From a Mind of Eternal Chaos

A place where I post whatever happens to strike my fancy

Magic: The Gathering discussion #2: Kaladesh and Aether Revolt — The inventors are revolting (and the engineers look a bit rank, too) — April 30, 2017

Magic: The Gathering discussion #2: Kaladesh and Aether Revolt — The inventors are revolting (and the engineers look a bit rank, too)

Yes, it’s time for another post about the latest MTG block. This time, we’ll be discussing Conspiracy 2, Kaladesh and Aether Revolt, Commander 2016, and Modern Masters 2017. I really should have posted this earlier, considering it’s been a good 3 months since the last main set and the next one has now been released, but I wanted to wait until the Modern Masters set was out, and after that, I guess I kind of let time slip away from me, plus there was Easter week to create busyness. Yes, I at least should have gotten it done before the next set was out, but…you know me.

Since we don’t need much of an introduction this time, I’ll start right off discussing the sets. Let’s actually do the supplementary products first, though, since we actually have such a thing to discuss. First up is Conspiracy: Take the Crown, and I really don’t have much to discuss about this one, since I’ve never played Conspiracy as a format nor do I know how you’re supposed to do so. It has some decent new cards, though (for casual play, anyway); Selvala’s new card seems good, there are at least a few decent reprints (Followed Footsteps, Forgotten Ancient, Serum Visions, Wild Pair…), and I guess the new mechanics aren’t bad, if not as relevant outside of a multiplayer game (in fact, goad does significantly less against only one person). I suppose I have more to say about the story this time around, and I’m kind of conflicted on the new characters. Leovold and Adriana didn’t really get enough story time to reveal much, and while Kaya is certainly interesting, she falls into that category of “clearly not a bad guy, but I’m not sure I quite agree with this person’s moral compass anyway…”. That seems to be a common theme with non-villainous black-aligned characters (with one notable exception, which we’ll actually discuss later on); I don’t like Sorin much either, though I do think Kaya’s at least better than him. Of course, since she’s only in a supplementary set anyway (so far), it’s kind of hard to fit her into the major story arc anyway. I wouldn’t mind seeing her show up again in a main set, though, as long as she’s still a reasonable person and doesn’t turn into a sociopath or something. Though my biggest complaint with the story is that it seemed like it ended way too abruptly, like the writers were rushed and just had to cut an installment or two from the end. As I said, though, it’s a supplementary set, and one for a format that I’ve never ever played, so…it’s okay, I guess?

Next, let us talk about Commander 2016. I at least know how to play Commander: 100-card deck where every card except basic lands must be unique, and you have a legendary creature (or one of 5 planeswalkers) who is your “commander” and exists separate from the deck. This Commander set brought us 4-color commanders for the first time (there are only 5 other 4-colored cards in the entire game), which I suppose was an interesting idea. Of course, 4-colored decks don’t tend to be very practical a lot of the time because having so many colors can easily put you in a position where you don’t have enough or any of the right colors to cast what you have in your hand, and I imagine it would be even worse in Commander because you can’t double up on multicolored lands and things. (Trust me, I know from experience. I have a couple 4-colored decks, and I’ve had one heck of a time trying to get them to be reasonably consistent.) It also means the colors don’t always seem to fit what the card does, though it does make more sense if you think of them as representing everything that the single missing color is not, such as altruism for the “everything but black” commander or artifacts for the “everything but green” one. (Incidentally, the decks themselves are built around the same concept.) And Atraxa is just disappointing. As much as I would have loved to have a card around that proliferates for free every turn (not to mention the swath of keyword abilities she has), she is both Phyrexian and prohibitively color-restricted, so I don’t see myself using her in a deck any time soon. Overall, the 4-color commanders are interesting, but I haven’t gotten much out of them, if I may be quite frank. (In fact, the one that’s in the color combination I usually use in my 4-color decks is actually harmful to its user if not built around.)

That said, though, that doesn’t mean that the set is a miss either. For one thing, it introduced the partner mechanic, where you can have two commanders if they can be partnered up. That seems like it could easily be brought back for just about any future set, which would also increase the number of available partnering options. For that matter, a 2-colored legendary creature is much easier to fit into a deck than a 4-colored one. Commander 2016 also has some pretty decent reprints; highlights include Kalonian Hydra, Master Biomancer, and Progenitor Mimic. So overall, I’d say it seems to be a pretty decent Commander set, even if I haven’t gotten a chance to try out the decks to see how the 4-colored, “everything antithetical to the missing color” setup plays.

