The End of Bolas. For Now.
We’ve been able to fight the good fight on Ravnica for a few weeks now, and it’s high time I share my thoughts on War of the Spark with you.
As a set, War of the Spark is pretty out there. Forget about artifact centred or multicolor themed or something else that’s safe because it’s been done a hundred times before. Once again Wizards has demonstrated that they’re not afraid to move the boundaries of the game and go places even fans would not dream of.
And so the new set is based around planeswalkers. And not just the usual handful of powerful mythic rares either. But rares and uncommons too. Although I will have some comments later on, let me say that I really admire and appreciate that Wizards is willing to put everything on the line time and again. I’m pretty sure if it wasn’t for that pioneering attitude, the game we all love so much would have long ago bled to death. With that, let’s dig into the set.
Clearly, the biggest flagships in the new set are the uncommon and rare planeswalkers. How do you make a set with 24 planeswalkers without it getting silly? The solution Wizards came up with is very elegant. Uncommon walkers all have a minor static effect and one -x loyalty ability. This means they present a nice tension between using them and keeping them around for their static effect. It also means that if you want to use them more than a few times, you will need other means to get counters on your planeswalkers. The rare walkers have a slightly more powerful effect and have one + and one – ability. This means they act more similar to the mythic walkers we know so well, except they don’t have an ultimate to work up to. In my experience, the ultimate has never been that important in defining the value of a planeswalker, and indeed the new rare walkers are more powerful than I would like them to be.
And to be honest, that’s my biggest beef with the set. The static abilities all pile up, which makes the board states very complicated. On top of that, the rare planeswalkers can get very oppressive. Even the less obviously strong walkers like Ajani and Sorin have very relevant static abilities and while their loyalty abilities may not be that powerful on their own, as a package they provide a little too much value if you ask me. On the other hand, I love how the uncommon walkers have turned out. Most of them provide static effects that need a little work to make them shine, and the loyalty abilities line up nicely with those effects. Except for maybe Ashiok in limited, I don’t see the uncommon walkers getting out of hand. For Battle Boxes, these cards are great. They provide a lot of action for one card, they present a challenge to get the most value out of them, and they don’t run the risk of locking up the board. I hope we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in years to come.
The second flagship ability is amass. Basically it lets you put a zombie army on the battlefield and then grow it. While I was disappointed at first that you didn’t literally create an army, the upside of the zombie army is that the amassed +1/+1 counters have virtual haste. If you have a zombie army already on the battlefield and then grow it, you can swing with it immediately. This makes it play a little different, and after quite a few drafts on Arena I am more and more impressed by the mechanic. Unfortunately, the mechanic doesn’t work too well in Battle Box. Unless you have a lot of amass cards, the most you will do is put a small zombie army into play. While that may be OK, it’s not really what we’re looking for. Obviously, there are a lot of amass cards in the War of the Spark Mini Battle Box.
Finally, a set where bringing back proliferate was both expected and logical. I love proliferate. It always feels clever and building up your own cards is a very satisfying thing to do. I think Wizards also found a nice balance in the proliferate cards. Almost all of them are playable in draft but few of them are first picks. For most Battle Boxes, proliferate is a fine mechanic. Whether your box has +1/+1 counters, -1/-1 counters, planeswalkers or any other kind of counters, proliferate can help move games along.
A note on mythic rares
As you will see, my top 20 list has no mythic rares. I think that’s a first, and I wanted to touch upon it quickly. Wizards has chosen to include two five card cycles in this set, both of which match poorly with the Battle Box format. The cycle of finales all reward you for investing 12 mana or more into a spell. In a format where most Boxes max out at 10 mana, that would just lead to feel bad situations. The cycle of God-Eternals all get tucked into your library third from the top. Because many players still like to play with one communal library, this is a nuisance because people have to figure out who is going to draw the card if it leaves the battlefield now. Of the other five cards, the three planeswalkers are just too powerful and Niv-Mizzet is too weird. The only mythic that I would consider is Roalesk, but he also didn’t make the cut in the end.
The Top 20
Once again, Wizards has provided us with a wealth of new Battle Box cards:
20. Pledge of Unity
The only reason this is on this list is that these effects are usually at sorcery speed. Having one available at instant speed opens up a whole new range of shenanigans. For what is does, I think it is reasonably priced as well.
19. Wanderer’s Strike
Removal is always good (although this one doesn’t require much strategic thought). I would only include this in boxes that can really use the proliferate rider.
18. Tibalt, Rakish Instigator
Shutting off lifegain will not do much in most boxes. Creating 1/1 devils that ping any target for 1 does provide some potential for fun. A nice card for lower powered boxes.
17. Soul Diviner
This seems very versatile. Unconditional card draw is usually a bit too powerful, so it’s good that you need a counter first. In modern Magic, this does not seem like a difficult requirement however, so time will tell if this proves too powerful or a dud.
