It’s time to discuss another block of Magic: The Gathering sets. I was going to go with “Planeswalk like an Egyptian” for this one, but apparently, somebody else already made that reference. I will warn you right now that there may be a large amount of negativity and ranting, so if you’re not a fan of disgruntled criticism based pretty much entirely on personal opinion, you may want to skip this one. Because hoo boy, if you thought I was too hard on the Shadows over Innistrad block last year…well, after going through this one in the same time frame this year, I almost want to take back some of my criticism of the former.
But before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you this story. We’ll be discussing Amonkhet, Hour of Devastation, and Commander 2017 this time around. The Amonkhet block, with its two sets released in April and July 2017 respectively, is basically a block inspired by Egyptian mythology…at least, at first. Amonkhet (the first set) goes for the basic mythology feel, with some Egyptian-inspired deities, some trials for the supposed afterlife, and lots and lots of desert (surprisingly few sphinxes, though). Then in Hour of Devastation, just when everyone thinks that they have finally achieved glory and pleased their pharaoh upon his return, Nicol Bolas arrives and murders everything, then when the Gatewatch tries to fight him, he hands them their butts and they’re (mostly) forced to planeswalk away to escape.
Now, given that they did a set based on Greek mythology, it makes sense that they’d also do one for Egyptian mythology, but…I was really not a fan of this one. For starters, I feel like it might have been a bit on the weak side? I mean, not every set has to be mega-broken-over-9000-powerful for sure, but I definitely feel like there weren’t nearly as many cards in either of these sets—especially the second—that stood out to me as “oh hey, this is neat; I could use this”. Having a set that is slightly underpowered is all right if the flavor is good, though…and that’s where we get to the main reason I didn’t like this block. You know how I mentioned in the previous paragraph that Nicol Bolas, the ridiculously megalomaniacal but equally ridiculously powerful elder dragon planeswalker who wants to take over everything, returns in this block? Yeah, the multiverse’s resident number one evil overlord is back, all right, and he utterly wrecks this place, destroying the main city, turning everything into desert and ruins, corrupting three of the populace’s patron deities and killing the other five, and turning a bunch of people into an elite zombie army (though to be fair, the zombies were already dead). Five of the six main characters try to fight him (Ajani leaves for another plane to go get help because he’s fought Mr. Scary Durgon before and knows how OP he is), discover the hard way that they’re out of their league, and get stomped into the ground. There is an entire cycle of cards about each of the Gatewatch members getting their butts kicked, and they’re not even story spotlights. I mean, I was complaining before about how return sets always seem to involve ruining the plane, but I think this is the first time where the first visit to a plane involves ruining it. (Though maybe that’s a good thing? They wouldn’t wreck it even worse on a return trip, right?…)
I suppose I’m not as ticked off as I could be about the whole plane-wrecking thing, because I’d only just been introduced to Amonkhet as a setting, don’t particularly care that much about the plane compared to certain others, and knew in advance that it was going to suffer an unwanted visit from the Dastardly Dragon of Doom. But still, it does mean it’s yet another apocalyptic set, and we’ve certainly had our share of those; there would have been three in a row if Kaladesh didn’t exist. (At least one person actually wanted to see Kaladesh get devastated as well. About all I can say on that note is that I hope that person steps on Legos barefoot, bangs their shins on a coffee table, and/or gets stuck in traffic every day for the next two weeks.) Quite a few people did want to see the Gatewatch get beaten or even killed off, too, which I think is partly due to dislike of several of them for supposedly being one-note characters and partly due to feelings that they win too easily. I actually do agree with the assessment that they started too big; while I didn’t cover the Battle for Zendikar block because it came out before I started doing these, defeating plane-eating eldritch abominations may not have been the best way to start a new story/character arc. But really, the Gatewatch had exactly one definitive victory as a team; the second time around, the monster clearly let them win and equally clearly could have destroyed them had she wanted to; and the third time, while the entire Gatewatch was technically involved, I’d always thought of it as more of a victory for Chandra and the renegades, not to mention that they didn’t actually catch one of the villains. So I don’t know where people are getting the idea that the Gatewatch is invincible.
