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Avacyn Restored Design, Part 2: Card by Card


I’ve already told you what I think about the general setup of Avacyn Restored, so this week, I want to go through the set card by card and note some things that stood out to me.

But before we get to that, I realized that there was one more big picture piece of Avacyn Restored that I forgot to cover: reprints. Innistrad had nine reprints, and that was high (Zendikar had only five). Avacyn Restored has twelve reprints and a ton of functional reprints. That’s not a problem on its own—reprints do great work to conserve design space, and they can offer nostalgia for established players—but ultimately, they have to fit in the set.

Blazing Torch felt right at home in Innistrad, and I’m not saying that none of this set’s reprints feel that way. For instance, I’ve run into a number of people who assumed Crypt Creeper was a new card. Unfortunately, in their effort to include as many reprints as possible, R&D let head scratchers like Builder's Blessing (Castle) slide, and it really detracts from the set’s cohesion. Anyhow . . . on to other issues.

Cathars' Crusade

I’m going to go ahead and call this card a development mistake now. No, it’s not going to be broken in Standard; a 5-drop with no immediate board impact is going to have a hard time seeing much play at all. In fact, that’s the source of the mistake: Cards that cost more than 4 without more immediate board impact aren’t maindeckable in competitive Constructed formats, and Cathars' Crusade is a mistake because of what it does for casual formats. WotC has had its eyes on the real game winners. That is, there’s a reason Iona, Shield of Emeria costs 9 instead of 8, but cards with effects this big can be similarly oppressive at the kitchen table, and unless this does some really cool things for tokens mirrors in Standard, I don’t think it’ll be worth the cost.

Divine Deflection

This type of effect makes for epic comebacks, so I’m happy to see it come back, but more than that, I’m happy it’s on a rare. Harm's Way was terrible to play with because nobody understood how it worked, but at rare, people won’t usually have it in Limited decks, so the issue is greatly diminished. Moreover, the biggest confusion surrounding Harm's Way was that you couldn’t use it to hurt an opposing planeswalker, which is unintuitive, and this new wording allows Divine Deflection to work as expected. All in all, we have a great execution here.

Goldnight Commander

Casting a Thatcher Revolt with this guy in play for a total of 17 power is certainly exciting, and time will tell if it’s awesome or annoying. I kind of wish there was a Mass Hysteria effect in this set so that you could feel that you were getting full value out of his ability instead having one guy sit around with a useless bonus. On the other hand, there’s a lot of haste flying around already, so maybe that will prove adequately fulfilling.

Moonlight Geist
Searchlight Geist

Zac Hill wrote about these two as exemplars of “ponderous activated abilities”, but while they look the part, I don’t think they actually fall into that category. Avacyn Restored Limited is filled with many more large flyers than your average Limited format, so these abilities are the relevant parts of the cards as often as not. Really, these two showcase one of my favorite design tricks: making a card that looks good at one thing but is actually good at another. By designing cards this way, you can give players the impression that they know what they’re doing during drafting and deck building, but then pleasantly surprise them when their cards perform an important task they didn’t know they were looking for. Players will put these cards in decks as difficult-to-block beaters and then find out they’re something closer to Angel defense.

Seraph of Dawn

This card is too strong. That’s not just my opinion; Development was mostly agreed on that point before sending the card to print, but they did anyway because they wanted even the common Angels to feel awesome. Zac Hill told me that they had fights in the pit about whether to print the Seraph, and obviously I haven’t spent months trying to tune the Limited format, but if I’d had the influence, I would have fought to cut this card for something like:

While this card is a fast clock, it’s actually much more raceable than the current version. Of course, we get into issues with the sizes of white creatures, but I hope that Development at least considered this approach to exciting common Angels.

Zealous Strike

There’s been a lot of talk about printing this right after Skillful Lunge. That choice was an experiment by Wizards, and now they have more data on the matter, so I don’t know if this is indicative of what’s to come. I will note, however, that the 2 toughness is more relevant to the card’s play than it at first appears because there are multiple low-damage removal spells such as Pillar of Flame and Righteous Blow in the format. Then again, that functionality may not be needed on top of Cloudshift, so with how hard it is to kill this set’s bombs, I would have preferred it had the cards appeared in the opposite order. The other question we need to ask is whether there would have been more backlash just reprinting Lunge. It’s hard to say for sure, but I imagine the answer is “yes.” We’d be hearing accusations that Wizards had run out of ideas or was too lazy to make new cards, so the distinction is probably worthwhile.

Arcane Melee

It’s hard to imagine cards like this doing anything fair, so the obvious option is not to print them. The thing is that these cards excite a lot of Johnnies, so you want to make them plausible but never good (because once they’re good, they make unfun formats). That’s a narrow rope to walk, and occasionally they slip (Hive Mind), but as long as they’re thoroughly tested for Standard, the danger is fairly minimal. Last, I’ll note that since these enablers are intended for Johnny brews, it’s generally better not to make them color-intensive because that allows for more options when building around them.

Captain of the Mists

Why does the Captain trigger off Humans when Goldnight Commander, Cathars' Crusade, and Kruin Striker key off all creatures? It would make things a lot easier to keep track of if these were all synced up, and I hope the fact that they aren’t means that this card was too good, but I suspect it was merely an oversight, and that makes me sad.

