Welcome to a new feature I like to call “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” where I will be looking at what I like, what I dislike, and what’s gonna look really bad in hindsight about whatever I feel like talking about that doesn’t fall under one of my more traditional review or retrospective structures.
I’m gonna be kicking this off with a look at the newest set release in the long running Magic: the Gathering trading card game, a game near and dear to my heart that I first started playing back in like, 2001? Now, I did take a rather long hiatus between the end of the Mirrodin block and the Scars of Mirrodin block, but I’ve been playing various formats (primarily Legacy and EDH/Commander) pretty religiously since getting back into the game. Obviously, as a seasoned player, I know that it’s better to buy my cards as singles than to throw money away on sealed product (unless playing sealed or draft, of course). But we all love the rush of cracking packs so every now and then I like to buy a box of a set just for fun if it tickles my fancy. It has been a long time since there was a set I felt like compelled to actually buy a box of. There may have been a Masters set here or there, but otherwise the last standard set I actually bought a box of was Shadows Over Innistrad back in 2016. There’s been some cards here and there I’ve picked up, maybe a pack or two, but for the most part I haven’t bought any sealed product in years. So enter Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, ya finally got me Wizards, a set that struck a real chord with me. So, what do I think?
Let’s just get this out of the way…
HOLY SHIT THEY MADE GODZILLA AS AN ACTUAL MAGIC CARD!!!!!!!
Yeah, as I have said many times here on the Gathering, I grew up on tokusatsu, horror movies and Godzilla flicks (and also trading card games) so this is just, this is the culmination of my childhood, the perfect encapsulation of everything that made me who I am today. The GODZILLA SERIES promos/alternate art cards that were done for a handful of cards in the set were the real tipping point on me deciding to buy a box of Ikoria. Especially because the big guy here is exclusively a promo for buying a box. It’s also one of the only ways to actually get any of the Godzilla themed cards (more on that later). And before anyone asks, yes I have built a Godzilla, King of the Monsters EDH deck. And yes, it is fucking awesome.
Fanboying out of the way, what are some other good things about Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths?
The plane itself. Ikoria is one of the more interesting settings we’ve had over the last several years, considering that we’ve had multiple blocks that returned to older planes within that time frame. It’s not hard to get excited for something fresh and new and a plane all about monsters and mutations and monster hunters and giant glowing crystals really hit the spot given how both the return to Theros and the newly conceived Eldraine were both rushed, and the latter was a bit too on the nose with its references to popular fairy tales and legends.
The art is a big part of what brought this plane to life, and while the set’s standard artwork certainly does the job, it’s the showcase cards that really steal the show.
Isn’t that just fucking beautiful? Those bold lines and vivid colors, this comic art is among the best art I have ever seen produced for this game, it is insane.
Lukka’s probably the first red planeswalker I’ve really cared for. Like, I love Arlinn, but she’s both a werewolf (a redheaded werewolf at that) and also green/red so she doesn’t count. Lukka though? The focal point of the set, I mean the novel is about him after all, and his fall from grace as it were, was pretty good. It did get a bit messy towards the end (we’ll get to that), but I did dig his story overall and his card is pretty damn solid, it has done some serious work for me in my Godzilla deck.
There’s also a lot of really decent cards in the set. From the new triomes, which enter the battlefield tapped but have three land types and also have the ability to be cycled away for a new card if you draw them later on in the game when you probably don’t need the mana or color fixing. There’s all sorts of interesting new monsters to play around with and some really solid utility spells, such as Ram Through, a removal spell for green that allows you to destroy a creature and deal some residual damage to its controller.
So before we move on I do want to say that I do genuinely like this set, I haven’t liked a non-reprint set this much in quite some time. I say this now because I’m about to say a lot of mean things about it and I don’t want you all to take it for me just hating on the set for no good reason.
Oooooh boy, where do I begin.
Let’s start with the set itself. Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, the set advertised, quite literally, as Godzilla meets Magic: the Gathering. So uh…what the hell happened?
When I think kaiju, I think these big, massive, gigantic, titanic behemoths that can topple buildings just by walking through them, things that no man can hope of taking down on their own, these enormous forces of nature given shape.
Why then do I find myself so underwhelmed by so many of the creatures in this set? Why is a major focal point for the set, both story-wise and mechanically, about humans forming mystical bonds with these creatures? Why is there basically nothing in this set that can face down the Eldrazi? Hell, even the dinosaurs of Ixalan put these so-called behemoths to shame. Just looking through a pile of cards from this set it feels more and more like “lair of weird creature types” than “lair of behemoths”. Like, did they just sit down and throw darts at a dart board to come up with the monsters for this set? Don’t get me wrong, I love just how unique Ikoria’s fauna is, but it isn’t at all what I thought of when they said “this is our kaiju set”.
And honestly, Ikoria doesn’t really hold up all that well mechanically either. There’s obviously some great cards here on an individual basis, but again the set we were advertised just does not mesh up with the set that they built at all.
Mutate, I will give them this one, it does feel very on point for what I was expecting. I think it’s a bit more complex and there’s a lot of weird little rules about how stacks of creatures and different zones and moving things around and all that works and it’s really messy on paper and it’s one of several mechanics that do show WotC’s hand and make it very obvious they want you to stop playing Magic: the Gathering and start playing Magic Arena instead. Also, voltron mechanics are usually pretty bad, you’re going to get 2+ for 1’d all the damn time with this.
