Seedborn Musings – Tour de Cards (Part 4)

Previously in my life, we’ve gone through to Mirage block in discussing basically the noncommon nonmana cycles in Magic history.  From the deplorable Wards to the Elder Dragons, it’s gotten better overall.

Exit bad cycles. Enter Tempest.

Okay, so Tempest didn’t get rid of all the bad things you could make five cards about.  But as someone who’s been tracking cycles up to now, Tempest is refreshing as the first block to understand that cycles can unite mechanics and flavor powerfully, and it took full advantage.  This is the start of modern cycle design, as you can look at the spoiler and very quickly get an idea of set themes and so on from spotting the cycles.  As you know, cycles are great theme anchors because a person who’s seen one card has a good idea what the other four do (at least if the cycle’s designed right).  If you look at the previous entries in this series, you’ve seen me straining to find some of these – a Fallen Empires artifact cycle that sacrifices for two mana and has effects somewhat aligned with colors? – but not anymore.  It’s go time for Tempest block, and it makes writing this series infinitely easier.

On to the cycles!

TEMPEST

Can We Finish These Yet? (Light of Day/Warmth, Chill/Insight, Perish/Dread of Night, Havoc/Boil, Choke/Reap)

Playability: A
Depth: B
Resonance: C-

Just so you know it isn’t all awesome, Tempest provides two more color hoser cycles.  This time they’re so ridiculously powerful for their effect that they seem like some designer’s response to that one annoying deck they can’t ever beat.  Ask Daryl how he feels about Light of Day (oh wait; you don’t have to).  Chill, Perish, and Boil come from these ten cards, and Perish is so good at its job that it still sees Legacy play (Chill had a good run in Extended if I have this right).  Reap has enough non-griefer upside that I’d consider it for Commander builds depending on how much black is in your playgroup.

Resonance is a weird one on this group.  It’s unclear why so many of these things hose colors (How does reaping hate on black?  How do both Warmth and Chill annoy red?), and the artwork doesn’t give it away either.  The only reason I’m sustaining the grade as high as C- is the short card names.  Normally that doesn’t help with resonance, but there just aren’t that many short spell names, and Boil/Reap/Chill/Perish/Warmth against that backdrop stick together even as nothing else helps.

Slivers! (Armor, Mnemonic, Mindwhip, Barbed, Horned)

Playability: B-
Depth: B
Resonance: B

It’s possible that, had Tempest cycles been like the bulk of cycles to date, the Slivers wouldn’t be quite as well remembered.  But with low competition and high distinctiveness, the Slivers ran away with the hearts and battlefields of many a group.  Even better, these are all 3-mana 2/2s.  Why the green one doesn’t have a 2-mana activated ability and the other four do is beyond me; that gives about the only bad mark Slivers can get for resonance.  For their abilities’ sake, playability seems restricted to Mnemonic’s card draw and Horned’s trample, but they’re all playable because they’re Slivers.  As much as I hate Slivers, I hate them because they work, not because they’re wastes of cardboard, so I guess Wizards was on to something with this cycle.

Licids! (Quickening, Stinging, Leeching, Enraging, Nurturing)

Playability: C
Depth: C
Resonance: B

See how Tempest is making the cycle names consistent, and see how much that helps the discussion?  Yeah, I’m appreciative too.  The Licids go with banding and phasing as major rules headaches for Wizards over the years, but their flavor is good: they’re aura creatures.  That makes sense in the head if not on the field, and much of the Licids’ practicality as movable, enduring auras has been consumed by equipment.  As far as what these Licids do, they’re not worth playing.  Stinging and Leeching do too similar effects to each other to be distinct, although the Leeching’s artwork is simultaneously hilarious and creepy.  The others give far too basic abilities to do much, although as instant-speed moves they’re all right.  They seem more annoying and finicky than powerful, which is a shame for as many problems as they’ve caused.

Segmented Playability (Sky Spirit, Lobotomy, Spontaneous Combustion, Segmented Wurm, Ranger en-Vec)

Playability: B
Depth: C
Resonance: C-

Spontaneous Combustion is very powerful for how price-cheap it still is.  3 damage to each creature at instant speed for 3 mana is still phenomenal, and asking a black spell to sacrifice a creature is asking it do what it already wanted (besides, it was dying anyway).  Lobotomy is still pretty cool, although its cachet has diminished for not doing much in Commander.  Sky Spirit and Ranger en-Vec are playable but kind of dull.  And then there’s Segmented Wurm, which is deplorable.  Mixed results, but it has some useful stuff.

