From a Mind of Eternal Chaos

A place where I post whatever happens to strike my fancy

Magic: The Gathering discussion #5: Dominaria — Where it all began — September 22, 2018

Magic: The Gathering discussion #5: Dominaria — Where it all began

It’s that time again, time to discuss another Magic: The Gathering set! Or several, actually, because in addition to Dominaria, I’ll also be covering the 2019 core set, Masters 25, Battlebond, and Commander 2018.

So, let’s start with Dominaria. It’s a fitting place to start, because the entire game started with Dominaria; it was the setting for a lot of the early sets and is sort of a nexus or “hub world” for the multiverse. Apparently, messing with Dominaria would mess up all the other planes as well, which just seems like it would make the multiverse way too unstable (and I don’t mean in the fun Bablovian way). It also didn’t have a specific theme or gimmick, unlike most other planes: they try to give each plane its own recognizable theme, like how Innistrad is the horror world, Amonkhet is the Egyptian world, and Kaladesh is the steampunk-esque world. I say “didn’t” because even with all the diversity that Dominaria has, they eventually did manage to fit it into one of those boxes that humanity likes so much; Dominaria is apparently “the history world” now. That manifests in the set mechanics, or at least the new ones. Sagas are the big new set gimmick and by far the most interesting one; they’re a new kind of enchantment with a new card frame, with the division between the art and rules text running vertically instead of horizontally, and a number of “chapter” markers in Roman numerals on the left side. (Roman numerals still have no purpose in life, by the way.) Each chapter (usually) triggers once per turn, the first one when it enters the battlefield and the rest on successive turns after that, then the enchantment goes away after the last chapter. All Sagas in the set have 3 chapters, so you’d get the effect listed for chapter 1 on the turn you get it out, chapter 2 on the next turn, then the chapter 3 effect would happen on the turn after that and the Saga would be sacrificed. I assume that if they’re liked enough, they could show up in future sets as well, possibly with chapter counts other than 3. There is also historic, which is just an adjective that describes anything that’s an artifact, a Saga, or legendary. Kind of a weird combination, but I suppose it makes sense. There is also a returning mechanic, kicker, which first appeared in I-don’t-know-what-set-but-it-was-probably-old-as-heck and whose return I actually guessed even before the set was out. For anyone unfamiliar with kicker, it’s an open-ended mechanic that allows you to pay an additional cost for a spell to get an additional effect. It has nothing to do with history, except in a meta sense because it’s been around for a while. The set also has a distinct “legendary matters” theme; historic is one part of it, but there are many more legendary creatures than most sets, even at uncommon. They also introduced legendary sorceries, which…sound a lot cooler than they actually are, to put it one way. They don’t work how one would expect legendary sorceries to work; rather than, say, only being able to cast them once per game, or if a card with the same name isn’t in your graveyard, you can only cast them if you control a legendary creature or planeswalker. Now, outside of the set, that can be a pretty tight hoop to jump through if you don’t specifically build with it in mind, and their effects aren’t that much better than similar nonlegendary sorceries. As a result, I didn’t really like the legendary sorceries.

Of course, one can’t talk about Dominaria without talking about the story and lore. And the story this time was actually kind of weird. It involves some old fan favorite characters showing up again; Jhoira, Teferi, Karn, and Jaya Ballard are here, as well as Radha, Jodah, Multani, and Squee. There are also new characters who are related to older ones, such as Danitha and Raff Capashen and Shanna Sisay. I do feel like the story might have gotten pulled in too many directions at once, though; they had a lot of characters to introduce and tell about, all of which probably could have gotten more attention, but the main plotline was more about Liliana’s last demon and the evil things he was doing, as well as her brother whom she accidentally cursed (which triggered her planeswalker spark) and who is now a monstrous lich. At least in this case, it makes sense to go after Belzenlok anyway, Liliana or no, because he’s the leader of the Cabal now (which I don’t know much about, but I guess they’re some sort of evil cult or something?) and is trying to rewrite historical records to make himself look much more accomplished than he actually is. They defeat Belzenlok, and Teferi gets his planeswalker spark back (he gave it up to fix a time rift back during the Time Spiral block, however the heck that works) and joins the Gatewatch. But we also have a fairly major spoiler here: as it turns out, killing all of Liliana’s demons didn’t release her from her contract, merely transfer ownership of it to Nicol Bolas, who brokered the contract in the first place, and now Bolas basically owns Liliana and she is forced to serve him. I am disappointed that the Gatewatch won’t find out what happened to Liliana until it’s too late and there’s a huge misunderstanding, though. Well, I guess if you look at all the cards in the set, it’s not much of a spoiler because it’s depicted right on the last story spotlight card. Speaking of story spotlight events, apparently Nissa is leaving the Gatewatch, at least for the time being: she finally decided that she’d had enough of Liliana’s crap (which, to be quite honest, I can’t fault her for) and made tracks back to Zendikar.

