best.


Blue/Red: Dice Rolling

This deck works on two different axes. On one side, Pixie Guide and Barbarian Class want you to focus on getting the best results on your dice rolls, but that isn’t great since you’re going to get the 10-19 result more than half the time naturally anyway, the 20 is still unlikely, and outside of rare examples like Delina, Wild Mage the good results aren’t that much worse than the bad ones. On the other hand, Farideh, Devil's Chosen and Feywild Trickster want you to roll as much dice as possible. That seems like the better path, especially since you can get a bunch of dice rolls naturally from cards you want to play anyway like Farideh's Fireball and Djinni Windseer. You’ll still play the advantage cards in your deck (mostly since they’re fine on rate), but the ones that give you actual advantage are the reason to be in the archetype, and there’s definitely something there.


Black/Green: Death Matters

This is a strange archetype, as while the Morbid theme is obvious and there are some strong cards like Grim Wanderer and Purple Worm, there isn’t much tying the deck together. Most importantly, the signpost Shessra, Death's Whisper isn’t that great, mostly because of how bad a rate it is. As such, I’d stay away from building Golgari specifically and instead would just play the good cards that don’t require repeated triggers in other decks.


Red/White: Equipment Aggro

As much as RW Equipment has become the default archetype for Boros, the fundamental problem is that you can’t run that much equipment in a deck. The other problem is that the quality of the equipment varies wildly; for every Plate Armor, Goblin Morningstar, and Delver's Torch that most decks will want, you have cards like Boots of Speed, Dueling Rapier, and Leather Armor that aren’t worth a card unless you’re getting a lot of value from the synergy cards, which is difficult. Bruenor Battlehammer is good, but the two-drops Armory Veteran and Dwarfhold Champion are just fine, and not that much better in the Equipment deck than equivalents like Steadfast Paladin and Hobgoblin Champion (both of which also benefit from equipment). The Boros Aggro deck is fine, but don’t focus too much on the equipment side.


Green/Blue: Ramp

If I copied/pasted my Quandrix review here would people notice? I mean, even Gretchen Titchwillow is just a better version of Zimone from last time, since it doesn’t require getting to eight mana to be good. The one other surprise is that this is a bit more dungeon-focused, as this is the natural place for Find the Path and Wandering Troubadour, along with all the good blue venture cards. Otherwise your main ramp targets are Air-Cult Elemental, Hill Giant Herdgorger, and various dragons, and it’s fine, if unexciting.


Other Important Cards:

The first thing to remember is that despite all the talk from Wizards and extra mechanics and complexity, this is a core set at heart. As such, high-quality removal like Dragon's Fire and Grim Bounty, big evasive creatures that provide value like Planar Ally and Owlbear, and efficient curve-fillers like Underdark Basilisk and Priest of Ancient Lore are just as important, if not more so than the synergistic cards. Second, the classes are almost all extremely powerful. Wizard Class and Warlock Class are card draw spells that threaten to end games, and the other uncommons are bombs in their respective archetypes, and along with the multitude of enchantment-based removal in this set the enchantment removal cards should be a high priority. Finally, the non-rare colorless cards are pretty bad in this set for some reason. Dungeon Map is a GU Ramp card (as is Fifty Feet of Rope to a lesser extent, Greataxe and Spare Dagger are okay equipment, and the lands are as you’d expect, but everything else should essentially never be played.



Even with my biases, I managed to get something out of this set, and it’s worth at least a try. Then again, that might just be because we got even more disappointing news recently: Pioneer Masters has been shelved indefinitely. Even if you take all the concerns at face value (which you shouldn’t, since obviously Historic is going to do better than Pioneer in a year where paper play was impossible, and adding cards to Pioneer on Arena necessarily adds them to Historic), it’s clearly being shelved because the Remastered sets are doing well—and in completely unrelated news, I’ve started designing Shadows over Innistrad Remastered so I’ll be ready when it gets announced in the next six to nine months. The strangest part is the set hasn’t been canceled, and Wizards says it still has a plan for the set—remember, this set was supposed to launch back in 2020 and was initially only delayed so it could get a good Limited format, so presumably the cards have been coded in. The only question is what happens to the Masters set as more and more cards get reprinted. Heck, SOI Remastered already has a decent number of cards already reprinted (Jumpstart’s tribal themes took a bunch of cards from all rarities, and the Anthologies did a lot too). Obviously if that gets announced it’ll be next, but we’ll return to Innistrad one way or another.



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