Adventures in the Forgotten Realm Set Review

Adventures in the Forgotten Realm Set Review

From being set outside the Magic universe, black-border dice rolling, flavour words and venturing into dungeons, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms is breaking a lot of new ground. After nearly thirty years of Magic sets, it’s rare to have a set that does this many new things. Read on to find out what I thought worked, and what didn’t.

Like my normal set reviews, I focus on fun and original cards and dissect the designs. This is a list of my favourite cards, which isn’t necessarily the most powerful cards for constructed formats.

Top Rares and Mythics

Ellywick Tumblestrum

It makes a lot of sense to start this review by talking about dungeons. There are three dungeons in this set, but they aren’t cards you add to your deck. Instead they are tokens that just represent the game state. You can only interact with dungeons by playing cards that venture into the dungeon. The first time you do this, you choose a dungeon, enter its first room and resolve the effects it grants you. That first room just gives a small bonus, but each subsequent time you venture, you continue further into the dungeon earning bigger and bigger rewards.

These increasing and varied rewards make Ellywick an interesting planeswalker. Sometimes the best thing to do with a planeswalker is to just repeat the same ability over and over to gain loyalty. With 21 different rooms across three dungeons, Ellywick has one of the least repetitive abilities ever printed on a planeswalker. Reliable and repeatable ways to venture are also at a premium. I like that Ellywick will be playable in a deck without any other dungeon cards, but her ultimate will be incredible if your deck is built to speed through dungeons.

Dungeon Descent

Dungeons are such a novel mechanic I have to talk about them some more. My enthusiasm for cards like Ellywick is tempered by how difficult building even a casual dungeon deck will be. It’s unlikely we will see venture in any other set, so venture decks are limited to cards from this set, which has a fairly low power level. The best venture cards are then split between all the colours, making it much harder to build a cohesive strategy around adventuring unless you run four or five colours which brings its own problems. The cards are also built to support different strategies. Shortcut Seeker wants you to attack but Secret Door is a tool for defensive decks. Even in one colour the cards can pull in different directions.

Of all these frustrations, the biggest is Dungeon Descent. A colourless land that enters tapped is really bad, and the ability is really expensive. The legendary creature requirement is flavourful, but it really hurts the game play. Play design were so scared of making a colourless land that can go in any deck, they made it so weak no deck wants it, not even a dedicated venture deck. It’s so disappointing to see such a unique and novel mechanic not get the full support it needs, especially in a set with fewer mechanics than normal, so there is more space for the cards it needs.

Inferno of the Star Mounts

Dragons have consistently been the most popular and beloved creature type in Magic and it would have been unthinkable if there weren’t some cool dragons in this set. The red mythic dragon Inferno of the Star Mounts is the dragon that stands out to me. There are bigger dragons in the set but this one feels the most like a terrifying ferocious dragon and gives you the most bang for your buck. The bigger dragons are Old Gnawbone and Tiamat who give you huge amounts of mana or a hand full of powerful cards. But when you cast a dragon the strongest play is to just kill your opponent and this monster hits very hard.

This dragon can easily represent six damage the turn you cast it and twelve damage the turn after if you pump up it’s power. The ability to do twenty damage is really cool but is mostly flavour text. There are some neat tricks to using it though. You can push this dragon’s power up to nineteen through other methods and it still works. Even better if you have ways to reduce its power you can reach twenty power multiple times and get the twenty damage multiple times. I like that this extra ability gives this dragon a little unique puzzle to solve. Big splashy red dragons have been done many times so anything to make it feel novel and different from the other options is appreciated.

Treasure Chest

After Dungeons and Dragons the next biggest expectation I had for the set was dice rolling. It’s an essential part of D&D, but until now rolling dice have been notably absent from black bordered magic. Competitive players want games to be decided by skill and are typically against dice for being too random. To pacify players who are against dice in Magic, the dice cards in this set are designed so that the randomness is rather minor. For example Scion of Stygia always taps a creature and rolling the dice just tells you when it untaps. This is a big contrast to the dice rolling cards we have seen in un-sets. For example Strategy, Schmategy has an incredible range of possibilities. It might do nothing, or it might be Armageddon, Wheel of Fortune and Shatterstorm combined. Wildly swingy cards like this would be far too much for many Magic players.

