Well we all had a ton of fun with Kaldheim, didn’t we! But the big Magic wheel is always turning, and it’s time to… wait. Isn’t this awful soon to be moving on from Kaldheim?
That’s certainly how I reacted when WotC dropped their unexpected Strixhaven preview article back on February 18th. As the hype train left the station, they revealed not only an awesome cycle of modal Command spells, but confirmed the details of Strixhaven’s key factions: the five colleges!
These five competing colleges are a core feature of the “magic boarding school” genre underpinning Strixhaven. But they are also an exciting chance to re-cast the accepted flavor and mechanical concepts of the five enemy color pairs, which have been relatively static since Ravnica: City of Guilds in 2005. The ten guilds of Ravnica were an unheralded revelation for Magic, giving players an identity to affiliate with decks based on philosophy instead of a specific card or strategic archetype. But that was fifteen years ago! It’s about time we got something like these colleges to diversify those pairs and examine a differently-sliced color pie.
Since the colleges are all we really have to go on so far, I’ll break down my Strixhaven predictions for each one in turn. I’ll make some very safe predictions on what these new factions will bring in terms of mechanics — and then I’ll throw in a few more wild-eyed ones, just to get you thinking. Ready for an education?
This college and Command got perhaps the most attention online, but it’s one of the harder ones to take clues from. At this point, it seems like we’re probably in store for more of the “spells matter”/tempo shenanigans you always expect from UR — but what if there’s… a dramatic twist?
Safe Bet: I expect the Prismari cards to feature some synergy with X-cost spells. The flavor of theater kids flinging around big splashy effects fits better with an X-cost focus than it does with generic “spells in graveyard matter” mechanic, and they can be very flexible to build around. I’m imagining some sort of legendary utility creature with “the first time you cast a spell with a mana cost that contains X each turn, add 2 to the value of X.” We already have the Intervention cycle from Theros Beyond Death to get us started, as well as Gadwick the Wizened and Shatterskull Smashing as in-color playables and Shark Typhoon as a multifaceted payoff.
Just a Hunch: Prismari Command is just the latest in a string of red Standard spells which produce treasure tokens. Combined with the looting effect present on several of them, I can see how this utility might lead to UR working as the “base/fixing” color for this set the way green usually does. Yes, Strixhaven is specifically focused on two-color pairs. But if any of those are going to reward branching out into four or five colors the way green Snow decks did in Kaldheim, it’s the ultra-colorful and expressive Prismari.
Wildest Dreams: One more outlandish way the Prismari could “express themselves” would be the epic spell mechanic. Nothing more dramatic than playing a card that says YOU can’t cast spells for the rest of the game! Originally, I was weighing up whether this college might turn out to be alt-win-con specialists, but I don’t think that can really be a satisfying and fleshed-out identity within a single set and color pair. Epic, while seemingly very restrictive in its design, only needs two or three actual build-around spells with that mechanic; the rest of the Prismari cards can focus on getting to that endgame or operating within it using activated abilities. It’s a more interesting ramp payoff than Emergent Ultimatum, and it gives Zirda, the Dawnwaker something to do in Standard!
So, is it just me, or is this literally just the Golgari again? Lands, graveyards — that stuff I can understand as being core to the color combo. But riding around on zombie crocodiles picking herbs? Drawing power from creatures both living and dead? I guess if it ain’t broke…
Safe Bet: “Discard a land card” as a cost on triggered and activated abilities. Their Command already offers a mode that returns a land to hand, and having the enabler for that just be another self-mill mechanic seems way too rote. Instead, let’s be Cultivate-ing lands to hand and then pitching them to spawn saprolings, or give creatures -1/-1! Land-graveyard synergies that aren’t just focused on recurring one effect like Wasteland are probably the most underexplored of any graveyard theme, and making lands in hand matter has a ton of interesting effects. It would be another tradeoff against putting tons of MDFC lands in your deck, which leads to a subtle but rewarding deck-building challenge.
Just a Hunch: There has been more varied and widespread use of the exile zone across recent sets, so it’s a good time for a mechanic which interacts with or is fueled by cards in that zone. Battle For Zendikar’s Eldrazi Processors had this identity, and cards like Wasteland Strangler and Oblivion Sower have gone on to be great playmakers from Modern through to Commander. GB has not really been the color combo to benefit from foretell or even adventure that much, so giving the Witherbloom a way to punish those effects would seem fitting. Or it might have synergy with them, since there are GB cards with those effects after all.
Wildest Dreams: As a tie-in to the above, this seems like maybe our best chance to see a fully realized “absolutely-removed-from-the-game-forever” zone!
Magic’s use of the exile zone has evolved a lot over the years, and created some highly interesting interactions. But there’s an argument to be made that balance and design are easier if you separate the idea of “exile” (where things are banished to by strong removal, or as a cost/safety valve) and “outside the game” (where cards are stored when an effect needs them to be between zones for a turn or two). Whether this is achieved by bringing back “removed from the game” as a separate designation or coming up with something new, giving the Witherbloom some mechanic to send cards from adventure or foretell to the AWOL zone seems a good way to debut this controversial concept.
I’m biased, but damn if this isn’t the most exciting college! I first got into Magic playing red-white, but I never wanted to play an aggressive creature-based deck, so I’m glad to see WotC break new ground here. Instead of just making Lorehold “the jocks,” they’re more like Indiana Jones.
I hope this dramatic shift comes through mechanically as well — and based on the design of the Command, I think it might.
