Comparing Guilds of Ravnica, Ravnica Allegiance and War of the Spark to the Return to Ravnica block makes a lot of sense. Guilds of Ravnica and Ravnica Allegiance even follow the same five-guild-per-set structure that Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash do, while War of the Spark and Dragon's Maze implicitly reinforce the identities of each guild. Storywise, however, Guilds of Ravnica "block" (it's not really a block, but come on—it's a block) bears a much closer resemblance to Invasion block.
Invasion, Planeshift and Apocalypse are the culmination of a story that began during the Brothers' War that served as the backdrop for Antiquities. Starting with Weatherlight straight through Apocalypse, the storyline for every non-core set centered around a core cast of characters and how they navigated the impending Phyrexian menace that was finally realized during Invasion. The sets told the story in non-chronological order (Tarantino's influence on the '90s can't be overstated), but once we got to Invasion, the story simplified: Invasion set the tone, Planeshift ratcheted up the drama, and Apocalypse drew the Weatherlight Saga—and all of Urza's baggage—to a close.
(Dominaria itself would continue to suffer Urza's machinations right up until The Mending, but things are cool now.)
Similarly, Guilds of Ravnica "block" ends with War of the Spark and the defeat of Nicol Bolas, wrapping up the Gatewatch saga that began in Battle for Zendikar. Initially formed to keep Eldrazi under control, the Gatewatch—a collection of Planeswalkers united toward a common goal, whatever it happened to be—set their sights on defeating Nicol Bolas, depicted here:
A worthy adversary.
In the time elapsed since Legends, Nicol Bolas became annoyingly Yawgmoth-like, manipulating people and gathering armies and amassing influence because he was the youngest and smallest of all his dragon siblings. I am not making that up; Nicol Bolas is literally Napoleon.
As the story goes, all the Planeswalkers are lured to Ravnica to fight Nicol Bolas. To commemorate all the Planeswalkers in one place, War of the Spark introduced uncommon and rare planeswalkers and guaranteed a planeswalker in each booster pack. (They also made alternate-art Japanese versions of each War of the Spark planeswalker—their prices won't be represented in any of the graphs here.) To support that initiative, War of the Spark contains 36 planeswalkers.
The amount of planeswalkers in all of the Pioneer-legal sets up to and including War of the Spark. The red line indicates the formation of the Play Design Team at WotC. I didn't include planeswalkers from the preconstructed decks because they're dumb.
Neat! Before War of the Spark, Pioneer sets averaged 2.962 planeswalkers per set. If you take the average without Core Sets, which you should because they're always symmetrical across colors, that average falls to 2.318 planeswalkers per set. What this means is that War of the Spark was uncharted territory for Magic's intrepid R&D department. Oh, and did I mention that all the planeswalkers in War of the Spark have static abilities, so they behave like enchantments in addition to whatever their loyalty abilities do?
As we'll get into, War of the Spark is a messed-up set. It's really dumb. All you need to know right now, though, is that War of the Spark is the final punctuation mark on a four-year story that, much like the Weatherlight Saga, overstayed its welcome by about 6-10 sets.
In yesterday's countdown of the Top 10 Ravnica Allegiance cards sold this year, I commented on how the playability of the card doesn't influence sales as much as the opportunity cost of buying it does. War of the Spark is the exception to this rule (so is Throne of Eldraine—spoiler alert), an incredibly pushed set with broken cards abound. With one exception, every Top 10 selling War of the Spark card is some bonkers card that saw serious play in at least one competitive format.
My first exposure to Bolas's Citadel was watching a coworker in the thick of the 2-3 bracket at a Connecticut PTQ get crushed by a brew featuring Bolas's Citadel alongside Path of Discovery, Merfolk Branchwalker, Seekers' Squire, Jadelight Ranger, Wayward Swordtooth to get excess lands off the top of his library, and Wildgrowth Walker to keep Bolas's Citadel functional. I forget what his win condition was, but my coworker was playing mono-red, so once his opponent "went off" with Bolas's Citadel, Path of Discovery, and a couple copies of Wildgrowth Walker, the game was a foregone conclusion. These days, Bolas's Citadel sees the most play in Vintage Paradoxical Outcome decks as a Tinker target that allows its controller to still win through an opposing Narset, Parter of Veils.
