Remember the Titans?
- Gianluca Aicardi
It's been exactly ten years since Magic 2010 changed the way that core sets were designed and perceived. Part of this revised approach has been the constant presence of a cycle of five monocolored finishers leading the charge for the new creatures of any given core set since then.
In 2018, Magic: The Gathering has commemorated its 25th anniversary with some celebratory releases like Master 25 and Ultimate Masters, with the return of the main story to the original plane of Dominaria, and, last but not least, with the reinstating of the core sets under the new Three-and-One Model. Interestingly, though, it's 2019 that's seeing the most eventful turns, such as the introduction of the Magic Pro League; the rebranding of Magic as an e-sport; the start of the Mythic Invitational on Magic Arena; War of the Spark triumphally concluding the long-standing Bolas saga through an expansion of unprecedented power level; and Core Set 2020 marking a further increase in complexity, appeal, and potential impact on Standard for a core set.
After Limited Edition Alpha had laid the card basis for the game (the "core," indeed), every subsequent core set has been a collection of reprints with some amount of variations from its immediate predecessor, in order to provide Standard with its most elementary tools, possibly addressing current metagame issues. In short, they've been boring as hell, and this without even mentioning the dreaded white border that kept plaguing them since Unlimited, visually signaling "second-class" cards. This all changed in 2009, when Magic 2010, for the first time since Alpha, included cards (about half of the total) that had never been printed before – and changed their aspect to regular, black-bordered frame. That was the moment core sets finally achieved roughly the same level of interest of any new release, although a general rule of thumb still prescribed that they must be made less complex than the average expansion, as a way to bridge the gap between starter sets and expert sets.
All this said, what we're setting ourselves to review here is one specific element that derived from the Magic 2010 core set renaissance, one that wasn't really part of M10 yet, debuting one year later in Magic 2011 with the Titan cycle. After the huge success of that seminal group of monocolored heavy-hitters, core sets kept returning to some version of that well again and again during the following decade. Let's see with what results.
2010: A Giant Paradigm
The original big bros from Magic 2011 achieved a degree of internal consistency that would rarely be repeated. For one thing, they're all Giants, a subtype that doesn't especially lend itself to tribal synergies, suggesting a more liberal use of their services. Furthermore, they all drop for the exact same casting cost, if color-shifted, and have the same body, all based on the same number: they're a band of 6/6s for six. They all have a keyworded ability (or close to keyworded) and an impactful ETB trigger that gets reiterated as an attack trigger, with both these sets of abilities deeply linked to the color wheel. Their power level is not entirely uniform, but it's high enough in all cases to make each of them enjoy a drastic amount of play, both during their Standard tenure and afterwards, with at least one of them becoming a staple across all the Eternal formats. On the whole, they established themselves as the paragons for six-mana creatures in their respective colors – when a new six-drop is printed, it's against these guys that has to compare itself to prove its worth.
Sun Titan has been a curve-topper of choice in midrange white-based decks, due to a strong synergy with several self-sacrificing creatures like Benevolent Bodyguard, Kami of False Hope, and Peacekeeper. The more creatures of this kind get printed, the better Sun Titan becomes.
Frost Titan was employed for a little while as a finisher in control decks, but out of the five he's the one that aged the worst, with Wurmcoil Engine and Consecrated Sphinx proving more valuable in his slot. It doesn't help that the blue Titan's trigger is a temporary advantage that doesn't affect the board state long-term, while his protective ability becomes little more than an annoyance in the late game; he would have fared better if he was given flying or hexproof – it's the odd case of the blue member of a cycle being also the least successful.
Grave Titan is a solid beater with built-in inevitability, and MBC lists and control builds in general still enjoy his handiwork quite a lot, though deathtouch on a large body has never been too useful.
Inferno Titan ranks at the top tier of the Titan family. The ability to divide three points of damage at will between one to three different targets, starting from the very turn he drops, is tactically outstanding, and at the very least means our red dude is able to hit the opponent for nine damage per turn, plus firebreathing. An active Inferno Titan is not something any opposing board can withstand for long.
