Ruric Thar. Melek. Lavinia. Vorel. Exava. Varolz. Teysa. Mirko Vosk. Tajic. Emmara Tandris. These are the legendary champions of the guilds of Ravnica, charged with solving the unsolvable Dragon’s Maze. These brave souls must use all their strength, smarts, and courage to escape the Maze unscathed. Who will come out on top? Which guild will reign supreme? Who … really cares at this point?
Allow me to elaborate. When the plot for Dragon’s Maze was first spoiled at PAX East, I was intrigued. The story was something I really hadn’t expected, considering how little the previous two sets had built up to it. I get that the guildgates are all linked to this maze, and Niv-Mizzet was working to uncover its secrets. But when compared to the grandiose plotting and mystery of the original Ravnica story, one of murder mysteries and Game of Thrones-esque power struggles after the breaking of the Guildpact, this feels a little flat. It also felt like something I’d seen before. Younger Magic fans will draw the comparison of Harry Potter’s Triwizard Tournament, but the first thing I thought of was “The Running Man.” This story is literally “The Running Man.”
But you know what, I can look past the story as long as the characters are interesting. They’re the real focal point of the set, and they give players of different guild affiliations something to cheer for. With that in in mind, they would be cards worth cheering for, right?
The first champion spoiled, Ruric Thar, the Unbowed, didn’t disappoint. When I first heard about it, my LGS started debating whether something like it could actually exist. “No way, Titan stats AND it double Bolts people for playing noncreatures? That’s insane!” When it was confirmed, I had high hopes for the set. I mean, if the red/green champion was this good, imagine how awesome the other nine would be! Sadly, my enthusiasm was quickly stomped out, one champion at a time.
The second champion I saw, Melek, Izzet Paragon, certainly has an interesting ability. Future Sight was one of my favorite cards, and Twincasting all your instants and sorceries cast off the top was unique, but a 2/4 for 4UR is destined for the Commander bin, so I shrugged and kept clicking spoilers. Next was Lavinia of the Tenth. I was actually kind of impressed by this one, as pairing it with Deadeye Navigator creates a lockdown against most creature decks in Standard, giving a new way for UW-based decks to stabilize. I actively dread playing against this in the near future, and it was a step in the right direction.
Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch is a neat little card. It synergizes well with Innistrad block’s 1/ 1 counter theme, despite red/black now having more options for playable four-drops than any other time in history. Once Hellrider, Olivia Voldaren, and Falkenrath Aristocrat rotate out, Exava will absolutely have a place in Rakdos decks. But for the next six months, I have the feeling she’ll be spending her days lining trade binders.
Then Vorel of the Hull Clade brought me back to Earth. This is, for all intents and purposes, a worse Gilder Bairn. Being limited in the scope of its targets is already a step in the wrong direction, and tapping to activate is the last nail in the coffin. It’s difficult to take Vorel seriously when his ability is outclassed by an uncommon from freaking Eventide. I brushed it off as a fluke and clicked on the next spoiled guild champion, only to find a source of great anger.
Next we have what is, to me, the real tipping point for where these champions were heading: Varolz, the Scar-Striped. First and foremost, the artwork for this guy got me very excited for very obvious reasons. [Editor”s note: Think “Street Fighter”!]
Suffice to say, Varolz looked awesome. I thought, “Oh man, that’s going to be a 4/4 trampler for 3BG that sacs other creatures to get bigger.” Instead what I got was a freaking Gray Ogre and a sad attempt to make a failed mechanic Constructed playable. Let’s face it, scavenge has seen next to no play outside of Limited. Either the Scavenge costs were too much to activate, or the creatures were too lousy to warrant a spot in any serious Constructed deck. With the exception of Dreg Mangler and Deadbridge Goliath, which are both playable even without Scavenge, it was a failure. I would wholeheartedly welcome a card that tried to make it a decent ability, but there was a time and a place to make a card like that, and it was six months ago in Return to Ravnica. To use up Varolz to try to fix Scavenge is an utter waste.
While Varolz is insane with cards like Death”s Shadow and Phyrexian Dreadnought, those combos are only legal in formats with actual good spot removal that more or less render it useless, such as Path to Exile, online casino Lightning Bolt[c/ard], and [card]Go for the Throat. Now that Putrefy is in Dragon’s Maze, Varolz”s regeneration ability is even less relevant. You will never find a bigger fan of janky combos than me, but setting yourself up to get 2-for-1’d over and over doesn’t sound like a good strategy. It’s a pipe dream that will leave a lot of players with a bitter taste in their mouth.
