What follows is a list of the top 5 sets of 2016. Anything that was more than just a single product to buy qualified as a set (Like, a From the Vault or Anthology collection could not be considered a set). It could be a set with all new cards, all reprints, or something in between. Now, how I’m ranking these sets is going to be different than you’re used to. Sure, there’s going to be a design aspect bent to it, but I’m not going to favor a set on its limited environment, Standard viability, Modern impact or if it had the best Commanders. Ok, there might be a little Commander bias, but not much. Not one set is going to be ranked higher because of a single card’s presence; it’s got to be the whole package. Got it? Good.
#5 – Shadows Over Innistrad
Can you go home again? I don’t know but Wizards sure tried. In the follow up to the original visit to the Gothic Horror plane from 2011 and 2012, we went back to see what has happened since Avacyn, um, Restored it. Everything went back to the way it was and the angel that was assigned to protect the people were now being slaughtered by her? Great job, Sorin. You’re batting 1.000 with the women in your life.
In coming back to Innistrad, we knew there were going to be several things: horror, tribal, graveyard based shenanigans and double face cards. All of these returned and people were joyous. What we also were treated to was a crime noir where we followed Gumshoe Jace and played Where on the Plane is Avacyn Markov? Is she a Markov? Sure, let’s run with that. Here we got the most interesting “new” mechanic of the set: Investigate. The mana sink mechanic of the block for drafting, there were some fun cards that took advantage of it like Thraben Inspector, Tireless Tracker and Ulvenwald Mysteries. Of course, the mystery of what was going on wasn’t too hard to figure out if you paid attention to the art or what Wizards was trying to do with expanding the multiverse with a continuous storyline of the Gatewatch. You thought you were trying to be sneaky Emrakul? The story works, but it wasn’t something else that more players wanted.
Ignore all that story stuff, look at the art. O. M. G. (Do people still say that anymore? Do I need to say fleek?) The flavor and worldbuilding of this set is up there with anything Wizards has done. If you haven’t picked up the “Art of Innistrad” book do so, it’s so choice. Sure, the set is able to ride the success of the last time we were here but it had to up its game in order to lead up to the hype that was this set. It has some of the most brutal and twisted art Magic had ever had. That was until Eldritch Moon came out a few months later and everything on Innistrad took a turn for the worst. There is not a single peaceful art in this set and those that aren’t horrors beyond imagination, like the lands, you’re just waiting for a jump scare like it was the early 2000’s internet.
The set was able to succeed where Battle for Zenidkar didn’t because it felt like a continuation of the Innistrad plane and this was just another aspect that we weren’t able to focus on from the first time around. Of course, there were plenty of call backs to the two blocks it’s based on: Innistrad and the original graveyard block: Odyssey. A graveyard mechanic based on or slightly tweaked from Odyssey block (Innistrad – Flashback, Shadows – Threshold knockoff Delirium); Madness – Shadows, Odyssey; Discarding matters – Shadows/Odyssey; Werewolves – All; Delver of Secrets storyline – Innistrad/Shadows, the reprints with the same art (Dead Weight, Gloomwidow); The enemy colored lands (Innistrad/Shadows). Even the concept of change on a single card, something that Wizards told us was a horror trope and lead to the creation of the double-faced mechanic, works with the Threshhold/Delirium keyword because of what you have in your past (your graveyard) affects who you are right now.
In all, this was a beautiful set that works together well. No, it’s not as great as Innistrad was but that’s a tough task to live up to and so far it’s the best large set of a plane we’ve returned to. (Scars of Mirrodin, Return to Ravnica, Battle for Zendikar).
#4 – Oath of the Gatewatch
And this is where your competitive Magic groaning doesn’t matter in this list. No, Oath did not ruin Modern, you can blame Worldwake and Rise of the Eldrazi for that with its fast mana. The Eldrazi, by themselves, are fair and fit within the boundaries of the Color Pie that I hold dearly (as you can see by my name). They toe up to the line, but what really makes Oath work is Colorless Mana.
Quick aside, I know that Surge and, what’s the other mechanic, the one with +1/+1 counters? Oh yeah, Support. Look, I know that both of those aren’t the greatest keywords, Surge wasn’t put on anything too interesting besides Crush of Tentacles and Support is so bland it should have been called “Her?”. Yes, Arrested Development jokes in your year-end review; it’s more likely than you think.
