Magic: The Gathering Arena is doing a lot to ensure its offline audience is digitally equipped to make the leap from physical cards to the online platform. As Friday night drafts at local stores become Friday night Magic at home, players are connecting with the same friendly faces to play online, and it really does feel magical to see these communities adapt to the challenges of lockdown.
But what about attracting new audiences, or enticing lapsed players to return? As we stay inside and inevitably exhaust our favourite games, we may turn to others in their genre, or finally take the plunge into something new that once seemed daunting now we have a little more time on our hands. If Magic: The Gathering was on that list, or if you’re looking for a new card game, then Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, its latest expansion, is the ideal place to start or return to your adventure.
Magic expansions revolve around a theme – its previous update, Theros Beyond Death, was all about the underworld. In Magic lore Ikoria is a plane of monsters, so this expansion introduces fiends and beasts in all shapes and sizes, from the goliath Godzilla to an unassuming otter. Ikoria borrows from the kaiju genre of Japanese monster movies, featuring Mothra, Ghidorah, and other mystical critters who line up alongside dinosaurs, winged behemoths, and even lovable cats.
It’s a broad and bizarre range of inspiration and provides delicious fodder for Magic’s card artists. They’ve really outdone themselves with Ikoria; as I play, I get sidetracked many times by poring over each card design, marvelling at the bold colours and monster details, or reflecting on how well the text captures the essence of each creature.
If you’re new to Magic, then the Commander Format in MTG is the perfect place to start if you’re playing with physical cards. In this popular multiplayer format from the card game, you build a 99-card deck around one legendary creature that you can play again and again. It’s a slightly different way to play than the traditional 40-card deck, but it’s great for learning the mechanics, and Ikoria works especially well with it since it adds so many new legendary creatures – such as Otrimi the Ever-Playful, a nightmare beast with the new ‘Mutate’ ability. This means you’ve got plenty of options to explore as you narrow down your favourites. If you’re playing Arena, then Brawl is very similar, but instead with 59 other cards.
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‘Mutate’ is Ikoria’s central new mechanic, and it involves combining creatures to create bigger and better ones. Mutable creatures have a normal mana cost and a mutate cost – you can either pay the mana cost, as you would a normal card, or the mutate cost. If you choose to mutate, you simply pick a target creature on the battlefield and your horrifying new hybrid will arise. You can choose the order in which to mutate your cards, but you really want the best health and toughness to sit on top.
For example, I play Essence Symbiote, a modest 2/2 beast with the text ‘whenever a creature you control mutates, put a +1/+1 counter on that creature and gain 2 life’. Pairing this with a mutate card means I still get all its abilities, but I’ve now made it stronger.
Other mechanics in Ikoria include ‘Cycling’. Mainly found on artifacts and low cost creature cards, Cycling is a way to discard a card you don’t need any more to draw a new one from your deck – you simply pay the Cycling cost, which is usually mana. Cycling has appeared in Magic previously, but this is a stripped back version that doesn’t overcomplicate matters by adding in any extra text.
Some Companions are tough to build around, which is why they're so good at teaching deck-building
Finally, Ikoria introduces ‘Companions’ to the game. These special characters start at the side of the battlefield and can be played (for the customary mana cost) at any point. They function as normal creatures in every other sense, except they each get a special ability – this might be a devastating attack to drop on your opponent, or a sneaky trick to get yourself out of a sticky situation. But there’s a catch: in order to use them, you need to build your deck a certain way.
I use Kaheera the Orphanguard, who gives my cat, dinosaur, elemental, and nightmare cards Vigilance (enabling them to attack without being tapped) and +1/+1. However, in order to play her or use her buff, my deck must contain creature cards of only these types – adding a human soldier would disqualify me.
Some of these Companions have much more exacting requirements and are tough to build around, but the sense of structure that doing so lends to the deck-building process makes them a great way to learn this facet of the game. Handily, they don’t count towards your deck size, but if they are exiled or returned to your library or your hand, they can only be replayed as a regular old creature card.
Ikoria will definitely appeal to collectors – I’m enamoured of its vibrant and lavish artwork, and fans of monster movies, mythical beasts, or even just cats will find something to love in its creations. More importantly, though, I’m excited for what it means for new and returning players. Enticing creature designs complement Commander, Brawl, and Companions to create an especially welcoming environment in a game with this much development and history behind it. Once you’re done marveling at the flying felines and menacing squirrels, hopefully you’ll want to stay and play.