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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Apr 21 2020 12:00pm
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I continue to be conflicted with Magic, as the plane of monsters continues the trend of awful design over the past year, though it’s more complexity than power creep with Ikoria. However, most of the problems won’t apply in digital, especially in Limited, and since that’s the focus of this article I won’t have as many complaints. Instead, we have an interesting wedge-adjacent set with constantly-changing creatures and a lot of consistency. Let’s start with the mechanics:

 

Mechanics:

Mutate:

While it seems like a more-complicated copy of Bestow at first glance, Mutate is actually one of the most interesting mechanics seen in Magic in a while, and it isn’t obvious how it plays at first glance. It certainly isn’t a guarantee that you’ll mutate if able, as having fewer creatures and getting two-for-one-ed isn’t a great deal in the abstract. Overall there are three reasons to mutate a creature. The obvious one is to get the mutate trigger (either on the creature itself or one of the build-arounds), as most of them give you your card back when they mutate. The second is because you want the stats/ability combination, most commonly giving your big creature evasion. The final reason is that some of the gold Mutate creatures have hybrid mana in their Mutate costs but not their mana costs, so the only way to cast them in your deck is by mutating them, which feels worth it (especially the mythics for obvious reasons). All the colors get a lot of mutate, though there’s more of a focus in Sultai and especially green/blue.

 

Mutate also means you have to look differently at other cards, as the abilities become just as important than the stats, if not more so. While I don’t think you should play creatures you normally wouldn’t play just because they’re a creature with an ability—Serrated Scorpion is the most obvious trap, and Almighty Brushwagg appears worse than an average Rootwalla—marginal cards like Maned Serval and Glimmerbell get better if you have random bigger creatures to mutate onto them. You also get more mileage out of +1/+1 counters, most notably shown by Adaptive Shimmerer. Playing against mutate, in general getting the two-for-one by killing the creature after it mutates will be better, though against a dedicated Mutate deck that’s chaining the triggers together it might be better to stop the triggers (if both creatures have a trigger it’s the equivalent of a three-for-one).

 

Companion:

Oh boy—this rabbit hole may only be at rare, but it’ll define the set (especially when at least half end up banned in multiple formats in six months, but I digress). In Limited it’s more interesting than in Constructed, where the Companions vary in ease of the build, from the trivial (Yorion, Sky Nomad, Lutri, the Spellchaser) to ones you actively have to build around (the even/odd and cheap/expensive ones). If you ignore Yorion (which would be one of the best cards in the set for Limited even ignoring Companion), they feel mostly balanced for Limited, though a free eighth card might be too much to overcome. One note is that if you have an expensive Companion that’s a reason to play more lands than normal (especially when you add in Cycling as well).

 

Keyword Counters:

Keyword counters don’t really feel like a mechanic, as there isn’t much of a fundamental difference between Fully Growth and something like Awaken the Bear in many cases. However, the real point is flexibility with your creatures, whether it’s explicitly on the Helica Glider cycle or getting random keywords from cards like Avian Oddity and Blood Curdle. The main thing is that you have to read all of your opponent’s cards, as they won’t be the same from game to game (with both keyword counters and Mutate). Hopefully this will be easier in digital than paper, but I have a feeling this is a real test of all three platforms (paper, MTGO, and Arena).

 

Cycling:

If you’re going to play giant things you need a smoothing mechanic, and the return of Cycling at possibly its most pushed yet fills that role here. While there aren’t any variants of Cycling this time (though if tutoring wasn’t so limited this would have been a great place for creaturecycling like Homing Sliver), there are 46 cards that cycle, and not only do most of them cycle for generic mana (only the Sanctuary Smasher cycle and a couple rares require colored mana), ten of them cycle for only a single mana (though strangely none in green). The quality of the base card continues to be be pushed as well, as while Wilt and Shredded Sails got all the headlines, the pair of Drannith Healer and especially Drannith Stinger got my attention more. Cycling is the main theme of red/white, though blue also got a decent amount of support. However, the floor of something that cycles for 1 is extremely high, so the Cycling deck will play all of them, and the cards are easily splashable.

 

Archetypes:

We’re back to a semi-gold world here with a wedge-adjacent set, which means that the focus is on the enemy color pairs get the most focus (and gold cards). However, each of the allied color pairs has a distinct theme as well (focused on a specific keyword), and there’s a lot of hybrid to help smooth over the gaps. I’ll cover the enemy color pairs first, then the allied pairs, and finally the wedges.

 

White/Black: Humans

Humans is a very strange theme in Ikoria, as while there are some tribal payoffs like Perimeter Captain and Dire Tactics, a lot of the set explicitly doesn’t work with humans (and General's Enforcer only buffs mythics in this set, though the rest of the package is obviously good enough). A pure humans deck can work focused on tokens, using cards like Bastion of Rememberance to grind lots of value. You can also play some non-humans in the deck, which lets you take advantage of cards like Duskfang Mentor. I’m not sure if a bunch of little things is where I’d start in this set specifically, but the core doesn’t seem awful out-of-context.

