Whenever I release a spoiler analysis, I like to dig deep into the implications of the mechanics of the set. However, I often feel like I’m cramming that section in at the end of an already long article, and I thought it would be smart to put together a blog post where I analyze the mechanics for a set as the set comes out. The goal is not for this to be accurate right when I put it out; instead, I’m going to be tweaking this as I discuss the mechanics and the cards during the spoiler season, but ideally this will provide some insight into how I approach the analysis of a set.
I’m still having a hard time figuring out Bolster. The mechanic seems fairly straightforward, since you just get to pass around counters to your creatures with the lowest toughness. There are a few things that are important to note about Bolster.
First, it’s difficult to control exactly where the counters are going to go. When you are just casting a straightforward spell with Bolster, such as Elite Scaleguard, Map the Wastes, or Cached Defenses, it’s really not very difficult to put the counters in a reliable place and then use them to your advantage. However, cards like Dragonscale General, Domoka, the Eternal, or Abzan Skycaptain are much more difficult to control, because the ability happens in response to something that happens in the game.
Second, the mechanic is fairly tempo positive. +1/+1 counters make a big difference on creatures, and it’s not difficult to change a small creature into a nearly unstoppable force in the midgame. Elite Scaleguard, Honor’s Reward, Dromoka, Dragonscale General, and Cached Defenses, all created situations that had a profound impact on the early tempo of the game, and forced your opponents to find an answer quickly. These are the kinds of cards that create a sort of snowball effect; if you get ahead, they allow you to continue stacking up counters and stay ahead.
I think one of the biggest mistakes that people make with Bolster is associating it too closely with Abzan. The Abzan clan in Khans of Tarkir was a pretty slow deck that looked to take advantage of Outlast over several turns, but Bolster is a tempo-positive mechanic that kind of puts the screws to your opponent. It is much more aggressive, and I think people need to keep that in mind as they look at the format. It is possible that the mechanic will be used in more grindy ways, such as with Abzan Skycaptain, but overall I think it puts a lot of pressure on your opponent in the midgame.
Sandcrafter Mage is a great example of this. It’s a 3/3 for 2W if you have nothing else out, which is a fantastically competitive card in a format with morph. However, if you have a two drop out before you play the mage, then the counter will go there, and have a sort of pseudo-haste and be able to attack that turn. The mage can then turn around and block a morph, which adds so much to your board position. I think that Sandcrafter Mage on turn 3 is going to be a very powerful card that gets white decks off to a great start.
My biggest question with Bolster is how the mechanic will interact with cards that care about +1/+1 counters. We saw several of these in Khans of Tarkir, and I wonder if some of that will transfer over to the new set. If it does, then the mechanic will obviously become much stronger. With Megamorph in the set, I would not be surprised to see some amount of +1/+1 counters matter mechanics, so that’s worth watching.
It’s nice to see that Rebound has come back again. For those that do not remember, Rebound was a mechanic that showed up in Rise of the Eldrazi. It was only on 12 cards in that set, and only two of those cards were common, with Distortion Strike and Staggershock. Rebound is a fascinating and strong mechanic. It has inherent card advantage, and although most of the Rebound cards in Rise of the Eldrazi were fairly narrow, most of them were very playable. All the cards that generated a card on each effect were fairly good in the format, with even Survival Cache seeing play in the right decks.
WotC knows how powerful this mechanic is, and you can see evidence of this by the kinds of cards that had Rebound the first time around. There are very few Rebound cards that provide you with straight up cards. Recurring Insight will usually draw you a lot of cards, but if you draw it too late, it might also draw you very little. Surreal Memoir gets you back a card, but it’s a card at random, so there are some limitations on it. Survival Cache gives conditions on whether you draw a card or not. Staggershock kills a creature, but in Rise of the Eldrazi, most things had more than two toughness, so even that ability was somewhat limited in generating inherent card advantage. On that note, can you imagine how insane Staggershock would be in a format of morphs? It would probably have to be rare to match its power level, though it could probably be a Pyrotechnics level uncommon. All of that is irrelevant, though, since Rebound is the WU mechanic in this set, so we will almost certainly not see a reprint of Staggershock.
