It’s hard to believe, but Ixalan is almost here. I feel like Deserts are still fresh and I still enjoy enlisting Bolas’s Zombie hordes. Hour of Devastation really was a fantastic set and even saved a previously mediocre format. Today I want to look at what made the set shine, and areas where it could have been improved.
Hour of Devastation Successfully Slowed Amonkhet Down
When we first looked at Hour, there were a lot of red flags. Exert was present in lower numbers and had shifted to some non-combat tapping, but was still present on hyper-aggressive cards such as Oketra’s Avenger and Rhonas’s Stalwart. On top of that, there were cards like Dauntless Aven that looked to push exert themes to new heights. These contributions lead to some real fears after the highly successful attack, attack, attack plan in Amonkhet Limited.
Fortunately, aggressive decks were substantially worse with the addition of Hour. There were a few reasons for this. First, while there were new cards that continued aggressive themes, overall less of the set pushed attacking. That alone meant the first two packs of Hour diluted Amonkhet’s themes. On top of that, slow, powerful cards in Hour pushed away from aggressive decks, meaning fewer drafters ended up drafting fast exert decks in the first place. A lot of this had to do with the various focuses of Hour. There were some exert and fast cards, but also slow ramp cards, Deserts-matter cards, and standalone themes like the Torment cards. In the end it was more difficult to draft high power creatures that dissuaded blocking with every pick.
Blocking was also much better than it was before. We had big blockers like Wall of Forgotten Pharaohs that simply didn’t exist in Amonkhet. Oketra’s Avenger matches up well versus many early creatures, but not against the Wall. What was cool was that Wall and other early defensive cards helped shore up early game weaknesses but was quite bad against the many slow decks of the format. It didn’t help you fight against flying creatures or giant Hippos, and ended up being a very matchup dependent card. Similarly, Ruin Rat was mediocre against some early creatures like Oketra’s Avenger or Spellweaver Eternal but was great for trading with 4+ mana threats.
As I mentioned, many cards were very matchup dependent and that made sideboarding particularly interesting. It would seem strange to cut Wall of Forgotten Pharaohs when you’re low on other 2-drops, but I did that many times when my opponent had many 4+ power creatures. Another card I loved was Aven Reedstalker. The card often sat in my sideboard, but it was very good against swarm style decks, especially U/W ones containing Aerial Guide. Any time you could board to gain an advantage versus your opponent’s plan was awesome. Yet another example was Frilled Sandwalla in slower green decks. It wouldn’t always make the cut there, but shined versus 2/2s and 2/3s, and was thus a great card to bring in versus Zombie decks until you could cast your bigger creatures.
The Defeats marked the return of color hosers, offered up powerful examples of sideboard cards to newer players, and rewarded drafting with sideboard games in mind. They created unique incentives in Sealed where you could swap into new colors for a pair of Defeats, even if you’d lose a little power across the rest of your card swaps. Sometimes this would backfire when your opponent would switch colors, and all in all was an intriguing gambit.
The better you get, the more Magic becomes a game of tiny edges, and any time there is a clear way to gain those tiny edges is a success in my book. Deep formats provide plenty of playables and opportunities to think ahead to post-board games. This can be further refined with a metagame perspective in mind and allows for fun thought exercises even outside the games themselves.
Cycling Was Awesome
I enjoyed cycling in Amonkhet, but it was even better in Hour. The main reason was that you had time to actually cycle cards. Before, if you cycled instead of committing to the board, you might just die, but that was no longer the case. Cycling lands in particular were so good that they became overvalued. The intersection with Deserts-matter cards lead to a truly powerful cycle of lands, and giving slower decks additional ways to prevent flood was a huge boon.
The U/B cycling deck was at a perfect power level and added a new layer to the format. There were enough payoffs that you could fill a deck with them, and they were also bad enough that the U/B player got them all. If that type of deck can work in a Draft format, that’s a good sign that it’s healthy. If a synergy deck pulls together its combo and wins every time, it becomes a problem, because doing anything else is worse. Yet, if the cards aren’t powerful enough combined, you get a group of underpowered cards no one wants. Hour struck the right balance.
