What if cowboys? Magic The Gathering Outlaws of Thunder Junction review

The best thing about Magic is that any theme can work and Thunder Junction introduces some fun mechanics and powerful cards.

April 29, 2024 7:30 AM

Magic: The Gathering’s latest jaunt has it’s characters donning cowboy hats and chewing the scenery of what is clearly a backdrop straight out of a Hollywood western. Those crooks of the multiverse team up in Outlaws of Thunder Junction to rob a legendary vault and with the commander format for casual players, tournaments for the competitive, story for the lore lovers and of course art for the collectors to fuss at.

Magic has always had a story and some players even know it, but it’s true strength is the game itself. It’s an easy sell really, cards are spells, cast the right ones in the right sequence and vanquish your opponent. You’ll lose a lot but games are quick, so revenge is always imminent. Outlaws of Thunder Junction doesn’t change the formula drastically but does bring in some well-designed mechanics, new art frames for collectors and a heap of powerful cards so this could be a good point to jump in.

Lets Ride!

The Magic setting has the envious and unique property of multiversal travel at its core. A convenient lore piece allowing a Wizards designer to suggest “What if cowboys?” and not be immediately yeeted out an office window. The planeswalkers of the Magic world are ever jumping into new worlds, a la monster of the week type stuff. At some point in the past the main impetus for new worlds seemed to shift from an author’s creative spark towards pop culture trends. Outlaws of Thunder Junction is more in this latter vein and as a result it’s setting, and story do feel a bit contrived. It’s the planeswalkers you love but wearing chaps and plotting heists.

For older fans it may be a bit disappointing but it’s not entirely unexpected. Wizards already released a set based on fairy tales complete with a sentient gingerbread man. If anyone thinks Outlaws of Thunder Junction marks Wizards descent into nonsense perhaps, they haven’t been paying attention. Love it or hate it Wizards is finding success with this strategy and already space opera and death race inspired sets are earmarked for 2025. It’s best to roll with it, accept the story and lore for what it is, evocative window dressing strapped to a really well-designed card game.

The story hidden in the artwork

Magic’s art is undoubtably good. From the early days where artists had free reign to pump out abstract bangers to the modern era where art is wrangled into consistent styling, there was and still is a certain reverence for the art. Artists have their fans, signing cards at conventions and auctioning original paintings for thousands of dollars. There is a legacy to the art of Magic and a few cheesy pop culture ties-ins aren’t going to destroy that.

Outlaws of Thunder Junction is awash with the more recent styling of “generic fantasy world with a splash of technology”. Obviously, there is also the wild west, deserts and canyons, stagecoaches and ranches of course. It’s actually not that over the top and aside from the ubiquitous cowboy hats much of the art could pass for any typical fantasy setting.

Quality wise Outlaws of Thunder Junction is much the same as most MTG sets. Majority of cards are high quality but somewhat samey and noisy. A handful stand out as particularly stunning though. The full art lands are always a hit, there’s also Oko, The Ringleader & Jace Reawakened with painterly art worthy of their mythic status. The Cunning Coyote & Resilient Roadrunner cards are also well done, it may be a gag but they nailed the duality of the pieces.

Even when the bulk of the art comes off as filler, the detail and story elements are all there. Wizards are quite good at wrapping it all up, from card name, to art, to rules and flavour text. For many players who will never delve deeply into the lore, the stuff they read on the cards is the story. Card frames aren’t the easiest medium to tell stories with so I was pretty impressed that I could piece together the basic beats after just a few draft games.

Great mechanics that feel like they should have always been in Magic

The mechanics of Outlaws of Thunder Junction are simple to grasp, and some are even difficult to master, that lofty design goal. Having played Magic from its early beginnings I was surprised by the new Plot mechanic, something so elegant and interesting that perhaps it should have been in Magic from the beginning. Instead of casting a plot spell you may instead pay the plot cost. Plotted spells can be cast for free on a later turn. In a game as interactive as Magic, where opponents wait with bated breath, counterspell in hand, to mouth those painful words “in response…”, plotting a spell is a welcome relief. Timing is everything in Magic and utilising your resources to bank spells and schedule their release is tactically interesting.

Besides plot there is also a number of easy to grasp mechanics with wild west trappings. Many cards reference the new ‘Outlaw’ type keyword for various effects. Any cards with the creature type Assassin, Mercenary, Pirate, Rogue or Warlock are outlaws. This new kind of category type may catch on in future sets as a way to wrangle together creature types that are suspiciously similar, serpent, naga & snake I’m looking at you! Anyone building thematic decks will welcome the outlaw mechanic as it lets you dig a bit deeper for those unsavoury types if your pool of assassin creatures is a bit dry.

With so many outlaws running around Thunder Junction the next mechanic seems appropriate enough, ‘Committing crimes”. Some cards refer to the act of a crime being committed and it’s kind of genius how that is determined. Any time you activate an ability or cast a spell that targets an opponent or their stuff you’ve committed a crime! “I did not consent to being targeted by my opponent your honour.” Needless to say, Magic players have been committing crimes for decades now so it’s good to see them branded as the heinous criminals they clearly are.

Meet the gang

Like most recent Magic sets there are the usual products, pre-constructed ready to play commander decks, play booster packs for drafting & gift bundles for those chasing valuable treasures. Commander is the premier play format for both the beginner and the majority of players. All you need is one of the pre-constructed commander decks and an opponent with the same, although four player games are really where it’s at. Such things are easily found at your local friendly game store along with a number of casual and competitive events. The other products available are booster packs (sealed packs of 15 randomly selected cards). These can be purchased to add to your deck improving its power or customising it to fit creative designs.

Finally, there’s also the ever popular showcase cards in this set. They feature ye old newspaper style sketches of famous cards from Magic’s past. Many will be highly sought after on the secondary market for both their rarity and deck expression potential. Your best chance at scoring these cards is with collector booster packs though they do cost a bit more. As always purchase responsibly, Magic boosters are the OG of loot boxes after all.

All up Outlaws of Thunder Junction is certainly an odd Magic set, very mechanically sound but clearly having a laugh with its theme. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, so I suggest much the same. Consider it a fun little jaunt through the multiverse in what is the longest running trading card game of all time. Grab those chase cards while you can as it’s very unlikely Wizards will return to such a strange world.

MAGIC THE GATHERING: OUTLAWS OF THUNDER JUNCTION cards were provided to SIFTER for the purposes of this review.
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