Eldritch Moon: What Worked, and What Didn’t

Next week I’m going to fully switch to Kaladesh mode, but that means I get one last chance to look back and appreciate what Eldritch Moon brought to the table, and what pitfalls befell it as a Limited set. I gave Shadows over Innistrad a final evaluation as well, and I’m going to follow a similar formula today, but also talk more about how Eldritch Moon shifted the Shadows over Innistrad landscape for better and worse. I also have a fun little highlights section at the end!

What Worked

Emerge

Every mechanic was well implemented. The biggest success was emerge which completely changed the way certain games were played, and was even strong enough to form new Constructed decks without being completely broken in Limited. That’s hard to do, especially with a mana cost reduction mechanic, but I think R&D really hit this one out of the park.

Emerge creatures felt rare enough in packs such that you really needed to work to be the UG emerge deck, and that you got real payoffs by being in that seat, but you couldn’t simply force it just because it was one of the better decks.

Mechanic Rating: 8/10

Meld

Meld was a big question mark going into the format since it was just plain weird, but it was a big hit. Apparently, this was an extremely polarizing mechanic within R&D itself, and very few meld cards were printed to avoid a scenario where the public hated it and then we had a set focused around it, but most people I have talked to have enjoyed the mechanic.

Any time I melded a Chittering Host in Limited I felt like I achieved something and was often rewarded with a win shortly thereafter. There is a visceral feeling to pulling both cards out of their sleeves and forming a super monster that dominates the battlefield.

Moving forward, I hope we see more meld. Perhaps there can be multiple different cards that can meld together in different ways but into the same flipped creature. That way it’s not quite as rare an occurrence in Limited environments. Of course, that runs the risk of the mechanic becoming stale and repetitive, but it would create more fun in-game goals to have novel pieces, even if they become the same backside creature. This would be a tough sweet spot to achieve design-wise, but I hope to see something like it in the future.

Mechanic rating: 7/10

Escalate

Escalate played well, though it was the least inspired mechanic. I don’t think this is a big problem because too much novelty can be overwhelming and everyone understood this new kicker variant almost immediately.

One thing that I hoped would happen that didn’t for me in gameplay was a diversity of escalate options and play patterns. For example, Savage Alliance was usually cast for 3R to deal 2 to one creature and 1 to each opposing creature or fully escalated when attacking for lethal. Blessed Alliance was almost always 1W to have an opponent sacrifice, or 3W to also gain 4. Occasionally it would be cast early for 4 life to flip a Lone Rider, or untap some creatures for a blowout, but I found that didn’t happen all that often.

Thus, the mechanic worked for me, but was only really average with the upside that it played smoothly in Limited. If we see it again I hope it has some differing modes to offer up more diversity each time an escalate spell is cast.

Mechanic rating: 5/10

Beyond the mechanics I really liked that the set was well balanced. You could end up any with color combination and have a good chance of winning your draft. The best UR deck would be the best deck at the table, but that was easily self-correcting as long as the draft table prevented one player from getting all the goodies, and there were enough synergies in all the color pairs to do unique but powerful things that could interact in meaningful ways with the opposing archetypes. I felt that was a strength of Oath of the Gatewatch Limited and I’m glad we got to see that again so soon.

I also thought the games themselves were fun and it was an interesting puzzle to figure out when to get aggressive, how to best prevent your opponent from executing their plan, and juggle a bunch of different goals such as triggering prowess multiple times or sequencing emerge enablers and payoffs.

Simple things like using early Choking Restraints to turn on your Ironclad Slayer versus holding the Restraints post-emerge creature were important and lead to rewarding sequencing experiences.

Madness enablers and madness cards themselves also had to be in proper harmony, but I liked that madness was often an important part of what RB could do, but didn’t always have to be the focus. You could draft Vampire tribal with or without madness, tons of removal spells to push through small creatures or to buy time for big monsters; or a grindy deck with Sanitarium Skeletons, graveyard recursion, and repeatable incremental advantages through cards like Thermo-Alchemist. Nuance within archetypes made sure the format felt fresher for a longer period of time.

What Didn’t Work

The biggest thing I missed in this set was the lack of investigate. It was such a clean mechanic and Mark Rosewater himself admitted that this was a pretty clear omission in retrospect. Luckily, there’s a design change he mentioned recently where that won’t happen in future sets and we should see more returning mechanics.

This is great for two reasons. The first is that there will be more fluidity between drafting new sets with the previous large expansions. The second is that we’ll get more little twists on interesting mechanics that don’t have to be forced all within the first set. Hopefully R&D doesn’t force a mechanic though just for the sake of continuity in a block. A major reason the new two-set block paradigm has been so successful compared to the old three-set block is that uninspired third sets forced mechanics when there wasn’t enough design space left to do so.

One thing I’ve liked about Oath of the Gatewatch and Eldritch Moon Limited is that they markedly change old card values. Just look at Erdwal Illuminator or Halimar Tidecaller. Both were reasonable first picks in triple-set draft but shifted value so radically that they’d occasionally table.

