Black Magic – Zendikar Highlights

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Tuesday, September 15th – Zendikar continues to surprise and excite everyone who’s looking for some fresh blood in Standard, and Sam Black is no exception. Today, he takes a look at some of the more exciting spoiled gems from the new set. He bypasses the obvious contenders to examine a selection of the thus-far underappreciated offerings, including the “new Tarmogoyf” and a certain Green planeswalker that fetches her friends…

I’ve been waiting to write about Zendikar until more is known, but I think we have enough now. I don’t think people are interested in anything else at the moment, so it’s finally time to talk about the Zendikar cards that I find exciting. I’m not going to say a lot about cards like Day of Judgment and the fetch lands, as I think their implications are fairly obvious and they’ve been covered by other people.

Luminarch Ascension
At the beginning of each opponent’s end step, if you didn’t lose life this turn, you may put a quest counter on Luminarch Ascension. (Damage causes loss of life)
1W: Put a 4/4 white Angel creature token with flying onto the battlefield. Activate this ability only if Luminarch Ascension has four or more quest counters on it.

This doesn’t strike me as a card I’d ever be excited about putting in a maindeck, but it seems like a card that could be extremely significant from sideboards against control decks. Against the right control decks, this card can be devastating regardless of the deck that’s bringing it in (provided access to White mana). In reality, I think the card won’t win that many games, but will instead force control decks to have enchantment removal in their deck in games 2 and 3. Basically, I see this card insuring a home for Maelstrom Pulse. Obelisk of Alara is another card that can keep this card in check if you can get it online fast enough, which is hard, but the Obelisk itself becomes less playable because people are more likely to be able to destroy that when they already need to be prepared for Luminarch Ascension.

With Vivid lands and Reflecting Pool leaving the format, those decks that can’t attack should look very different, and if the format looks anything like Alara Block Constructed, there will be very few decks that don’t have any creatures that can attack throughout the game. It’s hard to imagine a format that doesn’t eventually have a low threat density control deck, and this card will always be a concern for decks like that. It’s easy to imagine it being particularly difficult for Mono Blue or Blue/Black decks, which traditionally can’t deal with enchantments. With Cryptic Command gone, any traditional Blue/Black control deck would have to splash White or Green or play Pithing Needle to deal with this card. Note that there’s really no good way to bounce an enchantment from the known cards in Standard after rotation right now, so Pithing Needle is another card that should be seeing a lot more sideboard play in the coming months. If the opponent ever deals with the Pithing Needle, they should be immediately prepared to drop several Angels into play, so that’s not the safest answer.

Sphinx of Lost Truths
Creature — Sphinx
Kicker: 1U
When Sphinx of Lost Truths enters the battlefield, draw three cards. Then if it wasn’t kicked, discard three cards.

This looks really good to me. Patrick Chapin brought up the excellent point that at 5 mana you can play Baneslayer Angel, and at 7 mana you can play Cruel Ultimatum, but 5 and 7 mana are very different numbers, and the 5 mana version and 7 mana version are very different effects. They both fall into the realm of “finishers,” but the 7 mana effect should go a long way to recovering in a game where you’re far behind, while the 5 mana version is just a solid threat. Getting both of these in a single card that is, very importantly, in a single color seems absolutely huge. I love the card, and I’ll be very sad if it doesn’t see play. It manages to capture everything that makes Mulldrifter such a fun, interesting, and generally well designed card, while being entirely unique and filling an entirely different role in a deck. Mulldrifter is a better card, but Sphinx is an extremely useful tool, particularly for two-color Blue decks.

It’s especially exciting in a Blue/Green deck, which, given enemy fetch lands, may suddenly become realistic again, given how much easier it is to cast this card with mana acceleration. Garruk plays very well with this card. If Garruk lives, you have a 7 mana spell that will very likely win the game when you cast it the next turn after playing a land, and if they deal with Garruk, you curve seamlessly into your very reasonable five-drop.

I almost feel bad about mentioning Gatekeeper of Malakir, after saying I was leaving out cards like Day of Judgment, but we haven’t seen something like this guy before.

Gatekeeper of Malakir
Creature — Vampire Warrior
Kicker: B
When Gatekeeper of Malakir enters the battlefield, if it was kicked, target player sacrifices a creature.

BBB is a difficult casting cost, but it’s not impossible, even in a multicolor deck. I feel like there’s a chance this creature actually won’t be nearly as good as it looks, but if Mono Black is viable, this card is absolutely necessary so that the deck has an answer to Great Sable Stag. Ever since Torment rotated out, people have been wondering when Mono Black would be a real deck again. I’m not convinced that the time is here, but Mind Sludge, Tendrils of Corruption, and Crypt of Agadeem combine to make a reasonable starting point. Note that a Mono Black deck that exists these days will look extremely different from a Mono Black deck back when Mutilate was legal. Crypt of Agadeem is an interesting card. It’s powerful, but if you’re playing a bunch of cheap creatures to enable it, you need to figure out what you’re doing with that mana. It would be nice if we could find a better answer than Consume Spirit. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gatekeeper of Malakir ultimately never finds a good home, but if a Vampire tribal deck is going to have any chance, he was an absolutely necessary piece. As a side note, I hope Quest for the Gravelord is good in such a deck.

