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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 00 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?

John SweeneyTrading Card GamesTraditional GamesBattle for Zendikar,Magic The GatheringAs 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…
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John Sweeney
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.