Core Set 2021 Mini Set Review

Core Set 2021 Mini Set Review

Summer time means it’s time for another core set and another set review. After the craziness of Ikoria, it’s refreshing to have a much simpler and more traditional magic experience. But that doesn’t mean the power level has to suffer. There are some great new cards in Core Set 2021.

Cards like Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, Grim Tutor and Azusa, Lost but Seeking are exciting reprints, but like all my set reviews I only review new cards. Since there are so many reprints, my core set reviews are smaller than my reviews for other sets.

As always I’m interested in fun cards, unique designs or cool stories. This isn’t a list of the most powerful cards in the set.

Top Rares and Mythics

Pack Leader

Teferi may be on the packaging, but for many people this set is the dog set. Dogs have appeared through out magic history, but were given the hound creature type to make them sound cooler in a fantasy setting. The runaway success of cats in magic over the last few years has shown that it’s time for dogs to get a turn in the spotlight.

Dogs have historically been underwhelming. Wild Mongrel and Isamaru, Hound of Konda are probably the only stand-out dogs. It’s going to going to take time before we have loads of great dogs, but this set is a good start. Pack Leader is a fantastic reason to build a deck around dogs. Two mana lords are always powerful, and making your dogs into indestructible attackers is even better.

Selfless Savior also deserves a mention for being the perfect balance between adorable and powerful. Removal can be really powerful against tribal decks. When your Pack Leader gets killed for example it really hurts your game-plan. Selfless Savior is able to protect your best creature, even when you are tapped out. What more could you ask for from man’s best friend?

Mangara, the Diplomat

Let’s talk about white. Much maligned in commander for its inability to ramp and draw cards, white is weakened in multiplayer formats by its strong sense of fairness, which is calibrated for two player formats. What makes Mangara interesting is that he represents an important philosophical change for the colour. White is the colour of laws and taxes, and cards like Eidolon of Rhetoric and Spirit of the Labyrinth are firmly in white’s territory. Mangara shows that these abilities can be adapted to give white impressive draw power. In a multiplayer game, it’s unlikely that you aren’t able to draw cards from this.

Unlike other colours this does leave white’s card draw at the mercy of other players. But you can build around Mangara in interesting ways. The monarch mechanic as seen on Palace Sentinels can be used to incentivise players to attack you which could be a fun political commander deck. Trove of Temptation also seems like another good way to get lots of cards, if you are able to defend yourself well enough.

Nine Lives

Core sets lack the setting and lore of other sets. The cards can’t build upon one of Magic’s many worlds so the cards must be based on things the audience already knows. Classic examples are traditional fantasy races and tropes like dragons, goblins and magic swords. Some of the most resonant ideas however are those from pop culture. Nine Lives is a fantastic example, which transforms you into a cat blessed with eight chances to cheat death. Similar effects like Lich and Lich’s Mastery are traditionally in black, so it’s good see a version that fits in another colour.

Malefic Scythe is another flavour home run. A haunted weapon lusting for blood that grows stronger each time it’s wielder dies. I’m sure five years ago this wouldn’t have come with a soul counter, so you had to work hard to get a great card. In 2020 cards are now much more self-contained and less likely to fail.

Terror of the Peaks

Core sets are often home to big iconic creatures like the reprinted Baneslayer Angel and new dragon Terror of the Peaks. The dragon in the art looks very intimidating and the abilities in the text box are going to hurt your opponent. Even if they have a removal spell, the dragon will make them pay a good chunk of life. If they don’t, the last ability will take far more life. At only five mana this dragon is very scary.

There are two other nice dragons in the set. Hellkite Punisher has fantastic art and Gadrak, the Crown-Scourge is just what dragon tribal decks need. Cheap dragons are few and far between and you can’t fill your deck with nothing but expensive dragons. It can also make treasure to help cast those expensive dragons.

Dragons are well represented, but one criticism of this set I have is that there aren’t enough other iconic creatures. Baneslayer Angel is the only angel, Goremand is the only demon, Wildwood Scourge is the only hydra and Riddleform is the closest we get to a sphinx. I wish there were more because core sets are the perfect place to showcase the best creatures in each colour.

