Pattern Recognition #134 - Mercadian Masques

Features Opinion Pattern Recognition


12 December 2019


Hello everyone! Welcome back to Pattern Recognition! This is's longest running article series. In it, I aim to bring to you each week a new article about some piece of Magic, be it a card, a mechanic, a deck, or something more fundamental or abstract. I am something of an Old Fogey and part-time Smart Ass, so I sometimes talk out my ass. Feel free to dissent or just plain old correct me! I also have a Patreon if you feel like helping out.

Mercadian Masques has a reputation for being the worst set ever printed. I disagree, as I think that was actually Chronicles, but I suppose I should at least take the time to peer back through the ages to this much derided set and examine it for why it was the way it was. And perhaps point out that its reputation is not wholly justified.

Published on October 4, 1999, Mercadian Masques was the first set following the publication of Sixth Edition. Storywise, it follows the events of Rath and Storm, the Weatherlight block and the escape of the Skyship Weatherlight from the clutches of Volrath on the demi-plane of Rath. It was followed by the events of the Invasion Block, and the end of the Weatherlight Cycle.

But more importantly for the perception of this set, it came after the High Tide mark left by the Urza's Block. Not without justification, the Urza's Block is considered to be one of the most high powered and full of broken cards in the game. Thus, we come to the first issue regarding Mercadian Masques.

I've talked in the past about cyclical balance, and how Wizards tends to correct the general balance level of the game over time on a set by set and block by block basis. I even used the example of Theros as a block that had the power level tuned down as it was caught between the powerhouses of Return to Ravnica and Tarkir.

Has it really been that long? Wow, I feel old some days.

Theros wasn't bad, it was just plain when compared to those two blocks. In much the same way, except more, Mercadian Masques was caught in the same trap. Urza's Block was too powerful, so Wizards chose to reduce the power of this set in particular to help pull the aggregate power level down now that the Weatherlight Block had rotated out of Standard. It didn't synergize well with Urza's and in general did its own thing.

So the first mark against Mercadian Masques was that it wasn't Urza's Block. Yes, I know 6th Edition came out between the two, but no one expects spectacular results from a Core Set. The playerbase wanted more of what they had been getting over the past year, and they didn't. They got Mercadian Masques, not Urza's Set Number Four. And that started the blacklash against the set. But it didn't end there.

Mercadian Masques was a set that didn't have an obvious Theme to it. Now, this not to say that it didn't have stuff running through it, but this was the first set in a very long time that didn't have something unique to it that players - or Wizards - could point to and say "This is what the set is about!" Urza's had the Artifacts and Enchantments matter theme, Invasion was Multi-colours, but Mercadian Masques, and to a lesser extent, the two subsequent sets of Nemesis and Prophecy didn't really have anything going for it.

This apparent lack of focus was perceived as another strike against the set. There was no glue holding everything together, even at the conceptual level, and so what were players going to do?

Well, for starters, they could look at the damned cards and not have Wizards spell every little thing out for them. Just because an ability isn't prefaced by an italicized Keyword doesn't mean it's not something that matters. Let's have a look at a couple of them.

And I'm not going to start with the one most of you are thinking of, because I've actually given two of the big three mechanics from this set and this block their own individual articles. So let's start with Spellshapers.

For those of you who don't want to read a full article where I Gush about how awesome that creature type is, let me give you a quick rundown. Spellshapers are creatures that can cast a spell. Or, to be more precise, you can pay the mana cost of a spell, tap the creature, discard a card, and you 'cast' a spell as an activated ability. For example, Waterfront Bouncer has an ability were you can pay , discard a card and tap the creature to return another creature to its owners hand. Or, it casts Unsummon.

This ability to turn any card in your hand into a spell is not something that could or should be underestimated. Not when it's possible to cast Wrath of God thanks to Mageta the Lion for example.

Now, I will admit that this isn't a theme. There are multiple horizontal cycles of Spellshapers in Mercadian Masques by itself - I count 23 creatures with this creature type. Out of 330 total cards and 157 creatures. That's right, 1/8 of all creatures in the set have this ability, and yet because it wasn't advertised, or have its own special Keyword, people don't remember it, and not think of it as a theme!

Well, I remember.

But of course, there is another theme in the set. Well, actually two of them that are paired off against one another as Wizard was wont to do in those days, what with the eternal conflict between and .

