Magical Hack – A First Look At Five Worlds

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Friday, September 19th – At this time in the year, it’s always crackling with excitement in the realm of magical spells and fantastic creatures. All the latest buzz is about the new world that will be playing host to our imaginings for the next year, with high hopes for a fun and interesting Limited environment and the people digging for spoilers to see whether this year’s offering is a stud (like Ravnica) or a dud (like Mercadian Masques).

At this time in the year, it’s always crackling with excitement in the realm of magical spells and fantastic creatures. All the latest buzz is about the new world that will be playing host to our imaginings for the next year, with high hopes for a fun and interesting Limited environment and the people digging for spoilers to see whether this year’s offering is a stud (like Ravnica) or a dud (like Mercadian Masques). While there are unofficial spoilers if you want them, and if that’s your thing then fine, I tend to stick to the official news sources… something that has been made easier in recent times by Wizards’ use of a ‘visual spoiler’ that compiles all the previews and information from ‘official sources’ like magazine previews and MagicTheGathering.com articles together into one place. Since we haven’t seen quite enough of the set to suggest how playing with it in a Limited format at the pre-release this weekend will feel, I thought I would stick to the Constructed implications of the cards we’ve seen so far.

In addition to what you’ll see on the Visual Spoiler, as of Wednesday, there’s also this spicy little number here to consider, which I have the good fortune of knowing about beforehand because I tugged on our esteemed editor’s sleeve and said “Can I? Can I? Can I?” until he gave in and let me do this set’s official preview card for Star City Games. It’s a card I’m sure will be on the short-list to think about for Red decks for some time to come; bad against Bitterblossom, but great against everything else.

Where Ancients Tread

One argument says this is a five-mana do-nothing; the other argument says we have seen cards at least somewhat like this played in Constructed before as potent combo tools (such as Pandemonium). If there’s a “five power matters” deck such as they are suggesting might be a natural extension of some of the cards in the set, this might see play in very limited quantities, say as a two-of to gain tempo back against creatures by turning new men into Flametongue Kavus… and catching up by dropping fatties that throw Lava Axes at the opponent. Realistically, though, a lot has to go right for this to even be worthy of consideration, and one of those things is likely the rotation of Lorwyn Block with its Bitterblossoms and its Cryptic Commands before this can even be mentioned without laughter in one’s voice.

Great for casual play. Too casual for serious play.

Mindlock Orb

Aven Mindcensor worked because it was an incidental effect that was powerfully limiting of some very good cards, printed on a Fish-sized creature with flash and flying. This enchantment… sorry, I mean ‘colored artifact’, since these things really do have a lot of overlap… costs too much to be a powerful hoser, and as just an artifact is a big fat do-nothing unless we see a lot of searching going on that I don’t see already.

Constructed Unplayable. Cute combo with Maralen of the Mornsong, so at least someone somewhere will love it.

Spearbreaker Behemoth

Seven mana is a lot for a Constructed format, and all you get is a stupid 5/5. Admittedly, it’s a pretty good stupid 5/5, since it basically can’t be removed from play barring extraordinary means, but it’s too much mana for too little card in a 60-card format. Again, a casual-only sort of card, because that’s the kind of format that gives you the time to want a card like this, and makes its special ability a political asset instead of a win-more sort of thing.

Ethersworn Canonist

Here we have a Grizzly Bear-stature creature with a reasonably disruptive ability… sort of an Arcane Laboratory, but one that you can build your deck to work around. Good stats on a creature with a good ability is worthy of consideration in every Constructed format, and its status as an artifact creature (despite the colored-mana cost) give it extra inroads into new formats, possibly letting it break into Extended in some kind of ‘artifact-matters’-themed deck. While the next card I show you is far more likely to shake up Affinity in Extended, it should be worth noting that this is one of those rare Vintage creatures that might shake up the format; Fish is good in Vintage when it can play with good creatures that have a disruptive effect on the opponent, and this can possibly neuter entire decks (Pitch Long? Good luck with that Storm strategy!) on a low-cost creature. The further back in time we go, the better this lady gets in context… she might not warrant inclusion in Standard or even Block Constructed, but by all means she deserves consideration in Vintage.