Teferi, Master of Time

Teferi, Master of Time is the face of the set and home to perhaps the most surprising ability of the year. Static abilities on planeswalkers are no longer a huge shock, but the really surprising thing is that phasing is back, sort of. While the original version of phasing is still too complicated to include in standard sets, phases out is making a return. It even appears on the version of Teferi in the planeswalker deck designed for beginners, which I find incredible. The idea is that effects that trigger when creatures enter or leave the battlefield have become so powerful that bouncing and blinking opposing creatures can be detrimental. Wizards have openly said that this is an experiment so I’m interested to see where this leads.

Teferi looks particularly good in Commander where planeswalkers are traditionally much weaker. The more players there are in a game, the longer the gaps between your turns become so planeswalkers get relatively few activations. Teferi doesn’t care whose turn it is, so he can ultimate very quickly. I like that the first two abilities don’t offer raw card advantage, so that it isn’t oppressive when used many times. Each of the five colours get a rare, uncommon and common to match the planeswalker. The most exciting of these is Teferi with Teferi’s Tutelage or Teferi’s Ageless Insight. Ticking him up every turn with one of these on the battlefield is a game-winning combination.

One issue with this set is the Teferi marketing. Teferi just doesn’t stand out from any of the other planeswalkers. M19 had a Bolas theme, and gave us Nicol Bolas, the Ravager, who definitely stood out from the rest of the set for being the only flip-walker. It also came with some of the best fiction Magic has ever seen and a cycle of elder dragons. Chandra was the star of the show last year, and having an uncommon and rare planeswalker in addition to the mythic meant the Chandra theme was more visible even to casual players who buy fewer packs.

Subira, Tulzidi Caravanner

The legendary creatures in this set add to the Teferi theme. I like that they aren’t just pushed cards designed to shake up overpowered commander playgroups but still make for interesting commanders. Subira for example can be built around in many different ways. For example you can turn discarding your hand into an advantage, or fill your deck with creatures with low power. Unlike some legendary creatures, this design offers plenty of different ways to build a commander deck. I think the commander format is at its best when people are able to personalise their deck and aren’t forced to run the same cards as everyone else.

Barrin, Tolarian Archmage is another interesting legend. Despite being a very important character, he hasn’t appeared on a card since Urza’s Saga. The new Barrin is a powered up version of draft all-star Man-o’-war with several interesting new abilities. Firstly, by targeting planeswalkers you might be able to recharge your planeswalkers or reset opposing planeswalkers about to ultimate. Secondly he incentivises something few other cards do, returning cards to your hand. Finding the best way to maximise bouncing your own creatures instead of your opponent’s will be an interesting puzzle.

Top Commons and Uncommons

Eliminate

Every deck in every format needs access to removal and the most powerful removal spells are often the simplest. This makes them ideal for core set’s simpler designs. Eliminate is exciting for all formats, especially older formats where cheap creatures are often pillars of the format.

White also gets to enjoy new toys. Swift Response is a big upgrade from previous versions by being both cheaper and at instant speed. Swift Reckoning was the only previous version that could ever be cast at instant speed. Angelic Ascension is also a powerful new removal spell, but you will often prefer to use it on your own creatures. It’s a really interesting take on classic spells like Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exile that always give your opponent compensation for killing their creature so efficiently. Secure the Scene is another new example of this at common.

Mistral Singer

New cards don’t have to do crazy new things. Some of the best are those that feel like they have always existed. Wind Drake is a classic limited staple, but the gradual raising of power levels means we are seeing more and more powerful versions of wind drake. We get commons like Trusted Pegasus and Vexing Gull in every set now. Mistral Charger is a classic simple design, mixing two of blue’s most iconic abilities and the art is fantastic. Everything about this card reminds me of classic core sets of years gone by.

Other classic effects have also been updated to cheaper or easier mana costs. Rush of Blood was fun but without trample this effect is mediocre. At a mana cheaper Unleash Fury is much better. It’s still situational and vulnerable to removal, but especially in multiples this could do crazy things in casual games. Village Rites also supplants Altar’s Reap which was already a great reason to build a sacrifice deck.

