War of the Spark Set Review - Colorless/Colorful
(Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God | Art by Raymond Swanland)
The Big Boys
Welcome to the grab-bag set review! In this review, I'll be addressing the cards that are more than two colors, all Commander-worthy colorless spells, and the lands from War of the Spark. Like everyone else, I am super excited for this set to be released - we've got lots of legends, tons of planeswalkers, and I know that at least for me, nearly every single one of my decks is getting at least 1-5 upgrades. I can't wait to see how it shapes the Commander format in the coming weeks! Ready to look at some cards? Let's get to it.
Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God
This is why the planeswalkers are all here: to battle Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God. With War of the Spark came the addition of static abilities on planeswalkers (beyond the infamous “can be your commander” ability) and Nicol Bolas got one of the best of all: copying all loyalty abilities of all other planeswalkers. Not just your walkers - all other walkers.
There are a lot of things to consider with this ability. He does only start with 4 loyalty, but there are lots of planeswalkers that start with less loyalty and have good ultimate abilities. However, those planeswalkers are often only given small +1 abilities to make it much harder to activate their ultimates - Liliana of the Veil is one such example. Alongside the likes of Proliferate or planeswalkers with +3 or +4 abilities, Bolas can swiftly reduce the amount of time it takes to activate those crazy ultimates. Can you imagine alternating between +4 loyalty from Karn, Liberated and the -6 of Liliana? When you consider effects like that of The Chain Veil, Oath of Teferi, or Teferi, Temporal Archmage, using mutliple of these abilities per turn simply gets ridiculous.
One of the more hilarious interactions with Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God’s static ability is with Jace, Cunning Castaway. Jace's ability will make a copy of himself, but when Nicol Bolas steals that effect, he replace Jace's name with his own. Voila! Tons of nonlegendary Dragon-Gods! (If you want to get really silly, you can also make this happen with Sarkhan, the Masterless to turn Nicol Bolas into a creature, then Equip him with Helm of the Host. Isn't Commander awesome?)
That was just Nicol Bolas's static ability. Let's move to his actual loyalty abilities now. Each of these is monstrous. Drawing a card and forcing everyone else to exile a card from their hand or permanent is an okay effect, but this is assessment is partially due to my personal dislike of giving your opponents choices. I think you generally will use the loyalty abilities of other planeswalkers to increase his loyalty. His -3 is a classic Bolas ability, being able to destroy any creature or planeswalker, but it is very expensive for such a low starting loyalty. His ultimate, however, is absurd. Yes, this is a format where everyone has a legendary creature or planeswalker at the helm of their deck, but that doesn't mean they will always be in play, especially when you can use Bolas's -3 to nuke them out of existence.
I think new Bolas is going to find a happy home in many Grixis decks (especially his own, Nicol Bolas, the Ravager), and while he is not in the correct colors for Atraxa, Praetor’s Voice, he will be a very sought-after inclusion for Superfriends decks of other color combinations. The mana cost is stringent and difficult, but the effect is so darn cool that there's no way he won't see play.
Niv-Mizzet, Reborn is our only commander over two colors, and the only legendary creature that falls under this review. Though he is now all five colors, he is still bound to his affection for Ravnica, focusing on two-color cards. Note the careful wording here - you cannot select any three-color or higher cards with his ability. They must be exactly two colors, and you can only get one card per guild.
There are a few potential places to take new Niv. One option is a Clone and Flicker approach, to capitalize on his ETB ability as much as possible. I’ve even seen a competitive list form with Food Chain, which uses Niv’s ability to filter through your deck very quickly. Regardless of the overall theme, though, the best way to build him will be to include as many two-color cards as possible. Because of his wording, it is important to have a relatively even spread across the guild colors to maximize the potential of grabbing as many cards as possible. Some folks have posited a "Charm and Split Card Tribal" take that also sounds perfect for ensuring a good number of potential targets.
There has been a lot of debate surrounding how effective Niv-Mizzet really is. I personally think he will be more effective in the 99 of a deck that has a lot of gold colors, rather than as the commander; even if there is an even spread of guild-colored cards in your deck, it will be very rare to pull more than five cards off of your library. Then again, as long as you are getting at least three, you're probably pulling ahead. It's a difficult balancing act, which is why I like him in the 99, especially for a commander like Ramos, Dragon Engine decks, as he is an instant activation for Ramos’s ability. If you're looking to build a Ravnica lore deck, though, look no further. The question is, which Niv-Mizzets would you run in your new new Niv-Mizzet deck?