The embracing of Colorless made it something that players have been asking for years: a sixth color. While, and this is important, it is NOT a color, It acts just a like a new color: it has a mana symbol and its own special costs to pay for it. While most people were thinking Purple as the new color, the fact that it would destroy the color pie if it was added means that we’ll never get a new color (plus the change for all the old cards that reference five colors, the basic land types, and even the back of the card). With colorless, you can almost do what you want as long as it’s off kilter. The Eldrazi have always been weird so why not embrace it with this concept?
If artifacts can be put into any deck (and we’ve seen the trouble that’s caused us in Urza Block, Mirrodin Block and, now), the thing that prevents these cards from being in every deck is the colorless aspect. Most decks are multiple colors so to “add in” a third color of colorless just to splash an effect is pretty hard to do. The lands or artifacts require then need to make a colorless mana instead of just colored ones. Sure, mono-blue decks can now run a -x toughness card in Spatial Contortion but how is that any different than if they were to use Nameless Inversion and splash Black?
Were Reality Smasher and Thought-Knot Seer a little pushed? Yeah, but Wizards has done that plenty of times when they was to promote a new mechanic or idea (See: Umezawa’s Jitte, Jace the Mindsculptor and Smuggler’s Copter). Again, the real damage that the Eldrazi from Oath caused were when it was mixed with older cards that lowered their casting cost (When Rise of the Eldrazi was released, no Eldrazi spell was less than 7 mana). Design can shift slightly to help benefit the metagame by stopping the spread of random powerful artifacts from going into every deck if they just add the colorless symbol. It’s another tool that they can use like Hybrid that I’m sure will make its way back into another set. Should Colorless should have been introduced in Battle for Zendikar? Yeah, that might have been the better move, I’m not going to argue that.
Also, in case you didn’t notice it, all the Expeditions in Battle of Zendikar had colored mana symbols if they had any at all and the ones in Oath had colorless ones, which tied in nicely with the new colorless mana symbols they were debuting.
#3 – Commander 2016
And here’s where my Commander bias peeks out. From what we can see at the moment, there’s no one true must have card for Legacy in this deck. There’s still a popular deck that’s sold out everywhere, the Atraxa non-red deck, but other than that this looks like another very sold entry into the Commander series.
Breaking into four color territory, we finally checked off the box that players had been asking about for years: four color Commanders. Luckily, with Partner, a mechanic I didn’t think would work, Wizards has the ability to make this keyword every year in the Commander product to give everyone more four color Commanders every year and more choices to build with. That’s always a good thing.
When we get into the new cards, there are a few standouts: Selfless Squire, Deepglow Skate, Cruel Entertainment, Primeval Protector, Boompile and my favorite card in the set: Ash Barrens. This is the one set a year that Wizards can throw crazy ideas into a set, especially multiplayer ones, like they did in the old days of design. There’s no story here or how they have to fit it into a certain plane, unless that’s a theme for one of the upcoming ones and to that I say, bring it on). And let’s talk about the reprints.
Ghostly Prison (two reprints in one year), Revillark, Swords to Plowshares, Arcane Denial, Ethersworn Adjudicator, Master of Etherium, Propaganda, Beacon of Unrest, Chaos Warp, Daretti, Godo, Past in Flames, Wheel of Fate, Burgeoning (another two reprint card), Kalonian Hydra, Lurking Predators, Oath of Druids, Scavenging Ooze, Tempt with Discovery, Baleful Strix (two reprints), Bloodbraid Elf (two reprints), Ghave, Hanna, Iroas, Master Biomancer, Nath of the Gilt-Leaf, Progenitor Mimic (one of only 4 expensive cards in Dragon’s Maze), Zedruu, Chromatic Lantern, Solemn Simulacrum, Soul of New Phyrexia, Venser’s Journal, Darkwater Catacombs, Forbidden Orchard, Homeward Path, Karplusan Forest, Murmuring Bosk, Myriad Landscape, Reliquary Tower, Shadowblood Ridge, Sungrass Prairie, Underground River
Though next year could we find some new cards to reprint over and over? Sol Ring, Skullclamp, Swiftfoot Boots, Solemn Simulacrum, Necinyrral’s Disk, Myr Battlesphere, Darksteel Ingot, Temple of the False God, Reliquary Tower, all need a little break from the Commander series. And I love several of those cards but I don’t need to be seeing them every year or 3 out of 4 years of the product. Command Tower, you can stay.
