Well, I can’t put it off any longer. It’s time for some discussion about another Magic: The Gathering set! The main feature this time is Ixalan (including Rivals of Ixalan), but I’ll also be covering Iconic Masters and a bit of Unstable. I guess it’s worth at least mentioning a couple other low-key supplementary sets, too, but I’ve never talked about the From the Vault or Duel Decks series before, and I’ve only played Explorers of Ixalan once. For once, I don’t have all that much to complain about; while there will definitely be some salt, oddly enough, most of it has nothing to do with the sets themselves this time around, or at least not the main one.
So…Ixalan, in addition to being dinosaur land, is also merfolk land, pirate land, and vampire land. The primary source of conflict, in fact, is clashes between the four different tribes. But before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you this story. After the end of the last block, the Gatewatch presumably went every which way and ended up on various different planes. The first member of it we see subsequently is Jace, who ends up on Ixalan with amnesia. The beginning of the story follows him as he desperately tries to cope after being stuck in an unfamiliar place with no idea what has happened to him, what’s going on, who he is, or what he should do next, kind of like me every time I try to be a functional adult. Eventually, he runs into Vraska, who was last seen in the Return to Ravnica block (well, there was one random story out in the middle of nowhere that involved her…what the heck was up with that, anyway?). Or more accurately, Vraska runs into him and, being one of his former nemeses, is all ready to petrify him before finding out about his amnesia and having him join her pirate crew. Yep, believe it or not, she’s a pirate now, but she’s still never been to Boston in the fall. She’s also on a mission from everyone’s least favorite draconic megalomaniac to retrieve a famous artifact from the golden city of Orazca and bring it to Tezzeret, not that she knows who Nicol Bolas is. (Fun fact: “Bolas” apparently means “balls” in Spanish, and yes, they do use it with the same vulgar slang meaning that English speakers do, so…he will henceforth be known as “Nick Balls” or some variation thereof.) The golden city in question is the other main source of conflict, as well as a major impetus for the first. Everyone wants to find it for one reason or another: ancestral ties, preventing power from falling into the wrong hands, or just being a big freakin’ mess o’ treasure. We also get introduced to Huatli, a warrior poet from another faction, who has an affinity for dinosaurs and often rides them into battle. She runs across Angrath, a minotaur planeswalker from an unknown plane, and the subsequent fight between them causes Huatli’s spark to ignite, though she can’t leave the plane because there is an enchantment preventing people from doing so, which also affected Jace early on. Being stuck on the plane is also a major reason why Angrath is so, well, angry and wrathful (seriously, they picked a name for him that’s about as on the nose as you can get short of calling him “Rageface McMurdermeister”, and neither his name nor his characterization do much to break the stereotypes of a black/red alignment), though he changes his tune a bit upon realizing that Huatli is a fellow planeswalker and ends up being, if not exactly friendly to her, at least not actively harmful. In the end, the golden city is uncovered, and within it, Jace and Vraska meet an old and somewhat insane sphinx (Azor, the founder of the Azorius guild on Ravnica), from whom they find out that the artifact they’re looking for, the Immortal Sun, is what’s getting planeswalkers stuck on the plane and was originally designed as a trap for you-know-who. As a result, Vraska finally realizes the truth of her employer, Jace wipes that and all memories of himself from her mind temporarily so that Nick Balls doesn’t catch on, Tezzeret takes the Immortal Sun back, and everyone else is left not quite sure what just happened. Then Huatli questions her role in life, and some loose ends get tied up.
The gameplay of Ixalan and Rivals of Ixalan seems fine to me, if formulaic. Apparently, there were some complaints about it having too many creatures relative to how many noncreature spells there were or something? If so, it didn’t bother me. For set mechanics, we have raid, which first showed up in Khans of Tarkir and does things if you attacked that turn; enrage, which goes on creatures and does things when that creature gets damaged; explore, which has you reveal the top card of your library and put it into your hand or put a +1/+1 counter on the creature depending on if it’s a land or not; and ascend, which gives some of your cards a permanent buff if you have 10 or more permanents and was specific to the second set. Actually, I thought the set mechanics this time were really lame. It’s better than them actively detracting from the experience, but honestly, this block might have some of the most boring mechanics I’ve seen since I started playing, and I was around for Battle for Zendikar. About the only one that wasn’t boring was explore, and that one incorporated randomness, which is something I tend to dislike in mechanics (and I doubt I’m alone in this as a player). They didn’t seem to push the envelope much on explore or ascend either, aside from a few select cards (Twilight Prophet comes to mind). I’ve also never been big on tribal sets, but that’s just me, and I guess they don’t come along that often. Also, while the double-faced cards were an odd inclusion, they were pretty cool overall, and I’m glad that they were there. (On a side note, my brother has opened a grand total of four Rivals of Ixalan booster packs that I know of, and between those, he got two Azor’s Gateways. The guy has amazing luck with boosters, I swear….) And I don’t think I’ve said it enough, but DINOSAURS. Yeah, I know there are three other tribes, but let’s be honest; I’m mainly here for the dinosaurs.