As for the mechanics of the set, they did what they did generally well enough. This time around, we have the return of cycling (last seen in the Alara block back in 2009), which allows you to pay a cost to discard a card with it and draw a new one, as well as the new embalm, allowing you to exile a creature card from your graveyard and make a token copy of it (basically turning it into a mummy); exert, allowing you to get an additional or more powerful effect from a creature with the drawback of it not untapping on your next turn; aftermath, a new variant of split cards that allows you to cast the second half from your graveyard; eternalize, which is basically a variant of embalm that gives the creature specific stats (embalm was only in the first set and eternalize in the second); and afflict, which is also only in the second set and causes opponents to lose life when blocking creatures that have it. Probably the most noteworthy of those for me was aftermath; the funky frame did take some getting used to (and it doesn’t help that I usually put my library and graveyard on my left side, so the aftermath part is upside-down), but I have kind of a soft spot for split cards, and basically combining fuse and flashback was an interesting idea. On the other hand, it did seem to be the obligatory “awesome but impractical” new mechanic of the block, where it’s an interesting enough concept, but only a few of the cards with it are actually worth the trouble, and all the rest generally cost too much mana to bother with. In the original Ravnica block, it was replicate; in Zendikar, it was level up; in Theros…actually, all the mechanics in Theros requiring a mana payment kind of fell into that category; and in Return to Ravnica, it was scavenge. This actually seems to be true for split cards in general much of the time, but I swear I didn’t notice it nearly as much with the fuse ones.
The cards themselves, as you might imagine, aren’t as noteworthy as the previous set’s either in my opinion, especially the ones from Hour of Devastation. There are still at least a few that I quite liked, though: Champion of Rhonas and As Foretold are nice because getting free stuff is good, Anointed Procession is a very welcome near-functional reprint of Parallel Lives (I do love my token decks), Harvest Season is potentially quite powerful, Oracle’s Vault could be good, and Nissa’s new card is interesting. From the second set, Neheb, the Eternal is noteworthy for its mana ability, while Wildfire Eternal, again, can give you free spells, and the black and green aftermath card seems decent. Though to elaborate on Nissa, she kind of falls into that “cool but not always practical” category a bit. She’s the first planeswalker with an X cost, but she suffers from the same issue as a lot of X-cost spells, that being scaling. If you cast her for the usual cost for planeswalkers, about 4 or 5, she’ll enter the battlefield with only 2 or 3 loyalty counters, whereas to get her to start with 4 loyalty counters, you need to cast her for 6. And despite being a +2, her first ability does not do enough for a planeswalker of that cost. Her middle ability can be pretty good, especially if you set it up (use it in conjunction with her first one, provided you’re not getting milled). Her last one is blech. I’m sure some people could get some good use out of it, but I’ve never been a fan of land animation nor planeswalker ultimates that your opponent can render completely moot with a simple kill spell, and this one is both. Still, though, it’s an interesting card, and a weird one, frankly, between the X cost and being the first multicolored card for a Gatewatch member.
While I’m here, I should bring up the Masterpieces. These are special reprints that have shown up in three blocks so far, starting with Battle for Zendikar, then Kaladesh, and now Amonkhet. Each of them is also based around a theme, with Battle for Zendikar’s (“Expeditions”) all being famous lands, Kaladesh’s (“Inventions”) being artifacts, and Amonkhet’s (“Invocations”) being…something? I’m not actually sure what the theme of the latest incarnation is supposed to be, quite honestly. Well, I never liked the idea of the Masterpieces; they were a stupid idea from the getgo, and they’re even stupider here. The reason they’re so stupid is that they are ridiculously rare. How rare? Well, by comparison, your chances of getting just a regular mythic rare card in a booster pack are usually about 1 in 8, so if you bought a full booster box, you could expect 4.5 mythics on average. The Masterpieces are 18 times rarer than that, so using the same principle for them, you’d have to buy four entire booster boxes before you’d get even one Masterpiece card. I’ve never gotten one. I don’t know anyone who has. Between me and my friends, we’ve gotten a pretty fair number of booster packs, and I’ve never even seen a Masterpiece in person. They seem intended as a cash grab, presumably to lure people into buying more booster packs in the hope of getting some of these rare and valuable collector’s items (as if this game didn’t flagrantly abuse the laws of supply and demand enough as it is), but personally, that’s the exact opposite of what it would take to convince me to buy more booster packs. Of course, you could always pick them up via the secondary market; at the time of this writing, a common Ornithopter as a Masterpiece will run you about, oh, $55 or so.
That brings me to why the Amonkhet Masterpieces are even worse than the first two rounds of them. They’re not any rarer or more expensive, but the seeming lack of cohesion makes the Invocations much less memorable than the Expeditions or Inventions. More importantly, rather than just using a special frame, they use completely different fonts as well, and ones that, frankly, clash with the rest of the cards in the game. The font used for the name and typeline is supposed to resemble hieroglyphics, though it’s not always the clearest thing to read at first glace, which causes things such as Hazoret the Fervent’s Masterpiece version looking like it says “Hazoret the Pervert”. Bonus points for anyone who happens to be at all dyslexic, which includes the friend who taught me the game. So I probably wouldn’t want to get him an Invocation as a gift, but I could get him a copy of Nicol Bolas, Dog-Pharaoh.
