Monday, May 2, 2011

A Designer's Set Review—New Phyrexia (Artifact)

A Designer's Set Review—New Phyrexia (Artifact)
You will see any number of reviews of New Phyrexia in the context of their impact on limited, standard, extended and legacy play. This week, I'm bringing you a new perspective: How does the set stack up in terms of design? Follow along with the official spoiler.
Alloy Myr is like Palladium Myr, but you get * instead of 2. I would feel that this is unnecessarily derivative if the whole point of this set wasn't to show Phyrexia adapting to all colors. But it is. I will say that it's creepily Fifth Dawn-ish and makes me wonder if they shouldn't have made a Phyrexian version of Sunburst.

So Batterskull is big and has lots of text because... it's mythic? I'm guessing they felt they could make a mythic living weapon because they start as creatures and so they tried... and, uh, I dunno. This card does not excite me. Yes, it's powerful, but none of its keywords are the kind that get players going. The cool part is that you can recast it when the germ dies. Between that and the prohibitive equip cost, you might as well have a creature, not an equipment. One out of five stars. (Why does a battering ram have vigilance? Or lifelink?)

My favorite part of Blinding Souleater is the type line. Artifact—Cleric (basically). I like this cycle's use of φ.

Took me a while to figure out how Caged Sun was different from Gauntlet of Power. This one isn't symmetrical. Cool. Awesome art, too.

Players must have been too nervous about Golem Foundry and Titan Forge. Not much reason to be nervous about Conversion Chamber: That's a 3/3 every other turn... as long as you can keep artifacts in the 'yard. (Which should be happening in limited regardless of which side your on.)

Darksteel Relic is the least useful in a surprising line of useless darksteel artifacts. I want to hate it, I really do, but my Johnny instincts are laughing too hard.

Etched Monstrosity is a Phyrexian homage to a classic Fifth Dawn card, Etched Oracle. Except instead of getting smaller (dead), it gets bigger. Neat. I wish the 5s could have been 4s like the original, but I get that this matches the 5-color activation. I'll bet they tried to make it cost 4 and require four mana of different colors but had to scrap that because it was too clunky.

It's a touch weird to me that Gremlin Mine can't remove +1/+1 counters from artifact creatures like the clockwork bunch, but I guess 4 damage is close enough. It's also curious that they added the word "noncreature" so it can't power down a Chimeric Mass while it's animated.

Hex Parasite is solid. I'm glad they found a way to hurt planeswalkers that gets you value at the same time. The fact that it's so open-ended and can counter Quests and Chalices and even cumulative upkeep is pretty awesome.

Hovermyr. Take that, Courier Hawk — you're not special anymore!

Does Immolating Souleater really need to be? I mean, we already got phyrebreathing from Moltensteel Dragon.

Insatiable Souleater, however, I have no problems with. Except it feels more φ-red than green.

Isolation Cell would be solid in any other context. In this context, it's jarring that it doesn't add a Phyrexian mana to everything. Or simulate it (1 mana = 2 life).

Kiln Walker promotes attacking. Never bad. Actually, I've tried this out a bit and now I see the beauty in this design. It's lovely. A 3/3 for 3 is a powerful thing, but a 0/3 for 3 is not. You can block with it, but you want to attack with it. Love it.

Lashwrithe is a decent card. Nonflying Nightmare ftw. I mean, at least it's not Cranial Plating.

Mindcrank seems bad. In how many formats will you mill a player before you kill them at this rate? Minimaster? Doesn't really combo with other milling cards since mill decks hate to deal damage. I guess Lich Lord of Unx disagrees, but let's face it, dude is not the smartest lich in the barrel.

Mycosynth Wellspring is the land-getting version of Ichor Wellspring. Considering how useful a land can be on turn two, this is solid fixing. Not quite as tempting to then break, but I imagine players will be happy to build a deck with both artifacts. Now if only I could combine them for a Solemn Simulacrum.

Myr Superion can have my babies.

Necropouncer. Now we're talking. This is what I want from my living weapons. I generally expect my 3/1 haste guys before turn 6, but this thing is a Time Walk and a permanent Giant Growth in the late game. Compare to Warlord's Axe.

One could argue that Omen Machine takes away players' options. Another less fuddy one could argue that every game with Omen Machine will turn to awesome. Or at least end a bit sooner.

Pestilent Souleater is exactly 2.5 times sexier than Vector Asp; impressive since it's no more efficient (though it is more effective).

Phyrexian Hulk would be a cooler reprint if it weren't coming in on the coattails of Thundering Tanadon.

Pristine Talisman is more poetic now that we know about all the "lose 1 life" riders.

I feel like Shrine of Boundless Growth should be a φ-green artifact, but I see the argument for not. It's an interesting take on good-in-color-but-fine-wherever, but I'm not sure yet whether it's good enough to actually make many non-green decks.

Shrine of Burning Rage feels redder than the last one felt green, but it also seems more useful. I will be shocked and appalled if this card ever goes later than fourth pick in draft.

Blacker even than the last shrine was red, Shrine of Limitless Power is not so useful. It'll be hard to get value out of this appropriate to its cost in non-black decks considering how your opponent has so much time to react to its presence, but it is better than it reads. The name seems horribly mismatched, as limiting power is exactly what you're doing, and there's a limit to how much power you can get out of this card equal to your opponent's hand size.

Shrine of Loyal Legions seems solid. Not sure if it's better or worse than the red shrine, but it is comparable.

Shrine of Piercing Vision isn't amazing, but is quite decent. Kind of like a reaaally good but reaaally slow cantrip. Overall, I find the Shrines worthy of their cycle.

Sickleslicer is the least complex living weapon in the set and matched in the block only by Flayer Husk. I like it a lot.