Noteworthy cards (in my opinion) include Sunbird’s Invocation, Carnage Tyrant, Ripjaw Raptor, both of Huatli’s cards (yes, she actually gets two; lucky her), probably all of the double-faced cards, the dual land reprints, Herald of Secret Streams, Vanquisher’s Banner, Twilight Prophet, all of the elder dinosaurs, Rekindling Phoenix, and probably the other planeswalker cards (except Jace’s; his kind of sucks). Sunbird’s Invocation and Etali, Primal Storm point to some interesting additions to red’s color pie, Huatli’s second card could go in quite a few of my decks, and Carnage Tyrant fills a hole that I’ve had for a while. In fact, I must call special attention to Carnage Tyrant for being a card that goes in almost any deck of its color but is too expensive to actually put in any deck of its color, like Primeval Titan from earlier sets. I was lucky enough to get one during the prerelease (actually, aside from getting an absolutely awful promo, I was overall reasonably pleased with my pulls from the prerelease, which usually doesn’t happen), but that only makes it too awesome to use: it hasn’t left my card boxes since I got it, because if it can go in so many decks, how can I possibly choose which is the most important? The green elder dinosaur (Ghalta, Primal Hunger) was one of my favorites of the cycle as well, along with Etali (the red one). Maybe bringing out huge stompy smashy T-rexes appeals too much to my Timmy side, or maybe they have useful combinations of potentially very powerful effects.
Aside from the dinosaurs, though, I do feel like the gameplay stood out to me less than the story did. I liked Ixalan’s story just as well as Kaladesh’s, and the latter might only have an edge by having more quirky and likable characters (Yahenni, Shadowblayde, Oviya, etc.), some nice Gatewatch interaction, and a more interesting setting. I would have liked some of the supporting characters to get a bit more time (Elenda comes to mind), but Huatli came into her own as the story progressed, and Angrath was relatively likable for being the kind of guy who spends a lot of time attacking people and wrecking stuff with burning fury (hey, maybe Angrath is actually me after facing a control deck or one too many counter/steal/kill spells). And then there’s the big one: Jace and Vraska. If Ixalan’s story did one thing, it definitely endeared me to Vraska a lot more. And Jace, to a lesser extent, though I never really hated him anyway. (The player archetype he represents, on the other hand…) Jace and Vraska’s interactions were also really cute, especially since they were bitter enemies before Jace got amnesia and, after his memory returned (in a torrent that even caused Vraska to experience them as well), ended up understanding each other and even considering a date together. Man, why can’t we have Vraska as the black-aligned Gatewatch member instead of Liliana? In fact, between her and Angrath, that’s two black characters—planeswalkers, even—who are more likable than the necromancer (a list that seems to keep on growing), so…um, congratulations, Wizards, you’ve officially made serial killers and violent pirates better people than one of your main characters. Sadly, despite all four planeswalkers being major figures in the story, Jace and Vraska never met up with Huatli and Angrath to discuss planeswalker stuff; in fact, I don’t think Jace and Vraska even directly interacted with Huatli and Angrath. Also, the ending was actually good, actually tied up the loose ends (aside from those that lead into the next set or the overarching plotline), and most importantly, was freaking adorable. Angrath got to reunite with his daughters, and Huatli got to tell her family about her special planeswalker abilities and take a vacation to where else but Kaladesh, where she ran into Saheeli and, it would seem, became friends with her. Oh, and there was a bit at the end where the Sun Empire got the golden city back (which was actually one of multiple possible endings that the players voted on; alternatively, Orazca could have gone to one of the other three factions), but who cares about that when Huatli and Saheeli make such cute friends? I don’t know if platonic shipping is a thing, but if so, I am definitely doing that with those two. (Jace and Vraska, of course, get the romantic ship.) I would pay good money for a book series featuring Narset, Tamiyo, Saheeli, and Huatli just going on an adventure across the multiverse to tell stories, learn things, and experience other cultures.
