Arcane Teachings – Early Shadowmoor Limited Impressions

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Tuesday, April 22nd – Tom rocked up to the Shadowmoor prerelease looking to relive the halcyon days of powerful multicolored Limited formats such as Invasion and Ravnica. He soon discovered that while the fun was still there in spades, the power of the Hybrid strategies wasn’t the gleeful joyride he expected. In today’s Arcane Teachings, he investigates why…

This past weekend was the Shadowmoor prerelease. To those of you who attended, I hope you had as much fun as I did. To those of you who didn’t, shame on you because Prereleases are awesome. They bring everyone out of the woodwork all the way down to the most casual of players, and that gives the room an energy that few other events can match. For me personally, they represent a rare opportunity for me to see many of the people I’ve met during my six years of competitive Magic but who have fallen away from the PTQ circuit. Of course, it was also the world’s first chance to play with Shadowmoor cards themselves, and those cards are the subject of this article.

Shadowmoor’s hook is that it is about hybrid cards. That seemed to inspire the collective Magical consciousness to remember all the happy times that were had in Invasion and Ravnica Limited formats. There were tons of colors and mana fixing, the cards were more powerful than we were used to seeing, and the women were beautiful. For me, this high lasted approximately until 7:30 in the morning this past Saturday as I stood outside the Franklin County Veterans’ Memorial with the other twenty or so souls crazy enough to show up before the site opened up to make sure they got to play in the very first flight of the day. As I stood out in the morning cold thinking about the Shadowmoor spoiler list, I had the rude realization that I couldn’t think of any particularly exciting commons other than Burn Trail, and that the line was a massive sausage fest. Why weren’t there any cards like Terminate, Goblin Legionnaire, Pillory of the Sleepless, and Assault Zeppelid that made the previous multicolor blocks feel so powerful, and where were the chicks?

The short answer is that those cards are not in Shadowmoor. Mark Rosewater hints at the long answer in this article, although it’s pretty well hidden. His message boils down to this: the harder a card is to play, the better it can be. Normal gold cards are harder to play than mono-colored cards, so they can be better than similar mono-colored cards and still be balanced. This is why we have such fond memories of cards like Vindicate, Putrefy, and so on – they’re awesome and splashy, but they can be that way only because take a serious commitment to two colors before you get access to them. Hybrid cards, on the other hand, are easier to play than equivalent mono-colored cards, so they have to be worse than mono-colored cards to keep them balanced. Generally speaking, a card that costs 2RG must be better than a card that costs 2GG, which must be better than a card that costs 2(R/G)(R/G). Therefore, for things to stay balanced, hybrid cards must be worse than garden variety mono-colored cards. A little under half of Shadowmoor is hybrid, so a little under half of the set should be worse than cards we are used to seeing.

Mark offers two ways to power up hybrid cards without upsetting the balance. The first solution is to make color matter mechanically, which Shadowmoor does in the form of cards like the cycle of enchantments, the cycle of Duos, and so on. This can also take the form of using both of the cards’ colors in mana costs of activated abilities, or having non-hybrid cards care about colors. The second solution is to overload on hybrid mana symbols, which is what is done on cards like Wilt-Leaf Cavaliers and the cycle of Lieges. Keeping in mind the tradeoff between ease of casting and card power, a card that costs (G/W)(G/W)(G/W) is about as difficult to cast as something that costs 1GW so it can be just as powerful as the exciting gold cards that we are used to.

I read the previously linked article way before the full spoiler was revealed, so I expected both of these solutions to show up in big numbers at all rarities. This was not what happened. The set explores much of the design space of the first category of card in the commons, with an astounding thirty-five commons that care about the color of other cards in play and on the stack. On the other hand, the only non-rare cards that have three or more multicolor hybrid mana symbols in the cost are Loamdragger Giant, which is so expensive that it hardly counts, and the cycle of cards that cost exactly three hybrid mana that includes Wilt-Leaf Cavaliers and Boggart Ram-Gang. These latter five cards are some of the splashiest cards in the set, which is not a surprise because they are so hard to cast. However, it’s fairly rare that you’ll encounter one of those cards in Limited because that’s only five of the set’s eighty uncommons. The other cards with that many hybrid mana symbols are rare because they are actually rares, so this solution to the hybrid card power issue is not explored very fully.

We can use this understanding to get a running start on our understanding of both Shadowmoor Limited. A little under half the cards in the set are hybrid, and many of these are necessarily weak because they have only one hybrid mana in their cost. Therefore, the most powerful commons tend to be mono-colored cards or color-stamped hybrid cards. A few examples of the former are Ballynock Cohort and Crabapple Cohort; both of these cards completely outclass most of the common hybrid cards at their respective converted mana costs. The most clear example of the latter that I can think of is Shield of the Oversoul, which is completely bonkers on a creature that is both Green and White. Because so much of the power in the hybrid cards is locked up in cards that care about multiple colors, drafters will quickly realize that playing a hybrid card that is in only one of their colors as opposed to a mono-colored card in that color is a significant sacrifice. Not only is it worse than a mono-colored card for all the reasons from before, but it also doesn’t fully power up the double on-color hybrid cards that are already in the deck. Doing your best to stick diligently to mono-colored cards and double on-color hybrid cards will keep the overall power level of your deck as high as possible.

