When Wizards announced an expansion about a school of magic, many people got excited. As a blue mage at heart, I could barely wait for the preview season to start. Now that we know which mechanics the set will include I am even more pumped than I was—they all relate so well to the theme. Let me list all of the abilities and talk through what they mean in practice and what kind of gameplay they might promote.
The first mechanic I want to cover is learn. The name seems very apt for a fantasy college setting. What this keyword stands for is: "You may reveal a Lesson card you own from outside the game and put it into your hand, or discard a card to draw a card." In practice you've got three choices: do nothing, place a Lesson card into your hand, or "rummage" (meaning to discard and draw, a reference to Rummaging Goblin, analogous to looting being named after Merfolk Looter). There are two more things which need clarification:
What does "outside of the game" mean as far as tournament rules are concerned? As in most cases with such wording, it refers to your sideboard. If you want to take advantage of your learn cards, you need to construct your sideboard accordingly.
What is a Lesson? It's a subtype of instants and sorceries. So far, it seems like a good chunk of them might be colorless so that any deck can use them. See for example Environmental Sciences or Introduction to Prophecy.
I truly like the second part of the effect as it means that learn still does something even if you don't have any Lessons (left). The problem is that going up a card (Lesson) is much better in absolute terms than rummaging for card parity. Then again, many of the Lessons aren't actually worth a full card. For instance Introduction to Annihilation quite literally isn't. In Limited, Lessons might nicely affect the drafting experience, as you typically do little sideboarding and now the slots are very much relevant. They may also prove highly relevant in best-of-one matches on Magic Arena, where you don't use your sideboard anyway, so you might as well put a ton of Lessons there.
However, in most tournament play, which is best of three, I am skeptical of the mechanic's utility. Devoting a sideboard slot is a cost, let alone two or three, which you'd need if you want to learn several times or if you want to have a variety of Lessons to choose from. Both the Lesson subtype as well as the learn ability would have to appear on some decently powerful cards to warrant inclusion in best-of-three decks. Among the first batch of previews, Professor of Symbology and Confront the Past appear as the most likely candidates, but both still leave a bit to be desired. Of course, it's nice that the mechanic doesn't go overboard, unlike the original companion implementation, which played into similar design space.
The second ability we'll take a look at is magecraft. It states that whenever you cast or copy an instant or sorcery spell, you get some effect. While the condition is the same across all the cards, the benefit varies. Eager First-Year gets +1/+0 while Archmage Emeritus allows you to draw an additional card. If we look at learn and Lessons, we can spot some nice synergy. Learn gives you Lessons, Lessons are by definition instant and sorceries, all of them trigger magecraft. I do appreciate the design here. Players love spell-slinging decks so this mechanic could end up quite popular, I reckon. What's interesting is that Wizards rarely put "copy a spell" onto a card that doesn't actually do any copying itself. It seems to suggest that there will be a lot of support for this type of effect.
Talking nonrotating formats, each of them has some kind of Storm deck. So an ability that cares about casting spells or copying them could easily turn out busted if the design team went a bit over the top. We have not seen a card that's likely to break a format yet, but such a mechanic begs to do so. In fact, the very first magecraft card previewed, Professor Onyx, immediately bumped the price and number of sales of Chain of Smog by several orders of magnitude. The idea is to cast the Smog targeting yourself and to copy it ad infinitum, triggering magecraft until the game's over. That particular combo, involving a six-mana planeswalker and only legal in Legacy, may not be competitively viable. However, the new Liliana didn't remain the only card with a deadly magecraft trigger.
Sure enough, Witherbloom Apprentice came along and now presents a workable alternative that costs a mere two mana. Our excellent editor, Tobi, has come up with a first draft of a decklist focused on Chain plus Apprentice. Between Veteran Explorer and Phyrexian Tower, the following can theoretically cast both on turn two, although you're probably better off to clear the way with Cabal Therapy first and/or to deploy some protection in Sylvan Safekeeper. Green Sun's Zenith searches for any of the green creatures including one of the combo pieces, and as soon as you have two creatures in the yard, Mausoleum Secrets searches for either half of the combo.
|Chain-Smogging Apprentice by Tobi Henke|
Ward is a triggered ability that says: whenever this permanent becomes the target of a spell or ability an opponent controls, counter that spell or ability unless that opponent pays some cost. That cost can be mana, life, or whatever else is written on the card following the word ward.
Wizards have confirmed that ward is a new evergreen keyword, which I am super happy about. Throughout the past we've seen abilities like protection (super rules convoluted), hexproof (lacking any counterplay but still allowing the controller to play Auras, Equipment, or pump spells on their own creature), and shroud (which allowed nobody to interact for better or worse). Between all of them ward looks the cleanest and most fun. It addresses the issue that people won't play creatures without an immediate impact if removal is too strong. In that case, you are forced to play creatures with enter-the-battlefield effects. Ward is a way to fix this weird dynamic. What it does great is that it does not invalidate interaction and counterplay—it just puts a bit of a restriction on it. On top of that, it's warded (see what I did there?) in a neat and easy to understand way.
However, there is a slight critique that people have been voicing as far as ward is concerned. It is a trigger and not a static cost modifier. In practice, it means you can use your removal anyway and the controller has to tell you to meet the ward condition, as opposed to effects such as protection where you wouldn't be able to target in the first place. This could potentially create some feel bad moments, especially among newer players. Making it a static modifier akin to what you see on some older cards—compare the new Waterfall Aerialist to M20's Boreal Elemental for instance—could have avoided this trigger problem. Yet, I am sure the game design department had a reason, and maybe some day they will tell us why it is the way it is.
They're back! And that's great. I think that MDFC are a great addition to the game. I particularly enjoyed the cycle with a land on the back side as, like most Magic players, I hate being screwed or flooded on mana. As we're told, each Strixhaven college will have its own modal double-faced card featuring its two deans such as Plargg, Dean of Chaos // Augusta, Dean of Order. I am a modal spells fan—charms, commands, I love them all. MDFCs are another opportunity to test your in-game decision making, so sign me up!
That's all from me today. Strixhaven looks super exciting lore-wise but even more so mechanics-wise. I can't wait to explore it further as more previews flow in. Thanks for reading, and as always, remember to hold my hand and pass the turn together. Cheers!
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