Magic the Gathering: A Look at Battle for Zendikar
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
One 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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