Magic 2013 Design Review – White and the Big Picture

You open your eyes, still reeling from the familiar gut-wrenching feeling that accompanies traversing the Blind Eternities. As you do, you find yourself relieved: You’re finally home.

All around you, see relics of your many travels: baubles, trinkets, and pets. But all of this redecoration has done little to change the plane’s essential nature; it feels just as it did the first time you arrived. You move around, looking for familiar faces to greet, but as they continue to elude you, it dawns on you that it’s been a long time since you’ve paid a visit. Time flies when you’re traipsing across the multiverse. Not that it really matters. You know the ropes; this plane is your playground and your haven. Here, you’re invincible.

With that thought, you leap from a nearby cliff, close your eyes, and will yourself into Flight . . . or at least you try to. Nothing much happens. You panic. Last time you were here, you definitely used that spell. Why isn’t it working?

Well, no time to dwell on that now; you are falling after all. You will the Islands’ energy into more and more exotic forms, begging for salvation, but at last, you exhaust your repertoire without success. What a silly way to die, you think as you gaze at the rapidly approaching Plains below.

You don’t recognize the grain, perhaps a new strain cultivated by the local farmers. It sways strangely in the apparent breeze, almost as though it were being pushed from below. If you had better vision, perhaps you’d be able to discern rodents among the stalks, nudging them this way and that. A keen eye, focused on one thing out of place. You extend your mind to the plain below you, and you feel a sudden jolt as you’re lofted bodily skyward.

You look up.

Battleflight Eagle

Things may not be as static as you’d assumed, but you can certainly master whatever new surprises are in store for you. The challenge will be doing so before your enemies can do the same.

Magic 2013 had its prerelease this past weekend, and as you may have come to expect from the last few releases, I’m going to review the set’s design. Normally, I keep these pretty brief because I can only judge the finished product. After all, I didn’t sit in on all of the design meetings for Dark Ascension or Avacyn Restored.

The same is not exactly true for Magic 2013. No, I wasn’t actually in the meetings at Wizards, but I spent months alongside a few brave souls from Goblin Artisans designing and developing our own version of Magic 2013 before the spoiler season. Obviously, things didn’t turn out exactly the same, but our design contained a shocking (pun intended) number of parallels to the real deal, and as such, I feel a bit more qualified to talk about what’s going on here.

Forming a Baseline

When we started designing our version of Magic 2013, there was a rumor flying around that the next block would be the equivalent of Scars of Mirrodin for the plane of Ravnica. As such, we kicked off with that premise (lucky us) and began looking for a returning mechanic.

Magic has a whole lot of keywords, so one might expect there to be a multitude of options for the core set. That’s not exactly the case. Core sets require mechanics with resonant flavor because that’s the angle along which they’re trying to draw new players in. Core sets require deep mechanics because even though they don’t need many cards, mechanics aren’t evolved in the core set, and often, there’s not much left in a mechanic’s original execution. Core sets require fun mechanics because otherwise, why are you bothering to bring it back? All in all, that means there are very few good options, and we pretty quickly narrowed things down to these three:

Siege Wurm
Akrasan Squire
Kird Ape

In the end, we went with the Kird Ape mechanic (ability-worded as “bond”) because exalted felt too recent. By this point, you know how that went.

Knight of Glory

That doesn’t mean I think Wizards made the wrong choice here. Exalted was far and away the best mechanic available for maxing out these axes, and I think the Goblin Artisans team may have grossly overestimated how long most Magic players have been with the game. Shards of Alara felt recent to us, but the set came out four years ago. This game has a long history, and it’s easy to be caught up in a particular conception of old, but forming a grasp on how things actually feel for different portions of the player base is essential to making this game the best that it can be.

Structural Integrity

I’m planning to look at every color in the set individually, but given both its position on color wheel and the fact that white showcases most of the recent shifts in Magic [card] design, it seemed to be a good color to start with. Obviously, exalted is in white, and I'll talk more about its move into black when we get there, but the color is also a poster child for the recent shift in R&D's thinking about core set flavor.

For a long time, the core set was just a list of cards that were legal in Standard; we received the Counsel of the Soratami alongside a Nantuko Husk, and it just didn’t make a whole lot of sense to beginners. Then with Magic 2010, that was all thrown out the window. Everything was generic fantasy, and the only recognizable references were reprints. I mean, we even had Nessian Courser replaced with Centaur Courser. I don’t know about the rest of you, but in the intervening three years I became used to that, and so I was rather taken aback when this fine specimen was spoiled.

Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis

But the more I’ve thought about it, the more sense it makes. Yes, there’s the argument we’ve seen in articles on the Mothership that the game’s draw comes from exploration and Duels of the Planeswalkers is going to leave new recruits anxious to explore the planes. I’d contend that expansions fill that hole plenty well, but that doesn’t mean these new cards aren’t worth doing. See, there’s nothing like Cephalid Constable in Magic 2013; for a brand new player, Grixis is no stranger a fantasy name than Thune, but the references will make anyone who recognizes them feel both knowledgeable and appreciated. It’s really a win-win as long as things are handled carefully.

Unfortunately, we don’t quite seem to be there. Guardians of Akrasa still has flavor text referencing Elspeth . . . who isn’t in the set. Welkin Guide’s transformation into a new equally flavorless form seems to suggest more oversights in that department. Anyway, enough about the big picture of things; I’m sure you want to read about the actual cards themselves, so without further ado, the white section:

The White Section: A Snarkily Titled Subheader

For all of its fantastic traits, exalted is still far from a perfect mechanic, and one of its less desirable aspects is sucking some of the variance out of combat (note that when I say variance, I’m referring to different games playing out differently, not to the randomness that people often associate this diversity with). When exalted cards are too strong not to play, offense mostly devolves into one guy swinging and either getting through, being chumped, or trading up.

