Monday, May 4, 2015

Weekend Design Challenge Review 042415—cycle patching

Weekend Design Challenge Review
Here's the challenge we're reviewing today.


Tommy's Ainok Tracker is the same as the original, swapping out first strike for the Goblin War Drums ability. I'm happy to see that ability more frequently in red and Tracker seems like a fine card, if a bit over-costed. Tommy explains that the original was the least surprising morph to turn face up in its cycle. As much as like the new version, it's even worse in this regard, because its ability does nothing if you turn it face up after attackers or blockers are declared. Mystic of the Hidden Way also wants to be morphed earlier, but it's also very close to strictly better and I'm not sure we need two cards so similar in the same cycle.


Birthing Sliver doesn't turn your slivers into Banisher Priests, as Constricting Sliver does; instead, it gives all your slivers convoke. Convoke is clearly an exciting ability for a sliver deck, and convoke was in M15, so this is an amazing fit. The original was exciting because it was strong: Condition-less removal for a potentially all-creature deck, but it was also fiddly and thematically felt green despite being mechanically white.

Czynski's Bow of Nylea is simpler and more direct than the original. Instead of giving you a choice between four abilities, you get a Pit Fight that requires an untapped creature and that taps a creature. This version brings two creatures together, like Cupid's, but instead of making out they pummel each other to exhaustion. It's cool that despite only being one ability, it still has two uses: You can kill creatures, and you can sacrifice weenies to tap big creatures down. And if you've got a vigilant creature, the bow will let it kill anything via deathtouch.

A hunting ability makes sense for a bow, right? It's a bit odd that the hunter is fighting their prey rather than shooting it, ala Shock or Fall of the Hammer, but you can sort of justify that in keeping the bow mono-green. What I can't justify thematically at all, is that the hunter's running up and grappling its target... with a bow?

BUT—that's the thing—your creature isn't using the bow, you are. Despite being weapons, none of the divine weapons act as removal. Except the original bow, which either helps prove it needed a better design or that removal here is fine.

Counterpunch completely replace Cunning Strike because the burn cantrip was the weakest of its cycle. This card is also fairly weak as a Negate that usually cantrips. Shave a mana off and it becomes more attractive, but that's true of the original too. It's harder to trigger prowess with this one and it's also more likely to be stuck in your hand while you're trying to finish the job with your aggro/tempo deck.

It was a bit odd to see Kin-Tree Invocation talking about toughness when the set had a named mechanic caring about power. Evil Miming Slime was quite strong in Abzan thanks to all the high-toughness creatures, but Fighting Spirit can be a 2-for-1 and sometimes more. Wrap in Vigor would be stronger, saving your token creatures, and preserving your auras and +1/+1 counters; This can re-trigger ETB effects, but KTK didn't have a huge number of those.

Frail Conjuring is like a manifest Spark Elemental, but to seem more black than red, we trade haste for waiting until your next turn to sack your 2/2. This sorcery brings Sultai Emissary in line with the card type of its cycle, but I'm not buying this color-shift. It doesn't help that Emissary serves an important role slowing down aggro assaults and feeding exploit, while Conjuring is much harder to optimize.

How have we not seen this ability before? Hardened Berserker is the closest I can think of, which is relevant since this ability seems more appropriate for red than blue. That said, making instants cheaper to cost makes prowess easier to trigger, and helps cast those big delve cards when your graveyard's thin. I think they made Mindscour Dragon mill just so fans of milling would have a dragon-y toy in the block, but I agree Gale-Bringer Dragon is much more relevant for Limited.

Icetwin Hunter trade the Cold-Eyed Selkie saboteur ability for Icefeather Aven's flying, and loses a point of p/t in the process. The goal was to make the card more green-blue, since the original could be mono-blue. Green gets saboteur-draw more often than flying, so it is an improvement to that end. But since Inanimate kept the mono-blue Unsummon ability, it would have been nice to have a mono-green ability up top. Or, we could keep the new saboteur ability which is equally green and blue, and make the morph trigger both green and blue. Aven was one of the few flying creatures I relied on in my GUx decks, but I can't say I'd pass up Hunter either.

