Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths Set Review

Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths Set Review

For the last two years I’ve been reviewing the new Magic sets, and discussing all the new cards I love or that are feature novel designs. Normally I ignore cards I don’t like. Ikoria is a divisive set with many strengths but some big flaws. I’m happy for Magic to take risks and push boundaries but I have had to change my normal review formula to discuss both sides of Ikoria.

I’ve divided the cards into ‘Hits’ and ‘Misses’ so I can still rave about the exciting cards, whilst taking an honest and frank look at Ikoria’s problems.

Hits

Ruinous Ultimatum

After over a decade, the ultimatum cycle is complete. Ultimatums were introduced in Shards of Alara and they are all epic spells to cast. They all cost seven mana, but usually give you an effect that’s worth more than seven mana. The catch is that these are easily some of the most colour intensive spells in the game, requiring you to commit to all three colours and find the perfect mix of lands to cast them. It’s very unlikely you will cast them on turn seven, but they are so powerful that if you fall behind trying to cast them, once you resolve an ultimatum, you should win. Some players are completionists who want every cycle to be finished, and I usually disagree, but I’m delighted the ultimatum cycle is being rounded out to ten cards.

The original cycle were all powerful cards but some were more exciting than others. Cruel Ultimatum and Titanic Ultimatum were overwhelming whilst Violent Ultimatum had cool art but was a little underwheling for the work needed to cast it. A similar story holds true in Ikoria. Inspired Ultimatum doesn’t feel very inspired as a simple combination of red, white and blue abilities. On the other hand Ruinous Ultimatum is a clean, simple and back-breaking effect. Casting this is a challenge, but it will be so memorable when you do. Commander is traditionally a slower format with multiple opponents, so this becomes even better. Eerie Ultimatum is my other favourite ultimatum. These are the three colours I associate with the graveyard, so unlike Inspired Ultimatum, this is a natural combination of the strengths of these three colours.

Aegis Turtle

The power level of Ikoria has been widely discussed. Companion is so game-breaking, it may be one of the most powerful mechanics ever released. Such high profile cases have ensured that cards like Aegis Turtle have gone unnoticed. This humble turtle is the first one mana creature in the game with five toughness to not have any drawback or additional cost. Another hidden gem is Thwart the enemy. Cards like Fog are a classic effect that is usually unplayable in most decks. We have seen cards such as Vine Snare and Hindervines offer the potential for one sided fog effects before, but they always required players to work hard to get any advantage from them. This effect is now available with out any of the restrictions of the older cards.

It’s also good to see lesser creature types get some love. Helica Glider sees the long-awaited return of squirrels to standard legal sets and a wide menagerie of fun creatures such as Excavation Mole, Spelleater Wolverine, Gloom Pangolin and Flourishing Fox. Special mention must go to the otters, a cute new creature type introduced in Ikoria. Lutri, the Spellchaser in particular has the unique honour of being banned in Commander immediately after being revealed.

Drannith Magistrate

It’s quite common for Wizards to print safety valves for powerful mechanics. They are often awkwardly worded cards like Ash Zealot but Drannith Magistrate has a simple line of text that simultaneously attacks three of the most powerful mechanics printed recently. Companion, Adventure and Escape all use other zones in a way blocked by the magistrate.

Even more dramatic is the effect in the commander format. I can see this card enfuriating players whose deck depends on their commander. At least its modest body means it that it can be killed easily. In Brawl however this card just got banned. When you don’t have other opponents to help kill the Magistrate, being locked out of the game will be more common. Since Brawl is intended to be a more casual format, I think this ban was the right choice.

Reptilian Reflection

Cycling is an eternally popular mechanic that has appeared in sets more often than any other non-evergreen mechanic. Great cycling cards have been printed in all the colours, but not every colour has had cycling payoffs. In Ikoria, Red gets cycling payoffs for the first time and they are pushed for constructed play. Yidaro, Wandering Monster is a unique legendary that is actually better in multiples. Prickly Marmoset gets scary fast and Unpredictable Cyclone is a very fun reward for cycling.

