Two Jesses’ Flavor Reviews: Magic Origins

Jesse K: The core set is dead! I’ve been saying they should ditch core sets for years, and now they finally are… right when they realized how to make a good one. I’ve gotta say, I’m a big fan of Magic Origins. The premise of this set, in case this is your first exposure to its purported theme, is the origin of various popular planeswalker characters. As a result the cards hail from one of 10 planes: The plane the walker is originally from, and the first one they walked to. In addition to this, sprinkled throughout are various cards, arts, and flavor texts that depict important moments in the characters’ developments. This may be the most integrated a story has been into the actual cards of a set since they stopped publishing those terrible novels. As a result, we are probably gonna miss some stuff. Chime in in the comments and tell us your favorite flavor finds.

Jesse T: I’m going to miss the core set, myself. Where are they going to print all the cards that aren’t interesting enough to sustain entire expansions by themselves? I guess there’s always supplemental material. All of the double-faced planeswalkers are playable in Commander, by the way, and it’s entirely possible that this is what Commander sets will look like in the future. I’m actually pretty excited about not only the planeswalkers in Origins, but also Jhessian Thief, which I will undoubtedly mishear as my own name any time anyone says it.

K: And let’s get to those planeswalkers… but first, a brief review of the set’s mechanics:

Renown

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K: For some reason, renown stands out as the most compelling mechanic of the set. This might be because it’s almost the only real new mechanic, but I actually do like it. It feels like a nice mini-game, trying to get your creatures renowned, and the mechanic feels like it has a good top-down feel. This is that famous creature that took a chunk outta that opposing planeswalker! It’s famous to the other creatures, and the +1/+1 counter is a fine designator of this, and ties in nicely to the whole Bant/sigil thing. I never loved Bant back during Alara block, but the most positive thing I can say about it is people riding lion mounts. Look how cool this is!

T: I like the renown mechanic, but I don’t like that Stalwart Aven is wearing a long, flowing robe instead of pants. I mean, wear what you want, but there are people below you all the time, and one of them could decide to look up at any moment. Obviously Stalwart Aven is housebroken (he’s a trained soldier, for crying out loud), but I still get nervous and keep an eye out for pigeons when they fly overhead, so it seems like a valid concern.

Prowess

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K: Look how enormous this owl must be, holy moly. You know what else is a 3/3? An elephant. A literal giant. A leviathan (a small leviathan). Anyway, Prowess is now an evergreen mechanic, apparently. Or maybe it’ll just be for this set, who knows? They can do whatever they want. The argument was that blue needed a combat-based mechanic, and I can’t say I disagree. I’ve really come to enjoy playing with prowess cards, but it’s a little complex to be on cards in every set. Also, we’re gonna need a new conception of what prowess means, since back in Khans, when it debuted, it was synonymous what karate skills. I don’t think this owl’s karate chopping anyone, but if it did I would hope to see art of it.

T: Prowess is vague enough that they can pretty much flavor it however they want to. Magical ability? Physical dexterity? Who cares? Just play lots of instants and sorceries. The owl is apparently able to “learn of mana”, but how does Mage-Ring Bully get prowess? In fact, how does he bully anyone at all? He looks like Crispin Glover with Justin Bieber’s old haircut, and judging from the flavor text, he’s the one being ostracized by Jace, not the other way around.

Menace

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K: Menace is a new evasion-type keyword they’re introducing in this set, although it’s been around since Fallen Empires in some form or another. Wizards has decided that they don’t need more unblockable-type abilities, especially those that randomly work against some decks and don’t against others. This means that landwalk and intimidate are out, for now. I think both of them are pretty flavorful abilities, but I agree that they don’t play so great. Probably just flying and straight unblockability are enough ways for things to not get back. Well, except that now we have menace. Menace is like intimidate, flavorwise. The creature is scary, so you can’t block them alone. Yeah, that’s cool. I like this card’s targeting restriction too, and haven’t seen the Lorwyn elves’ obsession with perfection reflected in this way before, and it makes sense. It’s odd that this guy’s power and toughness aren’t equal, and I feel like the flavor would be stronger if they were.

T: I think it’s supposed to show how Lorwyn elves are self-hating. They call other creatures “eyeblights” and kill them because they can’t kill the real ugliness they see in themselves. Or maybe it just didn’t play well in limited otherwise. I’m guessing that they chose to keyword this ability because it wasn’t difficult enough to remember what intimidate does, and they want to make sure they’re getting full mileage out of all that reminder text they print. I like that some of the boggarts sort of look like muppets, but I’m pretty sure that purple one on the right has no discernible head, and that’s extremely unsettling, eyeblight or not.

