Limited Analysis of Ikoria
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Once again I have the pleasure of playing release weekend competitive sealed. I had planned to play the Showcase Qualifier last week since I love playing for high stakes when I don't know what the cards do. I didn't realize until Saturday, April 11th that one didn't simply enter the Showcase Qualifier with QPs (I also didn't have any QPs) so I planned to play the 3 pm Prelim on Saturday and the 3 pm LCQ on Sunday. I 4-1ed the prelim with a deck featuring Erebos and Gravebreaker Lamia. And then I 5-0ed the LCQ with a deck featuring Kiora Bests the Sea God and Uro (why was this event phantom!?). It must be a bad feeling when you have the Final Death for the Uro and they follow up with Kiora. The highlight of the event is when I attacked with Uro and three cards in my deck needing to hit starlit Mantle to give Uro flying with Eutropia. Most of the games weren't that close though. I hope the showcase qualifier goes as well as the showcase qualifer qualifer and the showcase qualifier qualifier qualifier.
Once again I'm preparing primarily through a spreadsheet. You can see it here. Most interestingly you can see my ranking of the commons in each color. I'd encourage any readers to go the spreadsheet and leave comments where you disagree with my ranking. In the spreadsheet you can also see my computations of the as fans for various archetypes: cycling, mutate, human/nonhuman, vigilance etc. Let me know if there are any other computations you think I should do to help understand the limited format. What follows are my opinions on some of the core themes and archetypes of the set.
My favorite mutate card is Chittering Harvester because it really shows what mutate is by being so symmetric. My opponent sacrifices a creature. But I sort of do too. I choose some creature on the board and presumably put this on top of it. Of course the joke is that I filled my deck with Farfinders and the loss of the creature doesn't hurt me. But the funnier joke is that my opponent did too. And most of the mutate triggers on these cards are even less valuable than making your opponent sacrifice a creature. Like a rummage, or a +1/+1 counter or a land out of your deck. There seems to be a sort of flow chart: Do you not have a mutate creature in play? Sacrifice a creature! Do you? Insane value! Except at common the blue one is the only one I'm excited by the idea of triggering a bunch of times. And even at higher rarities many of the effects aren't worth a card. Among the uncommons only the shark, the parrot, the starrix and all the hybrids seem great. On many of them it's clear that you're purely paying for stats. The migratory greathorn as a 3/4 "haste" for 3 is sort of nice. The other way to take advantage of mutating onto a creature is to choose a creature where most of the beef comes from counters or abilities. And there are a lot of those in this set. Most notably there's the cycle of commons which give you the choice of type of counter. Though only the white and black ones are cheap enough that I wouldn't feel like I was giving up a ludicrous amount of stats mutating onto them. Side note: the white red and green ones are cute combinations of two creatures (sure flying squirrels are real but morally they're a combination bird squirrel) but blue and black get pteron and boot nipper? Did they creatively forget to finish this cycle?
The set is contorted for mutate in a lot of ways. For instance this set doesn't even have a cycle of vanillas. There is no green vanilla creature. And all the vanillas cost <=3. Compare the THB where there was a whole cycle and three were >=4. Maybe this is unrelated to mutate but I think the intent is to make mutating onto them more palatable. When I was looking at the spoiler I also thought the prevalence of common one drops was a design around mutate. But actually there aren't more than usual. There are 7 here and every set for the last year had 6-8. Their designs are hinting at mutate though. Most obviously mysterious egg but all of them except Aegis Turtle have abilities which give more value on a larger creature or somehow give extra bodies. Aegis Turtle doesn't have defender. No card in this set does, which is the first time since Ixalan.
I'm not sure the two cards which scream "mutate onto me" the loudest are even playable. Zagoth Mamba and Mysterious Egg both require a lot of work in deckbuilding to make them worthwhile. The fail case of playing a 1 mana 1/1 or a 1 mana 0/2 is so bad. If you mutate onto the mamba once it's sort of like you cast a deadweight. It's only after you've mutated onto the egg at least twice that you're getting a better deal than the other one drops with nifty abilities. With the exception of Sea Dasher Octopus, Lore Drakkis and Parcelbeast (which is morally a three drop) mutation costs at least three so there doesn't seem to be much of a reason to try to mutate onto one drops instead of two drops.
