Monday, June 27, 2011

A Design Review of Magic 2012: Blue - The Kevin Bacon Color of M12

If you've heard of the game The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, or if you've just seen him in movies, you know that Kevin Bacon is an actor that can sure play a lot of roles. And that's what I think of Blue in M12. It can be the lead color for a mill deck, or a supporting color for an Aura deck. It can blend into either action-packed aggro decks, or thought-provoking control decks. It's comfortable working with Illusions, and won't let people see through them.


Mill seems to be a legit theme for limited in this set, not just a rogue strategy that coalesces once in a blue moon. (Though we'll have to see about how often it comes together.) In addition, the style of the mill cards are much more interactive. It's not an all-or-nothing strategy like casting repeated Tome Scours.

Good mill cards are hard to design, but they seem to have done that.

Many beginning players enjoy the feeling of milling an opponent and thus "wasting their cards" and "destroying their spells." Many experienced players enjoy the challenge and satisfaction of staying alive long enough to mill the opponent to 0.

Merfolk Mesmerist 1U (Common)
Creature - Merfolk Wizard
U, T: Target player puts the top two cards of his or her library into his or her graveyard.

Awesome! When you consider that Hedron Crab occasionally milled people to death even in the overspeeding zone that is Zendikar, this Merfolk at common should make mill a real deck in limited.

Making mill spells into creature form is great: It can chump block in a pinch. It gives your opponent the chance to kill it with a spell.

I like how it mills a little every turn, so that it rewards stalling out the game. The word "Stall" might have negative connotations, but I think it's much more interactive and interesting for both sides than repeatedly targeting the opponent with effects like "mill for 10 card" without even attempting to set up a defense on the board.

Jace's Erasure 1U (Common)
Whenever you draw a card, you may have target player put the top card of his or her library into his or her graveyard.

This card is both clever and elegant - I love how it manages to do two things with one line.

Belltower Sphinx 4U (Uncommon)
Creature - Sphinx
Whenever a source deals damage to Belltower Sphinx, that source's controller puts that many cards from the top of his or her library into his or her graveyard.

What a great design. In terms of interactive mill, this is as interactive as it gets.

High toughness creatures make bloodthirst more relevant. This guy can block an un-bloodthirsted Gorehorn Minotaurs, but not a bloodthirsted one.

Jace's Archivist 1UU (Rare)
Creature - Vedalken Wizard
U, T: Each player discards his or her hand, then draws cards equal to the greatest number of cards each player discarded this way.

This is a strong milling tool. Let's see - if you have 5 cards in hand with this and a Jace's Erasure in play, and you activate this once at the end of your turn and then once during your main phase, your opponent will have his/her library depleted by 22 cards.

This card has great combo potential with bounce spells.

This card not only works in an ultra-defensive mill deck, but it can also do great work in a hyper-aggressive deck that uses up cards very quickly. Since both players draw equal to the highest hand size, you get the advantage if you can use up your hand first. This is a real Kevin Bacon card, playing multiple roles.

Supporting Role - Aura:

Aven Fleetwing 3U
Creature - Bird Soldier

The hexproof creatures are great for playing an Aura themed deck.

Design-wise, this bleed of hexproof into blue seems wrong to me. I think there's beauty in the contrast of green getting hexproof and blue getting shroud. And green deserves an exclusive keyword.

The core iconic Green strategy of casting a high-cost ground fatty is doomed in competitive Magic without help. Red gets to execute its iconic strategy of burning opponents at a tournament level. Blue gets to execute its iconic strategy of countering stuff. But any success Green has had in recent years is due to resource spells (land and creature fetching) and creatures with ridiculously powerful ETB (enter-the-battlefield) abilities. It's not the attacks with the fatties that swing the battle.

Green can also win with swarms of small-to-mid-sized creature such as Elves and Elephants, which is fine as another iconic style of Green, but the fatty style also deserves love.

I wish this were "U: Aven Fleetwing gains shroud until end of turn."