Cycling. Cycling is a great mechanic, it’s been featured in so many sets and is a fan favorite, people were hyped to see it come back. What is it doing here though? While there are a few interesting uses of it, it really does feel like they knew there was going to have to be a lot of high costed stuff in here and cycling was a good way to let you throw away things you have no hope of ever actually casting in your average game so they stapled it onto a bunch of cards. Good way to make new versions of old cards as well, just stick a keyword onto it.
Ability counters. I really don’t know how I feel about this. On the one hand, having new ways to permanently give an ability to something does open up interesting design space and we see that put to great effect with Mothr..err Luminous Broodmoth here.
That said, why play a card that gives flying or first strike until end of turn when there is now an option to give it to something forever? It also, again, feels like an Arena focused mechanic because as if keeping track of a million +1/+1 counters wasn’t enough, now we have a bunch of cardboard cutouts with keywords on them to stick in a bag and carry with our decks.
Companion. I saved the worst for last on this one. Holy shit where do I start with the issues I have with companion. This is just such a complete failure of a mechanic on every single conceivable level.
So, firstly, it feels so out of place in this set to me. When I think “Godzilla: the Gathering” I think, well, all the shit I described above. I don’t want to watch random little boy paling around with fucking Minilla. Or worse, the big G himself. This mechanic, at least flavor-wise, could have worked..in a completely different block and setting. This feels like Pokemon or Digimon and would have been better used in a set that tried to be more reminiscent of those franchises rather than a kaiju flick.
Then there is the entire mess that companion has made of the entire game. Not just one or two formats, it has literally had an impact on the entirety of the game, top to bottom, it has already caused several bannings (including one before the set even released, with several more literally the Monday after the set released in paper) as well as rule changes in order to accommodate it. There are countless videos and articles and opinion pieces discussing the mechanic and the hugely negative impact it has had on the game as a whole and how warping it will be for the game from now and into the future so long as it remains a part of the game. I mean, they banned a card in Vintage over it. THEY BANNED A CARD IN VINTAGE BECAUSE OF COMPANION. Let that shit sink in. And the worst part, you know what the worst part is? Mark Rosewater, head of design, he KNEW it was a bad mechanic, that it was a broke, busted ass mechanic. And he said as such FIVE YEARS AGO in an article he posted about a set he had worked on 15 years prior to that, a set that he tried to include a mechanic very, very similar to companion in. A mechanic that he was told by playtesters 20 years ago was terrible, unfun and goes against the core principle that variance is the lifeblood of the game and a mechanic that removes that variance will kill Magic as we know it. So here we are now with some variation of that mechanic, with much stronger cards mind, now warping the game around it. And based on statements Wizards has made and the incredibly defensive nature they (and MaRo) have taken to the backlash against a mechanic that they seemed to have expected everybody to love, it really does feel like this is only the first batch of companions and I honestly expect to see them crop up again even as soon as M21, and if not there then somewhere in the near future. Also, this was literally a Hearthstone mechanic. Still don’t believe me when I say Wizards really wants you to just play Arena instead?
So, mechanical issues aside, what else can I complain about? How about that story?
So, while I did say that I mostly liked the story, there are some problems. Mostly with the disconnect between the novel, Sundered Bond, and the cards. They both seem to be trying to tell a similar, but also very different story. If you just went off the cards you would think that Lukka actually grows to form a friendship with this flying tiger that he formed a mystical bond with after it killed off all of his friends. If you read the novel though you would know that couldn’t be further from the truth, he hates the damn thing, eventually seeing it only as a weapon he can use at first to defend, and then eventually take over the city he once swore to protect. There’s also an entire plotline with a rogue planeswalker having taking over a massive crystal structure known as the Ozolith, which is responsible for all of the wacky mutations and the monsters becoming increasingly aggressive towards humans, and also Lukka basically losing his mind and going crazy before planeswalking away to find new monsters he can use to take over on Ikoria. Yeah, the cards left out a lot.
Last point, but kind of a big one for me. I am not at all fond of the distribution of the Godzilla series cards. As someone that would absolutely love to have a complete set of them, I’d have loved to have cracked open my $90-ish booster box, gotten my buy-a-box promo Godzilla, my foil Godzilla series box topper, and then been able to get a good handful of additional foil or non-foil Godzilla series cards randomly every few packs or so I opened. But it doesn’t work that way. See, if you buy an English (or any other non-Japanese language) booster box of Ikoria, all you get is the buy-a-box Godzilla (while supplies last) and the box topper foil. That’s it, just those two cards. Japanese booster boxes and packs come with them randomly inserted much the same way the comic art showcase cards are (oh, they get those too though). The only other way, apart from buying singles that is, to get them in English packs is to shell out the $20+ for the collector’s boosters, where you get one random one. Woohoo.
So, at the risk of losing brownie points I’m just going to take this as my own personal opportunity to rant about this guy.
First of all, he’s just stupid good as a commander, it’s easy infinite mana and it’s just…it’s dumb, ok? And I’m saying this as someone that plays a Breya combo deck.
But my biggest issue…that art. I’m sorry, I’ll probably piss someone off saying this, but he looks like every “SJW” stereotype rolled into one and I absolute hate it and I just want to punch him in the face. Like, really, really hard. Sorry, not sorry.
I mean, it could be worse I suppose. It’s not like they printed a card to remind us of a deadly plague that is keeping us all locked up inside at the same time the set is released…
Oh. Well fuck.