A Limited Guide to Adventures in the Forgotten Realms
I have a fair amount of Dungeon and Dragons memories from my childhood: everything from generating stats by carefully “rolling” a six-sided dice so that the six would always come up, to a Dungeon Master that amused himself by dropping a divine anvil upon the heads of any player that dared displease him, to the time a different Dungeon Master had to rewind time after our party erupted into a deadly civil war that left no survivors. It’s been a long time since then, so Adventures in the Forgotten Realms feels like a wild collision of past and present wrapped up in a package that tugs at my nostalgia while making me want to smash my opponent with wild new mechanics and creatures. In other words, AFR is a lot. Let’s see what the set holds in store!
Mechanics and Themes
AFR’s feature mechanic is one of the strangest ones I’ve seen in a long while. Every player has access to all three dungeons, and can move through the rooms by using cards that allow you to “venture into the dungeon”. Each room of a dungeon has its own reward - or drawback - but reaching the last room of a dungeon not only grants you a prize, but also activates cards that ask if you’ve “completed a dungeon”. You can only move through one dungeon at a time, so the decision regarding which one to choose depends on a lot of factors: the current state of the game, the number of dungeon exploration cards in your deck, whether it’s important that you actually complete a dungeon, and so on. But as a general guide:
- Lost Mine of Phandelver: This dungeon is the most generically useful. Choose this one if you’re not actually sure what you need out of a dungeon.
- Tomb of Annihilation: This dungeon is an aggro player’s dream, forcing opponents to choose between life and resources. You’ll have to make the same choices however, so be sure that you’re on the beatdown before stepping into the tomb.
- Dungeon of the Mad Mage: This dungeon is long, but it has the most powerful effects by far. If you’ve gone all-in on the dungeon plan, step inside and reap the rewards.
Dungeon exploration cards are plentiful but not free. Some of them - such as Kick in the Door - are stapled onto instants and sorceries. Others have an additional activation cost: paying mana, tapping one of your other creatures, or doing damage to an opponent. So if you want to complete a dungeon, you’ll need to be properly prepared and have a strategy detailing how you’ll reach the end.
Every color has access to dungeon exploration cards, but this mechanic is featured in White, Blue, and Black.
[Djinni Windseer] [Swarming Goblins]
The dice-rolling mechanic isn’t necessarily strange, but it’s certainly an unexpected inclusion for a Magic set. Each dice-rolling card asks you to roll a twenty-sided die, and generates an outcome depending on that roll. Note that most of these cards stick to a specific effect - with a higher roll simply enhancing the strength of that effect - so these cards are still reliable in regards to their purpose despite their randomness.
All colors have dice-rolling cards, but Blue and Red care most about this mechanic.
Classes are a new enchantment type that allows you to live out your fantasy of being a Fighter or a Mage or a Druid or… heck, why not learn to be all twelve classes at once? Although Classes are aesthetically similar to Sagas, they play out far differently. First, they give you a permanent effect that an opponent must work at to remove. Second, they require you to spend mana in order to level them up. These qualities make Classes an excellent strategic tool for your deck, while forcing you to think tactically about the right turn in which to grow them.
Classes are spread across all colors, with a mono-color cycle at uncommon.
Spells with multiple options are neither new nor uncommon. However AFR has a markedly greater number of these cards. This gives players more access to effects that are typically relegated to the sideboard - for example, effects that destroy an artifact or enchantment, or which shoot down a flying creature from the sky. Modal spells are excellent at promoting interesting gameplay decisions, and also ensure that a given card has a place in multiple archetypes.
AFR does not deviate from the traditional ten two-color uncommons that act as a guide for understanding what each color pair wants to do in Limited. In AFR, these uncommons are all legendary creatures.
White/Blue: Dungeon Exploration
[Planar Ally] [Hama Pashar, Ruin Seeker] [Secret Door]
The White/Blue archetype enjoys venturing into a dungeon, but cares more about the journey than the destination. Hama Pashar rewards constant exploration by doubling the benefits for doing so, and that makes repeatable venture creatures such as Planar Ally or Secret Door particularly appealing. The lengthy road presented by Dungeon of the Mad Mage might be especially attractive to a White/Blue player, as its later rooms provide strong effects.