Another note is that the cards are deliberately powered down so competitive players can ignore them and casual players can still enjoy them. I think these decisions struck the right balance between keeping the thrill of rolling dice without reducing the skill level of the game. However my favourite of the dice rolling cards is one of only a few that feels truly random. Along with Deck of Many Things this is one of only two cards that can hurt you if you roll badly. This danger makes it more exciting to me but I understand why the majority of cards were designed to be reliable and fairly predictable.

Wizard’s Spellbook

A feature of many of these dice rolling cards is the possibility of a extra strong effect if you roll a 20. In D&D doing so is known as a critical hit which does double damage. Thirteen cards have a critical hit if you roll a 20 but many of them aren’t as explosive and exciting as you might think. Swarming Goblins gives you one extra token and Sylvan Shepherd gives you an extra few life. I wish these rewards were a little bigger to make them a bit more memorable when you do get that magic 20.

The spellbook however has an incredible prize for rolling a twenty. Normally the spellbook can be tapped to recast a spell in your graveyard. You roll the dice to find out how much it costs. Not only does the 20 give you the spell for free, it also lets you cast all of the spells it has exiled. This can theoretically cast many spells in one huge burst of power. The game has to go on for a long time to enable this, but the potential for this to happen is so cool.

Wight

The rarest resource in card game design are clean and simple names. Once a name has been used for a card, it can’t be replaced by a card with the same name. For example Fireball is one of the most iconic spells in D&D, but the magic card is a really awkward design. Between paying for extra targets, dividing damage evenly and rounding down, it’s a really inelegant way to express a really simple idea. This is why we got Farideh’s Fireball in this set and not fireball itself.

Because of how valuable simple names are, Wizards are very conservative designing cards with one word names which are the rarest of all. When one gets used it’s often a surprise that the name hasn’t already been used. I definitely felt this way when I saw Wight. I’m glad to say the name hasn’t been wasted on a bad card. Aggressive zombie decks will love this card and the life drain ability is a great way to represent the malevolent power of wights. With a return to Innistrad on the horizon, I wonder if this card will be a role-player for a classic aggressive zombie deck in standard.

On the subject of names, +2 Mace breaks new ground for names. It’s the first card printed in a standard legal set with an Arabic numeral in its name, and the very first card with a plus symbol in the name. The card itself is rather ordinary but it has the distinction of having one of the most unconventional names in Magic history.

Delina, Wild Mage

Magic has been around for nearly 30 years and somehow it has never had a mono-red or mono-blue elf until now. There were over 450 elves before this set and none of them were blue or red. I can understand the lack of red elves, but not having any blue elves is weird. Elves are often associated with ancient wisdom and having centuries of knowledge which is a very blue theme. The roleplaying theme has pushed tribes into new colours because roleplaying is all about creating unique characters and players have the freedom to break away from tired stereotypes and expectations for races and classes.

I also included Delina because of the need for errata. Almost as soon as the card was previewed it received an errata. If you choose to copy Pixie Guide and roll well, after a few successful rolls you have so many pixie guides it becomes almost impossible to roll under a 15. As written Delina forces you continue rolling forever which forces the game to become a draw as the trigger will never finish resolving. This is not the only card to require an immediate fix as Book of Vile Darkness was also updated to work properly with the enters-the-battlefield triggers on Eye of Vecna and Hand of Vecna. Phantom Steed and Mantle of the Ancients from the AFR commander decks also got updated. It’s sad to see this number of mistakes being made and I hope quality control improves in the future.

Loyal Warhound

If you read, watch or listen to any Magic content, it’s hard to avoid the large number of Magic fans complaining about white being weak and underpowered. Card draw and ramp are two of white’s biggest drawbacks. These problems haven’t prevented white from making great aggressive decks, an important colour in control decks and the best colour for sideboard cards. Fans however want more diverse and interesting strategies for white, and the ability to stay competitive in commander, where card draw and ramp are key parts of any deck.

Loyal Warhound is an encouraging sign that things are changing for white. We’ve seen catch up ramp like this before on the excellent Knight of the White Orchid but it seemed to go out of fashion for a while. We’ve seen it return in commander focused products with cards like Keeper of the Accord and Cartographer’s Hawk but having it in a standard legal set is a real sign that this type of card might become a more regular part of white’s identity.