Orange bars represent quantity sold, blue line represents the average price the card sold at.
The first Bolas's Citadel sold for about $15 the day the card was previewed but quickly settled to the $2 mark. Because War of the Spark has so many powerful rares, the collective prices of rares in the set gets suppressed. Even though Bolas's Citadel is one of the most powerful cards printed in 2019 (The Year of the Banger™️), it remains <$2.
Another thing about Bolas's Citadel: the average amount of Bolas's Citadels sold per order never went above eight, and averages out at a little less than two per order. No one was speculating on Bolas's Citadel—it's just really, really, good.
They don't really print good one-mana spells anymore. The best we get is Opt or Shock, and that's probably for the best. However, Legacy is full of really, really good stuff to cast with Dreadhorde Arcanist, as well as plenty of free countermagic to protect it and ensure you get your value.
Bryan Gottlieb and I have battled in a lot of PTQs in the northeast together (the ones held at venues with bars next door are harder to recall). Something I put together about Bryan and how he constructs decks and selects archetypes, both from watching him play and listening to his excellent podcast, is that he tends to play unfair in contexts where the preconceived notion is that the format is fair and vice versa (Bryan cashed the Treasure Cruise + Dig Through Time Legacy Grand Prix with Jund, a fact that rattles me to my core to this very day). This is not to discount his thorough fundamental understanding of what makes a good deck or his innate ability to recall the exact obscure Future Sight card that breaks a newly-spoiled card in half—the fair/unfair thing is just something I've observed.
Legacy is typically considered unfair, but with his version of Izzet Delver, Bryan plays a fair game as unfairly as possible, giving himself rebuys on busted cards like Ponder, Preordain, Brainstorm and Lightning Bolt while also maxing out on Force of Will and Daze in recognition that protecting a Dreadhorde Arcanist is perhaps a more efficient way to notch a win than using the free countermagic to disrupt an opponent. This all seems obvious in hindsight, but hindsight's 20/20.
It's hard to see, but the thin red line on the graph marks the day Bryan made top four with the decklist embedded above.
From the time of Bryan's Top 4 finish to its price spike peak in Mid-July, the average amount of Dreadhorde Arcanist purchased at a time was about three. This is unsurprising—it's generally bad business for speculators to buy into price spikes—but what is remarkable is that sales stayed pretty steady right up until the price's peak, at which point demand plummeted and the price corrected. But yeah, if you're wondering who to blame for Dreadhorde Arcanist's price spike in July, you're looking for Bryan Gottlieb. I won't post his Twitter here, but he's not hard to find. If you're building a deck that feels like it's one Morningtide card away from being amazing, he's a good guy to know.
Putting 36 planeswalkers in a set when you averaged three planeswalkers per set before that is pretty audacious—there were plenty of Planeswalker disasters before then, and they weren't even designing 36 of them simultaneously—but when you factor in adding static abilities to them, audacity becomes downright lunacy. Given the parameters of the planeswalkers in the set and how relatively few reps R&D got in designing them before 2019, the War of the Spark experiment was destined for failure.
Nissa, Who Shakes the World is the least offensive of the four planeswalkers that made this list, and it was the eighth most-played card at Mythic Championship VI. To put that into perspective, more copies of Nissa, Who Shakes the World were registered at Mythic Championship VI than copies of Plains, Island, Swamp and Mountain.
The red bar corresponds to the day Field of the Dead was banned in Standard.
The design of Nissa, Who Shakes the World is inoffensive. It's a midrange green card that costs five and allows for some pretty explosive turns starting the turn after it's cast. It was effectively kept in check by Field of the Dead, but once Field of the Dead got banned, it was immediately clear that Simic decks were the way to go, and the dream draw of all the Simic decks in the field was to cast a turn-three Nissa, Who Shakes the World.