All of this is to say that WotC was very careful with the effects generated by Rebound the last go around. Ideally we’ll see them push the boundaries of the mechanic a smidgen further in this set, and our first card, Ojutai’s Summons, seems to indicate that WotC is willing to risk a teensy bit more on the mechanic, but not a lot more. Ojutai’s Summons gives us two 2/2s, which is mostly worth a card, but at the cost of five mana. I don’t think anyone feels that this is going to be a constructed powerhouse, and I truly doubt that it’s going to be a limited powerhouse for that matter. Yes, you get two 2/2s, which is Talrand’s Invocation level of power. But you get those for five mana, and you get them spread out over two turns. People always tend to underestimate the difference between four and five mana. Five tends to be one of the most competitive slots in the game. It’s at that point where you want a few cards in the slot, but you want to limit the number you have as much as possible. It’s easy to pick up as many 5 CMC cards as you want, so I very rarely pick those cards up early unless they are just absurd in power level, and this card doesn’t make it into that tier. Alongside Prowess, it should be a good card, but I doubt that it will even be a top common, though I could definitely be wrong. With that said, the interaction between this and Mistfire Adept seems pretty good.
Dimir managed to make off with the most flavorful mechanic of this set with Exploit. When I saw Fate Reforged, I noticed that there were a lot of signs for the Dimir mechanic to encourage sacrifice in some way. There was some speculation that Devour would be making a return, since it was a dragon themed mechanic that allowed you to sacrifice creatures, but I had my doubts simply because Devour was tied in flavor to Jund, which didn’t make much sense when UB would end up being the basis for Sultai. However, with cards like Sultai Emissary, Jeskai Sage, Marang River Prowler, Hooded Assassin, Noxious Dragon, Merciless Executioner, and Qarsi High Priest, it was very obvious that sacrifice would be a big part of Dragons of Tarkir in UB.
Exploit seems like an obvious enough mechanic; if you sacrifice something when you play a creature with Exploit, you can generate an additional effect. However, there are a lot of fascinating decisions that R&D made when they designed this mechanic. Exploit is the kind of mechanic that makes a lot of Magic players kind of turn up their nose. They see a card that requires them to sacrifice another creature for their effect, and all they can think is that the ability is inherent card disadvantage, and they’ll often not turn around to give the mechanic another look until after it starts performing well in actual drafts. Exploit reminds me of some of those old mechanics, specifically Devour and Champion, both of which basically want you to get rid of a creature when the card comes onto the battlefield. But Exploit has a few key differences.
First, we get the all-important “may.” Unlike Champion, Exploit is not a requirement. You always have the option to just play the creature as a creature. This is key. Silumgar Butcher might not seem very good as a 3/3 for 4B, and indeed, I would not include that card in my deck if that was all that it did, despite the fabulous Zombie Djinn creature type. But the ability to just throw it down as a 3/3 for 4B is wonderful. Sometimes you find yourself in a situation where just adding a creature to the board is going to be enough to win the game. Sometimes you just need something that can block. Sometimes they don’t have anything worth killing. In any of these circumstance, you get to at least add a creature to the board, which is wonderful utility.
The second key part of Exploit is the phrasing “sacrifice a creature” instead of “sacrifice another creature.” It’s also different from Devour because it says “When ~this~ enters the battlefield” rather than “As ~this~ enters the battlefield.” Again, this might not seem like a huge deal since we already have the may part of the sentence early on, but it changes the usage of these cards significantly. Now, you can play the creature with Exploit and just sacrifice itself if you really need the Exploit effect.
In a sense, this makes Exploit cards more like three cards-in-one. You’ve got the “just a creature mode”, which is obviously less powerful, but important in many situations. You’ve also got the “just a spell mode,” which is useful in the case of Silumgar Butcher because it means that you can just use it to kill a flyer that was going to kill you in case the 3/3 body is irrelevant. Finally, you have the version where you sacrifice another creature, often something that is specifically built for sacrificing, or possibly even just a creature that is more irrelevant than a 3/3, and you get an effective two-for-one. This design of Exploit is really cool, because it means that you’ll be able to figure out the version of the spell that fits best in whatever situation you find yourself.
It’s different from Champion because of the may ability, and it’s different from Devour because you can sacrifice any creature, and these two minor parts of the ability actually have a significant effect on the functionality of the card. I think that people are going to underestimate how powerful this ability will end up being. Obviously if they underpower all of the cards with Exploit, then it won’t be very good, but the cost of sacrificing a creature is a steep one, so I expect to see pretty significant rewards, and we’ve already seen that from the cards that have Exploit so far.
This was the mechanic that I had the hardest time wrapping my head around in Fate Reforged, and to be perfectly honest, I’m still not exactly sure how strong the Dash ability actually is. Obviously Goblin Heelcutter is quite strong, but Alesha’s Vanguard is fairly mediocre, as is Mardu Scout. The ability is strong, that much is obvious, but it’s not strong to get us play a card that we wouldn’t be willing to play for its regular cost. Where Dash really shines is with creatures that have an ability that matters on the turn that it attacks, which throws off combat so tremendously that it changes the nature of combat.
