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.