However Reptilian Reflection is my favourite red cycling card because of its unique art. The design is fairly novel for a set mechanic payoff (although Riddleform was similar) and the unusual perspective in the art makes this new card really stand out.

On the subject of unusual art, I must again rave about Seb McKinnon’s art in a set review. The Mythos cycle all have fantastic art in the style of cave paintings. Mythos of Snapdax and Mythos of Nethroi are my favourite pieces of art in the cycle. The only flaw in this cycle are some awkward wordings such as on Mythos of Nethroi, but I’ll talk more about that in the misses section.

Farfinder

While green normally gets ramp and fixing in every set, green and colourless get plenty of both in Ikoria. My favourite is Farfinder, a cute little fox that fits into many different game plans. If you open Genesis Ultimatum, the fox helps you with the otherwise challenging mana cost. Being a disposable body is a benefit for mutate decks or sacrafice decks and even vigilance tribal is supported in this format. It’s hard to imagine many draft archetypes that won’t appreciate this humble fox. In this way it reminds me of Skittering Surveyor in Dominaria, which synergised with historic, the biggest theme of the set. Like Farfinder, you want this card anyway to help your deck function, so any additional syngery support you get is essentially free.

Perhaps the deck that wants Farfinder the most is the vigilance matters deck. Vigilance has been in the game from the very beginning, even if it didn’t originally appear as a keyword. It has however never been an exciting mechanic that players build around. In Ikoria Draft vigilance tribal is the easiest ally colour pair archetype to build. You can stick Solid Footing on a Maned Serval and smash your opponent whilst Alert Heedbonder gains you huge amounts of life. Enemy colour pairs and three colour decks are the focus of the set, but it’s good that Ikoria has alternative strategies to try for players who draft the format many times.

Dranith Stinger

Ikoria is an innovative set, but perhaps the biggest novelty in the limited format is the appearance of cards with cycling costs of one colourless mana. Cycling has been a draft archetype before, but cycling has always required two mana or one coloured mana. Ash Barrens was the only card that could be cycled for one mana. Ikoria brings nine more cards that can do this and it warps the draft environment. If these cards aren’t picked highly by all players, the cycling deck becomes turbo-charged, able to cycle many times a turn and run a very low land count. These low cycling costs enable one of the best draft decks of all time and a great budget option in standard.

Dranith Stinger is my favourite of the one mana cyclers and it has even shown up in a frightening pauper storm deck. Able to do huge chunks of damage, I’m surprised this isn’t an uncommon. Two mana 2/2s are often considered the bread and butter of limited, but they are weak cards if drawn late, so cycling is one of the best ways Wizards has ever upgraded a two mana 2/2. You could remove either line of text on this card and cycling decks would be excited to play it. I think Ikoria would be better if one mana cycling cards weren’t quite so common, as it creates such a polarising experience in draft. The best one mana cyclers have become cool format-defining cards but less interesting cards like Footfall Crater just exist to power-up a deck that already dominates draft.

Dreamtail Heron

Ikoria has been used by design as an experiment to see how complicated a standard set can be. A big part of this is the mutate mechanic, one of the most complicated mechanics Wizards has ever made. It’s exciting, new and full of flavour, but it does have issues, so I’m giving it a hit and a miss.

First, the successes. Like the host-augment mechanic in Unstable, it’s a lot of fun combining creatures in different ways. You can create new and wacky combinations in every game. While equipment and auras have long existed, mutate is a much more fun way to do this. The mutate cards can also appear as alternate art cards that look amazing. I have wanted Magic to be more experimental with its art style for a long time, and I’m glad these are available in ordinary booster packs. We saw anime planeswalkers last year, and I was disappointed these only appeared in Japanese booster packs so I hope future experiments will be as obtainable as the comic book arts in Ikoria.

Ram Through

Of all the new things in Ikoria, the one that’s most likely to appear in future sets is the phrase ‘excess damage’. Abilities like lifelink and deathtouch can appear on spells and many players have asked for trample on spells. Because trample is a combat ability, it doesn’t work on spells according to the rules. The idea is so easy to understand that trample appeared on the silver bordered card Super-Duper Death Ray. But now in Ikoria, the new concept of ‘excess damage’ means Super-Duper Death Ray can be functionally reprinted as Flame Spill.

