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New Phyrexia Black & Red Design Review

Hello again! This is part 2 (of 3) of my design review of New Phyrexia. Design reviews are like most set reviews, except instead of telling you boring stuff like how highly to pick a common in draft or taking a wild guess at a card’s constructed value without designing a deck first, I tell you what I think about the design of the cards. Are they interesting? Why are they here? Let’s find out!

Black

Blind Zealot

Oh cool, there is a minicycle of these in this set. Unlike Impaler Shrike, it should be a lot more clear most of the time whether you should sacrifice Blind Zealot or not. It’s not all that different from Hideous End, really. You deal 2 to them and kill their best guy. There’s also the “snake time” you get before you sac it. By which I mean this card acts as a snake (the multiplayer politics meaning), hovering around and saying “don’t put out anything that threatens me, or I’ll kill it!”

Caress of Phyrexia

Aww c’mon! We couldn’t get Kiss of Phyrexia here? Well, even though they missed on perfect naming, the design here is a big hit. Before I left R&D, I overheard, and was involved in, more than one conversation about using poison as a cost for a spell. It doesn’t work out, because if the spell is any good, you put whatever number of them that wouldn’t add up to 10 poison into your deck and get a big advantage without every really paying the poison cost. Caress of Phyrexia avoids this problem by taking 3 life and giving 3 poison, so that you feel some cost no matter what. It can also function as a poison kill spell, of which there are extremely few. Note that even if you think that the math is better with other numbers (like 4 life and 2 poison), the 3-3-3 makes the card easier to parse and to remember. Aligning numbers is a much bigger deal than you think, not just on individual cards, but across mechanics.

Chancellor of the Dross

This might be the best one of this cycle. The life drain itself sounds excellent, but doesn’t affect the board state like some of the other abilities do, so it doesn’t make the opponent feel that you lucked them into a big disadvantage. Even better, is the fact that gaining 3 life gives you more time to cast this 7-mana monstrosity before you are killed by a faster deck. Then, if you’re behind but manage to stick it, the lifegain will get you back in the game in a hurry.

Dementia Bat

A fine black flier / discard spell. May lead to some interesting decisions and interesting plays. Clearly not meant to be a powerhouse, this card does a good job of filling a black common slot. It’s new and different from previous cards while remaining simple enough and staying well within Blacks wheelhouse.

Despise

I am surprised to see this card. Last I checked (admittedly a while ago) R&D was intentionally avoiding writing “planeswalker” on cards. The feeling was that since creatures killed them, it was too heavy-handed to make answers that only hit planeswalkers. I guess this indicates a change of heart on the matter. All that aside, this is another good Duress variation; getting creatures and planeswalkers (and noteably leaving non-creature artifacts unscathed) might make it better than Inquisition of Kozilek. Since expensive sorceries seem to be totally out of fashion these days, I’d just play both.

Dismember

You know they’ve been saving this name of a saucy removal spell! A serviceable use of Phyrexian mana (not too creative, but pretty cool), it’s almost Vendetta-like in many situations.

Enslave

Yay! I love Enslave (not sure why, I just do) so I’m happy to see it reprinted. Good choice too as it already has the “lose 1 life” theme going.

Entomber Exarch

Aaron was on this set? He loves him some Gravediggers. Probably was created in design, but still. I really like that this solves the Gravedigger conundrum, when you have nothing dead and only this to cast to pressure your opponent. Having said that, I bet the first time I draw this both my opponent’s hand and my graveyard will be empty. [Note: Between writing and publication I played in the Prerelease, and the first time I chose the discard option my opponent showed me two land and three creatures. I lost that game.]

Evil Presence

I guess 1B and draw a card would be asking too much? Another reprint, in case you were not aware. Also in case you were not aware: the Phyrexians are evil. Pure, concentrated evil. Don’t touch it.

Geth’s Verdict

Continuing the “lose 1 life” theme… the life loss almost seems silly next to the edict effect, but it’s a fine card design.

Glistening Oil

Very interesting. This newest member of the Takklemaggot family tells a neat story. A story of evil and corrutpion. A story of the slow descent into the cold dark night. Actually, maybe it’s more like Unstable Mutation? It sort of doubles the power of the creature you put it on before slowly shrinking it. I don’t expect you to use it on your own guys very much, though. Against a deck without any infect, the first of these is almost certainly a Doom Blade, but the fourth one might not be such a great idea. See? I told you it would be interesting.

Grim Affliction

Cool. I like the way proliferate is used on the spells in NPH. This card reminds me of the Blight mechanic from GDS2. The first one sets up the curse, and each subsequent one progresses the curse and sets up a new curse. (If used on a creature with greater than 2 toughness in the first place, that is.) I think this card will be a lot of fun to play, and I hope the charge-counter decks will be a lot more interesting in NMS drafts. [Note: At the prerelease, I cast this targeting my own Carnifex Demon. You can kill multiple 5-toughness creatures with that combo.]

