It's A Mistake (?)

One thing you haven’t seen from me are comments about the new Magic set, Apocalypse.  This is in part because of the Sullivan interview, but also because I prefer to reserve judgment on new sets until I’ve at least had a chance to play a bit with them.

     My first reaction to Apocalypse was to think that it had a bunch of powerful cards, but how many of them are going to be REALLY playable?  The new enemy pain lands notwithstanding, most of the cards that had powerful effects are in odd color combinations.  The other thing I thought about was wondering how this set would affect draft and sealed deck formats, which I don’t think you can really get a feel for unless you sit down and play with the cards.

     We’ve already established in this column that I’m not the world’s best limited player, but lately I’ve gotten the hang of drafting Invasion/Planeshift, managing to win three of the last four drafts I played in, and really getting a feel for picking the right colors, and being able to switch into a five-color green deck when I see fit.  I questioned Apocalypse because of the fact that it takes the allied color strategies of drafting Invasion and Planeshift and throws those theories right out the window.  In order to get the clearly most powerful cards, you have to be playing off color combinations.  Want to play Vindicate?  Hope you drafted a U/B/W Dromar deck going into the last pack.  How about that Spiritmonger guy?  Well, let’s hope you drafted the always-popular R/B/G.  Wanna play the Lighting Angel?  Ok you’re out of luck because that thing costs RUW to cast.  Not that these colors aren’t playable combinations, just that most people settle into two colors, and might splash a third unless they’re playing 5cG, then they’ll give just about anything a try.

     Well last night I had a chance to try and feel out the new set in draft for the first time.  Thanks to my nefarious underworld connections, I participated in an Invasion/Apocalypse/Apocalypse draft last night.  My plan going in was to aim for a five color deck, which seemed like a good plan as it would give me maximum flexibility going into the randomness that is Apocalypse.  Things went fairly well in this regard, my deck apparently wasn’t nearly as good as I thought I might have drafted.  I ended up primarily Green/Black/Blue, with the surprising bomb Ebony Treefolk definitely being my MVP.  Other cards I had included Life/Death and Death Mutation, and I had Nomadic Elf, Elfhame Sanctuary, Gaea’s Balance, and Fertile Ground to do some work for me as mana smoothers.  I picked up an Illuminate in my first Apocalypse pack, and a whopping four Savage Gorilla, which I may have slightly overrated, or I simply didn’t draw enough of them in the two matches I played.

     So what’s the verdict?  Well, I’m not sure yet.  Drafting Invasion/Planeshift/Apocalypse will be the true test of this set for limited, and in light of that, part of me wonders if Apocalypse might not fall into the category of well-intentioned mistake.

     Invasion and Planeshift are both heavily based on the idea of allied color strategies, and Apocalypse goes completely against those strategies.  You want the best cards out of Apocalypse?  You’re going to have to draft enemy colors.  But if you try to line yourself up for grabbing those good enemy colors in Apocalypse, then you might have to pass on some really good cards in Invasion and Planeshift.  For example, Red/Blue/White is a pretty potent color combination in Apocalypse.  You get cards like Jilt, Goblin Legionnaire, Quicksilver Dagger, and Razorfin Hunter in just the common cards.  Mix in uncommons and rares like Illuminate, Minotaur Illusionist, and Lighting Angel, and you have the potential for some bomb cards.  However, if you make this your plan, then when you get to Planeshift, how great are you going to feel passing that opening pick Terminate?  Or if you see that Terminate, do you just splash black, and be even happier when you see a Vindicate in the Apocalypse pack?  Or do you simply start crying because you’re trying to build a four color deck without a single green mana smoother in it?

     Ok so let’s say you stay traditional, and in Invasion/Planeshift you are drafting a strong R/B deck with your typical removal, looking for Terminate in the Planeshift pack.  Then you get to Apocalypse.  Now what do you do?  Now there are some decent red and black cards in Apocalypse, but the power level of them is relatively low when put up against the cards featuring enemy color combinations, and the non-enemy colored cards will dry up fast because the actually good ones are few and far between and will likely be sucked up in the first few picks.

     All this oddball theory has me wondering if maybe Apocalypse is a mistake.  If you look back historically, the third set in a block is usually the one that departs the farthest from its previous to companions, making little use of new mechanics started in the stand-alone set, while introducing a great many new mechanics.  For example, Urza’s Destiny featured almost no echo cards, only one of the untap-land cards, and very little cycling, but threw several new cards and ideas out there like Academy Rector, Opalesence, and Masticore.  Until now, though, we haven’t seen a set that departs so far from the previous two as Apocalypse does.  The focus on enemy color cards makes Apocalypse such a serious departure from the previous two sets that it impacts how effective the set really is in draft and sealed events, and, in all honesty, makes for a lot of weak cards for constructed play, especially with the existence of Rishadan Port in the Standard environment.  I wonder if maybe, while these ideas are cool, we wouldn’t have been better served to have seen these off-color ideas saved for the next stand-alone expansion and its block, as opposed to wrapping up the Invasion block.  At this point, I’m thinking that one will tend to see people either having to pass on good picks from the first two packs in a draft to align themselves for the Apocalypse packs which may or may not have the cards they need to make their deck good, or you may see the Apocalypse pack practically ignored by other drafters who stay in allied colors for the first two picks and simply take what they can fit in their colors in the Apocalypse pack.  One other possibility is a return to the early days of Invasion drafting where you have people repeatedly fighting over green mana smoothers in order to build a five-color deck that can take advantage of the Apocalypse pack regardless of what is opened.

     I give Wizards a lot of credit for coming up with new and radical ideas for the new sets, and am the first to say that Invasion and Planeshift are fantastic sets together.  I simply question the wisdom of throwing out this much chaos so quickly.  However, time will tell, and I’m sure I’ll have a better feel for things after this weekend’s pre-release tournament.  Hope everyone has fun at their prereleases!

Tim Stoltzfus