However, when I think about enabling the Aura archetype in draft, activated shroud is hard to balance. If it's 3U with activated shroud, you'll have to wait until you have 5 lands to cast it safely. On the other hand, if the casting cost is reduced to 2U, it will start to be useful for players outside of the archetype, so the card is less likely to make it around to the drafter of the Aura archetype. It has to use some special cost such as "Sacrifice a land: CARDNAME gains shroud until end of turn," but that may not be fitting for a core set.

While this card is ok for the purposes of this set, precedence has a way of creeping into cases that aren't really the same case. I hope cards like Sphinx of Jwar Isle in the future don't get Hexproof over Shroud just because it would look more impressive.

Supporting Role - Blue/Green:

Levitation 2UU (Uncommon)
Creatures you control have flying.

This was a good card for Blue-Green decks. In this set, it might also help bloodthirst decks as well.

Aggro or Control?

While some colors in M12 look like they have a basic orientation like aggro for Red or defense for White, Blue in M12 has fast aggro cards as well as slow defensive cards.


Coral Merfolk 1U
Creature - Merfolk

Yes, blue seems a little more aggressive than usual so that you could go for an aggro build if you wanted to. In M11, this slot was a 1/3.

I like it when blue gets a 1/3 for this slot, especially since there's very few vanilla designs that could be a 2-drop, and having a 1/3 would bring more variety accross colors. But maybe there's a 1/4 at the 3-drop slot.

I'm guessing that some kind of looter like Merfolk Looter could be the other common blue 2-drop; that would combo well with Jace's Erasure.

Skywinder Drake 2U (Common)
Creature - Drake
Skywinder Drake can block only creatures with flying

Very aggro.

Phantasmal Bear U (Common)
Creature - Bear Illusion
When Phantasmal Bear becomes the target of a spell or ability, sacrifice it.

It seems all the colors get playable 1-drops so that they can potentially mesh with the bloodthirst theme.

I like how the Illusion creatures keep changing stats in each core set.

Phantasmal Dragon 2UU (Uncommon)
Creature - Dragon Illusion
When Phantasmal Dragon becomes the target of a spell or ability, sacrifice it.

This looks pretty strong. It's a good thing that the cycle of keyword-granting Mages only target creatures you control.

Lord of the Unreal UU (Rare)
Creature - Human Wizard
Illusion creatures you control get +1/+1 and have hexproof.

I see many tribal effects around. It's very likely that each color gets some tribal Lords, although not many have been revealed so far.

Tribal lords provide a clear direction in deckbuilding for new players, so it's good to have them in a core set.

I also think tribal lords are a neat way to cram more draftable archetypes into a set, if you're ok with that archetype being a low-frequency archetype. (If you want them to be reliably draftable like in Lorwyn, you need to devote a ton of slots to each creature type. But it's ok to have some draft themes come up only infrequently, because that way players can draft a set many times and still encounter some new archetypes s/he didn't have the opportunity to try before.)


Basically, all the mill cards I talked about above seem to imply some kind of slow control deck.

Azure Mage 1U (Uncommon)
Creature - Human Wizard
3U: Draw a card.

I get concerned when I see cards like this - repeat advantage cards that basically mean if you don't happen to have removal in hand, you just lose. But considering cards of the past such as Archivist or Treasure Trove, at least this one requries both massive mana and is in the form of a fragile creature.

This card probably speaks of the tension between the card advantage based strategies versus the momentum based strategies. Skipping a turn to draw a card is going to be a real cost. 

By the way, this card breaks the "rule of four" - the rule that if 4 cards of a cycle have something in common, the 5th one must also follow that pattern.

However, for gameplay, I like this much better than "U: Target creature gains flying." or "U: Target creature gains shroud."


Frost Breath 2U (Common)
Tap up to two target creatures. Those creatures don't untap during their controller's next untap step.

I was going to put this under Aggro spells, but when a card buys as much time as this, it could probably be used by a slow deck to buy time. I think this would be great in a blue-green deck that needs time advantage to let its superior creatures on land and air do their work.

I have a feeling this will be a very high pick in draft.

Turn to Frog 1U (Uncommon)
Target creature loses all abilities and becomes a 1/1 blue Frog until end of turn.