Spell Mastery

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K: If I were gonna bring anything back from the dead to serve me, it probably wouldn’t be an elk. I guess Liliana is young here, so its forgivable. Spell Mastery is the set’s other real new mechanic, and I actually really like this one, too. It even fits the set’s theme of planeswalkers coming into their own and having their spark awaken. As far as “mastery” goes, I don’t know if having cast two spells really means you’re a boss wizard, but I’m guessing that number was tested pretty extensively. I think it’s a pretty cool mechanic, even though it is threshold with a new coat of paint. Goes to show, if a mechanic’s flavor is right, you can get away with making it fairly simple. Overall both new mechanics are solid and flavorful, and I’d be happy to see them return in a future set.

T: The flavor is so good, and so simple! I never understood why they didn’t number mechanics like this. If they just made it “spell mastery 2″ or “threshold 7″ it would open up so much room for design. In fact, the first set with scry only used scry 2, and that mechanic has clearly had quite a bit of longevity.

K: Well, clearly they’re saving the ‘keyword space’ by not doing this. In a few sets they’ll introduce the brand new mechanic of “Spell Expertise”, which only works when you have three instants and sorceries in your graveyard. Boom! Brand new mechanic.

Scry

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K: Scry is back, and this time it’s evergreen. I appreciate the need for some kind of smoothing/deck manipulation mechanic, and scry is the simplest we’ve seen so far. I do think there are other ways to mix it up, and hope they don’t stop looking for other ways to accomplish this need. I think as times goes on, scry will become further and further separated from its history of being somehow related to soothsaying. This card does stick with that, but others, like Lightning Javelin, are pretty much zero flavor. Even for flavor judges like ourselves, it’s ok for some mechanics to just serve a gameplay purpose. I would love for them to bring cycling or clash back at some point, and I’m sure we’ll see it eventually.

T: That’s kind of what they’re doing with prowess, now that you mention it. Scrying is both flavorfully and mechanically similar to drawing a card, and I don’t think they’ve ever even pretended to try to give random cantrips a creative identity. Scrying is just something that wizards do. I’m glad they’re making more keywords evergreen, because there’s not much point in making up a million new forgettable abilities every set if you’re never going to go back and use the good ones again.

Planeswalkers

K: Okay, enough of that garbage, let’s get to the real meat of the set. Ostensibly these five cards are the flavor heart and soul of Magic Origins, so they’ve got some heavy lifting to do. There is one more mechanic that’s coming back, and it’s going to help with conceptualizing the transformation these characters go through.

T: All the planeswalkers in this set are double-faced, with each face representing the character either before or after their spark awakens. I’ve loathed planeswalkers since the first time I saw Jace’s hacky cowl in Lorwyn, but I think they finally did them right in this set.

Gideon Jura

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K: Gideon was from Theros all along! This is a truly shocking development that just so happens to fit into their marketing data that Theros was a popular block. Gideon’s transformation ability tells a story pretty well, he charges into the heat of battle and that stress ignites his planeswalker spark… at the end of combat. I also like that they tied indestructibility into his card, as it’s the one component of his character that is consistent. It’s kinda cool that his flipped form is pretty much just a mini version of original Gideon, like he got better at these tricks over time. As a character, I’ve never cared about Gideon, but doing this for Ajani would’ve been even more needless, and we just had an Elspeth-focused set. Gideon gets a flavor B- from me.

T: I’m not surprised. I totally called Kytheon Iora was Gideon Jura the first time I read the flavor text on Desperate Stand, but then again, I am a certified flavor expert. Gideon’s story is one of a troubled youth who travels to an alternate world of brave knights and chivalric heroism, following in the footsteps of such iconic tales as Disney’s A Kid in King Arthur’s Court, and Black Knight starring Martin Lawrence. Between Theros and Bant, it must have been quite a shock for Gideon the first time he traveled to a plane that wasn’t covered liberally with cypress trees.

Theros

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K: One of the coolest parts of this core set is that it gets to visit some of the old planes and make cards that would kind of belong there. Including Theros is more of that instant nostalgia I talked about in our Dragons review. Anyway, it’s also an excellent choice to bring back because it was supposed to be the enchantment block, and it had almost no playable enchantments in it. Starfield of Nyx is exactly the kind of card I was hoping for when they revealed they were doing an enchantment set, and I’m glad that they’ve added it here.