In addition to the two Ixalan sets, we also have some supplementary sets to discuss. First up is Iconic Masters, and…well, I’m definitively less happy with it than I was with Ixalan, shall we say. This is the first of a series of Masters sets that are based around a theme rather than a format (as the three Modern Masters sets and Eternal Masters were), and the theme of this one is iconic creature types. That’s one thing that must be mentioned in any critique of Iconic Masters; the name isn’t supposed to mean it contains a lot of iconic, well-known cards, so no Lightning Bolt, Birds of Paradise, or Dark Ritual here. Each of the five colors of mana is considered to have an iconic creature type associated with it: angels for white, sphinxes for blue, demons for black, dragons for red, and hydras for green. And I actually would have been okay with that; angels, sphinxes, demons, dragons, and hydras are often pretty cool, even if the name was a miscommunication (I actually knew about the “iconic creature types” beforehand, and even I assumed initially that it referred to iconic cards). Unfortunately, it didn’t even do that well. There were at least a decent number of dragons in the set, coming in at 16 total, even if five of them consisted of the dragon spirit cycle from Kamigawa, but there were only 9 angels (and aside from Avacyn and Archangel of Thune, which I actually did want reprinted; most of them sucked; Restoration Angel was something, but it had just gotten reprinted in Modern Masters 2017), only 6 demons, and a measly 3 each of sphinxes and hydras. And of those, the only sphinx that needed the reprint was Consecrated Sphinx (it’s still obnoxiously expensive, but not quite as much so, which is also true for Avacyn and the archangel), and none of the hydras did. Would it have killed Wizards of the Coast to give us another printing of Kalonian Hydra (at least Commander 2016 helped with that one), Khalni Hydra (darn thing’s about 12 bucks and not terribly easy to find), or Primordial Hydra? Heck, Progenitus wouldn’t have been a bad reprint either. I guess the ones they did pick weren’t bad cards, but pardon me if I don’t leap in excitement about a reprint of a 25-cent card. I’m not sure what I would have picked for sphinxes; most of the options I can think of also aren’t terribly in need of another printing, though I at least wouldn’t mind seeing Medomai the Ageless in the M15 border. For angels, Aurelia, Baneslayer Angel, and Archangel of Tithes would have been decent options (I’m surprised Baneslayer Angel hasn’t shown up in a supplementary set yet, actually; it seemed to be pretty well-known), and I would have swapped out Firemane Angel with Firemane Avenger for sure. Maelstrom Archangel would have been neat, if hard to cast, and Sigarda, Host of Herons has been in need of a reprint for a while. I can’t complain much about the dragons (especially since we just got a bunch of decent dragon reprints and new cards in Commander 2017), though my most wanted of them (Thundermaw Hellkite) is still low in supply, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing Balefire Dragon, Furyborn Hellkite, Dragon Broodmother, Hellkite Overlord, Slumbering Dragon, Thunderbreak Regent, or a few of the dragonlords again.
The biggest problem with Iconic Masters, however, isn’t the selection of cards based on its theme…it’s all the other cards. To put it bluntly, the selection overall is severely inadequate. There are admittedly some cards unrelated to the theme that I was glad to see (Serra Ascendant, Ancestral Vision, Kiki-Jiki, Primeval Titan, Lightning Helix, and Aether Vial especially, and the dragon spirits, Monastery Swiftspear, Rift Bolt, Genesis Wave, Lotus Cobra, Glimpse the Unthinkable, Thran Dynamo, and Nimbus Maze weren’t bad either), but there are a lot more that were decidedly not in need of a reprint or worth the price of the set, or at worst, outright pointless. I know that Masters sets actually aren’t designed to be just a haven for reprints but rather to create a draft environment with cards from a variety of sets, but I only learned it recently. Keep in mind that Masters sets cost $10 per booster pack, whereas regular sets only cost $4 (and one of my local stores sells them 3 for $10), so they need to have appeal beyond just a good draft environment, or you’re just doing a draft that costs triple what it normally would (or alternatively, doing only a third as many drafts for the same price). But designing a set to be good for draft purposes and designing one to be good for constructed purposes are, if not entirely mutually exclusive, at least very difficult to pull off well simultaneously, and it’s much easier to make them merely fail at both. And Iconic Masters is exactly that sort of set: it’s too expensive to justify doing much to draft it, but it’s too low in value to justify buying packs for the individual cards (or use them after a draft). Sure, there are a few cards that are valuable, but the chances are greatly against having them show up; if anyone is honestly buying packs of this in hopes of getting a Mana Drain or Horizon Canopy or something, about all I can say is that they’d better not go to Las Vegas. Finally, why wasn’t there a single planeswalker in the set? Given that planeswalkers are supposedly the most liked card type, you’d think Wizards would be less goldarn stingy about putting them in supplementary sets. In summary, Iconic Masters did give us a few nice reprints, but overall, I found it extremely lackluster; it not only sucked as a general Masters set, but it even sucked at the theme it was named after (though I guess “Mana Drain, The Praetors, The Dragon Spirits, The Future Sight Dual Lands, and A Bunch of Random Crap Masters” didn’t roll off the tongue as well).