Ichor Explosion

This is no Disaster Radius, that’s for sure. This design bothers me a bit, I think because it feels so useless. Even in casual games, a 7-mana wrath is pretty weak, and this one requires you to sacrifice a creature. More than that, you have to sacrifice a creature with power equal to or greater than the toughness of their biggest guy. If you have that, you probably don’t need to wrath them. Certainly not for 7 mana. I’m not saying it actually is useless. If you have a big guy, and they have several small guys and you don’t want to get multi-blocked, you can use this and a small guy you have lying around to kill all the small guys and leave your fatty alive. You, know like Infest would do. I don’t want to say this design is disappointing because it’s weak, but because it misleads players into thinking it will do something, when it really won’t (or at least not that a card like infest does just as well with less complication).

Life’s Finale

A much more interesting wrath. Players love removing threats from their opponent’s decks, they love it! This design lets you feel very satisfied that you killed their guy and they won’t be drawing another one. Just don’t pull out their Vengevines.

Mortis Dogs

This is cute. It sort of has that Green “can deal combat damage if blocked” thing, but worded in a Black way. Anyone want to build the Fling combo deck with this guy? So right there, that’s why this is a great design, despite being a relatively simple card. You can imagine big upsides and cool things to do with it.

Parasitic Implant

Designs that tell stories, episode 347. A pretty gross and very Phyrexian story at that.

Phyrexian Obliterator

I found it very easy to make mistakes with Phyrexian Negator. This design, on the other hand, should avoid that problem quite nicely (your opponent will make mistakes against it, however). It was a great idea to take that classic and make the all-upside version. This might be Black’s Baneslayer Angel. I certainly would think twice about blocking it with one.

Pith Driller

Another Phyrexian mana filler card. Perhaps I’m judging the use of Phyrexian mana too harshly, but “this could be cheaper for life” seems like an extraordinarily spikey mechanic, and it’s hard to consider the design of cards that use it without thinking if the card is exciting to cast the alternate way. This one certainly is not. I’d rather have Bala Ged Scorpion, Skinrender, Blister Beetle, or well, almost anything, really. The ability is nice, and fits the set, at least.

Postmortem Lunge

Looks like a Gruesome Encore variant to me. Does this block have a higher than usual number of similar cards in the different sets? Maybe I never paid enough attention to that before. Well, Postmortem Lunge and Gruesome Encore each only hit one graveyard, not both, so they’re different enough. This use of Phyrexian mana falls into the approved group for me. The X in the cost can always make that extra mana matter, and I can imagine aggro decks of other colors being interested in having access to this card.

Praetor’s Grasp

This effect looks like fun. I certainly like this design. I find it a little odd that they went with double-black in the mana cost. Isn’t this just the sort of effect you want to allow into 4 and 5 color decks? Perhaps they didn’t want you to always be able to play everything in their deck. Note that artifacts, the theme of this block, are particularly vulnerable to this effect.

Reaper of Sheoldred

What a cool poison ability! It combines well with the stats to put your opponent in a tight spot. How interesting would it be on a 2/2? A 3/1? Actually, still pretty interesting, because the ability is very cool. The stats they actually chose are probably some of the most interesting and situation-creating, and that’s likely why they chose them.

Sheoldred, Whispering One

Yowza! Now that is a mythic rare design! Black has had a bunch of “you sacrifice a guy each turn” fatties in recent years, but I think this one takes the cake. The combination of sacrifice and reanimation will give the game a feeling of inexorable doom. (Be sure to read the name as “she-old-red” it’s funnier that way.)

Surgical Extraction

This is a fine use of Phyrexian mana, for the same reason Faerie Macabre works the way it does. Graveyard combos are best broken up by free instant abilities. In general I’m avoiding constructed comments, but here’s an exception: useful against Vengevine, and perhaps some vintage stuff. Not very useful otherwise.

Toxic Nim

Infect & regeneration sound like fun, but they’re actually a pretty annoying combo to have to deal with. Hence the 1 toughness and general low-power of this card.

Vault Skirge

A cool use of Phyrexian mana. The lifelink here is what really sells it for me. Surely you’ll make up that 2 life very soon, right? (Yes, but you would have been ahead 2 more life – it’s really more about how much life is worth to you in this particular game.)

Whispering Specter

Another member of the “when do I sacrifice it” family. I’m pretty sure the answer is “as soon as the opponent has the same number of cards in hand as they have poison counters” but don’t quote me on that. Infect creatures always seem more valuable to me than non-infect creatures, so I feel I’d be afraid to sacrifice one, but maybe I’ve played too many drafts where I started infect but then it was cut off from me.