Master of Etherium

Hold onto your hats, Affinity! The color that brought you Thoughtcast in your Affinity deck now offers a monster of a creature, one that comes into play with its own Cranial Plating attached and automatically has the size advantage your Arcbound Ravagers dream of. As ‘just’ a */* artifact creature for 2U, people were already going crazy about this in the context of Extended’s Affinity deck, as a new chase rare that slides right into the ‘best deck in Extended’. What wasn’t known was that it was also an Artifact Creature Lord, giving your Arcbound Workers, Ornithopters and Blinkmoth Nexii +1/+1. This is a high-impact creature for Extended, but without those Artifact lands this is a much harder sell for Standard or Block Constructed, where he’s basically just a Blue Scion of the Wild, at best.

Get four. No, really.


A 4/4 for 5 is right at the borderline for Standard or Block, it needs a little extra something to make it playable but if it gets that something it’s quite nice. Indrik Stomphowler topped the curve of MichaelJ decks for well over a year, and all it had stapled to it was a Naturalize. Mycoloth offers the benefits of larger size than mere 4/4 stature and a special ability besides, one that can run rampant and take over the game. Devouring just one friend, Mycoloth is a 6/6 for 5 that has an ability comparable to Verdant Force’s, which you sometimes sacrificed a creature to cast anyway (or at least that was how Jamie Wakefield rolled). Devour two friends and the price is expensive, especially if it just dies to a Shriekmaw or something, but an 8/8 for 5 that generates 4 power in friends a turn means that you don’t need to dodge a Terror for very long in order to get a solid return on investment. If you can sacrifice tokens or creatures with Persist, it’s almost like the Devour cost was free… this is obviously more of a casual card than a Constructed card, but it was pushed right up to that edge that says maybe just maybe he might find a home in a sixty-card deck that wasn’t terrible.

Sedraxis Specter

We’ve seen a lot of Hypnotic Specter variants over the years, and this one happens to have a harsh mana cost (RBU is rather specific after all…) but also is an efficient flying attacker. Three power on a flier for three mana is good enough to consider even without the discard effect, and we can reasonably assume that three different colors of mana is something you can do, even in an aggressive deck, between the Shard-specific dual lands (see below!) and the Hybrid lands of Shadowmoor and Eventide. Unearth on a three-power flier, and Unearth as Flashback on a discard spell, is the difference that I think should push this over the top into Constructed playability. There’s more or less no good way to not lose card advantage to this guy, even if you kill him on sight or counter him, because he comes back once for three damage and a card.

Naya Panorama

As a common, this is likely worse than just Terramorphic Expanse for Constructed, excepting for the fact that Terramorphic Expanse is basically always a land that comes into play tapped… while this (presumed) cycle of common fetchlands taps for colorless naturally. As a Block Constructed or Standard option, this is worthy of consideration (though next to Lorwyn Block, there are far too many other great options to make the cut)… but in wider formats, the restriction of only getting basic lands makes it unplayable to a format like Extended.

Arcane Sanctum

Take Coastal Tower and Salt Marsh. Smoosh them together to get more bang for your buck. This is a cycle of dual lands that clearly deserves attention, even in Extended after the rotation of the Onslaught fetchlands. It clearly draws a line for Constructed, asking if you want three allied colors (this cycle) or more than that (Vivid lands) when we work out mana-bases for decks like Reflecting Pool Control. It’s also good enough to go in an aggressive deck, so long as you don’t overload on comes-into-play-tapped lands, as an excellent color-fixing supplement that works with Reflecting Pools, pain lands and Hybrid duals. With a whole bunch of creatures costing exactly XYZ, and a set of Uncommon dual lands that tap for either X, Y or Z, it’s clear we’ll be thanking Wizards for printing these at Uncommon in both limited and Constructed, and looking at the power level of those three-different-colored three-drops heavily as we consider Shards of Alara’s impact.

Sprouting Thrinax

This is one of those ‘XYZ’ three-drops, and is a 3/3 for 3 that leaves three power in Saprolings behind when he dies. That’s not something it’s clear we want in Constructed, but it is priced to move, and that’s something to keep in mind as we look and see how useful those Saprolings might be as an aftereffect. Like Persist, this taxes the usefulness of Wrath of God effects that aren’t Hallowed Burial, but it’s ‘just’ a very efficient Gnarled Mass with a reward for jumping through hoops for paying three colors of mana. If a deck for him exists, it won’t be because of him; he’s a role-player, not a flagship, to steal the Floresian phrases for placing cards on a relative tier of usefulness for deckbuilding.

Wild Nacatl

I’ve already written an article on how much this card excites me. Have your Rogue Elephant and keep your Forest.