Ram through is the only other card that uses excess damage, and it’s fantastic. Rabid Bite at instant speed would be one of the best ever green removal spells without the the extra text. Together with Proud Wildbonder and the crazy Quartzwood Crasher, you can now build a trample deck. I wish all the keyword archetypes were as well supported as vigilance which seems to be easier to assemble in draft. The flash archetype as well looks really fun, but i very dependant on one rare and one uncommon.

Finally I must mention the art. Instants and sorceries represent actions, so the art usually shows an action taking place. This can be hard to do in a static image, but Ram Through’s art does not feel static at all. We can see the wall exploding in front of our eyes.

Misses

Forbidden Friendship

This card should be in the hits category. It does a lot of interesting things. Humans and monsters working together is a theme of the set, and this card expresses it very clearly. The same artist painted Capture Sphere and Cathartic Reunion to form a mini-story on the commons. It even has benefits for cube where redunancy of effects matters. There are surprisingly few variants of the classic Dragon Fodder card. If creature types don’t matter this is even a strict upgrade, although goblin tribal is very common in cube.

Unfortunately the card is ruined by the art. The dinosaur is fine, but the human looks so flat. Painted side on he looks two dimensional, and his pale skin stands out with limited shading again enhancing the two dimensional effect. I find this art very jarring. I may not like every piece of Magic art, but I’m shocked at how badly painted this human is. This is one of the worst pieces of Magic art in years.

The art in Ikoria has been praised by many people, but I feel that the art is very inconsistent. I’ve already highlighted some good pieces, but Forbidden Friendship is not alone in disappointing me. The fox’s head on Spontaneous Flight just stands out like a sore thumb as does the elonganted body of Pouncing Shoreshark. It’s a shame when otherwise good cards are let down by awkward art.

Shark Typhoon

In my most recent set review I said that I liked it when Magic doesn’t take itself too seriously. If cards like Shark Typhoon are the result I might take that back. This card just forces a stupid meme down your throat and the card is so powerful you can’t ignore it. Another card Keensight Mentor also has its art ruined by a meme. I think jokes should add an extra layer to a card but not be the reason for its existence.

Another reason I dislike the card is the power level of the cycling trigger. Cycling cards may have a low cost to include in your deck, but spending mana to only draw a card is a real cost that leads to interesting decisions. But with powerful cycling triggers you can have your cake and eat it. There is no risk and this card will always perform. It would be almost as strong if only the cycling mode existed, which makes a mockery of the cycling mechanic.

Mystic Subdual

I don’t think I’ve ever focused on reminder text in a set review before. Mystic Subdual highlights how confusing the mechanics of the set can get. “It can gain abilities in other ways” must be the most ambiguous reminder text of all time. Of course mutate does weird things, but I thought keyword counters would be simple and straightforward because they were just like +1/+1 counters. I believe Mystic Subdual will nullify keyword counters already on the creature, but not those put on after. I don’t know how often this will come up, but if it does it will get confusing.

Splendor Mare

Crazy creature type pairings are nothing new. The Simic guild on Ravnica have been making creatures like Galloping Lizrog and Sharktocrab for a long time. These combinations were fun and fantastical, and on Ikoria every colour gets these weird creatures. The cycle of common creatures that includes Ferocious Tigorilla and Flycatcher Giraffid highlight this. They are all fine common creatures that add more support for the keyword tribal themes.

I’m happy to imagine most of the strange beasts on Ikoria could exist, but a couple are so illogical it makes it harder to suspend your disbelief. Avian Oddity is just a pile of feathers and wings that clearly can’t fly or grant flying to other creaatures. I would love Splendor Mare if it was an elk or a unicorn but not both. These creatures have really distinctive silhouettes but when you combine the two, it becomes a generic mass of horns, that doesn’t represent an elk or a unicorn.

