The Core Set Experience

Dominaria followed by a new Core Set? It doesn’t get much better than that! I was disappointed by the announcement that the yearly Core Set would be discontinued, so the triumphant return of the Core Set brings me a lot of joy.

Core Sets are a difficult Magical phenomenon to gauge. On the one hand, they risk coming off a little bit boring. In the past, these sets were made up entirely of reprints and served a couple of functions:

First, they were the “Magic beginner’s set,” which doesn’t exactly scream “excitement” for seasoned players. For well over the first decade of Core Sets the concept was all reprinted cards. I’m a huge fan of what Core Sets add to the Standard experience, but I’d wager the poor branding had a lot to do with the unpopular rap these sets got that ultimately led to their disbandment.

Secondly, these sets were crafted to expand and accent Standard formats. While the sets didn’t add new design, concepts, or mechanics to the game, they added a depth of strategy and complexity to Standard by providing players access to straightforward, yet powerful, cards like Counterspell, Wrath of God, and more. Core Sets also functioned as a sort of safety valve where foils to dominant Standard strategies could be added to release some pressure:

What plane is this little fella from? I’m guessing one without too large of a Fae presence!

Another aspect of Core Sets is that they feel like generic Magic: the Gathering, whatever that means. Core Sets leave behind a lot of the specific themes, mechanics, and narratives of the plane or block, and take us back to the basics of what made MTG such a great game in the first place.

In M2010, Wizards made an important innovation to Core Set design and function—they added new, unique printings to the mix:

Not only did they add new cards, but they added solid ones. I loved (and still do) the way these cards feel ubiquitous. Like the mighty Ornithopter, these are generic creatures of origins seemingly unknown. A Baneslayer Angel or Acidic Slime feels like a creature that could have come from any plane at any time. It’s timeless and placeless. It’s elegant design, regardless of how powerful the cards may have been.

Adding new cards to the mix mended some of the problems the Core Set had in the past. First, there was a reason for players to buy the set to collect the new printings. I can dig through my collection all I want, but the only way to get those Baneslayers is to do some Drafts and crack some packs.

Speaking of doing some Drafts, I’ve always, always, always, loved Core Set Limited. A departure from gimmicky mechanic-driven expansions, these sets are rooted in the basics of playing a more straightforward and elegant form of Magic. Obviously, this is rooted in my own experience, but I’ve always felt that the basic building blocks of the game are what make it great, and I’ve always enjoyed the change of pace a Core Set offered once a year.

How is M19 Stacking Up?

So far, so good! In my opinion, the most important metric for the quality of a set is how many cards I will add to my Battlebox. M19 delivers. There are a lot of cards in this set that I think look legitimately interesting and fun to play with over half the spoiler up.

OK, that is not a good metric for determining the value of a set in the abstract. Yet, Magic is a personal experience, as well as a communal one, and this set does deliver on things I actually care about.

I like a lot of the cards I see on the spoiler—compelling cards that will lead to fun games of Magic.

The card is obviously good enough to see some Standard play.  I like the flavor of the card and the way he can essentially show up and beef up a force, or on an empty board, start a rebuild of a depleted force. It feels very Ajani. It has a great look too! I love the saturation of sky blue throughout the background and subject. The card has some serious wow factor.

I love this card. I love everything about it. First of all, it has great flavor. Second, it has good utility without being obnoxious and in your face with silly stats. Where was this kind of practical and elegant design when Rally the Ancestors ruled Standard? Too bad there wasn’t a Core Set that year!

I think this is a pretty obvious Constructed all-star. With that being said, a card like this really feels like the epitome of stat-bloat in terms of design. 3/3 flying for 1WW is already a powerful card. Then, if you gain 5 life you get another Angel. Then the card also has the ability to gain +2/+2 and lifelink, which will automatically trigger the make-an-Angel ability.

I get that it will make life much harder for the dominant red decks (especially if Wizards decides not to ban Chainwhirler). With that being said, it feels like the kind of card that is miserable to play against. It’s already good, but also casts Moment of Heroism and a 4/4 every turn. Oh, you couldn’t kill it? You dead.

It doesn’t even have the drawback of being legendary! And it’s a mythic utility card. When I make statements about cards having too many stats for no reason, this is the kind of card that immediately comes to mind. In the worse-case scenario, the card is a 3/3 flyer for 3 (which is already great). Beyond that, it oscillates between various flavors of dominating the game simply by being in play.

My personal bias aside, I think it is clear that this will be a high impact Standard card and one of the chase cards from the set.

Elegant. Solid. I love it. It’s another potentially viable 1-drop for Standard and a card I’m excited to try out in Pauper Affinity. I like how it doesn’t feel forced and is a solid 1-drop creature.

Solid utility.

What a neat card! I love sticking this ability onto a 1-drop creature with a great type—Merfolk Wizard.

It’s a solid sideboard option for various decks across multiple formats. The effect is narrow, but it will always get value. The fact that it costs only 1 mana to summon makes this a neat option that actually has a chance of seeing real play.