And with that avalanche of rage, it was all downhill from there. Teysa, Envoy of Ghosts is destined to play second fiddle to the dozens of better seven-drops/reanimation targets in Standard. Her abilities are definitely something you don’t see every day, but come on, 5WB for a 4/4 is a death knell for creatures these days.
Mirko Vosk, Mind Drinker got next to no attention when he was spoiled, and with good reason. He is basically a Mind Funeral that makes you jump through the hoops of being able to connect with it in combat; considering how good five-mana creatures are right now, you’d have to make one hell of an argument for running this over, say, Consuming Aberration.
Tajic, Blade of the Legion is essentially a Limited player’s nightmare. Indestructibility on a four-drop that attacks as a 7/7 with very few ways to get remove it can be game-breaking. There was a reason why all the indestructible Darksteel creatures were all high-costed or undersized in the Mirrodin blocks, and it’s because indestructibility is really, really good in Limited. The saddest part is that for all his pros, I have my doubts Tajic will make it in Standard. The kind of decks where he’s at home don’t want four-drops. Hell, if Firemane Angel, a flier that can give you a free Lightning Helix every attack, isn’t good enough, there’s no way Tajic makes the cut.
Last and easily least is Emmara Tandris. This Game of Thrones reject is the reason I started writing this article a scant 96 minutes after her official spoiling. This card sums up everything I find disappointing about the Dragon’s Maze champions. Not only was Emmara one of the more well-known champions to those who bothered reading the Return to Ravnica storyline and Agents of Artifice, she’s touted as one of Jace’s closest friends and is a central character in The Secretist e-books. Naturally, one would think a character that important would get a card equally good. Something playable. Something strong and well-costed.
Instead, we get a 5/7 for 5WG that prevents damage to tokens. I’m sorry, what?
Even a token Commander deck wouldn’t run this piece of crap. Rumors that Emmara was this bad had popped up earlier in the day, but I dismissed them. But you know when you hear a spoiler for a movie twist and you think “There’s no way that’s how it happens. That’s stupid,” and it turns out to be just as bad as they said? THAT’s Emmara Tandris. I mean, Varolz made me angry, but Emmara … Emmara just made me stop caring about the guild champions at all. The last champion you spoil is going to have a lasting effect on players’s opinions, and that’s the card they end with?
I understand her card was originally that of Voice of Resurgence, and that the ability was easily too powerful for a rare so they were switched. But come on! One would think that after making that switch, they’d adjust some of the numbers so Emmara would be a little more playable and a lot less rage-inducing.
I totally understand that WotC wouldn’t want to make the Maze runners mythics because Ral Zarek would skew the number of mythics in the set, but quite frankly, they should have just bitten the bullet and made eleven mythics. (Maze’s End isn’t a card.) More than half of what they ended up printing as mythics, such as Progenitor Mimic, Deadbridge Chant, Savageborn Hydra, and Reap Intellect could have easily been printed as rares.
Ruric-Thar and Lavinia are the closest of the 10 guild champions to being Constructed playable, with Exava on the bench until Innistrad rotates out. That’s pathetic. When only 30 percent of the selling point of your set are decent, that’s a sign you’ve screwed up somewhere. Yes, a lot of the split cards are solid. A lot of the mythic cards are interesting. Hell, even some of the rares like Obzedat’s Aid and Notion Thief will probably see some degree of Standard play. But the entire point of Dragon’s Maze is these 10 legends running around a labyrinth, and if they suck it sets a very negative tone for the set.
For an idea of how to do this right, think of Rise of the Eldrazi. The legendary Eldrazi were the focal point of the set, and they were designed to have a big impact on both the story of Zendikar and most Constructed formats. What made the Eldrazi a success was that they lived up to the hype. Aside from the flavourful (and insane) Annihilator ability, WotC promised us the biggest, baddest monsters the game had ever seen, and they delivered! With Dragon’s Maze we have 10 legendary creatures with little to no explanation of who they are or why they’re bothering to run through the Maze. They’re trying to do far too much in too little space, and it makes the set feel clunky and unfocused.
I’m not thrilled with these champions. I hope to be proven wrong. I really do. I want to open a dialogue and get other people’s opinions about how to make the best of these disappointments. I want to encourage people to brew with these. I’ve got decks ready for the three decent champions, and I’d love to see the others become viable in Constructed. But until the rest of the set is spoiled, I’ve lost interest in these guys.
Wake me up when we get to Theros.
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