Golden Girl (Selenia, Dark Angel, Dracoplasm, Vhati il-Dal, Soltari Guerrillas, Wood Sage)

Playability: B
Depth: A-
Resonance: B

Much better, Wizards!  If enemy-colored cards are the splash of a set instead of its substance, to sell the cycle you have to get them all right or at least reasonably so.  I’ve seen the middle three played in various casual decks, although Vhati il-Dal has seen play only because I’ve done the playing.  That’s a unique ability that feels far more black than green; there isn’t anything in the game after all these years that competes for Vhati’s ability.  Have you ever made Gaea’s Revenge a 1/5?  I have.  It’s fantastic.

Selenia is an occasional commander and Wood Sage, while not being amazing, is at least playable, which is new to green-blue up to this point.  Plus, the mechanic of drawing specifically for creatures influenced green-blue for good.  (Selenia’s life mechanic makes sense top-down, but its closest counterpart is Wydwen, the Biting Gale, which obviously is in different colors.)

All told, a solid cycle that’s still relatively affordable and playable.  Nice job.

Medallions (Pearl, Sapphire, Jet, Ruby, Emerald)

Playability: B
Depth: A
Resonance: A

For being bland and obvious as rules text, these hit the spot as a cycle.  First, they did the smart/gutsy move of linking the medallion names to the Moxen.  Second, they made sure only your spells got a colorless mana cheaper.  Third, they gave Sue Ellen Brown the art job for all five, ensuring consistency that’s been lacking in previous cycles.  And fourth, they eschewed flavor text to center the ability in the text box.  These were all smart decisions, even if they’re slightly underwhelming as cards (they’re easily playable, but only a slice of deck types want effects like this).  At least one of them’s even in the latest Duels of the Planeswalkers.  This is a classic cycle in all areas.

STRONGHOLD
 
Wall of ? (Essence, Tears, Souls, Razors, Blossoms)

Playability: B
Depth: A
Resonance: B

The Resonance hit is because the named wall materials are so different that I wouldn’t see this as a cycle without looking at the spoiler.  As separate cards, though, they’re all worth something.  Wall of Blossoms is the one that went on to fame and fortune, but Tears/Souls/Razors are all things I’d play in various decks.  Souls of the Faultless is a casual hit, and it is basically a combination of Essence and Souls.  Bouncing walls are always potent.  And Razors is in my opinion vastly underestimated; I’ve put it to good use in my Radha Commander deck as one of the few early rattlesnakes available to red.  4-power first strike doesn’t show up on turn 2 much, for good reason; it’s nasty.  The 1 toughness makes it easy to kill by other means, but in Commander are you really going to use spot removal on a 4/1 wall?  Nope; you instead swing at someone else.  All told, a good cycle for a creature type that’s fun to have cycles of.

Slivers 2: In Technicolor! (Crystalline, Hibernation, Acidic, Spined, Victual)

Playability: B
Depth: C
Resonance: A

The start of Rosewater’s Patented Cycle System, in which basic versions of a thing are given in the first set, then combined to more complex and exciting effect as the block moves on, these are 2/2s for only two mana instead of their monocolored cousins’ three.  They’re all somewhat playable, mostly if you can make Sliver tokens, but Crystalline Sliver is the standout.  I hate this card so much, and its existence is the primary reason I attack the Sliver player first.  I see Sliver decks than can support this (like Premium Deck: Slivers) as daring me to kill it before this gets online.  So I try.  Sometimes I succeed.  Sometimes Crystalline Sliver engulfs my face.  C’est la mort.

Licids 2: In Rules Limbo! (Calming, Gliding, Corrupting, Convulsing, Tempting)

Playability: B-
Depth: B-
Resonance: B-

Compared to their Tempest brethren (Licidren?), these are an extra mana for an extra power and toughness.  The effects have similar power level without being similar abilities, and most importantly they’re all combat/evasion-oriented, which makes them much better instant tricks as you’d expect them to be.  I’m not sure where you’d want to play them, but they at least enter the discussion, so this cycle’s all right.

EXODUS

Gravedigger Tribute Album (Treasure Hunter, Scrivener, *, Anarchist, Cartographer)

Playability: B-
Depth: A
Resonance: B

Gravedigger was a Tempest common, but Exodus design of these uncommons implies that these other four creatures, returning cards of various types from your graveyard while presenting a 2/2 body, are meant to go with Gravedigger.  They’ve all been reprinted, though given the curious nature of the cycle it’s fitting that all but Treasure Hunter were in Odyssey, so they’ve got a fruitful history for being simple creatures.

