How many words have been written arguing that Set X is the Worst Set Ever™? How many hours of YouTube videos are dedicated to ranting about how Magic: The Gathering is dying and Wizards of the Coast sucks and the latest set is terrible? Too many. Inspired by a thread I saw on Twitter about criticism and negativity in video game fandom, I want to set aside "edginess" and cynicism to bring some positivity back to Magic content. If we approach a set with no preconceptions, no unrealistic expectations, we reach a simple conclusion: All Sets Are Good.
This works for every set. Champions of Kamigawa? A flavor home run. Time Spiral? Fantastic limited play. Prophecy?
Prophecy: The Bad
Before we talk about why Prophecy was good, we have to address the Vintara Elephant in the room. Prophecy has major design flaws, so much so that Mark Rosewater called it the second-worst designed set (Homelands is the worst.) Mark's reasoning is that it was thematically and mechanically disconnected from the rest of the Mercadian Masques block. Masques was an intentionally underpowered set, coming just after Combo Winter and the broken decks of Urza's Saga block. Even by that standard, however, Prophecy is a weak set.
The Good: Flavor
Masques block is interesting from a story perspective in that each set is a separate story, each taking place concurrently. Mercadian Masques focused on the Weatherlight Crew recovering after their escape from Rath to the plane of Mercadia and uncovering a Phyrexian plot in the capital, Mercadia City. Nemesis took place at the same time back on Rath and focused on the search for a new Evincar after Volrath left. The Phyrexian Belbe had to choose between former Weatherlight crew members Ertai and Crovax or Greven il-Vec. (The title would ultimately go to Crovax, but that's another story.)
While those two stories were playing out on Mercadia and Rath, Prophecy was taking place on Dominaria. The warrior nation of Keld, under Overseer Latulla, invaded Jamurra.
Yes, that Jamurra, homeland of Teferi. It didn't end well for the Keldons.
Since the start of the Weatherlight Saga in Weatherlight, each set's story flowed into the next in the block to tell one larger story. While many of the characters in Prophecy had appeared in previous Magic stories, Prophecy was the first set since the block to tell a self-contained story. Eighteen years later, with Metamorphosis 2.0 and the shift to three large sets a year, Magic is allowing sets to tell their own stories. While new sets will draw from the same cast of characters and the same overarching plotlines, we're no longer required to stay on the same plane for three (or two, under the two-block paradigm) sets in a row. Masques block, and Prophecy in particular, serve as a precedent for how this could work.
Prophecy also marked a high point of mechanical and storyline harmony. In the story, Latulla and the Keldons have launched an invasion of Jamurra. This war was devastating, and the land itself was a victim of the conflict. The mechanics of the set capture the flavor of this destructive conflict.
The Good: Mechanics
Prophecy did not introduce any new keyword abilities; however, the theme of total war between Keld and Jamurra plays out in the two major land mechanics that run though the set. The first land mechanic has cards that require lands to be sacrificed as part of their costs, such as Squirrel Wrangler. The second mechanic is the "no untapped lands" effects seen on creatures like Vintara Snapper and artifacts like Well of Discovery.
From a modern design perspective the "no untapped lands" mechanic seems boring and underpowered, but recall that mana burn was still a rule when Prophecy was released. There were situations where tapping your lands and taking the mana burn was the correct play because it would give your Vintara Snapper shroud in response to a removal spell.
The third new mechanic in Prophecy is the rhystic mechanic. These cards, many of which have "Rhystic" in the name, have abilities that can be stopped by any other player paying some mana cost. Rhystic Syphon, for example, causes your opponent to lose 5 life and you to gain 5 life unless that player pays three mana. Similarly, there is a cycle of creatures with beneficial abilities that any player can remove, such as Glittering Lynx.
Two mechanics carried forward from the earlier sets in Masques block, although only as one cycle of each mechanic. Spellshapers, creatures with an ability that allows their controller to discard a card to create a spell-like effect, return as a cycle of rare legendary creatures. Each of these creatures has a powerful ability that requires discarding two cards in addition to paying mana and tapping. For example, you can pay and discard two cards to Greel, Mind Raker to Mind Twist an opponent. "Pitch spells," cards that allow you to discard a card instead of paying their mana cost, also returned in Prophecy as a single cycle of uncommons. Tying into the theme of land as a resource, this cycle allowed you to discard a land of the appropriate type for its color as the alternate cost. For example, Abolish, the white member of the cycle, allows you to discard a Plains rather than pay its mana cost.
