Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths Set Review

The Magic community first felt the distant rumblings of the game’s newest set many months before its release. During a livestream in September 2019, lead designer Mark Rosewater revealed the set symbol - a single, menacing eye - and the name “Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths.” He promised that players would get to “make [their] own monsters” with one of “the craziest mechanics” the team had ever devised.


Ad cards appearing in packs of Theros Beyond Death confirmed that the vibrations felt were indeed caused by the footfalls of gigantic beasts (or kaiju, to borrow the popular Japanese term originating with the Godzilla franchise). Still, the aforementioned “crazy” mechanic and the larger world remained a mystery.


Now, however, Ikoria is upon us, and it hits even harder and heavier than anticipated. We’re talking wacky creature type combinations, fun references, lots of multicolor cards, nods to the past, hints at the future, and big - I mean BIG - creatures.


Flavor


Ikoria is without a doubt Magic’s kaiju plane; that’s its big selling point, and most certainly what it will be remembered as. That’s not to say that there aren’t smaller creatures, including humans, but life for those inhabitants of this world revolves around coexisting alongside absolutely enormous threats.


Some of these threats have direct analogues to monsters in the Godzilla franchise - we have our Mothra (white mythic rare Luminous Broodmoth) and Battra (black rare Dirge Bat). We also have clear references to other properties, such as King Kong (green rare Kogla, the Titan Ape) and Sharknado (blue rare Shark Typhoon).



That kind of fan service is neat, but there’s also a lot of brand-new goodness cooked up by Magic’s creative and design teams. From a structural standpoint, this is a “wedge” set - that is, it’s based around the five three-color pairs that combine each color with its two “enemy” colors. We’ve only ever had one wedge set in the history of the game (the much-beloved Khans of Tarkir in 2014), and while they’ve gone and switched up the naming conventions on us again (for example, white-blue-red was Jeskai, but here is Raugrin), it’s still awesome to see the space explored again.


There are also some tribal elements to the set, including a strong “humans matter” theme in white and black and a dominant non-human creature type for each of the colors: cats for white, elementals for blue, nightmares for black, dinosaurs for red, and beasts for green. Those non-human types end up getting mixed and matched a lot, and the results are as wild as you can imagine, especially so in the case of the mythic rare legendary creature cycle of “apexes.” Each one represents a different wedge color combo and the three respective creature types of its colors, and while it definitely takes some imagination to cook up a dinosaur cat nightmare (red-white-black mythic Snapdax, Apex of the Hunt), but I’m totally here for it.



Finally, before moving on, with regards to lore: we know that established planeswalkers Vivien and Narset are currently on the plane, and we’ve been introduced to Lukka, a red-aligned Ikoria native. The story is ongoing, but it’s shaping up to revolve around how some humans seem to be living in conflict with the giant monsters, while others have bonded with them, as well as the mutative powers of Ikorian crystals.



Art


With the creature types being as varied and bizarrely mashed together as they are, one can imagine that many pieces of art featured in IKO are, well, “out there” - but in a very, very good way. Vibrant colors, oddly placed limbs, beings simultaneously grotesque and beautiful...the set’s an eyeful to say the least.


I mention vibrant colors, and that might be the most prominent aspect of the set’s overall “look.” That aligns with the release timeframe (spring in the Northern Hemisphere means more colorful outdoor environments in real life, too) and also serves to draw attention to the aforementioned crystals - they glow with particular brightness and stand out even when the main focus is a ferocious hybrid of some sort.


Of course, one thing that has to be brought up in this section is the happy coincidence that Hasbro just so happens to own the Godzilla merchandising license, and with Magic experimenting more with chase alternate art versions of cards, they made the dream come true of reskinning several of the monsters in the set with borderless, branded Godzilla variants (the “Godzilla Series,” officially). Some are perfectly on the nose - the aforementioned Luminous Broodmoth does indeed have a Mothra variant - while others bend a bit more to make the connection (red rare Everquill Phoenix ends up becoming Destoroyah, for instance).




Then, there’s another separate line of variants done in a borderless comic book style (bearing the existing “Showcase” moniker first applied to Throne of Eldraine’s storybook variants). These have the sharp line work and epic vibe that you’d expect from the genre they’re named for and really jump off the cardboard.