So Diminish had to be moved to uncommon. Some players didn't like Diminish because it doesn't interact with other power/toughness modifiers in the way they expect, and because many players make mistakes processing it. In this set, new players might be confused about how the spell interacts with the +1/+1 counters from bloodthirst. I think a little reminder text would go a long way to clear up how these cards work, which I wrote about here.

It's nice that it gained some awesome new flavor and functionality. Making something lose all abilities is a combat trick that should have existed all along.

It also works as a tribal effect hoser. Ever since New Phyrexia, I'm seeing some tribal-relevant spells creeping in.

Unsummon U
Return target creature to its owner's hand.

I think a Boomerang variant like Regress would also have been nice. You could bounce an Auras that's enchanting a hexproof creature (even if you can't touch the creature itself) so that you can block and kill the creature in combat. While Aura + hexproof should be strong, it shouldn't be unstoppable. White or Green have enchantment destruction, but having one more common answer in another color would help.

Ice Cage 1U (Common)
Enchantment - Aura
Enchant creature
Enchanted creature can't attack or block, and its activated abilities can't be activated.
When enchanted creature becomes the target of a spell or ability, destroy Ice Cage.

What an elegant card.

I will have to count how many repeat targeting effects there are in this set at common and uncommon. I know there's the uncommon Mage cycle that grant keyword abilities to your guys, and Auras are more playable, which doesn't bode well for this card.

Negate 1U
Counter target noncreature spell.

Great core card.

Cancel 1UU
Counter target spell.

Great core card.

Divination 2U (Common)
Draw two cards.

Great core set card.

Mind Control 3UU (Uncommon)
Enchantment - Aura
Enchant creature
You control enchanted creature

Great core set card.

AEther Adept 1UU
Creature - Human Wizard
When AEther Adept enters the battlefield, return target creature to its owner's hand

Yes! This guy provides an interesting way to interact with bloodthirst, other than just trying to block everything you can and hoping to draw precious removal for bloodthirsted guys.

This is another KB card, fitting into many decks in many ways.


  1. I think we should expect to see more hexproof and less shroud (or none at all, even) across the board. Shroud can create interesting gameplay decisions, but I don't know if that's worth the disappointment of being unable to save a creature in combat with a pump spell, or enchant it with an Aura or attach an Equipment. Those "feelbad" moments are something worth addressing, I feel, even in spite of the good that shroud does over hexproof.

  2. I'm under the impression that they've been rather vocal about their dissatisfaction with Shroud, and Aven Fleetwing would certainly suggest a decision to move away from it.

    Tangentially, all Shroud-bearing designs submitted to Chah's mash-up contest received middling-to-terrible scores from yours truly.

  3. The problem with hexproox is now that it exists, you feel ripped off whenever you get something with shroud. The difference between the two is not in power level (like the strikes), but rather in annoyance. This makes shroud feel rather unnecessary, considering how it's almost like hexproox, but without the ugly bug of not being able to target your stuff.

    Off tangent:
    My strongest shroud-related memory is from the Kamigawa era, when Humble Budoka was at common in CoK. The shroud on him was almost never a boon (nobody's killing a more predictable Bear), but always a bane (the opponent was sure that you couldn't cast most tricks on him).

  4. I think Humble Budoka was simply bad design.

    There's a space for shroud - cards like Neurok Commando or Deftblade Duelist would be super annoying if they could be augmented and opponents couldn't touch them.

    I feel that cards that can win by themselves like Sphinx of Jwar Isle, that get shroud as a way to solidify their clock, shouldn't get further augmented.

  5. Does Sphinx of Jwar Isle really change all that much by having hexproof instead of shroud? It's already a big threat, the ability to make it a bit bigger isn't that big a deal. It will be a rare occasion when the ability to equip or enchant it or otherwise target it will make an appreciable different in the outcome of a game. Might as well use the less "randomly hoses my own guy" version in that case.

  6. I think cards should be interactive - if you can't kill it, at least you should be able to block it. If you can't kill it and can't block it, it should stay the same size where it was deemed balanced as a clock.

    Hexproof should be used in accordance with the card's role in the game. I don't want green's tools to be given to another color's evasive untargetable creature "just because it's better."