I don’t always have the energy to keep up with the flow of new spoilers from day to day, but I definitely made an exception for Jumpstart 2022. Not only do I look forward to the normal Jumpstart 2022 experience, but this sort of product represents a unique, creative opportunity for the team at Wizards of the Coast regarding Commander design, and I want to see what they’re making of it.
During the last decade, much has been said about the success and charm of “top-down design.” This method starts with strong flavor concepts and then mechanics are sculpted to evoke that fantasy. These are the cards we get in sets like Theros, Kaldheim or Throne of Eldraine, which piggyback on well-known myths and stories from the real-world.
Many players enjoy the thrill of recognition these top-down cards provide, or the ingenious “storytelling” of the mechanics. But even if you don’t know what inspired spells like Chained to the Rocks or Toski, Bearer of Secrets, this non-standard design process often results in powerful and memorable mechanics.
GETTING TO THE BOTTOM OF DESIGN
Top-down card design is one of the most consistent ways to generate exciting Magic cards, but what about the opposite approach? If bottom-up design exists in any set, I reckon Jumpstart products provide us with the purest example.
In Jumpstart 2022, the design of individual new cards is essentially free of any higher, limiting context. They don’t need to match the power level of a particular Constructed format or respect its current metagame. There’s no need for cards to add up to balanced draft archetypes. There’s no consistent or well-defined setting that dictates the flavor or mechanics. When you think about it, this is quite a unique situation within the history of Magic products.
While the cards in each Jumpstart booster are supposed to share a theme, the definition of “theme” seen in previous packs has been loose and arbitrary. OK, the “Dogs” pack pretty much has to be all dog-type creatures, but what about a theme like “Archaeology” or “Predatory”? This doesn’t even consider that with exactly one new card slot in each pack, the design team may well be coming up with the themes to fit the cards and not the other way around!
All of this creates an opportunity for what I recognize as bottom-up card design; cards whose entire purpose is to fill a specific mechanical niche in the most interesting and unique ways possible.
Oftentimes these cards are set up to tease Commander players first and foremost since it is the format with the most room for expression and exploration through deckbuilding. However, Jumpstart 2022 is not satisfied to target any single audience, and with this bottom-up license to “just print cool cards,” the set is succeeding on all fronts.
THEY’RE JUST MY TYPE!
There’s a few of these “unsung creature type” commanders in Jumpstart 2022. Few of them (to my knowledge) are famous leaders from existing Magic lore. Instead, they appear to have been built from the bottom-up to capture the unique mechanics their creature type has been associated with over the years, with awesome results.
For example, this humble three-drop fits in homages to Uktabi Orangutang, Gorilla Shaman and Simian Spirit guide at the same time, all while creating an interesting little minigame for your opponents! It even gives you some reasonable hate against Treasure decks, and I’m sure some tuned builds of Kibo will turn heads at future Commander events.
My only real criticism is the Banana tokens aren’t Food! Perhaps that would be one too many synergies to pack in, but for the sake of one extra word, it would have been sweet.
As a fan of white/black/X decks, I see lifegain as essentially a score-counter. Compared to other common trigger types (like card draw or creature enter-the-battlefield effects), gaining a point of life does virtually nothing other than turn your synergy cards on. So, the power level and design of those synergy cards has to be spot-on to create good gameplay.
If only a handsome winged stranger were to swoop in and provide an example of such…
The freeing power of bottom-up design has allowed Wizards to create a card exclusively aimed at this specialized niche, and I think Rodolf will be a huge success.
Some previous lifegain commanders have done too little to reward you, and some have arguably done too much. But none of them offer the kind of open-ended payoff Rodolf does. This is the kind of effect that makes great casual decks: one where the commander isn’t the end point of your gameplan, but a lever in the middle.
Rodolf loses a little of his shine for being so similar to the also-recent Celestine, the Living Saint, but the crucial addition of black mana and little tweaks like his type line and Indestructible trigger mean I’m still pumped to play him.
In Eternal formats, White is increasingly linked to flashy, flickery legerdemain with its creatures: Eldrazi Displacer, Flickerwisp, Charming Prince — this sort of thing. However, prior attempts to create a Commander emphasizing these plays often end up as better support for adjacent archetypes (like +1/+1 counters) or become the entire engine by themselves.
Like Rodolf, Preston manages to find that sweet spot for Commander options, where the card provides intriguing incentives to play a particular way without the deck immediately building and playing itself. Do you try to focus on the quality of illusion tokens or quantity? Are you going infinite or just going wide and attacking? How big a part of your plan is the sacrifice activation?
These are all real, interesting, granular decisions that make me excited for a card, and a great counter to the major critiques of “do a thing draw a card” design for Commander.
A SET FOR THE GIVING SEASON
In an era where we get more new cards and new products than ever before, it’s pleasing to see Wizards use some of those products to grant player wishes and explore new design methods. It’s like the team behind these new Jumpstart 2022 cards said to themselves, “this is going to be someone’s new favorite card,” every time they sat down.
I see this as yet another upside to having Jumpstart on the product schedule. Only four cards in Magic reference bounty counters, so the mechanic has low odds to show up in any given Standard set. And Commander precons generally need their new card slots to support their own signature mechanics, making it hard to fit in there.
But since every Jumpstart 2022 pack is a love letter to the odds and ends of Magic, this is the perfect place for them. And with that kind of approach, I’m excited to open all the themes!
Tom’s fate was sealed in 7th grade when his friend lent him a pile of commons to play Magic. He quickly picked up Boros and Orzhov decks in Ravnica block and has remained a staunch white magician ever since. A fan of all Constructed formats, he enjoys studying the history of the tournament meta. He specializes in midrange decks, especially Death & Taxes and Martyr Proc. One day, he swears he will win an MCQ with Evershrike. Ask him how at @AWanderingBard, or watch him stream Magic at twitch.tv/TheWanderingBard.