Hey! You Got Your Nightmare Beast All Over My Elemental Bird Cats! (Ikoria Early Impressions)
Where do we begin when assessing a set like this? No pun intended, but Ikoria really is a ‘monster’ and has a lot going on, in spite of superficially looking like only big, durdly monsters meant to Voltron onto one another (a ‘glass cannon strategy,’ to be discussed later). But when we look a bit deeper, we see a lot of depth and nuance to the designs. Not everything can be a winner - like every other set - and Ikora certainly has its share of draft chaff and bulk rares.
I am confident saying that WotC has done a great job capturing the feel of a world of “giant monsters, where humanity is pushed to the brink,” finding enough creative and intriguing ways to make it compelling for new and established players. However, I also believe that new and established players will have significantly different takeaways from this, for better or worse.
For the newest players and collectors among us, Ikoria (see: https://www.echomtg.com/set/IKO/ikoria-lair-of-behemoths/) has a lot working in its favour. Khans of Tarkir was an incredibly popular set when it was released, and though it may be the closest analog to Ikoria, set design has evolved greatly in the interim. Khans was a set driven by sales, in large part due to the reprint of fetchlands, and the artwork conveyed a world of despair, on the brink and slowly dying.
For Ikoria, instead we have a world that is living and breathing life, in the truest sense of the word. The use of scale, perspective and colour throughout is something that appeals greatly to a mark like me (Lorwyn and Mirage are my favourite sets of all time), and I love the return of bombastic, bright hues working in tandem with images made to feel like we’re only catching a snapshot of the creature as it moves through our field of vision. The combination of colour and movement speaks to the ‘energy’ of the creatures, supercharging feelings of conflict, struggle and change in the world.
The creatures themselves are combinations of many of Magic’s favourite tribes, and will do well serving the newer player base and established collectors who have their own tribal allegiances. Featured are Humans, Dinosaurs, Cats, Birds, Elementals, Beasts, Nightmares, Sharks (new), Otters (also new) and many others! Aside from Humans, gone are the other main tribes we see across sets - Elves, Faeries, Vampires, Kithkin (okay, maybe not so much that last one). Curiously though, someone on the interwebs pointed out that with the presence of so many “Humans” in other Standard-legal sets, WotC was already laying a trail of breadcrumbs for us to conclude that Ikoria may have mechanics/flavour that featured ‘humans vs. non-humans.’
We also get the addition of new variant and alternate art versions for a lot of the signature creatures and spells for the set. In addition to the ‘borderless’ and/or ‘extended art’ frames that began with Throne of Eldraine, we have the inclusion of the Godzilla property (see: https://www.echomtg.com/card/117336/void-beckoner/), thanks to a license Hasbro acquired from the Toho Company to release a Godzilla-version of Monopoly. In these cases, most of the signature creatures have been adapted to a Godzilla-universe analog; the creatures have a new name, but still retain their in-universe MTG names. Often the artwork looks like action figures that many of us might’ve played with while growing up; others look like sculptures or claymation creations from the days of yore.
If that wasn’t enough, we also get the inclusion of variant artworks with a very real comicbook style
) ala 1950s and 60s monster magazines. These are the kind of chances I like seeing from Magic - after more than 25 years they can still find new ways to push the creative space, maximizing visuals and grabbing your attention, regardless of whether you’re using these cards in your decks or not.
These two areas are not where Ikoria comes up short; rather, we see our first instances of trouble with the release of a Commander product that ties directly into Ikoria. No longer do we receive our Commander supplemental products towards the end of year. Instead, WotC decided to release the product concurrently with Ikoria, further building out the lore and flavour of the world in The Year of Commander. We have 5 decks (instead of 4) this time around, featuring Legendary Creatures built around mechanics appearing in Ikoria, as well as popular playstyles/archetypes from Commander’s meta (see: https://www.echomtg.com/set/C20/commander-2020/).
Already there’s been numerous ‘hot takes’ describing the new mechanics (‘Mutate’ and ‘Companion’) as effectively jamming casual, constructed EDH down Standard-player’s throats, much to the detriment of the long-term health and enjoyment of the game and specifically Standard. ‘Companion’ is a mechanic that provides interesting twists on deck construction, giving players the ability to find new synergies in the face of restrictions, in addition to being able to cast a card from your sideboard once per game. One of these cards has already been banned for Commander play (see: https://www.echomtg.com/card/117413/lutri-the-spellchaser/).
With that said, and once we’ve come to terms with any difficulties encountered enforcing this new ruleset in physical matches (the mechanic feels ‘digital’), I think we’ll see some truly unique decks come from an expansive deck-design space. In this instance I’d wager these mechanics more meaningfully open the deck-building space of Magic across formats and impart a breath of fresh air into the game. Alternatively, they could also overwhelmingly-negatively impact deck registration for paper events, affect logistics during eSports coverage, or increase the mistakes and errors that might not occur over the course of matches otherwise. Will there be a learning curve? Absolutely. Is it insurmountable? Likely not. Am I personally at ease seeing WotC continuing to take incremental risks like this in their property after all these years? Absolutely.
