A Compliment Sandwich for Ikoria

Hey Commander enthusiasts and readers of all other ilks! For those of you with lingering Oko trauma, the word was ‘ilks,’ not ‘elks.’

Today I’m giving my first impressions of the new set… and they aren’t so good. I’ve been cynical about sets in the past, and while every set has provided me with a number of obvious and not-so-obvious gems, Ikoria is making me shake my head and sigh a lot.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of ‘compliment sandwich,’ it’s a term used in corporate disciplinary theory (hahaha) that means surrounding a piece of criticism with a couple of compliments to make it more palatable for the hapless employee who needs the criticism but might curl into an ineffective ball if presented with it directly. I’m going to give Ikoria a compliment sandwich.

Bread and Butter #1 – Land ho!

Ikoria, you’ve got great lands. I mean, truly awesome. The new tricycle 3-type lands are amazing. Hopefully not too amazing, but I can’t help but love lands.

Bonder’s Enclave is also terrific. Plenty of decks need more card draw, and the low opportunity cost of having it on a land is wonderful. It makes mana, comes in untapped, and requires very little to make it draw cards. It’s efficient enough that Standard might want it, so I’m not sure it’ll be super cheap. We’ll see.

The middle part of the compliment sandwich is the criticism. I have six parts, and I’ll be assigning each one a traditional sandwich element for my amusement and yours.

6. The Pickle – Companions

I do not like Companions. They create a pickle of a situation. We have the effect already, and it’s called Commanders. A specific kind of creature occupying a special outside-the-game zone that require deckbuilding restrictions? Commanders. Shoehorning another Commander effect into the game is totally unnecessary. Plus it adds a really obnoxious opening for sideboards and even worse: wishboards, in Commander. The Companions are outside the game, which currently means sideboards, and as far as I know, makes them all illegal in Commander. Make them legal and the sideboard discussion opens up. I hate sideboards. I think they’re a crutch, and are only in the game because they were grandfathered from a time when cards like Choke and Flashfires were considered good design. I don’t know why they’re allowed. If you can’t beat a deck, you can just sub in a bunch of cards that will beat it by themselves and mulligan to find them? Where’s the game in that again? And we have enough outside-the-game stuff. Focus on the inside the game stuff, Wizards. Get that right before breaking new ground.

5. The Mustard – The Other Mechanics

Do the other mechanics cut the mustard? Cycling is a great mechanic… but it’s been done recently. In both Amonkhet and last summer’s Modern Horizons. While I like cycling, it seems a little soon to milk that cow again. Weren’t any other mechanics rehashable?

The counters mechanic isn’t really a mechanic. It’s a mashup of the worst of both counters and keywords. Too much going on, not enough focus.

Mutate makes me cringe. It’s yet another attempt to make Auras viable. Call it mixing creatures, or ‘Melding’ or whatever. It’s Auras. Auras are when a permanent piggybacks on another permanent, giving it effects. This creates two main problems, the fizzle and the 2 for 1. The fizzle happens when the target of the Aura is removed in response to the cast. Auras (and Bestow creatures) fizzle. Mutate solves this problem with an additional check to see if the target is legal, and if not, the spell resolves as a creature. Cool, right? Well, there’s still problem #2, which is the 2 for 1. When you put an Aura on a permanent, and the permanent is killed, the Aura goes with it. Mutate does not solve this problem. You can work hard to assemble a cool creature involving multiple cards, but one removal spell will still wreck it all. Bestow solved this problem by having the Aura fall off and become a creature. Bestow does not see much play, and hasn’t really seen much ever. I fear for Mutate, and that’s just on a power level. The fact that it causes visual confusion and doesn’t actually make any creatures larger are part of further sandwich elements.

4. Lettuce – Free Stuff

Lettuce cast free stuff! For free! There are already some pretty strong reactions to the free Commander spells. I’m in the ‘we didn’t need these’ camp. I don’t feel like they’ll break the game, but they will be really annoying, and that’s not a quality I want in my game cards, to be perfectly honest.

We’re also getting some cheat spells. Stuff that dumps things directly onto the battlefield. Invalidation of casting cost without extreme care can really undermine this game. If you can cheat any size monster from your deck into play for six mana, only the 1 or 2 best 7+ CMC creatures will ever see play. Too many creatures already require cheating into play, or a limited format, to be relevant. Enough already. I’m worried that cheating on costs is going to dominate Commander design this year.

3. Cheese – Too much

I’m the last person to advocate for such a thing as too much cheese, but there’s a limit. Not so to the amount of visual chaos Ikoria seems to offer. I’m not sure who all these alternate art, borderless, promo, etc. versions are for any more. For a while, most cards only had a couple of versions to play with: maybe a promo version, the option of foil, and an alt-art or two. Now there’s nearly a half dozen versions of every rare/mythic in a set. One thing that suffers immediately is the specialness of any individual version. Another is the increasing difficulty of knowing at a glance what cards are opposite you. Triple that for Commander.