It’s hard for me to throw hate on a Skeleton Dragon because it’s obviously a very, very cool combination.

For me, it’s one of those things where if you make a Skeleton Dragon, it’s gotta deliver big. The bar is set high with Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon.

Compare these two cards. Skithiryx is better, and cooler, in every single way, from the name, to the flavor, to the abilities—all the way to being more unique and interesting. For a concept as exciting as an undead, Skeleton Dragon, the card reeks of “blah.” Skithriryx feels mythic, Bone Dragon uninspired. Even the flavor text feels like throwaway material and simply reiterates that the Dragon is a Skeleton. Why not focus on what is cool about the card—the fact that it rises from the grave:

“The earth shook as a great chasm opened before us. It’s long boney wings cast a plume of dust into the sky. Never had I experienced such darkness.”

The standard for black Dragons is high. There are not a ton of them and the ones that do exist are really, really cool. Kokusho, Skithiryx, and Scourge of Nel Toth. Maybe a nit-pick, but this feels like a missed opportunity.

I like this card, but the name feels more like a green creature than a black one.

With that being said, the card is powerful: 3/3 for 1BB with a nice ability to reanimate a creature when it attacks. It’s sort of a new take on Hell’s Caretaker.

I’ll give design credit for making this ability a “when this creature attacks” trigger, rather than simply a tap ability. It’s cool that this creature needs to enter the dangers of the combat zone in order to generate card advantage, rather than doing it at the end of the opponent’s turn.

I think this creature will almost certainly be in my Danger Room!

This is one of my favorite cards in the set. I like that it’s cheap and efficient, and has some built-in value that isn’t overstated or heavy-handed. It’s the type of card you can build around in a token shell with lots of expendable bodies.

It’s also the kind of card that provides some play. You don’t exactly know what you will flip, but it gives you opportunities to gain value from resources that were going to die anyway.

It is difficult to appraise without having played with it yet. Is it completely insane? Is it not quite good enough for Constructed? Cards that get me thinking about how I would use them and how they would play out are what I love about Magic. I find that aspect of the game more interesting than cards like Resplendent Angel, where it’s pretty obvious that the card is stacked.

We’ve come a long way:

It is crazy that a 5-mana 10/10 is a thing. It’s weird that such a flashy card isn’t mythic. It seems like an obvious fit in a deck with Ghalta and Rhonas. The numbers don’t lie, and bigasaurus is something I’ll be looking to build out of the gate.

I can’t wait to open this completely unnecessary mythic rare in Sealed or Draft. I don’t really understand the point of putting a card like this in a Core Set (or any set without a heavy land theme like Zendikar), and it feels like this should have just been a Modern Masters reprint.

You’ve come a long way!


The Elder Dragons are the clear selling point of M19. I’ve always loved the mystique of the mysterious Elder Dragons from Legends, and they appeal to a wide range of players.

The casual player in me loves the nostalgia and how these Dragons can kick some serious butt on the battlefield. The tournament player in me recognizes that these are game-breaking payoff cards.

I’m a little wary of putting hexproof on multiple giant Dragons with a bunch of abilities. It’s more of a personal bias where I don’t enjoy cards that can’t be interacted with.

“Uncounterable, hexproof, flash.” Translation: Sit back and enjoy getting thrashed by something you can’t do anything about.

From a flavor perspective, it’s also interesting that the only thing I really knew about these Dragons from before was that they were big, had upkeep, and got killed. These Dragons are smaller, cheaper, harder to kill, and don’t have upkeep.

Woe to the vanquished.

Neat fact about Vaevictis Asmadi: I always just assumed that it was some sweet made-up name. When I was doing my master’s thesis, one of the books I focused on was Melmoth, the Wanderer (which is one of my favorite books). In the text, the phrase “Vaevictis Asmadi” is used and the book provides the translation as “Woe to the vanquished.” So, it’s essentially a phrase that means, “Hey, all of you that got rekt—feel bad and be sad about it.” A pretty epic name for an evil, Jund Dragon. With that being said, “the Dire,” is a nice flavor title for this end boss.

Is It Great?

One of the things I enjoy about seeing a new Core Set, especially after not seeing one for a while, is to compare and contrast it to other Core Sets that have come before it. Core Sets have a unique role in the history of the game as they provide stability and balance to Standard, but also display the basic tone of the game.

To me, a Core Set defines Magic now. What are the basic building blocks of strategy and gameplay? It’s clear to me from the spoiler that M19 does a nice job of drawing elements new and old together to paint a picture of the game, where it’s headed, and what makes it great.

I love that the set is anchored by throwback Dragons, and even if I’m not a fan of hexproof, I like that the characters are re-envisioned to be powerful and flashy by today’s standards. I’m a big fan of some of the neat utility cards I reviewed here, and I’m excited to see how some of the more difficult to evaluate cards play out.

Most importantly, Core 2019 has good cards that have good Magic flavor. I’m a huge fan of Dominaria flavor and M19 adds to the fantasy setting I love about Magic.

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