Lurrus of the Dream-Den

Companion is one of the most controversial mechanics of all time and Lurrus is the most controversial of all the companions. Because they are always in your starting hand, this is the most consistent and repetitive mechanic ever made. Consistency is extremely powerful, but I’m sure most will get frustrated by their repetitive nature. This makes it hard to design good companions. Even a bad card would be good if it had companion added to it. This mechanic only works on bad cards, which means it either fails to excite, or developers make cards like Lurrus that will domnate formats. Part of the appeal of Magic is that you can play the same deck many times and have different experiences each time. In fact having to adapt to the cards you draw is a big part of how Magic challenges you. Making Magic more repetitive is a dangerous road to go down.

There are good elements to companions. Humans and monsters working together is a theme of the set which the mechanic really captures. It also encourages unusual deck building strategies. Building around Keruga, the Macrosage or Obosh, the Preypiercer is a really fun challenge in draft. However I think some of the restrictions are too lenient. Lurrus of the Dream-Den for example ignores instants and sorceries in your deck, Others are boring. Those interested in tribal decks didn’t need Kaheera, the Orphanguard to exist.

Snapdax, Apex of the Hunt

Mutate is exciting but it comes with a lot of baggage and issues. At first it sounds simple, a mutated creature is treated as one creature until it leaves the battlefield. This creates ugly rules implications like counting as multiple creatures for death triggers such as Bastion of Remembrance. I’m surprised they included this card in the same set as mutate. Another weird feature of mutate is that if the target creature is killed while the mutate card is on the stack, the mutate card will instead come into play as a creature. This greatly improves the mechanic, replacing a traditional weakness of auras. However this is never explained on the cards, which is strange and unnatural since it’s a very important interaction.

Visually, mutate also causes problems. In online play it can be hard to track what abilities a creature has, and in paper the mutate frame uses an ugly split text box and large amounts of reminder text, which even appears on the mythic rares. Both of these problems are at least fixed on the alternate art cards. A further graphical design issue on the mythic mutate creatures is the mixture of mana symbols of different sizes. Most will think I’m nitpicking, but I find the combined effect ugly.

Competitive players may not care what the cards look like, but I find it frustrating when the mythic cycle is so messy to look at. The apexes should be the most exciting cards in the set, and they are underwhelming. Even the art and abilities are generic. Brokkos, Apex of Forever has by far the best art, but a rather bland ability. I chose Snapdax for this slot because the art and ability are the most generic of all five apexes.

Crystalline Giant

I’ve complained about some of the art in this set, but there are some ugly and inelegant textboxes in this set as well. The idea of Crystalline Giant is simply that it acquires a new ability every turn. Unfortunately this leads to a huge amount of text on the card, and it doesn’t flow very well. This card will go in my mono-red chaos and randomness deck, but I won’t enjoy looking at the block of text on it. Good gameplay is more important than an elegant design, but I am disappointed with this awkward design.

The Crystalline Giant isn’t the only offender for crude text boxes. I’ve already mentioned the awkward text on the Mythos cycle. For example Mythos of Nethroi will let you target a permanent you can’t destroy if you don’t use all three different colours. Call of the Death-Dweller also has awkward text to give its caster maximum flexibility. I think it would be a much more unique design if it required you to reanimate two targets and give both of them a counter. This would lower the power level, but give it a real identity and cut back on the bloated text box.

Swallow Whole

A flavour fail is when the behaviour of a card in game doesn’t match the name or art on the card. They are so disappointing because the art and flavour draw so many people in to the game. Swallow Whole is a long and complicated card, but the idea of a tiny creature swallowing a giant monster whole is just awkward. This could be a green spell that depends on controlling a larger creature instead it has lots of other conditions.

Speaking of large creatures, Ikoria was marketed as Lair of the Behemoths, but it doesn’t have that many giant creatures. Ikoria is more about combining mutate creatures and keyword counters to build a monster. There are more big creatures than a normal set, but compared to a set like Rise of Eldrazi there are few enormous creatures. We did get a reanimation sub-theme in green-black, but it is overshadowed by the various ways you can customise your monsters. I never had the chance to play Rise of the Eldrazi, so it would’ve been awesome to get another limited environment where we could play giant monsters in a fair way.

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