 

Blue/Red: Spells

Yes, even in a very creature-centric set the Izzet get stereotyped. However, the trio of Channeled Force, Lore Drakkis, and Sprite Dragon are a strong incentive to cast spells, and Cycling lets you play a lot of conditional high-impact spells like Shredded Sails and Startling Development. Counterspells also seem good here, and the pair of Essence Scatter and Neutralize are good (though Convolute seems weaker here than average, as I expect players will play more lands than average between Companion, Cycling, and the expensive cards). I’m worried you won’t get the depth of cards though, so while this feels like a good supporting pair for a Jeskai or Temur deck, I don’t think it’s great as a star.

 

Black/Green: Creature Self-Mill

Another stereotypical Golgari theme, but this one works a lot better. First of all the direct self-mill support is a lot better, with Corpse Churn, Excavation Mole, and Skull Prophet among others. Second, there is a lot of recursion, both to hand (Boneyard Lurker, Durable Coilbug, Survivors' Bond) and a surprising amount to play as well (Call of the Death-Dweller, Unbreakable Bond, Back for More). In particular, the Zombifys are better thanks to Cycling, especially Void Winnower, Titanoth Rex, and Greater Sandwurm. Overall this deck feels like one to beat at the start of the format, as its gameplan is relatively simple and benefits from a lot of synergy.

 

Red/White: Cycling

Cycling is in an interesting place in Ikoria, as while it’s pushed a ton in both the cards with Cycling and payoffs like Snare Tactician, Rooting Molach, and Savai Thundermane, there’s a fundamental limit in how much Cycling you can put in your deck since there aren’t any common Cycling lands (and in general it feels like you want more lands than normal in this set). This deck can probably afford relatively few lands with all the 1-cost cyclers, but can you fit in 18+ cyclers in a deck (with only a couple pay-offs and a removal spell or two without Cycling)? This is the aggro deck by default, and will likely put a check on all the monsters with a lot of Drannith Slinger triggers.

 

Green/Blue: Ramp/Mutate

Another recognizable archetype for the Simic, but this one ties directly into the set’s theme and its main mechanic (even if it feels like you never want to Mutate Parcelbeast). You get Fertilid (a surprisingly perfect reprint for a Mutate archetype), Humble Naturalist, and Migratory Greathorn for pure ramp at common, along with Farfinder to help fix. Meanwhile, uncommon gives you the Crystals and Migration Path (because Explosive Vegetation is the card that needed to be obsoleted directly), and Pollywog Symbiote helps as well. One key is that you have so many good ramp payoffs there’s no reason to pick ones that don’t have Mutate or Cycling—sorry Honey Mammoth and Wingfold Pteron. The core seems good enough here, and if the format is as slow as it looks this seems like it could work.

 

White/Blue: Flying

For a traditional archetype, it feels like something’s missing from UW Fliers here. Yes, Jubilant Skybounder is a fine build-around and Gust of Wind is a great payoff, but there are surprisingly few good fliers in the set. Vulpikeet and Dreamtail Heron are good cards, but they’re best at buffing non-fliers. Wingfold Pteron and Helica Glider are overcosted if you primarily want the flying, Glimmerbell is mostly here for synergy, and Stormwild Captor is fine but not the bomb you’d expect at uncommon. Sure, you’ll still play most of the fliers, but it isn’t worth building around.

 

Blue/Black: Flash

Next we have a surprise repeated archetype from Theros (even if it moved from UR to UB), and while it flopped there I think it’s even worse here. As much as I want to try building around Slitherwisp in Standard (because we need more reasons to play Omen of the Sea and Brazen Borrower), there’s nothing here you want to build around in Limited. Cunning Nightbonder is fine but clearly a Constructed build-around, and while there’s obviously upside by turning Mutual Destruction into a two-for-two, I’d rather just play Bone Splinters and sac a token in WB. There just aren’t enough flash cards to build around in Limited, and most of them you’d play anyway. Save it for Constructed.

 

Black/Red: Menace

Rakdos is in a strange place here, as you don’t really have build-arounds: Frillscale Mentor is fine, but you still won’t play Tentative Connection even at one mana in a set with almost no sac effects, and as flashy as Sonorous Howlbonder looks it’s mostly just a 2/2 Menace for 3 (which is fine, but not groundbreaking). There’s also even less menace than Fliers in UW (just one common each and Blood Curdle). To be honest, this is the theme I wish Wizards did more with as it’s unique, but I guess with too much Menace it’s just “creatures you control are unblockable,” which scared them off.