Shards of Alara avoided this problem by having exalted function as such a small component of the Limited environment, but with the mechanic serving as a focus for both white and black, something more is necessary to keep things fresh. Luckily, the easiest solution also helps make the drafting process itself more fun: Build some archetypes.

People often complain about core set Limited (and more recently Avacyn Restored Limited) because the decks all tend to become color X/color Y good stuff. Innistrad, on the other hand, had a dozen or so different decks that all gave their players the impression that they were in control because the cards synergized to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Magic 2013 isn’t exactly Innistrad, but my first impression suggests that’s its progressed much further than past core sets. And—you guessed it—white is a great example of this archetype diversity.

The most obvious deck in the format has to be W/B exalted. I mean, it says that they synergize right on the cards. It might seem odd, then, that white also has these commons:

Attended Knight
Captain's Call
Glorious Charge
Griffin Protector

The color’s not a one-trick pony; along with red’s Trumpet Blast and Krenko's Command, white can make for one of the more fearsome token-swarm decks ever to grace the face of Limited Magic.

But wait, there’s more! What would core set Limited be without the ubiquitous W/U flyers? It’s never been easier to gunk up the ground than with Guardians of Akrasa, Guardian Lions, Kraken Hatchling, and Vedalken Entrancer. On top of that, Arctic Aven, which bears a striking similarity to the Goblin Artisans’ aforementioned choice of returning mechanic, allows you to fly through the air without worrying too much about the backswing.

In fact, looking at that uncommon cycle might offer quite a bit of insight into how the allied-colored decks play. Prized Elephant promises a pretty enticing curve of huge ground pounders, and G/W seems poised to follow up on it, even at common. Check out some of the 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-drops:

Ajani's Sunstriker
Silvercoat Lion
Timberpack Wolf
Attended Knight
Yeva's Forcemage
Centaur Courser
Pillarfield Ox
Primal Huntbeast
Sentinel Spider

And somehow on top of all of these synergies, there’s still room for white to push playing with more white cards. There’s a grand total of one nonwhite card in the set that enables War Falcon to attack. I won’t know how well these themes actually pan out until I’ve played with the set more, but if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Magic 2013 as the deepest core set Draft environment to date, and I haven’t even looked at the other six two-color combinations yet!

Extraordinary Persons

Finally, it’s time for a couple of brief thoughts on some particularly interesting choices made about the white cards for this set.

I’ll start with a criticism.

Silvercoat Lion
War Priest of Thune

I have nothing against having either Silvercoat Lion or War Priest of Thune in the set, but they shouldn’t both be in here. War Priest of Thune’s existence doesn’t invalidate Silvercoat Lion in Limited, and the Cat wasn’t about to see Constructed play anyway, but putting them one next to the other just sends a false signal that rarity is equivalent to power. I literally can’t count the number of people I’ve talked to who played Magic at one point but quit because it felt like a money game, and while War Priest of Thune doesn’t exactly cost an arm and a leg, it still sends the wrong vibe to the players who purchase a couple of packs from each new set. I wish the War Priest’s trigger at least was mandatory so that there were situations not involving Forsaken Wastes in which you’d rather have the Lion, but that wasn’t really worth using a new card slot for.

Healer of the Pride

I’m decidedly happier with our next uncommon. Soul Wardens have always been popular, but it’s notoriously impossible to remember all of the cards’ triggers. Moving all of the life-gain to your creatures makes it much easier to keep track of and makes the card feel more powerful all while only slightly increasing the amount of life you’ll gain (which is offset by missed opportunities due to its higher cost). Finally, that higher cost allows for bigger stats, which means that the fact that Healer of the Pride is a creature is relevant even in the absence of removal spells.

Sublime Archangel

Quite frankly, I was mystified when this effect didn’t show up in Alara block. The ability seems obvious and awesome, and the only explanations I could come up with were that somebody dropped the ball or that it was way too swingy. That said, I was never about to stick it on a 4-mana, 4-power flyer, so I guess cheap Wraths must put more of a damper on this sort of deck than I anticipated. Anyway, the effect’s still obvious and epic, so I’m glad it’s finally seeing the light of day.

Serra Avatar

Serra Avatar is a fantastic mythic, and I’m kind of embarrassed that we never considered the reprint for the Goblin Artisans M13 set. I mean, the thing’s more or less “potential to be awesome” in a nutshell.

Ajani, Caller of the Pride

This new Ajani feels like the right way to do cheap planeswalkers; the initial bunch consisted mostly of card-advantage machines because so many of the game’s basic effects are worth a card (hence being worth spending a card to get normally). That made all games in which a ’walker was cast about killing that ’walker, and while it’s good for them to feel important, that wasn’t great gameplay to have going on year in and year out.

Moreover, Magic only has so many basic effects, so throwing out the requirement that almost every ’walker needs one worth a card should allow for more variations and thus help to conserve the extremely limited design space that the card type needs to mine for years to come.

Into the Wild Blue Yonder

That’s all for this week, but check back next time after some rescheduling of columns here on GatheringMagic for the blue and (I hope) black pieces of the story. And in the meantime, play some Magic 2013 Limited, and see if you can find the set’s archetypes for yourself!

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