War of the Spark Limited First Pass

Posted in Play Design on May 1, 2019

By Marshall Sutcliffe

Marshall came back to Magic after discovering Limited and never looked back. He hosts the Limited Resources podcast and does Grand Prix and Pro Tour video commentary.

After a whirlwind of a preview season, we've got all the War of the Spark cards on our screens—and that means it's time to figure out what's actually going on with this set.

From the widest view, this set looks fairly typical in layout; we are once again focused on two-color pairs called guilds.

Since there are five colors in Magic, we have ten guilds to work with, and unlike the previous two sets (which focused heavily on five guilds each), this set focuses on all ten at once. Each guild isn't as focused on as it was in Guilds of Ravnica and Ravnica Allegiance, simply because there are the same number of cards but ten guilds rather than five to focus on.

Still, every guild is represented to a varying degree in War of the Spark. Some of them have a pretty straightforward theme and others are more nebulous.

Oh.

And there are planeswalkers. Did we mention that? Lots of planeswalkers. In fact, there will be one in every pack of War of the Spark that you open. There are planeswalkers at uncommon, rare, and mythic rare in this set, and they have thrown us some cool new looks as well.

I know. At first glance, it might seem like putting a planeswalker in every pack could make every board state in this Limited format a planeswalker-infested mess. But when you actually break it down by the numbers, it won't play out that way.

With one planeswalker in every pack, eight players for a normal-sized draft, and three packs per player, that's 24 planeswalkers per Draft pod. While that sounds like a lot, remember that it only equals three planeswalkers per player on average.

If that still sounds like a lot, remember that not every player will play every planeswalker they get. Some of the uncommon ones are narrow or even better out of the sideboard. Or they are more of the build-around-me nature, meaning they are less likely to see play than the planeswalkers we've become accustomed to.

These aren't the mythic rare, plus-to-draw-a-card, minus-to-kill-a-creature, ultimate-to-win-the-game type planeswalkers. They are much more appropriately powered for the uncommon and rare slots they inhabit.

Compared to the world we are used to—where seeing a planeswalker is something super special—things are different when it's common to see a planeswalker on the battlefield.

Namely, the game should slow down. Any damage done to planeswalkers that could have been done to players serves to elongate the game further. It's a natural conclusion that the games will play out at least somewhat slower than the average set.

Also, the planeswalkers in this set offer us a new look; many of them have static abilities similar to what you'd see on an enchantment. The catch, of course, is that if you kill the planeswalker, the ability no longer applies.

Also many of them start out at 5 loyalty and have one ability, which costs 2 loyalty. This will often leave a planeswalker on the battlefield with a static ability that you'll have to decide is worth soaking up some combat damage to get rid of.

Here are some examples:

As you can see, some of these planeswalkers have vastly different effects on the board, and it's up to us to decide during the game if we must prioritize killing the planeswalker or not.

Before this set, we would rarely have the luxury of deciding not to kill a planeswalker. Now, it's very much on the table as an option.

And speaking of options, when it comes to killing planeswalkers, the single best way to do this is via combat. There is a consistent play pattern you'll see when a planeswalker hits the battlefield.

First, your opponent plays a planeswalker, gets some value, and you find a way to attack it with your creatures and kill it. This might mean using some of the extremely powerful removal printed in this set to clear away potential blockers and attack it. Or it may mean you have some creatures with evasion and can simply attack the planeswalker directly.

The other option is that your opponent plays a planeswalker, gets some value, and you feel clever for having one of a few answers to planeswalkers in your hand. You use one to kill it and go along your way.

  • The Elderspell
  • Price of Betrayal
  • Spark Harvest
  • Chandra's Triumph
  • Angrath's Rampage

Whenever possible, you should be trying to set yourself up for the first option. Bringing in cards specifically designed to kill planeswalkers feels like a trap, unless you simply cannot beat the planeswalker otherwise.

It's a bit too cumbersome to go over every single guild in a first pass–style article, but I don't want to leave you without a pathway to start with, so I've picked three archetypes as starting points for three types of players: Control, Aggro, and Midrange.

Blue-Black Control Amass

Blue-black is usually pretty controlling, but here in War of the Spark, it also has a kind of interesting sub-theme with the amass mechanic.

Let's look at the signpost uncommon for each of these archetypes to see if it gives us a clue as to what this archetype is doing at its core.

This is a perfect example of a signpost uncommon. It shows us two main things: that this guild wants to play defensively, and that it wants to build up a big, augmented Army token through amass.

  • Aven Eternal
  • Crush Dissent
  • Callous Dismissal
  • Lazotep Reaver
  • Herald of the Dreadhorde

These range from playable to excellent, and you'll be playing them regardless of the theme of the deck.

