Core Set 2019 CELF-Test Review (Part 1 – Mechanics, Mana and Removal)

I’ve booked my flight to play limited at GP Minneapolis in a few weeks so today I’m going to be returning to my limited set reviews, this time for Magic’s upcoming Core Set 2019. First, a reminder and link to my own method for evaluating new sets for limited:

The CELF-Test

Set reviews usually evaluate cards on an individual basis. This is a useful starting point, but card values change greatly based on the rest of the format. I believe it’s more helpful to evaluate a new format from the top-down instead of the bottom-up.

The CELF-Test is my attempt at formalizing a top-down analysis of limited. Read my write-up of the process for more information.

We’ll only consider a set’s commons (C) and uncommons (U) since those form the foundation of any limited format.

Core Set 2019

This set marks the return of the traditional core set. Core sets have been some of my favorites to draft. They are usually targeted a bit more towards onboarding newer players. They usually have fewer advanced mechanics and focus more on the nuts and bolts fundamentals of picking high quality cards, removal and identifying the open color pair during draft. I appreciate this back to basics style of limited but let’s see if that’s what we can expect from this latest core set.

Mechanics and Themes

As it turns out, apparently there are no mechanics in the set other than the usual evergreen keywords. We often see the mechanics in a block be used to define the look and feel of each plane in Magic. These translate as defining elements of the limited formats: for example energy in the Kaladesh block, or the tribes of Ixalan.

Since the core sets are not set on a specific plane there are no unique mechanics used to define the environment. This is what makes core set limited a more simple, back-to-basics experience and a great starting point to introduce new players into the game.

In such an environment I expect there to be fewer synergy based decks. My card evaluations and early draft strategies will be based on raw stats, abilities and efficient removal. Each card must stand on its own.

Instead of set-defining mechanics, core sets usually have soft themes woven in to tie some of the colors together. Sometimes they are fully build around themes, sometimes they are just minor synergies. We get a few of those here:

Life Gain
Not a keyword mechanic, there does appear to be a minor life gain theme in the set. As usual, the effects are centered in black and white. Depending on how ubiquitous life gain effects are, it may handicap some of the more aggressive strategies in the format.

Artifacts Matter
Another minor theme is artifacts matter, centered this time in the blue and white colors. It’s a surprise not to see red included here.

There are a number of zombies planted in the set but it’s yet to be seen how important it is to be all-in on the theme. There is a zombie lord which incentivizes playing more zombies but it will be interesting to see what other payoffs there are.

A common core set theme, there are sacrifice synergies and outlets which make having extra tokens or disposable bodies useful. This enables the wombo combo of Act of Treason + sacrifice outlet and gives added value to any card that produces multiple bodies or tokens.

Mana Fixing

G: Elvish Rejuvenator
Colorless: Manalith and a full cycle of 10 common dual lands

G: Gift of Paradise
Colorless: Rupture Spire

Having a common cycle of dual lands is usually a sign that multi-color strategies and splashes are going to be readily available. Since dual lands (and Manalith) are available to everyone it means that splashes are not limited to decks centered in green. In some formats the dual lands are very high picks in order to keep your draft open and enable future splashes. This is particularly true if there are a lot of very high power level rares that are worth the splash.

If decks trend towards 3-color decks with splashes the early turns are often used to play tap lands and set up mana. This means fewer decks will be curving out and defending yourself against early aggression is less important. This is viable only if there isn’t an abundance of focused aggressive decks to punish these slow starts.


W: Luminous Bonds, Take Vengeance
U: Disperse, Dwindle, Essence Scatter, Totally Lost, Waterknot
B: Lich’s Caress, Strangling Spores
R: Electrify, Radiating Lightning, Shock
G: Plummet, Rabid Bite
Colorless: Explosive Apparatus
Gold: None
W: Hieromancer’s Cage
U: Switcheroo, Exclusion Mage
B: Nightmare’s Thirst, Plague Mare, Murder
R: Fiery Finish, Lightning Strike, Thud, Volley Veteran
G: None
Colorless: Meteor Golem

The removal actually looks pretty bad here. Black is typically considered the color for removal and while Murder is obviously the premier removal spell of the set, Strangling Spores at common looks really bad. Four mana for -3/-3 is a really bad rate. The fact that it effects power and toughness instead of dealing damage means it has some added versatility as a combat trick, but I still wouldn’t take this card very highly. Lich’s Caress is fine. At 5 mana, you will want one or two in your deck, but it’s still clunky and you’ll probably be able to pick at least one up if black is open in your draft seat.

Take Vengence is impressive for its efficiency. Note that it doesn’t remove blockers so it’s really only effective in a defensive deck that will appreciate being able to relieve the pressure at a reasonable cost and enable double-spelling on earlier turns.

At common, blue surprisingly has the most interaction, though I’m generously including some of the bounce spells and Essence Scatter. It also gets Switcheroo at uncommon and a Man-o’-War functional reprint.

The other great color for removal is red. The removal is all damage based but is generally efficient. Red will have a tough time dealing with the higher toughness creatures of the format.

Green’s removal is limited to Rabid Bite. If you’re playing green you need to pair it with a deck that has some interaction or lean on your creatures’ size to be enough to control the board. If the games come down to raw stats this can be good enough, but green won’t be able to deal with many utility creatures that have relevant abilities.

Blue and white both have multiple enchantment-based removal effects. These look effective but remember that Invoke the Divine and Naturalize are both available at common, not to mention Reclamation Sage at uncommon. This means that most decks are going to have access to enchantment removal either in the main deck or at least after sideboard. I would prioritize enchantment removal during the draft to answer these removal effects out of the sideboard. It’s possible that combined with the UW artifact theme, the first Naturalize effect is actually worth having in the main deck.


Here is a list of my first impressions based on this early look at the set list:

  • Removal is really weak. Besides Murder, the best removal is enchantment based which is vulnerable to multiple Naturalize effects at common and the blue bounce spells.
  • There is a preponderance of efficiently costed high toughness creatures. Combined with the incidental life gain effects, it will be difficult for aggressive decks to establish of foothold in the format.
  • If aggressive strategies are indeed held at bay, 3-color decks will be allowed to flourish making use of the common dual land cycle.
  • Blue has a lot of available card draw and some of the better interactive spells making it an early front runner for the best color in a grindy core set format.
  • Black’s discard spells may get a lot better in this format. Slower cards that build incremental advantage look like important tools. In a late-game format where each resource matters, slow 2-for-1s like Mind Rot, Fell Spector and Macabre Waltz gain a lot of value.

In the second part of my Core Set 2019 review I’ll start looking more closely at specific cards. I’ll start with an attempt to judge the speed of the format and then make a list of the best commons and uncommons for each color. See you then!

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