More recently, Modern Masters 2017 came out. This was actually after both Kaladesh sets, but I’m saving those for last. The Masters sets are pretty much just for reprinting highly requested and used cards, so there’s nothing new to see here. The reprint selection is decent enough, though. I don’t think the set is as good as some people have said, and it’s certainly not worth $10 per booster pack (booster packs are dumb and overpriced anyway, but the ones for regular sets are usually only $4), but I at least could get some use out of it. The cards seem to fall into four main categories: prohibitively expensive before the reprint and still prohibitively expensive afterward (Cavern of Souls, all of the fetchlands, Liliana of the Veil, Snapcaster Mage, Tarmogoyf), cheap before the reprint and either the same or slightly cheaper afterward (all of the populate cards, Coiling Oracle, Cackling Counterpart), annoyingly expensive beforehand but a bit more manageable afterward (Pyromancer Ascension, Voice of Resurgence, Craterhoof Behemoth), or mid-range-priced beforehand but fairly cheap afterward (Soul Warden, Wall of Denial, Niv-Mizzet, Lone Missionary). The last two categories are the most important ones. Some of the best reprints I thought came out of the set are Thragtusk, Entreat the Angels, Pyromancer Ascension (which deserves special mention because before the reprint, it was about 7 times the price it is now), Voice of Resurgence, and Boros Reckoner. And I guess the fact that it’s the first Masters set to cover the Return to Ravnica block (well, I guess Eternal Masters technically did) probably means something as well; even if most of what I could identify from it consisted of the Selesnya populate cards, those have a bit of nostalgia value for me because the first deck I ever really used was a populate-based one. Though I will admit that the set also has plenty of cards that didn’t really need reprinting (however useful a 10-cent card may be, I just can’t get excited if it gets reprinted), and there are a number of cards that I really wish had gotten reprinted that didn’t. Where’s my (additional) Doubling Season reprint, Wizards? (You might remember my last MTG-related post complaining about that card being around $37. Well, now it’s up to about $60.) Or Rings of Brighthearth, or pretty much any more of the dual lands or the Mirrodin sword cycle…or Genesis Wave, Khalni Hydra, Reflecting Pool, Archangel of Thune, Darksteel Plate, Kor Spiritdancer, Privileged Position…and I’d definitely add Parallel Lives to that list as well if it hadn’t gotten practically a functional reprint in the next set that’s currently quite reasonably priced (spoilers!). I’m also kind of surprised that Time Stretch and Slippery Bogle haven’t gotten any reprints yet, and Time Warp hasn’t shown up since the 2010 core set. Also, did Niv-Mizzet really need a reprint? I like his card, but it was only about a dollar or two even before MM3; if they were going to include more legendary creatures, why not, say, Mikaeus (the Lunarch), Thrun, Sigarda, or Rhys the Redeemed? And that’s still less odd than their choice of planeswalkers; Liliana makes sense, as an absurdly overpriced card from one of the two blocks new to MM3, but…why Domri? He wasn’t that expensive, and I haven’t heard much about him being played that frequently. Wouldn’t one of Elspeth’s cards have been a better choice, or one of Garruk’s perhaps? Or Tamiyo’s first card? In any case, I guess Modern Masters 2017 is pretty okay, provided you buy the singles and not the booster packs.

That leaves us with our main feature of this discussion: the Kaladesh block, which consists of Kaladesh and Aether Revolt. And unlike the previous block, this one I actually really liked. It was nice to have a more locally-focused threat to deal with (at least, until Tezzeret showed up) rather than some interplanar horror; the new characters were interesting, and the interaction between everyone was pretty good; the setting was cool, and it made for some good artwork to boot (seriously, I love the artwork on Kaladesh cards); and the selection of cards wasn’t bad at all.