And then Primeval Titan is just over the top. Admittedly, he might feel unimpressive within specific environments that don't contain much value lands; but the fact that he searches for any land, and two of them to boot, quickly leads to craziness. Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle became a fast friend of our "Prime Time", but the possibilities in Eternal formats are endless, and get scarier and scarier at every new set, which ultimately caused Primeval Titan to be on the receiving end of the ban hammer in Commander. He's green winning a cycle for once, and in a peremptory fashion: after all these years and throughout a number of spikes, Primeval still commands a fair price in the secondary market, more than all of his companions combined.
2012: Various and Sundry
While Magic 2012 contented itself to just reprint the glorious M11 Titans, Magic 2013 took the signature cycle in a different direction, becoming a group of rare Legendary creatures that depict named characters from all across the multiverse. Not all of them are very big – in fact, they're all smaller than a Titan; they all cost four mana, except for one; some of them have a keyworded ability in addition to a unique ability, others don't. Essentially, the cycle lost any semblance of uniformity, turning from a tight cycle into a loose one. But that's not even its real problem (or a problem, per se); its problem is that most of these guys aren't worthy of a competitive environment, and as such have barely seen any Constructed play, if ever.
Odric, Master Tactician is from Innistrad. Like all his fellow cycle members, he's a midrange drop with a somewhat board-affecting ability. In his case, he can mess with the combat phase during his controller's turn. It's a powerful effect for sure, but it requires three other attackers, and Odric is just a 3/4 first striker, which is okay, if barely on curve, but not enough to justify a four-drop. As a consequence, he remained strictly bound to casual play or Commander.
Talrand, Sky Summoner is a Merfolk from Shandalar. He is a 2/2 four-drop, which is terrible; his only ability is powerful enough, in that it creates 2/2 flyers in the same way Young Pyromancer creates vanilla 1/1s. The crucial difference is that Young Pyromancer requires exactly half the mana investment of Talrand, and is not Legendary, so it can stack on the battlefield. Talrand was great in Limited, though, we can give him that.
Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis, as his title implies, is from Alara – Malfegor's successor as Grixis's big boss. He's the only one in this cycle that actually asks for Titan's mana; is he better or worse than his Titan counterpart, then? Well, he's in the ballpark. For one, he's a flyer, able to hit for six in the air if he attacks alone. His keywords are both relevant, and his unique ability is a free Diabolic Edict per attack, which typically ranges from irrelevant to game-winning. His greatest flaw is having a low impact the turn he drops, something he shares with all the other members of this cycle. Basically, all Nefarox provides when he enters the battlefield is a good blocker and a little boost to one attacker. He's still playable but has a ton of competition for that spot in the curve.
Krenko, Mob Boss is a Goblin gang leader from Ravnica. He's the kind of creature that threatens inevitability if not dealt with, so you have to get rid of him, pronto, but getting rid of him is not too hard. Compared to his latest incarnation, Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin, his Mob Boss persona is more expensive and only slightly more resilient on the first turn (the Kingpin fills that gap by growing himself out of Bolt range in a couple of turns). He doesn't have to risk his life to generate his tokens, but plays worse if on his own, so he's strictly a card for Goblin tribal decks, with the issue that those decks rarely want a four-drop with no immediate impact on the battlefield; an aspect that's however mitigated by haste-providers like Goblin Chieftain, so there have in fact been successful Goblin brews that included older Krenko in their ranks.
Yeva, Nature's Herald is also from Ravnica, but she's such an underdeveloped character that we basically know nothing else about her, including which guild she's from (it should be Selesnya, by the look of it). She's not terrible, her stats are decent, and universal flash to all green creatures feels relevant, but she's never been deemed valuable enough to replace any other four-drop in the decks where she might find a home, as there are way too many competing for the same slot. With the printing of Vivien, Champion of the Wilds, she has now become completely obsolete.