Why can Soul Conduit be used every turn? Why does it cost 12 to use? I don't think Spike, Timmy or Johnny are terribly interested in this card, with the sole exception of casual multiplayer where it still seems worse than Reverse the Sands.

Spellskite is pretty sweet. It may be a pain against burn players, but probably not unduly so. Most exciting is the templating tech upgrade here. Spellskite isn't restricted to eating spells with a single target.

Surge Node is Johnny-tastic. Yes, please. It's funny, most cards like this would have you sacrifice them when you remove the last counter, but that specifically doesn't happen in Scars because of metalcraft and the other profitable ways to sack artifacts.

I am not impressed by Sword of War and Peace. Why does the red-white color pair care so much about hand-size? Neither of those colors are good at filling your hand or emptying the opponent's. There were a lot of solid speculations that were better than this.

The only thing I don't like about Torpor Orb (as a designer) is how alien the text reads. I imagine a lot of casual players not getting the card and being turned off by it. "What the hell does this do?" leads to "I guess I don't understand this game as well as I thought" and then to "I don't like this game—it makes me feel stupid." As a player, I think this is cute but mostly unplayable. Although I can think of one card that will love it.

Tresspassing Souleater is nice and clean.

I wish Unwinding Clock also added charge counters, but I'm sure some enterprising player will find some awesome uses for it. Like with Lux Cannon or Titan Forge + signets in multiplayer.

Phyrexia's Core looks terrible, but it does allow non-red decks a Wellspring outlet at basically no cost. I have to say, it would have been really cute if they had made this an artifact land—the only one in the entire block. This doesn't feel Phyrexian at all. There's an argument that it offsets the costs of using Phyrexian mana, but Phyrexian mana exists because Phyrexians don't care about life, not because they're busy restoring it. Also, sacrificing artifacts is a Mirran thing.

As expected, there are a lot of very cool artifacts in this set. I feel like I'm seeing more for Johnny and Spike than for Timmy, but that's what the Chancellors were for, so it probably works out when you look at the whole collection. I'm glad they printed new basic lands in each set because they do tend to get boring after nine months. Though—while there are exceptions—Mirrodin lands tend to be my least favorite land art in the game.

Overall, Wizards has done an excellent job innovating within reason, printing interesting but simple commons, and evoking five-color Phyrexia. I do feel like there a few cycles that didn't fit or improve the theme, but we're talking about the difference between an A+ and an A (maybe A-). It's curious how much New Phyrexia is reminiscent of the third set from the original Mirrodin block while at the same time "missing a lot of opportunities" to make it feel more connected to Fifth Dawn. I put that in quotes, because it's not necessarily a mistake, just a choice.

The thing players will remember about this set years after it's out of print is φ (Phyrexian mana), which I think they did an amazing job with. It's flavorful, mechanically interesting, versatile and simple. I think they went too far making color-unique abilities universally accessible, but it's nothing that's going to hurt the game. It's also fascinating how well balanced this cost-reduction mechanic appears to be considering how dangerous they tend to be.


  1. On Omen Machine - the counterspell just stays exiled permanently. You have to cast the exiled card immediately with Omen Machine, it doesn't give you the option of playing that exiled card whenever you could.

  2. Good call. Stupid sloppy second-read.

  3. My few notes:

    Re: Batterskull - Agreed on all accounts. While I recognize that this card is very powerful, it has absolutely none of that mysterious force that defines a resonant design, something that is very disappointing in a mythic. And the ability to bounce it is just a ham-fisted power-up maneuver.

    Re: Sword of War & Peace - Red has actually been known to care about its opponent's hand size before, as a large hand size is a typical sign of holding spells and playing blue. (Ref: Gaze of Adamaro, Runeflare Trap, Sudden Impact)

    Re: Phyrexian Core - Without the constraints of Twitter, I'll try to be a little clearer. First, I think your perception of flavor is obstructing how you perceive the relationship between this card and Mirrodin's Core. The idea that gaining life is antithetical to the Phyrexian ideal of "life as a resource" is simply too strict, as you can just as easily interpret the flavor being a conversion of an artifact into a different resource, one that happens to be life, but also equals 1/2 a Phyrexian Mana.

    The reasoning it only produces 1/2 a Phyrexian Mana is presumably two-fold:

    1 - As a reference to Mirrodin's Core, the player is required to go through two steps in order to acquire that omnicolored source. In the original you tap once to add a charge counter, than tap again to remove the counter. Here you must simply sac > sac.

    2 - I can only assume development wanted this card to suck a lot.

    Rusted Slasher also wants to make it clear that Phyrexia is an equal-opportunity employer sac outlets.

  4. Mindcrank's not really for milling - it's a combo partner for Bloodchief Ascension. I'm sure there're other shenanigans it's good for too.

    I'm not sure if I mentioned this already, but Torpor Orb probably gives new life to Phyrexian Dreadnought decks in Legacy.

  5. Eh, I don't think that's a powerful enough application for Legacy to play Torpor Orb. Stifle is played regardless of Dreadnaught's existence, but Torpor Orb just enables Dreadnaught and a bunch of sub-Dreadnaught critters like Eater of Days.

  6. I definitely enjoyed the design reviews. Two suggestions:

    Link to the new cards, as well as old cards? I've been over the spoilers, but I don't remember every card.

    As an alternative / complement, it would be nice to see a review organized by theme (life-as-payment, artifact sacrificing) or aspect (design-flavor connection, power level).

  7. At your request, I've added links to this post. Not sure I'll go back and do so with Jay's other posts, but hopefully this will improve future reader's enjoyment.

    I wish we could implement roll-over functionality, but I'm not savvy enough to suss that out.