Well what do you know? I turn around for a minute and another set comes out. As I announced in my Dissension review, I’m not going to be following my usual format anymore, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions about the new sets. Being in the privileged position of having never played (or even seen, in real life) a single Coldsnap card due to missing the prerelease, I think I can say with the utmost confidence that my opinion will be the only one that matters. As always, I’ll be taking a look at the mechanics and themes of the set instead of muddling through card-by-card evaluations like some people enjoy doing, but nobody enjoys reading.
That being said, let’s see how Coldsnap stacks up.
As I’m sure you’re all aware, snow-covered lands have evolved into snow-covered everything and now “snow” is an official supertype in Magic, along with Legendary and Basic. The only difference you need to worry about is that mana-producing snow-permanents produce special snow mana, as depicted by a pretty little snowflake. (Props to the graphics team for making sure that no two snow mana symbols are exactly alike.) Aside from that, snow doesn’t mean anything unless it’s specifically mentioned on a card. So it’s sort of like Arcane, but for permanents. Here’s a few of my new favorite snow cards:
Adarkar Valkyrie – Has anyone made a joke about snow angels, yet? It’s got a cool ability and will be a force in limited games, but I just love its creature type. Being based in Seattle, I find it hard to believe that Wizards gets a lot of opportunities to make snow angels.
Blizzard Specter – I have no idea why this is a snow creature, but I love it anyway. Specters are always cool and this one isn’t useless once your opponent’s hand is gone.
Boreal Druid – This card blows my mind. You look at it and think, “That’s like a Llanowar Elves, but it sucks because it’s colorless mana.” But then you look at it again and realize that it makes colorless snow mana. How awesome is that? Yes, I know. It still sucks.
Dark Depths – Everyone and their mom is trying to figure out how to play this card. Do you combo it with Aether Snap? Play and wait with Chisei, Heart of Oceans or Power Conduit? Pay 30 mana? I have no idea. All I know is that indestructible 20/20 flying creatures are freaking sweet.
Diamond Faerie – It’s about time we got a lord for snow creatures.
Ronom Serpent – Finally, a version of islandhome that isn’t as bad as islandhome! Actually, it’s slightly worse. But I’ve been trying to break Arcum’s Weathervane for 12 years and now I finally might have my chance.
Scrying Sheets – Okay, time to get serious for a moment. I think this card is awesome. It’s a land (read: no mana cost) that let’s you draw a card for 2 mana. So as long as your entire deck is made up of snow cards, you’re guaranteed to draw an extra card every turn for only two mana. If you think making an entire snow deck is too high of a price to pay, then throw in Sensei’s Divining Top (which I also hear is pretty good), make one half to one third of your deck snow permanents and stack your draws every turn for an extra mana. Drawing an extra card every turn is a powerful effect. Just ask Library of Alexandria.
Snow-Covered Forest – Due to its affinity with Gargantuan Gorilla, Snow-Covered Forest was the best snow land back in the day. Just watch out for Rime Dryads.
Stalking Yeti – This guy is a tribute to all those Ice Age-era cards that has about 50 lines of rules text. They could have given him a much simpler ability, but that would make Ice Cauldron cry.
Thermopod – How in the world does a slug survive in the snow? Well at least tribal slug decks are finally possible. No, wait. Molder Slug is a beast. You’ll just have to wait another 12 years when Wizards prints a new slug in the lost set that was supposed to be released instead of Fallen Empires.
Zombie Musher – More tech against Snow-Covered Forest.
Snow Tap-lands - I love the Invasion taplands. I still consider them the only true dual lands that aren’t rare and don’t completely suck. They come into play tapped and that’s it. So if you have a deck that doesn’t have a legitimate first-turn play to begin with, there’s really no drawback at all. Coldsnap brings us a new cycle of snow-covered taplands. So basically, they’re all exactly the same as the Invasion ones except that they produce snow mana. Now when are they finally going to print a cycle of enemy-colored taplands?