Those readers who took a look at either of my previous set reviews know that I personally prefer regular frames for my cards, but I can’t deny that down to the last piece, each and every one of these special treatments is worth taking a close look at and appreciating. However, when it comes down to it, I’m a purist at heart and have taken the most to some of the “traditional” works featured in the set. The favorites I want to call out this time around are Seb McKinnon’s entire Mythos series (a cycle of rare enchantments, one of each color, featuring a cave painting of each of the apexes), Chris Rahn’s Boon of the Wish Giver, Zack Stella’s Vadrok, Apex of Thunder, and Svetlin Velinov’s Titanoth Rex.




Gameplay


Before we begin here, it’s worth noting from the get-go that Ikoria is a doozy in terms of complexity. The consensus among players and even judges is that we haven’t seen this much rules “weirdness” in a very, very long time (if ever before), but I will do my best here and also provide some links to more comprehensive explanations.


The set features three main mechanics - one returning favorite and two new curveballs - as well as “keyword counters,” which is a new way of representing keyword mechanics. First, we’ll cover the simplest: cycling is back, much to the joy of longtime fans. This simple ability appears on just about every card type and allows those cards bearing the mechanic to be discarded from the hand for a relatively small mana cost in order to draw a new card off the top of the deck. It’s great on situational spells (see green common Wilt), as they may not always have an immediate use and are thus better replaced, as well as expensive spells that the player does not have the mana to cast yet (something like black uncommon Void Beckoner).




Next, there’s companion, which appears only on a cycle of rare hybrid-casting-cost legendary creatures. These creatures can be revealed at the beginning of the game and declared as your “companion” - which enables you to cast them from your sideboard once per game, as though they were an “extra” card in your hand - if you meet certain deckbuilding restrictions (each of which is unique to the companion). This can lead to some very interesting and powerful strategies, but it’s important to remember that a creature with the companion ability does not have to be played this way. It can simply be included in your deck and cast normally if you draw it, and if you choose to go this route, you aren’t subject to its deckbuilding restriction.



I’ll jump briefly now to the keyword counters before wrapping this section up with the absurdity of the second new mechanic. Basically, keyword counters are just a new, cleaner way of adding keyword abilities to creatures already on the battlefield. Various effects and spells in the set allow you to add these markers to a creature you control, and they work how you think they would: if you put a “flying counter” on your 4/4 creature, it now has flying. The same applies for trample counters, menace counters, vigilance counters, deathtouch counters, etc.


Lastly, the gigantic, multi-headed monstrosity in the room: mutate. This is an ability on creatures that is always listed with a cost - specifically, it’s an alternate casting cost for that creature. You can cast that creature for its mutate cost (in this set, it’s always mana, not life or another resource) and place it either on top or on bottom of a creature on the battlefield that you own. If you place it on the bottom, the existing creature gets all abilities from the text box of the creature you just cast for its mutate cost and put under it, but everything else about that bottom creature - including name, casting cost, and power and toughness - are ignored.


If you place it on the top, the card you just cast will instead have its own name, casting cost, and power and toughness, as well as all abilities of the creature you just put it on top of. Regardless of whether the new card goes on top or bottom, all cards in the stack are now one creature, and it has just “mutated,” meaning that any and all abilities printed on those cards that are triggered by the creature mutating will trigger.



Also, because it is a singular creature that you have controlled since the beginning of your turn, it is not affected by summoning sickness and therefore can tap and attack that same turn. Keep in mind that a creature can mutate several times, but the name, casting cost and power and toughness will always be that of the creature on top. Abilities will accumulate as each creature is added to the stack.


As for interactions with mutated creatures, when they are destroyed, things go about as you would expect - all cards in the stack go to the graveyard. It starts getting bizarre if the creature is flickered (instead each card in the stack spills back onto the battlefield individually) or bounced (each card in the stack goes back to its owner’s hand). And when it comes to responding to a creature being cast for its mutate cost, removing the creature that is being mutated on to - by destroying, bouncing, or exiling it - will result in the creature being cast for its mutate cost simply resolving as its normal creature self.



There are even more strange nuances to mutate, as well as companion, and if you’re interested or need further clarification, I heartily recommend Wizards of the Coast’s own Ikoria mechanics article, as well as Good Luck High Five’s “Ikoria Rules w/ Judge Rob!” episode (the regular podcast downloadable most anywhere or the YouTube version). And of course, don’t be afraid to reach out to players and judges you know and trust. We’re all learning with mechanics this dense!


