Magic: The Gathering’s fall 2019 set, Throne of Eldraine, was officially released at the beginning of October after a hype-filled spoiler season and prerelease, and this world of Arthurian legends-meet-the Brothers Grimm does not disappoint. The name and a brief glimpse was first revealed on invitations to a Magic panel handed out at this summer’s San Diego Comic Con, and the appearance of faeries on the piece immediately had fans speculating - as it ends up, we recieved a good number of the spritely winged folk, but also a whole lot more.
Here I’ll try to take a critical look at this collection of 350+ cards through various lenses, with the aim being to give readers from uninitiated to veteran a greater understanding of the offering’s strengths and weaknesses. There’s a lot to discuss, so let’s venture into this new realm!
As mentioned before, Eldraine was billed by Wizards of the Coast (WotC) as a blend of Arthurian legends (think the Knights of the Round Table and Excalibur) and Grimm’s fairy tales (from the Big Bad Wolf to Jack and the Beanstalk). While Magic has certainly done high fantasy before - indeed, its first years were almost entirely dedicated to concepts and tropes from that genre, and certain older cards have alluded directly to very similar source material - this is as on-the-nose as they’ve ever gone for this particular flavor, and the set is charmingly unique for it.
The basis of the plane is the five knightly courts, one for each of the colors of Magic, and the wild magical creatures that inhabit the Wilds. This provides a nice structure but does not impose a system of factions, as the plane featured in the last few sets - Ravnica - did. The story revolves around a planeswalking pair, brother and sister Will and Rowan Kenrith, as they search for their missing father (and head of the white-affiliated court), High King Kenrith.
The set contains far more top-down designs - that is, cards that started with a specific reference in mind and then were fleshed out mechanically to suit - than a usual release, but that is not a strike against it by any means. Several top-down sets have done very well in the past, most notably the gothic horror-infused Innistrad, and here it seems WotC has once again delivered.
That means you can expect everything from the Little Mermaid (blue common Wishful Merfolk) to Robin Hood (red mythic rare Robber of the Rich) to the Loch Ness Monster (blue-black rare Lochmere Serpent) and even Monty Python’s Black Knight (black rare Oathsworn Knight). There’s far too many to list, and I certainly wouldn’t want to spoil discovering them all for you, but I will address the elephant-sized cookie in the room: yes, the Gingerbread Man (artifact common Gingerbrute) is indeed too fast for you to catch - unless, of course, you too control a creature with haste.
You might think, with the consistently excellent artwork of Magic’s past few years, that the franchise was due to plateau in the area, but there are no indications of any such stagnation based on what we see here. The spectacular direction and talent continues with Eldraine, and the efforts taken to give this plane a distinct and enchanting look have succeeded in resounding fashion.
Care has been taken to make the setting strongly evocative of Northern Europe, in particular the British Isles, with open pastures dotted by rocks, stands of tall green trees, gloomy fens and rocky outcroppings making one feel as though they’ve been transported to a feudal kingdom of old. The figures are as diverse as their inspirations, but several of Magic’s iconic creature types - the aforementioned faeries and merfolk, as well as knights, dwarves, dragons, elves and zombies - are represented with slight variations on their appearance.
Many of the cards use an autumnal color palette, fitting for the current change of season in the Northern Hemisphere. A handful of the most overt references feature pieces a bit more lighthearted or cartoony than usual (Gingerbrute, artifact uncommon Enchanted Carriage, red-green uncommon Grumgully, the Generous), and while that’s not particularly to my personal taste, it doesn’t detract from the overall ultra-high quality.
Some personal favorites from Throne would be Jason Rainville’s Ardenvale Tactician, Igor Kieryluk’s Questing Beast, Dan Dos Santos’s Savvy Hunter and, of course, Yongjae Choi’s Oko, Thief of Crowns. But we’ll get to that shapeshifter in a bit.
Finally for this section, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the showcase cards - for all cards with the set mechanic Adventure, an alternate version with a “storybook” frame and different piece of artwork has been created. These are, without exception, breathtaking - you really should do a quick search yourself to fully understand and get a good look at them all. These are more or less randomly inserted into draft boosters and guaranteed to appear in collector’s boosters, but again, getting ahead of myself by touching that topic now (see Accessibility for more info).