16. Spark Harvest
As I have said before, I prefer conditional removal over things like Murder. Here, you either pay too much, or you have to sacrifice a creature. Being able to target planeswalkers will become more and more important with this new set out.
15. Kaya, Bane of the Dead
Her anti-hexproof ability could be useful in some boxes, and having the power to exile two creatures on consecutive turns will certainly raise some eyebrows. I think people will do their best to remove this in the turn between.
14. Rescuer Sphinx
This really only becomes good when you have a permanent to return to your hand. However, since that can also be a depleted planeswalker or a creature with an ETB trigger, this has the potential to be really good. And if it’s not, a 3/2 flyer is still decent enough most of the time.
13. Feather, the Redeemed
The rate is good, although the color requirements are quite heavy. I think you should only consider this if your box contains a certain number of combat tricks (as many boxes do). At that point, Feather really gets a chance to shine.
12. Domri, Anarch of Bolas
Because Domri can only function with some other creatures around, I think he is the right power level for the Battle Box format. +1/+0 is OK, an extra mana is certainly useful, and fighting your opponent’s annoying utility creatures can also be powerful. Or not; but that’s a good thing.
11. Angrath’s Rampage
Sacrifice cards are always a gamble. They allow you to work around hexproof and indestructible and similar abilities, but as soon as your opponent has a 1/1 goblin token they become pretty much useless. This card circumvents that downside by letting you choose another permanent type instead. It still has limitations, but I think I would include this if my box had enough artifacts and planeswalkers.
10. Vivien, Champion of the Wilds
Creatures with flash can create some wacky combat situations, and giving a creature vigilance and reach gives you a good chance you’ll be able to protect Vivien as well. Her -2 ability may prove to be a bit too good, because in most Battle Boxes you are almost guaranteed to hit at least 1 creature every time.
9. Ral’s Outburst
Direct damage combined with card selection and card draw is a pretty potent package. But then again, it costs 4 mana, which makes it a fine power level for most boxes.
8. Jiang Yanggu, Wildcrafter
One of the most innocuous planeswalkers in the set, I think Jiang can actually do some nice work. It works well if your box has a way to proliferate the +1/+1 counters, but even just the mana boost will help in the early turns of the game. And because its ability only costs -1, it works especially well with proliferate effects.
7. Grateful Apparition
It’s a clean version of a “proliferate by damaging an opponent” card. And as a 1/1 flyer for 2 it’s both fast and vulnerable enough to create some fun tension. Of course, only put it in boxes where there’s plenty to proliferate.
6. Angrath, Captain of Chaos
Giving your team menace has the potential to be a game changer or a dud. That’s perfect. And in my experience the amass 2 also provides some nice tension as you have to decide whether to block with your 2/2 or give it a chance to grow to a 4/4 on the next turn.
5. Flux Channeler
Similar to the apparition, this gives a nice elegant way to proliferate. The fact that it stays active after you’ve played all your lands and it can proliferate at instant speed give this the edge over Evolution Sage
4. Spark Double
It’s a clone, but it enters with a +1/+1 counter. It can copy planeswalkers. It can copy legendary creatures. This has so much upside it’s almost crazy to think clones were once the benchmark for this type of card. I think most of the upsides will lead to fun situations, although the card does have the potential to get out of hand. If that happens sometimes but not too often, I would be happy to have this in any box.
3. Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin
He’s not very strong when he hits the table. But he does get stronger by attacking (before blocking) and he can grow an army of goblins quite quickly if he’s unopposed for a turn or two. Vulnerable, wacky and with a high ceiling, it’s a perfect Battle Box card.
2. Dreadhorde Butcher
Finding good aggro cards to put into Battle Boxes is not easy. Most aggro cards are too weak after 3-4 turns to warrant inclusion. With the Butcher, we have a nice addition to the list. It needs to connect at least once to be really worth the two mana, but with haste that might occur more often than you think. And even if it doesn’t, dealing 1 damage to any target can already be a useful feature. I’m not by nature a Rakdos mage, but I must say Wizards has been doing some great work at making the Rakdos cards more interesting.
1. Saheeli, Sublime Artificer
I love Saheeli. Her triggered ability can put 1/1 servo tokens on the table quickly, while her loyalty ability can turn those same tokens into almost anything. Sometimes all she’ll do is turn out 2 or 3 chump blockers, and sometimes she’ll hit hard with a copy of your biggest dude. All of that for only 3 mana. Love it.
That’s it for today. Don’t forget to check out the War of the Spark Mini Battle Box. As you may expect of a set like this, it has a ton of flavor and wacky interactions, and I think it is really worth building. Next week, we’ll see Modern Horizons hit the shelves. It won’t be available on Arena, so I won’t get to draft it as much as the Standard sets. That’s a pity, but it does mean you will not have to wait so long for my next set review. See you soon!