Treasure Vault

Modern Horizons recently introduced eleven new artifact lands, and almost immediately we get one more. With five out of six previous artifact lands banned in Modern, it makes sense that all eleven of those new lands enter the battlefield tapped. It’s shocking then to get an untapped artifact land in a Standard set. The treasure vault theme would still work if this was just a land, but being an artifact as well means decks that want as many artifacts as possible will be very interested in this. It can even be used to make more artifacts later. If find it hard to believe this won’t be an important card in some format somewhere.

Gelatinous Cube

Flavour words are one of the big innovations of this set. At a glance they look like new mechanics you could find in any set, but in fact Gelatinous Cube is the only card in the game to feature engulf and dissolve. The words are here merely to convey flavour and have no rules meaning. Adding unnecessary words to cards isn’t really want the game needs right now, so I’m hoping this doesn’t become the new normal going forward. It sounds like it will be reserved for Magic sets that are for external properties and this seems perfect. They help explain what aspect of a character or object is being reflecting in the card.

Understanding how rules text reflects flavour can be really difficult. For example Path of Mettle is designed to reward you for playing fast creatures that dodge traps. However without listening to the designers I would never have made this connection. Vigilance feels like a defensive ability and first strike seems to reflect martial prowess more than speed but I can see how they reflect speed. Flavour words help avoid misunderstandings like this although in general I enjoy the challenge of understanding what rules text is actually representing.

A trend I noticed with flavour words was that I much prefer cards with more than one flavour word. For example on Grim Wanderer the words “tragic backstory” glue the flavour and the mechanics together, but it really sticks out. On other cards like Flameskull it just adds extra text. When you have multiple flavour words however you can tell a story. Cards are normally limited to showing one single moment as if frozen in time. Whenever a card can escape this limitation you usually get really evocative designs. In this case we get a monster that engulfs its victims and slowly digests them.

Demilich

I don’t normally talk about the cards that are pushed for constructed play, but Demilich is a really interesting card. It’s the first card in history with this mana cost and it looks like you need to be a mono-blue deck to play this. It’s extremely rare that card reductions reduce coloured mana requirements but Demilich can be even be cast for free in a deck that doesn’t even run blue. The last ability works really well with the first. Casting four spells in one turn is a real hurdle to overcome, but if you do the Demilich is powerful but not oppressive on the battlefield. The middle ability of recasting your spells is strong, but making it an attack trigger gives your opponent a chance to interact and stop the Demilich. This is clearly exciting in older formats where there are plenty of decks based around casting lots of cheap spells. I’m really interested to see if anyone can make it work in standard with the reduced card pool.

Lolth, Spider Queen

Adventures in the Forgotten Realms is an unprecedented set and therefore is the benchmark for how Magic handles other properties in the future. Walking between different planes of existence is part of D&D lore but there are big differences between the two properties. In Magic you need a spark whilst in D&D you need to master high level magic. By the strictest interpretation of the lore, this set shouldn’t have any planeswalkers at all which would be a real shame as planeswalkers are consistently the most popular card type with casual Magic players. The standard has now been set that the most powerful magic users can be planeswalkers in game if not in lore. In particular this makes it very likely we’ll see a Gandalf planeswalker when we get the Lord of the Rings set in the future.

Lolth herself is a god who appears in different D&D settings, so it makes sense for her to be a planeswalker. I love that she has to gain loyalty in a novel way. The static ability is powerful, especially if you are sacrificing creatures, but it’s made more interesting by the fact that you have to use it to gain loyalty. This is different to the ability on Nissa of Shadowed Boughs who can happily use all her abilities without playing more lands. The ultimate is pretty weird as it incentivises you to do small amounts of damage instead of big chunks. I’ll definitely hope to pick up a copy for my spider tribal deck. It isn’t really a payoff or an incentive to build a spider deck, but spider tribal doesn’t have many splashy exciting cards to be the centrepiece of the deck.

Circle of Dreams Druid

One of the biggest flaws of Magic as a game is that the most iconic and powerful cards are completely inaccessible. I buy a lot of Magic, but I doubt I’ll ever even see a Black Lotus in person let alone play with one. This is especially a problem for lands with unique effects. Gaea’s Cradle surged in price to over $1000 and I can only see the price going up. This ability is so broken, we have rarely seen it since. The closest we had before are cards like Priest of Titania or Overgrown Battlement which are conditional on the type of creature. There is also Battle Hymn but this is a non-creature in a deck that wants as many creatures as possible and it can only be used once.