Manaless Buyback (Pegasus Stampede, Forbid, Slaughter, Flowstone Flood, Constant Mists?)

Playability: B
Depth: C
Resonance: D

Is this even a cycle?  The first four are uncommons; green has none but has Constant Mists at common, while white has Reaping the Rewards as an extra common.  In any event, these moved buyback from a thing that cost 3 to a thing that could have bigger ramifications.  Like many counterspells of the era, Forbid got a deck named after it, while Slaughter and Constant Mists are solid.  Pegasus Stampede and Flowstone Flood are terrible, though recurring land destruction should have a severe drawback as Flood does.  The inconsistencies of this cycle don’t give it high marks, but it’s still a lot better than half of what I reviewed pre-Tempest.

Keepers of the (Light, Mind, Dead, Flame, Beasts)

Playability: B
Depth: A
Resonance: A

I’m partial to this cycle.  They’re all 1/2s for two colored mana and have a powerful one-mana activated ability if you’re down a particular resource.  Light/Mind/Flame/Beasts straightforwardly ask if you’re down on life/cards/life again/creatures.  Each of these are useful in the right decks.  But it’s Keeper of the Dead that makes this cycle shine.  Theoretically, it’s asking if you’re down on creatures, since Keeper will destroy creatures for you if you have at least two more creatures in your graveyard than target opponent has in theirs.  That’s not only easy for black to abuse, either by filling the graveyard with creatures or by exiling an opponent’s graveyard (which makes this a solid Commander creature), but its upside is higher – repeatable creature destruction.  I love to run Leyline of the Void/Necromancer’s Covenant and follow it up with Keeper; it makes a lot of frowny faces.  Highly recommended as a card and as part of a memorable yet underrated cycle.

Oaths of (Lieges, Scholars, Ghouls, Mages, Druids)

Playability: A
Depth: C
Resonance: B

It’s easy to forget that Oath of Druids is part of a cycle; that’s not because the cycle is forgettable but because it’s not even close to even power level on its face.  While Oath of Mages is surprisingly good in multiplayer (everyone deal a damage to Mr. Lifegain!), one damage does not = searching your library for a creature to put on the battlefield.  Oddly, Oath of Scholars costs 4 while the others cost 2, but while the nod to curb blue is appreciated, they could have done that to the green one as well.  Still, it’s nice to be discussing ridiculous cards v. okay ones instead of bad and worse.

CONCLUSION

Tempest kept the best lessons of cycle design while retaining very few of the stupid ideas.  Tempest gave us Slivers, Licids, Keepers, and Oaths.  In previous blocks these would have been costed radically differently from each other and lacked the flavor that unifies them here.  It’s impressive that most of these cycles are still played with relative frequency in tournaments, Commander, and other casual formats.  In the next part of the series we’ll see if the Urza block keeps up the pace.

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About Seedborn Muse

Articles: GatheringMagic.com, 2012-; Muse Vessel, 2011; StarCityGames.com Talent Search, 2010; Hardball Times, 2008-2010; Baseball Prospectus, 2007. Books: Spill of the Tongue, Slip of the Mind (Draft in 2011; wanting feedback); Hardball Times Annual 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Songs: soundcloud.com/earth-dyed-red. Sketch comedy: In development.
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6 Responses to Seedborn Musings – Tour de Cards (Part 4)

  1. Kuchi says:

    I like me some Tour de Cards! Great concept!

  2. Charles R says:

    Thanks for continuing the series!

    I wonder how much of the playability of these cycles as opposed to earlier cycles is due to Mark Rosewater being the lead designer of this block.

    I think you could argue that the increase in quality of the cycles is a direct correlation to the increase in playability of Magic in general at this point. Not that earlier sets weren’t playable, but I definitely feel it’s around this time you start seeing less of the awkward cards from the early years and more consistency across a set or block as a whole.

    • Seedborn Muse says:

      I think Maro had a LOT to do with it, understanding intuitively what a set and block could do in selling itself, not just as product-for-cash but as a storyline, as a theme, and as an idea. Tempest had a firm grasp of the macro, and that makes it feel loads better than its predecessors.

  3. Pingback: Multiplayer Oddities: Secret Alliances | Castles & Cooks

  4. A3Kitsune says:

    What about the cycles of lands with non-mana abilities? Pendelhaven and the rest of it’s cycle, Kjeldoran Outpost and the others.

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