Together, these mechanics create an interesting tension—do you tap all your lands to turn on your Chimeric Idol and attack, risking your opponent being free to Rhystic Tutor for a devastating spell? Your opponent is tapped out—are they holding a pitch spell, or just bluffing?
The Good: Notable Cards
Despite its reputation as a terrible set, Prophecy gave us a number of memorable cards. The spellshaper legends include two of the most famous cards from the set: Mageta the Lion, and Jolrael, Empress of Beasts. Mageta had a few tournament appearances and has gone on to be a Commander staple. Jolrael would later be reprinted as part of the timeshifted sheet in Time Spiral both as a representative of the spellshaper mechanic and because she was the only one of the three main wizards from the Mirage Wars storyline to have a card (Both Mangara and Kaervek, the other wizards from that story, would appear as legendary creatures in Time Spiral.)
Alexi, Zephyr Mage was later referenced in Future Sight on the legend Linessa, Zephyr Mage, intended to depict one of Alexi's descendents. Both Linessa/Alexi and Latulla, Keldon Overseer are referenced in art previewed for Dominaria.
Latulla, Keldon Overseer by Brom and a mysterious new Keldon by Victor Adame Minguez
Two rare cycles from Prophecy would become casual staples: the Avatars and the Winds. The Avatars are a cycle of rare creatures that cost 6MM, and have an ability that reduces their cost by six if certain conditions are met. Avatar of Woe, the black Avatar, is perhaps the best known card from Prophecy. The Winds are a cycle of rare spells with a converted mana cost of nine and a massive effect. Plague Wind was the casual multiplayer sweeper of choice for years until Magic 2015 gave us In Garruk's Wake as a superior option.
The only rhystic card with a lasting impact is Rhystic Study, which has become a staple in Commander.
Two blue creatures from Prophecy also had some tournament impact: Spiketail Hatchling and Spiketail Drake. These drakes can be sacrificed to counter a spell unless its controller pays additional mana. Spiketail Hatchling was a key card in one of the best Standard decks of the era: Blue Skies.
|Tom Guevin's Optimal Blue SkiesMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards|
4 Spiketail Hatchling
4 Rishadan Airship
4 Troublesome Spirit
4 Chimeric Idol
3 Sky Diamond
4 Wash Out
This particular Skies list was proposed as "the best Skies" by Tom Guevin in a Sideboard article written just after PT Chicago 2000. Although Kai Budde won the PT with Rebels, Blue Skies made up 8% of the field. One build, piloted by Jay Elarar, cracked the top 8:
|Jay Elarar's Mono Blue, PT Chicago 2000 Top 8Magic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards|
2 Drake Hatchling
4 Spiketail Hatchling
4 Rishadan Airship
4 Troublesome Spirit
2 Air Elemental
3 Rising Waters
4 Rishadan Port
2 Wash Out
1 Wash Out
Both of these decks include Foil, another Prophecy card, but Guevin's version also includes Chimeric Idol. Chimeric Idol showed up in a variety of decks of the era, including six of the top eight decks from PT Chicago. These range from Brian Kibler's GRW Armageddon, multiple versions of Fires (piloted by, among others, luminaries Zvi Mowshowitz and Jon Finkel), to the winning list for the PT: Kai Budde's aforementioned Rebels deck (also featuring Mageta the Lion in the sideboard):
|Kai Budde's Rebels, PT Chicago 2000 WinnerMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards|
4 Ramosian Sergeant
2 Defiant Falcon
4 Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero
1 Rebel Informer
1 Thermal Glider
2 Defiant Vanguard
3 Steadfast Guard
3 Longbow Archer
2 Ramosian Sky Marshal
4 Parallax Wave
2 Dust Bowl
4 Rishadan Port
4 Chimeric Idol
4 Wax // Wane
1 Defiant Vanguard
3 Mageta the Lion
3 Seal of Cleansing
3 Wrath of God
Despite being called the "second-worst designed set" in Magic's history, Prophecy has many redeeming qualities. It provided important cards to top decks of the era. It broke new ground mechanically by viewing lands as a resource, something that would later be revisited in Zendikar. Several cards from the set went on to become Commander staples. In its own ways, Prophecy is good.
Thank you for joining me in embracing the philosophy that, in their own ways, all sets are good.
Do you have a particular card from Prophecy that you love? Have you built a Jolrael, Empress of Beasts Commander deck you'd like to share? What set would you like to see get the All Sets Are Good™ treatment next? Let us know in the comments or tweet me at @_kaburi_!