 

Red/Green: Trample

We’ve actually seen the trample archetype in Gruul before, but while it’s similar to Rakdos’ menace archetype the cards are a lot better just on rate. Excavation Mole, Pyroceretops, and Proud Wildbonder are very playable even without the synergies, and Fully Grown and Titanoth Rex are great ways to give trample efficiently. This is one of the allied-color pairs that seems worth running on its own.

 

Green/White: Vigilance

As much as I liked vigilance as a random thing to tack onto mutated creatures, building around it doesn’t seem like a good thing, especially when the payoffs are as underwhelming as Alert Heedbonder and Solid Footing. Don’t be afraid to play a random Mosscoat Goriak or Imposing Vantasaur, but there’s no reason to build around it.

 

Abzan (White/Black/Green): Swarm

Between the masses of Human tokens and the recursion in Golgari, you’ll never run out of creatures. The problem is that this feels like the middle of the road, and if the Mutate decks go over the top of you and the Cycling decks are faster than you (and you naturally stumble due to being three colors), I don’t know if this is the ideal way to go, especially since neither the white or green cards lend themselves to being splashed.

 

Jeskai (Blue/Red/White): Aggro Spells?

It seems like the two most aggressive strategies in Ikoria would go well together, but fundamentally a three-color aggro deck doesn’t work. Maybe this is the best place for the mass pump spells like Regal Leosaur and Coordinated Charge, but those would still work in a dedicated WB deck. I’d stay away unless you’re splashing a rare in Izzet or something.

 

Sultai (Black/Green/Blue): Slow Mutate

Finally, a wedge that works, as both want to mutate, both are grindy, and most notably black has a lot of cards Simic would want to splash. Not much changes other than “play the best cards in each color,” but good cards is a good start early in the format.

 

Mardu (Red/White/Black): Aggro/Sac

This aggro deck is more likely to work as both red and black add a lot to a base white deck. The only real problem I see is that black’s Cycling cards aren’t great (there aren’t many, and Suffocating Fumes is actively non-synergistic). Conversely, you can splash some red removal (and/or Tentative Connection) into an Orzhov deck and it should work fine, though again three-color aggro decks aren’t the best idea.

 

Temur (Green/Blue/Red): Big Ramp

While Simic’s ramp deck was focused more on Mutate, the Temur version just wants big creatures. It’s hurt since Izzet doesn’t work well with the ramp strategy, but Gruul definitely does. Of course, the Simic deck is the easiest to splash things in, so this is probably less of a wedge than one of the possible splashes of the Simic deck.

 

Colorless/Other:

While Ikoria isn’t really a gold set on the level of Khans of Tarkir or Ravnica, it does include a decent amount of fixing. First the gainlands are back, and they show up half the time in the basic land slot. Other commons include Evolving Wilds and Farfinder, and green gets multiple fixers. The star of the uncommons are the Crystals, and adding Cycling makes three-mana mana rocks a lot more playable. Cycling in general is basically the final kind of fixing, and I might be underestimating how easy it makes three-color decks. The rest of the colorless cards are unspectacular, though both Sleeper Dart and Springjaw Trap work well in Izzet.

 

As for the other colored cards, Swallow Whole seems very pushed for a common, especially with all the recursion. Conversely, Escape Protocol seems like the pieces aren’t there, as there aren’t many ETB effects to combo with it, and the interaction with Mutate (all the pieces return separately) seems hard to set up. Reconnaissance Mission seems powerful for an uncommon, but it doesn’t go in any of the blue decks except maybe UW Fliers, which is awkward. Blitz Leech is hard to rate; -2/-2 on a six-drop is fine, but I don’t know how to value the counter removal, or if a 5/2 is a good blocker. Lurking Deadeye might be the better card in that slot. Looking at red, there’s a lot of double strike (Spelleater Wolverine, Raking Claws, and Momentum Rumbler), and most of it can be given by surprise (even Momentum Rumbler can get Heightened Reflexes or Sanctuary Smasher), so be weary of dying out of nowhere. Finally, green has more card flow than normal, between lots of good cyclers, Adventurous Impulse, and Lead the Stampede, so that’s a good sign for a normally clunky color.

 

Conclusion:

I really hope I’m wrong about Ikoria—maybe it’ll always be branded as “the set that launched in quarantine” or “the Timmy set with Godzilla” rather than “the set that broke both the power creep and digital-focus’s camels’ backs” and I still haven’t played with it yet. Either way Limited looks interesting, and on digital it should all work. As for me, I’m still working on the Remastered sets articles, though the latest Arena article confirmed Amonkhet Remaster is next (which makes more sense now that we know Ikoria is so focused on Cycling, as does all the Cycling support in Historic Anthology 2). My design of that set is almost done, but I just need to write the article, so that should come relatively soon. Until next time.

 

Vincent

@VincentSIFTD on Twitter