First of all, there was the story, which I think they’ve been improving on lately. I’ll admit I wasn’t a huge fan of the Gatewatch at first, not because I disliked the concept of such a group in general but because I thought they picked some of the flattest and least interesting planeswalkers as representatives (this is what happens when your main characters are monocolored…), but it seems like they are fleshing them out a bit more. Jace is still kind of an enigma, but Gideon gets some heartfelt moments, Nissa opens up a bit, Liliana is…at least not acting like a horrible person, and Chandra is strangely cute and lovable for being so prone to social faux pas and setting things on fire (often one and the same). Honestly, I think Chandra is my favorite character out of the original five Gatewatch members, which I suppose is rather odd given that she’s mono-red and my own color alignment seems to lean toward white and blue. I’d like to think I’m “the actually fun white/blue mage”, though. (Though my third color is a lot harder to figure out and might well be red, and color alignments for real people are hard to pin down anyway…does anyone have an actually reliable test for that? My results seem to vacillate a lot, and when taking the Ravnica one, I actually managed to get 9 of the 10 guilds at least once [the only one I never hit was Rakdos].) I feel like she has the most personality of any of them, though I guess to balance things out, she has the least variety in magical powers. (Her method of doing anything usually comes down to “set it on fire, and if that doesn’t work, use more fire”.) And now that I think about it, she reminds me of my sister a bit, though Chandra probably has a more stable emotional state.

Now…I said “original five” Gatewatch members because Aether Revolt actually added a sixth: Ajani Goldmane, who has shown up in previous sets. He’s basically a huge humanoid albino lion who heals and protects people, and if one particular story is to be believed, he is pretty well loved by children too, so…he’d definitely be friend material. Big cuddly kitties who can still dish out a good butt-whooping if needed are good, right? Incidentally, that story was probably my favorite of the entire Kaladesh arc, despite mostly not even being set on Kaladesh (I think my second favorite one would be the last story in the arc, while my third favorite would be the first one.) I can take or leave the action scenes and dramatic confrontations, but I really do enjoy the ones that just focus on worldbuilding and character interaction. Honestly, they could write an entire book about the Gatewatch and other planeswalkers and such people they know just doing nothing but casual activities like going out for pizza, taking a walk in a park, going shopping for clothes, housecleaning, etc., and I’d read the heck out of that. It didn’t hurt that we got to see Tamiyo again in that one story, and she is one of my favorite planeswalkers. I think Narset still tops her (and she was actually mentioned in that story as well, though she didn’t appear in person), but still. Interestingly, my third favorite planeswalker is most likely a character who was introduced in this block: Saheeli Rai. I’ll admit she didn’t get nearly as much screen time or fleshing out as I would have liked, but she still seems like an interesting person, her personality is nice, her powers (metalworking and creating, essentially, robot replicas of creatures) are neat, and she’s probably the closest thing we have to an artist planeswalker. I hope we see her again, maybe even as a permanent Gatewatch member. I’d like to see Rashmi show up again as well, though it would be harder for her since she’s not a planeswalker. Some people do not like elves, but most elves aren’t brilliant but friendly inventors.

The rest of the supporting cast wasn’t half bad either. Oviya Pashiri was cool, Shadowblayde (yes, with a Y) at least provided some comic relief…and then there is Yahenni. Oh boy, Yahenni. Honestly, I actually quite liked Yahenni as a character, which is saying something considering they’re black and, as I mentioned above, I have a marked tendency to dislike black characters. (That’s black-aligned, not dark-skinned. And yes, it is way too easy to make jokes about that.) I’d even say that Yahenni is my favorite black-aligned character, especially for the monocolored ones. Why couldn’t we have gotten someone like them in the Gatewatch instead of Liliana, Stereotypical Vain Sorceress? Dovin Baan was all right too, I guess. He got more time in the story than Saheeli, which is a bit annoying (I guess I just found the artistic metalworker who makes pretty yet practical robots a more compelling character than the anal-retentive blue Vulcan), but I wouldn’t object to seeing him again either, especially since the Consulate is actually doing its job properly now that Tezzeret and Baral are out of the picture. Baral, incidentally, was honestly a pretty decent villain. I’m not saying I liked him…”love to hate” really does not exist for me; generally, either I feel sorry for an antagonistic character or at least ambivalent about them, or I just plain hate them. No, Baral was a corrupt, conniving, murderous, sadistic scumbag (and mono-blue to boot, which is never a good sign for someone who likes to power-trip…guy throws out countermagic like it’s going out of style), but he was at least a reasonable scumbag, and probably more complex in his motives than the game’s three major groups of bad guys to boot, which can be summed up as “planes are delicious”, “I deserve to be the merciless ruler of the universe”, and “brainwash everyone and everything”. I wish we’d get more characters like him, really, because I’d rather see more smaller-scale villains than more of the game’s huge interplanar threats. My biggest problem with the antagonistic forces in MTG lore is that they’re just too overpowered. I mean, when you have foes that are ostensibly more powerful than anyone else in the multiverse, or that cannot be entirely eradicated, how are you supposed to pit the protagonists against them without either a grim ending or a deus ex machina? That’s also one reason I haven’t been reading the stories for the next set.

