In part 1 I rated the first few cycles in Magic history. Conclusion: Elder Dragons are good, while Wards are bad. I made other conclusions too, but that’s the most earth-shattering one, obviously. You gotta pay to get tech this good elsewhere!
This time out, we’re going through Ice Age block. What am I looking for and how am I rating it? I explain my system in the last article, and since this is the teaser bit on WordPress, I’ll leave you to link-clicking to figure it out. Or you could just pick it up by reading ahead.
The Scarabs (White Scarab, Blue Scarab, Black Scarab, Red Scarab, Green Scarab)
The Scarabs tried to improve on the Wards from Alpha and basically did so. In a normal playgroup that wants to hate out a specific deck in the group, more decks will want Scarabs than Wards. If the opponent is controlling only lands, then you’re probably fine. Otherwise, at least you’re getting +2/+2 against that deck and possible unblockability (it depends on how many colors the deck is). That threatens to end games quicker than most protection abilities do, and it’s for the same mana cost of W.
Versus the Wards, I upped playability from F to D (awful + 1 still = awful), left depth at C, and went from B to B- on resonance, if for no other reason than a ward has more fantasy and less Egyptian feel than a scarab. Scarab sends me in the wrong direction flavor-wise, even though I understand they’re a type of ward.
The Talismans (Nacre Talisman, Lapis Lazuli Talisman, Onyx Talisman, Hematite Talisman, Malachite Talisman)
There’s one redeeming thing about this cycle: I get why talismans do this effect. Why you want to pay all of 3 mana after you’ve already played a spell of the color to untap a permanent, I don’t know (just adding up some quick mana, it takes until about turn 6 before you can use this for anything other than faux-vigilance). Maybe you want to use Hematite Talisman to untap Kobolds? But while hematite and malachite have stood for red and green flavor (kudos for hitting on something there), the cycle has a fatal flavor flaw: Mark Tedin’s artwork on Nacre Talisman. The other four artworks are the talisman itself, with nothing else going on. Tedin’s artwork shows a spaghetti-haired human holding the talisman. That’s just bad art direction, but at least it was thrown to cards that never should be in decks.
The 2 Forward Hosers (Drought, Wrath of Marit Lage, Leshrac’s Sigil, Anarchy, Thoughtleech)
The 2 Back Hosers (Justice, Breath of Dreams, Stench of Evil, Curse of Marit Lage, Freyalise’s Charm)
As a cycle, these have no particular flavor. They’re mechanical cycles; I can’t give too high marks there. The trick with these is how severe they are. A playgroup could devolve quickly into full-on griefer strategies if these are the cards they like to use against each other. That said, most of them are effective (some are lame). The first cycle hates on the color 2 ahead of it on the color wheel (e.g. W v. B); the second hates on the color 2 behind (e.g. W v. R). It’s worth looking at these individually and with 16 years of perspective to see which ones would be most effective today.
Drought will play like a slow Swamp-only Armageddon. Is that worth paying WW every turn to keep it out? No idea. It was nice of them to add the “Sacrifice a Swamp” rider to activated abilities as well. I’d say the biggest problem here is that the toughest monoblack decks have, then as now, cast their important stuff already thanks to Dark Ritual. Yes, you stop Dark Ritual from being a good plan later, but if Phyrexian Negator already is killing you (anachronistic to ’95, I realize), then what does this do for you? I’m not sold.
Justice is a lot more anti-red than Drought is anti-black at least. You still have that annoying WW upkeep, but you also get something that starts ending the game. Once again there’s the major problem of red decks often doing most of the work before you get to this card, but this one has a much bigger effect in multiplayer, being a sort of Kaervek the Merciless if a lot of red is out. That’s something at least.
Wrath of Marit Lage – a rare card in a cycle of uncommons (as is Curse of Marit Lage) – was reprinted in 8th Edition, amazingly enough. This one would be bad on its second clause alone, but the tapping of all red creatures when it enters the battlefield gives it some real heft against any non-burn deck. Red’s bad at handling enchantments, and while its creatures will get one swing with this out – Ball Lightning and friends don’t care about this – anything beefier is outclassed. This one is also reasonable against R/x decks in that you’re still messing about with a number of things. It still has problems, but there are viable uses in real decks.
I’m not sure how to evaluate Breath of Dreams. It gives green creatures cumulative upkeep, but you get one too. It’s great against existing swarms, I suppose, though if you tap out for this ASAP, you don’t have mana to counter their Overrun effect. Nowadays, a deck that wants this effect probably prefers Evacuation, but maybe there’s room to use this.
Leshrac’s Sigil does a fair bit of what you want a hoser to do. It makes the green mage discard every once and again, and it returns itself to the hand, which is great against a color that wants to destroy enchantments. It also comes out earlier than the others, i.e. in time to do something.
Although Stench of Evil is only a sorcery, it’s a hefty one that could be useful if your Commander group allows some griefing. Not only does it hit all Plains, but it has the potential to damage the lands’ controllers significantly. And I’ve never known a devoted black mage to shy away from a card called Stench of Evil. It’s one of the best flavors of this cycle.
Anarchy is one of the few ways red has of dealing with enchantments, since it’s doing so on the way to destroying all white permanents. Really, a lot of enchantments that annoy red are white (Pacifism/prison effects, e.g.), so I could see monored mage using this as one of the few ways in-color to deal with them.
Curse of Marit Lage does to Islands what Wrath of Marit Lage does to red creatures. Catch an annoying blue mage with their mana tapped and they might not get any more mana. You’ll probably get to do this only in game 1, since they’ll save countermagic for this, at which point you play everything else but Curse. Unlike other members of the cycle, Curse at 5 mana isn’t too bad, since the blue mages you want to deal with rarely have established a winning board state at that point.
