Friday, May 25, 2018

Battlebond EDH Set Review

Wow, folks. It’s been a hot minute since I’ve posted anything at all here, hasn’t it? So much so, I expect it will be another hot minute before anyone realizes I’ve even resumed posting. Lack of both time and interest are the culprits. I’ve been playing Magic pretty regularly though not nearly as often as usual, but the real problem was that I just wasn’t building much. It’s hard to write for a very deckbuilding-oriented blog when you lose interest in building. Turns out, having roughly 30 decks all built at once kind of taps you out, both mentally and in actual card availability. But I recently dismantled every last deck I had together, re-sorted my collection, updated my trade binder and overall just wiped the slate totally clean so I can resume building and experimenting again.

Dominaria was a huge boon to EDH players, and while this is not a Dominaria review I just have to say that that set did a lot to pique my interest in Magic again. Luckily I had a brief moment of financial freedom and was able to purchase a significant amount of the set – something I have not been able to do in years, which also has contributed to my declined interests, I must admit. I like the shiny new toys – can’t help it. Anyway, as cool as Dominaria was and still is… Battlebond is the even newer, even shinier thing these days, and just to spoil things right away the set looks abso-friggin-lutely amazing.

Now, the set is designed primarily around the format Two-Headed Giant, which is a way of playing Magic that I couldn’t give less of a shit about. I mean, if the other three people in my regular playgroup wind up itching to try it I’m totally down, but it is not something I care strongly about either way. I’m much more of free-for-all, one-man-standing kind of player. But I’ll try anything once, so long as it doesn’t involve a rotating, standard-only card pool (looking at you, Brawl). As much as I am easily distracted by new things, my love of EDH is almost entirely due to the ability to play Magic’s Greatest Hits. Even though Magic designs SEEMS to be on a bit of a renaissance as of late, I still think there was a golden period of Magic design that we’ll probably never see the likes of which again.

Anywho, I will now cut this preamble short and move on to the actual set review. This one is going to be, as you might expect, different from my old card-by-card reviews. Those are tiresome to make and probably tiresome to read, honestly. I will definitely be calling out individual cards here and there, but this will be a more holistic review, focusing on broader themes like mechanics and reprints and commanders, etc.

Mechanics - Partner with...

As mentioned above, Battlebond is geared toward 2HG play so it has some wonky team-based mechanics that, sadly, may not translate to FFA games all that well. But first off, we have one that suits Commander just fine – “Partner with”. This is a twist on the Partner mechanic introduced in whichever Commander set had the four-color theme. 2016? Man I have lost track of things. Anyway, these new partner cards can only partner up with a specific other card, spelled out by the card text. And in some cases they aren’t even Legends! Weird, but okay. For EDH purposes, we probably care most about the ones that are Legends. “Partner with…” is a pretty cool mechanic but I’m on the fence about it being a net positive for EDH. The cool thing about 2016’s partners was playing mix and match to create all kinds of cool color combinations and finding ways to make two disparate and different commanders synergize together. Partner with on the other hand removes the exploration and experimentation aspect, making the choice for you right at the outset. In exchange for giving up that flexibility these new partners seem to have been slightly bumped up in power level, or at least synergy.

Ultimately, what this means is, using these new partners in Commander means you effectively start each game with not just one but TWO extra cards in your hand, effectively, and this time they are two cards that are explicitly designed to be used together and thus have inherent synergy together. Back when the original partners were revealed there was a lot of concern about the power level of the partner ability due to this extra card advantage. However the individual partners wound up largely being kinda “meh” on their own, meaning they really roughly equaled one normal commander in value only when paired up. Of course a couple of them wound up being, if not inherently broken, then certainly breakable.