The mechanic is done a little differently than in Amonkhet, the last time we had it. In Amonkhet all the one mana cyclers cost colored mana to cycle. And there was also the cycle of cyclers which did something when they were cycled. That makes sense you can't just gain two life without investing some white mana! This set also has a cycle of cyclers which has some effect when they are cycled, and two rares. But outside of that all the cyclers only require generic mana. There are 10 that cost 1 generic and 24 which cost 2. That's a lot of cyclers. The total as fan is about two and a quarter. For context akh had only 40 cyclers but a slightly higher as fan of almost 2 and a half.
It's pretty great that the cyclers only have generic mana. Cycling asks "Do you like this card? Would you rather have another?" And something that makes me really not like a card is when I can't cast it because I am color screwed. I also like all these generic cyclers because they'll help me present a 60 card deck for Yorian which I hope to have the opportunity to do.
The cyclers are also qualitatively different in this set. In Amonkhet a lot of normal limited cards had cycling. In this set a lot of those limited cards which I don't generally think are that great but have a lot of blowout potential have cycling. I think the card which most exemplifies this difference is wasteland scorpion. A three mana 2/2 deathtouch is doing something worth a card on almost any limited board. But it's never winning the game. Maybe sometimes you'd like too find an answer to a flier or find a card which has more impact so you'll cycle it. But having cycling seems like only a marginal upgrade for the scorpion. There are also a lot of cards like Cast Out and Curator of Mysteries which have cycling, but not really in limited. They're too good. Ikoria seems full of cards that I don't normally want to fill my limited deck with but have a lot of upside potential. Cards like Coordinated Charge, Boon of the Wish-giver (Compare to Hieroglyphic Illumination), Frostveil Ambush, Hampering snare, Memory Leak, Suffocating Fumes, Footfall Crater, Shredded sails, Migration Path, Wilt, and tons of combat tricks and mana sources.
Speaking of Suffocating Fumes card looks like a lot of cards that were bad but is importantly better in a few ways which will make it good in this set. Compare it to Mephitic Vapors and Shrivel. Now its an instant and only gets your opponents creatures. That will make it so much easier to exchange for a card and opens up whole new worlds of X for 1s. And if somehow you can't find a creative timing for it, if your opponents creatures are too big or whatever, just cash it in for a new card. Similarly this set's fog, Thwart the Enemy seems like just a great limited card. If your opponent ever expects a trade of creatures you can cash this in for a card and if you were on defense some life. Its actually impossible to trade Fog for a card. Well I suppose your opponent can start by committing a combat trick, but that's so much more niche than any equal combat happening. And just like Suffocating Fumes not only is the 1 for 1 much easier to achieve, the insane blowout potential is also there.
I don't think this set has canned archetypes that you can map on to color pairs. The fixing is so good I think most decks won't stick to two colors. The following color pairs seem to have the most focused identities and will therefore come up a little more often.
- WR - The obvious cycling deck. You've got two common and two uncommon payoffs in each color. The deck seems to want to be pretty aggressive. The wedge color structure pushes you to black but there doesn't seem to be much of a payoff in black for being an aggressive cycling deck.
- UG - I think this pair has the best mutations by a lot. And also the best payoff in Essence Symbiote. With Fertilid and Migratory Greathorn I think splashing will be the default and the deck will often want to play both black and red cards.
- UB - Flash bois. The common counter spells are a little better than usual with Essence Scatter. And black has extra instant speed removal.
- WG - Vigilance. Both colors have two common vigilance creatures. But as payoff there's only a common, two uncommons and rare. Maybe this isn't a full theme really. Each color pair has a small keyword theme indicated by the mentors. But only menace and vigilance constitute mini themes.
- UR - Spells. In red there's Blisterspit Gremlin, Pyroceratops and Spelleater Wolverine to pay you off for paying a lot of spells. You also get to pair Forbidden friendship and Of One Mind.
Top Commons By Color
The below are my top commons for each color and some words about why. Please leave comments on the full ranking in my spreadsheet!
White: Pasifism, Snare Tactician, Solid Footing.
I have to put pasifism on top but it definitely seems the worst its ever been in this set. Their best creature will often be a mutator. But putting it on a mutated creature is just asking for them to build a huge tower and collect their triggers. If I go Essence Symbiote, Migratory Greathorn and you Pasifism I'm just going to keep putting my mutations on top and collecting my lands. Maybe this play pattern won't actually come up that much since I'd rather get in damage with my overstated creatures. But a land is a land. Collecting extra triggers is even more appealing if I have a pasified Heron or one of the uncommons.