The original Karametra, God of Harvests was a disappointment. Fetching land only when we cast creatures, after we've cast a five-mana god wasn't something anyone was terribly grateful for. Bass's version helps you grow your creatures, which is very green and fitting for a god of harvests. That it does so every round and as soon as you cast her means she can impact the game immediately. You've got to supply a creature with some counters for it to matter, but doubling a hydra is enticing enough to make some players care.

The original Kheru Lich Lord sported a wall of text whose value scaled with your graveyard, but in practice is often ignored because you've got better things to do with your mana than recur a 2/2 for a turn. Daniel's Lich gives you card selection with a small boost to delve. If this cost and ability look familiar, you're thinking of Sultai Ascendancy. Clearly, if this were Sultai's leader, their enchantment would have to change. But to what?

Nissa's +1 now lets you attack when you cast her on turn five. Her -7 no longer fetches you any lands, but will include any you play afterward. It's her second ability that Pasteur changed the most: It doesn't refund as much of your mana the turn you cast her, but it accelerates you very quickly. You'll have nine land to use the very next turn (and at least four of exactly the land types you need)! I'm not sure why a player would ever choose to play lands from their hand when they can grab them from outside the game. It's hard to evaluate planeswalkers, but I think this is clearly a more powerful card than Nissa, Worldwaker.

I have to point out that land, forests, and basic lands do have a large overlap… in basic forests, and that this new card still mentions both land and basic lands, so it's not a huge improvement there.

Evan's take on Nylea, God of the Hunt is a mana cheaper, requires your creatures to block rather than granting them trample in case they are blocked, and regenerates your attackers rather than boost them. She's still pushing you to attack and crush your enemy, but this version is more brutal; looking to crush your opponent's forces underfoot before finishing them off. Notably, both modes require thought. The former helps you play defense if needed, letting you decide when it's right to strike. The latter can reward your for keeping some creatures back to limit your opponent's blocking choices. I don't know if she needed to be cheaper, but I will say this gameplay seems like a thematic win.

Crystalline Nautilus was part of the cycle of offensive bestow auras. It featured the illusion vulnerability, allowing you to play an undercosted but vulnerable creature, or make an opposing creature weak to any targeting effect (and then get your creature). Phantom Nautilus tones it down a notch, merely bouncing the enchanted creature and only when it gets into combat, ala Leyline Phantom. Of course, it bounces itself, so you can enchant that creature, bounce it, get your nautilus, bounce it, and restart the cycle. Which might get annoying, except that it depends entirely on your opponent choosing to attack or block with the enchanted creature. Which they should totally do because it's huge and you'll have to re-bestow your nautilus. Hmm.

The original Phenax, God of Deception was great for players who want to mill their opponent out… with creatures. A lot of mill players are also fans of creatureless decks, but it's nice to give fans of an archetype a new twist on that archetype every once in a while, and clearly Vedalken Entrancer fits right in. But apart from the fact that creatures in a mill deck inherently want to be defensive, the connection to toughness felt odd. P for Pizza's take is meant to better invoke Phenax's title. Turns out, deception can be tricky to illustrate. I can see that flavor here, but it takes as much imagination as it took to see it in the mill version. Still, it is terrifying. It's bad enough to have one of your spells countered, but to have every counter become a 3-for-1 automatically? I can be sure you loaded up on counters to max your advantage, and that means I'm going to be losing all kinds of mana and cards to you. Phenax could be god of torment.

Hunt the Hunter was indeed the worst of its cycle. How bizarre that in addition to requiring green mana to cast and requiring a green target, the creature you used to satisfy green's requirement for removal also had to be green. And after all that, all you got was +2/+2 over Prey Upon? Primal Clash undoes that last prerequisite, but it trades the fight for a forced block, which means you'll never get double duty out of your spell, killing a blocker and then swinging in large and unopposed. If it prevented any other creatures from blocking it as well, and gave trample, then you might have a reason to prefer that over fight. Or you could just fight.

By swapping Sandsteppe Outcast's power and toughness, Aura has made the choice much more relevant. 3/2s are poor in a format full of 2/2s you're eager to trade with, especially when you can still trade as a 2/1 and get an evasive creature on top. This version can be 2/3, though, letting you trump those 2/2s for a while. I love that the result is less powerful but only now strictly better than Seller of Songbirds. 'Strictly better' is weird like that.

