The reintroduction of the Core Sets to Magic: The Gathering has been a really wonderful chance to bring a bit more balance into the fray. Without the need to worry about story or setting, cards that have no place in the current timeline of MTG can be added to formats that need them without having to bend over backwards to justify their inclusion.
Core Set 2021 comes shortly after this year’s obscenely powerful Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths and Theros: Beyond Death sets. The recent Ikoria introduced the Companion mechanic, which allowed players to basically have an extra card in hand as long as they built their decks in a certain way. This, unsurprisingly, kind of broke everything and ruined MTG for some people, because having access to a specific card at all times is a bit like cheating. Thankfully the mechanic has since been adjusted, but the power level of current cards remains incredibly high.
The upshot is that not only does Core Set 2021 have to somehow introduce answers to the problems that MTG players feel there are, but also bring in some new toys to keep things interesting. It’s a tough position to be in; however, it certainly seems like Core Set 2021 has more or less pulled it off. In fact, it might just be the best Magic: The Gathering Core Set we’ve had in a long time.
Let’s start by talking about one of the best things about this set: the reprints. Reprints are important for a lot of reasons. For starters, printing another version of an absurdly good card helps to regulate the secondhand market, which means that you’ll actually be able to pick up some of these cards without having to deal with the devil. Just look at Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, which is now about half the price it used to be.
Secondly, reprints can occasionally reintroduce classic cards into more modern formats such as Standard and, uh, Modern. Grim Tutor is the best example from this set. It’s a card that we haven’t seen in an extraordinarily long time - in fact, it’s not been printed in this millennium. Seeing it back again - and at a fraction of the normal price - means that we could see some changes to the established formats.
When it comes to reprints, Core Set 2021 is a veritable smorgasbord of excellent cards. You’ve got the two mentioned above, as well as classic cards like Massacre Wurm; Azusa, Lost but Seeking; and even Solemn Simulacrum - or “Sad Robot” to its friends. Nearly every reprint in this set is either a perfect addition to Standard or just a much-needed price drop for cards that we all know and love thanks to Modern or Commander.
On the subject of playing Commander, Core Set 2021 seems pretty geared towards keeping those of us who like to shuffle 99 cards particularly happy. Alongside the reprints, nearly all of which will be a huge boon to any commander’s arsenal, you’ve also got some glorious new cards to play with.
The new legendary creatures are nearly all worthy new commanders. While not all of them lead to new archetypes, they do, for the most part, feel like some great new additions to the pantheon of creatures available to choose from when building a new Commander deck.
Two cards in particular stand out in this respect - and it’s not just new commanders impacting the format. The first card is legendary enchantment Sanctum of All, along with the other new Shrines printed in this set. The Shrines are a set of cards that have really interesting effects, but not necessarily strong ones, making them pet cards for a lot of people. While not powerful in and of themselves, they do give a nice shot of adrenaline to players hoping to use the older Shrines in Commander. Plus, it might be a hint that we’re returning to Kamigawa soon, which is very exciting despite the initially mixed reception to the set back in 2004.
The second of these two cards is Rin and Seri, Inseparable, which allows for a brand-new archetype in Commander that lets you play with a deck entirely composed of cats and dogs. Truly, this is the best card that Wizards of the Coast has ever given us. No, that’s not up for debate.
There’s a little bit for everyone in this new set. For Standard players, there’s another reprint of Shock and the mighty Grasp of Darkness. Removal in this set seems pretty solid across the board; every colour has some way of dealing with threats that may appear opposite you, and a lot of the cards designed to remove creatures or planeswalkers could see play in multiple formats.
While there are plenty of new and rather compelling cards in general, there are three standouts. The first is the mighty Teferi, Master of Time - Core Set 2021’s cover star. He’s a planeswalker who costs four mana, comes in with three loyalty and has three abilities. The first allows you to draw a card and then discard a card. The second allows you to Phase out a creature you don’t control - we’ll get back to that. Finally, the third lets you take two extra turns after your current one.
Those are all pretty interesting abilities, but what makes Teferi, Master of Time a potential issue is the fact that you can activate his abilities at instant speed and during any player’s turn. This means he accelerates to his ultimate at double speed, and you can just generally mess with your opponents at your behest.
The second problem is likely to be the Elder Gargaroth. This is a five-mana 6/6 creature that has Vigilance, Reach and Trample. That’s already good value but wait, it’s Green, so there’s more. It also gets to choose whether to create a 3/3 token, gain three life or draw a card every time it attacks or blocks. That, good people, is obscene, and seems symptomatic of the ever-growing power creep that seems to mostly affect Green in MTG.
Our third and final pick for “What?” is Chandra’s Incinerator. This is a six-mana 6/6 (compare with the Elder Gargaroth) that has Trample, and also allows you to turn non-combat damage dealt to an opponent into damage dealt to a creature or planeswalker they control. That’s cool, but a little pricey. Oh wait, the first bit of text says that it costs X less to cast, where X is the total amount of non-combat damage dealt to your opponents this turn. Now, that means it can cost a single Red mana instead of five generic and one Red. That means that you could comfortably have this out on turn three, even in Standard. It feels a bit like a Red player snuck into the MTG design department and bribed someone with cookies to get this one printed.
While overall the power balance amongst the mana colours in Core Set 2021 seems good, it’s not perfect. Nothing exemplifies this issue more than White, and the Baneslayer Angel. Baneslayer Angel is a five-mana 5/5 with Flying, First Strick, Lifelink and Protection from Demons and Dragons. It was an excellent card when it was originally printed in Core Set 2010 a decade ago but, compared to some of the other mythics in the set and Standard in general, it just doesn’t meet the current standards for the highest rarity.
Thankfully this isn’t an incredibly widespread issue, but you only have to compare the Elder Gargaroth to the Baneslayer Angel to see just how much White seems to have upset Magic: The Gathering’s makers.
There’s definitely a feeling that this latest Core Set seems geared towards new players. It’s got a good balance of easy to understand cards, absolutely monstrous rares and mythics, and some really fun cards that are sure to become Commander staples.
However, the decision to bring back Phasing - a famously misunderstood keyword - is an odd one. Phasing has creatures and everything attached to them ceasing to exist for a turn, meaning neither you nor anyone else in the game can interact with those cards in any way. It sounds simple, but it has some odd rules implications that are potentially a little much for new players.
There’s also an odd sensation when you look at the creatures in Core Set 2021. It seems that simply being a creature isn’t enough anymore; there are only five cards that don’t have keywords or special effects on them. That’s fine for keeping things interesting, but you have to wonder if the power creep of the last few sets, if not the last several years, hasn’t painted Magic: The Gathering into a corner in that regard.
Despite that, Core Set 2021 is a fairly comprehensive set. It's got a few cards bound to make a splash across all of the formats, and the mix of both casual and competitive cards feels well-balanced. Whether or not it massively changes any of the formats will remain to be seen, but it’s hard to imagine a world in which the likes of Teferi, Master of Time; Chandra’s Incinerator; and Elder Gargaroth don’t feel completely absurd. That’s fun, of course, but it’s very possible we soon see more bans in Standard again. Until that happens we’ve all got free rein over some very powerful cards, keeping things interesting while it lasts.