The Commander series continues to end up as one of the best sets year after year as the mix of new and old cards work great with the casual format that Wizards is trying to promote. You always know you’re going to get good cards out of the 100 decks, and that’s a comforting thing to have in your mind.
#2 –Conspiracy: Take the Crown
In most any other year, this would take the top spot. We’ll get into how crazy this set is, but the real travesty of this release is the fact that we spent so little time with it. Released at a time where we normally breathe before a new large set is debuted, Take the Crown seemed more like an afterthought than an event that it should have been. Wizards was promoting this set and building the flavor and lore up then two weeks later it’s Kaladesh and only Kaladesh. Maybe it was the fear of having so many boxes unsold like last time (I don’t know if it was an overprinting or just underperforming, but boxes of Conspiracy were just available whenever you wanted them for the longest time), but this set needs to be celebrated.
Designed as a multiplayer set to draft and all the funky ways you can mess with the pre-game setup, Conspiracy was a hit with fans enough to warrant a sequel. No one expected it, but everyone wanted it. Take the Crown is like Terminator 2 if Conspiracy was Terminator. With the new Monarch mechanic (grammar mistake and all, it’s not like I don’t have that problem), heavy is the head that wears the crown. You get benefits for being the monarch but then everyone had a reason to get after you. I don’t like game where no one attacks to does anything so this worked on that dynamic with great success.
Plus the drafting cards, where it mattered what you drafted, makes a skill much more valuable than it was before. This set has inspired me to make a Conspiracy Cube as that’s the best way to experience the wackiness over and over again. Drafting a Conspiracy set is an experience that needs to be celebrated more instead of just the sideshow it was given to this time. It doesn’t feel forced like Coldsnap where it was Wizards first attempt at a drafting matter set.
I feel Conspiracy is where Wizards shifts from Standard thinking and moves to more creative, fun design. The cards that come from supplemental sets feel more relaxed and less “let’s don’t screw up Standard” because they don’t. It’s as if normal releases is Wizards in a business suit while these supplemental “non-Standard” releases as when Wizards loosen their tie, grabs a beer and gets magically transported to a beach because hey, that’s what happens when you drink kids (Don’t underage drink kids, please drink responsibly and don’t use teleporter devices while under the influence).
With a supplemental set like this sold in booster packs, Wizards can go for broke with their designs. In Commander, if there’s a card in one deck that’s powerful and can disrupt an older format, then that deck is going to be sold out and it won’t get into the casual player’s hands like Wizards want it to. With Conspiracy being sold in boosters, all that happens is that more booster will be sold. They’re free to push designs more than just a Commander focus (but that helps with the Legendary creatures). Leovold, Sanctum Prelate, Recruiter of the Guard, Selvala, Daretti, Kaya, and Expropriate are all worth money and see play in Legacy and Commander. It’s here that you can put the powerful reprints: No one expected Show and Tell, Berserk, Inquisition of Kozilek, Burgeoning, Phyrexian Arena or Serum Visions to be printed here. Damnation is still being left out in the cold but we can wait for the next reprint set for the hype to build back up again (It’s gotta be in Modern Masters 2017, right?)
Conspiracy should’ve been a one and done idea but people have enjoyed the concept. This experiment, because anything new is an experiment, was a success. Magic is all about change and what embraces that better than a drafting format that always changes when you draft (itself an always changing setup with random booster packs). I’m not saying Take the Crown has the best limited format ever, but it does enough and is unique enough to make it enjoyable. This Conspiracy series might be the only time where drafting is more fun than playing. Switch out the non-drafting cards and you’ve got a good skeleton for a cube. The reprints and the new cards are just meat for those bones, and baby, you’ve got a stew brewin’.
#1 – Kaladesh
Kaladesh might be one of the most important sets in the past few years, but for this year it’s taken top honors as the best set released in 2016. A few reasons why:
1) Stories don’t have to involve the end of the world. We just visited two planes both dealing with horror and Eldrazi and if the planes were going to survive. That’s a very common theme in most Magic blocks because Magic is a game built on conflict and combat. With Kaladesh, we were treated to a science fair gone wrong. We needed something lighter storywise and even though there will be a revolution in Aether Revolt, it doesn’t seem world ending. The desire to see planes once again has, I believe, changed around some story ideas in creative; you can’t constantly end the plane or why it made it unique (hence the “reboot” in Shadows Over Innistrad). The art in this set is some of the best of the game, don’t we always say that, and this is Magic’s take on an Indian Steampunk culture, so that’s something new.