Ben found the original Setessan Griffin too weak to play in Limited. It was never a high pick for me, but a 3 power flyer for 5 is reasonable at common, and the option to risk your mana to make it a dragon each turn made the card entirely relevant. This version is more efficient, like an Assault Griffin, and trades the ability to grow for the ability to protect itself from removal. It was never fun to pay {4}{W} and then {2}{G}{G} only to have your griffin hit by a Lightning Strike, and this can avoid that as long as your very careful with your mana. And your opponent never plays a Coastline Chimera and completely invalidates your griffin.

Wobbles' tweak to Silumgar's Scorn is that you can't use it counter another dragon. While it's debatable whether Silumgar would scorn dragons this way or not, I can't deny it's a flavorful exception. The result is wordier than I'd like, but that fault clearly lies more in the dragon-reveal.

Deathtouch is indeed a disappointing keyword for a 6/6 like Soul of Innistrad. Daniel proposes a new evergreen keyword for black creatures. Cruel does look like a good keyword for a block, though not one I'd jump to repeat year to year.

I'm not sure what purpose turning triple Raise Dead into single Vigor Mortis serves. It's not unreasonable, though it is rather stronger. If the raised creature was given cruel instead of a counter, that might be neat.

I can't help but chuckle that one designer commandeered this card's ability elsewhere and another replaced it. This version of Sultai Ascendancy has two abilities, bringing it in line with the rest of the cycle. It enables delve at least twice as fast, but doesn't smooth your draws. It also gains you 4+ life each round, which is a lot more powerful than we've been trained to appreciate. This is definitely stronger for delve decks, though I'm not sure if it's more fun, since it doesn't give you any choices or a feeling of control.

A 4/6 for six isn't a terrible common, but I've never seen anyone play Defiant Ogre in Tarkir Limited, usually because we'd rather be unmorphing things or dropping dragons at six mana. Trove Thief looks to make a more appealing card reducing the cost and size a bit, and improving the seldom-needed Shatter with a Steal Artifact / Aladdin. There are very few artifacts worth worrying about in this block, so I might feel worse about not getting to steal one, except that a 4/4 for {4}{R} is pretty decent.

Only a handful of these seem like definite improvements to me within their original context, but few seem worse. It's absolutely fascinating to see what cards people picked and why, as well as the end results. Cycles are hard to design because they're constrained not just by the set's themes and environment, but by the cycle itself. It stands out to me that rarer cycles with more text have more leeway and more possible executions.

Thanks to Ipaulsen for rendering the cards.


  1. I was thinking for Nissa that choosing to have basic lands in your sideboard would be a very real cost (with a free pass in Limited, where it's less of an issue) - but on testing, it might not be enough of one. Combining the untap and animate abilities is meant to be strong with Nykthos, but open it up to removal, in some of the games that go both big and wide that we see her in. But a lot of the numbers could probably be tweaked better. Thanks for the feedback! #planeswalkerdesignishard

  2. I believe Birthing Sliver was meant to be costed at 1W. My mistake there.

    What bothered me about the original Nautilus was how wordy it was, and how it broke the spirit of Bestow creatures by having an ability that applied while it was an enchantment. In power level terms... yeah, my version is probably a step down.

  3. It's a minor quibble, but Birthing Sliver should have convoke as well as grant it, see also: Quick Sliver.

    1. Indeed. That's why I didn't blink to see the cost remain at {5}{W}.

  4. I feel way less clever about moving Master Thief's artifact borrowing ability to Red, when Aladdin from the first Magic Expansion already did it. Dangit. I felt really good about this "discovery."

    I thought id would be cool to steal an opponent's banner and draw a card with it, but that assumes your opponent casts one on curve, and that you'll have all three of the colors required to sac it to draw.

    Dragon's of Tarkir actually has 5 common artifacts, (Ancestral Statue, Custodian of the Trove, Keeper of the Lens, Spidersilk Net, Vial of Dragonfire) and all of them see some play in Limited. We've got a guy at our store who loves playing turn 1 Keeper of the Lens.

