The battle between Mirage block and Masques block is one I haven’t been looking forward to. I know the basics of Masques block—it’s a continuation of the story of the Weatherlight crew as they land on and escape Mercadia. Masques block is also where we forced people to pay more for their spells and pay mana to keep their permanents with the rhystic mechanic. Mercadia is the land of mercenaries, rebels, and amazing mustaches that led to an inbred Standard season dominated by people winning on the play and losing on the draw.
Overall, Masques block is the penultimate "safe" block. Because it was printed after the Standard-destroying Urza block, Wizards of the Coast needed to make sure that Standard was a safe place where games no longer ended on turn 2. This led to the next three sets—Mercadian Masques, Nemesis, and Prophecy—being slightly underwhelming to the Magic players of the time. Although it was fun to track Gerrard and his crew on their path to defeating the Phyrexians, this set is where public opinion really started to turn on the overarching story and cries of new ideas started to spring up.
Mirage block is a set that I don’t know much about, so I did some research. In case you didn’t know about it already, Mark Rosewater puts out a great podcast called Driving To Work on Daily MTG, and as luck would have it, there was an hour and thirty minutes of Mirage design just sitting there for me to listen to! After hearing Rosewater wax lovingly over brownies, I think I have a handle on Mirage block. Mirage was the first block designed as a composite of three different sets, making it the original block. This heralded the silver age of Magic as designers and developers started to create cards with Limited in mind. Additionally, Mirage block is where Wizards R&D first began experimenting with block mechanics and set-wide stories.
With the backstory in print, let’s take another look at the Battle Of The Blocks bracket to see the ramifications of this skirmish.
With Invasion trouncing Scars of Mirrodin last round, they advance to face the land-based Zendikar. The winner of this round will advance to challenge one of the best multicolored sets ever: Shards of Alara block! They will be compared in five different categories. The Staples that each block brought to the format is our first category, which is followed by the Commander category that speaks to the legendary creatures that are the lifeblood of this amazing format. The Strategies category judges the approaches that were bolstered by the blocks, while the Flavor category is where the less played but fun cards get a chance to shine. Finally, The Bad is where the blocks can lose points for bringing unsavory things to Commander.
Starting with the first modern block in Magic, the staples that come from Mirage block are nestled in two colors: blue and black. Mirage block brought us both Necromancy and Buried alive, two cards that reanimation decks have used and abused for years. Without Buried Alive, decks like Karador, Ghost Chieftain and The Mimeoplasm would lose one of the greatest toolbox cards ever for graveyard-minded generals. Mirage block also introduced some of the strongest tutors in the entire game, an incomplete cycle consisting of Vampiric Tutor, Enlightened Tutor, Mystical Tutor, and Worldly Tutor. This amazing cycle of tutors fit in Commander with ease, allowing for some of the most popular generals like Maelstrom Wanderer and Melek, Izzet Paragon to always have the perfect card on top.
The safest block in Magic also brings some heat to this section by having the first printing of powerful blue sorcery Bribery. Bribery has been a stalwart of controlling blue Commander decks for years, allowing blue mages to turn the tables on their opponents with a single card. High Market and Kor Haven are two extremely important utility lands that call Masques block their home. Kor Haven is an amazing white utility land that is cheaper than Maze of Ith, and High Market finds a slot in every deck that needs a sacrifice outlet. Finding new life after being placed on the Time Spiral reprint sheet, Avatar of Woe is a constant kill switch for any black deck that needs the extra power.
Rhystic Study is the last card from Masques that I want to highlight in this section due to the way it finds inclusion in decks. It is a Commander all-star that accrues card advantage for the low price of three mana. Rhystic Study is not an auto-include in every blue Commander deck, though, as aggressive blue decks like Edric, Spymaster of Trest can’t waste the third turn playing a three-mana enchantment that cannot directly affect the board.
Five Notable Staples From Masques Block
1) Rhystic Study
2) High Market
3) Avatar of Woe
5) Ascendant Evincar
Five Notable Staples From Mirage Block
1) Enlightened Tutor
2) Vampiric Tutor
3) Buried Alive
5) Abyssal Gatekeeper
Looking at the two lists side by side, the first true Magic block, Mirage, takes this section by a hair. The utility of Buried Alive just outmatches cards like Avatar of Woe.
The commanders from these sets are lacking some serious power. The Mirage block commanders that really stand out are two scarcely played creatures in Hakim, Loreweaver and Zirilan of the Claw. Hakim Loreweaver enables a very fun mono-blue enchantment deck centered on utilizing his first ability multiple times during the upkeep. What it lacks in power the Hakim Loreweaver deck makes up in fun, being one of the only mono-blue commanders that an entire table can enjoy.
Zirilan of the Claw is secretly one of the strongest mono-red commanders due to his interaction with Dragons like Worldgorger Dragon and Utvara Hellkite. Additionally, Zirilan of the Claw decks can utilize cards like Sundial of the Infinite to keep the Dragons in play, creating a horde of hasty flying creatures of death. I’d suggest trying him out if you get the chance.
Masques block brought the Spellshaper legends to Commander. Mageta the Lion and Jolrael, Empress of Beasts are the two Spellshaper legends that see moderate play from this block. Mageta the Lion is usually in a very grindy mono-white build that utilizes indestructible permanents to win the long game, while Jolrael, Empress of Beasts decks always have the ultimate backup plan of smashing the table with lands.
When looking at these two blocks side by side, the meager additions they’ve brought to the Commander landscape are thrust into view. Mirage block barely wins this weak category with the absolute fun of Hakim Loreweaver and Zirilan of the Claw, yet both blocks are disappointments here.