Let's admit that Rebels exist, and that they came from this block. Now, Mark Rosewater had admitted that they were something of a mistake as they made the game too 'samey' where people would play the same cards in the same order for the same outcome, and while I admit that there is some truth to the allegations, I would like to point out that this was a comment made regarding a set Twenty Years Ago. Printing more Rebels nowadays doesn't matter as they don't need the Recruit pseudomechanic, they can have the creature subtype and can have some neat ability. That's all we ask for! Honestly!

And it's a shame that the equivalent, Mercenary. Except that Recruit mechanic only pointed a creatures with smaller casting costs, not like the Rebels. Which I suppose is part of the reason why they never gained any traction and the Rebels got all the love. And hate.

Another allegation levied against Mercadian Masques was that the cards in the set were not powerful, and are poorly regarded. Which, despite the point I made earlier about how the set suffers from comparisons to what came around it - which is true, the idea that the cards in the set themselves were bad? That is....


Mercadian Masques had some brutally powerful cards in it, cards that get overlooked for their association with the set or rather people forget that they were printed in this set entirely, save for when it was the only printing.

Did you know, for example, that Mercadian Masques was the last time that Counterspell was printed in an expansion? Yes, the last time it was printed outside of a specialty set was 7th Edition, but that's a Core Set and they don't count. ;)

Bribery is one of the cheapest 'control' spells in the game. Probably not the cheapest and Commandeer has an alternate casting cost, but it's still down there as a measly . And it lets you search your opponents library. You read that right. I resolve this spell, and I know what you have in your deck. How's that for power?

Collective Unconscious is a remarkably powerful card, giving card draw to that it didn't really have at the time - and on a scale that is hard to match since.

Diplomatic Immunity is just disgusting. Shroud? Seriously? Not only does it give it, but also has it itself? And all for ? Yeah, no. That card's ridiculously powerful.

Magistrate's Scepter was a surprise reprint in M19 - at least to me, being a card that saw a lot of gimmick play given that it hands out extra turns when you charge it up enough. And there is no shortage of ways to put more charge counters on something. Not when cards like Energy Chamber and Coretapper and later Doubling Season exist.

OK, so using Doubling Season isn't the most sane example, given how playing that is a one-way trip to archenemy, or you're about to win. But it's the thought that counts, right?

And Rishadan Port is a land that can tap down other lands, preventing them from being used for purposes other than mana for good effect. Especially when done during their upkeep. All those nifty utility lands, or say a Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx that a player can't suddenly use for a huge amount of mana.

There are good cards in Mercadian Masques! It's a set with a lot going for it! It has stuff to build around - though not the point of being a fully drafatble set as Wizards likes to go for nowadays.

It even had some interesting story - filler as it was. We had the Goblins being surprisingly smart, a city on an upside down mountain, people fighting for control over the city from within and from without.

You know, it's almost like Mercadian Masques has a spiritual successor. It's almost like Conspiracy! How Paliano, the High City is the new Mercadia!

I know I'm stretching here, but I like to see things, you know? I have a soft spot for that most despised of sets, the underdog that still eeks out a surprising victory every now and then. You just have to remember that there are and always will be diamonds in the rough.

I don't know if I'll have an article next week. It's two weeks to Christmas, and Retail is Retail.

So, until then, please consider donating to my Pattern Recognition Patreon. Yeah, I have a job, but more income is always better. I still have plans to do a audio Pattern Recognition at some point, or perhaps a Twitch stream. And you can bribe your way to the front of the line to have your questions, comments and observations answered!

This article is a follow-up to Pattern Recognition #133 - Green Face'Walker The next article in this series is Pattern Recognition #135 - Counters

hydrothermia says... #1

I may be one of the few that actually remember playing Mercadian Masque in the Type 2 (Standard for you whippersnappers.) format. My favorite card of the set, outside of Counterspell was Tidal Kraken . It was only a 6/6 unblockable for eight mana, which is way overpriced by today's current Standards. A little surprised you didn't mention Conspiracy the card. It was the first of it's kind with the most recent "reprint" being Arcane Adaptation . Or my favorite/annoying combo consisting of Cho-Manno, Revolutionary and Pariah .

There were five artifacts, one land and a handful of white rebels that created lore of a creature that would eventually end up being printed for Commander 2017, Ramos, Dragon Engine . The first iterations of the artifact dragon came from Henge of Ramos , Eye of Ramos , Heart of Ramos , Horn of Ramos , Skull of Ramos and Tooth of Ramos .

December 12, 2019 2:52 p.m.

Mj3913 says... #2

This was my reason for quitting back in the day, this set. Well not MY reason per say, but my entire play groups (of that time period) reason. They all switched to a different game so naturally had to follow suit.