2013: Iconic Shift
Magic 2014 kept the M13 link to known multiverse locations (whereas the Titans lacked any specificity), but dropped the Legendary supertype and raised the rarity, and relative power level, back to mythic. The M14 five are all iconic creature types for their color – in fact, this might be the moment that defined these distinctive pairings as Angel for white, Sphinx for blue, Demon for black, Dragon for red, and Hydra for green. The cycle consistency was still not entirely back, but all of these but one are five-drops, and they all have some form of evasion, which is flying for the most part (the Hydra has trample, because green can't easily access flying). They all hail from Shandalar, which at some point replaced Dominaria as the generic fantasy setting for cards that didn't want to feel too distinctive.
Archangel of Thune is a high-powered finisher that fueled endgame combos (most notably with Spike Feeder) and generally made a good case for herself as a prime choice five-drop Angel, despite the fierce competition for that slot.
Windreader Sphinx, on the contrary, is a painful miss. The ability is good, but it doesn't justify seven mana for a three-powered body in a world where Consecrated Sphinx also exists, and the "flying tribal" deck never seriously materialized. It's telling that Windreader was demoted to rare for her M19 reprint.
Shadowborn Demon is solid, although he requires a bit of preparation, if not a build-around strategy. Essentially, in order to continuously profit from your big flyer with a killer ETB, you need to have sacrificial fodder around, otherwise he'll off himself. Alternatively, you might have some way to fill your graveyard (a bunch of Shadowborn Apostles, albeit flavorful, isn't probably the most competitive-friendly path to that end), thus meeting the terms of his demonic pact. Still, that downside might have prevented Shadowborn Demon to see a lot of play, as there are safer five-drops in black that supply similar value, as well as better way to kill a creature with the ETB trigger of another creature.
Scourge of Valkas is strictly for Dragon tribal, which is strictly a casual endeavor, at least built the way Scourge of Valkas suggests you build it. His rarity was also lowered when reprinted in Iconic Masters.
Kalonian Hydra is right there with Archangel of Thune, power level-wise. It's susceptible to most removal, but its clock is fast enough (it attacks as a 8/8 trampler the first time, then as a 16/16, which should already been enough for lethal) that if you don't deal with it right away, it's probably good game. Its formidable synergy with the other +1/+1 counter creatures (of which there are more and more with each passing year) is just gravy.
2014: Soulful Callback
Magic 2015 marks the point where a core set's Titan-like cycle really felt like a tight, Titan-like cycle again. These Souls, each very flavorfully linked to a different plane in the multiverse, are all mythic Avatars with the "Titan ratio" of being 6/6s for six mana. The "six" theme goes even further this time, because there are six of them, including a colorless one. They all have activated abilities that they can recur one last time from the graveyard. All great, then? Well, it would be, if the Souls weren't all irremediably janky, the epitome of junk mythic. Let's see…
Soul of Theros has vigilance like Sun Titan and can activate for a super-boost to your team.
Soul of Ravnica has flying (finally!) and can draw cards based on the different colors the permanents you control sport – so up to five.
Soul of Shandalar has first strike and can essentially deal three damage to two targets which is reminiscent of Inferno Titan.
Soul of Zendikar has reach and can create a 3/3 at each activation.
Soul of New Phyrexia has trample and can make everything indestructible until end of turn.
All right, all these abilities seem good, don't they? What's the problem, then? Well, the problem is that they cost a ton of mana to activate. Sure, they're repeatable activations, but still, seven mana to possibly draw just one card? Five mana for a 3/3? What's worse, you can't realistically activate any of these the turn they come into play, so you'll have to untap the next turn with them still alive, and then dump another turn's worth of mana into them. This kind of impact is tragically low for mythic rares. And sure, the graveyard clause guarantees at least one activation – if they don't get exiled, that is.
The only one that approached some playability was Soul of New Phyrexia, just because it was the colorless one, and both trample and potential indestructibility are inherently relevant. It's the only one that was reprinted twice (Soul of Innistrad was reprinted once), both times in Commander products, where it could find a more fitting environment for its shenanigans.
