Last week, Mark Rosewater wrote an article in which he talked about the sixteen sets he designed, and he had them duke it out in a Royal Rumble. He had people vote on Twitter to determine results, and he also had his own picks for “best” sets. That got me thinking about my favorite sets and running my own tournament. Since I don’t work in Magic R&D, I don’t have a list of sets I’ve worked on, but instead, I’m going to use this to evaluate and discuss the current state of Magic expansions. As such, I’m going to look at the eight most recent sets, excluding core sets and “special” sets. Keeping to eight will keep things nice and tight and allow me to discuss each set in more detail. I’ll be seeding the eight sets in chronological order, so here’s what the bracket looks like:
|Scars of Mirrodin
Return to Ravnica
Fair warning: These matchups will reflect my personal opinions and biases. I play way more Limited than Constructed, so I’ll be assigning more weight to that angle. Feel free to disagree of course, as different people are bound to have different opinions.
Scars of Mirrodin vs. Gatecrash
Thragtusk exemplify this concept. There’s no coming back from 9 poison counters—you’re just permanently 1 point away from dead.
Limited was no real picnic either. You had to fully commit to it early or else your deck was atrocious. Games with infect decks never felt like real games of Magic. Pump spells were disproportionately strong, and nothing makes you slump in your chair more than knowing your opponent has an Untamed Might and one more attacker than you have blockers. That said, everything else about Scars of Mirrodin was pretty sweet. The original Mirrodin set was when I started playing competitively, so all the little homages weren’t lost on me.
Madcap Skills being among the worst offenders, but there are so many other cards that ruin your day if you’re trying to play defense. This is why Smite is one of my favorite commons so far, but sometimes, it’s not enough to prevent me from being run over.
It’s entirely possible that I’ll reverse my opinion on this at some point, but I think Scars of Mirrodin edges out Gatecrash for me here. It comes down to the little things like “big set versus small set” and “old versus new.” It’s been long enough since Scars came out that the bad things about it don’t seem as bad. It’s a classic case of looking at the past with rose-colored glasses, but I don’t see that holding up in the next round.
Winner: Scars of Mirrodin
Innistrad vs. Dark Ascension
What made Innistrad such a great format was the plethora of possible decks. You could draft a hyper-aggressive deck with cards like Bloodcrazed Neonate, you could draft a super-controlling deck that wins with Army of the Damned, you could draft a deck that tries to mill its opponent out with Curse of the Bloody Tome, or anything in between. Almost every card in the set had at least a niche role, and there were very few truly unplayable cards. The format was fast, but not so fast that you couldn’t play 7- and 8-mana cards if you built your deck properly. It was also a format in which you were rewarded for knowing how to draft a cohesive deck, not just brainlessly take the best card in the pack every time.
I could go on and on about how Innistrad was a home run, but by this point, it’s pretty clear who the winner is. Dark Ascension I felt was just a pale imitation of Innistrad. It added little beyond obnoxious mechanics like undying (how I loathe thee). Having “lords” for four of the main creature types just made decks far more linear and boring.
New Phyrexia vs. Avacyn Restored
I did well at a Pro Tour once. Avacyn Restored is one of my least-favorite sets of all time.
New Phyrexia is fairly controversial because of the Phyrexian-mana cards. I actually think that was the set’s greatest strength. If you think about it, the only Phyrexian-mana cards that are “too good” are Dismember and Mental Misstep. The former is sort of fair because 4 life can be significant. If you take those two cards out, the rest of the Phyrexian-mana cards are totally fine. Spellskite can be annoying, but it’s hardly unbeatable. The Phyrexian-mana cards made that Limited format a lot more interesting. Mutagenic Growth kind of borders on unfair sometimes, but it usually wasn’t that big of a deal. I’m a big fan of cards that offer you choices, which is why I like mechanics like kicker and entwine. Phyrexian mana is an extension of that, and there is often an important choice to make with how and when to cast your spells.
Regarding Avacyn Restored, I could rant about how much I hate miracles, but let me tell you a story. Someone is drafting AVR and is five picks into pack one. He looks at the pack and exclaims:
“This pack has no playables in it!”
Sound familiar? It’s definitely familiar to me since I’m usually that guy, and it’s happened more times than I’d care to admit. The card quality was so incredibly shallow in Avacyn Restored that just coming up with twenty-three playables was a challenge. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve debated whether to play a second Scroll of Avacyn over a nineteenth land.
Yes, the miracle cards lead to a larger variance of game outcomes. That can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your perspective. I can’t deny that they make games more exciting. Having this kind of a disaster when developing the set for Limited play is just unforgivable, especially on the back of Innistrad.
Winner: New Phyrexia
Mirrodin Besieged vs. Return to Ravnica
Plague Stinger, and more Blightwidow. I was actually willing to draft infect decks in Mirrodin Besieged–Scars of Mirrodin–Scars of Mirrodin because they now had the ability to play the long game.
Return to Ravnica is a bit of a mixed bag. I want to like it. I really do. I love the flavor and design of the set, but I just haven’t enjoyed drafting it very much. However, I think that what it brings to the table in Constructed more than makes up for that. I love having actual dual lands in Standard. It wasn’t that long ago when I had to play cards like Sejiri Refuge because there were no better options available. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise to my long-time readers that I love playing durdly control decks. Cavern of Souls was a kick in the groin to me, but Return to Ravnica gave me some goodies like Sphinx's Revelation and Supreme Verdict. However, it’s not as though control decks dominate Standard right now—far from it. I just like it when the archetype’s at least viable.
It’s close, but Return to Ravnica takes this matchup for making Standard enjoyable again.
Winner: Return to Ravnica
Semifinals: Scars of Mirrodin vs. Innistrad
Innistrad, on the other hand, made a huge impact from day one. Cards such as Delver of Secrets, Snapcaster Mage, and Liliana of the Veil quickly became multi-format all-stars. Garruk Relentless was an entirely new paradigm for planeswalkers, and transform cards in general changed how the game was played.
Semifinals: New Phyrexia vs. Return to Ravnica
Batterskull made Stoneforge Mystic completely broken. I had the good fortune of not having to play Standard when Caw-Blade had access to Batterskull, as I was already qualified for everything (humblebrags, I know). From what I heard, though, it was quite miserable. Mental Misstep was a card I alluded to earlier, and the fact that it was preemptively banned in Modern should tell you something.
As much I as prefer New Phyrexia for Limited, I can’t ignore the damage it did to Constructed. It doesn’t have a straw man to go against this round, so I have to give it to Return to Ravnica.
Winner: Return to Ravnica
Finals: Innistrad vs. Return to Ravnica
But for now, Innistrad wins!
Hope you guys enjoyed my look back on the last couple years of Magic sets. Feel free to leave me a comment if you would have made different choices.
Until next time,
arcticninja on Magic Online