By: Derek Madlem
Rising from the ashes like a phoenix this fall, we have the return of Zendikar…one of the most popular planes of recent years. In mythology, a phoenix appeared and reappeared infrequently with great spectacle and awe inspiring destruction following in it’s wake… after all it was a giant bird made of fire and lava and ash flying across the sky; how can that not be epic?
Why does this suck? Well let’s take a stroll through Phoenix Memory Lane to see where we’ve come from and the high and low points of this underperforming tribe.
In the beginning there was Firestorm Phoenix, it was awesome purely because it was the only phoenix in the game and it did something neat. This certainly wasn’t the most aggressively priced creature at the time, and it basically died to everything that had the same mana cost…but from a design standpoint, it did everything you would expect of a phoenix. We’ll also cut them some slack because card design hadn’t become real refined yet…1994 was pretty much the wild west, you never knew who or what was going to turn up.
Fast forward a few years to Visions where we first met the Bogardan variety of Phoenix. This phoenix returned to play automatically, but not repeatedly. They got a little more aggressive with the casting cost and made what was a surprisingly reasonable card for the time.
Shard Phoenix is arguably the most powerful phoenix ever printed. Showing up in Stronghold, this not-so-fiery bird was a board wipe tacked onto a recyclable threat. This is pretty much the top of the phoenix design game for the Magic’s 22 year history.
By the time Urza’s Legacy rolled around, Firestorm Phoenix was on the reserved list; this mean that you couldn’t print a functional reprint of any existing card… but that didn’t stop Wizards from printing strict upgrades like they did with Shivan Phoenix. The design for this bird was simple and reasonable. It just came back. I’m going to go ahead and quote that here because it might be relevant later:
“It just came back.”
-Me, just now
After this, it would appear that R&D simply forgot about phoenixes for the bulk of a decade or so. When we returned we ended up with an attached guild mechanic:
Did I forget that the guild mechanic was also a conditional requirement for returning the phoenix to it’s owner’s hand? Yeah, it doesn’t just come back. Skarrgan Firebird had the upside of potentially being the biggest phoenix ever printed if you were fortunate enough to get that sweet sweet bloodthirst trigger, but it was also the most mana intensive of the entire species.
While Molten Firebird was far from the best phoenix, or even playable really, it was at least a derivative of being a color shifted reprint. Phoenixes were seemingly back on the design table now, and after taking Lorwyn off, we were given this pipedream in Conflux:
While it was unlikely to ever happen, Worldheart Phoenix did have the intent of being a pretty sweet recurring threat in all those five color draft decks that just never really happened at the time. From a design perspective, it was at least a refreshing twist on an old trope.
Magic 2010 and Zendikar gave us no phoenixes, but in Magic 2011 we got a pretty reasonable likeness to Shard Phoenix. Its stats were pushed a little further, but it didn’t have the ability to self-destruct, thought it did pose some really great judge calls when equipped with a Basilisk Collar…hint: it works out in the best way imaginable.
This is where the designers started to get themselves into trouble. Phoenixes were to be a regular thing, but realistically how many ways can you recreate the flavor of a 3-4ish power bird that comes back from the dead. This left design with a problem that had a clear and terrible answer: block mechanics. They had already done it once with the Gruul phoenix to a lesser extent, but this is where it began in earnest.
That next summer we got what is arguably the most playable phoenix ever printed. Chandra’s Phoenix has a conditional return clause, but it’s about as conditional as water being wet. The low casting cost and haste also made this creature not only annoying, but also a reasonably priced threat. It’s all down hill from here.
Yay! We made another phoenix! Ravnica and Innistrad didn’t feature lame block mechanics that they could tack onto a mediocre flying body in red, so it wasn’t until Born of the Gods that we got to see another phoenix (though Chandra’s Phoenix did make another appearance in Magic 2014).
Tribute, a truly terrible and unplayable mechanic. Giving your opponent the choice will always result in you not getting what you want out of a card. Always. At this point it’s really time to just open the floodgate with rapid-fire mediocre birds!
What’s this? Another block mechanic, Ferocious! As you can see with that landfall trigger above, phoenixes might just be steaming turds from here on out…and there’s a good chance that turd is a going to take up a mythic slot as well. Here it is again so you don’t have to scroll up to see what treasure awaits you in Battle for Zendikar:
The real problem here is how “safe” all of the designs we’ve seen in Battle for Zendikar are. I’m sure Battle for Zendikar will be a compellingly epic limited format. Rise of the Eldrazi was one of the most revered limited formats of all time and most of that set is pretty durdly, just like we’re seeing this time around…but we need SOME cards to peak their heads above water, it can’t be all bulk rares.
What do I think about what’s been revealed since last week?
I think Shambling Vent is easily the worst of the cycle so far. Yes, even worse than Lavaclaw Reaches…at least THAT had firebreathing so you could dump a boatload of mana into it and end the game. Shambling Vent is a tired uninspired design. Lifelink on a black/white card?! Never saw that one coming!
Here’s another great example of R&D dialing back design to “make the limited format more dynamic.” What’s the solution to making it so that rares don’t decide who wins a limited game? I guess it’s to make rares into uncommons. Last time we came to Zendikar, we had Rampaging Baloths. They started bigger and gave you a freaking 4/4 for every land you played. You want to know a secret? We never played it either. Why would we want to play a bad hydra?
While this is seemingly an irrelevant uncommon, it furthers my point: we’re at a state where design is getting very stale. What’s between Mind Stone and Dreamstone Hedron? I’m really looking forward to the eight mana artifact that taps for four and draws four cards when you sac it!
Taking a look over the rest of the spoilers we see more of the same, reprints, or even more sweet “devoid” reprints or existing cards. But these are totally different because their devoid, right? Right?! Did the world really need Dragonmaster Outcast and Felidar Sovereign brought back? It’s becoming clearer and clearer why they chose to include Expeditions in Battle for Zendikar: the design team turned in their assignment and when the number crunchers finished grading it, they had a big fat F on their hands. Add in some hundred dollar bills randomly and you can slide the grade up into the D+/C- range. Congrats Wizards, you passed.
Let’s hope this level of design is temporary and not phoenixical™. Yeah, I’m trademarking that word…so what?
Void Winnower has received a lot of “that’s interesting” nods from the collective peanut gallery, but this card does have one legitimate use: reanimator decks. “Winny” might have a place in eternal metagames as a sideboard card against combo decks, or as an Oath of Druids target. Shutting off roughly 50% of the spells your opponent could cast is a good way to keep them from comboing. Here are some classic combo finishers that Winny voids without going too deep:
Is that going to be enough to make this guy worth a million bajillion dollars? Unlikely. BUT…IF…the price of FOIL versions of this card dip below $10 at any point, I’m going to feel pretty safe picking up a few copies to stow away. Niche play in eternal formats + being an absolute nut-kicker in Commander seems like a combination for long-term success to me. I’d love to see a world where we could reanimate this in Standard…but any such spell would most likely have converge and be all but unplayable.
See you next week, hopefully with some cards worth talking about!