As spoiler season is almost upon us, Kristen takes a moment to consider the impact Ikoria might have as a set. 

The latest on Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths is that the physical release has been pushed back until May 15. Those of us following the pandemic closely might think this a dash hopeful, and honestly? I’m not sure that even with a lockdown persisting past this point they could realistically delay it any further. However we end up experiencing Ikoria, though, the time to learn about the set is almost upon us.

Previews for the set will begin on April 2nd, with the weekend following being dedicated entirely to Commander. I’m pleased to announce that we’ll have a preview too, and you can look forward to that some time next week—the full previews schedule will be released by Wizards in the near future.

Now’s as good a time as any to sit down and think about what impact the set may have.

First Impressions

Ikoria Key Art

So far, we’ve seen three major art pieces from Ikoria. The first, the key art, is perhaps most notable for the fact it features Planeswalker Vivien Reid front and center. We were introduced to Vivien in Core Set 2019, and have since followed her escapades on Ixalan and Ravnica, where she joined in the fight to defeat Nicol Bolas. Last we checked in on her, she was helping track down Dovin Baan.

From the stance depicted in the key art, it’s reasonable to assume that Vivien is leading a host of beasts and monsters. I’m kinda hoping that we see some character development for Vivien, especially as she’s now coming to the forefront as our Green Planeswalker. If it turns out that she’s leading these creatures in an Uncage the Menagerie-style stampede, I actually think I’ll be pretty disappointed. We’ve seen this overdone trope time and time again, not only for Vivien, but in Magic in general; see Selvala’s Stampede. I think, given that Ikoria is a bit of a “Kaiju” plane, that hoping for a deep and meaningful plot is probably a little much; but I do hope Vivien has some agency to grow here.

The next piece of art we’ve been party to is this poster. The stylized artwork is honestly pretty cool, and the vibe I’m getting from it is that it might be our Showcase style card for the set—like Eldraine’s Storybooks, or Theros’ Stargazing, we might see Manga-style monsters for Ikoria. Whilst I can be appreciative of the skill and overall look of this style, my main reservation is that I hope we don’t jump the shark. For me, one of the reasons I love Magic’s artwork so much is that it mainly stays within the bounds of imaginative realism; for a great insight to this, I recommend Rhystic Studies’ episode on Steven Belledin. There’s a definite line before this happens, and I think the framing choice can do a lot to restrain the art style from being too dissonant from what has come before. I realize this is completely down to taste, but I don’t think I’m alone in having reservations about how this is executed.

Even with Un-sets, the art style has still largely remained in the realm of imaginative realism. The closest we’ve had to the exploration of further styles are the Secret Lair products, like Goblins or Serum Visions (and three of the four of the Serum Visions arts are still more restrained than Manga-style).  What sets these apart is that they’re supplementary products—they aren’t seen very often in the wild. If these are indeed the showcase styles, we’ll see a lot of them in every format from now on. I think Magic’s art direction is one of the things that sets it apart from other games, and for me, I’d like to keep that distinction.

The final art we’ve seen is this wonderful piece from Dan Mumford:

Dan’s a phenomenal artist, and it’s safe to say that many were hyped to see him return for at least one piece of artwork for Ikoria. Stylistically, this piece is similar to the one above, which could reinforce the use of more animated styles for the showcase cards. Dan sits somewhere closer to that end of the spectrum, so we’ll see. What’s perhaps more intriguing for me is why Vivien is visiting this Behemoth, who her ally is, and what it means. I kinda think it would be cool for her to suffer some amount of hubris in taking on such an entity, maybe biting off a little more than she can chew. The reveal of such a beast also hints at the return of the Elder subtype for some of the creatures of this plane. It seems fitting to have a cycle of mythics or rares bearing the Elder title, especially with the recent willingness to apply it to more than just dragons—in the past couple of years, we’ve had Elder Dinosaurs and Elder Giants too.

Commander 2020

Vorthos stuff aside, what we’re really excited to see are the new cards. So far we don’t have any definitive information beyond some cryptic clues. One piece of information we do have is the name of the Commander decks:

To me, these scream Khans block wedges, and if I had to ascribe a wedge to each, it would be as so:

  • Arcane Maelstrom: Temur
  • Timeless Wisdom: Jeskai
  • Enchanced Evolution: Sultai
  • Ruthless Regiment: Mardu
  • Symbiotic Swarm: Abzan

Obviously this is just speculation, but given each deck has four foil cards, we could easily see a wealth of options for the deck’s Commander, including Partner cards. You could go pretty deep on theory here, but as a lot of the mechanics of the set like Mutate are meant to work together, Partners sounds fun. Kinda like a Sylvia Brightspear/Khorvath Brightflame situation, but with ways to mutate and synergize?

