The dog days of summer are upon us. Back in the day, that meant our favorite TV shows were between seasons, the pool was the only respite from the heat, and blockbuster action flicks were hitting the big screen. These days, streaming services give us more or less infinite home entertainment, and getting out is limited to just the essentials.
Magic players consistently get a little something else to look forward to in this season: the yearly Core Set. Typically focused on simpler themes and mechanics and appealing to newer players with straightforward strategies and gameplay, they’re seen as refreshing, back-to-basics formats with neat cards that reference the past, allude to the future, and explore all the things that have made Magic great since its inception.
This year’s edition is Core 2021 (or M21) - they’re always named for the following year, so as to give them a longer shelf life in mass market stores. The spotlight is on Teferi, the blue-aligned chronarch planeswalker who was first introduced to players through flavor text and card names as far back as Mirage block. He’s been seen as something of a menace recently due to multiple powerful versions in Standard going back to 2018, but the truth is the mechanics tied to his cards are typically pretty cool, and he’s a great character to zoom in on for story reasons.
But anyway - how does the set hold up? Let’s answer that question based on the same five aspects I’ve used in my prior reviews!
Being a Core Set, M21 doesn’t have completely consistent flavor or story, but instead has several unrelated threads sharing the stage. First, there’s the aforementioned focus on Teferi, and that’s evident everywhere from the packaging to the high-profile blue mythic rare Teferi, Master of Time. Go deeper, and you’ll see the first printed version of his wife - red rare Subira, Tulzidi Caravanner - as well as a second version of his daughter, white-blue rare Niambi, Esteemed Speaker.
There’s also a healthy dose of “cute” with lots of cats and dogs, primarily in white, red, and green. Note that I said Dogs - the Hound creature type has finally changed to the more broad Dog in a funny little victory that lead designer Mark Rosewater is no doubt rejoicing. Just take a look at white uncommon Selfless Savior or green common Pridemalkin to see the level of adorable that has been achieved.
Finally, a couple of planes seem to have slightly higher representation in terms of the number and significance of creatures and notable personalities included. There’s a hefty dose of Amonkhet, with a new planeswalker in white mythic rare Basri Ket, and a ton of Dominaria nostalgia with several contemporaries of Teferi - green rare Jolrael, Mwonvuli Recluse; black rare Kaervek, the Spiteful; blue rare Barrin, Tolarian Archmage; and white mythic rare Mangara, the Diplomat.
Again, the lack of strict cohesion in Core products means that there’s not much we can say about the art of M21 as a whole other than it’s another than it’s yet another gorgeous set. By my count, all of the reprints - another hallmark of Core sets - feature art we’ve seen before, but there were a few cool decisions made with which art to select, namely in the instances of Donato Giancola’s version being selected for artifact rare Solemn Simulacrum and red common Shock sporting the piece done by Jon Foster last printed in M14.
What I’m most excited about, however, is the additional exposure for some of Magic’s newer artists. For example, Billy Christian’s work had previously only been used on two Theros Beyond Death (THB) ancillary cards, but now we get to revel in his excellent depiction for white uncommon Falconer Adept. Wylie Beckert had just two Throne of Eldraine spotlight frame renditions to his name, but here we have the gorgeous, doom-infused black common Finishing Blow to see more of his excellent craft.
There are still more: up until now, Caroline Gariba’s talent had only been shown on an ancillary white rare in THB, but M21 gives us blue common Keen Glidemaster, blue rare Stormwing Entity, and (my personal favorite of the bunch) blue uncommon Shipwreck Douser. And to round out this far-from-exhaustive list, I’ll finally mention Andrey Kuzinskiy, who had two Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths uncommons to his name but now has shown so much more with red uncommon Hellkite Punisher, black common Sanguine Indulgence, and the awesome, imposing red mythic rare Terror of the Peaks.
I’ll wrap up this section just by tossing out a few favorites, as I typically do. The art of Greg Staples on blue-green uncommon Lorescale Coatl, as well as the huge grinning mug of black mythic rare Massacre Wurm done by Jason Chan, are familiar sights I love to see again. I also really like Uriah Voth’s take on black rare Hooded Blightfang and Daarken’s latest banger in the new Kaervek.
In line with the spirit of Core sets providing simpler play, M21 does not bring any new mechanics with it. It does return one “deciduous” (occasionally used, but not seen in every set) creature ability: prowess. This one behaves somewhat differently from flying or menace, which are essentially static and grant evasion, or deathtouch or lifelink, which apply only when damage is dealt. Instead, prowess is “triggered” and gives the creature +1/+1 until end of turn each time the creature’s controller casts a noncreature spell. It’s a personal favorite and leads to explosive turns, so I for one am glad to see it back.
And speaking of returns, an enchantment subtype last seen on reprints in 2016’s Eternal Masters (and before that, 2004’s Champions of Kamigawa) is making a much-anticipated appearance. These are Shrines, which are enchantments that typically have an ability that scales with the number of Shrines you control. The trick is, there’s one in each color (at uncommon), so jamming several in a deck to maximize their potential requires stretching your mana base. Nonetheless, they’re quite popular and powerful, and there’s even five-color rare Sanctum of All on top of the cycle.
M21 also implements an action word for a very familiar and frequently used mechanic, and at the same time makes a long-standing slang term official. That’s right - “mill” is now printed on cards to mean “put cards from the top of the library into the graveyard.” For years, enfranchised players shorthanded the wording of the action to “mill” in reference to Millstone (originally printed as an uncommon in 1994’s Antiquities and reprinted numerous times). From here on out, though, the cards themselves will use this term, as in “target opponent mills two cards.”