Safe Bet: My easy prediction for Lorehold is some sort of artifact theme — probably artifact recursion, given their archaeological bent. Zendikar Rising and Kaldheim have laid the groundwork for this by reintroducing equipment and vehicles to the Standard vernacular beyond just the omnipresent Embercleave. Magda, Brazen Outlaw might be a bit of an oddball now, for instance, but she looks fearsome with some hypothetical Lorehold toys to tutor out!
These mechanics aren’t even unexpected for RW: white has recursion, while red has artifact destruction, sacrifice, discard, and even some artifact reanimation. We already know that Lorehold has “sacrifice a permanent to draw 2” on their Command, which itself looks tied with Silverquill’s as the cycle’s Standard powerhouse.
Just a hunch: Their lore snippet mentions summoning long-dead spirits, which could mean Lorehold have anything from reanimating artifact creatures, to RW spirit tribal (shoutouts to Skyclave Apparition). But since their Command summons a 3/2 spirit token — an unusually threatening size, requiring a new token — I’m going to assume that many of their spells summon these 3/2 spirits or otherwise synergize with them. And as Shark Typhoon has reminded us, instant-speed token creation is one of the most flexible and powerful effects in Magic!
Wildest Dreams: My true wildest dream is for Lorehold to have a bunch of land destruction spells, but let’s go with something more plausible…
I’m not sure that Lorehold will interact with vehicles — but it’s possible we’ll get a few. And as Aethersphere Harvester and Smuggler’s Copter proved, a few good ones at rare can have a massive impact on Standard. I’d specifically love to see another Peacewalker Colossus-type threat that can cheat on crewing, to push “Vehicle Tribal” over the edge in Historic alongside Colossal Plow and the aforementioned standouts.
At first glance, this looks like another win for the “color pair flavor diversification” cause. I personally love the look and flavor of the Orzhov guild, and I’m generally happy to slap creepy purple and gold money priests on all my cards for the rest of time. But I’ve heard many people say the opposite — and then express excitement that WB will have a different look this time around. That’s what this exercise is all about!
Safe Bet: Silverquill looks set to be the small creature deck of the format. The first two modes of Silverquill Command can turn up the pressure on opposing life totals — although I’m sure that will be through ETB and sacrifice effects as much as pure combat. As the only Command art to seemingly feature all human mages, this also looks like Silverquill will dovetail with General Kudro of Drannith, Dire Tactics and the other WB Humans cards from Ikoria.
Just a Hunch: This is the most non-creature permanent-heavy color combo, and I expect Lorehold’s flavor to buy them a monopoly on artifacts. Therefore, I privately expect Silverquill to have some sort of enchantment focus. Written magic implies a more lasting kind of spell, and enchantments have been designed as such in the past. Perhaps Silverquill could do some more with enchantment tokens, now that Niko Aris opened up that bit of design space? This would interact favorably with the constellation cards from Theros.
Wildest Dreams: I can’t imagine a mechanic that better evokes the idea of word-magic than splice. I’ve long been an advocate to free splice from the design stigma surrounding Kamigawa and change up the splice “target” between spells. I think “splice onto sorcery” in particular has potential. The Silverquill Command is a sorcery, and it fits the “tap-out-control” style of slow WB decks perfectly. It’s also another creative way to let WB control gain card advantage without having to print “draw two cards” on a white spell!
While I just made the point about separating the colleges from the guilds in terms of flavor, I’m still shocked that the Simic college majored in math instead of biology. Izzet is the only faction I can think of in Magic to have a mathematical bent, and it’s never really been reflected on the cards. Are we going to see some sort of unusually numerical mechanic here?
Safe Bet: Proliferate or some similar mechanic will fuel a counters-focused strategy, which will give Vorinclex the ideal home it was made for. You can see the clues on the counters mode of Quandrix Command, the unusual number of blue creatures gaining counters in the current Standard environment (Ascendant Spirit) and even the potential historic decks using War of the Spark cards.
Just a Hunch: If WotC pulls the trigger on proliferate (or similar) as a Quandrix keyword, I’d expect to see a slew of cards that care about different types of counters. You could easily make it a keyword to track it, like domain or devotion. Between +1/+1s, loyalty counters, saga lore counters, poison from Fynn, the Fangbearer, page counters from Mazemind Tome… this would be a fun new spin on one of the most common mechanical themes.
Wildest Dreams: Speaking of math and counters… what if Quandrix brings the second coming of energy? Okay, it probably would have shown up on their Command, but hear me out…
The mechanic was always well-received in theory, it was more the critical mass of overpowered cards and great fixing that led to it dominating Kaladesh’s time in Standard. By making just a few energy cards in one color combo of one set, you are going to stay far away from the “energy deck monoculture” problem while giving a bit more interest to the mechanic as an eternal strategy going forward. Even just a couple of cards using energy would be fine, since they can glom onto a general counters/proliferate deck starring Vorinclex and friends!
GOING BACK TO THE OLD SCHOOL
If it seems like a lot of these predictions are just listing old mechanics I’d like to resurrect for Strixhaven, there are good reasons for that. Obviously, it’s easiest to discuss the unknown by making reference to things that already exist in Magic. But I’m also a huge advocate for avoiding what WotC calls “parasitic” design, where the set’s mechanics can only ever interact with cards specifically designed to interact with them — essentially, just the ones from that set.
But we can instead design new mechanics to interact with Magic’s “core game engine” — stuff like combat, the graveyard, or permanents entering and leaving play. And of course, we can re-use old mechanics in new, interesting ways. By setting up common ground for new cards to interact with cards from any era of Magic, we create the conditions for innovative and exciting deck-building. And as someone who loves to spend hours tinkering away on “deck research,” I’m hoping that Strixhaven — of all possible sets — will be designed to reward exactly this sort of academic pursuit.
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.