Dominaria has some pretty decent cards in it, too. It reprinted the other half of the dual land cycle that Ixalan had (nicknamed the “checklands”), for starters. Lyra Dawnbringer, Shalai, and Verix are good legendary creatures. Teferi and Karn are worthwhile as planeswalkers go, aside from Teferi making control decks even more obnoxious. Jaya Ballard’s planeswalker card is…okay. History of Benalia is another good one (and I actually got it as my prerelease promo, the first actually good prerelease promo I ever got). Belzenlok, Josu Vess, Multani, Jhoira, Steel Leaf Champion, and the Weatherlight weren’t bad either, and the set gave us a reprint of Gilded Lotus as well as Mox Amber, which is new. (They really need to find a way to make Mox cards good but neither overpowered nor restrictive. Come on, they’ve had 25 years to figure it out….) The Sagas, sadly, mostly weren’t all that amazing outside of dedicated decks aside from the aforementioned History of Benalia, not to mention they were kind of unbalanced: anyone at Wizards care to explain why we needed three, maybe even four board wipe variants, why there are as many black Sagas as red and green ones combined, or why an event as major as the Mending got such a middling card? Still, though, Dominaria had more good stuff than not, I think.

Next comes the 2019 core set, the first core set since either 2014 or 2015 (depending on if you count Magic Origins as a core set or not) and the first one I’ve talked about on here. This time, they didn’t have any non-evergreen mechanics, which I found rather disappointing (most of the previous core sets brought back one mechanic, such as scry for the 2011 core set, bloodthirst for the 2012 one, and exalted for the 2013 one). Core sets also don’t take place on a specific plane, so they can include reprints or new cards from any of them (there were ones from Kaladesh and Ixalan, among others). The story, on the other hand, is another matter, and kind of a weird one; it mostly takes place on Tarkir (a plane visited in 2014 and 2015), where a few figures in Tarkir’s past tell the story of Ugin and Nicol Bolas. Honestly, I don’t think the M19 story actually added that much to the larger picture; it seemed to be reasonably well-written, but I didn’t really care all that much about Icky Nicky’s start of darkness beforehand, and I care even less about it now. If you were expecting some complex or understandable reason for why he is the way he is, well, you won’t find it here. He felt powerless and weak in his earliest days, so now he wants nothing more than power over everyone else; that’s pretty much the extent of it, which is really childish for someone who’s had 65,000 years, give or take, to explore the multiverse. (Heck, just look at the flavor text on the M19 printing of Cinder Barrens.) Several dozen millennia of living and, effectively, all he’s managed to accomplish in terms of personal growth is becoming basically a draconic supervillain version of Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with a heaping helping of Donald Trump. Sheesh, I’m only 27 and I thought I was immature for my age and not doing as many meaningful things as I should have.

Icky Nicky, Dracomanchild (cropped)

Pictured: Dominaria’s most ancient evil.

