It’s a comparatively short tour through Urza block today. Compared to Tempest’s 13 cycles, we’re looking at 9 today and those cycles aren’t even the remarkable ones of the block. The two major land cycles are thoroughly famous, their most popular members being Tolarian Academy and Treetop Village. These other 9 have had much less influence, although there’s still interesting and played stuff in them. Here goes.
Nope, Haven’t Finished These Yet (Absolute Grace/Absolute Law, Douse/Hibernation, Bereavement/Yawgmoth’s Edict, Disorder/Scald, Carpet of Flowers/Spreading Algae)
These are sort of meh. Carpet of Flowers improved drastically with the loss of mana burn and now sees some Commander play, mostly when Bennie Smith’s around. I’ve wanted to experiment with more color hosers in my Commander decks, largely because preconstruct fever brings legitimately high odds that any given color will be in your game.
Absolute Grace and Absolute Law give your opponents the opportunity to gang up on black and red mages by granting their creatures protection as well. Even the black/red mages can slap each other now, so it’s weird but useful. Scald seems like it’s not too far off as a blue hater versus green, but I could be wrong. The main Resonance points come from each color having the same mana cost for both their hosers; black/red/white cost 1 and their color, blue’s 2U, and green’s just G. The names and ideas aren’t consistent (why Yawgmoth on one of them?) but they’re okay otherwise.
The Embraces (Serra’s, Zephid’s, Vampiric, Shiv’s, Gaea’s)
The idea’s cool: Be like this land/deity/whatever and you’re a beefier creature. That’s a sweet deal, especially when it comes with shroud as Zephid’s Embrace does. They’re all 2CC in their mana costs and they’re all pretty equally playable. There are two issues with this cycle, though. 4 of them give +2/+2 and flying; green’s gives +3/+3 and trample. I’m not saying the green one should give flying necessarily, but why couldn’t any of the others have been given some evasion ability that isn’t flying? (Black could have gotten fear except its +1/+1 counter ability then would have made no sense.) Also, why are four of them ‘s form with one being vampiric? Was there nothing specific to which a possessive could be granted? Then again, I’d rather have playable cards on which to debate flavor instead of the Wards…ew. But I digress.
This Chapter in the History of Cycles has Verses (Serra’s Hymn/Serra’s Liturgy, Lilting Refrain/Recantation, Vile Requiem/Discordant Dirge, Torch Song/Rumbling Crescendo, War Dance/Midsummer Revel)
The effects of this combined cycle – there’s an uncommon and rare cycle in these – are meh overall, but the flavor’s fantastic. The idea of the verse counters is to add every upkeep (the song gets longer), and at the end of the song (sacrificing the enchantment) you get the effect, which is bigger for how long the song was. As a concept that’s surprisingly out there, even for Magic, but they made the card names work with it, and as a result these come off far less pretentious than they otherwise would.
As cards, they’re…slow. Some of their effects scale well with the pace of the game, duel or multiplayer: Lilting Refrain is a growable counterspell and Rumbling Crescendo does about the same thing relative to the board state at each counter level, particularly in a duel. Their abilities matter at different levels, however, and that’s where the playability’s different. Serra’s Liturgy is a scalable Seal of Cleansing, which is awesome, and Vile Requiem is a scalable Seal of Doom, which is also awesome. (I realize the chronology’s backwards; normally I hate that, but the Seals are the best comparison here. Sorry.) Serra’s Hymn preventing one more damage every verse? Shrug. But hey, it’s a flavorful cycle, the rares are more expensive and playable than the uncommons, and as a group they’re serviceable. Those are good marks for a cycle, and I’ll take it.
Not Intended for Multiplayer (Planar Collapse, Second Chance, Brink of Madness, Impending Disaster, Defense of the Heart)
Resonance: C (Nothing here; it’s a mechanical cycle)
The various sacrifice triggers here make sense and are semi-balanced in a duel (though Defense of the Heart still seems ridiculous, but whatever). But 4+ creatures total, seven+ lands, or an opponent controlling 3+ creatures? In multiplayer those conditions are semi-automatic, making these enchantments fire often. So the top playability here is very high. I bet for every 10 Commander players who auto-include Defense of the Heart in their green decks, 7 could tell you the card’s in a cycle, 4 could tell you one other card in it, and 1 could tell you the whole cycle. These numbers are made up. It’s funny that you can buy a playset of each of the nongreen cards and still not equal the cost of one Defense of the Heart. That makes me want to build something for casual with Form of the Dragon and Second Chance…hmm…
The Seers (Jasmine, Brine, Nightshade, Cinder, Ivy)
They’re average as cards, asking you to play monocolored decks (or maybe hybrid?) and then rewarding you only a medium amount for so doing. The reveal part of the activation seems like it would give opponents full information as to when they should kill these 4-mana 1/1s. Nightshade Seer, which inspired Nightshade Assassin (didn’t know until I did this article), seems to be the best one as repeatable removal in a color that doesn’t spend its spells quickly all the time (as opposed to Cinder Seer, whose main function is what already does with the spells you’d be saving).
But the flavor is top-shelf for a few reasons. First, they’re 4-mana 1/1s with consistent naming and 2C activated abilities. Second, the names are evocative without being standard for those colors; as such, they provide flavor depth for the game as a whole. Third, there’s the common Scent of _____ cycle, spells with the same text as the Seer activations. And fourth, Donato Giancola did the artwork for all five Seers, and it’s incredibly distinctive. You could cover up everything but the artwork and still peg these as a cycle. That’s how it ought to be whenever feasible, and that makes me like this cycle even as I’ll probably never play any of it.
Auras with Counters (Archery Training, Private Research, Festering Wound, Incendiary, Momentum)
Like the verse enchantments, these are way too slow to do much good. They did a good job with the names keying off something specific to one thing (even as I don’t understand how to make momentum magical v. physical), but the real fun and resonance come from the arrow/page/infection/fuse/growth counters that are put on the auras. Surprisingly, most of these are on at least one other card, even if they don’t combo well. I like weird counter types about as much as I like odd creature types, probably a little bit more, so as with the Seers I like this cycle more than its playability deserves.
The Red One Isn’t a One-Word Verb; Why Not? (Scour, Quash, Eradicate, Sowing Salt?!?!?, Splinter)
Resonance: B- (Mechanical cycle with no flavor text)
I would have given a B for Resonance if not for Sowing Salt’s name. (They get a B- for all costing 2CC.) Still, over the years in 60cardland, these have proven their value. They’re a touch slow and narrow, but they’ll make sure you’re not dealing with the problematic permanent again, and that’s well worth the tradeoff in speed for several playgroups. The exiling’s also handy in an indestructibility-filled world (nice Blightsteel Colossus; it and its friends go over there now – no, not in your graveyard; stop shuffling). They aren’t flashy, but they’re all useful, so kudos there. Besides, Eradicate is the only known reason to run Lifespark Spellbomb, and that deck is hilarious.
Urza block might not be as well-known for its nonland cycles, but they’re designed decently and with still relevant effects. It’s a passing grade with no embarrassments. You can see a lot better through these cycles how this was supposed to be the enchantment block; that’s a lot of uncommon and rare enchantments for a block. I’m still getting over the relief of these cards not being as bad as Mirage, but it’s still amazing how far Magic design had come in just two years.
Next article in the series I’ll go into Masques block. Who knows what I’ll find there? I certainly don’t.