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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Apr 25 2019 12:00pm
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War is finally here, as it’s time for the Bolas arc to conclude. We know about all the story points, but now it’s time to look at the Limited format. I’m actually on a bit of a time crunch here, as the first premier events are happening soon and War of the Spark is a massive paradigm shift from recent Limited sets, especially the previous two guild-focused sets. Between the Planeswalker theme, the massive increase of common power, and the large number of gold cards for a non-gold set, there is a lot to talk about, so let’s start with the mechanics.

Mechanics:

Amass:

Bola’s zombie army seems really bad at first glance, since it’s really easy to deal with a single token, The mechanic is at its best when each token gets value, which points towards not building around the mechanic but instead only playing the best cards—fewer Crush Dissents and Honor the God-Pharaohs and more Aven Eternals and Herald of the Dreadlords. The exception are the build-arounds like Eternal Skylord and Dreadhorde Twins which not only are more efficient but give your Army evasion, but we’ll get to that in the archetype section.

 

Proliferate:

Is there such a thing as too much synergy? Proliferate touches every single portion of the set: the planeswalkers, Amass, and the +1/+1 counters in all five colors. It’s a great fantasy, but I don’t know if it’s a good Standard-set Limited environment, as limitless growth seems bad. As for the cards themselves, they seem very aggressively costed, as cards like Bloom Hulk, Martyr for the Cause, and Wanderer's Strike get it for basically free, though maybe that’s conflated with the stronger commons overall. Maybe I’m underestimating how likely it is you’ll get a benefit from the effect, but it feels easy, especially in the Bant colors.

 

Planeswalkers:

I feel similarly about the Planeswalker theme as I did with double-faced cards: I’m not sure the bridge should have been crossed, but WotC did about as well as it could have given the constraints. In particular, replacing all the enchantments with uncommon planeswalkers works (seriously, there are only six enchantments in the set and the only one that isn’t an aura and/or removal spell is Dreadhorde Invasion), but “enchantment that can be attacked” isn’t how I want to see planeswalkers. As for Limited, each color has access to six uncommon Planeswalkers, most of which are very conditional. There also isn’t much benefit to having Planeswalkers, only minor things like Interplanar Beacon and Aid the Fallen, a cycle of Triumphs that rely on rares and mythics, and lots of riders that make them similar to creatures and/or players. As such, they are basically enchantments and should be treated as such. Of course, most of the rare and mythic Planeswalkers have plus abilities and are much bigger threats, so those are much closer to traditional Planeswalkers.

 

Strong Commons:

This isn’t really a mechanic, but cards like Trusted Pegasus, Thunder Drake, Ob Nixilis's Cruelty, Jaya's Greeting, and Vivien's Grizzly are a level above what we’ve seen since New World Order and the weakening of common removal. When I first saw this I assumed it was part of a planeswalker set deemphasizing creatures (back when I thought the planeswalkers were a bigger deal than they were), but this is apparently the new normal. Stronger removal isn’t necessarily the biggest game-changer, but most of it being instant-speed is. Granted, there aren’t any Auras that will punish you (though Courage in Crisis is basically an Aura) and the Planeswalkers mean a lot of the set operates at sorcery-speed anyway, but good instant-speed removal and instant-speed tricks mean there’s a lot less you can assume on your turn. Overall stronger commons mean a higher bar for playables and that strong build-around themes need to be compared to the “good cards” strategy. Now let’s get to the archetypes!

 

Archetypes:

Just a note: I’m copying these archetype names directly from the Set Design article, which is nice and lets me see how well WotC has accomplished its goals.

 

White/Blue: Stall and Evasion

The Azorius have a slow fliers deck rather than a fast fliers deck, and Elite Guardmage is a great example for the archetype, even if Dovin's Veto isn’t really a limited card (though the number of Planeswalkers and good removal spells makes it better than average). Dovin, Hand of Control himself also fits perfectly into the theme, though most decks will want him as a good removal spell. The fliers are also good, with a pair of Wind Drakes with upside (Trusted Pegasus and Aven Eternal), the growing Sky Theater Strix and Thunder Drake, and Rescuer Sphinx and Sunblade Angel on the top end. The stall end doesn’t seem quite as good though, as while Law-Rune Enforcer is the best tapper we’ve seen in a while (with a clever restriction to reduce misclicks, though note it also misses tokens like the Zombie Army), cards like Bulwark Giant, Teyo, the Shieldmage and Wall of Runes seem bad in a powered-up world. White does get a lot of good removal at least, so the flier end should be enough to carry it.