Earlier I mentioned that since War of the Spark has so many good rares, all the rares in the set are relatively cheap compared to what they'd typically cost in a set that isn't so dense with high-quality rares. Teferi, Time Raveler is the exception to that rule.
That's a pretty high average sold price.
At the time of publication, Teferi, Time Raveler is the most expensive card in War of the Spark. It costs more than any mythic in the set.
In the Ravnica Allegiance Top 10 I discussed how the biggest driver of card sales is opportunity cost. That wasn't all the way accurate. The driver of card sales is the end result of a mostly-opaque algebraic formula where opportunity cost, potential future value, present value, and card quality are all factors. I still firmly believe that opportunity cost is the biggest motivator in sales though, so the fact that the most expensive card in the set is the seventh best-selling card therein is pretty incredible. Really, it's just a testament to what a bonkers idea War of the Spark was. Teferi, Time Raveler's static ability—lifted straight from Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir —is bonkers enough, but his abilities are absurdly good too. All for three mana.
The military-grade obnoxiousness of Oko, Thief of Crowns has thrown this into sharper relief, but War of the Spark and the two three-mana blue planeswalkers that hit this list demonstrated it first: three-mana planeswalkers are really messed up and you have to be careful with them. The most concerning thing about War of the Spark, Modern Horizons and Throne of Eldraine is the marked absence of care, of subtlety, of nuance. Like, come on—did they play with Teferi, Time Raveler at all? What was going on in the FFL that allowed that static ability for that mana with those two abilities stapled to that starting loyalty to happen?
A card as immediately ubiquitous as Teferi, Time Raveler was intentional. Cards as expensive as Teferi, Time Raveler that also sell easily are good for LGSs, but it's hard to argue that the card's in-game ramifications are anywhere close to desirable. In the short term, cards like Teferi, Time Raveler are great, but they also erode consumer confidence in a way that's way harder for players who feel it to quantify.
I have a battlebox comprised of cards from only five blocks: Masques, Invasion, Mirrodin, Ravnica and Time Spiral. It is a deeply strange collection of cards. It doesn't play like typical battleboxes for the simple reason that the cards are mostly very bad. There are wild, wide discrepancies in card quality—Loxodon Gatekeeper and Cromat live alongside Saprazzan Heir and Magus of the Tabernacle. I enjoy it as a bizarre testament to how Magic design worked a long time ago, and I love springing cards like Pride of the Clouds and Fatespinner on people who have been playing Magic for less than ten years.
A hallmark of my battlebox is its dizzying display of Gray Ogres. It turns out I like a good Gray Ogre quite a bit, and Masques, Invasion and Time Spiral blocks have no shortage of them. Ana Battlemage and the Battlemages from Planeshift scale up very nicely. Flowstone Channeler is the most bizarre pinger ever and screws up combat real good. Balloon Peddler makes any big green idiot into an evasive clock. Urborg Syphon-Mage and Jaya Ballard, Task Mage are win conditions unto themselves. Suq'Ata Lancer has haste! Even the tedium of Outrider en-Kor still adds up to a fun throwback.
This is a roundabout way of saying that I'm down with Flux Channeler. It's not very good, but I get it.
I don't know what the hell it is about the static ability planeswalkers but something about the way they were engineered makes it really easy to forget their static abilities. Then again maybe I'm projecting.
Just activated a Griselbrand into my opponent's Narset, really hope they don't have Twitter— jon corpora (@feb31st) December 22, 2019
All you need to know about Narset, Parter of Veils, an uncommon from a set that came out in May, is that it is restricted in Vintage.
The red bar at the bottom represents the date that an uncommon with a converted mana of 3 needed to be restricted in Vintage.
For what it's worth, I think it's very cool and good that they restricted Deathrite Shaman, rendering Leovold, Emissary of Trest effectively useless, only to reprint an easier to cast version that also happen to be better in every way. Did I mention they had to restrict Narset, Parter of Veils in Vintage yet?
Karn, the Great Creator is also restricted in Vintage, but his restriction is more of a result of the DCI's asinine refusal to restrict Mishra's Workshop. To date, the cards that have been restricted instead of Mishra's Workshop:
Chalice of the Void
Karn, the Great Creator
Thorn of Amethyst
Lodestone Golem! Lodestone Golem, a mighty 5/3 for four, is restricted. Ridiculous.