One of the reasons I love early sets of Magic is that cards that would never see print today just pop up between the horrible Gray Ogres and Raging Goblin variants in older blocks. A good example is Breathstealer’s Crypt. An awkwardly templated rare enchantment from Visions, Breathstealer’s Crypt fits perfectly into decks that force people to draw large amounts of cards, like the popular painful wheel decks that are commonly seen in Commander.
Mirage block also contributes such awkward cards as Anvil of Bogardan and Teferi’s Puzzle Box for group hug and painful wheel decks, Argivian Restoration for dedicated artifact decks, and Goblin Recruiter for everyone’s favorite red tribe, Goblins. Snakes decks get a huge benefit out of the properly named Snake Basket, and the aggressive red decks that take multiple attack steps can thank Mirage block for the original printing of Relentless Assault that allows the strategy to exist.
Even while playing it safe, Masques block brings some great cards for specific strategies to Commander. Although neither saw much Standard play, both Moggcatcher and Skyshroud Poacher are kill-on-sight creatures in their respective Goblin and Elf decks. Groundskeeper has become an instrumental card in land-based decks, whether it’s the dredge strategies of The Mimeoplasm or the Mountain chucking Borborygmos Enraged.
Mono-black decks acquired both Ascendant Evincar and the explosive enchantment Black Market in order to control the board and gain a huge mana advantage as creatures slowly perish. Black Market also finds life in decks like Shirei, Shizo’s Caretaker, where sacrificing creatures is how you generate an advantage. A pair of blue enchantments, Soothsaying and Coastal Piracy, helps two wildly different decks in Commander. Soothsaying is amazing in decks like Melek, Izzet paragon, while Coastal Piracy has been fueling aggressive blue strategies for the past fourteen years!
Although the awkward templating in Mirage allowed for some amazing cards to be printed, the Elf and Goblin searching duo from Masques pull this block ahead of the African-themed Mirage sets.
One of the reasons I was overjoyed to listen to Mark Rosewater podcasts about Mirage block was the insight it gave me into how the set was created. Hearing stories how specific cards were put together led me to really appreciate the time put into each set. The setting of Mirage block is one riddled with strife and war propped up in front of the African Savannah.
Cards like Mtenda Lion and Snake Basket set the mise en scene of the Mirage block, allowing the flavor to flow throughout the ensuing sets. Cards that actually see play from the block, like Bone Dancer and Buried Alive, tell their stories through amazing artistic pieces coupled with great flavor text. Cards like Necromancy, with its gasping corpse taking its first breath of life, and Nekrataal, with its battle cry and poison-ridden blade, give players a second of pause to admire the setting of Mirage block.
Masques also brings some flavor on a couple of lesser-played cards. Dominate showcases the absolute maleficence of Volrath, while the amazing card design of Coastal Piracy turns creatures into pirates. Yet the constant callbacks to Gerrard and the Weatherlight crew throughout the block come across as ham fisted halfway through with the painfully forced flavor text on cards like Ascendant Evincar and Charisma.
The Weatherlight saga created some very hit or miss card designs due to an inability to tell the entire story at once. Although it is fun to scan through Masques block and piece together the story of Gerrard and his crew rescuing crewmembers and escaping the floating trade city, only pieces of that story are presented one at a time. This causes cards like Ascendant Evincar to have flavor text and art that seem out of place when placed on a battlefield next to a Prophet of Kruphix or Abyssal Gatekeeper.
Good flavor tells a story on a single card. Bad flavor requires you to have the entire set played out to grasp at what’s going on. The cards in Mirage that see play in Commander allow the player to understand the scenery without extra reading, and Mirage wins because of it.
After reviewing each block multiple times, the worst I could find is that Mirage block didn’t know how to cost tutor effects. Vampiric Tutor and Enlightened Tutor are cards that would not be created today due to how they lift the restrictions on deckbuilding by finding any card you want for such a low price. But this is Commander—Demonic Tutor is a legal card—so criticizing Mirage block for Vampiric Tutor seems like the pot calling the kettle black. Masques block gave blue griefer decks Embargo, and that’s about it.
Mirage takes this category—but just barely. These are pretty innocent blocks when it comes to Commander, with Mirage being the first block in Magic and Masques being the safest block. It makes sense that not many bad things for Commander came from them.
Even with all of the categories analyzed and the blocks compared, the battle between the first and the safest is still very close. Mirage block won in Flavor and Staples while barely squeaking by in the Commanders category. Masques block handily won the Strategy category and avoided the "win" in the Bad category. What it comes down to for me as an impartial adjudicator is the quality of cards that were brought to the Commander format and how the block has helped the format grow. The addition of mechanics like phasing and the last hurrah of banding in Mirage block don’t help its case, while the rebel mechanic in Masques block is extremely lacking in depth and usefulness.
Mirage brought more for Commander. Our darling casual format is growing up, and the first block of the silver age of Magic supplies the tutors and flavorful cards that Commander desperately needs. Masques block put up a great fight but narrowly misses the Sweet Sixteen due to playing it safe and not producing enough noteworthy cards for Commander. With such a great battle, I’m looking forward to the clash between Shards of Alara block and Mirage block in the next round. That battle will be a true test of the old design philosophy of Magic versus the beginning of the new world order. It should be a great fight.
Next week will be the matchup that all Limited players will love: Onslaught block versus Tempest block. This battle will pit Gerrard and the Weatherlight crew against a new enemy: Akroma, Angel of Wrath and her morphing legion of Barbarians and Slivers.
If you think I got it wrong or have some feedback, please let me know in the comments section!