Power Level


While it’s very early in Ikoria’s “lifecycle” - physical releases outside Asia are still almost a full month away - I can at least say with a good degree of confidence that we’re dealing with a robust new Limited format and significant impact on Constructed play of all kinds. Fitting for a set of gargantuan monsters!


Cycling is a great mechanic for draft and sealed, as it offers flexibility and allows for players to find what they need in the moment - this lets folks try strategies with higher variance (big payoff at the cost of big risk) because they don’t face as many draws where they’re just dead in the water. Mutate, meanwhile, lets us build up massive individual creatures (commonly referred to as the “Voltron” or “Battlecruiser” style of deck due to the investment of many resources in one threat) and potentially close out games in quick fashion.


The set does not appear to have as many Limited “bombs” as Theros Beyond Death, let alone last spring’s notoriously warped War of the Spark, and that’s a good thing. A few cards already that I’ve already brought up in other topics stand out (Luminous Broodmoth, Kogla, the Titan Ape, and Shark Typhoon), but much of the power in the set is tied up in potentially difficult to cast multicolor spells (the apexes, the new wedge-colored ultimatum spells) that will put players in an interesting spot when it comes to sacrificing the dependability of a normal two-color manabase for the power of three-color cards.




In Constructed, three-plus-color manabases are much more doable, as are build-around style cards, and thus the gloves come off. Black-green hybrid mythic rare Fiend Artisan already has the community’s attention as a scalable threat and creature-fetching engine, and Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy is seeing consideration in several formats. The favorite of the companion creatures seems to be blue-black hybrid rare Gyruda, Doom of Depths, as it generates massive value when cast.




The rare triome lands - one for each of the wedge color trios, each with the three respective land types as well as cycling for three generic mana - are also in demand as great options for decks running more than two colors. And finally, I wouldn’t bet against the new version of Vivien (green mythic rare Vivien, Monsters’ Advocate) as green has been well-positioned in Standard for quite a while now, and she’s yet another creature-centric planeswalker to complement the sizeable threats that the color has access to.



Accessibility


As per my previous reviews, this section will serve to both cover the different Ikoria product offerings, as well as the approachability of the cards in the set from a new player perspective. First, the easy stuff: what you’ll find at your local game store and mass market outlets is largely the same lineup of the past two sets.


There’s your regular Draft booster, which contains 15 cards (10 commons, 3 uncommons, 1 rare, 1 common land and a token or ad), and these have a chance of containing a Showcase comic book-style variant card. You can get these as single packs, in bundles (10 packs, 20 foil lands, 1 promo card with alternate art plus a spindown die and box), or in booster boxes (36 packs and a Buy-a-Box promo if you purchase in time).



There are also five different Theme boosters, one for each of the colors, which contain 35 cards of that color (an undisclosed combination of commons and uncommons and 1 or 2 rares), and then the premium Collector boosters (4 foil commons/lands, 2 foil uncommons, 1 foil basic land, 1 foil token, 2 non-foil Showcase commons/uncommons, 1 non-foil Ikoria Commander card, 1 non-foil Showcase rare/mythic rare, 1 foil rare/mythic rare, 1 foil Showcase card or borderless planeswalker, and 1 foil or non-foil Godzilla series card).



Now, to the tougher question: would Ikoria serve as a good starting point for a new player? Unfortunately, the answer here is a pretty solid “no,” in my opinion. I’ve spoken much already about the complexity of the mechanics and the set at large, and while the selling points are awesome - big monsters, colorful designs, weird hybrids, and a wild new world - the gameplay is shaping up to be packed with difficult decisions and unique interactions. That’s great for us enfranchised players, as we’re prepared for the denser play and rules issues, but quite possibly overwhelming for someone just getting a grasp on the game.


That being said, I never want to discourage anyone from getting into the great pastime that is Magic: The Gathering, and I certainly don’t want to give the impression that Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths is a bad set - quite the opposite! It looks like yet another awesome new release, and while it may not be tailor-made for the novice spellslingers of the world, the new cards do play excellently on Magic Arena, which itself serves as a great on-ramp for the uninitiated.


And speaking of Magic Arena, for now, it’s the only way we can play Ikoria; it’s been fully released digitally, but as alluded to earlier, the physical release outside of Asia has been pushed back to May 15 due to the current pandemic. In the meantime, stay safe, stay healthy, and crush your opponents online with some digital kaiju!


Written by John McCurdy

Troika Online Media
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