Great Furry Beasts
Okay, who thought that aurochs were actually one of the prevalent themes of Ice Age? Anyone? Well apparently the one-of common has a huge fan in R&D. I know when I first got a copy of Aurochs, I was thinking about how great it would be to see more printed, but three in one small set is a bit much. The least they could do is push it to four and make them tribal-legal. As much as the sudden auroch-population boom took me by surprise, I still like how the Aurochs came out. Take a look at Aurochs Herd. That’s what the original Aurochs should have read. Once you get one out, the rest will follow and then they all help each other out on the attacks. There’s also the aggressively-costed Bull Auroch, which may make Aurochs a legitimate draft strategy.
More Great Furry Beasts
Okay, who thought that yetis were actually one of the prevalent themes of Ice Age? Anyone? Well apparently the one-of rare has a huge fan in R&D. Unlike aurochs, yetis went completely unnoticed in Ice Age. Karplusan Yeti, the only yeti in the set, was completely overlooked, even in the art on his own card. I can only assume that someone looked back and realized that yetis are the perfect creatures for a snowy environment and decided to give them a boost. Or maybe they were watching Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and needed to know what type of creature the Abominable Snowman would equate to in Magic. “We need an Abominable Snowman in Magic and Karplusan Yeti just isn’t cutting the mustard.” The next day, Drelnoch was born. Or perhaps they were watching the Empire Strikes Back and said, “We need one of those snow monsters in Magic.” The next day, Stalking Yeti was born. Or perhaps… no, I think I’ll just stop there.
That’s my new favorite nickname for the previously dubbed “slowtrips.” Coldsnap brings us five new cards that replace themselves at the next upkeep. My favorite of these is Mishra’s Bauble. Not to be outdone by his brother, Mishra also found it necessary to use the power of the effective 56-card library. On the other end of the spectrum, I’m not a fan of Mystic Melting. As awful as Thermal Flux is, at least it has a unique ability. Balduvian Rage and Swift Maneuver are both costed similarly to existing, non-trip cards. Mystic Melting is just Naturalize for twice the cost.
All or Nothing
It looks like Wizards wanted to bring back the alternative casting costs for cards. But of course, since Force of Will was much too powerful, one of two routes had to be taken: either give the free cards weaker abilities or force the player to remove more cards from the game. The latter route was taken, providing Coldsnap with some really ridiculous, really swingy and hard to evaluate cards. Sure Allosaurus Rider is going to be a monstrous creature to play for free, but is he worth losing two cards from your hand? What about a weakened wrath effect or a Relentless Assalt? The only thing I know for sure is that Commandeer could kick major butt against Howling Owl decks.
Death Spark Redux
Here’s another example of R&D looking back at bad designs and trying to make them modern. In this case, the design was “graveyard order matters” and the modern equivalent is the recover mechanic. I personally don’t remember the order of the graveyard being one of the overlying themes of Ice Age. In fact, I can only think of two cards that actually used it: Ashen Ghoul and Death Spark. Ashen Ghoul’s ability has been dug up enough times to qualify it as not-really-retro, meaning that there was a big Death Spark fan working on the design team. Six of the seven recover cards are instants or sorceries, meaning that this whole cycle is basically a tribute to Death Spark.
However, as questionable as the origins of the mechanic may be, the results seem pretty positive. Resize is one of the best of the bunch and will fit well in green weenie decks that tend to lose steam when their creatures start dying. Now those dead creatures and unused Forests can turn into additional damage that may help squeeze through a win. Both of the black instants seem fun, since black is the best color for getting its own creatures in the graveyard. Krovikan Rot can take out chump blockers and Grim Harvest has great synergy with recover and may help keep a constant rotation of creatures in the game. Icefall could be really good, but it’s also a land destruction spell and we all know that only jerks play land destruction.
Of course, there’s a host of bad recover cards, too. Controvert is a replayable counterspell, but it’s also four mana in a color that doesn’t play a lot of creatures. This means it will probably just be a four-mana counterspell. I suppose you could play it with Myr Servitors and Skullclamps, but then all your friends will hate you. Sun’s Bounty sucks on too many levels to describe and the recover cost of Garza’s Assassin is way too high just to be taking out one creature per use.
Ripples and Bursts
First things first: how does anything ripple in a frozen world? Water ripples when you throw a rock in it. Ice just cracks and snow gets squished. Flavor paradoxes aside, the only ripple card anyone cares about is the rippling obelisk: Thrumming Stone. Combine it with a billion Relentless Rats for one huge turn.