Anyway, I think I’ve about said my piece on the main set, so let’s discuss the Commander set. Commander 2017 seemed decent enough, I suppose. I’m not generally a fan of tribal sets because they’re so linear and tend to be less interesting than non-tribal stuff, but I suppose it worked. The creature types here are dragons (in all five colors), cats (in green and white), wizards (in blue, black, and red), and vampires (in white, black, and red). Yes, there’s not an even color distribution this time, and unfortunately, the two colors that only appear in two of the decks rather than three happen to be my favorites. I also feel like the selection of reprints in this set weren’t as good as the ones in Commander 2016, though there were still a few good ones. Mirari’s Wake was probably the best of those, but Utvara Hellkite, Door of Destinies, and Well of Lost Dreams were also nice, and there were a number of other decent ones as well (such as Lightning Greaves, Clone Legion, Dragonspeaker Shaman, and Fist of Suns). Among the new cards, I liked Scalelord Reckoner, Teferi’s Protection, Traverse the Outlands, and Izzet Chemister in particular.
Then there were the new legendary creatures, which I think they did a pretty good job on overall. All 15 of them seem reasonably powerful, interesting, or fun (not that I’ll personally be using all of them). The main commander of each deck obviously works best in a tribal deck based on that creature’s type, though Edgar Markov and The Ur-Dragon are at least usable on their own. (Why did Arahbo have to say “another” for both of its abilities?) The Ur-Dragon, incidentally, definitely appeals to the side of me as a Magic player that likes big, flashy things that mush people while getting you more big, flashy things, being an enormous flying dragon that lets you draw cards and cheat permanents out whenever it attacks. It using all 5 colors does limit what decks it can go into, though, even more than costing 9 mana already does. Probably the best of the new commanders for general use is Ramos, Dragon Engine, which doesn’t require any specific colors, gets bigger whenever you cast spells, and can get you lots of mana if you cast enough stuff. That could honestly go in almost any deck that still expects to be doing things after reaching 6 mana. Yes, I realize that Commander-specific cards are normally only legal in eternal formats (and Commander itself, of course), but I play casual, so we don’t have any sort of bans or restrictions beyond “using anything that’s clearly way too powerful for the rest of the play group is frowned on”. Nazahn is also tailor-made for an equipment deck, even if it has nothing to do with cats.
One knock against C17, though, is that I feel like it really needed a new mechanic other than the one it had. It introduces eminence, which allows things with it to have an effect even while they’re in the command zone. I actually don’t mind eminence itself, but it’s only on four cards in the entire 309-card set, those being the commanders that are the face of each of the decks. I guess Commander sets don’t usually introduce all that much in the way of new things, though? I mean, I recall partner being the only new thing in C16, but at least that got 15 cards. Though some people apparently don’t like eminence as a mechanic in and of itself for whatever reason. Bad memories of Oloro, Ageless Ascetic from Commander 2013, perhaps? Or maybe their complaints with it are the old “it’s not interactive” drivel. I’ve never really bought into “it’s not interactive” as a good argument against most things, partly because in my experience, what people mean 99% of the time when they say “it’s not interactive” is “I might actually have to allow this thing to be useful to you” and partly because there already are things that lack interactivity that, for some reason, never seem to get called out for it. Board wipes, for instance, aren’t generally interactive unless you’re playing blue or have some way of protecting your stuff, and board wipes that exile or bounce are especially bad (I know of only three cards in the game that get around that, two of which don’t work on tokens and the third of which was only printed in this very set). Targeted discard isn’t interactive, unless you’re playing blue. Counterspells aren’t interactive (again, unless you’re playing blue, in which case you can counter them right back). So you might be able to understand why I’d be skeptical about anyone grumbling that an opponent’s choice of commander makes all their dragons 1 cheaper to cast or gives one of their cats a free temporary buff. But I digress. Overall, I thought Commander 2017 was pretty decent. It may not have been as interesting as Commander 2016, or as novel, or as rich in good reprints, or…okay, let’s just say C16 was probably better in every way. (Why I didn’t pick up any of the decks from it back when they were actually obtainable for a reasonable price, I don’t know.) But it set out to do a thing and, for the most part, delivered on it.
In general, I really wasn’t a fan of this block. I’ll admit that Kaladesh was a bit of a tough act to follow in the first place, but that only got compounded by following it with a set that both seemed a bit on the underpowered side and didn’t have a story I liked. It’s a similar situation to Shadows over Innistrad, but I actually dislike Hour of Devastation even more than I did Eldritch Moon, given that it had fewer cards that I liked and destroyed a plane that honestly didn’t seem all that bad before (at least Innistrad was already a sucky place and, being the horror plane, was specifically geared toward people who like the dark, macabre stuff), with the end result that I ended up almost completely uninterested in the whole thing. But it’s over and done with now, and I’m already liking the next set better (which I’ll probably discuss some time around February of next year), so whatever, I suppose.