Finally, there is the matter of a much crazier supplementary set, that being Unstable, the long-awaited third “Un-set” of the game. These began with Unglued back in 1998, and Unhinged followed in 2004. For those not in the know, these are essentially parody sets with mechanics and flavor that are too off-the-wall or silly to be allowed in the normal game, things like high fives, caring about the artist of a card, and saying specific words to trigger effects. And I’m glad that Unstable finally came out, given how long it took between it and the previous one. Unfortunately, I’m reserved from making a full judgement on it until I actually get to play it, and I can’t do that without people to play it with. I’ve had a sealed booster box sitting in my basement since January, but somehow, the people I play MTG with still have not bothered to find time to open it with me at the time of this writing. So once that time finally comes, I’ll say more about what I thought of the set and what mechanics it has. For now, I guess I can at least say that it actually seems significantly less “wacky” than the last two Un-sets, which I know others have mentioned. It almost feels like more of a regular set that just happens to care about flavor text, cards with watermarks, and so on. Also, we only got one story for the set, and I really wish that there had been more than that, as well as more language-related cards, more balance between characters’ color identities (which is also commonly brought up…who thought it was a good idea to make the only WU legendary just an artifact, and a really annoying one at that, while there are lots of BR legendary creatures?), and more planeswalkers. This is the first Un-set to have a planeswalker card, but the word “a” is the problem there, and it has randomized effects and requires all 5 colors to boot. Why couldn’t we have gotten a planeswalker that makes use of the set mechanics, or one that does something else that the regular game couldn’t? Either way, I’m at least glad that it happened, and it seems to be doing well enough for there to be a fourth Un-set in the future.
While we’re here, I’d also like to discuss one MTG-related thing that isn’t a set: the Great Designer Search 3, or GDS3. This is a contest that people can enter to test their card design skills, and if they do well enough, they have the opportunity to design a card for the game, or even work at Wizards of the Coast for a while. The test consisted of a series of essay questions, a multiple-choice test, and a card design challenge, the last of which was only accessible to people who had finished the other two. I decided to enter because I thought it might be interesting, and I guess it was, but holy crap, were the requirements for moving on to round 3 strict. As it turned out, the contestants needed to get 73 out of 75 of the multiple-choice questions correct to advance, and a few of them were counterintuitive and very easy to get wrong. (I have no idea what my score was beyond it definitely being lower than 73, but I’m fairly sure that I at least got one of the commonly-missed ones right, the one about the creature with flying and vigilance.) And believe me, if I’d known ahead of time that I’d need to get 97% of the questions correct to advance, there’s a 97% chance I wouldn’t have even bothered to enter the wretched contest in the first place. To add insult to injury, the answers for round 1 were completely ignored for anyone who missed the threshold on round 2, so there were over a thousand people who wrote 10 short essays that didn’t even get read, including me. I know why they did it that way…it was because they wanted to eliminate the people who didn’t even finish the essays or didn’t follow the requirements for them, thereby having fewer people to take into account for round 2. Or something like that. I understand their reasoning, but it does precisely jack-all to make me less peeved that I wasted hours of my time and stayed up late writing essays that never even got acknowledged. Guess what? Multiple-choice tests can be graded by a computer now. Also, if you don’t feel like reading a couple thousand essay questions for a contest, then don’t freaking have essay questions in a contest that will have thousands of people enter it! I’d think that a person who only got 68 or 70 out of 75 questions right but sent in essays that were well-written and thoughtful would make a better employee or designer than someone who got a perfect score but couldn’t write worth crap, but apparently not. If I’m still playing this silly game by the time they do a fourth one, and they do essay questions again, maybe I should write mine using nothing but the word “chicken” and see if anyone actually notices.
*sigh* Anyway, in summary: GDS3 was a complete waste of time. Iconic Masters was underwhelming at best. Unstable was neat, but if you’re going to play it with friends, find some who aren’t flakes. And most importantly, Ixalan was a pretty decent block. It’s no Kaladesh or Return to Ravnica for sure, but I liked it a heck of a lot better than the previous one. I thought the mechanics were generally boring, but the world and story weren’t bad, nor were the cards.