Planar Chaos: Ixidor’s Legacy Review (Part 1 of 2)
The kick-off of the Time Spiral block in October of 2006 was the beginning of a yearlong dividend to Magic players, and unsurprisingly the payout was greater the longer you had invested. Obscure references, subtle twists, and perhaps even the occasional in-joke found less traction on newer players who didn’t have the history to grasp what the set was trying to do.
Sure, Time Spiral itself wasn’t that difficult to grasp, as there’s nothing all that complicated in issuing a bunch of reprints of past cards. The purple-rarity “timeshifted” cards were simply that- straight reprints, old card frames and all. For the second set in the block, Planar Chaos, things were about to become a wrinkle more complicated. Perhaps the best way to explain this is to begin with a man:
So we’ll get a few obvious things out of the way first. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin wasn’t all that good. He was fantastic in Kick-Ass. Yes, he had a starring role in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which was notable because of the product placement Magic: the Gathering inserted into the film. And a pox on his house for ever, ever daring to remake The Wicker Man. All important things, but for the sake of today’s introduction let’s look at him and not see Nic Cage, but rather Jack Campbell.
Jack Campbell was the main character in 2000′s The Family Man. As the film begins, Campbell is a wealthy, business-consumed Wall Street executive busy putting together a billion dollar merger on Christmas Eve. Smug and arrogant, a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger at a convenience store sets sets him up for a very unusual twist.
The next day, Campbell wakes up in his suburban home with his wife and two children- none of which he had the day before. As he tries to puzzle out the seismic changes in his life and everything he knows, the mysterious stranger reappears and tells him that he’s been thrust into an alternate life. What if he’d made different choices when he was younger, opting for love instead of leaving to become an investment banker. He’s much worse off materially- in this alternate life Jack sells tires- but he has the family life he’d sacrificed long ago for wealth and success. Over the course of the movie, Jack falls in love with his wife and connects with his children, and like Ebenezer Scrooge comes to second-guess the life he’d lived.
Although we won’t spoil the ending, in Planar Chaos Magic is not content to simply look at the past like flipping through an old and faded photo album. Instead, it becomes Jack Campbell, looking back in time and saying a very simple, two-word phrase.
When the game was in development by Richard Garfield, he had a solid grasp of what each colour did and how he wanted to game to look. Since then, new abilities have arisen, many new cards printed, and over time the sense of what each colour should be doing (the colour pie) has come into clearer and clearer focus. But what if we went back in time as the pie grew, and tweaked it ever-so-slightly? Not to make it unrecognisable, but what if things that went one way were instead nudged in the other direction? What would the game look like today?
The iconic example for this alternate-universe Magic is Wrath of God. Wrath has been around since Alpha, and although destruction of creatures isn’t something you might ordinarily associate with White, it has a long and storied history. Wrath itself has been reprinted many times, and Wrath variants pop up in a large number of sets (most recently, for instance, as Divine Reckoning). But what if instead of White, when the game was being developed Richard and the gang said, “destroys lots of creatures? Sounds Black to us!” What if Wrath of God had never been made… but Damnation had instead? That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the timeshifting of Planar Chaos (right down to the art- check out the symmetry between the two cards). Things that but for a moment’s decision or a nudge in the right direction might have come out just a little different.
In Darkened Depths
Ixidor’s Legacy invites us to explore a different kind of what if, the kind that doesn’t focus on a particular card but rather on a point of time in Magic’s stories. Ixidor was a character in 2002′s Onslaught, a pit fighter who became a master illusionist so gifted that his illusions became reality. Although he met an untimely end in the lore, Ixidor’s Legacy wonders what wonders he might have created had his life not been cut unnaturally short.
As you’ll see, this is primarily a creature-focused deck with very few noncreature spells. However, it’s not like any creature-based deck you’ve seen before.
When you look at the mechanics represented within those 28 creatures, it starts to become clear why there are relatively few spell cards in the deck. As in Onslaught, noncreature spells took a bit of a backseat to creatures with spell-like effects (which hit its zenith in Onslaught’s first expansion, the all-creature Legions). The morph mechanic conveyed upon these effect-wielding creatures the same sense of being hidden that spells would have in your hand- until you were ready to play them, all you could see is the card-back. Indeed, over half of the deck’s beaters take advantage of morph, allowing you to play them face-down as a 2/2 “morphling” for . Then when the time was right you could pay the morph cost, turn the card over, and trigger an effect.
Let’s begin with the humble Fathom Seer. While you could play this 1/3 Illusion as a vanilla creature for two mana (it’s casting cost), you can take full advantage of what it offers by playing it as a morphling. While its morph cost is no trifle- return two Island to your hand- the upside is that it lets you draw two cards when it’s turned face up. Card drawing is important here, as evidenced by the fact that your deck contains more copies of this fellow than any other card. Next we have a single Willbender, which can redirect the target of a spell your opponent has cast. Again, you’ll always want to cast these as morphlings whenever possible- hardcasting them as-is generally nets you no additional benefit outside of the body.
Rounding out the two-drop slot here is a pair of Coral Tricksters and Riptide Pilferers. The Tricksters offer you a free Twiddle when unmorphed, while the Riptide Pilferer shows us our first ‘timeshifted’ effect. These 1/1 Blue Merfolk have an ability we most often associate with Black: discard. Here’s how Mark Rosewater explained it when he discussed the shifting of various mechanics:
Black uses whatever means are necessary. To black, nothing is off limits. With this in mind, black figured out that the easiest way to defeat another wizard is to attack his mind directly. Not in any subtle way but rather in a very direct, brain damage kind of way. Discard in black is represented as physical attacks on the opponent’s brain. A mage cannot use spells he or she doesn’t remember.