  5. Just for the record, my Ainok Tracker was submitted as a 4/4 not a 3/3.

    1. No problem, I don't think it significantly impacted the design, it just made it a bit more powerful!

    2. That actually is relevant since a 4/4 trumps a 3/3 first striker in combat.

    3. Except in my universe there wasn't a 3/3 first striker anymore!

  6. *Ainok Tracker by Tommy Occhipinti
    I think this is an amazing step up when you consider how underpowered first strike was at morph cost 4R. As a 4/4, players are going to be greatly incentivized to block this, often letting you gobble up morphs and manifests. I think all those benefits put it on par with the other cards in its cycle.

    *Birthing Sliver by Mike George
    I love putting convoke on a Sliver because they are a five color tribe and want to go wide on the board. WotC must have tried this design, probably on the WUBRG legend, but decided against it. Not sure why when the stars really aligned to use the mechanic. I think a 2/2 for 4W fits better on the curve than 5W, but that's a development concern.

    *Bow of Nylea by Czynski
    Good job making this feel like both and artifact and an enchantment. The fact that the bow taps both creatures for the effect is a really smart touch, but I'm confused how having the tap split between the cost and effect affects things. The first thing I think of is whether a fully devoted Nylea would be able to fight an opponent's creature if the opponent has removal to shut devotion off. I announce I am going to use the ability and tap Nylea as part of the cost. My opponent responds by removing one of my other creatures to turn off devotion. Do I still get to tap down one of my opponent's creatures?

    *Counterpunch by R Stech
    I like the symmetry of this effect. but that symmetry makes it really wordy. Why not, "Counter target noncreatures spell. Exile the top card of your library. Until the end of your next turn, you may play that card." Also, the Djinn is kicking in this picture, not punching…

    1. *Fighting Spirit by Jules
      My favorite thing about this card is how it interacts with morph. All those face down threats come back as 3/6's, 4/4's with lifelink etc. Because of that, I wouldn't be surprised to see it get a mana cost increase or only be able to return a specific number of creatures.

      *Frail Conjuring by James Bartolotti
      I really dislike the trigger. It's a big deal if you forget to sac the creature, which could happen if it flips face up and isn't so obvious about itself. The timing is only a turn, so getting to flip isn't going to happen much, which is actually another problem because the promise of manifest lies entirely in the potential to flip over a surprise creature. I love it costing B for the pattern of the cycle, so what about, "Manifest the top card of your library. You lose 3 life."?

      *Gale-Bringer Dragon by Metaghost
      There are lots of top down options for this Dragon, and I don't love the mana cost reducing effect. As the lynchpin set for drafting the Block, I wish this cycle had different roles in both draft options. Helping the clans in play value for FRF/KTR and then mattering just by being a Dragons for DTK/FRF. Metaghost did an awesome job finding a simple way to help both Prowess and Rebound. I just wish the mechanics weren't so similar in play style.

      *Icetwin Hunter by Inanimate
      I think this Icefeather Aven was well designed and had an important role in the GU limited deck. So not a card I expected anyone to work on. The saboteur effect is much more interesting than evasion, and drawing cards does legitimate the Green in the cost of the card. So it's a good design.

    2. *Karametra, God of Harvests by Bass
      Wow. I like the mechanic both in flavor and in terms of mechanic. it supports all the White and Green heroic creatures that get +1/+1 counters really well. I think the trigger could be simplified to "At the beginning of your combat step". Karametra is already indestructible, so it's not as though she would be destroyed before getting her first trigger.

      *Kheru Lich Lord by Daniel Kostovesky
      I think the Toughness Matters subtheme of BG in the set would like this to be a 3/5 for GUB. Then it can block Siege Rhinos and Doomwake Giants, giving a chance to see constructed play. The ability is not so interesting or powerful that it couldn't also have some keywords, like hexproof or reach or deathtouch.

      *Nissa Worldwaker by Pasteur
      When I saw a new Nissa I was hoping some of the Elf tribal would be carried over from her first incarnation. I understand it’s more important to have a Land Planeswalker than an Elf Planeswalker. Especially when Garruk’s already creature focused. I like this take, it’s very focused on animating lands, and finding lands to animate, and animating all future lands. But, oof, that middle ability is very strong. Two lands a turn is extremely strong. They don’t come into play tapped. The ability doesn’t cost loyalty and even if it doesn’t help you advance to the ultimate, who cares, you’ve got access to all five basic lands and can cast Dragonlords. “0:Put a basic land you own from outside the game onto the battlefield tapped” would be plenty good.