Snare Tactician seems like a pushed build around. The WR cycling deck seems at its best when you're beating down but this guy also plays defense really well. The other common white cycle build off cycles itself. But this one's so good you're always going to cast it anyway.
I may be over correcting putting Solid Footing so high (I was lowish on Sentinel's Eyes. I had it 9/20 but in hindsight it was probably 4/20. My real punt was putting Wayfarer last though). It's like a weird cross between Indomitable Will and Sentinel's eyes, but its perhaps missing the ingredients that makes those cards so great. It's the payoff to be in the "vigilance" deck but I'm not sure that's a real archetype. It has all the attributes of a great trick though: one mana, wins combat, leaves something behind.
Blue: Dreamtail Heron, Thieving Otter, Facet Reader
Dreamtail Heron is just a great card. Compare it to the red mutator. You get flying instead of reach and you get to keep your card. I think it might be the best common in the set. Though Blood Curdle is hard to compete with. It's one of the few mutators that actually makes me want to build a tower. I can only make my opponent discard so many times and I only need so many lands, but I'm always down to draw more cards.
Thieving Otter is partially so high because of its synergy with the Heron. It's ability is really unique and good to mutate onto. But I don't think you need to go too deep to make it good. Playing a deck with Otter and a bunch of removal and bounce is also a good strategy. The removal in black and red seems excellent at supporting that.
Facet Reader is maybe a little goofy when you can already pay 1 to cycle half your cards. It is notably the only common blue human which will make it an important part of Of One Mind decks. I have Of One Mind in the middle but when its good its really good.
Black: Blood Curdle, Lurking Deadeye, Blitz Leech
Black has a ton of removal in this set. Six of their top seven commons (according to me) are removal. I think Curdle being the best shouldn't be controversial. Blitz Leech being a flashy chupacabra is maybe a little too high on my list. I think flash really powers this effect up a bunch though. It plays well with the other two and with blue cards. Lurking deadeye's trigger is probably hard to get a full card out of. But you can definitely get some very favorable trades.
Mutual Destruction should make be a bit higher. The as fan of flash in blue black is 0.7 and bonesplinters is a lot better when you can cast it in response to your opponent's removal. Also since Mutate basically asks you to sacrifice one of your creatures this card pairs well with the mutate designs.
Red: Fire Prophecy, Rumbling Rockslide, Cloudpiercer
There's a lot of incidental hand sculpting effects in this set. I think its probably because mutate is a finicky mechanic and to keep the cards splashy they have a relatively small as fan for being the main theme of the set. Fire prophecy would be great without the loot and is extra excellent with it.
Rumbling Rockslide is certainly not an exciting card when compared to Blood Curdle. But still for four mana it'll kill anything so I think it deserves to be number two.
Cloudpiercer is not that exciting. It's sort like a 4 mana 4/4 haste. The deck that will want it most is base UG and splashing red. I think that deck will want all the mutators it can get though.
It's possible I should have bumped some of the other archetypes role players in this ranking. Prickly Marmoset, Spelleater Wolves and Drannith Stinger all seem very formidable in the right decks. Red doesn't have the best top cards in this set. But the themes of cycling and noncreature spells seem relatively well supported. There's also some other nice cross color synergies like Forbidden Friendship and Of One Mind in a spells deck.
Green: Ram Through, Migratory Greathorn, Fertilid
Ram through is maybe the best version of this effect ever. I love synergy but you've got to take your removal over it.
Migratory Greathorn is the second best common mutate creature. It's also in the color that has the most mutate synergy and is most likely to splash. Given the as fan of mutate as only 1.2 and the payoffs of building a tower are so great and the fixing is so good green sealed decks will often want to just play every mutate creature in their pool. I think in draft it shouldn't be hard for the green deckto take all the mutaters besides the Heron higher than the players mostly in those colors. After Heron Greathorn is also the most overstated on its mutate face as a 3 mana 3/4 haste.
Fertilid is maybe a little clunky but I really think the green decks are always going to be 5c. It also plays well with mutate since its just a throwaway body.
I generally don't think that much about rares while preparing for limited sets but I sure hope I open some of these. I think it'd be pretty hard to play Lurrus, Zirda, or Kaheera but the other seven seem sort of broken. In particular Lutri and Jegantha almost feel like they have no restriction. With Keruga I'd comfortably put 20 lands in my deck and know that I'd never flood out. The odd and even ones can probably only be played out of certain pools. But in a draft I'd definitely try to make them work.