Then there’s the “burst” series. You might remember Kindle as a card that debuted in Tempest, two blocks after the Ice Age block. Kindle was later expanded into a cycle of cards in Odyssey, called the bursts (e.g. Flame Burst). So why is the burst mechanic in Coldsnap? For the same reason the ripple mechanic is in Coldsnap: limited. Since there will be no reprinting of Ice Age tournament packs, Coldsnap has to work really well as an independent set. Since it’s a smaller set, the only way to make it work is by including lots of cards that interact well (but aren’t too powerful) in multiples. The answer to this problem is ripples and bursts. All the ripple and burst cards are quite unimpressive on their own, but should be a blast to play in limited games.
The martyrs blow. I don’t know why, but that’s what they do. Look at the art. They all like to blow things off their hands. Apparently, this also causes them to die, because I have no idea how else being a martyr is related to that art.
If you happen to play with one of these cards, you’ll get a 1/1 creature for 1 mana, which, in general, is not a bad deal. On top of that, they all have marginal abilities you can get by sacrificing them. I’ve tried determining which martyr is best and worst, but they all seem to be pretty well balanced. The black one seems slightly worse than the others, because his ability is going to be more-or-less useless 90% of the time. I’m also not a fan of the blue one since I’d like to be sacrificing my martyrs when they’re already going to die anyway. I’ll give my vote to the green one as the best martyr for its Giant Growth-like effect.
The Jump Knights
Order of the White Shield and Knight of Stromgald. Everyone remembers the “pump knights” of Ice Age, which were actually reprints of the “pump clerics” of Fallen Empires. Regardless, they were cool, efficient weenie creatures that were a force in combat. Now the knights of old have hopped on some flying horses and taken to the air in an attempt to avoid combat altogether, since they can’t strike first anymore. Will they be as favorable as the Ice Age knights? My guess is no. I like the design of the new cards, but nowadays, there are so many quality options for efficient weenie creatures, that it’ll be hard for these guys to make a splash.
It seems like it’s been forever since Wizards has printed a true spider. “True” spiders are defined by their ability to block flying creatures and by having their toughness greater than their power. Giant Spider is the iconic spider and not a true spider has been printed since the completely horrible Arachnoid and Tangle Spider of Mirrodin block. Coldsnap brings us two cool new spiders in Frostweb Spider and Steam Spitter. Hopefully their appearance in a lost set is not an indication that quality spiders are a thing of the past.
Ice, Ice Baby
Remember back in the day when every permanent that used counters had a different kind of counter on it. There were charge counters and +1/+1 counters, of course. But there were also time counters and pin counters and storage counters and spore counters and healing counters and ice counters. Well now ice counters aren’t just for Iceberg anymore. Four new cards have been printed using ice counters and they’re all rare, so it’s safe to assume that ice is not very common in a completely frozen world.
We can’t forget everyone’s favorite Ice Age mechanic: cumulative upkeep. Back in Ice Age, cumulative upkeep basically meant “unplayable.” Of course, Alliances through Weatherlight let it come back as a quirky, yet fun ability and now Coldsnap has taken it to a whole new level. 23 new cards explore all sorts of facets of cumulative upkeep. Some of my favorites:
Braid of Fire – “But you can only use the mana during your upkeep!” That’s what everyone’s complaining about? Am I the only person that owns a firebreathing creature? How about a Sensei’s Divining Top or Soothsaying? Those are usually pretty nice to use right before you draw. Or you could save it for later with a Gemstone Array. Or add heads to a hydra. Or get back a Shard Phoenix or Hammer of Bogardan. Or combine it with the super-classic Energy Vortex from Mirage. The possibilities are endless and if you can’t find a mana sink for your Braid of Fire, then you’re not trying hard enough.
Cover of Winter – Provided you have the snow mana to pay for it, this card should end every creature stalemate you ever encounter.
Glacial Plating – This card is just nuts. I used to think Serra’s Embrace was good, but this is far better. By the time you cast it, you’ll have at least four mana dedicated to making it work. That’s at least a +12/+12 bonus when all is said and done (Assuming all snow lands in the deck). Plop that on an Auroch and there won’t be a lot of blockers that can stop it.
