Magic the Gathering: A Look at Battle for Zendikar

John takes a look at the upcoming set "Battle for Zendikar" and gives his thoughts on how the set shaping up thus far.

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As an­oth­er spoil­er sea­son draws to a close, and the first ex­pan­sion of this two-set ro­ta­tion comes into fo­cus, we be­gin to see the di­rec­tion Wizards wants to take the game. It seemed spoil­ers were com­ing al­most every sin­gle day, and the set has al­ready gen­er­at­ed a lot of cov­er­age due to their in­clu­sion of a the pre­mi­um “Expedition” sub­set. But now some of the dust has set­tled it’s a good op­por­tu­ni­ty to give an overview of the set be­fore pre-release.

Hungry Hungry Eldrazi

If Wizards is try­ing to di­rect­ly in­voke the orig­i­nal block, then on a sur­face lev­el they have al­ready suc­ceed­ed. Eldrazi every­where, Landfall is back and Hedrons lit­ter most of the art. The Eldrazi this time like munch­ing on your deck, and re­al­ly seem pre­oc­cu­pied about things in ex­ile. Ingest is their big new me­chan­ic and whilst it isn’t Annihilator (but re­al­ly, what is?) it’s got an in­ter­est­ing push and pull with cards that care about hav­ing cards in exile.

Ingest: Whenever this crea­ture deals com­bat dam­age to a play­er, that play­er ex­iles the top X cards of his or her library.

BFZ pre side 1I sup­pose the lore here is that the Eldrazi come from be­tween the plains and are there­fore mak­ing things warp in and out of ex­is­tence. It’s a neat con­cept, but I can’t help feel­ing it’s a lit­tle clunky. The cards that care about your opponent’s ex­ile zone are very good if you can turn them on, but are bor­der­line un­playable if you can’t. They will ei­ther be un­der cost­ed or over cost­ed for their body/effect.

The Eldrazi es­sen­tial­ly mill in Battle for Zendikar, it just gets a lit­tle lost on the way to the grave­yard. And it’s oc­curred to me that even Wizards them­selves have said mill is no fun for ca­su­al play­ers. I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced — as you prob­a­bly have — that a whole sub­set of Magic play­ers de­spise mill be­cause they only see po­ten­tial cards as be­ing lost. My prob­lem with Ingest is the same as I have with all mill; it doesn’t do any­thing un­til you get rid of their whole deck and if you don’t have enough cards that care about in­gest it’s es­sen­tial­ly use­less. Well, apart from with new Ulamog, who eats a whop­ping 20 cards and will end a lim­it­ed stale­mate in two turns.

The sec­ond me­chan­ic the Eldrazi fea­ture is “Devoid”

Devoid: This card has no colour.

That’s it. Cards with coloured cast­ing costs are colour­less, in­clud­ing crea­tures, in­stants and sor­ceries. You get a Ghostfire! You get a Ghostfire! Everyone gets a Ghostfire! Okay, ac­tu­al ghost­fire isn’t in this set but it’s here in spir­it. Cards be­ing colour­less have all kinds of po­ten­tial in­ter­ac­tions but so far in this set there are only four cards that care about cast­ing colour­less spells. I sup­pose net­tle drone could be the pay­load for a com­bo if you can find a way to go in­fi­nite with a colour­less spell but over­all I was ex­pect­ing more of a “colour­less mat­ters” theme af­ter see­ing Devoid.

Living lands and Uber Allies

Returning in Battle for Zendikar are a new cy­cle of what were af­fec­tion­ate­ly dubbed “man lands” in the orig­i­nal, and had a big im­pact on stan­dard at the time. Some of them — like ce­les­tial colon­nade — still see play in eter­nal for­mats. Man-lands are ba­si­cal­ly mul­ti­colour lands that can be ac­ti­vat­ed for mana to be­come land crea­tures. The new cy­cle is sim­i­lar­ly cost­ed and will com­plete the cy­cle of ten two colour com­bi­na­tions with the fi­nal three pre­sum­ably com­ing in the fi­nal part of the block. These are all but guar­an­teed to see stan­dard play, and are a wel­come return.

Land crea­tures are also a fea­ture of the new me­chan­ic called awaken:

Awaken X — If you cast this card for (ad­di­tion­al cost), also put X +1/+1 coun­ters on tar­get land you con­trol and it be­comes a 0/0 Elemental crea­ture with haste. It’s still a land. 

Awaken spells are usu­al­ly spells with a fa­mil­iar ef­fect but with the added pos­si­bil­i­ty of cre­at­ing a per­ma­nent body from one of your lands. The awak­en cost is gen­er­al­ly very high and its use­ful­ness will be close­ly linked to the preva­lence of re­li­able ramp in the set. With the lit­tle Eldrazi that are sac­ri­ficed for mana, it’s more than pos­si­ble we’ll see in­sane mana-cost cards see­ing play in lim­it­ed and even con­struct­ed. But only time will tell.

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Also re­turn­ing in Battle for Zendikar is the ally crea­ture type. Allies also have their own me­chan­ic Rally:

Rally is an abil­i­ty word that gives an ad­van­ta­geous ef­fect when­ev­er an ally en­ters the bat­tle­field. This is a tweak of the un­named ally me­chan­ic of the Zendikar block.