Let’s just assume the decks are Wedges, or at least favor mechanics and strategies that fit that particular phrasing. There are a number of ways in which these decks could come across as same-old, and that’s one thing that puts me on edge a little. We all know Sultai at the moment as the color that can do anything, and just plays value cards. If that’s the case, then I think seeing a more linear and synergistic style would help to turn that color away from value into some more exciting and varied deckbuilding. We already saw that with Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer from C19, and I think giving the Sultai deck a more restrictive theme or Commander might help to keep things fresh.

Similarly, Jeskai has has a lot of spellslinger and top deck manipulation, so I’d love to see some Extra-Combats focused flavor, or a way to draw a bunch of cards for attacking. We constantly see the argument that we can’t give Boros card draw for attacking, so in pairing it with Blue, I don’t see a way that couldn’t be implemented as a style of deck. It’s different enough from the more spell-slingy decks currently in the Jeskai arsenal, that’s for sure.

I think Temur has the most room for creativity here, and if it involves the Maelstrom, then I think we’re probably going to be cascading. What we cascade into, on the other hand, is where the creativity can arise. Maybe cascade-matters, or tying in set-mechanics to cascade, is the way forward? Symbiotic Swarm makes me apprehensive, though. It screams tokens and/or +1/+1 counters, and I really hope it’s a little more diverse than that.

Finally, we come to Ruthless Regiment. If the current trend is anything to go by, we see the most chance of seeing something innovative and exciting in this deck. We’ve seen a lot of mechanically new or experimental cards in the very recent past in White, Boros and Orzhov; I think the current trend is on improving that part of the color pie, specifically with White. We all know it takes a couple  years for changes to trickle through, and I think we’ve seen the few small stones before the avalanche where that’s concerned. Some more White-based reanimation or ramp is the dream, and I’d also love a new Boros legend to build around.

Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths

The Commander decks won’t be the only decks with new cards, though. Ikoria as a set has the potential to make or break Standard, and will signal for whether the in-house teams can balance Standard well enough in the future-future league to spot problem cards. Confidence has of course been shaken, what with Core 20 and Throne of Eldraine both contributing numerous entries to the Banned & Restricted lists for many formats. If we see a strong Standard environment with a metagame that isn’t dominated by one deck, and we don’t see many bans, then I think we’ll all be relieved. And let’s be honest: zero bans is optimal.

Similarly, I’d like to see Simic and Green cards scaled back a little. We’ve been told that Eldraine and Theros are what R&D are aiming for with Standard power levels, but I think the disparity between some of what’s been printed in certain parts of the color pie is starting to show. This is more evident in Commander than it is in Standard, but the rate on some green cards like Questing Beast and The Great Henge, and the sheer amount of space Green is taking in the color pie right now, is a problem.

Ikoria will probably give us a lot of big Green fatties, and I’m hoping that they aren’t too aggressively costed. I’m hoping that any Simic cards will be more inventive than a combination of putting lands into play and/or drawing cards, and I hope that overall we see a cooling off on power level. I don’t think the latter is something we’ll get, but we’ll see.

Unprecedented Release

What’s most uncertain about Ikoria is how we will experience it. Currently, we have provisional physical release dates of April 17 and May 15. In my honest opinion, I can’t see anyone being able to experience an in-store prerelease for Ikoria with the way things stand with the pandemic. As long as I’ve been playing Magic, I haven’t seen this kind of thing happen, and I’m not sure it has before either. I’m hopeful that we can at least pick up prerelease kits and sealed product, whether through home delivery or pick-up, but I’m also fearful that many of us will miss out on experiencing Ikoria like we’d have liked to. I don’t envision many LGSes in Europe, for example, will even be allowed to be trading in May; and too few of them have distribution set up to organize dispatch of prerelease and release kits to their local players.

And that’s if they survive the next few months.

It’s an interesting time to be a Magic player. As much as we’ve a lot of pressure on all of us right now due to the ongoing pandemic, I can trust that Magic will be able to take our minds off of it, at least in part. I hope you and those you hold dearest are safe—let’s delve into Ikoria preview season with an open mind, and an appreciation for at least some stability in our very unstable lives.

Based in the UK, Kristen is a lover of both Limited and Commander, and can most often be found championing the Boros Legion when called upon to sit down and shuffle up.

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