White/Black: Dungeon Completion
[Cloister Gargoyle] [Barrowin of Clan Undurr] [Precipitous Drop]
Conversely, the White/Black archetype also seeks to venture into a dungeon - but only so that it can reach the end as soon as it can. Doing so activates powerful effects such as Barrowin of Clan Undurr’s repeating reanimation; it can also turn a purely defensive creature such as Cloister Gargoyle into an offensive powerhouse, or supercharge a removal spell such as Precipitous Drop. This archetype may choose to take the shortest path in the shortest dungeon - Tomb of Annihilation - with the idea that it’ll be able to make up for the massive drawback of the second room through the sheer advantage of having simply completed a dungeon.
Blue/Black: Evasive Damage
Blue/Black isn’t often a combat-based archetype, but it sure is in AFR! This color pair gains bonuses when its creatures connect with the opponent. Some of these creatures such as Krydle of Baldur’s Gate combine evasion and reward into a single potent package. Others, such as Drider, require a little help from cards such as Fly.
Blue/Red: Dice Rolling
This mercurial color pair descends into utter chaos in AFR by caring about the most random mechanic of all: the rolling of d20s. In truth, if you look at cards such as Farideh, Devil’s Chosen and Chaos Channeler, you’ll realize that this randomness is mitigated by ensuring that *something* beneficial always happens when you roll a die, with an added bonus effect if you roll that die well. And if you really care about that bonus, then you can always put Pixie Guides into your deck and turn a random spin of the dice into something that comes closer to being a sure thing.
Black/Red’s penchant for self-sacrifice veers in a new direction in AFR: here it cares specifically about sacrificing Treasures in order to cast spells. One might view this dependency negatively: “my spells are bad unless I have Treasures”. But in truth cards such as Hired Hexblade and Jaded Sell-Sword have a reasonable - if unspectacular - cost to benefit ratio even if they’re cast without a Treasure. And if you cast them with a Treasure when Kalain, Reclusive Painter is on the board, then their rate becomes incredible. Finally, note that this archetype pushes Black/Red into some interesting directions: ramp and aggressive splashing.
Black/Green: Death Triggers
Creatures die in Magic; that’s just a fact of life. That makes strategies that revolve around any creature dying - yours or your opponent’s - particularly appealing: why not gain a benefit for something that’s going to happen anyway? Shessra, Death’s Whisper both ensures that something will go to the graveyard through a forced block, and rewards you for that outcome. Death-Priest of Myrkul and Bulette focus on the latter half of the equation, but in different ways: going wide versus growing tall.
Red/White is typically a highly aggressive archetype, and AFR shifts this formula only slightly by tying those attacking bonuses to Equipment. In doing so it allows for a more dependable set of aggressive buffs: if your opponent kills a power-heavy trample threat equipped with Goblin Morningstar, you can simply equip the weapon somewhere else. Equipping a creature isn’t free however - unless you also have the mighty Bruenor Battlehammer in play. And the common Dwarfhold Champion is a perfect target for Equipment, growing bigger and harder to kill.
Red/Green: Pack Tactics
The term “Pack Tactics” is actually a misnomer, as this keyword doesn’t care about attacking with a pack; rather it simply cares that you attacked with enough power to activate its condition. It’s simple enough to trigger this keyword with as few as two Hobgoblin Captains, and attacking with two 3-power first strikers will not be easy for any opponent to deal with. Gnoll Hunter is a bit slower to get going, but once it does it’s hard to stop. And if your opponent starts to stabilize after an initial aggressive rush, Targ Nar, Demon-Fang Gnoll is the perfect finisher for polishing off those last few life points.
Green/White: Life Gain
[Lurking Roper] [Trelasarra, Moon Dancer] [Cleric Class]
In the past, life gain themes have appeared in the White/Black color pair. Those archetypes were typically slow, using the life gain to buy time to put together ponderous card engines that allowed a player to dominate the endgame. The Green/White life gain archetype in AFR works slightly differently by helping you to quickly build a powerful board with growing threats such as Trelasarra, Moon Dancer, while ensuring that you survive long enough to win with these threats. Other cards like Cleric Class buff the power of life gain to a scary degree, while Lurking Roper serves as a frighteningly undercosted creature that can only be fully utilized by this archetype.