Thoughtleech does similarly good things against blue, making it a lot harder for the random win condition to deal enough damage while being castable before countermagic is up. This isn’t too far off the impact Kor Firewalker can have, and in multiplayer you probably could gain a lot of life by sticking this in a random deck.
Freyalise’s Charm is the draw-card opposite of Leshrac’s Sigil. I’m not sure many green decks want to keep GG open on an opponent’s turn, but you never know.
So red surprisingly is the clear winner out of these 10 cards, with both its hosers relevant in 2011. White’s upkeep enchantments are fraught with enough issues to make it the losing color here.
Phew; that’s a lot of color hosers.
The Multicolor Hosers (Glaciers, Flooded Woodlands, Ghostly Flame, Monsoon, Reclamation)
So of course Ice Age needed EVEN MORE of them. These are ally-color cards that deal with the common enemy. I say deal as if they actually do something to the decks, but they don’t do a whole lot. Flooded Woodlands and Reclamation are mirrors of each other, making enemy-colored creatures cost a land to attack, while Glaciers just turns Mountains to Plains – which Conversion already did, except this is harder to cast with a harder upkeep payment. (And of all the early cards to functionally reprint, Conversion? Really? Monsoon turns out to be pretty good, as giving blue incentive to play stuff on its own turn (or nowadays just tap all its mana) repeatedly is what red/green still wants. But my favorite here is Ghostly Flame, not only for its callback in Ghostflame Sliver and Ghostfire but in its nonobvious color-hosing. Specifically, Ghostly Flame is trying to deal with Circles of Protection, which I assume are anathema in Graveborn Muse’s weltanschaaung. Given that none of these have been printed in 6 years and white’s core strategy isn’t the same, the Flame seems useless today, but maybe there’s a fun combo I’m missing.
The Shard Previews (Storm Spirit, Merieke Ri Berit, Elemental Augury, Earthlink, Fiery Justice)
While the Elder Dragons introduced the world to three-color spells, they had more flavor as a cycle than in their colors. Nicol Bolas and Arcades Sabboth have good defenses to their abilities, but why does the W/U/B Chromium have rampage? This next cycle was the first attempt to define three-color flavor with independent cards, and for the most part I’d call it a success. The artworks do a reasonable job of conveying flavor (aside from Merieke), while each card still can be defended as in-color. Elemental Augury probably is the hardest there, but this showed up in miniature form as the blue-black Architects of Will, so it has some support. As for playability, a timeshifted Fiery Justice was part of the Kavu Predator deck from Time Spiral Standard (I can assure you this combination is loads of fun), while Merieke is an occasional commander for tricksy mages. Maybe I’m oversold on this cycle after the previous three cycles, but these mostly have clear, legitimate, and still powerful purposes.
Lim-Dul’s Cycle (Energy Arc, Lim-Dul’s Vault, Lim-Dul’s Paladin, Surge of Strength, Nature’s Blessing)
The two-color uncommons of the set would have more resonance if all five cards involved Lim-Dul rather than two, but they hold up surprisingly well as cards. The Vault is the best known of the group, as one of the best filterers in the non-Brainstorm (i.e. more than three cards) division. The Paladin is finicky, but it can do weird things in combat, as the opponent either loses 4 life or blocks a 6/6 trample. I’ve never known how to use it, but it’s certainly strange enough to build around. Nature’s Blessing gives permanent keywords/counters and is a green/white discard outlet; you could pair this with Hymn of Rebirth (in-block!) for a G/W reanimator strategy, which sounds fun. I assume Surge of Strength has its uses. I know Energy Arc’s uses; it’s not as a pseudo-Fog, but as a way to target as many creatures as you want, either to combo with Cowardice or Horobi, Death’s Wail. There aren’t too many cards that let you target any amount of creatures you want, so you have to note them when you see them.
It’s nice to talk about multiple cycles that aren’t terrible…
The Supposedly Nastiest Hosers Yet (Royal Decree, Tidal Control, Dystopia, Omen of Fire, Nature’s Wrath)
Playability: It’s another
Depth: cycle of
Resonance: semi-playable-but-mostly-too-late hosers.
Actually, Royal Decree and Omen of Fire are very good at what they do. The others are awful.
The Second Shard Previews (Phelddagrif, Wandering Mage, Lord of Tresserhorn, Misfortune, Winter’s Night)
The two legends pop out of that list as being the classics, and for good reason – Phelddagrif is the original group hug commander, while Lord of Tresserhorn’s potential upside has made a certain subset of players salivate for years. Winter’s Night probably is unplayable unless you’ve been hiding a stash of snow lands (and maybe not even then), and I’m guessing Misfortune is less playable than it looks, as not every board state lets this be advantageous (though I’d play it anyway). Since Wandering Mage now is a Human Cleric Wizard, it went perfectly into my Sen Triplets Commander deck, where it does yeoman service, though I suspect that’s the only deck it’s good in. As with the last shard previews, even if it doesn’t hold as a cycle, you can see the flavor match the function of the individual cards (except Winter’s Night once again), so it’s a hit there too.
HOMELANDS (No cycles)
Legends introduced gold cards with very little flavor aside from the Elder Dragons. Ice Age block expanded the good parts of gold cards and created enduring cards. Unfortunately, it also continued an obsession with enemy colors that, while part of the game’s original vision, is flat-out awful to play with/against. If you want to count the Scarabs, that’s 25 cards caring only about enemy colors. Maybe since I wasn’t playing in 1995 I don’t get how awesome that is, but it seems like it would create a tense playgroup to have this many effects running around. Then again, when you could deal with most of them by playing multiple colors, and the block was pumping out some worthwhile reasons for those colors, circumvention might have been the best option.
Mirage block next time.