The end of core sets doesn’t mean all that much to eternal players. I’m not sure it means all that much even to Standard players. Core sets once defined what the baseline experience of Magic was meant to be, with all the basic spells and effects that defined how players were meant to interact. Since 2009, however, the core sets have been less about staple cards and reprints, just another expansion with simpler mechanics. This has been good for marketing, as it drove up interest in core sets for long-time players who didn’t need any more white-bordered copies of Rod of Ruin, but it has also distanced the game enormously from its roots.
When the final core set was announced as Magic Origins, many commentators assumed it would be full of classic reprints. That would have been a fitting end to the history that those sets have embodied. Instead, the set turned out to be based around the planeswalker characters. The decision to base the final core set around marketable characters instead of nostalgia is understandable, but has to strike many players as disappointing. This final core set is even less of a true core set than the last several have been. With just a few exceptions — one of which we’ll discuss today — the past was left in the past.
WotC believes the planeswalkers are the game’s future. So let’s oblige them and begin there. Although these double-sided planeswalkers are novel, they are not without some precedent. The “flip” enchantments from Kamigawa Block operated in much the same way. You get a creature on the front end, with some sort of objective he or she has to accomplish to transform into the planeswalker. The biggest problem with this in eternal formats is going to be time. You simply don’t have much of it. It may be fun to work at fulfilling the objective and getting the reward, but in older formats you really need the reward right now — or not at all.
So while I’m not very high on these for eternal formats, I am willing to admit that they are in somewhat new territory and it is possible I may be underestimating them. Anytime something new is introduced to the game, there is always a chance that a few cards of the new type will be severely undercosted because the developers lacked a true understanding of their power. A few of these are costed cheaply enough that they are worth considering. Kytheon/Gideon, despite being 1-mana, has abilities that are likely to be situationally irrelevant in most games of eternal Magic. Chandra’s ‘walker form might be fine to pressure a control deck, but to get there you need to untap with her and have either two red spells or one red spell plus an open board for her to attack into. Your planeswalker threat is valuable against something like Miracles precisely because it is NOT a creature, as they have plenty of ways to deal with those but perhaps only one Council’s Judgment and some countermagic to handle a ‘walker.
The only two that seem to do relevant things in older formats would be these:
Jace is fairly simple to flip in eternal formats. He could come down easily on Turn 1 in Vintage and potentially be flipped as early as Turn 2, which is soon enough to be relevant. His looting ability is not horrible, though not something you would ever consider including on its own merits. The ‘walker side gives you a re-buy on a spent or discarded spell, much like Snapcaster Mage, but with the tantalizing possibility that you might be able to re-buy more than one spell if you can spend a turn on the “+1″ ability. Giving a creature -2/-0 for a turn will actually reduce many popular Vintage creatures’ power to zero, so they’ll need more than a lone Dark Confidant or Snappie to get Jace off the board. But, that being said, there are just so many downsides here. Unlike Snappie, this can never be used to rebuy a counterspell at instant-speed, which is among Snappie’s most common uses. This also dies to your own more powerful Jaces, although you likely don’t care once you’ve gotten to cast a spell from your yard. Snapcaster leaves you a meager 2/1 body behind after rebuying a spell, whereas this leaves you with a ‘walker whose ultimate is very underwhelming and may actually provide less pressure on your opponent than a 2/1 would.
With Jace, the mana cost is so cheap, the conditions so easy to fulfill, and the effect he delivers is desirable in formats with cheap and powerful spells. But I suspect he’s one of the rare cards where its whole is worth LESS than the sum of its parts.
It will not be so easy to flip Liliana, though I think the payout for doing so is potentially much better. Requiring another creature to die is just begging for the opponent to simply kill Liliana first. All commonly-played removal spells in eternal formats will kill her, leaving you with nothing. Alternatively, any removal that exiles rather than destroys will not trigger the flip. Swords to Plowshares is the most popular creature removal spell in Legacy, as is Path to Exile in Modern, so this is hostile territory for cards with death-triggers. The best way to overcome that would be to use sacrifice outlets such as Phyrexian Tower or a spell like Cabal Therapy so that you can be certain to get the trigger and have some control over when it happens. However, with her death-trigger on the stack, the opponent can still kill Liliana in response, leaving you with neither the flipped ‘walker nor the 2/2 zombie (note the “if you do” language). That weakness has a corresponding strength: with a sac outlet and another creature in play, you could keep open the threat of transforming her at instant speed to save her from removal.
Bearing in mind the many things that can go wrong with this, it’s still not overly difficult, and your opponent trading removal for your threats is something that could always happen. The cards you would want to make this work are cards black decks in Legacy often play anyhow. The weakness here, compared to another ‘walker such as Liliana of the Veil, is that an ordinary ‘walker will always give you at least one ability before it can be killed.