Commander cards were spoiled in tandem with Ikoria-set cards causing some MTG personalities to bemoan the entire spoiler season. Say what you will but given the times we’re currently living in, this spoiler season was always going to be different as we’ve already seen changes to the physical release of the product(s) (North America, for example, gets physical cards approx. 1 month after release in Asian markets). An inability to differentiate set symbols (see:) isn’t WotC’s fault - these complaints feel more nit-picky than anything else, especially when they come from people within the community who are well-established and have been playing for years.
Now, in fairness, some pro players are calling Companion the worst mechanic that WotC has developed since Phyrexian mana (see: https://articles.starcitygames.com/premium/companion-is-the-worst-mechanic-for-the-health-of-magic-since-phyrexian-mana/). But then again, when you stack that one perspective up against all the others (https://articles.starcitygames.com/premium/), the bylines are typically click-bait - hook ‘em with the title, then walk it back later in the body of the article stuck behind a paywall.
Now, to address the Kraken in the room - Mutate. Mutate is an extremely simplistic looking mechanic on the surface - we’re just putting one non-human creature on top or beneath another, where the topmost creature provides the Power/Toughness and all abilities/keywords within the stack are in play. If the creature you intend to mutate dies, the other creature still resolves and enters the battlefield - you just don’t get any additional Mutate triggers.
Okay, so maybe it’s not THAT simple, but ultimately I don’t think it’s as complex as we’re making it out to be. I mean, we’ve already come through the other side of Bestow with only some minor bumps and scrapes, so I have no doubt the community will adapt and flourish. And hey! - it’s not like it’s the original Nyx mechanic they were pitching for Theros: Beyond Death (see: https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/card-preview/through-stygian-waters-2020-01-03)!
Thought experiment! What if mutate was, “you can only Mutate another creature if the creature being cast has power OR toughness greater than the target creature.” Kind of like the ‘evolve’ mechanic from Gatecrash - a bit more restrictive, though maybe those restrictions breed more creativity. Better? Worse? I think it gives a feel of a chain or ‘curve’ of always evolving into something bigger and badder, rather than just keyword-souping something.
Could this mechanic lead to some unintended casualties along the way? Almost certainly. If WotC, as a company, struggles to balance a card like Oko, and can’t recognize its inherent power level as it moves through development, I have no doubt that there is some combination of creatures/cards that will unintentionally assemble an unstoppable killing machine.
Again, I’m okay with that - with card pools becoming as large as they are, and mechanics ultimately interacting in unforeseen and/or unintended ways, there’s certainly going to be some losses. Let me reiterate - THIS IS NOTHING NEW FOR MAGIC. I have to assume they try their best (okay, maybe not their BEST) in Play Design, but it’s better than the alternative of a train barreling down the tracks, too fast and with no conductor at the controls. I firmly believe we gain more than we could potentially lose with a mechanic like this existing.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Mutate is going to create some fantastic decklists in the coming weeks/months, and will serve as a great tool rewarding the pros and more competitive players among us who like to brew and can connect the dots from seemingly unconnected pieces. The forest through the trees here, people! It’s not going to be enough to play the best creature(s) in your deck (I’m looking at you, Uro) but now, are you going to be able to look at the individual components and ASSEMBLE the best creature(s) possible? Do you even WANT to assemble large creatures? Are the Mutate triggers enough of a reward to give your opponent even the slightest hint of a 2-for-1, or heaven forbid, a 3- or 4-for-1?
I don’t have these answers right now, and if anyone else is telling you they do, they’re lying. Simple as that! It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a mechanic like this where an ‘all-in/glass cannon’ strategy could lead to big rewards or big defeat! This isn’t to imply that the biggest, most durdly creature is all you need to achieve victory, but rather, for those people able to navigate this landscape and really dive into the card pool and find those hidden interactions, they will be the ones reaping the biggest rewards.
There’s a lot to take away from Ikoria, and that’s in no small part due to the community receiving TWO sets worth of spoilers. The set doesn’t feel like a dilution or dumbing down of MTG to appeal to a larger audience - I believe that it operates very precisely but appeals to people very broadly. The mechanics unveiled in this set are by no means ground breaking, and certainly could have been introduced somewhere earlier in Magic’s history.
The sets that have come before and the sets that are on the horizon provide a fantastic confluence of events to help mechanics like this shine - largely intuitive, but having deep implications for deckbuilding and variations within gameplay. Magic isn’t going anywhere, and this set is further evidence that WotC is finally becoming comfortable in it’s role to provide something that CAN be something to everyone, but doesn’t NEED to be. You can collect your flashy foils; you can build your deck to be all in on Snapdax (see: https://www.echomtg.com/card/117400/snapdax-apex-of-the-hunt/). WotC is asking YOU to be the one who evolves and mutates to rise to this new challenge - the question is, do you accept?