This discussion begins with Throne of Eldraine’s new mechanics, as they heavily influence how games of both Limited (where new cards are opened from boosters and played with right away) and Constructed (where players build decks from their collections before playing) play out. The set brings three additions to Magic’s stable: Adventure, Adamant and Food.
Adventure cards, which are all creatures on their main face, can be identified by their frame - the text box will be split vertically down the middle, with the left-hand side of that being a tiny “separate” instant or sorcery card. A player can play either the creature itself or the Adventure (the instant or sorcery) from hand - the creature enters play normally if it is cast this way, but the instant or sorcery, upon resolution, gets exiled - it’s “on an adventure,” and going forward, its owner has the option to play the creature part of the card at any time they could normally play the creature.
Adamant is pretty straightforward and is always spelled out word for word on the card, but the long and short of it is that the spells with Adamant get better if three mana of a particular color are paid to cast it. If it’s a creature, that might be getting a +1/+1 counter, or if it’s an instant, it might deal more damage. I imagine this as representative of the conviction and focus of the caster, hence the name.
Food is a type of artifact token created by a number of cards, as well as a subtype that appears on a handful of other cards. The tokens, as well as the cards with the printed subtype, can have an ability to be sacrificed for three life when their controller pays two mana and taps them. Here, the planeswalker is having a light repast to regain strength and vitality.
Adventure is the latest in a long line of “modal” mechanics in that it allows you to choose from multiple modes for a spell, which offers versatility and varied play patterns - both very desirable in the eyes of both players and designers. Adamant is a nice payoff and can heavily influence deckbuilding - whereas most Limited and many Constructed decks lean towards playing two colors more or less evenly split in quantity, Adamant provides incentives to lean towards one color or perhaps even go monocolor.
And finally, Food is a tasty way to stay in a game for longer against an aggressive opponent, but really shines when combined with cards that “care” about food by offering additional benefits when their controller also controls a Food token or an alternative effect for sacrificing Food.
What this amounts to in terms of fun factor is, in my estimation and experience, a hell of a good time, at least in Limited. Drafting and playing sealed with the set has been engaging, skill-testing and generally well-balanced. While some recent releases have suffered from an on-rails feeling (Ixalan block and, to a degree, Guilds of Ravnica and Ravnica Allegiance) or a particular color being drastically underpowered (white in War of the Spark and Core Set 2020), Throne does not seem to suffer from any such pitfalls. Not every archetype is as viable as the others, and some “bombs” are not particularly enjoyable to play against (looking at you, Clackbridge Troll), this has the potential to go down as one of the best environments in the past several years.
As for Constructed, I can say that the new cards and mechanics are generally great for both deckbuilding and deploying. But let’s address that more in the next section.
Just breezing through the card spoiler, several cards jump out as overtly powerful and potentially abusable in Constructed formats. That’s a good thing - we all want to open strong new game pieces, and it sure would be a bummer if Throne of Eldraine didn’t affect Standard and, to at least some extent, Modern - but as of this writing, the jury is still out on whether or not a few select cards might lead to less-than-ideal balance.
Among the cards that are already popular in Standard decks, but do not appear at risk of being problematic, are white mythic rare Realm-Cloaked Giant, blue mythic rare Brazen Borrower, black rare Murderous Rider, red rare Bonecrusher Giant, green rares Lovestruck Beast and Wicked Wolf and several others. What’s more, the cycle of rare lands representing each court’s castle are frequently included in decks of their respective colors, several of the set’s Knights have helped make various tribal decks possible, and white-blue rare Dance of the Manse and white-black rare Doom Foretold have spawned interesting control decks, sometimes being used in combination and sometimes on their own.
For Modern, green rare Once Upon a Time is seeing some play in the Amulet Titan, Jund Death’s Shadow and Tron archetypes, and blue rare Emery, Lurker of the Loch being used in Urza decks of various shades is a definite possibility.