Allies stick to­geth­er, that much is ob­vi­ous, and they func­tion much in the same way they did the last time we saw them. Allies work best as a crit­i­cal mass, where you can have them trig­ger­ing off one an­oth­er. The va­ri­ety of al­lies and abil­i­ties looks both broad, and quite pow­er­ful. So I’m hop­ing we can see an ally deck both in Limited and Standard.

Maybe this is wish­ful think­ing, but it would be great to have a vi­able Eldrazi deck and a vi­able Ally deck in stan­dard fac­ing off at the top lev­el. I know Wizards likes to avoid decks in stan­dard — them be­ing too pre­scrip­tive — but I’d love to see these tribes work as top-tier decks. Oh and vam­pires are back, but most peo­ple kind of for­got that vam­pires were in Zendikar to be­ing with. When some­one says Zendikar Block, you don’t ex­act­ly think of blood­suck­ing hordes.

Returning favourites and New Possibilities

Landfall (when­ev­er a land en­ters the bat­tle­field, do a thing) is also mak­ing a come­back and looks po­ten­tial­ly as pow­er­ful as ever. The cy­cle of modal re­treats is a nice twist on the me­chan­ic, giv­ing you a choice of two ac­tions when­ev­er land­fall is trig­gered. It’s a great me­chan­ic that is long over­due for a re­turn. As with many things we saw in the orig­i­nal Zendikar, “more of the same” isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly a bad thing.

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Coming as some­thing of a sur­prise, and fea­tured in the much talked about ex­pe­di­tion sub-set, Battle for Zendikar also pre­mieres a whole new cy­cle of dual-lands fea­tur­ing ac­tu­al land types. They en­ter the bat­tle­field tapped, un­less you con­trol two or more ba­sic lands. These dif­fer from lands that sim­ply pro­duce more than one colour in a few ways. Most no­tably they can be re­trieved with fetch-lands, and this as­pect is what made the “shock lands” and orig­i­nal dual-lands so pow­er­ful and con­sis­tent­ly valu­able. These lands are only the third set of dual-lands to con­tain ba­sic land types, and the jury is still out if they will be as im­pact­ful and sought af­ter as shock lands were. They don’t have the draw­back of dam­ag­ing you, but they are also po­ten­tial­ly a lot slow­er than shock lands.

Somewhat Inconsistent

bfz pre side 2One theme I — and many oth­er play­ers — have no­ticed is the in­con­sis­tent pow­er lev­el across rar­i­ties; there are a lot of feel-bad rares that I doubt will see much play even in Limited. An ex­am­ple that stuck out to me was Serpentine Spike, an aw­ful card on many lev­els and a real feel-bad rare to open. Along with re­quir­ing three crea­tures to tar­get (much of the time I’m sure at least one will have to be an Eldrazi scion that will get in­stant­ly sac­ri­ficed) and be­ing sor­cery speed it’s a sev­en mana cone of flame at rare, it’s al­ready earn­ing the nick­name of “Cone of Shame” for how you feel when you cast this on your turn for sev­en mana. I know the adage “you have to have bad cards to have good cards” but c’mon, this is just un­playable filler, and it isn’t alone.

The art in this set seems a lit­tle in­con­sis­tent as well. Some of it is on par with the stun­ning hand paint­ing style work done for the orig­i­nal myth­ic Eldrazi, some of it looks like CGI from a 90s ad­ven­ture game like the afore­men­tioned Cone of Shame. Even Ulamog isn’t spared the bad CG treat­ment — a real step down from the last time we saw him. How can a card like Void Winnower look so great and be so in­ter­est­ing when parts of this set seem down­right un­fin­ished and rushed?

The fi­nal me­chan­ic from the set, Converge, seems to be the runt of the litter.

Converge gives you ef­fects, gen­er­al­ly mul­ti­ply­ing the ef­fect of the card, de­pend­ing on how many colours of mana you paid to cast it.

Converge cards like Painful Truths are less use­ful than a sim­i­lar card such as Read the Bones; hav­ing to tap three colours of mana to get the full ef­fect make this card dif­fi­cult to get on curve. The painful truth, is this is a junk rare out­classed by most of the com­mons in this set. Converge has some mana hoops to jump through, and for al­ready over cost­ed cards. It’s been com­pared to Sunburst, and in my book is equal­ly lack-luster and for­get­table. Playing five colours should give you a lot more ben­e­fit than this in a set with­out the com­mon fix­ing seen in Khans of Tarkir. I pre­dict a lot of Converge cards go­ing around the ta­ble in draft.

Returning to past, pop­u­lar sets is be­com­ing a theme; it used to be we re­turned to sto­ry­lines and loi­tered around Dominaria a whole bunch, but straight up mak­ing a “re­turn” set only re­al­ly start­ed with “Return to Ravnica.” If this is sim­ply a crutch has yet to be seen. The orig­i­nal Zendikar set is re­mem­bered as be­ing valu­able, pow­er­ful and crammed full of bust­ed good me­chan­ics. It’s hard not to in­vite di­rect com­par­isons be­tween this set and the orig­i­nal. I’m not sure this set will be able to live up to the first. The ques­tion is: should it re­al­ly be ex­pect­ed to?

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John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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