Magic’s mechanics often fall into two categories: kicker and threshold. Kicker mechanics are ones that offer more choices when more input is offered, while threshold mechanics require previously-established input to compound and become relevant. Think of kicker mechanics as deposits and threshold mechanics as interest, if that provides context. Kicker offers versatility but looks unimpressive on first glance—“how often would I want to pay {3} to get a +1/+1 counter!? That’ll never come up”—while threshold mechanics look powerful, but are difficult to pull off with consistency in the context of the individual sets.

When evaluating cards, we assume the worst-case for kicker and the best-case for threshold mechanics, when neither is necessarily borne out in the base operations of your average game of Magic. That’s basic human psychology—the assumption of the worst of something that requires direct input from us and the best from something that grows organically without our governance. That’s a dangerous pattern of thought. Indeed, that’s how we get people who espouse “trickle-down” economics and ignore climate change.

Some quick examples to clarify:

  • Kicker Mechanics—Kicker, Flashback, Entwine, Converge, Fuse
  • Threshold Mechanics—Threshold, Delirium, Metalcraft, Affinity, Hellbent
  • Aspects of Both—Morbid, Buyback, Delve

First off, note that the “Aspects of Both” category includes the horribly broken Delve mechanic. Delve is so improbably broken because it allows flexibility in its costs—i.e., you’re allowed to split the threshold between mana and recycled graveyard cards. That’s ridiculous, and operates as a hybrid between Kicker and Threshold mechanics. Imagine if Delirium had said “You have Delirium as long as you have four card types represented in your graveyard and/or on the battlefield and/or in exile, why not?” Delve is asinine, and I love it hugely. But its brkenness highlights the important divide between Kicker and Threshold.

Both of these mechanical categories were invented during Magic’s Gilded Age of Invasion and Odyssey blocks, and they’re still—fifteen years later—the best way to think about the game’s embedded habiliments. 2001-2002 was an exceptionally fertile time for Magic’s design—following a creative (at a ludic level; sweet god, was the lore and art rough during this time) and participatory resurgence after the disastrous Mercadian Masques block. Invasion gave Magic enough capital to experiment with the mechanics of the game and enough leeway to test the expectations of players. As a direct result, we got Odyssey—beautiful, perplexing, “before damage, I’ll discard my hand” Odyssey.

The closest comparison to Odyssey is Kaladesh. Both blocks seek to prioritize an underutilized resource (or never-before-utilized in Energy’s case) and operate as a Core Set for new mechanics. Black uses the graveyard/Energy in this manner, white in this manner, etc. The previous year’s Kicker was a seismic mechanic, but it just made explicit something tacit in the game’s most basic operation: as the game goes longer, spells and creatures get more powerful.

Threshold and Flashback operated on an entirely new level by forcing the game to adapt to new resources and, most importantly, reframing the way players thought. We can see this reflected in Energy—at first glance, it’s mana that doesn’t disappear between phases and at the end of turn. Simple enough. Once we got a chance to play with it, though, it was clear how much planning and tweaking went into the rates of return on energy and how easy it was to find yourself in a situation with either empty energy stores or an abundance and nothing to spend it on. (This has a really resonant flavor in a block that involves a story about disenfranchised proletariats striking out against a paternalistic government.)

An Energy deck that draws too few enablers and too many producers is similar to a poorly-optimized Threshold deck fifteen years ago—fully-stocked graveyard with nothing to spend it on. Energy, on the whole, though, was a useful addition to the game, contrasted to another, less fertile Threshold mechanic: Battle for Zendikar’s abortive “processing” minigame, which provided neither enough opportunities to exile nor enough compelling payoffs to go out of your way to build a processing deck.

As they did in Odyssey and (to a more conservative outcome) Kaladesh, Wizards has taken a gamble with Amonkhet—the major mechanics in it reward a high level of strategy and analysis. Both Cycling and flashback-style split cards are hard to analyze on the fly, with players holding onto narrow answers too tightly in the hopes of getting full value and players leaving versatile answers in the sideboard due to perceived inefficiency.

I expect Amonkhet to play similarly to Rise of the Eldrazi—the format looks clunky and dissonant, but will reward a kind of callous play built around cycling through inefficient answers and mercilessly tossing pre-mummies in the way of rampaging creatures. Amonkhet Limited is apt to be grindy and bloody, as befits a Bolas fiefdom governed by survivalist brutality, and it’s going to be more powerful and grueling than it initially appears. We now have a game that incorporates Flashback, Threshold, Delirium, Embalm, Delve, and Dredge, and I can’t wait to play a traditional deck entirely out of the grumper. Life goals, y’all.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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