    3. *Nylea, God of the Hunt by Evan Jones
      As a three mana 6/6 this would have pushed mono-Green devotion into a very different constructed direction. Less midrange, and more aggro. Like tried to do with Xenagos and Mogis. Except the devotion threshold is five not seven. I notice that Nylea benefits from her own enchantment effects. But in this case all it means is that she gets chump blocked along with all your Elvish Mystics. In this case I think it’s better if she doesn’t affect herself.

      Phantom Nautilus by LPaulsen
      Awesome idea except it doesn’t fit the cycle. The star of this design is getting +4/+4 to your own creature every other turn and in between a 4/4 creature. But the point of this cycle is that the drawback makes you want to occasionally bestow on an opponent’s creature. In this case, the drawback is not significant enough when you’re also boosting an opponent’s creature by so much. That’s why all the others give small boons, like +2/+2, +3/+2 and +4/+1 (but even then, you have a chance to kill the creature same turn.) I think you should start with +1/+4 or +2/+3 and work from there.

      *Phenax, God of Deception by P for Pizza
      The Devotion mechanic rewards you from sticking permanents, so most of the gods were designed with creature boosting effects. This design rewards you for playing counter spells, or Silumgar Sorcerers (but even there, the exploit makes it hard to keep creatures on the board.) That’s what I don’t like. There just aren’t enough permanents that can trigger the effect. If this triggered off discard spells, then there are options, but as it is, I don’t think Phenax is going to attack very much. A miss for me.

    4. *Primal Clash by Reuben Covington
      This is a good change. I like that it prevents other creatures from blocking with the target. Since it’s so far removed from the fight version, I think it could give trample too. Take that, Courser of Kruphix!

      *Sandsteppe Outcast by Aura
      This is such a small change. And I’m skeptical that it’s enough to entice players to choose the counter. Plus, making it a 1/2 is stronger for DTK/FRF draft because you can Twin Bolt the Spirit and the Outcast anymore.

      *Setessan Griffin by Ben Nassau
      I think the biggest thing holding Setessan Griffin back was the 4W casting cost. So I’m already excited for a four mana evasive creature I can Bestow. Hexproof is good idea for the off color activation and 3GG seems expensive enough to keep it from being oppressive. Having said that, I’m a little worried about end of turn Feral Invocation, or gods help us, any Ordeal.

    5. *Silumgar's Scorn by Wobbles
      Normally this change would amount to trinket text, but not in Dragons of Tarkir. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. Two mana counterspells are good for back and forth counter wars, when no spell is a dragon anyway, or when your opponent is racing to cast a five mana hexproof Dragonlord. Disdainful Stroke and Nullify are good at latter but not the former. Silumgar’s Scorn was good at both, except this version isn’t good at the later. So the change will really force players to diversify their removal. It could even prevent Esper Dragons or five-color Blue Dragons from being dominant.

      *Soul of Innistrad by Daniel
      I think it’s very cool to introduce a new keyword as part of this splashy cycle. The problem with Cruel is Black could only share it with White, and they already share a life gain effect in Lifelink. Plus “cruel” sounds very un-White. It sounds Black/Red, but Red doesn’t drain life. I’d like to see, “Cruel (Whenever this creature attacks, it deals 1 damage to target opponent and gets +1/+1 until end of turn.)” That’s a pair of effects Black and Red share (though Black usually does this as life loss.) It’s attack focused like Black and Red want to be, and can hit Planeswalkers, which both colors are good at doing.

      *Sultai Ascendancy by Zachariah Howell
      I think Jay misread this card. It’s a one time Scout the Borders that doesn’t put a card in your hand, and gains you 4 life. Then every future mill spell gains you one life per card. I don’t know if this is especially powerful or exciting. If it made a 1/1 Token or drained 1 life, that would be something. But for GUB I want more. I do like that it stacks very well. That’s the most exciting part about this card to me.

    6. I think the sultai ascendancy that he made is quite powerful. Gaining that life isn't exciting on the surface but it give you a large buffer and its not something that's really been explored. Casting Satyr Wayfinder to get a land, dump 3 into yard and gain three life sounds pretty solid.

    7. I did misread Sultai Ascendancy. Thought the ETB ability was an every-round ability. I'd want more for this cost+rarity.