Let's talk about Karn, the Great Creator's textbox for a minute though. Its static ability is an asymmetrical Null Rod and one of its abilities allows you to search your sideboard for an artifact. If only there was an artifact that made all permanents in play into artifacts…
This chart isn't for Karn, the Great Creator—it's for Mycosynth Lattice. You'll never guess which day Karn, the Great Creator was spoiled.
The common play pattern goes like this: play fast mana, spit out Karn, the Great Creator, and then minus it for whatever silver bullet artifact you need from Magic's deep history. Defense Grid, Ensnaring Bridge, Ratchet Bomb, Tormod's Crypt, Walking Ballista—they're all right at your fingertips. Mycosynth Lattice is just for when you have the luxury to bypass disrupting your opponent and skip straight to winning the game outright by leaving your opponent with a pile of cards that don't have text on them anymore.
There's nothing bombastic about Dovin's Veto. it's just a really good Negate.
I suppose this is as good a time as any to discuss cards that seem to never, ever leave Standard—I'm talking about Negate, Duress, Shock, Naturalize, Evolving Wilds, and some others that escape me. I don't enjoy seeing these cards set after set—it'd be nice to get some fresh ideas in there. Seeing Duress for the billionth time alongside truly broken nonsense like Teferi, Time Raveler and Bolas's Citadel gives the impression that R&D doesn't get a ton of lead time when building sets, so in the absence of the proper resources to craft a more curated play experience, we get absurdly powerful cards rubbing elbows with boring retreads.
I like Interplanar Beacon. I don't think it's too good, but it drives the principles of the set home really well. And it's even Standard-playable! I think it's nice when they take a decade-old design—in this case, Shimmering Grotto—and give it a context-conscious tweak. It's something familiar but with a slightly different texture. It's a song from a Me First and the Gimme Gimmes record.
The difference between Interplanar Beacon and Dovin's Veto is that Interplanar Beacon is a tweak on an old idea that encourages its new context, while Dovin's Veto is just a Negate that's given license to be better because it's ostensibly more difficult to cast. Granted, Negate gets marginally better in an environment full of planeswalkers, but making it uncounterable isn't giving anyone a better idea of what War of the Spark is all about.
Oh, and did I mention that that bonkers Bolas's Citadel deck from that PTQ had Command the Dreadhorde as well? That deck was sweet.
Before Magic 2020 hit, the best deck in Standard was Esper, and it played a couple copies of Command the Dreadhorde as a way to trump everything else. It turned out to be pretty effective, and as its sales indicate, it crossed over. Not only was it impressive in competitive play—it also appealed to casual players by way of the massive swings it enables.
One of the big things Invasion and a lot of the sets before it got wrong is that the story pieces—the Legacy Weapons, the Gerrard Capashens, the Coalition Victorys—were garbage. They printed these huge set pieces that new players were most likely to gravitate toward and they were total red herrings. Magic worked like this for a really long time! Even the first planeswalkers, printed in Lorwyn, were largely uncastable.
Cards like Teferi, Time Raveler And Narset, Parter of Veils are troubling, but it's unclear if their impact is more negative than the impact on new players when it finally dawns on them that every member of the Weatherlight crew is a trap—that despite their status as marquee cards in the set and its underlying storyline, that they shouldn't be played with under any circumstances. There's a lot of gray area between Tahngarth, Talruum Hero and Karn, the Great Creator in terms of their quality, but if we take them to sit at opposite ends of the same axis, then it's worth considering which subsect of player is harmed by the existence of either type of card. If a story centerpiece sucks, that's harmful for a new player. If a representation of a pivotal character breaks Modern, it really only impacts players that have already invested considerable time and money into the game.
It's clear that WotC is focused on Magic's growth. Maybe sets like War of the Spark and their ensuing calamities is what growth looks like.
Jon Corpora is in charge of content at TCGplayer. His name is pronounced "ca-pora."