Looking at Battlebond’s Legendary partners, I still don’t see any single one that I think would ever be used as a solo commander. They all feel just slightly sub-par – not terrible on their own but still not quite good enough to use without their partner. This is good news – can you imagine if, say, Rafiq were just already as good as he is but he ALSO let you start with a second card in your command zone? Ugh. If we ever start getting partner commanders that are good enough ON THEIR OWN that having a partner is literally just a value-add for free, that will be a huge problem for the format. But luckily we aren’t there now. I think probably Pir and Toothy are the closest we’re getting this time around. This pairing seems to have some pretty absurd synergy and they curve perfectly. But their base stats and the way their abilities are divided up mean neither of them are quite compelling enough to use sans the other. But when paired up they are, at least on paper, pretty ridiculous. What saves them more than anything is that they aren’t really playing in new space for U/G. I think they may well be the best option to date for a Simic +1/+1 counter deck, that is a well-explored archetype already. These new partners are just giving it a bump but not enough of one to break anything. On the other hand, U/G is already one of, if not THE, best color pairs for value and card advantage, so that PLUS the fact that Toothy has built-in, raw card draw may lend some real credibility to that previously mentioned fear of having TWO extra cards available at all times.

The other Partner pairs all seem powerful in their own rights, but are built around sort of janky-er themes. Will and Rowan Kenrith, for instance, will look cool as hell having two Planeswalkers in your command zone, but they both cost six mana and are in a color pair not known for being super great at ramp. Add to that the fact that Planeswalkers are going to be much harder to defend in FFA games than they would in the 2HG format they were designed for, and suddenly they don’t seem to be all that impressive. Then there is a pair, also in Izzet colors, that are designed around the gimmick of coinflippin, which seems like the most annoying deck – in casual at least – ever. Like, if you play this deck, expect to be the active player roughly 75% of the total time your group is playing, as you endlessly fiddle about with coinflips and dice rolls.

Ultimately, Partner with is cool, though perhaps not as cool as the more open-ended version of Partner, and I feel the cards presented here are very unlikely to become oppressively powerful, though I would keep an eye on Pir/Toothy as the most likely breakouts.

Mechanics - Assist;  "Friend or Foe"

Moving on, we have Assist and Friend or Foe. Covering these two together because they are the two mechanics that are least likely to translate to FFA formats. Assist allows for another player – any player – to help you cast your spell by paying some or all of the colorless portion of the mana cast. So if a spell cost 6W then any player can pitch in on the 6 colorless. You’re always on the hook for the colored mana portion of the cost. The problem is, all the Assist cards are just overpriced variants on existing cards, with the idea that you’ll always have a teammate to help pay the extra cost. But in FFA EDH games, you’re going to have to be seriously adept at politicking to get help casting Assist spells. The real kicker is, if someone is especially willing to help you cast something, that is almost always a sure sign that what you’re trying to do is going to benefit them even more than you realize or hope for.

I think, probably, the Assist spell most likely to succeed in any degree in EDH is Play of the Game, which exiles all non-land permanents for a hefty eight mana. But a frequent scenario in multiplayer Magic is when one player gets ahead and develops a scary enough board that the rest of the table kind of bands together to knock them down a peg or two. “Does anyone have a Wrath?”, said in a slightly panicked tone, should be a very familiar refrain to any EDH veteran. Well, now you can respond with “yes, but I’m going to need you all to help me pay for it”. The fact that is exiles rather destroys may however work against you in that EDH players are, usually, a bit more willing to let their stuff go to their graveyards than they are to see them sent to exile. Ironically being a “destroy” effect would make this card weaker overall, but probably a lot easier to get assistance with the, um, Assist ability.