Havengul Skaab

Assuming that the loner theme is actually fun, this card is an awesome design. It reads like the other loners, but it simultaneously enable’s blue’s blinking theme. This is exactly what I want to see in the file when I start to develop a Limited environment.

Misthollow Griffin

What’s this bird doing here? I don’t mean, “Why does it exist?” I get that not everybody in R&D agrees that the exile zone should stay untouchable. I mean: Why is this card in Avacyn Restored? It does cool things with the skaabs in Innistrad and Dark Ascension, but that doesn’t have much effect on Constructed, so I guess it’s all about the interaction with Moorland Haunt. Quite frankly, I doubt that looking back at this card in ten years, we’ll conclude that Avacyn Restored was the best place for it, so it ought to have been saved for a set that wanted it more, but what do I know? Maybe it does some awesome things with Return to Ravnica.

Stern Mentor

This card decks an opponent way faster than I’m okay with in a format with so little removal. I’d prefer a bigger version at rare or one card per creature at common so that it would have less Limited impact. Milling is really uninteractive, so as much fun as it is to build weird decks into Limited environments, I don’t want this one to be strong too often, and the strategy was just playable in both Innistrad/Innistrad/Innistrad and Dark Ascension/Innistrad/Innistrad.

Blood Artist

Blood Artist has a lot of cool synergies, but it’s a big contributor to the sense that black is from a different set than the other colors in Avacyn Restored. I’m not sure how I would have gone about fixing that disconnect, but the fact that the evil cards are so similar to the last two sets suggests to me that R&D chose to embrace it. I’d love to hear if I’m way off base; how do the monsters in this set feel to you?

Descent into Madness

The mythic criterion is the potential to be awesome, and for griefers, this certainly qualifies. Normally, I like mythics to have broader appeal because less invested players will open very few, and those few should feel awesome, but there’s not much overlap between cards for griefers and anything else, so this gets a pass. I’m still waiting on the mythic Memoricide variant that must be in the works, but I’m hoping it won’t come for an entirely different reason.

You see, Surgical Extraction is actually very similar to Moonlight Geist—they both look like they do something they don’t. The Geist looks like it’s a consistent clock, and Extraction looks like it tears your opponent’s strategy to shreds. The difference is that whereas the Geist pleasantly surprises you by doing something else, Extraction just punishes you by being a bad card. Recently, we’ve seen a big push to make the best cards in Standard look strong so that every player can find good things to include in their decks. I’d say that the Titans and Geist of Saint Traft have succeeded in that regard, but having weak cards that look strong is just as damaging, and Lobotomy variants are consistently overrated.

Somberwald Vigilante

This card has the same issue that Ulvenwald Bear had in Dark Ascension: It reads just like another card, but it works completely differently. Unlike Ashmouth Hound, this Vigilante only triggers on the attack, but more than half the people I’ve brought the issue up to hadn’t noticed, and I can guarantee you it won’t be fun to block a Hunted Ghoul with this.

Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded

Let me start by saying that I’ve yet to see a better execution of a 2-mana planeswalker. Let me continue by saying that I don’t need a comparison to lament this card’s existence. Tibalt had to look weak in order to be balanced, but the only reason he needed to be balanced at 2 mana is that somebody in Development wanted to see if he could do it. This is a nice gimmick to get people excited about a planeswalker, but people are already excited about every new planeswalker. I’d have saved this for when the card type feels run-of-the-mill . . . in, say, fifteen years.

Trusted Forcemage
Druid's Familiar
Wolfir Silverheart

These three soul mates form a vertical cycle, and I must say I’m disappointed to see Forcemage changed from a 1/1 into a 2/2 (probably during development). Normally, I’d pass the change off as being “for the good of the Limited environment,” but with Timberland Guide in the mix, I can’t help but think there must be a way to make it work. That aside, all of these are awesome to play with. They’re all the fun of Oakenform and a creature, and you don’t even have to set yourself up to be two-for-oned!

Sigarda, Host of Herons

This creature is so uninteractive it’s almost funny. Almost. I had one in each of my prerelease pools, and it was basically unstoppable. In the finals of the second round, my opponent scooped before confiding that he was trying to draw into Barter in Blood; I didn’t have the heart to tell him that answer wouldn’t work. This isn’t good for the game, and if WotC was making AVR now, I bet this would be a whole different card, but Invisible Stalker wasn’t even spoiled by the time they finished here, so I guess we’ll just have to wait it out.

Angel's Tomb

Aside from having the most confusing rules interaction possible with soulbond, this card does a lot of good things for aggressive decks, and it makes you feel great when you blink a guy and have two blockers out of nowhere. The silver lining of the rules issues is that people seem to be confused enough about soulbond that they’ll probably call a judge over in this situation regardless.

A New Direction

A few thousand words later, and I’ve squeezed just about as much Avacyn Restored into two articles as I’m going to get. I wasn’t able to cover every single card, so if something grabbed your attention that I didn’t talk about, let me know, and I’ll be only too happy to discuss it. As for next week, we’re going to have a Double Header with both the last piece of our ocean voyage and a whole new adventure. In preparation for that journey, let me ask you, in the most cryptic way possible:

What have you always wished you could do in a Cube Draft?

Do you want to pick two cards from a pack? Move seats? Draft around a certain card? There just might be a way to make your dreams come true.

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