Incidentally, M15 doubled down on the cycles and also included a loose one along the lines of M13: Avacyn, Guardian Angel; Jalira, Master Polymorphist; Ob Nixilis, Unshackled; Kurkesh, Onakke Ancient; and Yisan, the Wanderer Bard. You'll be forgiven if you don't remember any of these, except maybe Yisan.
Magic Origins was all about the past of the five planeswalkers that at the time constituted the Gatewatch. The only other creature cycle was tied to them, representing their "mentors". It was then necessarily a loose cycle, and we're also back to Legendaries and rares.
Hixus, Prison Warden is Gideon's sympathetic jailer who trained him in the art of hieromancy during his youth spent as a prisoner on Theros. Mechanically, he ambushes and exiles attackers, a trick that would be redone much better with Settle the Wreckage, which doesn't leave a 4/4 body behind but is less expensive and doesn't require you to take the damage.
Alhammarret, High Arbiter is the swindler Sphinx that Jace served, somewhat unwillingly, on Vryn. He's a mind manipulator, so the ability to Meddling Mage one of the opponent's cards is flavorful, but seven mana is beyond Titan-level, the body is generic, and you might well hit no useful cards, or no eligible cards at all.
Kothophed, Soul Hoarder is one of Liliana's demonic masters. He kind of works as a big finisher that occasionally draws you a card, or more consistently draws you cards if you pair him up with many mass removal spells, especially those that can result in an asymmetric outcome. He costs exactly like Grave Titan, so the question is inevitable: is he better than the old Giant? Once again, probably not, as Kothophed doesn't leave any trace on the battlefield if he gets removed right away, whereas the Titan at least has two 2/2s as a memento of his passage. Also, there are less expensive Demons that draw you a card every turn, regardless of what happens to the opponent's permanents.
Pia and Kiran Nalaar are Chandra's parents. They're inventors on Kaladesh (or were; daddy Kiran was sadly murdered), hence the Thopters. They make for a very solid card that puts three different bodies on the battlefield (see? Like Grave Titan!), can take to the air, and provides targeted damage. Best card in the cycle, and unsurprisingly, the only one that saw play in Standard, and still sometimes shows up in Eternal formats.
Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen is the Elf leader that Nissa met on Lorwyn during her first planeswalk (counting her as a "mentor" is a definite stretch, because they spent about an afternoon together, and what Nissa learned from Dwynen is how not to conduct herself). She's an expensive Elf lord that just generates lifegain by attacking, so a very forgettable Elf lord.
2018: Disrespecting the Elders
After a couple of years of absence due to the switch to the Two-Block Paradigm, core sets came back last year with Core Set 2019 (let's take this opportunity to acknowledge how confusing these names needlessly are). The set was devoted to all things Bolas, in preparation for this year's conclusion of his story, so the mythic cycle here saw the return of the Elder Dragons, a fundamentally different cycle of three-colored cards: Arcades, the Strategist; Chromium, the Mutable; Nicol Bolas, the Ravager // Nicol Bolas, the Arisen; Vaevictis Asmadi, the Dire; Palladia-Mors, the Ruiner – all somewhat playable, especially Nicol Bolas as a centerpiece in Grixis Control decks, and to a lesser extent Chromium as an Esper finisher, with Arcades becoming his own low-tier archetype.
M19 still had room for a loose cycle of monocolored rare creatures, though.
Lena, Selfless Champion is capable of creating a massive army of tokens, and then making them indestructible for a turn (but only if you didn't cast too many Venerated Loxodons or Unbreakable Formations on them). She might also well create just one lonely token off of her presence, which makes her an awful topdeck, which is not what a six-mana creature should be. She's also a tragic nombo with March of the Multitudes and other token generators, because she doesn't care about tokens that are already on the battlefield when she drops. Just a horrible, horrible design.
Sai, Master Thopterist is pretty decent. He even found a home in a Standard combo deck for a time, thanks to Kaladesh, though this run was cut short by rotation. Post-rotation, he found himself in a Standard environment with very few artifacts to work with and fell of in Standard. Modern and Legacy are a different story however, as he's found fringe use in both, though Saheeli, Sublime Artificer might be seen as an upgrade.