Because of the overall lowered power level of the common hybrid cards, Shadowmoor Limited games go longer than Lorwyn limited games. This has two consequences. The first is that cards that might previously have been too expensive are now just fine. The card that taught me this was Pale Wayfarers. My pool in the first flight I played had one, and I almost didn’t play it because I thought that the world was too fast for a seven mana 4/4. I was very, very wrong, and it turned out to be the best card in that whole deck. It did a pretty good job of playing Morphling with its protection ability, and the ability to play both offense and defense at the same time was enormous. Furthermore, it was never stuck in my hand until the end of a game, because my games always went long. It’s likely that things will speed up as the world learns how to value cards properly, but I suspect that things will still move slowly compared to Limited formats in recent history because the cards are just less powerful. Feel free to include your expensive and swingy cards during deckbuilding, because you’ll probably have the time to play them.

As a side note, this also applies to cards that you’ll have a hard time casting in terms of color as opposed to total mana count. For example, my last round opponent in the second flight I did was playing straight red-green, but also included an Oversoul of Dusk. When he finally cast it in our first game, I thought to myself that he must be crazy to play a card that effectively cost GGGGG in a deck that couldn’t have had more than eleven or twelve Green sources in it. However, if you instead think of it as something that costs seven or eight mana, it compares very favorably to the Pale Wayfarers that I just finished raving about. A seven or eight mana 4/4 may not be the most exciting thing in the world, but having protection from three colors has a good chance of being extremely relevant, especially when even Green-White decks will have Red and Blue creatures in them. That opponent had a Scuttlemutt and a Devoted Druid, so those along with ten Forests makes the Oversoul a reasonable inclusion.

The other consequence of the increased length of games is that cards that give you repeating effects become much more important. This is a similar phenomenon to what happens in Core Set Limited, where card advantage is hard to come by and anything that has an effect multiple turns in a row is pretty exciting. Happily, Shadowmoor is different from Core Set Limited in that it is very intricate and tricky, but the comparison still is fairly applicable. Obviously cards like Silkbind Faerie and Trip Noose are going to be good regardless of the Limited format you find yourself playing, but as the day went on I saw repeating effects that were more and more minor winning games. One card that surprised me was Gnarled Effigy. Early in the day, one of my opponent could have completely dismantled me with one, but happily he chose not to. I also saw good friend Jake Meiser win multiple games in the main event with his two Leechridden Swamps in stalled games. Of course, repeating effects that aren’t minor become even more awesome than before as well. I had both a Seedcradle Witch and an Oracle of Nectars in my second deck, and those cards were really good at taking over the long games that I ended up playing.

An obvious question is if these observations will also hold true in the Shadowmoor draft format. After watching a three on three draft that involved many of Ohio’s finest mages and discussing it with the participants afterward, I think they will. The winning squad in that draft was Sam Stoddard, Justin George, and Joe Gagliardi. Sam had a Red-Green deck in which the only two-drop was a Devoted Druid, there were only three three-drops, and the mana curve went all the way up to seven; Joe had a Blue-Black deck that had only two Elsewhere Flasks for two-drops and a similarly ugly mana curve, but they both pulled off 2-1 records. When pressed about how they managed to do that, they both shrugged and said that their opponents’ decks were just as slow and awkward as their own.

A specific point that I would like to make completely out of context is that there are seven very playable artifact creatures and one playable equipment at common, in addition to a number of uncommon artifacts that are impressive. Because of this, you should not hesitate to play exactly one Gleeful Sabotage maindeck in Sealed. You might even try Smash to Smithereens, although there are enough enchantments around that Gleeful Sabotage is much more likely to find a target. Gleeful Sabotage may even be maindeckable in Draft, but I can’t say for certain because we’ve only had the cards for one day as of this writing.

I had not seriously thought about much of the above before Saturday morning when I and everyone else in my flight was able to tear into Shadowmoor cards for the first time. Everyone in the room seemed to be complaining about the quality of their Sealed pools, which I found bizarre at the time but now understand. Of course, there were also those people out there who happened to open multiple copies of cards that get their power from overloading on hybrid mana symbols, and playing against the cycle of Avatars and incredibly efficient three-mana creatures quite clearly demonstrated to me that that is where much of the set’s real power lies. Any Constructed deck that uses Shadowmoor’s color will likely draw from those cards.

As a set, Shadowmoor will take some getting used to. It is a far cry from the multicolor blocks that we have seen in the past, and the less-stringent hybrid mana costs that the set is built around make it play more like a strange version of Mirrodin block than a true multicolor block. Each player is capable of playing more of the available cards than normal, but not all of those cards will be good for them and the skill will be in deciding which of those cards are best. In the end, players who respond most effectively to Shadowmoor’s incentives to stay true to exactly one color pair will have the most success, and really this is no different from any other set. However, developing an early understanding of this will give you a head start on your competition.

Tom LaPille