Green/Blue: The Long Game
One might assume that the last color pair is an afterthought, and in this case it… kind of feels true. Green/Blue has a simple strategy in AFR: win through ramp and card advantage, two effects that Gretchen Titchwillow combines into one efficient package. Getting ahead in mana allows you to cast big spells ahead of curve; it also allows you to reap the benefits of mana sinks such as Loathsome Troll or Arcane Investigator. This archetype is unspectacular, but it’s been proven to work well in other Limited formats.
[Evolving Wilds] [Temple of the Dragon Queen] [You Happen On a Glade]
Mana fixing in AFR is notably rare. There are no cycles of dual lands; instead you’re left with Evolving Wilds at common and Temple of the Dragon Queen at uncommon. More remarkable is the lack of an artifact that can repeatedly tap for mana of any color; even more remarkable is the near absence of Green cards that act as mana fixers, the exception being You Happen On a Glade.
What we’re left with are Treasure-generating cards in Black, Red, and Green. AFR is a set that makes splashing hard, and if you want to live out your three-color fantasies you’ll have to prioritize the key lands.
Key Commons and Uncommons
- Devoted Paladin: This simple effect is deceptively backbreaking, often forcing your opponent to chump block or die on the spot - and once that happens it’s likely that you’ll be able to take advantage of their weakened board to finish them off.
- Priest of Ancient Lore: Any creature that draws you a card is valuable, and this Dwarf also triggers any life gain synergies you might have.
- Rally Maneuver: This combat trick is a potential two-for-one that can also put you ahead in the damage race.
- Feywild Trickster: A creature that can consistently pump out evasive threats is a must-kill. If Feywild Trickster survives more than a turn or two, it’s very likely that you’ll win.
- Guild Thief: This is another creature that can quickly grow out of control. Use this in conjunction with high toughness creatures to neutralize your opponent’s threat, and it should close the game out quickly.
- Grim Bounty: Unconditional removal is a lovely thing to have, and making a Treasure is a nice bonus.
- Power Word Kill: It’s possible that your opponent is playing a deck made exclusively of Angels, Demons, Devils, and Dragons. It’s more likely that this is a 2-mana answer to the majority of your opponent’s creatures.
- Skullport Merchant: Sailor of Means was a key common back in Rivals of Ixalan, and Skullport Merchant is a Sailor of Means - with upside. This card will block, ramp, and draw you cards; it’s extremely good.
- Brazen Dwarf: This one creature will do a ton of damage if you have the right dice-rolling cards, and it’s a common so you should be able to get multiples.
- Dragon’s Fire: Two mana for a three damage burn spell is great, even if that damage can’t go to your opponent’s face. What makes this card even better is the potential to burn for more.
- Hobgoblin Captain: A two-mana 3/1 is nothing to write home about, but a two-mana 3/1 with first strike is powerful indeed. Two of this common is enough to activate Pack Tactics, and enough to push your opponent to the edge.
- Hill Giant Herdgorger: Don’t underestimate the power of a big green creature that gains you life when it enters the battlefield; there’s a reason that Ravenous Lindwurm was such a beating in Kaldheim.
- Owlbear: Here’s another creature that draws you a card just for casting it - except this one is also a 4/4 trampling threat.
Here are my thoughts on the set as a whole.
- The two-color archetypes have real and substantive support. However if you can’t find an open lane, then a straightforward two-color deck with a good curve and reasonable interaction can also carry you to victory.
- Stick to two colors unless you have a truly broken card to splash - and if you do, pick up Evolving Wilds or Temple of the Dragon Queen as soon as you can.
- There are many creatures that grant a player benefits if they connect with an opponent, with a few costing as little as two mana. Make sure you have your own early drops to counter such threats.
- Some sets - such as Theros Beyond Death - encourage you to pack main deck removal for artifacts and enchantments. Other sets don’t. How about AFR? Well, since much of the artifact/enchantment hate is stapled to a modal spell, I don’t see why you wouldn’t want a piece or two to deal with Class enchantments or pesky Equipment. Worst case, simply use a different mode of the spell!
- The rewards for dungeon exploration are real - but they’re also slow in coming, and often stapled to spells that are otherwise overcosted. As a result, an aggressive deck likely should not prioritize dungeon exploration.
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