Basri’s Solidarity is another card I must mention. This effect has only appeared on complicated rares like Ajani Goldmane, or four mana commons like Silverflame Ritual. It now appears for the first time as a simple, mana efficient and elegant card. I wish its name was more neutral so that it could appear in more sets going forward.

Sanctum of Fruitful Harvest

Kamigawa block is infamous for being an unpopular set but a small group of players dream of the day we will return. I’m happy with the current approach of taking only the best elements of Kamigawa and using them in other sets. We saw ninjas in Modern Horizons and now shrines are back. Shrines all get better when played with other shrines, so now we have eleven shrines these are a really exciting challenge for casual magic players.

The first rare shrine, Sanctum of All, has drawn a lot of attention. Being a Panharmonicon for shrines, and tutoring for shrines, makes this incredible for a shrines deck, but the mana cost is a really challenge. If you have six shrines on the battlefield, you should already be winning so I think the shrines that enable a shrine decks are the most important. Sanctum of Calm Waters and Sanctum of Shattered Heights help you discard useless duplicates of shrines you can’t play because of the legendary rule. However the most useful shrine, and the one with my favourite art is Sanctum of Fruitful Harvest. Given the price of good multi-colour lands in Magic, casual deck builders will struggle with building a five colour deck. This sanctum makes it much easier to play a shrine on your next turn, and getting a second shrine into play is when the fun starts.

I rarely mention flavour text in my set reviews, but I must mention the haikus found on the uncommon shrines. I love how this adds more of a Japanese feeling to the cycle, connecting to the inspiration and source material for Kamigawa.

Carrion Grub

Changing hounds into dogs is not the only long over due change to magic. This set sees the word mill become an official part of the rules, having been slang since Antiquities. Mill effects probably appear in every set and the strategy is beloved by casual players. The term mill has spread widely to other trading card games, but Magic resisted turning it into a keyword because the word was flavourless. Designers searched for a more fitting word, but anything that fits the flavour could be confused with discard effects. After a long wait the designers have relented and mill is now official.

Carrion Grub is part of my favourite draft archetype in the set, blue-black reanimator. Reanimator decks need three things to be successful, large creatures, ways to get them into the graveyard, and ways to put them onto the battlefield from the graveyard. Assembling the correct mix in limited can be really difficult. The grub puts four cards in your graveyard, which really helps. It also becomes a big threat when you do mill a big creature, but can’t reanimate it because you haven’t drawn a card like Rise Again. Having a back up plan built into your reanimate deck like this is really powerful.

I love Obsessive Stitcher for the same reason. It provides two of the three things you need to play reanimator. The dream curve in limited is to use the ability of Waker of Waves on turn two so on the next two turns you can cast and sacrifice the stitcher to get Waker of Waves into play on turn four!

Indulging Patrician

I always save a slot in my reviews to talk about the art. A trend that I’m extremely happy about is the greater freedom given to artists. This set has fantastic art on cards like Sublime Epiphany and Finishing Blow. You only have to go back a few years to the Ixalan block to see how sets would be extremely conservative and a uniform art style was dominant. Other cards on this list like Nine Lives and Mistral Singer also have fantastic art.

I chose Indulging Patrician however because of how shocked I was at the colour scheme. The most conservative aspect of magic’s art is the use of colour. There is a deliberate effort to ensure you can tell the colour of a card by only looking at the art. Indulging Patrician’s art is saturated with a bright red/pink colour and Normally only a red card would use this colour palette. If artists are being liberated from this most stringent of art directions, this could open the door to even more incredible art.

Drowsing Tyrannodon

In every draft format, there are always cards that exceed everyone’s expectations. At first glance Drowsing Tyrannodon looks like a card you would only want in the red-green four power archetype. However, instead of relying on other big creatures, you should find ways to raise the sleepy dino’s power by one. This could be +1/+1 counters, auras, equipment or even combat tricks, all of which are all relevant in a format dominated by small creatures. It’s also a rare two mana dinosaur which is perfect for themed decks.

Some other stars of limited include Basri’s Acolyte which can turn rubbish creatures into an army and Llanowar Visionary which is incredible value. Perhaps my favourite common to draft around is Goblin Wizardry. The combination of Wizardry, Crash Through and Burn Bright is really powerful, especially relative to the power of the individual cards.

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