Meanwhile the “Friend or Foe” cards even less likely to work well in FFA games. There is a corner case for using them in Group Hug decks, of course. One of the biggest complaints I and many, many other EDH players have with the Group Hug archetype is the overwhelming prevalence of such decks to inadvertently hand one player the game, aka kingmaking. The cool thing about Friend or Foe is, you can use them to reward all of the other players, but leave out the one who is furthest ahead, thereby slightly mitigating your tendencies toward kingmaking. However I don’t think the Friend or Foe cards reach neither the quantity nor quality for them to have this much of a noticeable impact on the archetype. But I really don’t see them getting any use outside of group hug, though they might get VERY sparing use in heavily political decks that aren’t quite at the same level of group hug. In short they are even worse versions of the Offering cycle from an earlier Commander set

Support also makes a comeback in this set, but it is not new and is not a great mechanic in EDH. Too low-impact. Obviously if you’re building along a heavy +1/+1 counter theme there may be one or two Support cards you might consider but most are unlikely to make the cut. I will say, however, that Generous Patron looks downright sick in a Hapatra deck! Whew.

Reprints galore!

Somehow Wizards has managed to jam pack this set with some absolutely amazing reprints, making this set feel more like a Masters set than most Masters sets. Green in particular seems to have been showered with gifts. Doubling Season at mythic feels just a little bit cash-grabby but honestly it literally IS a mythical card at this point. If Sol Ring is the flagship, iconic card of EDH, then Doubling Season is probably the equivalent icon for all kitchen table casual Magic. It is quite possibly the most beloved casual card in the game. I think people will be happy enough that it was reprinted at all to not mind it’s mythic rarity too much. But let’s not stop there – Green mages also get new lines of access to Greater Good, Seedborn Muse, Vigor and Skyshroud Claim. All of these are staples of the format or at least should be after this set. Sure there are some dudes – no one was clamoring for a Magus of the Candelabra reprint – but almost all of the green reprints are solid picks.

Other colors don’t fare to badly either. White gets Land Tax and Kor Spiritdancer, both absolutely excellent choices given their scarcity/price points. One of the biggest missteps of the set, though, is the decision to reprint Swords to Plowshares for the roughly 23rd time, whilst Path to Exile continues to creep up in price. This is extremely frustrating to me, as it highlights WotC’s tendency to reprint one card into absolute oblivion while letting a very similar but equally widely played card languish without a significant printing for years. BALANCE THIS SHIT OUT WOTC! Anwyay, StP ain’t a terrible reprint it’s just an unnecessary one, which is made to feel terrible when the slot could have easily gone to a reprint that IS highly needed. But we can forgive them this one sin in light of the amazing work they did elsewhere in this set!

Blue gets another marquee reprint in True Name Nemesis. And I doubt anyone is going to complain about pulling one from a pack, this card isn’t actually all that good in commander. Yeah I’d run it in Rafiq or a U/G merfolk deck just ‘cause but really it just isn’t nearly the staple in our format as it is in Legacy. But hey, we can probably trade them for lots of good EDH cards anyway. The real appeal of it seeing print here is that it will now have a foil printing! These foils are going to be ASTRONOMICALLY expensive I am certain – see foil version of Queen Marchesa, Dack Fayden and Leovold for example. Yikes!

Sower of Temptation and Tidespout Tyrant are fine choices. Nowhere near as great as Seedborn and Greater Good… but fine. Tidespout even comes with a serious art upgrade.

Black gets Nirkana Revenant and Diabolic Intent as it’s best reprints. Again, these are good, solid picks. Nyxithid is less exciting but even that card somehow had crept up in price to way above bulk where it should be. Diabolic Intent wasn’t too pricey itself though it’s foil version had earned itself a sizeable price tag, so hopefully the new, BETTER ART version will be cheaper in foil.

Red, unfortunately, seems to have been shafted pretty hard in the reprint department, getting Magmatic Force, Chain Lightning and War’s Toll as it’s “standouts” if you can call them that. War’s Toll actually kinda hit the mark as it was inexplicably a $5 card, and is actually good in a certain breed of controlling red deck. We can be thankful we didn’t get yet another Comet Storm at mythic, but of all the colors Red clearly fares the worst. But that’s actually pretty typical for Red anyway. Oh well.

Actually, I may have spoken too soon. It is possible the multicolor section is just as underwhelming. Apocalypse Hydra is super lame, but at least it’s rare and not mythic this time. Gwafa and Evil Twin are pretty “meh” as well. Nothing stellar at uncommon either.