T: It would be a pretty big mistake not to include Theros in the 10 best planes of all time. It’s easily top 5 for me, and maybe even top 3, but I feel like it would needlessly incite controversy to make such a claim here. If anybody is interested in ordering a copy of my Top 10 Planes List, I will happily accept payment via personal check, PayPal, and/or solid gold ingots. Centaurs and griffins have always been a part of Magic, and it’s great to see them thriving in their natural habitat along with naiads, titans, and Odysseuses.

Alara

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K: This one’s a bit of a blast from the past. Alara’s a cool place to revisit, but the drama of the set was all in the joining of the shards, and that’s not present here at all. I guess this is because all this stuff happened before the Conflux? Even though it’s not the most interesting world, this set hits the high points well (leotau, sigils) and I love how you can see memorable locales in the background of some of the art.

T: I think Bant is pretty nice, actually. Sure, it’s boring, but it’s also peaceful, egalitarian, and beautifully landscaped. They don’t even wear armor on their backs because nobody in Bant would ever stab anyone else in the back! Of all the planes we’ve visited in Magic, I think I’d most want to live on Bant, and it deserves a little bit of recognition. Here’s a +1/+1 counter, Bant. You are now renowned.

Jace Beleren

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K: Oh good, it’s a sixth Jace. Jace is an annoying and boring character, and his backstory appears to be “tutored by an evil-looking sphinx, surprise the sphinx was evil”. While Gideon elicits a shrug, Jace is someone I actively am tired of. The only part of his story I want to see more of is the part where the Mage-Ring Bully gives him a wedgie. He gets a few grudging points for his card’s legend side and transformation trigger making some amount of sense, but I’m tempted to take them right back because now they’ve given Jace another distinct ability in “flashbacking” instants and sorceries. D+

T: I agree with you about Jace being annoying and boring, but disagree that any part of this card is well-designed or flavorful. What does -2/-0 have to do with telepathy? I would have much rather seen Tamiyo, Teferi, or even a completely new character in this spot. The best thing I can say about Jace is that he gave them a reason to print cards pertaining to Ravnica in this set.

Vryn

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K: Vryn is Jace’s homeworld and it’s populated by a race of angsty, quippy teenagers with terrible hair. It’s one of our couple of new planes that debut here, and if I had to guess, second most likely for our next setting. The plane’s trademark appears to be the Mage-Rings and the warring factions that battle for control of them, but it’s not too fleshed out, either mechanically or flavorfully. Yes, the Mage-Rings look cool, but you can’t build a story just on that. See the movie Elysium for proof of this.

T: I agree. With all those video ads all over the visual spoiler that you can’t skip or mute, I figured they’d be able to afford the license on a decent intellectual property by now. Vryn was way more interesting in the distant future when everyone was dead. If I wanted to see a world ruled by engineers with trendy mohawks, I’d go take the subway downtown.

Ravnica

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K: No one hates Ravnica, and the city plane remains a favorite of mine. However, having sustained 2 blocks already, you can tell that it’s kinda tapped out. What does this set bring to Ravnica’s body of work that the six previous sets set there doesn’t? Well, we get a fish lizard, that’s something at least.

T: Ravnica is clearly the greatest plane of all time, but let’s talk about how much I hate Jace some more. Did you know his origin story is that he woke up on Ravnica with no memory of who he was or how he got there? I don’t think it’s an exaggeration or hyperbole to call that the most hackneyed story imaginable. God, what a terrible character.

Liliana Vess

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K: Liliana is probably the best choice they have for an iconic black planeswalker character. While she does have a more interesting and detailed backstory than most, this is also because there is literally only one other mono-black planeswalker (and it’s Sorin “What am I doing in Tarkir?” Markov). I like how this set really succeeds in showing her origin (eh? ehh??) and her card does a good job of complementing this. The natural next step for a healer who’s done some Dark Dabbling is trying to deny death itself, especially when it befalls a loved one. Once she’s caught the necromancy bug, Liliana’s next step appears to be falling in with a group of demons, and making a deal. To me this character has the most successful showing in this set. Flavor grade: A.

T: Oh, whoooooops! I haven’t been grading these at all. Let’s see… Gideon: C+, Jace: F, Liliana: B. I hope that’s meaningful to all of you. Liliana grew up in the part of Dominaria inspired by Pan’s Labyrinth. She made a pact with an ancient demon, granting her eternal youth, but only so long as she uses it to pander to the gaze of male Magic players. Keep an eye out for the new Magic feature film, Liliana Vess: Bikini Zombie Demon Slayer, coming soon to home video. With that said, her planeswalker side does look way glamorous with all those adoring undead fans clawing at her. Snap!

