Core Set 2021 Limited Primer
A few years ago, I would have laughed in your face if you suggested that a Magic Core set would be one of my most anticipated releases. Then came Core 2020, and it was a Draft highlight in a year that included such heavy hitters as War of the Spark and other returns to Ravnica. M20 raised the bar for Limited-format quality in a Core set, and Core 2021 - releasing soon on Arena - looks to follow that trend!
Removal and Mana Fixing
Let's start our analysis of M21 by examining its removal and mana fixing. Understanding the strengths - and weaknesses - of these cards goes a long way in helping us understand how Wizards intends the set to play out.
Here's the removal:
A couple of things to note:
- Most of the removal is conditional.
- Unconditional removal is on the expensive side. We have 4-mana Faith's Fetters instead of 2-mana Pacifism; we have 5-mana Finishing Blow instead of 4-mana Blood Curdle.
This leads me to believe that M21 will not be a fast Limited format; instead, players will have time to establish their archetype's goals and strategies.
How adventurous can players be in those strategies? Common and Uncommon mana fixing tells the tale there, and the answer is again pretty conservative. Although M21 has a cycle of tapped dual lands, there's no cheap colorless fixing such as Farfinder or Evolving Wilds. As a result, I'd advise sticking to two colors, with the occasional splash for bombs. The exception is if you're playing Green, as Green has access to far more mana fixing spells.
M21 has no new keywords or mechanics. Instead, it focuses on an archetype for each color pair. However, the payoffs for many archetypes feel sparse at Common and Uncommon, and good payoffs are even harder to find. There's no Common that will win the game by itself (unlike Lavakin Brawler in M20), and the two-color signature Uncommons are less powerful than in previous years (with nothing approaching the power of Heroic Reinforcements or Psychic Symbiont from M19).
What does this mean? It won't be easy to make a highly synergistic deck such as Knights in Throne of Eldraine or Cycling in Ikoria. But there are enough synergies to make M21 Limited decks something more than a simple pile of “good stuff”. What you'll likely have to do is reach outside your color pair's theme to find interesting ways to maximize the value of your cards - say, by adding a Black “death matters” card to your Red/Black sacrifice deck.
Let's take a look at each archetype through the lens of each color pair's signature Uncommon.
White/Blue: To the Skies!
The traditional White/Blue archetype returns to laugh at boards full of big chunky ground creatures. Although there are a few cards that pay you off for controlling a flyer, the real payoff is controlling a hard-to-block army in the skies. However, flyers traditionally have worse stats than similarly costed non-flyers. So how can a flying deck win against a non-flying deck?
Watcher of the Spheres +1/+1 clause gives a big hint: plan on attacking aggressively. Get ahead using White's creature buffs - Warded Battlements will provide that while also protecting you on the ground - and use Blue's tempo spells to change the math in a race.
White/Black: Get A Life
Lifegain isn't enough to win a game of Magic; you need additional effects such as the life loss stapled to Indulging Patrician. Indulging Patrician creates a great clock if you can consistently gain 3 life. However it's only one card, and there aren't a lot of great lifegain payoffs in M21. What to do?
Well, lifegain is generically good at one thing: buying you time. Play defensive creatures - note the stats on Indulging Patrician - and slowly set up your lifegain engines and payoffs. And if you're not drawing the right cards, well, maybe you'll have enough time to chip in for 20 damage with a 1-power flyer.
Blue/Black: Reanimate This?
At first blush, it might seem like Blue/Black is all about reanimation. However, the power of Obsessive Stitcher isn't actually its second ability. It's the first: looting a card every turn. Blue/Black is about finding the right card at the right time, whether it's an early game blocker, a midgame removal spell, or a late game win condition. That win condition might be something as simple as a single common 5/7 Hexproof shark (Spined Megalodon), or...
The slow and controlling nature of Blue/Black means that it excels at non-traditional win conditions, such as mill or slow drain. If there's a viable Limited shrine deck, then Blue/Black is the perfect home for it.
Blue/Red: Whoops, All (Instant and Sorcery) Spells
Instants/Sorceries-matter is a common Blue/Red Limited theme, but its success varies wildly from set to set. In the past, the best Blue/Red archetypes were the fast and aggressive ones: Wizards in Dominaria, or decks with Burning Prophet and Sky Theater Strix in War of the Spark. Does M21 contain the needed cards for Blue/Red to succeed. Well… kind of.
Jeskai Elder is the sort of aggressive Prowess card you want in a Blue/Red deck. Unfortunately it's an uncommon (and the two-drop Red Prowess creature is also an uncommon), so it'll be difficult to build a consistent deck that lands an aggressive two-drop every game. I think Blue/Red is a weaker archetype than it was in Dominaria or War of the Spark, but the presence of powerful commons such as Spellgorger Weird could still power the deck to victory.