What some in the community see as a potential issue is the effect of the planeswalker Oko, Thief of Crowns on Standard. He’s spawned two archetypes so far, Simic Ramp and Bant Ramp, that take advantage of his ability to create Food tokens, shut down opposing threats and skyrocket in loyalty to achieve a massive resource discrepancy. Alongside green rare Gilded Goose accelerating mana production and the ever-present blue-green mythic rare from Ravnica Allegiance, Hydroid Krasis, these decks can sometimes lead to repeated play patterns and resistance to any interaction the opponent might attempt - but as for whether the metagame can shift and keep it all in check, I hold out hope.
While I’m not an expert on Magic competitive play, let alone any given Constructed format, I am confident in saying that the net impact of Throne of Eldraine has been positive. Time and the rigorous testing and innovation of high-level players will help us suss out whether certain cards really are, as they say, “broken.”
This category will cover both the Throne of Eldraine products you’ll see for sale and what purposes they serve, as well as what a brand-new player can expect upon opening those products and playing with the cards.
First, the basic booster pack is of course still here and typically includes 10 commons, three uncommons, one rare or mythic rare, one basic land and one token. They do, however, have a new official name from WotC: “Draft Booster” (and that’s because that’s what you should do with them; draft is the best!). Of note is that these can also contain the showcase cards mentioned earlier, and these draft boosters are what you’ll find in the bundle (10 of them in there) and booster boxes (36 packs in those).
Also, starting with this set, Wizards is releasing Collector Boosters, which include nine foil commons and uncommons, one foil rare or mythic rare, one rare or mythic rare with extended art, three special frame cards (borderless planeswalkers or showcase cards), one ancillary card (a non-foil version of an Eldraine card from the Planeswalker decks, Brawl decks or Buy-a-Box promo) and one foil token. I’ll explain what a few of these things mean, but this is a lot to grok for someone new to the game and much easily summed up by thinking of these as “bling” boosters - these are fancier versions of the cards, and the price point of one of these packs is roughly six times that of a regular booster.
Finally, there are a total of six different premade Constructed decks available, including two Planeswalker decks - simple decks meant for newer players featuring the less powerful planeswalker cards Oko, the Trickster and Rowan, Fearless Sparkmage, as well as two draft boosters - and four Brawl decks, meant for play in the new-ish Commander-lite format Brawl. All have cards that can’t be found in draft boosters that may or may not interest you depending on how you play, so check out the decklists before you buy.
It comes down to what formats you like, who you’re playing with and where you are in your Magic journey to determine what makes a good purchase. If you and a friend have never played before, the Planeswalker decks are a fine bet, but you’ll likely need a little bit more guidance to really learn the game properly (YouTube is your friend here). For a more experienced player teaching a newer player, I’m a big fan of heads-up, hands-up Sealed; the two can go through the cards and build decks together with guidance from the experienced spellslinger and then play the games with all information revealed, with a focus on how cards interact and the steps of a turn.
Of course, much more can be said of the ways to teach the game to another and what products are meant for whom; what I’d rather close with is to look at how Throne of Eldraine in particular can appeal to those who have played other games or enjoy fantasy. First, there’s the positive that the mechanics covered earlier aren’t terribly complex, and they are each somewhat similar to elements we’ve seen in the past and are likely to see again with future sets; thus, taking the relatively short amount of time to understand them now will make you a better player in general, and they pay you off in the actual action as well by being fun and flavorful.
Which brings me to the second and possibly more important point, being that the worldbuilding and references in Throne are among the most resonant and recognizable we’ve ever seen from a Magic set, which makes them a great initial card pool for a newbie to dive into. After all, when Hansel and Gretel (green common Curious Pair) and the Seven Dwarves (red common...um, Seven Dwarves) are represented on some of the first cards you see, you don’t have to reach very far to grasp what’s being depicted and what’s happening.
Instead, you’re smiling and taking a merry romp through a land of knights in shining armor, wily faeries, brutish ogres and perhaps the occasional animated pastry. So get out there and enjoy some Eldraine!
Written by John McCurdy