Also, in a story only tangentially related to Bolas but considered part of the M19 story, we get introduced to Vivien Reid, a new mono-green planeswalker. I can only assume that she’s supposed to be an eventual replacement for Nissa, though her card reminds me a little more of Garruk (which is a good thing; Nissa always was one of those characters where I tended to like her as a character more than her cards). She’s a ranger who uses a magical bow to summon images of animals from her home plane, which was destroyed by Bolas. (Why? Who knows. Maybe he was just in a mood to nuke stuff that day, or he threw a tantrum because someone told him he couldn’t have an extra juice box.) It’s an interesting enough power set, I suppose. Her stories don’t do much to make her likable, though; basically, she’s on Ixalan in a vampire city and goes medieval on them after finding out that they’re cruel to animals, pretty much using her summoning magic (and some to enlarge existing animals as well) to destroy the city. Look, I know the vampires are hardly paragons of morality either, but I doubt everyone in that city was evil, so she probably condemned some innocent people to death by beast or collapsing building. Pitting one character or group of characters who’s a lunatic against another who’s a lunatic but in a different way doesn’t make the first one any less nuts; it just makes you want to see both of them get thrashed until they’ve gotten some sense knocked into them. It really does not do Vivien any favors, either, that she has a vendetta against civilization in general and is happy to see the city get reclaimed by nature, which is a very mono-green attitude but not a very sympathetic one, and it really makes me hope that she never planeswalks to Ravnica or Kaladesh (though if she did, maybe it would be a good opportunity to give her some much-needed character development). Furthermore, she is yet another human planeswalker in a lineup where humans are already severely overrepresented. Between that, her extremist beliefs, and the fact that the Gatewatch now has an open slot for a green character, I can only assume that this conversation took place at Wizards of the Coast at some point:

Wizards creative team: “Here are some nonhuman planeswalkers we’ve designed with interesting personalities and complex motives and thoughts. Could they be main characters?”
Marketing team: “What? Main characters who aren’t human? They’ll be totally unrelatable!”
Creative: “Okay, here are some one-dimensional monocolored human characters who subscribe to a very particular, narrow worldview and philosophy that would be unrealistic for any sane person in real life. What do you think?”
Marketing: “They seem good to me. Let’s get them some stories.”

Also, on a minor note, the writer never explained why Vivien couldn’t just planeswalk away after getting captured, then come back for the Arkbow. But I don’t know, maybe I’m overthinking this all. I feel like I spend way too much time talking about the story in these reviews.

I suppose that means we’re probably overdue for discussing the gameplay of the 2019 core set. Well, there are no set mechanics, so I can’t talk about them, so this will probably be a shorter paragraph than usual. Actually, for a core set, this really doesn’t have a bad selection of cards; my personal top picks are Ajani, Tezzeret, and Vivien’s planeswalker cards along with Resplendent Angel, but there’s more. Sai, Master Thopterist is good in the right deck (and I think it did make it into Standard play), Nightmare’s Thirst is an interesting take on a kill spell, Sovereign’s Bite is cheap but seems good for a common, I’m always up for another copy spell with Doublecast, Lathliss will make a nice addition to any of my decks with an above-average number of dragons in them, Sarkhan’s planeswalker card isn’t bad (Liliana’s, on the other hand, requires a very specific deck type, and even within that, it’s merely “pretty decent”), Sarkhan’s Unsealing is interesting, Goreclaw seems useful, Vine Mare is good for what it’s worth (the mare cycle is kind of neat), Chaos Wand is silly, and all of the elder dragons are at least interesting. Notable reprints are Banefire, Crucible of Worlds, Magistrate’s Scepter, Mentor of the Meek, Omniscience, Scapeshift, and maybe Windreader Sphinx (and Crucible of Worlds and Scapeshift were clearly designed for formats outside of the set). One thing I’m disappointed about with the M19 card pool is that there were no rare dual lands. I assume it’s because they don’t want to create feel-bad moments for new players, but…surely they could have at least reprinted the half-cycle from Ixalan or something?

I guess one thing that I should mention is the Buy-a-Box promos that they’re doing starting with Dominaria, where buying a booster box from participating game stores (or was it preordering?) would get you a special card not found in the regular set. It’s supposed to be an incentive to buy from the local stores instead of online or something like that, but as far as I’m concerned, saying it fell flat is an understatement. If I’m paying an extra $20-$30 to get a box from a LGS, that extra card had better be worth that price difference, but if it’s really good (and if it’s worth $20+, it probably is), then it drives up demand and people can just sell them on the secondary market. (Though apparently, the promos are actually less rare than any given mythic rare card from the main set, so they’re perceived to be rarer than they actually are.) Also, locking certain cards to buying from specific stores actually makes me less likely to want to buy from them, because doing so only encourages the stupid practice. Besides, the sets that I like enough to want to buy a whole booster box of are few and far between. (Currently, that is exactly Kaladesh and Unstable, though I get did an Aether Revolt box to draft and a Dominaria one to split with my brother, if you count those, and I kind of want to get a Battlebond one. We’ll talk about Battlebond in a bit.)