 

Blue/Black: Building Up Amass

If Amass is going to have any hope, it needs support on the level of Gleaming Overseer, but building a single Amass creature doesn’t seem like a good strategy. Other than that, you’re left with removal spells and mediocre Amass cards. If Amass is better than I’m thinking this could be okay, but even so building up a big Amass creature doesn’t seem like the best strategy unless you have lots of the lords.

 

Black/Red: Sacrifice Amass

The Rakdos sacrifice deck feels like it has so many good pieces, both on the fodder side (Grim Initiate, Lazotep Reaver, Tibalt, Rakish Instigator) and the sacrifice side (Spark Reaper, Ahn-Crop Invader, Heartfire). I am wondering how far you can go, as Dreadmalkin and Devouring Hellion seem good with one sacrifice and better with multiple, but the nature of Amass means they won’t fully go off as much, especially the Hellion. The gold cards are also great, as Mayhem Devil is very efficient (and note it triggers off your opponent sacrificing things too), Angrath's Rampage is a versatile removal spell, and Angrath, Captain of Chaos works well as both a Goblin War Drums and a fodder generator. When you combine that with the great removal spells this feels like one of the decks to beat to start with.

 

Red/Green: Power Brutes

It appears the “power 4 or greater” cards from Ravnica Allegiance got lost on their way here, as they make much more sense in a format with Turret Ogre (which has Reach for some reason) and Kronch Wrangler. There are also lots of efficient midrange creatures, including Bloom Hulk, Chainwhip Cyclops, and Raging Kronch. I am worried that the Gruul gold cards don’t seem great, as while Domri's Ambush is a decent upgrade on Rabid Bite, Samut, Tyrant Smasher doesn’t seem good and I’m worried about the setup cost of Rubblebelt Rioters, though maybe a 2/4 for 3 with upside is good enough. Just “good creatures” doesn’t seem like it’ll be good enough in this high-powered format.

 

Green/White: Go Wide Proliferate

Normally a +1/+1 counter strategy isn’t great, but it feels like there’s way too much density for this not to flop. The gold cards are also great, as both Huatli's Raptor and Pledge of Unity are very efficient. The +1/+1 counter generators are also focused in green, as Pollenbright Druid and Jiang Yanggu, Wildcrafter are much better than Makeshift Battalion and Teyo’s Lightshield. It feels like the counter generators are much more important than the Proliferators, as good Proliferators are easy to get and counter generators do more by themselves. In particular, don’t forget about colorless as Iron Bully and Ugin's Conjurant are great role-players here. This seems like a better version of RG, as these are good creatures with good payoffs.

 

White/Black: Small Utility Creatures

What is WotC talking about here? Cruel Celebrant combined with other death triggers like Rising Populace, Herald of the Dreadhorde, and black’s sacrifice-focused cards clearly points to an Aristocrats-style strategy that focuses on your creatures dying. I feel like there’s enough fodder for this strategy to work, and maybe the “utility creatures” part of the archetype comes from just playing a lot of creatures like Vraska's Finisher and Loxodon Servant that function more like spells with bodies. The overall archetype seems okay, though a little reliant on higher-rarity cards for my liking. You do get the benefit of good removal at least, as Despark is very efficient and Kaya, Bane of the Dead is the closest of the hybrid Planeswalkers to a true gold card with triple-Orzhov in the cost, along with all the other white and black removal.

 

Blue/Red: Spells-Matter Amass

These two concepts may not seem like they go well together, but Amass means you can get creatures from non-creature spells, and while Relentless Advance may be a little on-the-nose (and inefficient), Callous Dismissal, Lazotep Plating, and Honor the God-Pharaoh are better choices, while Invade the City is a good payoff if you can get enough instants and sorceries. That may be harder than it looks though, as Planeswalkers may be a significant portion of your non-creature spells, especially since Narset, Parter of Veils and Saheeli, Sublime Artificer are tailor-made for the archetype and will trigger your Spellgorger Weird and Sky Theater Strix just fine. Of course, there are more traditional payoffs like Cyclops Electromancer and Spellkeeper Weird, and Ral's Outburst is a very strong gold card. Again, this feels like it relies on higher-rarity cards, especially as the premium common instants and sorceries like Jaya's Greeting and Tamiyo's Epiphany will be taken by every deck in those colors.