Finally, it’s worthwhile to take a look at the themes of each of the two-color pairs, as these have heavy implications for Limited decks and possibly play into Standard as well.
White/Blue: The classic “Skies” deck, with lots of fliers and ways to soar over your opponent to the win.
Blue/Black: Milling and reanimation (bringing creatures back from out of your graveyard) for value and game-ending combos.
Black/Red: Somewhat less supported, but meant to be centered on sacrificing permanents for value.
Red/Green: 4 power matters - that is, have one or more creatures with 4 or more power, and you’re rewarded.
Green/White: All about +1/+1 counters, with cards that place counters and enjoy extra benefits beyond the boost that counters give.
White/Black: Cares about gaining life (in many instances gaining 3 or more life in a turn) and getting additional benefits when that’s achieved.
Black/Green: Wants creatures to die - either with removal spells or combat - to trigger extra abilities.
Green/Blue: Powerful effects triggering off drawing cards, sometimes in multiples (or your second instance of drawing cards in a turn).
Blue/Red: Encourages casting lots of instant and sorcery spells, both with creatures with prowess and effects that scale with the number of instants and sorceries in your graveyard.
Red/White: The usual “go wide” aggressive approach, but also a small “Dogs matter” subtheme.
My experience of the Limited format so far is that while most games play out in fairly traditional fashion and essentially come down to the same fundamentals - maintaining card advantage, affecting the board all along the mana curve, having the ability to remove threats - there are still plenty of neat interactions you don’t see just looking at the spoiler. There are a few cards that produce some “feel bad” moments (more on that in the next section), but no set can be totally without that element - it’s just an intrinsic part of the game.
While Core sets are not known to light the world on fire with powerful cards, there are certainly some winners in M21. Teferi has been hyped through the roof, in part due to the fact that his previous two iterations were absurdly good, but also because this printing is the first planeswalker card that can activate loyalty abilities at instant speed (and thus twice per turn).
On the topic planeswalkers, one big reprint in the set is of colorless mythic rare Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. Essentially, costing 8 mana is the only knock against this card, and while that’s a steep price, it comes very close to reading “you win the game” with its incredible suite of abilities. There’s a reason it’s been valued so highly since it was first printed in Fate Reforged in 2015.
More familiar faces are already seeing Standard play, including Solemn Simulacrum, white mythic rare Baneslayer Angel, green rare Scavenging Ooze, rare land Fabled Passage, green rare Heroic Intervention, and green uncommon Cultivate. That’s not to say cards printed here for the first time aren’t getting action - check out Stormwing Entity; black rare Demonic Embrace; green mythic rare Elder Gargaroth; black rare Vito, the Dusk Rose; and white mythic rare Mangara, the Diplomat; in brews all over.
As alluded to previously, there are a few cards in M21 that can feel “unbeatable.” Ugin is one such boogeyman no matter the format, but for Limited, I’d put blue uncommon Teferi’s Tutelage and white uncommon Seasoned Hallowblade at somewhat overpowered. They aren’t problematic, necessarily, but they can lead to situations that are simply insurmountable for opponents. Don’t worry, though - that’s only a small fraction of the experience the set brings, so on the whole, everyone’s having a good time in this new environment so far.
As usual, this section addresses both physical access - i.e., the products you can get your hands on - as well as accessibility for new players, or how the set would hold up as an introductory experience. Let’s start by looking at what you can buy, which varies only slightly from what we’ve seen from other sets over the past year.
You’ve got your 15-card Draft Boosters, available in single packs, bundles (10 packs, a spindown die, a nice box, and some foil and Showcase basic lands), and booster boxes (36 packs). The set features cards with various different kinds of special treatments - showcase (aligned with particular planeswalkers and stylized accordingly), borderless planeswalkers and reprints with alternative art, and extended art rares and mythic rares. The first two can appear in Draft Boosters, while extended art is reserved to Collector Boosters.
Speaking of Collector Boosters, this time around, they come with 4 foil commons/basic lands, 2 foil uncommons, 1 foil showcase basic land, 1 extended-art rare or mythic rare, 2 foil rares or mythic rares (can be extended-art), 2 showcase commons or uncommons, 1 showcase or borderless rare or mythic rare, 1 foil showcase common or uncommon, 1 foil showcase or borderless card of any rarity, and 1 foil token. As I’ve mentioned before, this kind of “bling” product isn’t really for me and is difficult to justify price-wise, but the cards are gorgeous and others really clamor for this stuff, so I’m happy the option exists.
Now, the one way that the lineup varies with M21: Planeswalker Decks. These are mono-colored 60-card decks aimed at novices, each centered around a planeswalker (albeit a dumbed-down version not included in normal packs). We’ve seen these before, but there are normally just two for a set, and here there are a full five. This is in line with the approach taken for previous Core sets, and again, these are good for newbies, so the more the merrier.
Finally, on to how well this offering lends itself to learning the game for the inexperienced: I stated in the intro that one of the defining aspects of Core sets is that they are designed with accessibility in mind, and M21 largely shines in this respect. As established, games play out in fairly uncomplicated ways, but they don’t lack opportunities for interaction and neat synergy. This is ideal for those sitting down to their first match, but still great for old heads like me - after all, I first fell in love with the game when it was a simple duel at the kitchen table, and there’s a good amount of that going on here.
Overall, Core Set 2021 might not knock everyone’s socks off, but that’s OK. Everyone is getting something they want with M21, and that itself is something to celebrate. It may be tough to find chances to purchase and play with the uncertainty in the world these days, but I’d recommend those interested make the effort to try it out when they can safely. It would be a shame to miss out on another great Magic release!
Written by John McCurdy