As far as the defensive part goes, black gets some of the best removal in the set:

  • Ob Nixilis's Cruelty
  • Sorin's Thirst
  • Spark Harvest
  • Bleeding Edge

With powerful cards like this (especially the common ones), you'll have plenty of time to set up your amass endgame. There are a few ways for this to play out as well.

Most directly, you can just play any number of the spells with amass and slowly grow a huge Army token that simply overpowers the board. But there are also some cards that make the token even better, like our signpost uncommon Gleaming Overseer or the excellent Eternal Skylord.

You can also leverage some powerful card-draw spells in the late game in order to take a more traditional control approach.

This game plan seems solid, repeatable, and consistent.

Green-White +1/+1 Counters Proliferate

For the midrange-minded players, green-white seems like a fine place to start. The theme has something to do with proliferating +1/+1 counters and creating a huge board state full of big creatures.

There are two uncommons worth looking at as far as signpost uncommons go:

So here's the thing with the proliferate mechanic: you don't need to do anything crazy to make it good. People tend to think that they need some huge board full of creatures all with +1/+1 counters and then start proliferating to make it good. Just getting a single +1/+1 counter on a creature you control and then proliferating from there is powerful enough to win a lot of games.

That said, if you are interested in going wide and tall, try casting some creatures and then playing Pledge of Unity. What a powerful card at uncommon! And if you, somehow, someway, can get some proliferate going, it gets totally out of hand.

Huatli's Raptor is interesting in that you can cast it early for a really solid 2/3 for two mana, but you'll likely be forgoing the free proliferate tacked on it. But if you draw it later in the game, you can get some extra value, which is nice.

For maximum green-white nonsense, cast Huatli's Raptor, and with the proliferate trigger on the stack, cast Pledge of Unity.

Generally speaking, this archetype is all about curving out and beating down, and you'll want to make sure you have enough creatures in your deck. I'd recommend at least fifteen.

Ways to get +1/+1 counters on your creatures go up if you are trying to take advantage of any proliferate as well.

  • Pollenbright Druid
  • Battlefield Promotion
  • Wanderer's Strike
  • Grateful Apparition

Pollenbright Druid is one of the most important commons for this deck. It can get things rolling by simply putting the counter on itself, ready to be the recipient of future proliferate triggers. You can also put the counter on an evasive threat, or even just one that was already on the battlefield to give that counter a form of haste, if you will.

Battlefield Promotion seems like an ideal combat trick for this kind of deck, mainly because it leaves behind a +1/+1 counter. It also happens to be a fine combat trick besides. Wanderer's Strike fits the role of being a removal spell you want to play anyway plus a proliferate trigger that will be handy.

Grateful Apparition lets you go completely nuts if you can get it going, and the fact that it has flying is nice since it lets you attack planeswalkers.

Red-White Aggro

For the aggressive-minded folks, red-white offers a fairly traditional look at an aggressive deck with a little twist in the form of rewarding you for targeting your creatures and/or playing a bunch of combat tricks.

The signpost uncommon is a clear indicator of this game plan:

It's not bashful, is it? 2 power, two mana, haste, gets bigger when you target it, and throw in scry 1 for good measure. You know what the plan is right away. The truth is that the support for the targeting thing isn't as intense as just simply curving out and beating down.

  • Makeshift Battalion
  • Pouncing Lynx
  • Trusted Pegasus
  • Raging Kronch

As you can see, there are some very aggressive creatures at your disposal here, with Trusted Pegasus being the headliner as it opens the door for a ton of damage, is common, and has (plus grants!) its own evasion. Makeshift Battalion kind of forces your opponent to block, allowing you to take advantage with combat tricks. Pouncing Lynx is once again a fantastic card in this archetype, and Raging Kronch is well above rate for its casting cost, especially if you are a beatdown deck.

When your opponent assembles some blockers, you have a lot of combat tricks and removal spells to clear the way.

  • Battlefield Promotion
  • Blindblast
  • Chandra's Pyrohelix
  • Jaya's Greeting
  • Defiant Strike

I recommend keeping your builds of this archetype pretty tight; you want essentially all of your cards to be either creatures, combat tricks, or removal spells. Not a lot of room in these decks for fun stuff when your main goal is to kill your opponent as soon as possible.

Wrapping Up

War of the Spark looks a bit slower than the average format, with the emphasis being on two-color pairs. There are a lot of planeswalkers running around which add to the on-board complexity but shouldn't change the format so much that you won't recognize what your options are. Keep your mind open, and really try to focus on whether you need to attack a planeswalker or if the best plan is to just attack your opponent. If you can do this correctly, you'll succeed in this format.

I hope you enjoy it!

Marshall_LR

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