Karn, the Great Creator
Some have claimed that Karn, the Great Creator is the best planeswalker in the set, though I have my hesitations. First, Karn’s static ability is definitely impressive. Shutting down activated abilities of artifacts prevents artifact ramp from functioning and hoses any artifact-focused decks. If that wasn't enough, though, it completely locks down the game for your opponents if you can get Mycosynth Lattice on the field. Everything is an artifact, even their lands, and no one else can tap them for mana. Brutal. It doesn't technically win the game, but it's such a strong lock that it might as well be the end, and since both of those pieces are colorless, it's a lockdown combo that any deck can use.
His loyalty abilities play an important role, too. His +1 ability is good, but not spectacular. That ability honestly seems best for other formats like Standard, where combat is a larger focus than it is in EDH. His final ability is the make-or-break for the title of “the best planeswalker.” It allows you to grab any artifact you own from exile or from outside the game and send it straight to your hand. We've seen two-card combos before (Mikaeus, the Unhallowed + Triskelion for example) but those combos are at least dependent upon finding both pieces. Karn could fetch his Mycosynth Lattice right off the bat, feeding his own combo.
However, I want to acknowledge the following rule for the Commander format:
“Rule 13: Abilities which refer to other cards owned outside the game do not function in Commander without prior agreement on their scope from the playgroup.”
Karn is a really good card for any 60-card format because you are allowed a 15-card sideboard from which you can pick cards that are "outside the game." However, in Commander, there are no sideboards or wishboards. You cannot show up to a MagicFest or any official event and be allowed a wishboard for your Karn, the Great Creator. It does allow you to grab stuff in exile, which does work well with Karn, Liberated and Karn, Scion of Urza, but otherwise doesn’t do much. It is for this reason that I do not value Karn as highly as others - he's not guaranteed to fetch a Mycosynth Lattice from outside the game because there might not be an outside the game. In that regard, it doesn't feel too different from a combo like Mike + Trike.
Of course, playgroups can individually agree to their scope for 'outside the game' if they would like to allow them. They might agree that 'outside the game' means a 15-card Sideboard, or "anything in my house where we're playing," or other such examples. This would allow any player to grab that Mycosynth Lattice to lock the game, Krark-Klan Ironworks to activate a combo, or a Blightsteel Colossus to present a massive threat on the board. Therefore, I think that the power level and usefulness of this card is directly correlated to what your playgroup allows you to do with it.
Ugin, the Ineffable
It is easy to see that Ugin is a monster in colorless decks. Not only does he reduce the cost of any colorless spell by two mana, but now any 1- or 2-CMC colorless spells cost 0. This is absurd for artifact-heavy decks that want to combo off by casting and recasting their artifacts, such as Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain.
In addition, Ugin has a pseudo-Manifest ability, effectively turning a card from the top of your library into a 2/2 that returns to your hand if it would leave the battlefield. Last but not least, he can destroy any colored permanent. It's like a cheaper Spine of Ish Sah... that also makes your Spine of Ish Sah cheaper!
Overall, he’s going to find his best place in artifact-heavy decks and colorless decks with one of the Eldrazi titans at the helm to capitalize on his static ability. In addition, he will have a very niche (but I think successful) role in colored Eldrazi tribal Devoid decks, often helmed by commanders such as Animar, Soul of Elements. Don't be surprised to find him floating around in mono-colored decks, either; black and red, for example, occasionally run Meteor Golem to destroy enchantments they're otherwise unable to remove, and this is a cheaper option that could also potentially add some extra cards to their hand! He's not nearly as good as the original Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, but that's an extremely high bar to clear. This Ugin is still extremely neat and should become extremely popular extremely soon.
I have very mixed feelings about Firemind Vessel. It is not often that we see something say, “Tap: add two mana of different colors.” I would be much happier if this either cost one mana less or entered the battlefield untapped. As is, I think some players are going to overvalue this card, and treat it as better than it actually is.
Naturally, this should never be played in mono-colored decks, aside from unique theft decks like Gonti, Lord of Luxury, where you may need unique access to multiple colors to cast your opponents’ spells or use non-black abilities. In addition, it is probably not worth running over something like Fellwar Stone in two-color decks - Fellwar Stone will almost always get you at least one of your colors, and a two-drop is usually where you'll want your ramp to begin, rather than at four. It could certainly be a budget option in three-color decks, though if one of those colors is green, you know you have better options.