Circle of Dreams Druid has none of these restrictions and draw backs. It’s so pleasing to be to have a creature with the exact same textbox as Gaea’s Cradle. Being a creature and costing three mana is much much weaker than on a land, but I much prefer balanced and fair Magic cards, so the druid is perfect for me. The art is also really sweet, and I hope to see more art from Sam Guay in future sets. This and Wild Shape are their first cards and both are fantastic.

Minion of the Mighty

There are many different flavours of flavour words in this set, but one that stands separate from the others is pack tactics. Rather than appearing on singular individual designs, it’s the red-green draft archetype. But with only eight cards to its name it feels like it falls short of being a fully-fledged mechanic. It’s weird that you can trigger pack tactics with one big creature given the flavour of creatures hunting and fighting together. Targ Nar, Demon-Fang Gnoll can spend eight mana and attack alone to get a pack tactics bonus, which feels weird.

I much prefer the battalion mechanic which required you to attack with three creatures. Pack tactics seems to sometimes work best when attacking alone. Minion of the Mighty is another example. Immediately after this card was previewed, the combo of casting two copies of Infuriate on turn two to cast Terror of Mount Velus for free was discovered. Dealing twenty-two damage on turn two is probably going to win the game. This combo is cool, but it isn’t a good advert for the flavour of pack tactics. Otherwise the minion is a fun card. Cheating dragons into play is exciting, and the contrast between getting a free dragon and attacking with a zero power creature is quite funny. It’s nice to see a kobold in a normal set for the first time since Legends in 1994. The only other Kobold since then was Rograkh, Son of Rohgahh in Commander Legends.

Top Commons and Uncommons

You Find Some Prisoners

I think the cards that best represent this set are the eleven cards that begin with the word you. They all represent that classic moment in a role-playing game where the players are faced with a dilemma. It could be an minor decision or a moment where the fate of your campaign hangs in the balance. Despite the success of this crossover and the fantasy setting, Magic and D&D are fundamentally different games. D&D is a co-operative creative experience whilst Magic forces players to fight each other without any real narrative. Cards like You See a Guard Approach or You Meet in a Tavern put you the player in a predicament and ask you how the story will continue. Modal spells that give players options are already powerful and popular so making them even better is exciting.

You Find Some Prisoners is most interesting to me because it lets you play cards from your opponents deck. This is normally only done at higher rarities and something I associate with blue and black. It works really well in red however as an fun example of chaos. You have much less control over their deck and the cards you see might not be relevant to your gameplan. Or they might give your deck access to an effect that your colours can’t provide such as enchantment removal in mono-red. This is the first time red has done this at uncommon and I hope this effect becomes a regular one for red cards especially at uncommon.

Prosperous Innkeeper

Thanks to Lord of the Rings, hobbits and the copyright friendly halflings are one of the most iconic tribes in fantasy. Magic has kithkin such as Ballynock Cohort and Mistmeadow Skulk but they have never been as beloved as halflings are. It baffles me that the three halflings in this set are Magic’s first halflings, and the innkeeper is by far the one that best represents halflings to me. The treasure and the lifegain represent such a steady stream of value I’ll always enjoy visiting this inn.

Something I missed in my Modern Horizons 2 set review was that cards like Tireless Provisioner were the first time green cards ever to make treasure. Since ramp and fixing are a core part of green’s identity it’s surprising it has taken this long for it to happen. The temporary nature of treasures makes it more red than green, but it has always been appropriate for green to make treasure, we just hadn’t seen it on any cards since treasure was introduced in Ixalan. I’m curious to see if this represents a shift in design and we will see more treasure making cards in green or if it’s unique to this set and the large treasure subtheme.

Bruenor Battlehammer

A big part of role playing games is collecting new weapons and magical items and quite naturally the red-white theme for the set is based on equipment. It’s a little disappointing to see this theme repeated so soon after Zendikar Rising but the theme is much better supported this time around. For example there are twenty-two cards that are equipment or reference equipment in the new set compared to only fourteen in Zendikar Rising. The equipment is also more varied this time. Dueling Rapier is like a combat trick, Spare Dagger can pick off small creatures and Leather Armor is a cheap defensive buff.