Blue also messes with the opponent’s mind. Unlike black though, blue does it by warping perceptions. Blue doesn’t destroy the opponent’s brain as much as it confuses it. Shifting discard into blue is playing into this mental manipulation flavor of blue. Black might lobotomize you. Blue simply makes you forget things. Blue doesn’t remove the memory as much as it keeps you from being able to access it. Note that discard and card drawing overlap in how they achieve card advantage. Blue having discard plays directly into its desire to seek advantage subtly over time.
The Riptide Pilferer is the perfect vehicle for this colour-shifted ability. With so many morphs in the deck your opponent is bound to be cautious, but in truth has no way to know which creature is which. If they happen to let this one through, you can immediately unmorph it for a surprise discard effect.
We’ll move up the ladder next to the three-drop slot, though again you’ll seldom be casting these for their hardcast cost. Indeed, all morph creatures can be played anytime you have the to pay for them, and can sit on the board until you’re able to flip them. Here we find a pair of Shaper Parasites, who carry a nifty trick of their own. They can either give a creature a toughness boost at the expense of power, or the exact opposite- a power boost at the expense of toughness- just the ticket for killing off a particularly annoying creature.
Then we have the Aquamorph Entity, the first on the list thus far that doesn’t lose any functionality if you cast it the old-fashioned way. Either hardcast or unmorphed, you get to choose what you need more: a 1/5 or a 5/1. You only get to choose the once, which sets the creature’s characteristics in stone until it leaves play. There’s also a pair of Fledgling Mawcors, the junior version of the classic adult which deliver their elders’ telltale ping.
Finally you have a pair of top-of-curve beaters in the Brine Elemental and Slipstream Serpent. The Elemental is a powerful 5/4 body which can force your opponent to lose an entire untap step, which can be crippling if timed correctly. The Serpent is even larger- a 6/6- and is a callback to one of the game’s earliest beaters, the Sea Serpent (which last saw print in 1997′s Fifth Edition).
In keeping with the deck’s theme of the fluidity of reality, Ixidor’s Legacy invites you to do some reality sculpting of your own with some of the remaining creatures in the deck. Many of these play fast and loose with power and toughness- either their own or another’s- and this gives you tremendous flexibility. Take for instance the Merfolk Thaumaturgist, who can swap one creature’s power and toughness simply by tapping. The Crookclaw Transmuter does much the same, but only once as it enters the battlefield. The Serendib Sorcerer, on the other hand, simply turns them into a 0/2 instead. And if it’s turning things into other things that tickles your fancy, try Visions’ Ovinomancer on for size- he permanently turns another creature into a 0/1 Sheep, though at a fairly steep cost!
Still another set of creatures have dynamic power and toughness, rather than a simple fixed amount. The aptly-named Tidewalker enters the battlefield with a number of vanishing counters equal to the number of Islands you have in play- an easy feat for a mono-Blue deck. Its power and toughness are equal to the number of these counters, so make sure you can take advantage of it early while its at its largest. The Primal Plasma has a more multiple-choice proposition- like the Aquamorph Entity, you can sculpt it to fit what you most need at that moment.
Jodah’s Avenger starts life as a 4/4, but happily lets you trade its strength to choose from a raft of special abilities. This makes it extremely flexible, and if you opt to give it shadow and double strike it could be unblockibly hammering away at your opponent’s life total for 4 points a turn. Finally, the Aeon Chronicler- one of the deck’s two rares- derives its power and toughness from the number of cards in your hand. Though it might catch you with a nearly-empty hand, it makes up for this by also being available as a card-drawing engine if you choose to suspend it.
The last card- Dream Stalker- is fairly mundane compared to the others, but it does have some flexibility with its drawback. Often you can simply return and replay a land to get around it, but you never know when a free bounce effect might come in handy. Overall, this presents a very complicated and potentially confusing collection of critters, but they do all hew to the reality is fluid mantra, even if they do so in different ways. Ixidor would have settled for no less.
Withered in its Wake
Thanks to the heavy preponderance of effect-laden creatures in the deck, there aren’t a lot of pure noncreature spells to go around. Still, they’re fairly focused and can help support your creature complement. First we have some spells which pump up a creature- at a cost. Erratic Mutation plays upon the luck of the draw, and can be used both offensively and defensively- either way not without risk. The Arabian Nights reprint Unstable Mutation is ironically much more predictable, starting out with a large bonus then whittling away at the creature’s power and toughness like the air letting out of a balloon.
You also have a flair for polymorphery here with a pair of Ovinizes and a Pongify. Ovinize is a timeshifted card, a twist on Humble from Urza’s Saga which also layed the foundation for the current Turn to Frog to exist. Pongify, meanwhile, is what Beast Within is today, though less expensive in exchange for being able to only target creatures.
As you’d expect the deck’s land complement is filled with Islands, though it’s noteworthy that a single Desert found its way into the deck. We’ll be taking the deck into battle next, and this is certainly one we’re looking forward to! Will we be able to live up to Ixidor’s legacy, or will victory prove to be only an illusion?