On a side note, one funny coincidence I noticed about the way the story and release dates were set up is that Aether Revolt, a set that’s all about taking power back from a corrupt government that is too oppressive and uncaring of its people, happened to release on the date of the 2017 presidential inauguration. At least, I assume it was a coincidence and not intentional, but either way, it’s still kind of an amusing parallel. I suppose if you stretch it a bit, having Eldritch Moon release on that date also could have worked, when you think about it. I suppose it’s not fair for me to compare Republican politicians to the Eldrazi, though: one of them consists of a group of terrifying, hideous abominations that destroy, consume, or corrupt everything they touch with no higher cognitive ability spared for the countless people and parts of the environment ravaged in their path, while the other is just a bunch of monsters from a card game.

I suppose we’ve about covered the story, so how about the mechanics? There actually aren’t that many of them this time around, just three new ones in Kaladesh and an additional two in Aether Revolt, but of those five, two are a pretty big theme and archetype throughout, those being energy counters and vehicles. The former had apparently been in the works since the original Mirrodin block (which came out in late 2003, if you care to know), while the latter honestly seems like an obvious thing to have that would have shown up eventually. Maybe vehicles wouldn’t fit as many planes as equipment would, but still…it makes sense. You tap creatures with total power up to a certain value to make a vehicle act like a creature for a turn. Energy, meanwhile, is a new type of counter that players can get and that can be spent to do things. It requires some support to work (you can’t use energy counters if you have nothing to spend them on), but it makes a novel new resource that I could see returning. Beyond that, there was fabricate (first set only), improvise (second set only), and revolt (second set only). Fabricate gives you a choice of putting a certain number of +1/+1 counters on something or creating that many 1/1 tokens, and it’s kind of just…there, I guess. It’s fine, but it’s nothing really all that special aside from the modal nature of it, not to mention it’s pretty heavily tied to a specific plane. Improvise makes sense, being used to reduce the cost of spells that have it by tapping artifacts, and I suppose it might be good in something like an “affinity for artifacts” deck, though it’s a bit too archetype-specific for me. Revolt, which does things or adds additional affects if you’ve had a permanent leave the battlefield, is another one of those simple mechanics that’s kind of just there. I guess it could be thought of as a broader version of the “morbid” mechanic from the first Innistrad block. I don’t know. Kaladesh had some decent enough mechanics, a few pretty interesting ones, some fairly reusable, and none that stood out to me as either “bleh, I don’t like that mechanic” or “this mechanic would be so much better if it weren’t so overcosted” (and if you’re wondering why the second one needs to be specified, let’s just say we’ll get to that if I ever discuss previous sets, and in fact, it might well come up during the next block as well [spoilers!]).

I guess I couldn’t name all the interesting cards that came out of this block, but there was some good stuff. Chandra’s new planeswalker card is pretty great (I’d use that in almost every red deck I have if it were cheaper…), the gearhulk cycle was interesting (though I still think the white one is dumb), Heroic Intervention is frankly something I’ve wanted for a while, some of the artifacts were pretty unique (Panharmonicon comes to mind, as well as Paradox Engine, Aetherworks Marvel, and Planar Bridge), the “expertise” cycle was neat (even if I’d really only use two of them), more enemy-colored dual lands are always welcome, and Rashmi’s card is cool.

In summary, Kaladesh was a good block. I can’t decide if I liked it better than Return to Ravnica, but it’s up there. The mechanics were decent enough, the artwork was beautiful, the cards were overall quite good, the story was pretty entertaining, and the characters were interesting. (Shout-out to the new boy-girl duo of planeswalkers, Dovin Baan and Saheeli Rai, who disappears halfway through the story until the renegades start mobilizing.) Provided they don’t mess up the plane, I would gladly take a return to Kaladesh eventually.