Magic: The Gathering wants you to take a pen to its new card

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It normally takes a cool theme to get me interested in Magic: The Gathering cards. Cyberpunk ninjas, prohibition-era 1920s urban fantasy, Warhammer 40,000, that kind of thing. The masters compilations, which reprint “iconic cards from Magic’s past”, are a harder sell. I’m not not what Wizards of the Coast calls a “highly enfranchised” player, the kind of collector excited by the boosters for Double Masters 2022 having twice the usual number of rares and foils. I’m a filthy casual who mostly plays Magic: The Gathering Arena and only dabbles in the actual physical cards. 

Double Masters 2022 isn’t all fancy reprints, though. Its draft boosters come with 16 playable cards instead of the usual 15, with the 16th always being a new land card called Cryptic Spires. It lets you choose which color of mana you gain when you tap it, though you have to narrow it down to two options before play begins. “When building your deck,” it says, “circle two of the colors below.” Yep, you have to circle it. In pen. (Or pencil if you’re a coward.)

When Risk Legacy came out in 2011 with its rules about writing on cards, putting stickers on the board, and otherwise altering components to change the game as you played, it was eye-opening to see how many players were horrified. It was followed by other board-vandalizers like Pandemic Legacy, and Betrayal Legacy, which I played recently. It demands you destroy certain cards after each session, and there was a real divide between those of us who winced every time and those who relished the chance to rip and tear. Circling a couple of icons on the bottom of a land card isn’t the same as shredding a card because a character died, but I do wonder how many Magic players will pencil their selections as lightly as possible, just in case.

Having to play land cards and tap them for mana before you’re allowed to bring out the actually useful cards in your hand is both a restriction on and a defining characteristic of Magic: The Gathering. It’s the first thing Hearthstone ditched, and plenty of other digital CCGs followed in its footsteps. Magic never will, since land and colored mana are entrenched as the core of its product identity. Magic is the game where you play a plain and tap it to summon a lion, and always will be.

Cryptic Spires is the latest in a long string of cards aiming to make land less confining and more fun. Among its reprints, Double Masters 2022 brings back the “bounce lands” from Ravnica, which provide two mana when tapped but bounce an existing land back into your hand when played. You’ll also find other atypical lands like City of Brass, which damages you when tapped, Forbidden Orchard, which gives an opponent a free 1/1 spirit, and Pillar of the Paruns, which gives mana of any color, though that man then has to be spent on a multicolored spell.

And there are plenty of multicolored cards included in Double Masters 2022: all 10 of the Liege cards from the Shadowmoor and Eventide sets, each of which boosts creatures of two different colors, as well as 10 tricolored legendary creatures.

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While old cards that get reprinted like these aren’t immediately legal in tournament standard, and neither is Cryptic Spires, as a filthy casual that doesn’t mean much to me. They, and Cryptic Spires, are legal in Commander format, and that’s where my interest perks up. Commander is Magic’s most fun format, letting a full table of players throw hectic combos at each other. Seen through that lens, certain cards and potential combos from Double Masters 2022 are suddenly of interest. 

Like Bloodflow Connoisseur, a vampire who gets +1/+1 whenever you sacrifice a creature, and Gravecrawler, a one-mana nobody who can be resummoned from your graveyard (after being sacrificed for instance), as long as you have at least one other zombie in play. That’s a combo you can repeat every turn while quietly sitting at one end of the table—at least until someone notices you’ve been force-feeding a pet undead Jabba the Hutt who’s now bloated and wildly overpowered. 

Or you could get fully degenerate with the Blood Artist, a vampire who takes one life from another player and gives you one life in return, an effect that triggers when any creature dies, and the Phyrexian Altar, an artifact that gives you a point of mana at the cost of sacrificing a creature. Since the Phyrexian Altar isn’t tapped when used, if that sacrifice is a Gravecrawler you can spend its free point of mana to immediately bring Gravecrawler back and do it again, an infinite combo that sets off your Blood Artist every time.

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You’d never do something that heinous, of course. The odds of getting the right cards out of a draft are ridiculous, and since preconstructed Commander Decks contain 100 cards and can only have one copy of anything that isn’t a basic land, the odds of drawing and getting into play a Phyrexian Altar, a Gravecrawler, at least one zombie, and a card like Blood Artist that has an obscene trigger set off any time something dies are unlikely.

Although now I look at it, Double Masters 2022 does reprint the Nim Deathmantle, an artifact that turns any another creature into a zombie. And Hissing Iguanar, which does one damage whenever another creature dies, and Elenda, the Dusk Rose, who gets +1/+1 whenever another creature dies. Huh. Would you look at that.

If you pulled off a combo like that it would make for a game nobody forgot in a hurry. Even if they did force you to rip up the cards afterward.

Double Masters 2022 is available physically from July 8. It’s also in Magic Online, where you can right-click on Cryptic Spires to make changes to it, but isn’t available in Magic: The Gathering Arena.

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