The weekend is done and I’ve finally had the opportunity to play with Journey into Nyx. It really feels like they’ve solved the third set problem.

Ring of Five-er, Three Wishes

For those unfamiliar with the third set problem (which is unsurprising, since small third sets have been uncommon these past few years), here it is: the third set has to feel cohesive with the two preceding sets and introduce something new and exciting.

It’s difficult to be cohesive with the past two sets because the set’s mechanics and themes have already been heavily explored across two sets. With so little design space left, there’s little new to create and less that’ll excite players.

The challenge in introducing something new is that the new mechanic/theme has to play well with cards in the two prior sets. If the third set is too much of a left turn, it tricks players into drafting nonviable archetypes (like red/blue poison in New Phyrexia) or has minimal interaction with the preceding sets (like the unnamed ‘wisdom’ mechanic in Saviors of Kamigawa or the dragon theme/storm in Scourge). Conversely, if the third set introduces too little, it’s dull (Dragon’s Maze had to include fixing, mechanics, and common support for all ten guilds while also making a coherent Limited format, leaving little room for anything else).

In short, third sets are always a challenge.

Long-Term Plans

Journey into Nyx may be the most exciting and coherent third set we’ve had since Apocalypse, and for the same reason that Apocalypse was successful: patience.

In Invasion, players were treated to the first multicolor Limited format. Planeshift innovated little, adding the ‘gating’ mechanic and off-color kicker costs. Both sets were limited to allied-color (WU, UB, BR, RG, GW) cards. Apocalypse gave players what they’d been waiting for all block: enemy color cards.

Players have been waiting for ‘enchantment matters’ cards since Theros was announced. Constellation meets that expectation at the precise time that player interest is usually tapering off. Constellation presents a brand new way to play with everything we’ve already played with in Theros. It’s a brand new strategy to go alongside heroic aggro/voltron, tempo, and ramp/monstrosity. It’s brilliant. Here’s why it worked so well.

Collective Restraint

Born of the Gods introduced very little (just like Planeshift). Inspired and tribute are modular mechanics—they go into every deck and don’t require other cards in order to function (yes, inspired has neat synergies with cards like Springleaf Drum and Crypsis, but isn’t a mechanic one builds around like heroic, battalion, or infect).

Born of the Gods introduced Akroan Skyguard and Setessan Oathsworn, cheaper versions of Wingsteed Rider and Staunch-Hearted Warrior that were weak on their own but stronger if they could be activated immediately (making them stronger than their forebears).

In short, Born of the Gods did not introduce much that we hadn’t seen before. The Limited format did not shift dramatically (though there were only two-thirds as many Nessian Asps and Voyage’s Ends each draft. Journey into Nyx was able to introduce so much because of the restraint in Born of the Gods’ design (they even removed monstrosity from Born of the Gods just so its limited design space could be mined in Journey into Nyx).

Timely Reinforcements

Going forward, I hope that more second sets are like Born of the Gods/Planeshift and more third sets are like Journey into Nyx/Apocalypse. When the second set comes out, players are tired of the set but not exhausted with it (otherwise the big drop-off would always happen with the second set). The third set has far more player fatigue to deal with and a sharp turn then may be all it takes to reinvigorate the Limited format.

Of course, I could be wrong. Perhaps players stay interested because small second sets like Guildpact, Mirrodin Besieged, and Torment introduce new avenues of play. If that were the case, and a block’s second set were more focused on mining design space from the previous large set, then folks would be dropping off earlier in the year. Only time (and the success of Journey into Nyx) will tell if this is the case, but I believe that Invasion block provides evidence in favor of Theros block’s design.

I’d like to hear what you think. Do you enjoy Born of the Gods? Did you find it too similar to Theros? Do you enjoy Journey into Nyx? What would you rather the block be like? Am I completely wrong about Invasion block? Do you find set/block design exciting as I do, or would you prefer I write more about Limited strategy?

As ever, thank you for reading. Hopefully I’ll get a fair amount of practice in this week, do well in Saturday’s PTQ, and have even more stories to share with you all. Until then, take care (and ownership of your mistakes and successes)!

—Zachary Barash

Zachary Barash has been playing Magic on and off since 1994. He loves Limited and drafts every available format (including several that aren’t entirely meant to be drafted). He’s a proud Cube owner and performer, improvising entire musicals every week with his team, Petting Zoo. Zach has an obsession with Indian food that borders on being unhealthy.

Don't Miss Out!

Sign up for the Hipsters Newsletter for weekly updates.