Deserts-Matter Cards Had a Good Array of Power Levels
Every deck could care about Deserts, but often it was right to ignore Deserts-matter themes and take objectively powerful cards. Good examples of this were Solitary Camel, Sidewinder Naga, and to lesser extent Wretched Camel. On the other hand, certain cards like Sand Strangler and Gilded Cerodon really incentivized Deserts and would be better picks than more powerful cards in a vacuum. When someone would ask me if they should draft Deserts and Deserts-matter cards, I could respond “that depends,” and in a world of Magic hyperbole that was a refreshing answer.
Unquenchable Thirst had a huge upside, but was one of the few reasons to care about Deserts in blue. This meant blue color pairs that wanted Deserts more prioritized the card higher, but it also competed with other themes within those pairs. The best example was U/R where Thirst piggybacked off the strengths of the red Deserts-matter cards but had trouble getting enough Deserts and payoffs because it also wanted a spells-matter theme. From Draft to Draft you had to make meaningful decisions about the minutiae of the deck you were drafting, rather than simply understanding the archetypes from a macro perspective. That made the later Drafts of the format far more interesting than they would have been otherwise.
Ramp Decks Were Too Uniform
I enjoyed the fact that ramp decks went from borderline unplayable to good with the introduction of Hour, but I disliked the ubiquity of them. Oasis Ritualist was a fantastic enabler, but you could just throw it, some Gift of Paradise, and a Manalith or two into a deck and cast whichever bombs you happened to open. The only real thing that changed from deck to deck was which bombs those were. Once you were drafting the ramp deck you also were drafting on rails, and were no longer put to those compelling micro decisions I talked about.
In the games themselves, too much revolved around whether your Oasis Ritualist lived. If you could turbo out a turn-5 Sifter Wurm it was difficult to lose, but a timely removal spell could strand it in your hand entirely. This particular play pattern felt uninteresting to me from both sides of the table. Unfortunately, there’s not a great way to fix this problem as the ramp itself needs to be powerful enough to make the archetype viable. Overall, I’m happy the deck existed but felt it was too easy to force whenever you opened a good bomb.
Afflict and Eternalize Were Underwhelming
Originally, I had concerns that afflict would continue the problems of Amonkhet. Thankfully that didn’t pan out, but unfortunately the mechanic itself ended up being more of a rider clause than an interesting mechanic. Afflict creatures effectively forced trades earlier, but we’ve seen that many times before on snowballing creatures like Longtusk Cub. On the bright side I didn’t die to an afflict creature at low life all that often, which meant its presence in the set was at the right level.
Eternalize was a bit more egregious, because it had the potential to be a cool twist on embalm, but ended up in such low numbers that it almost didn’t matter. Most of the cards were rare, which meant it ended up being more relevant for Mono-Red in Standard than as a strong component of Limited. The reason for the low numbers is the problem of too many eternalized 4/4s throughout a game. They would all constantly trade off, or the player with more of them would win through 4/4 value town. I think to solve this problem, WotC needed eternalize to function like embalm but come back with +1/+1 counters or some other variant, thus distinguishing the various eternalize creatures. We could have even seen some cool designs where the creature powered up after death because it made use of counters.
Victim of the Trials 1W
T, Remove a +1/+1 counter from Victim of the Trials: Tap target creature.
Eternalize 3WW (3WW, Exile this card from your graveyard: Create a token that’s a copy of it, except it’s a black Zombie Human with no mana cost and two +1/+1 counters. Eternalize only as a sorcery.)
This design would be an evolution of embalm but also prevent the 4/4 clog problem I mentioned, and while you wouldn’t want 20 different versions of these cards, you could print a few more than we saw in HOU. The other important thing would be to avoid the megaembalm effect. But that name would never actually get printed.
Overall, HOU was an above average set. It doesn’t quite crack the best-of-all-time category for me, but I will look back on it fondly. It does win the “best improved” award, transforming a mediocre Draft format in triple-AKH into a quality experience. Ixalan gets one final shot at big-set-small-set design. We’ll have to see if it tops the last 6 months. Join me next week when we start talking all things Dinosaurs and Pirates.