The artifact portion of the set brings us Mind’s Eye (with the bad but still better than before Commander’s Arsenal artwork), and Mycosynth Lattice. Not as awe inspiring as Kor Spiritdancer or Doubling Season to be sure, but good, playable cards just the same. At lower rarity, Spectral Searchlight and Genesis Chamber are okay-ish but not terribly compelling.

All in all, Battlebond largely nails the reprint selection with a surprisingly high killer/filler ratio. As annoyed as I may be about the Path to Exile snub I can only commend Wizards for delivering such an exciting batch of reprints overall.

Shiny New Toys

Now let’s check out the new cards. We’ve already talked about the partner legends, and some of the new Assist and “friend or foe” cards, so we will skip those unless something juicy pops up. That doesn’t leave a ton of cardage to cover with all those other groups weeded out, so now we can do the old card-by-card review thing.

Arena Rector - Kicking things off with a bang, we have a phenomenal mythic that is sure to see a ton of play. Academy Rector is, unfortunately, a Reserve List card and thus cannot be reprinted, but here we have a clear homage, updated for modern sensibilities. This is literally an Academy Rector for Planeswalkers instead of enchantments. Automatic staple in any deck with a high-value target for her to fetch up.

Brightling - White finally gets it’s Morphling variant and for once WotC finally decides not to adhere to the strict 5-mana price point, making this possibly the best Morphling wannabe since the original. NOT likely to be an EDH all-start but should see a smattering of play in agressive white decks.

Together Forever - Probably gets played in any Abzan or Selesnya +1/+1 counter deck as reasonable protection against sweepers. Probably gets cut later on for a far more efficient answer to sweepers such as Heroic Intervention or something.

Fumble - Well that’s a downer for Voltron player not lucky enough to draw their Swiftfoot Boots in time. Very niche, but also very powerful when it is relevant.

Arcane Artisan - Would have made a very cool build-around commander if it were Legendary but alas… still this probably fits the “more cool than powerful” sweet spot for many casual EDH fans. A nice high-risk, high-reward card for blue mages wanting to do something a little more fun than the typical Blue shtick.

Game Plan - an Assist card I didn’t call out previously, this one might see fringe play simply because even a bad Wheel of Fortune is bound to make it into a deck here and there. Don’t kid yourself though - if you stick this in a Nekusar deck, NO ONE is ever going to help you with the Assist cost, ya big jerk!

Spellseeker - Yeah this one is going to get a ton of play. And yeah it’s going to just fetch up Cyclonic Rift virtually every time. But who knows, someday, someone is going to tutor up a different spell with it and we’ll all be stunned. Should note, this also plays well with Panharmonicon - meaning you can get Rift ‘cause duh AND get something fun too!

Archfiend of Despair - Kind of a crap mythic, but still kinda cool. Probably sees some light duty action in decks that can bypass it’s whopping eight mana price tag - Kaalia maybe, or Shadowborn Apostle decks. Would love to see this thing’s rules text on a cheaper enchantment but doubt that’ll happen anytime soon.

Stunning Reversal - This one seems more applicable. It’s highly conditional and will suck balls to draw it early on in a game where you are nowhere near death. But still, the chance to cheat death and even draw a shitload of cards before going down in flames is exciting. Pulling of a Hail Mary win after casting this will make for some of those legendary stories the format is known for.

Thrilling Encore - I’m sure there will be a segment of the crowd pooping on this. It is, after all, a five-mana instant that isn’t Blue and therefore isn’t in the one color most capable of holding up five mana for multiple turns. And it does close to nothing or even literal nothing outside of turns where a lot of things die all at once. But I disagree - Black is exceptionally good at playing the Big Mana game, and is exceptionally good at making lots of things die all at once. This is not going to hit Cyclonic Rift levels of staple-hood but it sure as shit ought to make the cut in a high % of Black decks overall.

