SET REVIEW HEADER

Most high pro­file set re­views of Magic the Gathering tend to fol­low a for­mat of do­ing an ex­haus­tive card-by-card com­men­tary of the en­tire set, and then talk­ing about the use­ful­ness of each card in turn. This is not one of those re­views.

I’ve not­ed in this past that there is a lack of “Should you buy this?” ad­vice out there, or even some­thing as sim­ple as “Will this set be fun to play in Limited?” My re­views will fol­low more of an overview, and will be clos­er to a tra­di­tion­al prod­uct re­view. There is a wealth of in­for­ma­tion out there in terms of just com­ment­ing on the cards present, but very few of­fer ac­tu­al judge­ment on the set as a whole. There so much bulk in Magic sets that this process is of­ten te­dious and repet­i­tive as well; both to read and write. So ex­pect this re­view to have less minu­tia, but more crit­i­cism. So with­out fur­ther ado here is our Battle for Zendikar set re­view, and my first re­view of a mag­ic ex­pan­sion.

Limited

If a set can’t work in its own Limited en­vi­ron­ment then it fails the pri­ma­ry test of mod­ern Magic sets. I’m pleased to re­port that Battle for Zendikar isn’t a dis­as­ter. Limited hap­pens to be where its bet­ter el­e­ments shine the bright­est. It’s im­pact out­side of Limited, how­ev­er? Well, we’ll come to that lat­er.

So yes, the set does work rather well game play wise from the games of Sealed and Draft I’ve man­aged to play and ob­serve. Heavy drafters may have a dif­fer­ing opin­ion as the sea­son wears on, but so far I don’t see signs of an ob­vi­ous “solved” deck. We went over the me­chan­ics of Battle for Zendikar in our pre­view, and I am hap­py to re­port many of the fun in­ter­ac­tions I was hop­ing for have more or less tak­en place. I was able to draft an in­gest deck to some suc­cess, and al­lies are very en­joy­able if you man­age to get the good ones. In the drafts I’ve been in I think a few play­ers were try­ing to force Allies, so I may have a false pic­ture of how high­ly val­ued they will be. If some­one keeps pass­ing you them go nuts; it’s per­son­al­ly my favourite ar­che­type. Landfall is also a very pow­er­ful me­chan­ic once again. If the stars align you can ab­solute­ly crush in Limited with a few Makaindi Sliderunners, Valakut Predators, and some stacked land­fall trig­gers. Most of this deck is com­mon too, so it’s not too hard to build.

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Of course, it’s pos­si­ble to draft a sol­id deck just tak­ing good cards in a shell you are com­fort­able with. You aren’t hemmed into cer­tain decks, and whilst every­one is scrap­ping for the ob­vi­ous syn­er­gies I’ve come up against play­ers who were just able to be build a good sol­id, pow­er­ful deck. The set also has a weird power-level dis­par­i­ty, where many of the com­mons and un­com­mons are high­er pick than many of the rares. This is not a for­mat where you just take the rare and move on. Many of the cards that come in with Eldrazi scions are of great val­ue, and those cards can bring their own syn­er­gy. Like Drowner of Hope or Brood Butcher which are amongst the best cards in the lim­it­ed for­mat.

Something I was dis­ap­point­ed by was the lack of colour­less cards that mat­tered. Devoid is every­where, and it seems like it was just used to de­note “this is an Eldrazi spell,” rather than have much game play rel­e­vance. There are al­most no cards that care about a spell be­ing coloured or not, and this rel­e­gates Devoid from be­ing a me­chan­ic to just kind of be­ing there — de­void of con­text. It’s the same with Awaken. Their de­sign is “This is an old spell but you can awak­en it now,” which is not ex­act­ly one of the most imag­i­na­tive Magic cards ever print­ed. There is also no real flavour rea­son, or me­chan­i­cal rea­son that these should be awak­en cards be­yond Zendikar be­ing more based around land. Almost any card ever print­ed could have awak­en tacked on and it would fit about as well.

Impact on Standard

It could all change at the pro-tour, and I gen­er­al­ly like to wait un­til then to form a fi­nal judge­ment for Standard. But Battle for Zendikar has been out in the wild long enough for its im­pact to be felt. Exert Influence is see­ing play in few side­boards, and with fix­ing be­ing so ide­al Radiant Flames is see­ing play in vary­ing amounts in both side­boards and main­boards.