Herald of Leshrac – New Frontiers may now be playable outside of 1-1-1 Emperor matches. Throw in a way to sacrifice lands, and really make your opponent pay.
Hibernation’s End – An immediate bomb in Rainbow Stairwell matches, this card cries to have a deck built around it. Finding the right creatures should be a blast.
Jotun Grunt – A lot of people are dismissing this card because he won’t stay in play long. He only works with dredge decks. Yeah, but he’s the card dredge decks have always been looking for. I hate it when I dredge my Stinkweed Imp into five cards that I don’t want in my graveyard. Now, those cards go right back into the library. Of course, they’ll go to the bottom. But Jotun Grunt could also go nuts in a regular BGW deck. Imagine a first turn Darkblast, popping an opponent’s birds. Turn two, dredge the Blast and cast the grunt. Turn three, dredge back the best card that landed in the graveyard (Moldervine Cloak, perhaps?) drop the other two cards back in the library, cast the Cloak and attack with a 7/7 creature on your third turn. That’s not too shabby.
Sheltering Ancient – The other monster for 2 mana. I’ll admit this card kind of sucks. Unless you play with cards like Faith’s Fetters, Gelid Shackles, Pacifism, Cage of Hands, Arrest or any number of cards capable of locking down an opponent’s creature.
Wall of Shards – This card is just nuts. There are tons of decks that don’t worry about an opponent’s life total and just need an early flying blocker to keep the pressure off. Put a False Cure on an Isochron Scepter and it’ll even help win the game.
Here’s all those cards of interest that are worth mentioning, but don’t really fit in anywhere else:
Jokulmorder – There used to be a contest in R&D to see who could design the biggest trampling creature. 8/8 led to 9/9, which led to 10/10, which led to 11/11. So the Coldsnap designers followed suit with this 12/12. The price of five lands is indeed a steep one, but a Crucible of Worlds can fix that right up, as well as cure that tapping problem. If you refuse to lose the Islands altogether, Jokulmorder can still have fun combining with cards like Fling, Bloodshot Cyclops and Bioplasm.
Lightning Storm – Can you say INSANE in multiplayer? I can’t think of a single spell that does more than this one before it even resolves. If you couldn’t remember to hold back extra lands in your hand before, this card will teach you quickly.
Ursine Fylgja – I like this card. I know it’s not good, but I like what it represents. I had a Fylgja from Ice Age and although I hardly ever used the card, I thought the story behind the card was pretty cool. Some magical bear acts like a guardian angel to some lucky creature. Now that magical bear has come to life. In my opinion, this card is a better tribute to Ice Age than the overdone themes like Aurochs and Death Sparks.
Goblin Rimerunner – First, there were goblins on sleds. Then there were goblins on skis. Then there were more goblins on sleds. Now, there is a goblin on a snowboard. Conclusion: goblins love winter sports. Coming up: Goblin Curling Team, Goblin Luge and Goblin Figure Skater.
And the Winner Is…
Although I’m mixing things up with this style of review, I’d still like to include an awards section for the best and worst of the new set. Let’s get on with it…
Best Art: Dark Depths – In general, I feel that the quality of the art in this set took a step down from Ravnica, but there’s still quite a few gems. Some of my favorites include Adarkar Valkyrie, Chilling Shade (coolest-looking shade since Fifth Edition’s Frozen Shade), Magmatic Core and Ohran Viper. But Dark Depths is a step above all those. The depth and subtlety of the art really evokes the surprise and power of the card, perfect for the land it was commissioned for. It also leaves quite a bit to the imagination, revealing enough of Marit Lage for us to see the immensity of the avatar, while still remaining hidden enough to be even more massive and scary than what we can see.
Worst Art: The Three-Color Legends – Yes, there’s a 3-way tie for worst art, but I feel that it’s warranted. For some reason, all three of the three-color legends have really underwhelming art. First there’s Garza Zol, who should look like a really freaky nasty powerful vampire queen, but instead just looks like some ugly chick caught in a snowstorm. Overall, the art just seems really lazy and lacks the detail I expect to see in every card. Then there’s Sek’Kuar, Deathkeeper. I like the look of the character, but I don’t see his power captured in the art. Again, there’s almost no background, making this art look like it could fit better on a 1/1 goblin card. Finally, there’s Zur the Enchanter. His art gets across the “crazy wizard” feel, but it makes him look more stupid and dorky than insane. Overall, all three of these legends are cool and powerful cards, but the art fell dreadfully short of evoking the coolness of their effects.