Coolest / Most Exciting: Phyrexian Obliterator (it wasn’t close)
Most Interesting Design: Caress of Phyrexia (but there are many pretty close choices)

Red

Act of Aggression

The big secret about “gain control” spells is that the Instants are ten times better than the Sorceries. This 5-mana effect will certainly be worth 4 life and 3 mana on many occasions, and therefore I approve of this use of Phyrexian mana. It feels Phyrexian to use your stuff against you, of course, so no surpise that such a spell might be part of their arsenal. Everyone thinks of this as the Blue card, Ray of Command (and indeed, the wording is identical), but the first such effect appeared on Disharmony, a Red card in Legends. Disharmony spells out exactly how to best use the card – take and attacker before blockers are declared – by forcing you to only use it in exactly that way. To a designer this is of particular interest. Is a design better if it is narrow but clear in flavor and instructive on how to play magic with greater skill, or more open ended? All the cards that followed in Disharmony’s footsteps chose the latter. There are about a dozen such cards, half Sorcery and half Instant.

Artillerize

This Goblin Grenade gives you the “or artifact” option, of course, as it is in an artifact block. Another good card to keep the sacrifice decks rolling along. Red has had a few cards like this over the years, and 5 damage turns out to be the correct amount almost every time. (Goblin Grenade, Magma Rift, Shrapnel Blast, Fiery Conclusion; okay exactly every time. On that note, this should probably cost 3 mana, not 4.)

Bludgeon Brawl

I have to love this, it reads like a card I would design, or at least it reads like a card I would like to have designed. It tells a great story too, everybody grabs a priceless magical artifact and starts bashing each other’s heads in with them. Note the repeated use of X here for all variables. Using the only number all artifacts have – a converted mana cost. I suppose you could make the equip cost always be 2. That might have made a more powerful card… actually I think I would have done it that way, even if it means there’s another number on the card. A heckava lot of equipment has an equip cost of 2, which is why I think setting it to 2 wouldn’t be confusing.

Chancellor of the Forge

Free turn-1, hasty goblin is pretty sweet for an goblin-based red deck. This ability seems pretty innocuous, and probably won’t feel to unfair as an opening-hand effect, but it may be very deadly. I don’t like the wording of the second ability, because it’s so bad on an empty board. You cast a 7-mana guy and all you get is a virtual vanilla 5/5 and a 1/1? Yuck. I would have picked a number and given you that many goblins. Or I might have considered making this a Goblin lord – giving them a massive +3/+3 or something sexy like that. Well, I suppose if you have 3 guys when you cast this you’re getting 9 power for 7 mana. Not bad, but just not very exciting to me as the second ability on this card.

Fallen Ferromancer

Oh baby! Infect (or Wither) + pinging = sick. That’s an equation we all learned in Shadowmoor, and it’s rarely delivered all at once. Add to that the fact that Infect makes this a ping-for-2 against the opponent’s face and this is quite an exciting card. You don’t want this effect to become too annoying, so even at uncommon you have to weigh it down a bit with slightly higher mana and activation costs.

Flameborn Viron

Yep.

Furnace Scamp

A pretty interesting way to make a 1-mana 1/1 cool. This is extremely efficient damage against an opponent’s face (better than Lightning Bolt, in damage:mana ratio). This card also has another red magic number: 3. You almost always get 3 damage when you sacrifice a guy, or when your guy dies. It’s enough to make the card feel threating and have a real effect on the game, but not so much it can take out a big creature.

Geosurge

Not sure why this is restricted to creature spells. Oh well and artifacts – but that part is obvious. Once you are restricting it, clearly artifacts are OK if we’re in Mirrodin. Why restrict it at all? That aside, going from 4 mana to 7 mana puts this in an interesting spot. It gets you to Inferno Titan, Chancellor of the Forge, Spine of Ish Sah… not too shabby! I don’t know about you, but to me Red having spell-speed extra mana still seems like a “change” in the color. It’s been that way for a really long time now, though. Mind you, it is a change that I completely approve of.

Gut Shot

This design seems both obvious and dull to me. The obvious cards are often correct to make, but I can’t help but feel this is a waste of a card slot. It’s a correct use of Phyrexian mana, and it’s giving players the card they expected to see… but still too boring for me.

Invader Parasite

This is a cool use of Imprint. It’s a 3/2 stone rain guy, but it uses Imprint to create an Ankh of Mishra for just one type of land. Great idea, well executed.

Moltensteel Dragon

Great use of Phyrexian Mana. Firebreathing will always be interesting with life-payment, because it gives a great risk-reward decision to its controller. Also, I am really happy to see a powerful Dragon card here. So few of the recent Dragons have been worth playing in constructed, which makes me very sad. They’re the #1 most awesome creature type, and they never get to show up in top decks. There should be one in every block, if not every set! Sweet flavor text too.