Sphinx Sovereign

Eight mana is a high barrier for Constructed playability, and for eight mana you get a 6/6 that either hits as a 9/6 or gains you three life while it is on defense. Neither is an ability you’re willing to shell that much mana out for in Constructed.

Sigiled Paladin

As a two-drop, this is a Knight-sized dude who can attack on turn three as a 3/3 if you want; just how good Exalted is in comparison to, say, Lifelink as you could have on Knight of Meadowgrain is unclear… I’d assume you need more of the context of the Bant cards, to see how profitable ‘just one creature attacking’ can be. As-is, without that context, this is inferior to Knight of Meadowgrain, who doesn’t usually attack alone.

Battlegrace Angel

Here’s more of the context of Bant; if your one creature is attacking, it will be a Huge/Huge creature with Lifelink. Battlegrace Angel attacks as a 5/5 lifelinked flier, which is reasonably comparable to Exalted Angel if you put the beer goggles on first, but that 5/5 still dies to Flame Javelin and locks you in at attacking alone to get that effect. Great for control, poor for beatdown, just going with those concepts… and how many other Exalted creatures do you expect to play in your control decks? As a finisher, it’s a high-quality White flier, but that might not be enough in sixty-card-land.

Sarkhan Vol

And here we have our first Planeswalker. He’s an unusual mix of Fires of Yavimaya and a Threaten-casting machine, amping up the damage either way. His Ultimate ability is “make 20 power in fliers”, which is pretty ludicrous, but he’ll have to be weighted on his Fires of Yavimaya / Threaten talents. In a R/G beatdown-style deck, is this Planeswalker even any better than Garruk Wildspeaker, who is a consistent source of threats and a Suspend: 1 Overrun? I expect his value to be high initially but stabilize when his playability is revealed to be less than first thought.

Wooly Thoctar

Big Dumb Guy. Really big, dumb guy. Five power for three mana is a huge benefit, like a non-legendary Doran, meaning we have to consider RGW as a potential beatdown deck. Where a tricksy 3/3 didn’t impress, a 5/4 that’s not tricky is just clearly good enough by the numbers.

Executioner’s Capsule

The newest variant of Terror, costing one more mana total than Terror and thus not as good as Terror. But it’s an artifact! Maybe that’ll win someone over… if nothing else it gets Trinket Mage interested. While on its face it looks like something you don’t want, in-context it may just be wonderful.

Deft Duelist

This is just an amazing little two-drop, hard to kill with removal and hard to kill in straight-up combat. And as a Rogue, you have to sit and think whether that adds anything interesting to the mix. This is a very high-powered creature, which makes me wonder what we are going to see as support in the Blue/White beatdown department that might work with it, because all it needs is a few good friends to work as a very strong aggro-control deck.

Covenant of Minds

Five mana for a sorcery that draws you three cards and shows them to your opponent is worse than Fathom Trawl, which I have never seen cast in any Constructed format. It has a ‘punisher’ mechanic where sometimes your opponent is dumb and lets you draw five instead, but “your opponent being dumb” is a rather peculiar thing to “punish”. I guess that’s what Blue’s take on the Punisher mechanic looks like?

Corpse Connoisseur

Unplayable in Constructed, even if the moon is in the second house and it’s the Age of Aquarius. This is a slightly-tricky Sea Snidd… but it’s still a Sea Snidd. While it has benefits and advantages to its Sniddlike stature, such as the ability to chain Unearth creatures together, it’s still not something you’d pay a lot of mana to get.

Caldera Hellion

Its grandpappy, Crater Hellion, was actually incredibly playable and was very comparable: it dealt 4, not 3, and so we’ll have to look at the creatures in the format to see what the high-water mark is for quality creatures in the format. As a creature-based Firespout, it’s worth considering; if you were going to have a creature of yours die, feed it to the Hellion and keep a 4/4 around. It’s a slightly awkward card, because really who’s going to want to put a creature sweeper effect in their creature deck that has a man it’d like to sacrifice to keep this around, but it has enough potential that it’s worth considering as a Constructed playable.

Tower Gargoyle

Generic 4/4 flier for 4, if you jump through some hoops you can get a 4/4 flier for 4. Cards like this have traditionally fallen on their face in Standard, and I’d expect this guy to do the same, with a chance of finding a home in Block Constructed and no hope for Standard or any older formats.

Rhox War Monk

A 3/4 for 3 is Constructed-playable for sure, and Lifelink on such a monster is the hallmark of a fine Constructed creature. I for one am pretty excited to have this guy and Kitchen Finks in the same deck against Red, and Red seems pretty good overall at the moment. MichaelJ is excited by him too, though you have to listen to the podcasts to find that out.