My favourite card to support the theme is Bruenor Battlehammer. Equipment decks need creatures to function, and ones that support the theme are even better. Equip costs are often the hardest part of equipment decks so the free equip cost is fantastic. I also love that the power boost applies to other creatures and not just Bruenor so you can use the other creatures in your deck and still get all the benefits. The art is also incredible and reminds me of classic fantasy dwarves.

Eyes of the Beholder

Of all the new creature types I hoped to see in a D&D set, beholders were the one monster type I really wanted to see. We got a few beholders but my favourite beholder card is actually a removal spell. The art is really dramatic and is my favourite piece in the set. The eye beams look so intense, lighting up the darkness and completely disintegrating the adventurer in the foreground. I like that each of the beholder’s eleven eyestalks contribute to the -11/-11 effect. I wish it was cheaper, but at instant speed and with many dragons in this format I expect it will still see some play in limited. One of things I like about Magic is that no matter how important or powerful a card is it can still be blessed with incredible art.

Another card which has art that really stands out is Celestial Unicorn. The sunbleached style is incredibly unusual. I can’t think of another card with art like this. It’s also exciting for Pauper as a variant of Ajani’s Pridemate but now at common. I’m also happy to see more unicorns for my collection even if the art isn’t going to fit with the rest of my deck.

Wild Shape

Shapeshifting has been represented in many different ways in Magic. Changelings like Avian Changeling have every creature type, and clones like Clever Impersonator copy creatures as they enter play. A much rarer form of shapeshifting dates back to Primal Clay in Antiquities. Cards like this and Skinshifter are my favourite adaption of shapeshifting. They aren’t just a simple mirror reflecting another creature, but still give you a real choice over what form they take. The main problem with these cards traditionally is that all the options are often weak and underwhelming.

Wild Shape is cool because we now get this effect on an instant so we can surprise our opponent. The hexproof mode is great to protect an important creature and giving reach is an OK way to defend against fliers. The best deck for this spell is one that revolves around creatures with no base stats like Heroes’ Bane and Ivy Elemental so you can get +3/+3 and trample from the elephant mode.

Wizard Class

This year had already seen the introduction of two new enchantment subtypes with runes like Rune of Speed and shards on Niko Aris. We now have a third in classes. These represent the classic progression of players gaining new abilities as they level up and specialise in a specific role. In Magic classes have a distinctive frame that looks like an alternative saga with vertical art and segmented textboxes. The first ability is usually fairly minor, but you can pay mana to unlock further abilities. This isn’t revolutionary for Magic’s game design, but I expect that they will play well and represent the classes and progression system of D&D at the same time. Having things to spend mana on is always really important in case you run out of cards. Paying for all three abilities represents a big investment but being able to split up the costs makes using your mana efficiently much easier.

Wizard Class is my favourite of the twelve classes. I much prefer the classes that only cost one mana. I’m very happy to play a class on turn one when decks often don’t have anything to spend mana on whereas on later turns I want to be casting creatures to protect me or advancing my gameplan with more impactful spells. The first ability here is mostly just for flavour because discarding to hand size rarely happens and doesn’t force you to discard your most important spells. But it’s still exciting to imagine having a huge hand as it’s an ability we rarely see at uncommon. After an unimportant first ability the second ability is a bread and butter Divination. Every casual blue deck is happy to draw more cards. The final ability gives you a win condition in slow grindy games. Getting free counters from cantrips like Opt will grow your army fast. It’s not a fantastic win condition but it’s very nice effect to have it stapled to divination as a bonus.

Temple of the Dragon Queen

In my Kaldheim set review I praised the elegance of Shimmerdrift Vale being a five-colour snow land that avoids the need for shuffling. A few months later we got Temple of the Dragon Queen. In any deck that doesn’t care about dragons or snow these cards are functionally identical but the difference in word count is stark. The temple is really easy to use once you have digested all the rules text, and will be fantastic at enabling a deck that plays dragons like Tiamat or Niv-Mizzet Reborn but most players don’t enjoy getting bogged down in rules text like this. I understand the intent of the designers. This is playable in any deck that plays Evolving Wilds but pushed for dedicated dragon decks. This was a noble aim, but I think the execution is slightly lacking. I like complicated wordy cards, but when a card has this many words on it I want a more exciting effect.