Now, let’s talk about the supplementary sets. Going by chronological order, we’ll start with Masters 25, and fair warning, this will be a long, blunt, probably passive-aggressive, and maybe even just plain aggressive one. I’ll cut to the chase: This set is not what we wanted, or at least not what I wanted (yes, my opinion doesn’t dictate everyone else, whatever). Oh, the idea was good: a set full of cards from every set in the 25 years of MTG’s history to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the game, something to send players on a nostalgia trip, even including set symbol watermarks for style points (which, honestly, is something I wouldn’t say no to for future Masters sets). The execution, however, I found to be lackluster at best and completely senseless at worst: while there were indeed cards from every set, the designers did not put nearly enough thought into making them cards that would actually be desired or worth the price of the packs.

For starters, there are many, many iconic cards that were absent. I understand that not all of them can logistically make the cut, but…where is Doubling Season? Where is Stoneforge Mystic? Baneslayer Angel? Birds of Paradise? The Mirrodin swords? Where are the Eldrazi, or the Urza’s lands? Why are there no extra turn spells? Not even the Lhurgoyf made it in. Mirrodin block barely got any of its famous artifacts (heck, I wouldn’t say no to another Isochron Scepter reprint, even), Urza block got darn near none of its famously powerful cards, Return to Ravnica block didn’t get anything special (certainly nothing that reminds me of the block)…and why are almost all the cards from current Standard sets commons and uncommons worth pennies? Of all the interesting dinosaurs from Ixalan that could be represented, they picked one of the most boring, mundane, and already overprinted ones? Given how popular planeswalkers are as a card type and how iconic some of them are, why the crap don’t they give us more of them in supplementary sets, too, instead of only two or, in this case, one? And how, in a set that’s all about famous cards from the game’s history, did we not get a single Lotus or Mox?

And even among the cards that aren’t as famous but must be there to fill out the set, some of the choices were baffling. Surely there were better options then Blue Sun’s Zenith, Bident of Thassa, and Tree of Redemption, for example, given how many cards there are that haven’t seen print in quite some time. (To be fair, Tree of Redemption stood out enough even when the set was being previewed that it kind of became a minor meme.) We could have gotten Quicksilver Amulet again, or Wurmcoil Engine, Lava Spike, Privileged Position, Rings of Brighthearth (I rather like Rings of Brighthearth, it’s unique, it’s extremely low in supply, and it has eluded a veritable myriad of opportunities for a reprint), Asceticism, Khalni Hydra, Master Transmuter, Defense Grid, Collected Company…even among relatively inexpensive cards, there are things such as Sylvan Caryatid, Wall of Reverence, Reverberate, Invisible Stalker, Dramatic Entrance, Hunter’s Insight, Cloudpost (and Glimmerpost…and on that note, I’d consider the Locuses iconic enough to be in this set anyway), Seething Song, Prophet of Kruphix, Infiltration Lens, all sorts of stuff that would have been at least better than much of what we got. I would hope that future core sets could cover a few of those, but I’m not holding my breath. There were cards there that I was glad to see again, but they were greatly in the minority.

As a result, this set feels like lousy value for its cost. When booster packs are $10, they really need to be worth it, and Masters 25 does not seem worth it. I will say that it is at least better than Iconic Masters in that regard, mainly because IMA also had an imbalanced distribution of value, with the average being greatly skewed by most of the expensive cards being at higher rarities and most of the lower rarities consisting of cheap, barely-used bulk cards that absolutely didn’t need reprinting, making booster packs even more of a gamble than usual. (And remember, I didn’t think IMA stuck to its theme very well either.) At least one Wizards employee seems to think that IMA didn’t sell well because of the Hascon preview decreasing interest, while it seems evident to me that the set’s poor performance had nothing to do with the preview and everything to do with the fact that it simply did not feel like there was enough value there to justify buying booster packs.

