Wednesday, 17 April 2019

WAR of the Spark Limited Analysis: Part I

War of the Spark previews have started, and in between brewing new Standard (and Modern... and Vintage...) decks, I'm also thinking about my favorite format - booster draft. And one of the fun things come this set is that the Mythic Championship for the set (these things used to be called Pro Tours) will effectively be a pre-release, meaning that going into it, nobody will have been able to play a sanctioned tournament. This makes preparation, prognostication, and full-set evaluation even more important than normal. (Obviously, it's possible to proxy some of these up for playtesting and do mock drafts and such, if you have the resources - mostly time and friends - for that, and I would recommend this if you're actually playing in the tournament). Anyway, I doubt (m?)any pros are going to read this, but on the off chance (and because it will help me and readers in our own low-stakes events), I figured I'd jump back in to the limited analysis game after a good period off.

A quick disclaimer - of course, not all of the cards are out yet, so some of this can still change slightly.



Planeswalkers are an apparent theme of the set (kind of), with many more than we've ever seen before. However, there are some twists, which mean that evaluating them is going to be different from normal - which is a bit problematic, given that they're already often on the harder end to evaluate. However, in limited, almost all prior planeswalkers were designed in a way such that they were very, very good, so evaluation didn't matter that much. The changes of this set mean that's no longer the case.

What do we know?
There are going to be 36 Planeswalker cards in the set, 20 at uncommon, 13 at rare, and 3 at mythic. (There is an additional Mythic as the Buy-a-Box Promo, but it's not in any packs and so doesn't change limited). Moreover, barring foils, there is going to be exactly one Planeswalker in every pack. And while we don't know exactly the process they're using to ensure that, or how that affects the collation, I think it's a fairly safe bet to assume that the Uncommon:Rare:Mythic ratios will be about the same as on normal cards, which leaves me thinking that at a normal 8-player booster draft, you'll expect to have opened about 18 Uncommon 'walkers, a bit more than 5 Rares, and just over 1/2 of a Mythic. We should also note that exactly 1 per pack means each player on average will draft 3, and because we should expect some of unplayed, I think we can expect that most decks will have about 2 Planeswalkers on average (possibly a little more), though with some significant variation.

Static and Triggered abilities
Something new to this set is that all the Planeswalkers have a static and/or triggered ability, in addition to one or more traditional loyalty abilities. (And yes, I know, there have been some commander PWs that had things like "Can be your commander" as static abilities, but whatever). The value of these abilities appear to differ pretty significantly, and can change the value of the planeswalker to being mostly an attackable/burnable enchantment, if it's most of the power. Sometimes, though, it looks like it will be mostly an afterthought.

In general, in evaluating these cards, there's a few cases I think are worth keeping in mind.
  1. How good is this card if I'm behind on board, and it more or less dies right away?
  2. How good is this card if I'm ahead on board or in a stalled board state?
These two scenarios help define floor and ceiling for the card.

We know that the 20 uncommon planeswalkers in the set all have only their static/triggered ability and a single loyalty ability, which removes loyalty. The big thing to note here is that, unlike previous Planeswalkers, these cards aren't going to be able to chunk out huge amounts of card advantage by activating their loyalty abilities turn after turn, if left unchecked. The exception, of course, is if the static ability is particularly strong.

These have two loyalty abilities (one plus and one minus) along with the static ability. Sometimes, there's an ultimate, sometimes not, but in general, all of these are going to generate significant card advantage for you if they get to stick around, so it's really all a question of how well they protect themselves, and/or how good they are if you can't protect them.

These appear to be pretty close to the more traditional, yeah-they're-just-busted designs we're used to.  


Amass is a new keyword ability, such that if a card has Amass N, you put N +1/+1 counters on an Army you control; if you don't control any armies, then you make a 0/0 black Zombie Army creature token first. Note here that you can almost never have more than one army at a time (the only way which looks to be possible is gaining control of your opponent's army while already having one yourself).

If you evaluate these cards in a vacuum, they're going to look better, probably than they will be in practice. This is because if you have lots of amass cards, you aren't getting extra bodies every time, but more often just getting them only once. And in general, it's better to get your N stats on a new, extra body, than it is to add them to an existing one without choice. But that comparison deserves some further analysis.

If you're putting counters on an existing army, it's very much like a basic aura that pumps your dude. This has the distinct advantage of giving those stats effective haste, but is significantly worse against unconditional removal and bounce. Most importantly, of course, is the impact on creature sizing. But this is hard to work out in the abstract - is a 4/4 better than a pair of 2/2s? Depends on both boards. In general, there is, though, value in simply having the largest creature around, particularly defensively, as it greatly discourages attacks. So in general, the biggest drawback of having to put your eggs all in one basket is down to these interactive spells which don't care about the size of a creature.

Something that's very important to note is that Amass is localized to only the Grixis colours (blue, black, and red). So if your opponent is two of these colors, they're likely to have a lot more amass than if they are one, and if they're GW, they probably won't have any. Because for the most part Amass seems better to me if you have some, but not too much (a la Delve), I suspect that this would make you slightly prefer to be exactly one of these colors.


Proliferate is a really hard mechanic to judge. For the most part, we're dealing with two kinds of counters, +1/+1 and Loyalty (there's at least one card with a Charge Counter, but it looks at this point as thought it might be only one, and it's a rare). Loyalty counters' value varies a great deal - it might get you a whole extra use of one of your uncommon planeswalkers, let it survive an extra attack, or do basically nothing. Extra +1/+1 counters are nice, but for the most part aren't worth a card until you start to get 3-4 or so of them. Now, there are lots of cards with +1/+1 counters in this set, and every Amass card also counts to some extent (though having 8 amass cards isn't going to help you much in getting multiple proliferate targets), but I imagine that unless the format ends up leading to lots of board stalls, that simply being able to proliferate isn't going to be worth a full card very often. Fortunately, it looks like for at least most of the cards in the set, Proliferate isn't the main point of the card, but an extra bonus. And getting even 1-2 counters as a bonus on top of an already close to playable card seems like a good deal.

Note that proliferate is localized to the Bant colours (green, white, and blue, plus one rare land), which means, just like in the case of Amass, you should expect much more of it from players in these colors, and none at all from BR players. Note that blue is the only color which overlaps both of these here, so that's going to be more likely for you to proliferate onto your Armies. Overall, this isn't really a huge thing, but a small adjustment to keep in mind both in the draft as well as in gameplay.

Please join me again soon where I will break down some of the numbers more precisely, to see if we can find out things like critical creature sizing and sub-theme prevalence. And eventually, evaluations of specific cards.

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