Dominaria

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K: True story: When I was setting up this article, I was trying to guess what all the planes representing each character were without checking, and Liliana’s homeworld was the one that I had the least clue of. Turns out that’s because her story begins on Dominaria, infrequently seen generic Magic land. All this stuff apparently happened before the events of Time Spiral, which depicts Dominaria as a post-apocalyptic time portal wasteland, so I guess Lili’s been planeswalking around for a while. Time travel is hard, but not as hard as giving some kind of distinctive characterization to Magic’s first plane. The best they can do here is reprint some classics and use some of the iconic place names.

T: One of the mistakes they made when they designed Dominaria was trying to include everything at once. There are entire continents on Dominaria that aren’t even represented in this set. Speaking of poor representation, this seems like as good of a place as any to point out that all five of the planeswalkers in this set are white. Every last one of ‘em. It’s especially disappointing when Magic has been so good about representations of women and nonbinary people in recent sets. One or more of these planeswalkers needs to go. I nominate Jace, Generic Blue Mage. God, what an awful, pointless, uninspiring character.

Innistrad

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K: Innistrad, on the other hand, is immediately recognizable, and feels like it could sustain another set or two if called on to do so. In fact, given those last few core sets and supplemental products, you could argue that they never stopped printing Innistrad cards. As such, this doesn’t feel like as much of a welcome return as it could otherwise, but all your favorite vampires, werewolves, and zombies are present and accounted for. If they want to go back to Innistrad in the future (and I think the smart money is on “they do”), they should probably give it a bit of a rest after this.

T: You ever look at a horse and think, “Boy, I’m glad it’s not a full moon, otherwise I’d definitely kill that horse”? No, you haven’t. That’s because you don’t understand what it’s like to be a werewolf. You have to start thinking like that. Every time you see a horse, or a dog, or a child, you have to think about what it would be like to bite into its body like a delicious sandwich with crunchy peanut butter. Think only about how delicious that sandwich would be, and soon you will be able to think like a werewolf. Then, you will be able to out-think a werewolf. Then, you will be able to read their minds, and then you will be able to control their minds, and then you will have a telepathic army of werewolf soldiers, and then maybe you will finally be happy.

Chandra Nalaar

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K: It’s Chandra, the other old-school planeswalker that they’ve decided was interesting enough to include in the Origin stories set. So how does her origin stack up? Well, she was a fire mage, and then they were gonna kill her, and so she teleported to fire world where she learned all about fire. The end. I guess Chandra’s most compelling character trait was always that she manages to have her hair on fire all the time (without being a liar), so this is about the best they could’ve done. There is one saving grace in the Chandra storyline, and this is her homeworld and her cool mom and dad. What are their origins, I wonder? More interesting than Chandra’s, I would guess. Chandra flips by lighting enough things on fire and then evolves into doing more things with fire. Flavor Grade: C

T: I actually like the design of Chandra’s planeswalker side. It’s cohesive. She’s all about setting things on fire, whereas Jace is just about doing broadly-defined blue things. Her story, on the other hand, is shockingly dull. She appears to be an Irish girl with a made-up Indian-sounding name, and her many important character traits include “hates artifacts” and “likes changing the target of spells and effects”. I think they could have easily replaced her with a new, more interesting character as well. I’ll give her a D+, because I still prefer a story about being yourself to a story about a strange man with inexplicable amnesia and a mysterious past.

Kaladesh

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K: Gears! Cogs! Steam! Filigreed robot butlers! Welcome to Kaladesh, the world that has clearly had the most effort put into it flavorfully and mechanically. I’d be willing to bet a foil island that this is the plane we’re walking to after we Battle for Zendikar. And it’s a cool world too, seeming to be the long-awaited steampunk world (no, Izzet doesn’t count). Steampunk’s a little played out at this point, but an artifact set hasn’t been done in a while, and I think there’s certainly room that hasn’t been explored yet by the Mirrodins, especially flavorfully, which Kaladesh seems to promise to do. If it means we get more thopter tokens, I want to go right now.

T: I think a steampunk plane sounds cool, except they already incorporate steampunk tropes into every set already, so I’m not sure what would set it apart. I always wondered why they couldn’t go anywhere more technologically advanced than steampunk. Does electricity automatically destroy magic? I could imagine a really cool sword & sorcery epic set in deep space, kind of like Dune or Star Wars. Actually, that would be horrible. Never mind. I understand now. Good job, Wizards!

