Normally I don’t pay much attention to the story side of Magic: The Gathering. I know that it has one, I watch the trailers (opens in new tab) and appreciate enough of the broad sweep to put the cards in context, but I’m not out here reading novelizations or tie-in comics or official cookbooks. (There isn’t actually an official cookbook, but it’s only a matter of time.) Then I saw that Miguel Lopez, co-creator of the Lancer tabletop RPG (opens in new tab)wrote the story for Magic’s new expansion The Brothers’ War.
Lancer is a neat “mud and lasers” game of giant robot pilots who fight gritty battles for a better future, while The Brothers’ War is about traveling back in time to a period of war between—wouldn’t you know it—giant robots . It’s in Lopez’s wheelhouse is what I’m saying. I figured I’d give his card-game fiction a chance, and now I’m three episodes into a story about robots powered by magic rocks and the end of the world (opens in new tab)enjoying it so much I’ve built a deck around Queen Kayla bin-Kroog (opens in new tab) because I thought she seemed neat. I don’t even recognize myself any more.
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As far as the actual cards go, giant robots means the Brothers’ War contains lots of artifact creatures like Terror Ballista, a cross between a beetle and a crossbow that lets you sacrifice your own creatures to kill those of your opponent. I like to imagine you’re using them as ammunition, just flinging goblins out of your big ballista beetle.
Then there’s Liberator, Urza’s Battlethopter, a troop carrier that starts out with power 1 and costs 3 mana, but gets a +1/+1 token whenever you cast something that costs more mana than it. If you’re playing paper Magic you’ll need a pile of tokens at the ready, because The Brothers’ War is full of cards that make them rain like confetti. My first win came via piling up counters on Thopter Mechanic and Lat-Nam Adept, two blue cards that get +1/+1 whenever you draw a second time on your turn (a specialty of annoying blue cards).
You’ll want plenty of powerstone tokens too, which I now know provide the lore explanation for what fuels all these machines. They can be tapped for colorless mana you can use to pay for more artifacts—and also to activate abilities, which the wording “This mana can’t be spent to cast a nonartifact spell” doesn’t make as clear as it should.
To accentuate the themes of artifacts and time travel, 63 old artifact cards have been reprinted with retro frames. If you’ve been wanting a copy of Precursor Golem (opens in new tab) or Ramos, Dragon Engine (opens in new tab), now’s your chance. Just because they’ve been reprinted doesn’t mean they’re legal in standard format again though, which makes it tempting to start playing historic in Arena again just to see if they’re shaking things up.
The other way the theme of the Brothers’ War manifests is an odder one. Every physical set booster and collector booster has a chance of containing a Transformers card. Yep, Transformers as in “robots in disguise”. They’re double-sided to represent their ability to flip back and forth between forms, and have variant art that either looks like the 1980s cartoons, or is based on a mirror-universe thing called Shattered Glass (opens in new tab).
It’s two of Hasbro’s biggest brands having a marketing crossover, but I can’t be cynical about it because I saw the Laserbeak token and it unlocked some deep childhood memory of thinking a cassette that transformed into a robot vulture was the coolest shit ever. Now I kind of want to collect all of them, or at least Starscream and Cyclonus. Maybe Jetfire? Goddammit.
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Tempting paper products aside, Arena is where I play Magic the most. Collecting the Brothers’ War in digital form has been made easier by the addition of “golden packs”, which contain half-a-dozen rare cards from recent sets and come free with every 10 regular boosters you buy in Arena. That includes boosters you get with gold earned from wins and daily quests. Where before the best way to get value for money in Arena was to play draft or sealed, now buying boosters is a competitive way of building your collection, which is great if those aren’t formats you like.
While that Queen Kayla bin-Kroog deck hasn’t been doing great for me, I’ve seen something else in The Brothers’ War I’m tempted to build a deck around. It’s Rescue Retriever (opens in new tab). This 3/3 dog soldier lets you drop yet more of those +1/+1 counters—one on every other soldier card you’ve got, and there’s plenty of those in The Brothers’ War. Like Yotian Frontliner, a sword-wielding robot soldier that gives +1/+1 to another creature whenever it attacks, though only until the end of the turn. And Siege Veteran, a regular human soldier who, you’ll never guess, lets you put a free +1/+1 counter on a target at the start of every single combat phase.
I started out with the best of intentions and a heavily thematic deck that was accurate to the lore, but the urge to make something more degenerate and likely to make people ragequit never really goes away.
The Brothers’ War (opens in new tab) cards will be available in stores from November 18, and are in Arena now. You can score three free boosters in Arena by entering the code PlayBRO.