MTG Regret


But I was like... 14-15?... one with the crowd. Still, I had a sizable collect I dumped into this new game that didn't last long itself for everyone either. So I rejoined the game right before Khan release, but still... I'd have some crazy cards to show the kids had I kept them then, and probably some value too. Hindsight is always 20/20...

December 12, 2019 4:54 p.m.

Thank you.

I started playing Magic a month or so before Masques came out, so it's always had a kind of mystical aspect to me. Is that nostalgia speaking? Sure, somewhat. But in addition to really loving the 'feel' of the setting and the cards, I also had a familiarity with the cards that helps one better appreciate what was available. There are no shortage of superb cards running around in Masques - in addition to what you mentioned, and just off the top of my head, there's also Land Grant , Food Chain , Thwart , Soothsaying , Misdirection , Reverent Mantra , Unmask , Tower of the Magistrate , Haunted Crossroads , Pulverize as well as the last core printings of Dark Ritual and Brainstorm . Sure, the set had a few too many 4/4s for four mana with colosal drawbacks for my taste, too. But you still can't beat some of the inventive fun in Distorting Lens , Two-Headed Dragon and Foster .

Anyways, thanks for sticking up for the little guy as well. Masques is a fascinating set with a beautiful setting and interesting ideas, so it's nice to hear it spoken of in something other than biting vitriol for a change. Honestly, I'd just love to see any of the modern Type 2 decks try and stand a chance against a well-built Rising Waters deck from even Masques block constructed, you know?

Keep fighting the good fight!

December 12, 2019 6:19 p.m.

TheCardPool says... #4

berryjon I like your style. I have a youtube channel that does a similar take on older sets. My co-host and I find hidden gems that players have over looked and apply them to EDH. Would you mind taking a look at our channel to give us some feed back on our finds?

Here's the link:

December 13, 2019 11:23 a.m.

Ize19 says... #5

Great article as always! I agree that this set is underrated, and one of the cards you highlighted, Magistrate's Scepter is my favorite of the bunch!

I discovered it while looking for the most broken thing I could do with the sick Mimic Vat + Coretapper combo, and it certainly stood out! A 3 card combo, sure, but each piece was so cheap, and for 3 mana a turn, you never let your opponent take another turn! I still consider it the most underrated card ever.

Once again, thanks for the article, I'm looking forward to the next one.

December 14, 2019 2:04 a.m.

berryjon says... #6

Just a reminder that there will be no PR this week or next. Christmas is a thing that happens, and takes up a lot of my time. Sorry! See you in the new year!

December 19, 2019 1:07 a.m.

Tzefick says... #7

Surprised I haven't seen Rhystic Study mentioned already or that Rhystic was a theme in Prophecy experimenting with getting an effect cheaply or repeatably at the expense of giving your opponent a simple countermeasure of a mana tax.

I first experienced MtG in the Onslaught block, but I was too young and English is not my mother tongue, so I quickly dipped out again, having only gotten a handful of booster packs (although I kept them, including a Polluted Delta ). I came back and found new joy during the Lorwyn mini-blocks and stuck to it afterwards, but mainly as a casual player.

I have no relationship with Masques as a block and only know pieces of the sets. As such I'm largely indifferent to the set as constructed goes, but there definitely are quite a few gems between the cards. As a block, I'd say Kamigawa is more forgettable for me, as there are very few cards from that block that I have seen used in other formats - both Extended (predecessor of Modern) and in EDH/Commander. And that said even knowing that Sakura-Tribe Elder , Kodama's Reach , Sensei's Divining Top , Azusa, Lost but Seeking , Azami, Lady of Scrolls , Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Umezawa's Jitte were all from Kamigawa. I just don't associate Kamigawa with most of these cards.

Huh, Ghostly Prison , Gifts Ungiven , Glimpse of Nature , Heartbeat of Spring , Nature's Will , Pithing Needle , Time Stop and Tomorrow, Azami's Familiar are likewise from Kamigawa. That block really didn't stick much with me. But that's actually a substantial amount of cards used in multiple formats. I guess I just never associated them with their original printing block.

Anyway, Masques have a few interesting utility choices and I don't consider it the worst block/set. The gems are mostly utility though and not power houses nor build-arounds.

December 19, 2019 7:29 a.m.

Hey, congrats on making it to channel fireball's this week in magic!

December 22, 2019 10:48 a.m.

berryjon says... #9

Hello to everyone who is visiting from ChannelFireball! You're all awesome, and I hope you enjoy this article and the others I have written as well as the site as a whole.

December 22, 2019 1:36 p.m.

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