On that note, the same person implied a push more toward designing future sets for drafting, which, quite frankly, seems like another harebrained idea to me. I realize now that they have always been designed for drafting, but—lest I reiterate what I said in my Iconic Masters review—you’d never guess it from the price point. If they want people to draft it, fine, but they need to go full-in on that and price them more reasonably. If they want to reprint things that people want for constructed, that’s also good and they can keep packs at $10, but then they need to go full-in on that and put more cards in the set that people want and less chaff. It seems to me that trying to design them for draft while still retaining the high price point (and sprinkling a few money cards into them in an attempt to justify the value) is merely Wizards trying to have their cake and eat it, and it seems to me that it will inevitably end up making both draft players and constructed players dissatisfied, especially if they’re casual. Besides, we already have a series of supplementary sets designed specifically for draft. It’s called Conspiracy. There is no similar product for reprinting stuff for constructed formats; they just have to be strewn around existing supplementary sets. If you ask me, rather than designing these sets specifically to be drafted, it is better simply to design them well; if a set is good, and especially if it clicks together nicely, people will want to draft it anyway.

In summary, Masters 25 feels extremely lackluster, especially for a big fancy 25th anniversary set. As widely disliked as Iconic Masters was, I think I’m actually even more disappointed in A25 because it seems like a huge missed opportunity for such a climactic set. Maybe the nostalgia is there for some people (I wouldn’t know; I started playing fairly recently, so Modern Masters 2017 was much more of a “nostalgia trip Masters set” for me), but nostalgia value isn’t enough to make something good. As with Iconic Masters, there weren’t enough noteworthy cards and there wasn’t enough value to justify the purchase of boosters. If it seems like I’m making a lot of comparisons between the two, it’s because Masters 25 essentially just feels like Iconic Masters 2: Anniversary Edition. Masters sets are supposed to provide one possible avenue to make cards that are well-liked or in high demand but hard to come by more accessible, but recently, they’ve been feeling more like games of Corrupt-a-Wish. Yes, Wizards is a business, not a charity, but businesses need customers, which in this case are the players. If those players are dissatisfied with the product, and if they feel like their complaints are not being listened to, they’ll feel alienated, and if they feel alienated, they will seek entertainment elsewhere, or at least not buy any more new product. Back during preview season, I’d heard many stories of people canceling their pre-orders because of the set being underwhelming (one person even said that every single person who made a preorder at their LGS canceled it for one reason or another), which is definitely not a sign of confidence. I suggest that whatever team is in charge of these Masters sets tries a different tack and actually pays attention to what people want, or they will continue to do poorly and leave people feeling displeased. You can make them based on a particular theme or a particular format, just as long as you make them actually worth buying.

*sigh* Anyway, on the subject of supplementary sets that actually do seem worth their price relative to their value, a new kind of multiplayer set came out back in June: Battlebond. It focuses on teams of two (formally known as “Two-Headed Giant”, but I more often just call it “team play”), so the set is designed around two people at a time working together, which is reflected in some of the cards and mechanics. The “partner” ability from Commander 2016 returns as a new variant, “partner with”, where the creatures with it—as well as one pair of planeswalkers—must be paired with a specific other card, but once you get one of them out, you can search your library for the other one and put it into your hand…or better yet, have your teammate do that. There is also assist, which allows another player to pay the generic portion of a card’s mana cost. Finally, we see the return of support from Oath of the Gatewatch, which…puts +1/+1 counters on stuff. Yeah. It’s even set on a new plane: Kylem, where the people really like sports and two-on-two battles. Sadly, we didn’t get any stories for Battlebond to explore the plane more. Notable new cards from the set include Bramble Sovereign, Arena Rector, Arcane Artisan, Najeela, and the dual lands, which depend on having two or more opponents to enter untapped (and they could be a good thing to reprint in Commander sets, hint hint). As for the reprints…let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: Doubling Season finally got another reprint. Sadly, it’s mythic rare and Battlebond had a short print run, and as a result, it’s still 33 bucks, but hey, that’s better than 58, which is about what it was before. Beyond that, there are a couple of other expensive cards (though not as expensive as everyone’s favorite 5-mana green enchantment) that showed up: in the “high demand” corner, we have True-Name Nemesis, a rather infamous card from Commander 2013, and in the “low supply” corner, we have Vigor, originally from Lorwyn. Seedborn Muse is another low-supply one (though probably higher demand than Vigor), and it was one of the cards that I was going to complain about Masters 25 not including until it got reprinted here. Kor Spiritdancer and Chain Lightning are also good. I can’t speak for how the set actually plays, because I couldn’t convince anyone to go to any release events with me or get packs from it together.