And I suppose that’s the real benefit of Dash, in the end. It isn’t so much the actual dashing that wins the game, but that you can threaten to add a creature to the board with haste on any give turn, and your opponent has to play with the assumption that you are going to do that. It’s a mechanic that forces decks to be on the defensive much longer than they would normally want, which allows you to potentially draw into the reach that will win you the game. As such, it is obviously an aggressive mechanic that will put pressure on the format to get faster.
The difficulty with Dash is that it doesn’t stack well with other cards that have the mechanic. They are all costed just a little bit too high for their body, and as soon as you have 4 or 5 dash creatures, you’re going to run into problems with sequencing. We’ll have to wait to see what kinds of creatures get the Dash mechanic in Dragons of Tarkir, and then we’ll have a better idea of how this mechanic will develop.
I’m not sure that I have a lot to say about Formidable. It’s very similar to Ferocious, and is often going to play out very similarly, except that it requires you to have an even bigger board presence than with Ferocious.
I suppose that it’s worth talking about how the two mechanics are different. First, Formidable counts all your creatures, and really doesn’t require you to have any particularly big creature. Mostly, it just wants you to play with a lot of creatures, and ideally the biggest you can find. In that way it’s a little bit stronger than Ferocious. However, it also requires you to have multiple creatures on the board. Zach Orts pointed out to me that one of the biggest problems with the mechanic is that when you have 8 power on the board, you should probably be winning anyway. That’s often true, though it isn’t necessarily true when the board stalls out. It’s a mechanic that allows you to close out games that you are winning, and it allows you to break through stalled boards.
It really depends on whether the Formidable cards are going to end up being effects that generate incremental advantage or whether they are stall breakers. In the case of the Stampeding Elk Herd, it looks like the mechanic is heading in the direction of stall breakers, but we’ll find out more as the set is released.
The last mechanic is Megamorph. I’ve seen a lot of complaints that Megamorph is too much like morph, but I just want to say that I love this mechanic. It may not seem like it is much different from Morph, but in reality it’s going to have some very interesting implications on the format, and I’m excited to see how it plays out.
First, we should expect to see about as much Megamorph in this set as we saw Morph in Khans of Tarkir. It’s possible that we face a little bit less Morph, just because I expect the multi-color requirements to be slightly reduced, but I still think that it’s going to be the dominant mechanic of the set. In Khans of Tarkir we saw that Morph has a dramatic effect on the environment, since it allows people to easily find things to play on turn 3, it effectively fixes mana, and it allows you to put in a lot of expensive cards while still filling out your early curve. Morph has always been one of my favorite mechanics because of the way it allows every player to find a way to compete in most games. It also gives every deck a great lategame mana sink.
However, Megamorph certainly plays out differently from morph. With Morph, you didn’t get any big bonus from playing your creature face down, except that you could later turn your creature face up, and perhaps catch an opponent by surprise. Megamorph, however, gives you a pretty big reward for playing your creature face-down, and then flipping it up later. It’s very easy for players to underestimate the impact of a +1/+1 counter. This is the difference between a 3/3 for 2G, which is a fine card in pretty much every format, vs. a 4/4 for 2G which would be a first pick in every format. That counter is a big deal.
Because of this, players are going to be even more incentivized than normal to play their creatures face down and then flip them up. The choice between whether to play a creature face up or face down is going to be an important one. Because of this tension, WotC is actually able to push the face up version of the card a little bit harder. Aerie Bowmasters is a great example. A 3/4 Reach creature for 4 is actually a great price for a creature, and the ability to play it as a morph makes it even better, but a 4/5 Reach creature is all of a sudden big enough to take down dragons, and it can ambush a creature at instant speed. Because the 4/5 makes such a big difference on the game, WotC is able to give us a great rate on the face up side, and we can see this just by comparing the card with Sagu Archer, which fills essentially the same slot, but gives us a 2/5 reach instead of a 3/4, which is significantly worse. I also think it’s likely that we’ll see more creatures that cost 4 or 5 mana to play face up, but 5 or 6 mana to flip up, which means we might not be relying so heavily on 6 and 7 drop morph creatures that flip up for 5 or 6 mana.
Furthermore, I suspect that WotC is going to use Megamorph to push the morph costs just a little bit higher than they were in Khans of Tarkir. I suspect that we’re going to see more cards on the line of Wolly Loxodon than we would otherwise. There’s also a big possibility that we’ll see more +1/+1 counters matters mechanics, which would interact very favorably with Megamorph.
I’m excited about the mechanics in this set. We’ve got some interesting evolutions on the block design, and a few mechanics that seem like they will play particularly well with Fate Reforged. Remember to keep checking out this blog for other kinds of MTG updates, including drafts, decklists, op-eds, and more. Also keep your eyes out for the Dragons of Tarkir Spoiler Analysis which will be coming up in the week before the prerelease.