Black/Red: Sacrificial Lambs
If you're old enough to remember Ikoria, you probably remember the Mutate mechanic and its inherent risk: Mutate creatures were a self-inflicted two-for-one that put your opponent a card ahead. Ikoria mitigated that issue by having many Mutate creatures provide an effect that was worth a card - think Dreamtail Heron and Cavern Whisperer. I mention all of this because Black/Red's sacrifice effects are also a self-inflicted two-for-one… so it's best if you find some way to make up that loss.
Witch's Cauldron is a good card for this, and Traitorous Greed may be even better. However, they're both uncommons, so it won't be easy to fill your deck with these sorts of cards. Black/Red will likely have to play as a generic aggressive deck that does the bulk of its sacrificing on a single critical turn.
Black/Green: Die Die Die
The Black/Green signature Uncommon is also the most expensive of the bunch, which makes sense: the archetype is traditionally slow and grindy, relying on late-game effects to pull ahead with big creatures or incremental card advantage.
The mechanic may not be an exciting one, but it is well supported at common with both enablers and payoffs. Just keep in mind that the archetype is slow: make sure you draft ways to beat faster aggressive or evasive decks.
Red/White: You Let the Dogs Out
Red/White is the color pair for going wide and smashing face. Alpine Houndmaster is an enabler and a payoff in one card, hitting hard and grabbing you these excellent creatures:
Okay, maybe they're not the best. Nevertheless, it shouldn't be hard to find additional aggressive creatures for your deck. Depending on what you get, you can even craft a subtheme - White's +1/+1 counters, or Red's Prowess - and hone your draft around that.
Red/Green: POWER MATTERS
I've always loved hitting my opponent with big creatures, and it looks like I'll be able to do so again in M21. War of the Spark had a particularly effective “power 4 or greater” Red/Green theme, with cards like Kronch Wrangler and Raging Kronch. Does M21 have cards like that?
Almost. Drowsing Tyrannodon isn't as good of a two-drop as Kronch Wrangler, and good aggressive three-drops with four power simply don't exist. But M21 is a slower format in general, and Red/Green's slower buildup may still be sufficient in creating an overwhelmingly powerful board.
Green/White: Stand and Be Counted
Green/White +1/+1 counters was a pretty bad archetype in War of the Spark, even with additional support for the theme in the form of Proliferate. So why do I think it's better in M21? Simple: the competing archetypes aren't as good. Control decks have less disruption for your strategy, and aggressive decks aren't able to run you over quite as fast.
In addition there are quite a few good commons for Green/White, with Basri's Acolyte being a particular standout. In a format with few efficient answers, a theme that encourages you to play threats and make them even more threatening - a theme like that is likely to be quite good.
Creatures + card advantage is often enough to win a game of Limited, and the prospect of facing a deck that synergizes the two is pretty scary. Green/Blue does exactly that, and Lorescale Coatl is a terrifying payoff for going into the archetype.
Lorescale Coatl is a reprint, but there are also new and exciting ways for a Green/Blue deck to draw cards and smash face. Drop Rousing Read on a Burlfist Oak and you'll get a (temporary) 9/10 flyer, and that's something you can do as early as turn 5! A Green/Blue deck can take a few turns to get going, but once it does there's not much that can stop it.
So… What to Do?
Here are some initial thoughts:
- The cards in M21 feel weaker than in other recent Core sets. In addition, removal isn't great and mana fixing is pretty bad outside of Green. I think the format will favor two-color creature-based strategies that prioritize threats over answers.
- Support for each two-color archetype is concentrated in the Uncommons; however, the synergies are present and well worth taking advantage of. I'll be looking to find inventive ways to support my deck's theme.
- Since the best archetype support is in the Uncommon slot, their presence in packs may be the best indicator of what colors are open.
Here's a rough ranking of archetypes
- Green/White and Green/Blue have good threats that transition well to the mid/late game.
- Blue/White flyers may have trouble racing big Green decks, but Blue's tempo suite is good enough to control the pace of any game.
- Blue/Black has enough tools that it can dig out its win conditions if it survives long enough. If...
- Red/Green is nicely aggressive, but I don't think it has the needed tools to reliably close out a game.
- Black/Green certainly has the tools to grind out some nice card advantage and win in the late game. But I don't know that such a deck will be able to survive an aggressive mid-range onslaught.
- The success of White/Black and Blue/Red decks is highly dependent on finding the right Uncommons (and Rares). As a result I think these archetypes will be hard to draft reliably, but extremely powerful if the right cards are passed.
- M21's weaker card pool puts aggro strategies - Black/Red and Red/White - at a disadvantage, as finishers are both harder to find and less effective. Still, an aggressive deck can always punish slow starts or win through a couple of good topdecks.
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