However, once you get to four color decks, this becomes much more attractive, particularly in budget decks when you might not be using a lot of fetch lands to fix mana. This is even more true in five color decks. Personally, I would not run this in anything less than four colors, and would probably need a lot of convincing or some artifact synergy to run it in a four-color deck.
Making things hard for your opponent is a consistent trend in the Commander format, and God-Pharaoh's Statue does this well. Putting your opponents behind is effectively similar to pushing yourself ahead. The second ability, pinging players over time, isn't very important - that first ability is definitely the most interesting one, and while this statue is six mana, an expensive cost is definitely justified, because this could go into any deck.
Overall, I see this mostly being played in Stax decks, particularly in Azorius, such as Grand Arbiter Augustin IV, decks that really want to make life difficult for their opponents by increasing costs on all spells.
Engineered Explosives is $30 for a reason, and a good artifact for Commander and Modern. Selecting specific numbers to target specific mana costs is great manipulation of the board state.
Blast Zone is extremely similar in concept and execution, with various positive and negative comparisons. For one thing, it is a land. This both means that it is harder to target and remove than an artifact, and that it can produce mana until the explosive effect is needed. The main downside is that it enters the battlefield with a charge counter on it. Unless you can remove the charge counter, this is going to have no potential effect against tokens, which is one of the really good uses for Engineered Explosives.
However, while it can’t hit zero-cost creatures, it is able to hit high-cost creatures. Engineered Explosives, without the assistance of Proliferate effects, is only able to hit a maximum of five charge counters. Blast Zone is a subtly ticking bomb, one your opponents may even forget about until it's took late and you're able to destroy all their three-drops, and since it only costs a land slot, the upside is definitely present. They both have their uses, and I think we will be seeing a lot of Blast Zone in the near future, especially in decks like mono-red and mono-black to assist with enchantment removal, or in any counter-manipulating deck that can add extra counters and threaten to blow up any permanents they desire.
Karn's Bastion is a Superfriends player’s dream. This card is going to see a lot of play in any deck that thrives on counters, whether it's -1/-1, +1/+1, experience, poison, or loyalty counters. Creatures that Proliferate, for the most part, are both fragile to removal or have to meet specific conditions to Proliferate, such as Thrummingbird dealing combat damage. In this case, all you need is to sink some extra mana, and it can be mana of any color. That's absurd.
When looking at the Top Commanders on EDHREC, we can see that several of them thrive on counters - Atraxa, Meren, Ezuri - and I expect this to very swiftly rise to the role of Commander staple in all of those decks.
Mobilized District is the least exciting land from this set for Commander, but I still feel like it deserved a slot in this review. It’s main uses will likely be in 'legendary matters' decklists (Captain Sisay, for example, or Arvad the Cursed) where you have quite a lot of legends that will reduce the activation cost and create a surprise creature land at a moment's notice. Alternatively, if your deck thrives on creature lands, such as Noyan Dar, Roil Shaper, then this will be another potentially useful card, especially since it's nice to have a land than can attack and still tap for mana later one.
Those examples are fairly niche, though, and outside of them, paying three mana for a vigilant 3/3 (assuming your commander is in play) just doesn't seem worth it compared to some of our other utility land options.
The use of Emergence Zone is short and sweet. It is a one-shot Alchemist’s Refuge that costs only one mana in addition to sacrificing the land. While sacrificing the land isn’t great, being able to throw out massive sorceries or creatures on an opponent's turn to protect yourself (or for it to lose summoning sickness on your following turn, amounting to a surprise attacker) can be incredibly useful, and this lets you do exactly that.
In addition, this effect lasts an entire turn, so with enough mana, you can potentially cast several spells. This is nice to see, as Vedalken Orrery has increased dramatically in price, and flash in a colorless land allows more versatility in decks outside blue and green, where flash is currently most centralized.
I actually think people might undervalue this card simply because it's a one-shot effect. Don't be fooled. Even just keeping mana up to threaten to activate this land will keep opponents on their toes. Sometimes you only need one activation to change a game. This can go in any deck, and it will work very well in any deck. Give it a try. You won't be sorry.
Well, that's the end of this set review for War of the Spark! Which colorless/colorful cards are you looking forward to most? If you think I misevaluated any cards, underestimated any of them, overestimated any of them, or if there were some I missed that you think are worth mentioning, let me know in the comments below! I wish you all the best in the coming prereleases!