2) The Inventions (Masterpiece Series). Following the success of the Zendikar Expeditions (which itself references and the never acknowledged “Hidden Treasures” promotion from the original Zendikar), there are going to be chase reprint cards in future sets to help get more of them into circulation. This is a net positive. So far they look gorgeous and a good idea for people who want to collect higher end cards or players who don’t want them and to trade them away to those who do want them for what they need. It causes more boxes to be opened which creates prices to go down since the market is flooded with them and sells more product. However, I’m very curious to see how long this lasts as what happens in two years’ time and the top 200 cards are reprinted (50 for each block). There’s going to be a point of diminishing returns for these cards, so just be cautions.
3) Vehicles. While there have been some hiccups in the development of this new card type (not a surprise), this is something that has truly felt alien to Magic. We don’t get guns but cars/ships are okay? This might work in different environments better, I can see a pirate ship or other usual fantasy tropes, but at the moment it makes it feel as if it’s not really Magic. The concept and the execution work but for the flavor itself, automobiles in a world without Ornithopters (this part was written before the Aether Revolt Masterpieces were revealed), could only be introduced during an artifact block. Aetherflux Reservoir is a huge death ray, but we can’t use a death ray in Magic if it’s not “Magic”. This is the main issue with artifact blocks is that it changes from a hugely fantasy feel to pushing the boundaries of sci-fi. I would be okay with it if Magic swung that way more often but they really don’t want to. So while the concept of Vehicles worked, the flavor perspective behind them still needs a little bit getting used to.
4) Energy. Again, this makes sense because of the environment we’re currently in. We don’t see or need Energy on Zendikar nor Alara, but it’s uniquely Kaladesh. Just like double faced cards with Innistrad, when (because it’s not really an if) we return to Kaladesh, we’ll see Energy once again as this is what we’ll associate with this plane. The setup and execution for this mechanic works well I believe with the lessons learned from Kamigawa and the parasitic mechanic known as Arcane. For those who didn’t play, let’s see, 12 years ago? Uh, I am getting old. Arcane worked with a keyword called “Splice” for “Splice onto Arcane.” You could add another card’s wording onto a card you cast without the first card leaving your hand. I love the concept, except Wizards tied the keyword to a subset of spells called “Arcane” which were the spirit spells of that block. The kicker is this: Arcane only exists on Kamigawa. Those cards can only work with that mechanic printed 12 years ago.
So with Energy, the big bonus is that for most cards that require the spending of Energy, they also have a way to create it as well, sometimes reoccurring other times as a one shot. This was important to get the cards acceptance into other formats because just Kaladesh. Cards like Confiscation Coup can work by itself just fine in Commander, but if you do have Energy cards, it becomes more powerful. Without the cards being able to function by themselves, I would’ve called this a failed mechanic but I think it’s just great in small doses and only in supplemental sets or Return to the Rise of Kaladesh, 2020.
5) Fabricate. Way better than Oath of the Gatwatch’s +1/+1 counter mechanic, um, Subsidize? It’s just so elegant and the “invent your future” tagline, you can decide to pump your guy or create more. It’s this type of game design that makes some memorable gameplay because you can’t almost never feel bad with one decision or the other. It’s created some of my favorite designs (Angel of Invention) as you get what you want from it. It’s too bad that this mechanic doesn’t seem like it gets more love in this set but this is something that we can expect in a future set rather easily.
Why is Kaladesh one of the most important sets in the past few years? A bold claim I know. It’s the ability to rework a much liked theme, Artifacts, into a new environment (building artifacts instead of the living artifacts of Mirrodin), while working in a new non-parasitic resource mechanic, Energy, and giving us a new card type, Vehicles, and making the set mesh together rather well. Shards of Alara tried something new with multicolor so soon after Shadowmoor tried something new soon after Ravnica tried something new after Invasion. All of those sets had their own identity which is something you need to differentiate between multicolor sets. But if you changed the names, and the art around, Kaladesh card designs could fit into Mirrodin. In fact, Energy was originally designed to be on Mirrodin. A complete rehash of the concept is key here because we know that there is still plenty of space to explore in familiar territory. Kaladesh is polished and a ton of care was put into making this work. It’s not that Wizards doesn’t do that normally, but it seems like every T was dotted and I crossed when it comes to Kaladesh.
Well, except for that missing Energy token from booster packs.