The Tango Lands, (are we re­al­ly call­ing them that? Really?) the new cy­cle of lands that come into play tapped un­less you con­trol two or more ba­sic lands, have also pre­dictably found their place in Standard with their abil­i­ty to be fetched up via the Khans of Tarkir Fetch Lands. They are dri­ving the change we see in Standard right now; with a move to­wards much more greedy mana-bases, and much more con­sis­tent four and five colour decks. Speaking of lands, the oth­er cy­cle of cards that is see­ing play are the new man-lands — lands that you can ac­ti­vate for mana to be­come el­e­men­tal crea­tures. As every­one pre­dict­ed, the orig­i­nals of these cards were good, and now the new en­e­my coloured ver­sions are good.

I know, shock­ing.

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The big break­out card has been Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, with his ob­vi­ous power-level very much on show. As for the rest? Well, we’ve seen some of the multi-coloured Eldrazi pop – up in five colour con­trol builds; a deck I pre­dict will find new­er and more pow­er­ful it­er­a­tions since the fix­ing re­al­ly is that good right now.

Also worth a men­tion is Bring to Light; a card not many ex­pect­ed to do any­thing and which now has its own deck — just not a top-tier one. The biggest ef­fect of Battle for Zendikar has been to make Standard mana-bases look more like Modern mana-bases. Let me put it this way: you won’t need many ba­sic lands on hand this Standard sea­son.

Hangarback Walker is still Hangarback Walker, and will con­tin­ue to be Hangerback Walker un­til ro­ta­tion. So I don’t think we’ll be see­ing a top-eight with­out it, Den Protector, and Deathmist Raptor un­til ro­ta­tion. In a set where you can re­li­ably play as many colours as you want there is a ten­den­cy to­wards power-level and val­ue spells over syn­er­gy. There are top decks that seem to have bare­ly no­ticed Battle for Zendikar has been re­leased out­side of their mana-bases. I think this is in­dica­tive of the low power-level of the set as a whole. Its shift­ing what crea­tures and spells get played from oth­er sets rather than bust­ing through with its own. The ob­ser­va­tions made in the sup­pressed but pret­ty ex­cel­lent ar­ti­cle from Channel Fireball, “Everything That’s Wrong with Battle for Zendikar,” are be­ing shown to be more and more on the mark.

Impact on Eternal Formats

We’re mov­ing on from an era where sets had a pret­ty pro­found ef­fect on Modern, and even Legacy; Innistrad, Return to Ravnica, and Khans of Tarkir all end­ed up cre­at­ing sta­ples. In the case of the Khans block some big bans with the blue delve cards. People are quick to point out this is only the first set of the block, but in this new two block for­mat I would ex­pect Wizards to come out all guns blaz­ing. In a world of Siege Rhino and Dig Trough Time, Battle for Zendikar looks like an ob­vi­ous at­tempt to de-escalate the sit­u­a­tion, and try to nor­mal­ize card-power — es­pe­cial­ly in the rare slot. The prob­lem is when you put it in a large card-pool the card pow­er scale looks more like a cliff than a gen­tle drift back down from crazy-town. The por­ridge has gone from too hot to too cold.

In terms of full cy­cles, it’s still un­cer­tain at this stage if the Tango Lands will see play out­side of bud­get decks. I’m still hope­ful they will find a home in slow­er decks, but with the speed of these for­mats it’s still up in the air. I would still rec­om­mend pick­ing them up whilst they’re cheap; if only be­cause they have so much po­ten­tial util­i­ty for so many dif­fer­ent ca­su­al and com­pet­i­tive for­mats. I think they’re one of the few de­sign wins in this set, and so I would like to see them find a home.

The best bet for a sure-fire Modern playable deck is the green/blue Man Land Lumbering Falls since it fits right into ex­ist­ing ar­che­types like Scapeshift and Temur Twin. Like I said in the last sec­tion, it’s just the com­ple­tion of a cy­cle that is al­ready good.

In terms of Commander and Casual it’s al­ways a tough call be­cause those for­mats are al­ways more about what you make them. My rule of thumb is if it looks fun then have a go with it. Ulamog makes a nice re­an­i­ma­tion or ramp tar­get, and whilst the mill isn’t quite as bru­tal as it is with small­er decks it’s still pun­ish­ing. Ulamog is also go­ing to see some test­ing in Modern Tron, but I ex­pect it won’t make much of an im­pact out­side of sideboard-tech.

There re­al­ly isn’t a huge amount here for eter­nal for­mats.