Mind Rot plus Lava Spike is an interesting card, but not one I expect to be breaking out in Constructed anytime soon. It has a lot of good things going its way, so I wouldn’t expect to never see it, I just don’t expect to see it at the top tier.

Naya Battlemage

Let’s be honest, this is a Limited creature: Grey Ogre stats, Limited-focused ability like every other tapper. It doesn’t even have a useful creature type that might bias us in its favor, unless we’re talking Shamans, which doesn’t like its color combination for the better of the two abilities, nor the creature not attacking itself (and thus triggering Rage Forger) while it tries to get its damage in with the Red ability.

Goblin Assault

Bitterblossom confused people initially, myself included; to show us that Goblin Assault is potentially an awesome card, they printed Bitterblossom first to show us just how good an enchantment like this could be. It’s no Bitterblossom in the awesomeness scale of things; it costs an extra mana, and the dude neither flies nor thinks very well for that matter. But it also doesn’t cost a life, and tells Chameleon Colossus he can’t stay back to block… which is an interesting implication, because somehow people will assume that only your Goblins must attack each turn if able…

Stoic Angel

I’ve seen this Angel glossed over entirely too much, but I think this tricksy flier is far too awesome at restraining an aggressive bunch of creatures to not give high marks. Take away Lightning Angel’s Haste and trade it for a Smoke-like effect that limits how many creatures can untap to effectively attack and you have an impressive control element on a solid four-drop flier. I can definitely see this being worth the three-color mana commitment, even without counting the fact that it is the same three colors as the amazing Rhox War Monk, and the two combined together have to make for an awesome curve of controlling creatures in the three- and four-slot. Both are credible threats that work well together as your only two creatures in play, and both make it nigh-impossible for a beatdown deck to overwhelm you.

Imagine drawing this and a Cryptic Command. It’s pretty sickening.

Jund Battlemage

Unlike Naya Battlemage you have to at least consider this one as playable due to its token-generation ability… but it’s again got no useful creature type and neither do the tokens, so it’s just a strictly-worse-in-every-regard Imperious Perfect. Awesome in Limited, not good enough for Constructed.

Courier’s Capsule

Blue card advantage is always playable, and this is more playable than Mulldrifter in a ‘strict’ Blue control deck of instant-speed stuff. While you always have to invest two mana at sorcery speed to play the artifact, two is a good deal less than three and thus it sneaks itself down a full turn earlier if you have to expose yourself in the early game to letting your opponent resolve a threat… and several turns earlier in the mid- to late-game if you want to cast it and keep up countermagic. That it costs a full colored mana more than an evoked Mulldrifter, and never ever gives you the option of getting tricksy with Reveillark or just keeping a 2/2 flier around, but you get to split that mana up into convenient packages that suit your needs. I’d expect to see this as a playable card-draw spell at some point over its lifetime in Standard, just because the price is acceptable.

Qasali Ambusher

The idea that there may be free spells in this set is quite exciting, even if they are highly limited in their scope. I see this as a playable turn-one drop in Extended against an aggressive deck, if you have a fetchland to get Temple Garden with, and while it’s not mind-blowing by any means it is pretty decent. It’s hard to beat ‘free’ as an acceptable price for a card that does something meaningful.

Kiss of the Amesha

Really? Gaining ten and getting a 5/5 wasn’t good enough to play in Constructed, not even for the biggest proponent of gaining life in Constructed that anyone has ever heard of. Gaining seven and drawing two cards might have been good enough if it could have been an instant, but instead you get an unplayable sorcery.

Sharding Sphinx

Before we get overly-critical on this six-drop that doesn’t win the game, it’s worth noting that it triggers off any creature damaging a player, yours or your opponent’s, giving you a 1/1 for each one. It’s not a Limited-only 4/4 flier that makes a 1/1 flier when it successfully punches your opponent, it’s more like a Boggart Mob that might just get out of hand (since the tokens are allowed to count themselves for the purpose of making more tokens). I’d say it’s right on the envelope between playable and unplayable, and definitely would have seen some play at five mana, so only the future can really tell. If the land of Esper includes mana acceleration, a reasonably common thing to see on artifacts, this might just make the grade.