Finally, there is Commander 2018. The themes this year are enchantments (green/white/blue), artifacts (blue/red), lands and possibly ramp (black/red/green), and “top of your library matters” (white/blue/black). More importantly, we get a new cycle of planeswalker commanders this time around: Estrid, the Masked; Saheeli, the Gifted; Lord Windgrace; and Aminatou, the Fateshifter. There’s not too much to say about the characters, since, again, we didn’t get any story. Furthermore, Aminatou seems to have been the only one of them who actually got a bio, and she’s…weird. She’s the youngest planeswalker so far, at 8 years old; she seems to be from a West African-inspired plane; and she is completely overpowered and it’s ridiculous (not that you’d ever guess it from her card, which is actually pretty weak). She has the ability to manipulate fate, which to me seems like it would allow her to do just about anything except change things that already happened, and to foresee the future, which allowed her to trigger her spark early. Saheeli is a character whom we already saw back on Kaladesh, and I’m pleased that she got another card, unless it makes her less likely to appear as a character again. Lord Windgrace is a character from the old stories and cards whom I don’t know much if anything about beyond the fact that he’s probably dead now. Estrid really should have gotten a bio as well, because we didn’t learn anything about her other than that she uses magical masks (and, funny enough, I could have guessed that from her title).

I must admit, though, the decks this year felt rather underwhelming. They weren’t as lame as the last two Masters sets, but they seemed noticeably weaker than usual, yet Wizards raised their price by $5. Also, Estrid’s deck is the only one that really felt coherent; the others seemed to be kind of disjointed. Still, though, there were at least some interesting new cards and a few decent reprints. Among the other new commanders, Kestia is kind of cool (first legendary nymph, for one) and her art is nice, Tuvasa is simplistic but decent, Tawnos seems good if you can build around him, Brudiclad is interesting (but more Phyrexian than I’d like), Gyrus is weird but could be decent (and dodges commander tax to boot), Thantis is one of those cards that I dislike both for gameplay and flavor reasons, Yennett is interesting and seems useful if you have the colors for her, and Varina seems like a decent tribal leader. For the other legendary creatures, Arixmethes is cute (and I really want to put it in a stompy/ramp deck), Varchild is weird, Xantcha is kind of silly but interesting (and hey, she finally got a card), and Yuriko could be pretty good. Other notable new cards include Heavenly Blademaster, Aminatou’s Augury, Estrid’s Invocation, Ever-Watching Threshold, Emissary of Grudges, Nesting Dragon, and Endless Atlas. Notable reprints include Bear Umbra (the other card that I was going to complain about Masters 25 not including until it got reprinted here), Enchantress’s Presence, Wild Growth (hey, that hasn’t shown up in the new border yet), Avenger of Zendikar, Mimic Vat, and Prototype Portal. I’ll admit I’m disappointed that they missed an opportunity for an Eldrazi Conscription reprint, though. Privileged Position would also have been a possibility, and maybe Darksteel Plate.

In summary: Dominaria was good, though Sagas were the only noteworthy set mechanic; the 2019 core set was actually quite decent for a core set, even if I was disappointed that there weren’t any returning mechanics (and that the story focused almost entirely on Icky Nicky); Masters 25 did the exact same things wrong that Iconic Masters did except for the name; Battlebond was an interesting new type of multiplayer-centric set and had some good reprints; and Commander 2018 was kind of weak but okay.