Bonus Round - Fork (or more accurately Reverberate) for every subsequent spell you can manges to cast in a turn, this is almost certainly on the radar of every Izzet spells/combo deck player out there. Likely nowhere near good enough for high-tier competitive combo decks, but almost certainly good enough for regular, casual combo decks. Expect to see this in all manner of U/R “spellslinger” decks.

Najeela, the Blade-Blossom - Jank, but awesome jank. Anyone looking to try out 5-color Warrior tribal need look no further. This ain’t a card for me, but I still love that it exists and I hope to play against an Najeela deck in the near future. I’m pretty sure some folks out there are already brewing some sort of combo deck a la Food Chain Tazri but whatever. You do you, folks.

Stolen Strategy - I’ve seen this likened to a Red Phyrexian Arena but I’m not sure it’s quite that, but it does certainly do the persistent, slow trickle of card advantage thing, and in a color that badly needs help in that department. Seems destined for minor-staple status as Red players will often just take whatever they can get in the card draw department.

Bramble Sovereign - Holy balls this is nutso. At first it seems like the mono-green half of Riku on it’s own which would be really good, but it’s actually better than that! And worse, sort of, too. Worse simply because it isn’t a Legend and therefore can be reliably accessed via command zone. But it’s better because it doesn’t just copy your own creatures, but rather ANY creature hitting play! Damn. I see absolutely no reason this should not immediately become a staple in Green decks across the format. Combine with the reprinted Seedborn Muse and suddenly the entire table is going to have serious issues casting creatures.

Grothama, All-Devouring - Honestly I am not quite sure what the heck this thing is up to. I don’t know if it’s terrible or actually secretly awesome, but it is at the very least quite interesting. I’ll be very interested in seeing what kind of brews other, better deckbuilders come up with for this guy.

Generous Patron - Already mentioned it but this card seems bonkers for Hapatra decks, or I suppose, any other deck that is more about putting counters on other people’s stuff. But I especially love this for Hapatra for a few reasons. Sure, it can draw an absurd number of cards, but that part was obvious. But in Hapatra the Support ability is actually also likely to be very handy. A lot of times Hapatra winds up forced to put a counter or two on Hapatra herself to get the snake-ball rolling. But being a 2/2 this is likely to be awkward - we don’t want to kill our commander! Giving her even a +1/+1 boost is often going to be enough to mitigate this issue. And luckily, at three mana, the Patron comes down right after Hapatra herself, right on curve. They could not have designed a more perfectly-fitting card for that deck.

Archon of Valor’s Reach - I guess this will probably see play. I would prefer it in UW, which are more traditionally the colors in which one is expected to be a bit of a dick. Anyway, the real problem is, it’s going to be tough to choose just the right option to prevent this from getting killed right away. People don’t like being told they can’t play their stuff and react pretty decisively to such things.

Last One Standing - Oh look, it’s the card “Brawl” from Hearthstone! Neat! Seriously, though this is not at all terrible for 3 mana. Even if the randomly-chosen creature is the one you most hoped to be rid of, chances are, killing everything else for such a discounted cost will be a worthy consolation prize. And there is a pretty good chance you’ll still have mana left for a follow up play. I have a feeling I’ll be sleeving this up often.

Sentinel Tower - Seems like a worse version of Aetherflux Reservoir for Storm decks. And, unlike the Reservoir, this doesn’t really do much outside of Storm decks and/or spellslinger decks. At least the lifegain aspect of Aetherflux made it relevant to other archetypes like Oloro or Karlov. Kind of a disappointing card overall.

Victory Chimes - NOT a disappointing card, this little mana rock has some real potential in EDH. Any deck that has a heavy focus on instant-speed, reactive cards will have to at least consider this. Of course it doesn’t mana-fix so the more colors you are playing the less viable this becomes. But for mono- and two-color decks that want to have mana up on their opponents’ turns I expect this to hit the mark nicely.