Value

Battle for Zendikar would seem on the sur­face to be a very good val­ue set with its splashy head­lin­ers and full-art lands. But don’t be fooled; this is ac­tu­al­ly a very low-powered set, and every­one who is in­de­pen­dent enough to say so is in agree­ment on this fact. It all de­pends on how you de­fine val­ue: if you are look­ing for big, splashy high dol­lar cards then yes — you will find them. But if you are look­ing to open a de­cent amount of playable cards (even in Standard) then look else­where.

This is a very good set for the af­ter­mar­ket, and a money-spinner for the big card sell­ers. But in terms of peo­ple who ac­tu­al­ly like to play the game? We have a prob­lem: an under-powered set be­ing sold at pre­mi­um prices. The ex­pe­di­tions and full art lands have done what I pre­dict­ed; ar­ti­fi­cial­ly dri­ven up the price of the set with­out it hav­ing the con­sis­tent pow­er lev­el usu­al­ly present to jus­ti­fy high­er prices.

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This is some­thing I men­tioned in my very first ar­ti­cle for the site about Magic the Gathering: ex­ces­sive vari­ance. Just like with Modern Masters 2015, there is a mas­sive gulf be­tween a high and low val­ue box — more so than your av­er­age set. There are very few chase rares and mythics in this set, and so you ei­ther need a good clutch of Planeswalkers. Or you need to open an ex­pe­di­tion; the val­ue of which will most like­ly pay for your whole box. A good ex­am­ple of this is the Professor from Tolarian Community College’s boost­er box game for Battle for Zendikar, in which he opened a $200+ box and then opened a box that had around $60 in non-bulk.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Battle for Zendikar is a set we won’t be talk­ing about much when it cy­cles out. Aside from grum­bling about the price of sealed prod­uct for the set due to the full-art lands. It feels like the av­er­age Magic play­er is get­ting screwed at every turn with this set; es­pe­cial­ly if you ac­tu­al­ly like to play Magic the Gathering, and not just stare at some pret­ty land cards. At time of writ­ing, there is very lit­tle here for Modern, or even Standard, and you can pick up what you need for rel­a­tive­ly low prices on their own.

The most en­joy­ment you will get out of this set is play­ing Limited where the cards are bet­ter matched up against each oth­er. In lim­it­ed, a low power-level doesn’t re­al­ly mat­ter as long as there is bal­ance. Limited is also the only place you are go­ing to see the bulk of Battle for Zendikar’s me­chan­ics at all. Of course, if you open an ex­pe­di­tion you are pret­ty much ob­lig­at­ed by law to take it. Not from the box ra­tios I’ve seen; pure val­ue draft­ing won’t be too much of a prob­lem. Unless you get some de­ranged prick tak­ing all the full-art lands for some rea­son.

So should you rush out and buy a box of Battle for Zendikar? In my opin­ion, no. My rec­om­men­da­tion would be to pick up the small amount of sin­gles you will need for your re­spec­tive for­mats, and avoid gam­bling on this sets high vari­ance in val­ue. As any gam­bler even­tu­al­ly learns, the house al­ways wins. I would have rec­om­mend buy­ing a fat-pack just to get col­lect­ing your set of full-art lands out of the way; but be­tween Wizards of the Coast, the big card re­tail­ers, and lo­cal game-stores we aren’t al­lowed to have nice things. Once again, if some­one tries to charge you above RRP/MSRP on this set whilst it is still in print then kick them di­rect­ly in the shins.*

There is also a lot of use­less bulk — over and above the norm — that no one will ever need or want again. Limited is about on par with the qual­i­ty of past sets: noth­ing spe­cial, but noth­ing ter­ri­ble ei­ther. For a set sup­pos­ed­ly filled with mas­sive Lovecraftian mon­strosi­ties, it sure seems for­get­table. The less­er Eldrazi look more like old school sliv­ers than any­thing. We’ve yet to see many re­al­ly mind-blowing bat­tle cruis­ers for a set many hoped would be filled with them.

*Please note SuperNerdLand does not en­dorse shin-kicking and is not re­spon­si­ble for in­juries and/or con­se­quences re­lat­ing to said shin kick­ings. Neither we nor our af­fil­i­ates are li­able for death, dis­mem­ber­ment, or shin-splints that may oc­cur as a re­sult. As al­ways con­sult your doc­tor be­fore un­der­tak­ing any form of phys­i­cal ex­er­cise. If you have lost the use of your legs and are un­able to kick said shins we apol­o­gize for our gross in­sen­si­tiv­i­ty and ableism.

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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.