Visual complexity is a HUGE problem for this set. I imagine Arena will help, but for paper Magic, this is way too much. All sorts of counters, all sorts of versions of different cards, and weird stacks of mutated creature piles. I really hope the payoff is worth it, and these cards are enormous fun to play.

2. Tapenade – A little salty about the paste-over, but Olive…

I like Godzilla. I’m a nerd. Go figure. The recent movies are all terrible, in large part because Hollywood insists on focussing most of the action on bad human relationships. Focus on the giant lizard. Give us Godzilla in every shot. We can watch humans in plenty of movies, like Terms of Endearment, American Pie, Muppet Treasure Island, etc.

Godzilla is a unique and beautiful snowflake. Godzilla is the OG Kaiju. Godzilla towers over your city and eats your train. Godzilla deserves his or her own cards, designed for Godzilla. Not a paste over of a creature that has its own identity. I hope that this isn’t a trend, where exterior brand versions of set cards are released too. That’s often determined by highest bidder. Ready for Pepsi cards? Lego? Amazon? NFL? That insurance company with Flo? Please no.

1. Beef – Where the Behemoths at, yo?

Honestly, I feel kinda cheated. We were promised behemoths. Here’s the main Wizards release blurb:

There’s Always a Bigger MonsterOn the treacherous world of Ikoria, gargantuan beasts fight for survival while humans hide at the bottom of the food chain—forever in fear of the creatures beyond the walls and the human traitors known as “bonders” who believe the monsters misunderstood. Will you fight the behemoths at your door, or fight alongside them?

Okay, well I looked through the set, card by card. We have a single 11/11.

We have 3 8/8s. And we have Colossification.

And after that, four creatures have power 7 or greater, and a bunch of 6/6s comprise most of the signature mythic creature cards. Gargantuan? Hard to say. I hate to make comparisons, but….

Theros Beyond death has 5 creatures of power 7 or better, topping out at the 10/6 Nessian Boar.

Throne of Eldraine had a problem with 3/3 giants and 5/5 humans, but was relatively small, with 5 creatures at power 7 or better, the largest being Clackbridge Troll.

Ravnica brought us the current non-token size queen, Impervious Greatwurm, but little else bigger than 6/6. Worldspine Wurm, a 15/15, appeared in a previous Ravnica set, too.

Ixalan gave us plenty of large creatures, but only 8 with power 7 or more over the two expansions. But Ghalta, Primal Hunger is bigger than anything in Ikoria at 12/12, and there are 2 9/9s in Ancient Brontodon and Zacama, Primal Calamity.

Battle for Zendikar contained 8 creatures with 7 power or greater, including the 11/9 Void Winnower, 10/10s Ulamog the Ceaseless Hunger and Desolation Twin, and 10/8 Breaker of Armies. Oath of the Gatewatch added 12/12 Kozilek the Great Distortion and 8/8 Deceiver of Form.

Rise of the Eldrazi contained a whopping 13 creatures with power 7 or more, including 5 with power of 10 or greater. This includes the 15/15 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. That’s bigger than Ikoria. And interesting because we’re headed to Zendikar soon.

Is Ikoria full of large creatures? Fewer than 20 of those creatures would win a fight with King Kenrith. That doesn’t say behemoths to me. I’ve heard that Wizards didn’t want to do ‘Battlecruiser Magic.’ Well you can’t sell us kaiju and then tell us they’re pokemon. Kaiju are battlecruiser-sized. Bigger than that. Like Godzilla movies, there are too many pointless humans, and not enough giant lizard.

One other thing that really bugs me about the set is that Mutate doesn’t increase power and toughness. Your creature stack is going to be the same 3/3 it was when you started, just with a massive mess of keywords and abilities that will all disappear when your opponent casts Bake into a Pie.

Bread and Butter #2 – Commander Decks are sweet

At the bottom of the compliment sandwich is a decent swathe of Commander precons, which have a good mix of new cards, cards from the new set, and Commander Staples. I feel like the card value is still fairly low compared to what we’ve seen in previous years, and that begins and ends at the manabase. There are few decent lands available in these decks, but the artifact mana is okay. A few individual cards will likely see a lot of play, and high price tags, and maybe one of the Legendaries will be the author of a new mainstream deck archetype. Who knows.

As much as a new Magic set is full of promise and excitement, Ikoria has grains of salt to take with it. I’m hoping that salt stays as grains, and not a widespread attitude towards the set. I hope the power level is higher than I think it will be, and I hope it’s easier to grok while in play and covered in random counters. I hope Godzilla cards are iconic and not gimmicky, and the behemoths feel big. I hope Companion makes minimal ripples and is quickly forgotten. I hope Mutate doesn’t suck.

We’re spoiled because it doesn’t matter if any one Magic set sucks. There are enough cards, formats and ways to play that we can turn our attention to modern or pioneer, or draft, or build a weird battlebox, or whatever. All of which are great ways to pass the time and stay inside. Stay safe, readers, and thanks as always for reading!

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