On her flipped side, you get the same plus-ability as LotV, but at +2 instead of +1. This will build rather quickly to the ultimate. Of course, it may be more to your advantage to simply start reanimating Tarmogoyfs and Deathrite Shamans. Either way, this is highly annoying to play against in any midrange mirror where you are trading resources.
I like this card a lot, but the 3-drop slot in Legacy’s black-based midrange decks is already fairly crowded, and Liliana of the Veil is just more reliable and has the flexibility of being used as an overcosted Diabolic Edict when necessary. Liliana, Heretical Healer is a terrible topdeck if you are behind and don’t have the means to set up her transformation. If Birthing Pod were still around in Modern, this might be an interesting card there, and maybe it will find its way into the Collected Company decks that have followed in Pod’s tradition. A Legacy format in which this Liliana was playable would be a very fun one, and I suspect I’d enjoy it quite a bit, but I don’t think that’s where we are right now.
Merfolk haven’t been a major player in Legacy recently, though the islandwalking tribe have a lot of potential in a format filled with Islands sitting behind Delvers and Young Pyromancer token swarms. Two players made Top 16 with Merfolk at the Starcity Games Legacy Open in Columbus last month, and the deck has always been more popular than perhaps it deserved. But Merfolk in Legacy is a very tight list. After the set of Cursecatcher, the 12 lords, the Silvergill Adepts and some number of True-Name Nemesis, there just isn’t much room for a new addition. Most creatures in Legacy are cheap enough that the tempo swing here will rarely set the opponent back far enough to be worth it. Some lists have played Vapor Snag, so the effect is one that Fish might want, but only hitting tapped creatures is a real drawback even if you can Vial this in to mimic a true Unsummon ability. It could swing a damage race to bounce a flipped Delver, but not as well as plopping down another lord in most cases. I could see somebody trying a couple of these, but in the end I think Merfolk’s maindeck is too tight to allow this to get in there.
Vintage Fish has been viable in recent years, but needs to strike a fine balance between speed and disruptive capability. Many opponents won’t have a creature worth bouncing at all, so I don’t see this making the cut there.
Modern Merfolk is not so set in its ways as of yet, and plays a higher creature count anyhow to maximize Master of Waves. Tidebinder Mage is good enough to maindeck in Modern, and 2-3 copies of Vapor Snag is part of the stock list, so I fully expect this to see some Modern play.
As a kill spell for Legacy Elves, this has much to recommend it. It doesn’t require the combat step. It can be fetched with either Natural Order or a relatively cheap Green Sun’s Zenith. The deck already runs Bayou, and you also have Birchlore Rangers and Deathrite Shaman to produce black. The black will occasionally be awkward, though, if you’re casting it at the end of the turn after vomiting a ton of Elves onto the table, you won’t be able to hardcast it from Gaea’s Cradle alone.
The biggest downside is that while it often seems like Elves has a million guys in play when they kill you, they often have fewer than 10. Unless you have a great Glimpse of Nature turn, this likely can’t kill your opponent on its own. And it doesn’t do much against Miracles, which is generally considered the worst matchup for Elves, because they can still cast Terminus in response to this trigger.
It’s an interesting option to have, but it’s yet to be seen if Elves players will adopt it.
In Modern, Elves is a Collected Company deck that kills through combat via Ezuri, Renegade Leader. That deck, as currently configured, is mono-green. With neither DRS nor Birchlore Rangers available in Modern, the deck would have to radically alter the manabase to produce black mana, which seems unlikely in a deck packing a full set of Cavern of Souls and 3 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. Alternatively, it could rely entirely on CoCo and Chord of Calling to get Shaman into play, as it already does for the white hatebears out of its sideboard. Some versions have room for Razorverge Thicket, so potentially this is doable off the set of Caverns plus 4 Llanowar Wastes or Overgrown Tombs. I’m not sure the deck needs Shaman badly enough to alter the manabase, which has the very real advantage of having relatively little life loss in a format where Burn is an actual deck. Having a singleton as a Chord target seems pretty easy to try out, so I’m sure it will at least get an audition.
Though Containment Priest is available in Legacy for this effect, and generally superior, Hallowed Moonlight does a few things Priest can’t. First, it will stop tokens from entering the battlefield, which is mostly applicable to Dark Depths combo. It cycles, so if you’re maindecking this against a matchup where it doesn’t do anything, maybe you’ll find cycling it to be better than having a Grizzly Bears with flash. In most other ways, Priest is far superior. Priest is a Human creature which can be cast off Cavern of Souls and is impervious to Spell Pierce. If you stick the Priest, they have to deal with it via bounce or removal before they can try whatever cheatyface shenanigans they were up to, while Hallowed Moonlight only buys you a turn. I doubt you ever need 5+ of this effect in your deck, so that means Hallowed Moonlight is probably going to sit on the sidelines unless Dark Depths is a huge problem for your deck… your white deck, with a bunch of exiling spells, and maybe cutesy stuff like Flickerwisp… yeah probably not a problem. But it’s there if you need it.