This theme of complicated looking cards continues with Dragon’s Fire and Orb of Dragonkind. Don’t get me wrong I love both of these cards, but this is a very noticeable pattern in the set. Dragon’s fire is a great removal spell for limited even with the vanilla version. The possibility of extra damage may not be that important for limited but it will occasionally generate little cinematic moments when you use a dragon to kill a big creature. Orb of Dragonkind however is a different kettle of fish. This is only playable in dragon decks but it’s exactly what dragon decks want. Dragons are almost all expensive so any ramp is extremely welcome. Turn two is perfect for ramp in a dragon deck. Dragon Hatchling is the only two mana dragon but playing a four mana dragon like Thunderbreak Regent or Leyline Tyrant on turn three is fantastic. Four mana is where the good dragons start seeing print, so this is a really good place to be. The ability to sacrifice the orb to find a dragon also makes this much more exciting to run than an ordinary mana rock like Izzet Signet.

Priest of Ancient Law

The priest seems like a really ordinary card, but it represents a key step in the changes being made to card draw in white. Creatures that replace themselves when they enter play are a regular feature in other colours. For example just in Strixhaven, green had Bookwurm and black had Callous Bloodmage. For white you have to search across the whole of Magic’s history to find the classic Wall of Omens and the extremely poor Carrier Pigeons. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen this effect on a new white creature and I’m confident it’s the sign of this effect becoming something we see on a regular basis.

I don’t want to see white draw large numbers of cards in the same way as blue does, but this does open up interesting space for the future. I’m excited to see the priest paired with Teleportation Circle in draft as a nice engine, and this same idea can be used in constructed blink decks. This type of engine has usually required blue but as we get more cards like the priest and Teleportation Circle, these decks can drop blue and experiment with being mono-white or playing other colours. This is great because it gives casual players more freedom to get creative and explore new combinations in their blink decks.

Mimic

Every set on a new plane or a new setting comes with expectations. My favourite D&D creature is the mimic. This amorphous shapeshifter is best known for disguising itself as a treasure chest. Adventurers in a D&D campaign will celebrate beating a huge monster, go to open a treasure chest to collect their reward and get attacked by another monster. I love the shock and surprise the first time this happens but this is an encounter players will remember for a long time. Dungeons are now much scarier places. It adds so much tension knowing that anything could be a trap.

Notable for being the first non-token treasure, unfortunately the card itself is a big disappointment. Two mana is too much to pay for a treasure and using it as a creature is too expensive, especially if you use the creature more than once. It isn’t scary and it isn’t a surprise for your opponent. This is definitely a design that needed more work. By and large however, classic D&D flavour came across well. For example Magic Missile is fantastic in draft. Arc Lightning has always been good and being uncounterable has never been better with the introduction of ward.

Blink Dog

One of the big surprises of last year’s core set was the return of phasing on Teferi, Master of Time. The twist was that the complexity of phasing was partially sidestepped by only phasing cards out of play and back once instead of every turn. Since it only appeared on one planeswalker last year, we never got to see the full potential of bringing back phasing. This time it returns on white and the focus is on defensive abilities. This makes sense as white already has much better removal than phasing a creature out temporarily.

Blink spells like Cloudshift and Ephemerate are good at protecting your creatures, but any equipment, auras and counters on those creatures are also gone. Phasing solves this problem so you can power up blink dog and protect both the dog and your investment at the same time. It’s also a fun combination with double strike, as you can deal some damage and then phase out to avoid taking damage.

Another phasing card is Guardian of Faith which I expect to be very popular. Often the biggest weakness of aggressive creature decks is their weakness to boardwipes. When a controlling deck plays Wrath of God the game is usually over as the aggressive deck is out of resources and can only draw small creatures off the top of their deck. Guardian of Faith can protect against this nightmare scenario, as well as being a significant threat on its own. It isn’t as good as Selfless Spirit because you have to hold the card in your hand and save your mana but it has the potential to stop a wrath and still attack the opponent. It can also phase out a single target against removal spells as well, giving it extra flexibility.

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