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Regatha

K: And Chandra teleports from the most interesting plane to the least interesting. Regatha is generic fire world where there are fire dogs, fire temples, and fire monks, and that’s about it. Its one claim to fame is that Jaya Ballard once visited there. To me it’s a tremendous mistake to even remind older players like me that Jaya existed, because she and Chandra are basically the same character, except Jaya was actually funny sometimes.

T: What a bizarre decision it was to include this place. It’s evocative of absolutely nothing. I always imagined that there were small pieces of planar debris in the Blind Eternities, sort of like how there are asteroids in space, but I never thought we’d actually visit one of them. This is clearly a flavor trap, put in the set to help newer players learn the difference between a compelling setting and a boring one.

Nissa Revane

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K: To me, Nissa’s origin story is not really apparent from the cards, and when you read it (like I did, at the prerelease today), it’s kind of confusing and circuitous. She’s from Zendikar, where she finds out about the presence of the sleeping Eldrazi before they wake up. The trauma from this sends her into her first planeswalk, which is to Lorwyn. At this point she falls in with a band of Lorwyn elves, who are a bunch of crappy racists. She realizes this eventually and goes back to Zendikar, to fight the Eldrazi. Did you spot the problem with this story? There’s pretty much no reason for her to go to Lorwyn in the first place, and doing so adds no character development. In fact, Nissa as a character is pretty much still a cypher to me, despite her increasing prominence in the story. Here’s what we know: She’s an elf, she loves lands, and she hates Eldrazi like Garfield hates Mondays. Flavor Grade: C

T: What the hell is an Ashaya, the Awoken World token? Flavor Grade: C-

K: Well you see, it makes perfect sense because <static noise>

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Zendikar

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K: It’s weird that Zendikar is both where Nissa is from and where her story takes her back to by the end of it, right? Ok, I’ll stop talking about confusing Nissa’s story is. Zendikar is super cool, and I’m really glad we’re going back to it. Evidence of that coolness is… not really evident in this set, so I hope it will be when it takes the main stage in the fall. If Wizards thought what was compelling about Zendikar was elves, elementals, and hedrons floating around in random corners of artwork, I feel like they missed the point. Please bring us more Indiana Jones magical adventure type stuff.

T: I’m not a huge fan of Zendikar. Wizards of the Coast owns Dungeons & Dragons, but for some reason, Zendikar is the closest we’ve ever come to a crossover. How hard is it to put a few drow and beholders in the card file? Zendikar is the “adventure world”, which sounds more like the name of a theme park than an actual idea. All of the locations in Zendikar have exotic made-up names like Tazeem and Sejiri. I have no idea if they’re supposed to sound African or Middle-Eastern or what, and I doubt the creative team does either.

Lorwyn/Shadowmoor

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K: I think Lorwyn has a good showing in this set, if only by virtue of making me miss creature-type-matters sets. The different takes on popular tribes were good at the time and hold my interest now. I also think that design has evolved to the point where they could do a better job of making a storybook folk-tale based world. I think this is a good candidate for another “return to” set eventually.

T: I’d be happy to see either Lorwyn or Shadowmoor again. For those of you living under a rock, Shadowmoor is Lorwyn after the Great Aurora changed it from the land of eternal summer to the town of Halloween. The set had a pumpkin-headed king of the scarecrows, a bunch of obscure creatures from Celtic myth, and the noteworthy absence of Johnny Depp in hideous makeup. It was all buried under this clunky hybrid-mana-matters theme, but I’d love to see another take on the plane.

K: Whew, we’ve covered a lot of ground, both narratively and spatially. Cramming 10 planes into one set is an ambitious. Does it succeed? Well, clearly some worlds hold up better than others (Kaladesh), but I think ultimately it is justified, based on the strength of getting to see some of our old and new favorites get some bonus cards printed. I personally was most psyched to finally see important touchstones like the Great Aurora and the Starfield of Nyx in cardboard form. Come back next time when we take a look at some of the individual winners and losers from this set!

T: Ultimately, I’d have to say I don’t like Jace very much. The rest of the set is great. It’s full of interesting locations, fun designs, and evocative creatures. Aside from Jace, these are some of the most compelling planeswalkers we’ve ever seen, and I’m finally starting to like them. Wizards has really hit their stride when it comes to streamlining gameplay and creating fun sets, and as soon as they get rid of Jace forever, the game will be perfect. God, what a worthless character. Are you sick of hearing me talk about Jace? Good, I’m sick of him too. Jace needs to go. See you in part 2!

 

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