Ogre Menial

As with the blue infect creatures, when Infect is added to a new color, the creatures have to be very good, so that the color can work out for you in draft. This guy can certainly be your only infect creature, as it might easily do the job all by itself. Red’s recent history has a few firebreathing 0/X creatures, and I think they’ve become a great red creature staple for use once per block. They play very well, feel red and yet add defense and flexibility to a color whose creatures are often one-note.

Priest of Urabrask

This red mechanic – “free” guys, or just guys that return RRR to your pool, has had a few iterations in the past. They are usually pretty exciting in limited play, and with a lot of equipment and useful little artifacts in this block I can imagine this card feels pretty good. It’s a great mechanic for red because it seems to add a big points for variety.

Rage Extractor

Seems like every block has a red card that gives you a damage trigger when you use the set’s mechanic. I find this one particularly cool because the mechanic it uses gives you cheaper spells, but this card outputs damage based on the full cost, so you’ll feel like you’re getting something extra for free.

Razor Swine

Another lesson from Shadowmoor, -1/-1 counters and first strike are like chocolate and peanut butter. It’s important to keep these small in almost all cases, as they might be frustrating in play if they are bigger.

Ruthless Invasion

Red has a common Panic effect in most sets. In an artifact block, why not make a Panic that gives artifact creatures the advantage? Actually, you had better make it work better or worse against artifact creatures, if you’re in an artifact block – that’s the designer’s job! This is an okay use of Phyrexian mana, though it’s not really necessary.

Scrapyard Salvo

A bit of a strange Lava Axe here. Still, it has a dream, and cards with a dream are often great designs. One of the tricks is that most players don’t do the math before they build their deck. They just try to get all the artifacts they can into their yard and assume it will work out, and they’ll have fun playing it even if it only half-works. So when designing such cards you don’t have to worry about their constructed or even limited viability. So long as they sound good they’ll be a good design. Of course, development still has to test them. Sometimes they turn out way more powerful than expected.

Slag Fiend

Is this card best-buddies with Scrapyard Salvo? Seems like there just has to be an Ichor Wellspring & Mycosynth Wellspring Sacrifice deck in here somewhere. This design reminds me of Death’s Shadow. You can’t cast it that early (Turn 1: Mountain, Mox Opal, Mox Opal, Slag Fiend!) but it’s grossly undercosted if you get to a point where it’s a fatty.

Slash Panther

Meow! There seem to be an awful lot of 4-power red creatures these days. (There are 9 in Scars block, but 5 of those are constructed-worthy, which is why it seems like there are so many.) This card feels sleek and sexy, which is a nice effect to achieve on the design of a haste creature that has a cost-reduction mechanic.

Tormentor Exarch

Another “choose one” whose choice always turns out the same way. Sure, we can all think of corner cases when the +2/+0 will be used, but it’s really there to fill out the Exarch cycle. (Nothing wrong with that.) Being a 2/2 gives it some nice symmetry with the +2/+0 and the -0/-2.

Urabrask the Hidden

An elegant and pleasing design. Two simple effects that are so cute together you ask yourself why it hasn’t been done before and why you didn’t think of it yourself. A+

Victorious Destruction

Demolish is great in an artifact block, and adding the “lose 1 life” sub-theme to it is an excellent way to bring it further into the fold. Splendid common design.

Volt Charge

Proliferate makes its appearance in Red! This card is extra-exciting due to the existence of Koth of the Hammer. Better to print this in a set after Koth (rather than the same set), if Koth is powerful (which it is), so that players will be more excited to see it.

Vulshok Refugee

Perfectly serviceable design, but most obviously filler. There’s only one vanilla creature in Red, but there might as well have been two.

Whipflare

This is very nice – you feel it could be a one-sided Pyroclasm. Getting a player excited about a card like this is an important accomplishment. Actual power level aside, this card is much more effective at holding a player’s interest than Pyroclasm would be in this slot, and that’s what you want in your set.

Coolest / Most Exciting: Uarabrask the Hidden
Most Interesting Design: Bludgeon Brawl

That’s it for part 2! I bet you can guess what I’ll be talking about next time. See you then!

Gregory Marques

Post categories: Free, Strategy


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Gregory Marques

Gregory Marques is a game designer, currently making new games that will appear on Facebook in 2011. You may remember a previous Facebook game he worked on, Dungeons & Dragons: Tiny Adventures. His Magic playing began in 1994. He began designing cards right away, but not professionally until he was offered a unique chance to help out with 5th Dawn by e-mail. He was later employed at Wizards of the Coast from 2006 until 2009. He was on the development teams for Magic 2010 and Rise of the Eldrazi, and on the design teams for Magic 2011, Rise of the Eldrazi, and Duel Decks: Garruk vs Liliana. He played in the FFL and did some additional design on every set from Shards of Alara through Magic 2011. He has not played much competitive Magic, but was the Washington State Champion this year, and perhaps he will have some more achievements in the future.

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