Finally, we come to the dual land cycle introduced in Battlebond. Personally I am pretty unimpressed with these lands. It’s not that every new land cycle has to be fetchable - i.e. having the basic land types such as “Forest Plains” a la the RAV shocklands or the ABUR duals - but in this case, it does hurt. They just don’t stack up well to many other cycles, not just the higher-priced lands.

Probably their closest competitors are the “check lands” - Sunpetal Grove or Isolated Chapel for example. In two-color decks, I think you’d be happy to run both, of course. Even with all the really good lands - fetches, shocks, OG duals, etc, most two-color decks still wind up running way more basics than they’d like, so just dumping a basic for one of these seems fine.

And if you are trying to build, say, three-color mana bases on a tighter budget, these should also be perfectly fine. In these regards the biggest strike against this cycle is really just that it is only the allied pairs. If they ever finish the cycle to include the enemy colors, that would be a boon to newer or more budget oriented players.

But if you are like me and like your mana base to be as near perfect as possible, these just aren’t ever going to make the cut when stacked up against the likes of the Shadowmoor filters and the Ravnica bouncelands. Again, IF they end up printing the enemy half of the cycle down the road I can see these MAYBE replacing the check lands, IF we’re still running those at that point.

Closing

This has been a rather glowing review and I honestly think the set deserves all the praise it's getting from all corners of the player base. But there are always downsides. In addition to the Path to Exile thing which I have harped on plenty already, I am also pretty disappointed with some of the flavor and aesthetics of this set.

Some of the artwork is pretty bad - Will and Rowan for instance look like the bad Planeswalkers from those Planeswalker-themed decks they've been doing recently. You know, the ones with really janky versions of whatever 'Walkers are in the main set? Those are usually pretty terrible, power-wise but also seem to near-universally have vastly inferior artwork. That's the feel I get from Will and Rowan - their illustrations look like middling DeviantArt pieces.

And as much as I dig Pir and Toothy for their mechanics, I really despise how they look like they belong in a silver-bordered Un-set. WAY to cartoonish and silly for proper Magic, IMO. But really it's not even that so much as the whole setting just feels drastically off-brand for the Magic IP.

Wizards has usually been VERY protective of the Magic IP, so much so that they have adamantly shot-down suggestions of crossovers between Magic and other WotC-owned IPs such as Dungeons and Dragons.

But the world of Battlebond feels very much like a departure from that stance. It is the least Magic-y set ever printed, IMO and much of the art and visual identity strikes me as far more science fiction than fantasy. Yeah you can point to plenty of examples of actual magic use on many cards, but look at the lands, especially the duals. The W/U and R/G ones definitely look like the belong in the Magic multiverse but the other three absolutely do not feel like they are even from the same game.

Even other high-tec/sci-fi-esque sets like Mirrodin or Kaladesh still manage to capture the distinctive feel and look of being a plane within the Magic setting - just more metallic and technological than other planes. But whatever plane Battlebond is set in just doesn't fit the same way. As much as I love the set otherwise, it is one of the ugliest and most garish sets in recent memory.

Some of the artwork is spectacular of course - I really dig the overall look of the Azra race, and in particular the new illustration for Diabolic Intent is a real stunner. Eh, but I've been bitching about the art direction of MtG for quite a while now and I still pretty much hate it. It has reached the point where you can truly no longer call it "art" anymore - it is just "illustration" now. I miss the creativity of old-school art. Sometimes it was ugly but at least it was distinct and you could tell one artist's style from another's.

But we all gotta have something to bitch about, and if the worst complaint I can muster is a tired old rant about the art and flavor then I guess that's actually a pretty good sign.

So, if anyone is out there actually reading this, what cards are YOU looking forward too? Are you brewing new decks with Battlebond commanders, or just soaking up all the reprint value for your existing decks? I barely touched on any commons or uncommons, so did I miss any hidden gems at the lower rarities? Let me know in the comments!

Enjoy

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