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The Ketita Kerfuffle


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





Dark Ascension

New Phyrexia


Avacyn Restored

Mirrodin Besieged


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

This exact matchup came up in MaRo’s article, and I assure you the fact that it shows up here was not by design. This is a bit of a tough one for me to evaluate. Both of these sets are fairly mediocre in my opinion. Scars of Mirrodin would win this one handily were it not for one mechanic, namely infect. Infect made things super-awkward. Poison counters were always kind of a joke mechanic. Outside of casual decks, you simply never, ever saw someone being poisoned out. Well, no one’s laughing now. The fact that you can’t “heal” poison counters makes things especially frustrating. It’s possible to stabilize a normal game of Magic at 1 life and start slowly climbing your way back in. Cards like 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
I have a lot less to say about Gatecrash, mostly because it’s the newest set, and thus, I’ve spent the least amount of time playing with it. I must admit I’ve only drafted the set a handful of times, and it’s been fairly hit-and-miss. It saddens me to see that my favorite guild, Dimir, is fairly close to unplayable. The general impression I get is that most of the games are very noninteractive and just come down to racing or who draws better. They try really hard to make blocking a losing strategy, with 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

Spider Spawning
This is a blowout if there ever was one. Innistrad is one of my favorite sets of all time, and Dark Ascension was just . . . meh. I could probably write a thousand words about why Innistrad was so awesome, but I’ll keep it concise here. One of the big reasons I liked the set so much was that triple-Innistrad was seriously one of the best draft formats ever. I know there are plenty of graybeards (well, more gray than I am anyway) who will want to pipe up and claim that InvasionPlaneshiftApocaypse or OdysseyTormentJudgment was the best Draft format, and I have to respectfully disagree. I have actually drafted IPA a couple of times, and while I’m definitely no expert on the format, it has nothing on Innistrad.

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.

Winner: Innistrad

New Phyrexia vs. Avacyn Restored

Mutagenic Growth
Here’s another matchup that isn’t particularly close in my mind. I have to admit that I am very strongly biased in both directions. New Phyrexia is the only reason 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

Sphinx's Revelation
Much like the first matchup, this is a contest between old and new. Mirrodin Besieged was an odd set. I wrote above about how much I hated infect, but the follow-up to Scars of Mirrodin treated the mechanic much differently. First of all, there was bleed into white (even though white infect was something of a trap). Second, there was a shift away from small and cheap creatures that were harder to block and toward slower, more durable threats—less Plague Stinger, and more Blightwidow. I was actually willing to draft infect decks in Mirrodin BesiegedScars of MirrodinScars 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

Garruk Relentless
Scars of Mirrodin barely made it here, and Innistrad is a leading candidate for taking this whole tourney down, so this isn’t really close. It goes without saying that Innistrad was a much better Draft format, but even in Constructed, Innistrad takes it. Prior to the long reign of Caw-Blade, Standard mostly consisted of Zendikar-based decks. That’s usually the case when a large set rotates in, but there really wasn’t much interaction between the two blocks. Scars of Mirrodin added almost nothing to Standard beyond the speed lands.

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.

Winner: Innistrad

Semifinals: New Phyrexia vs. Return to Ravnica

This is kind of where I need to reign in my biases. Even though I have a personal fondness for New Phyrexia, I have to admit that 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

Army of the Damned
Honestly, I’m a little surprised that Return to Ravnica made it this far. For a set I rip on a lot, I sure do seem to prefer it over a lot of other sets. The Cinderella story has to end somewhere, though, but to be fair, I don’t think it ever had a chance. Innistrad really is one of my favorite sets of all time, and I knew from the start it was going to win. It’s pretty close to perfect, and any criticism I can think of for it borders on being anal-retentive. This exercise has shown me that Return to Ravnica is a better set than I give it credit for. The original Ravnica set was such an amazing success that my expectations for the Return were impossibly high. Still, it’s far from a perfect set. The Draft format was a big disappointment to me, and Sealed is even worse. There is still potential that it will be vindicated once Dragon’s Maze comes out and we get to see how all ten guilds interact. I don’t think it will reverse my decision here, but maybe one day, it will be Return to Ravnica that I look back on with rose-colored glasses.

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,

Nassim Ketita

arcticninja on Magic Online


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