Windwright Mage

Another XYZ-cost creature that is potent for its cost, but this is a mere lifelinked 2/2 flier when operating at maximum effectiveness. It’s more worthwhile to try and squeeze Augury Adept into usefulness than Windwright Mage, making this a Limited-only creature to me as it is already overshadowed by something else that really offers a profit for getting it through unblocked.

Tezzeret the Seeker

This one seems to have exploded on the Vintage scene already, as an additional functional combo piece in both Helm/Leyline combo engines and as a deck in and of itself, since Tezzeret plus the newly-fixed Time Vault is a two-card combo, one of which puts the other directly into play. Considering that Leyline is played in Vintage already in all sorts of decks, you may just see it all merged together, to the point where Cast Tezzeret = Win… either you spend four to get the one copy of Helm, activate it and deck the opponent because you drew a Leyline that game, or you spend two, get Time Vault, and win if you still have Tezzeret + Time Vault on your next turn (… and even had a next turn, for that matter).

In non-broken formats, it’s still a good planeswalker, offering a lot of potential to anyone who wants to build a deck around it. Titania’s Song was the finisher of choice a long long time ago in artifact-based Prison decks, and thus much like Garruk Wildspeaker this planeswalker needs very little help to turn suddenly and messily lethal… and is in the color that brought us Cryptic Command. It’s a huge build-around-me in every format, and likely pretty awesome in Vintage… though not as awesome as I’d first thought when I thought it started with Loyalty 5, and thus could search for Black Lotus, untap and get Memory Jar. C’est la vie. The other things are broken too.

Bull Cerodon

Limited-only creature. Next.

Ajani Vengeant

The third of (I’m told…) four Planeswalkers, this Ajani has a very different feel. Original Ajani worked well with beatdown creatures and sometimes gained some life when he had nothing better to do; this one lightly disrupts the opponent’s development, or starts casting Lightning Helix around a bit. At its very worst it is a Sorcery-speed Lightning Helix that costs more but leaves a Planeswalker around to stunt your opponent’s development, and even that isn’t something to be hated. It’s only narrowly playable, I’d think, but it is playable.

Hellkite Overlord

Already played in Vintage in an Oath deck near you, due to the peculiarity of the fact that its pre-release in the From the Vault: Dragons deck made it Vintage-playable. It’s an awfully powerful man, and is rather comparable to an Akroma once in play: hits for a billion hasty flying trample damage, and awfully hard to kill with Black or Red spells. Really, try burning an 8/8, especially one that can regenerate after you’ve been given a chance to untap. It’s already basically impossible for Black to kill a Black creature, and its one hope that I’m aware of (besides paying five for a terrible spell) is somehow catching this with Cruel Edict. It’s a huge nightmarish Dragon… and I can live with a world where such things are good in Magic again. This is pushed very, very aggressively to be playable, with huge size and some trample-liciousness. (Damn you Project Runway, for not firing Blayne fast enough… the damage is done!)

I see a lot of exciting things so far. Good uncommon triple-lands, a cheap alternative to what we’d doubtlessly feared would be a Rare cycle, with a moderately-playable set of common fetchlands that sadly shoot themselves in the foot when trying to cast the XYZ-colored creatures on turn three without giving up turn two as well. Powerful gold cards that whet the appetite to see more, and some good synergy between cards from the same shard if Rhox War Monk into Stoic Angel is any indicator. There’s going to be some expensive powerhouse rares, like Tezzeret the Seeker and Master of Etherium, but there’ll be cheap stuff too that impacts formats all over the place, like Wild Nacatl in any world that has good dual lands. (Sadly, Alara is not one of those worlds… it has duals, but they don’t have basic land types to power it up with.) And then there’s all around good cards like Sedraxis Specter that will challenge players to find a home for them because their power level was pushed, that are more-or-less ‘fair’ but certainly feel unfair when you’re getting more than your three mana’s traditionally been worth up until now.

There’s a lot of this set still unseen, but so far what we have seen challenges us as Constructed deckbuilders and asks a lot of questions, including some risky ones like Tezzeret does. When was the last time anyone heard of a five-mana spell from a recent set impacting Vintage? I can’t even begin to think that far back in time, the closest I can even think of is the impact of Mindslaver on the format… after all, it cost more than five and created entire new archetypes, so surely it counts. Seeing cards that have a home in Vintage as well as things that will be good in Standard is a good thing, because frankly it is hard to do… and with all sorts of Constructed aficionados taking an interest in Alara for its cards is a very good thing. You might even say the enthusiasm is catching… I for one can’t wait to see more, and look forward to the pre-release to see it all.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com