Modern didn’t have Priest, so this could be a game-changer there. The decks in Modern that this affects include: a Goryo’s Vengeance deck that cheats Griselbrand into play, several midrange decks playing Collected Company as a value spell, the aforementioned Elf decks with Chord of Calling, Melira combo decks using persist creatures, Living End cascade combo, midrange and control decks that use Gifts Ungiven and Unburial Rites to reanimate Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite or to assemble the Spike Feeder + Archangel of Thune combo, and of course the Pestermite + Splinter Twin combo decks (though this is a rather poor delaying tactic against them rather than a true answer.) In some of these matchups, Hallowed Moonlight is little more than a cantripping counterspell, but in others it could be more devastating. Against Living End, for example, you would be exiling all of their creatures and forcing them to restock the yard from scratch, whereas countermagic is often met with just another cascade spell the next turn.
White has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Modern sideboard cards, and Hallowed Moonlight looks to take up a place there right away.
Managorger Hydra is certainly a longshot, but “grow” creatures have a lengthy pedigree in eternal formats. Right now, horizontal growth is favored in the form of Young Pyromancer and Monastery Mentor. Quirion Dryad isn’t good enough these days, but adding trample goes a long way towards giving this a chance. Growing from both players’ spells, and from artifacts, this will get big in a hurry, much faster than Dryad could. The extra mana on this makes a difference, but it still feels aggressively-costed at 2G.
It reminds me of Terravore, before Deathrite Shaman and delve spells made the once-powerful Lhurgoyf obsolete. Of course, while this might easily get as big as a Terravore, you’d much rather topdeck a Terravore if you’re hellbent. You have to cast the Hydra and then do the work of growing it, and that’s not as easy at all stages of the game unless you have the density of cheap cantrips and free spells that old Grow decks played. Contemporary Delver can manage it, and in Vintage they can cast a three mana spell, though that’s less likely in Legacy. Trample is an underrated ability in eternal formats right now, there are a lot of little tokens sitting around to clog up the board, so a vertical-growth card with this kind of evasion might just find a niche.
At 3 mana, this is the cheapest Cranial Extraction effect available. The difference between 3 mana and 4 is very pronounced in Legacy, and you can cast this Turn 1 off a Dark Ritual. But the extraction effect is too narrow, as no commonly-played combo deck is neutered by the removal of just one creature. Slaughter Games is much more powerful and sees occasional sideboard play, mostly in Aggro Loam decks that need a lot of help against combo. Shaving a mana off an effect that people already play is often a good way to get a card into Legacy, but I don’t see it happening here.
With Orbs of Warding, we go the opposite direction, this time adding a mana to Witchbane Orb. Witchbane Orb is used as sideboard tech for Vintage Workshop decks against Oath of Druids and Tendrils of Agony. It is fairly common for Workshops to have access to 4 mana on Turn 1, so the difference between 4 and 5 isn’t trivial. The additional ability here, preventing damage from small creatures, is better than Witchbane Orb’s. The damage reduction is potentially relevant in the Delver or Dredge matchup, but not so much that you’d bring this in against them. For that reason, I don’t see Witchbane Orb going away in favor of this.
My hopes of using this in conjunction with Underworld Dreams in a 1994-style trick deck were dashed against the rocks by MTG’s rules guru. Ending the turn is part of the spell’s resolution, so triggered abilities don’t go on the stack. Replacement effects do work, so combining this with Notion Thief is pretty saucy.
This is also the first Timetwister effect that allows for unlimited recursion since the original. In the old days, it was the recursive effect of Timetwister that was considered most dangerous, not the mana cost. Diminishing Returns causes you to lose 10 cards off the top, and subsequent printings like Time Spiral and Time Reversal both exile themselves during resolution. Day’s Undoing is unique for allowing you to recursively cast it, if you can chain them. So if there’s some sort of Reset + Leyline of Anticipation deck out there to cast Day’s Undoing on your opponent’s turn, you can cast dozens of these in his upkeep as long as your luck and mana hold up.
This kind of card almost always winds up as a bust. The most obvious use for these draw-7′s is to let a combo deck refuel and keep going off on their combo turn, so having “end the turn” in the spell is a pretty huge drawback. But given the unique potential for recursion, and knowing the history of Timetwister, it’s hard to completely rule this out.
It’s also worth noting that there already is a deck that plays Leyline of Anticipation and multiple draw-7 spells — Mono-Blue Belcher in Vintage. I have seen that deck lose when a player’s desperate Diminishing Returns exiled his only out. I’m not sure if that deck is the right fit for this card, but I believe there are potential decks out there for this. Everything in the old Solidarity deck is still legal, all you need is a reliable way to cast sorceries during your opponent’s upkeep.
Overall, this set has very slim pickings for eternal. There are some cards here that will make a splash in Modern, but no sure-fire hits for Legacy or Vintage. I hope to be surprised, as many of these cards look quite fun if they can find a home, but for now, Magic Origins feels like a disappointing end to an era.