While I like changing values these power level differences between big set and small set were pushed a little too hard. Any time I’d open an Shadows over Innistrad pack I’d often look at a sea of unplayables and would sometimes find nothing I could first pick that would even make my deck. To fix this, sets should aim to be closer on power level and then have higher power differentials between blocks rather than between connecting sets. Otherwise one set of the packs becomes marginal and is simply a rider pack to the rest of the draft rather than an interesting addition that adds diversity. Keep the changing values of cards but don’t achieve that goal simply through a vast power level difference between sets.

Another gripe I had with Eldritch Moon was Sealed. I practiced the format a lot, but felt a lot of my ability to do well was dependent on the quality of my pool. I’d look to build around synergy or the strength of my rares and removal spells, but there were some pools I was just stuck with a smattering of various synergies alongside individually weak cards and nowhere to turn. I’d have a bunch of Enlightened Maniacs but no emerge creatures, or several Cemetery Recruitments but 1 playable Zombie in the pool. This is a problem with Sealed in the modern era of Limited sets that are constructed with sweet synergies you can draft around.

Purely powerful cards aren’t often prevalent at common outside of a few removal spells you’re really hoping to open, and so you have to be a little bit lucky to open cards that even work well together. This is a departure from previous Sealed environments where rares were problematic but you had more ways to answer them and could play with good cards on a curve without worrying about lacking the synergies between cards that only functioned within certain constraints.

I don’t really have a true answer to this problem, and I’m also not saying that Sealed has gotten less skill intensive or that old Sealed formats were way better, but I hope that moving forward there can be some new technology in design to fix the problems listed. I think there have always been some problems with Sealed Deck and that the complexities and balance issues have simply migrated into different areas.

Eldritch Moon did help fix my big gripe with Shadows over Innistrad Sealed which was that this power/synergy problem was exacerbated by all the power cards concentrated in GW. At least in Eldritch Moon there were diverse color pairs you could play and it was a fun puzzle to maximize the strengths of any given pool and find ways to fit all the pieces together.

My Favorite:

Archetype: UR Spells

This deck was super sweet and an interesting twist on the spells decks from triple-Shadows. It became more of a tempo deck utilizing creatures rather than building up to a large Rise From the Tides, but when all the cards came together you felt like you were doing something truly broken. At times it was more like playing a Cube deck than a typical Limited deck.

That said, I didn’t actually end up in the deck all that often because many of its cards were noticeably great and lots of players are like me and really wanted to draft the deck. Therefore, it wasn’t as open as it might have otherwise been if its cards were worse (like in Shadows over Innistrad where I drafted the deck nonstop).

My most played deck ended up being RW, which was a no-frills attack deck that did a good job fun-policing the format.

Creature: Faithbearer Paladin

Sometimes you just need a good underdog to root for. This guy looked very unassuming when Eldritch Moon came out. He’s just not that big. But in a world of 3/2s and 2/3s the Paladin could swing games by himself, and that’s even before you take pump spells into account. By the end of the format most people had improved their view of the card, but I still think it wasn’t fully appreciated. I’ll look back fondly on such a simple but effective creature.

Instant or Sorcery: Grapple with the Past

Grapple really broke out on the Constructed scene, which is no surprise in retrospect. The card is powerful, offers up card selection early like Anticipate, and is a super Raise Dead in the late game. Combine that with the ability to instantly turn on delirium and you’ve got a real winner. The best times though were when I lived the dream by looping Grapple and Vexing Scuttler. Value town!

Rare or Mythic: Emrakul, the Promised End

I enjoyed the couple times I luckily opened Emrakul in Sealed and was able to build around her. She was both entertaining and a challenge to make work, and that’s a fun puzzle to try and crack. The moment you cast Emmy and see your opponent’s face is always a delight. Did I mention I like Grapple with the Past?

Limited Rating: 7.5/10

For reference, I rated triple-Shadows-over-Innistrad 6.5, triple-Battle-for-Zendikar 5.5, and Oath of the Gatewatch 8 in my last What Worked and What Didn’t.

TL;DR:

  • All the Eldritch Moon mechanics were successful in their goals. Emerge played well and had a good mix of enablers and payoffs. Meld was very fun and could open up new ways to use it in future designs. Escalate was an average mechanic but made for smoother Limited game play.
  • Color balance was fantastic even if UR and UG ended up being the best decks. Draft tables were consistently self correcting and any 2 color pair was capable of winning the draft.
  • Forgoing cards with investigate was a huge oversight. The mechanic played well in Shadows over Innistrad and could have made Eldritch Moon an even more successful set if it was simply included.
  • Sealed is too synergy based and reliant on higher rarity power cards. Getting pieces of synergy-based decks without opening removal spells was often a death sentence, but it was still improved from the GW-dominant Sealed pools of Shadows over Innistrad.
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