Isareth the Awakener is a cool lady with several issues. The first issue is that she needs to remain alive for a full turn in order to activate her ability; then there's the issue of needing to attack; then the issue of being mana-intensive. This said, she's also a 3/3 deathtoucher for three, which mitigates some of these issues (i.e. she still has a role as a blocker and she's a fearsome attacker). She's not played much, but she's playable.
Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma has a lot of potential as a build-around card for midrange Stompy decks but didn't found a home yet. And probably won't, because those three points of toughness are really a pain and a curse.
2019: Knightly Value
And this finally brings us to Core Set 2020 and the Cavalier cycle, back to mythic, back to being a tight cycle: they're all Elemental Knights, they all cost 2MMM, they all have a keyworded combat ability, an ETB trigger and a death trigger. Being five-drops, they're not easily compared to the Titans, since they're not strictly curve-toppers. And they haven't had a chance to prove themselves yet, so the evaluation here is purely speculative; but they seem strong enough to see play.
Cavalier of Dawn has, once again, vigilance like its Sun Titan ancestor. It's not as big, but the ETB trigger is even more impactful, since it can deal with any permanent that we want off the battlefield. And it's a Beast Within deal (now in white too, with Generous Gift from Modern Horizons, though Afterlife was an early example too), which means it can double as a way to create an extra body on your side, maybe sacrificing something for value. And then the Cavalier dies and returns to hand an artifact or enchantment from the graveyard, which has quite a few synergies with white enchantments in particular (Prison Realm, History of Benalia, you name it). Compared to previous cycles, the Cavaliers are more at home in monocolored decks, due to the triple mana requirement, so Cavalier of Dawn seems primed for being a good role player in white midrange decks, could easily go in white-based Bant value builds, and is perfect in Prime Speaker Vannifar lists.
Cavalier of Gales is the big flyer that Frost Titan never got to be, casts Brainstorm upon arrival, scries 2 upon exit, and shuffles itself into the library. Great all-around value package that will see play in Standard if triple blue doesn't prove problematic (that cost is the only small barrier that could separate these Knights from wide play).
Cavalier of Night is a lifelinker, which is a welcome change from deathtouch. His ETB kills a creature and enables a sacrifice on your side, which is sort of a variant of the white trigger, and his death resurrects a three-drop, so it all plays amazingly in decks where sacrifice is a virtue and there's something like Midnight Reaper to get back.
Cavalier of Flame is the least exciting of the bunch, as it does a bit of rummaging while entering the battlefield, and then his death inflicts damage to all opponents and their planeswalkers based on the number of lands in your graveyard, which seems a suggestion to discard excess lands to his ETB ability in the first place, in order to set up the death trigger later. But it's something that could easily not line up correctly, unless we build a dedicated "lands in the graveyard matter" deck (there are other payoff cards for this strategy in M20). The firebreathing calls back to Inferno Titan, but it's universal now, with additional haste. The latter part sounds like a throwaway ability buried into its large rule text, but it might very well be what brings Cavalier of Flame into playable territory, along with the high hitting power.
Cavalier of Thorns plays extremely well in self-mill decks, Golgari-style, where it's able to get four cards into the graveyard while also ramping. Reach is usually unimpressive, but on a 5/6 body it means the green Cavalier is a clean answer to Lyra Dawnbringer and Skarrgan Hellkite. The death trigger is a Regrowth (albeit without card advantage), so it also aptly complements dredge strategies.
M20 includes a Legendary iconic cycle as well (Sephara, Sky's Blade; Atemsis, All-Seeing; Vilis, Broker of Blood; Drakuseth, Maw of Flames; Gargos, Vicious Watcher), which similarly contains some interesting creatures, if more of the larger-than-life, strictly-build-around variety. But the Cavaliers are the Titans of 2020 – or at least, that's their ambition. They've got some potential; will they be able to fulfill it? As Teferi says, only time will tell.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.
Check out our Core 2020 page if you're interested in picking up the new Cavaliers!