 

Black/Green: Multicolor

While a Golgari-focused five-color deck is something we haven’t seen yet, there’s a reason. Yes, Deathsprout and Leyline Prowler are great enablers and there are a ton of fixers like Paradise Druid, New Horizons, Mana Geode, and Prismite, just to name a few, but black contributes almost nothing to the archetype other than the gold cards, and going five-color green means you miss out on Deathsprout thanks to its double-black. In addition, most of what you splash for is removal, and black already has a lot of great removal. As such, there are two directions you can take this. One route is a ramp deck, trying to quickly cast cards like Tithebearer Giant, Arlinn, Voice of the Pack, and various rares. The second is a Planeswalker-focused five-color deck, where you leverage Interplanar Beacon to cast a bunch of rare Planeswalkers. I don’t know if either is good enough here, and both require a lot of high-rarity support, so I’d stay away at first.

 

Red/White: Aggro Tricks

As much as I like Tenth District Guardian and the related combat trick Standard archetype for standard, the Boros deck looks like garbage here. Normally I’d like the low-to-the-ground aggro deck in a format full of expensive Planeswalkers and value, but it seems awfully positioned here for multiple reasons. First, while the tricks like Battlefield Promotion, Nahiri's Stoneblades, and Samut's Sprint are nice, they lose a lot of their value when you get two-for-one’d by all the instant-speed removal in this format. Second, the creatures aren’t that efficient, as cards like Makeshift Battalion, Pouncing Lynx, and Raging Konch will get outclassed quickly in this high-powered format. Third, there are going to be a lot of random chump blockers lying about (Pollenbright Druids, Martyr fo the Causes, and a ton of 1/1 Armies), and most of the color pair is focused on first strike, not evasion. Finally, if at least some of the Planeswalkers are must-kills (which admittedly most of the uncommon ones aren’t), that’s a lot of extra life to work through for a pure aggro deck. When combined with things like Heartwarming Redemption being close to a blank, this easily feels like the worst archetype of the ten.

 

Green/Blue: Go Tall +1/+1 Counters

Neoform may not be a Limited card (unless you open a God or another bomb creature), but Merfolk Skydiver is one of the best uncommon gold creatures in the set based on raw power. The one problem is that blue doesn’t have that many +1/+1 counter synergies, but Thunder Drake, Rescuer Sphinx, and the good Amass cards are more than enough to pay off all the Proliferate cards. This might be better than GW, if only because blue’s fliers are better than white’s. The main downside is that there isn’t much removal, but Band Together is nice, even if Kasmina's Transmutation seems a lot worse than the average Pacifism/Capture Sphere (which makes sense in a format with Amass). The green fixing might be better here to splash some of the red or black removal spells.

 

Other Important Cards:

Most of the uncommon Planeswalkers fit well in their niches, and can even spawn their own archetypes. The most obvious choice is Huatli, the Sun's Heart, but that doesn’t seem as good here as RNA since there aren’t as many good unbalanced high-toughness creatures here. Ashiok, Dream Render is a much better choice as it hits half an opponent’s library if untouched, and a couple Proliferates and removal to protect them make it an easy win. Vraska, Swarm's Eminence also masquerades as an archetype, but Kraul Stinger is the only common with Deathtouch, so not really. Overall there are a lot of great cards in the set, and I wouldn’t be surprised if new archetypes emerge late into the format.

 

Treasure Chest Update:

Magic Online may be waning some, but Treasure Chests are rolling along like normal. Or at least that’s what WotC says—while putting each list in a scrollable list is very nice, as of this writing the lists need a ton of editing. In particular, while it reveals that each of the WAR Planeswalkers is getting a previously unrevealed promo (presumably the Japanese alternate art promos) at a rate of six each, the additions show up in both the changes and additions. In addition, other promos like Ancient Stirrings and Ash Barrens are removed in the changes list and added in the additions list, so I have no clue if they’re in the list or not and probably won’t until either these lists are fixed or the master list is updated. A cursory glance does show the typical changes, like the Mythic Edition Planeswalkers and recent promos being swapped out, RNA Standard staples being added, various editions of cards like Force of Will being tweaked, and Arclight Phoenix getting a bump by 20 slots. I wish I could say more, but the lists are a mess—hopefully someone (maybe me) does a follow-up once we get a definitive list.

 

Conclusion:

War of the Spark is definitely shaping up to be one of the most interesting Limited formats in a while, as even if the Planeswalkers are basically enchantments, we haven’t seen an enchantment set in a while either. As for me, despite reprint sets going away I’m going to expand my brand by taking on Modern Horizons. Obviously that will be a unique design, but it’s pretty much done at this point and I hope to get the article done soon. Otherwise I’ll be back for Limited Reviews of Modern Horizons and Core Set 2020.