Third sets are in many ways the best sets. If I worked in R&D, I would have a pretty basic plan for my blocks.
I would come out swinging in the fall by setting the stage for what the block is all about. Introduction to new mechanics, flavor, creature types, all of it. You have to make your mark early to really hook them. For the second set, I'd introduce a few new things, and refine the ones that already existed. I wouldn't try to reinvent the wheel, just explore some more space while introducing enough new stuff to keep it spicy.
By the time the third set rolled around, I'd be ready to take the gloves off. This is the big payoff. This is where I get to push boundaries and take risks.
If I make a mistake? I can live with that, as the set is only out for a few months, and is only one pack of three for Draft (or two packs of six for Sealed). This is the set where I get to assume that most of the players know what the main mechanics are, and where I get to go nuts with them.
Is this what is happening in Journey into Nyx? It's a bit early yet to tell, with just the Prerelease under our belts, but if it is, constellation may be the vessel by which we are delivered our awesomeness.
Why do I like constellation? In game design, people often strive for something called elegance. It really just means that the elegant thing is easy to understand and implement, and fits nicely into the space in which it is to live. Constellation is elegant in many ways. It's dead simple to understand, and that's a great start. If you cast a constellation enchantment creature, you get a bonus when it enters the battlefield. Then whenever another enchantment enters the battlefield on your side of the board, you get that something again.
The fun part is figuring out what those somethings are, and what kind of spells to attach them to. As it turns out, creatures were the predominant choice for this. (There are only two noncreature cards with constellation, and one is a rare). We are left with a pile of creatures that give us varying degrees of awesome. My big question is if constellation will be the defining mechanic of the set, or if it will just be an extra value outlet given the right conditions. I don't know the answer yet, but my gut says it's the latter rather than the former.
Let's take a look at a few select constellation cards and see what came out of the chocolate factory this time.
Whitewater Naiads already passes the Vanilla Test, so the constellation effect is just gravy here. How good is this particular brand of gravy? It's quite nice, actually. While making the Naiads themselves unable to be blocked the turn they enter the battlefield is generally pointless, getting in for extra damage with your creatures is generally good. It doesn't take too many hits to finish a game when the hits are for 4 damage.
I like cards that are good in all stages of the game: Developing, Parity, Ahead, and Behind. (This quadrant theory is (A) a future article and (B) originated by my podcasting cohost Brian Wong). The Naiads check three of the four boxes quite nicely. At five mana, we can't really include it in the developing quadrant, but it hits the other three hard. When you are ahead, Whitewater Naiads will keep you there. When behind, a 4/4 blocker is often just the thing you need. And when at parity with your opponent, Whitewater Naiads can break tough board stalls and finish off a game.
I like this card.
Another card I like is Forgeborn Oreads:
A 4/2 for four mana you say? I'm honestly not that interested in that, although I'd play it over some creatures in the set for sure.
It pings something for 1 damage when it enters the battlefield?
I'll just set this right here and let you figure out the rest:
(...and there are even more than that!)
Eidolon of Blossoms
I know, I know, it's a rare. I couldn't help myself this time. Brian David-Marshall has me worked into a frenzy about taking this card and going off with it. The first thing to realize about Eidolon of Blossoms is that it immediately replaces itself upon entering the battlefield. This is something you should be concerned with, as a 2/2 for four mana is fairly miserable.
But now the fun starts.
The best thing about this card is that it feeds itself more blossoms. What I mean is, with every card drawn off of it, you are that much closer to casting more enchantments and keeping the value chain alive.
Sounds good, right?
I do have to level with you here and be responsible for a minute. This card is pretty durdly. Durdly is Magic slang for "doing a lot of nothing" or something close to that. Casting Eidolon of Blossoms doesn't affect the board much. Drawing cards—while one of the best feelings in the world—also doesn't affect the board. You see where I am going here; if your opponent is beating you senseless, he or she probably won't mind if you spend four mana on Eidolon of Blossoms. In the other quadrants, however, your opponent will mind.
Either way, I don't care. I'm taking this thing and emailing screenshots of the aftermath to BDM.
Nobody can stop me.
I made no secret about my love for the white-black attrition strategy in Born of the Gods Limited. I thought it was powerful, underrated, and underdrafted. While Scholar of Athreos may have been the best card in that deck, I'm always open to some other ways to systematically grind my opponent's life total to the magic number (it's 0). Grim Guardian may be a reasonable way to do just that.
He could have been fantastic in an aggressive deck, but it seems that he was designed with another strategy in mind. Why do I say that? Mainly because he is a 1/4 for three mana. Those are defensive stats. If this were a 3/1 with the same ability, we would be looking at a vastly different card, used in vastly different ways.
But we get a 1/4. So we block. And we grind. One opponent-infuriating life point at a time.
Ain't it great? I don't have super high hopes for this card, to be honest. If it blocks well and gets 2 or 3 extra damage in over the course of a game, that is worth a card. Not a lofty goal for the Grim Guardian, but one I'm happy to put him in.
Along these same lines:
Well then. This card is kind of dreamy, isn't it? I wouldn't call it a world-changer, but at just two mana, it does a lot of things. Things like helping you stay alive, and then giving you (yet another) place to put all that extra mana after you have ground the game to a crushing halt. I think that Scholar of Athreos is still better than this card, but I'd happily run as many Coinsmiths as I could get my hands on in that white-black deck.
There are more constellation cards in the set (there are sixteen), but we'll have to save those for another night. After getting a chance to play with them a little bit, and after our chat here today, I feel like constellation will probably be a solid but ultimately not groundbreaking mechanic. It's such a lovely design, and it fits so beautifully in this environment. I'm glad it exists, and I look forward to figuring it all out as we forge forward into the great unknown that is the new Theros Block Limited.
Oh, and if I was in R&D, I would have made a blue constellation creature that let me bounce my opponent's creatures.
Which is why I'm not in R&D.
On second thought, I probably wouldn't have done that in real life.
Until next week!