Best Flavor Text: Ohran Yeti – When a snowdrift shows you its eyes, it’s already too late. I love the imagery this quote evokes. Imagine looking at some random snowdrift and a second later, you see eyes peering from it. Then when you realize that the snowdrift itself is some huge beast, it’s already started to devour you. I also have to give props to Goblin Furrier and Phyrexian Ironfoot. I’m usually quick to chastise humorous flavor text, so I need to point it out when it’s done correctly. Both of these are intended to be funny pieces, but neither one uses bad puns, catch phrases or over-the-top humor. Subtlety makes them work. Bravo to the writers for coming up with two quality quotes.
Worst Flavor Text: Frozen Solid – “Guard, fetch me a mallet.” -Heidar, Rimewind master. I get what this is trying to say, but I still don’t like it. If you look at all of Heidar’s other quotes, they fit into the story behind Coldsnap or they help create his personality. This one is random and disjointed; it could be attributed to anyone. A mallet also seems like a really inefficient way to do that single point of damage. Doesn’t his guard have a sword handy already?
Best Common: Skred – Sure, it can’t hit players, but this is still one of the best red removal spells ever. All you need is some Snow-Covered lands in your deck and you can take down almost any creature for just one red mana.
Worst Common: Thermal Flux – Does this do anything? Why doesn’t it just say, “Draw a card at the beginning of the next upkeep,” and save us some time reading it.
Best Uncommon: Jotun Owl Keeper – Blizzard Specter is my favorite card in the set, but this guy kicks his butt in sheer power. A 3/3 creature for three mana is better than most and when he dies, he turns into a flock of flying creatures.
Worst Uncommon: Mystic Melting – Why on earth is this an uncommon? I didn’t like it when I thought it was common, so its rarity is just salt in the wound.
Best Rare: Field Marshal – Of all the 3-mana “lords” this guy might just be my new favorite. There’s enough good soldiers out there already and giving them all +1/+1 and first strike solidifies white’s favorite creature into tribal-viable status.
Worst Rare: Jester’s Scepter – Jester’s Cap had the ability to absolutely wreck combo decks. Jester’s Scepter has the ability to become the least-effective counterspell in the history of the game.
Hottest Babe: Rimewind Cryomancer – Ahhh, the traditional hardest decision to make. Despite the cold weather, a few babes emerged in the coldsnap art, including Diamond Faerie, Lovisa Coldeyes, and the girl on Vanish Into Memory. (No, I’m not including Garza Zol.) But the hottest in the set is Rimewind Cryomancer, whose skintight outfit should keep her warm as she freezes your opponent’s activated abilities.
Well that about does it for my Coldsnap review. Although I’ll probably never own any Coldsnap cards outside of Magic Online, I do look forward to playing the set in that capacity. I think the hard-to-achieve balance of making a small set able to stand alone in limited was achieved, although the ripples and bursts detracted from its constructed impact. I still don’t see why it had to be made legal in Standard, but overall, I think it’s a good set. Not great, but good. It took a lot of ideas from Ice Age and made them better. However, it also took a lot of ideas from Ice Age and beat them into the ground.
I like the system of producing four new sets a year, but I think the next time Wizards comes to a lull between the Core Sets and Un Sets, they should just take the time off and deal with only producing three new sets. Or better yet, put out a new starter set. It will get ignored by internet pundits, but I know a lot of players that loved using the previous starter sets as teaching tools for new players.
I think that touches on the greatest downfall of Coldsnap. Sure, it’s not a bad set. Sure, we all like to see new and interesting cards. But its very existence just seems so… unnecessary. It felt like a gimmick from the first announcement on MTG.com and, for me, it never really drowned out that initial sentiment. I look forward to playing the set and I hope it’s fun, but I just don’t think this new world of ice is all it’s cracked up to be.