Nissa Revane
Planeswalker — Nissa
[+1] Search your library for a card named Nissa’s Chosen and put it onto the battlefield. Then shuffle your library.
[+1] You gain 2 life for each Elf you control.
[-7] Search your library for any number of Elf creature cards and put them onto the battlefield. Then shuffle your library.
Loyalty: 2

I’ve heard that Nissa Revane has been getting mixed reviews, but it looks excellent to me. +1 to make a creature is a lot better than -1 to make a creature.

Nissa’s Chosen
Creature — Elf Warrior
If Nissa’s Chosen would be put into a graveyard from the battlefield, put it on the bottom of its owner’s library instead.

Nissa’s Chosen isn’t that bad. Elvish Archdruid is amazing (I’m still not sure how I’ve never seen anyone tap it to pay for Profane Command yet), and Nissa is really good in an elf deck. I’d say that it’s impossible to race Nissa’s second ability, but if you’re getting damage through, you’re clearly just killing the planeswalker, but it takes very few activations to get out of range of any kind of reach. It’s not hard to imagine having three elves in play and playing this and activating the second ability, and from there it would be extremely hard for any kind of Red deck to actually kill you. This is also a good way to build a cushion of life against eventual Anathemancers. I should also mention that I think any deck with Nissa should probably be playing Elvish Visionary, which is also excellent with Elvish Archdruid. Visionary helps to ensure that Nissa’s ultimate ability will win the game even if they have a Day of Judgment to deal with the elves.

Scute Mob
Creature — Insect
At the beginning of your upkeep, if you control five or more lands, put four +1/+1 counters on Scute Mob.

Scute Mob looks very good. I’d be excited about it as a finisher in Extended, but Tarmogoyf is just a more well-rounded card. As is, it’s an interesting card in Standard to fill a similar role. Late in the game you can cast it with plenty of mana available to protect it, and after one turn it’s a huge threat. This is the kind of card I want to be drawing with Sphinx of Lost Truths. It’s also an amazing card to find with Ranger or Eos, and I would be surprised if Ranger of Eos for 2 Scute Mobs doesn’t turn out to be one of the best plays in Standard after rotation. There’s just no especially efficient way to deal with one Scute Mob each turn until one finally sticks and wins the game.

I know I said that this article would be about cards that excited me, but I want comment briefly on Scythe Tiger.

Scythe Tiger
Creature — Cat
When Scythe Tiger enters the battlefield, sacrifice it unless you sacrifice a land.

I think this card is terrible. Rogue Elephant was good in a very specific deck that hasn’t existed since. I’m pretty sure the average casting cost of the deck that played Rogue Elephant was below one. It was just pitch spells, one-drops, and Winter Orb. Winter Orb makes sacrificing a land a lot less of a drawback. There’s just no way that a deck that never wants to have more than two or three lands in play could possibly be the way to go right now, and a 3/2 shroud just isn’t that good. On a related note, most Cubes seem to have Rogue Elephant. Am I missing something? Does anyone ever actually take, play, and win with this guy in Cube? Seriously, don’t play Scythe Tiger, and don’t put Rogue Elephant in your Cube.

I’m really excited about the lands that reward you for having a ton of a specific basic in the late game. It’s just such an interesting design. The cost (entering the battlefield tapped) is so low for the ridiculous payoffs these lands offer, but they’re really hard to build around, and once you do, how many do you play? Once you’ve gone through all the trouble to play enough of a single basic to make them good, you probably want to make sure you draw them, but if you draw two, and neither works because you’re one land short of enough to activate them, that’s pretty bad.

Emeria, the Sky Ruin
Emeria, the Sky Ruin enters the battlefield tapped.
At the beginning of your upkeep, if you control seven or more plains, return target creature card from your graveyard to the battlefield.
Tap: Add W to your mana pool.

Emeria is especially exciting. I loved Debtors’ Knell. That card almost always won the game when it resolved, and this can’t even be countered. This is the most compelling reason I’ve ever seen to want to build a Mono White Control deck. It’s really too bad that this won’t be in Standard at the same time as Endless Horizons.

You don’t need to fill a deck with creatures to make this card work. If it’s just making sure that your Baneslayer Angel stays in play, that should be more than enough. Unfortunately, at the moment, I don’t see enough other incentives to push one to play Mono White as a control deck, but after Kithkin rotate out of Standard, this card gives a soldier deck an amazing late game. All you have to do is live until this kicks in, and an endless stream of Angels and Captains of the Watch should be able to take all comers. You get this late game inevitability without the normal sacrifice of having a blank card in your hand until the end of the game, as this is just a land that enters the battlefield tapped. It just takes the place of Windbrisk Heights. It may not be as explosive, but does an excellent job of giving you insurance against mana flood, which is something that can otherwise be a huge problem for a White deck.

I know it’s been a long time since I’ve had a decklist to present, but it’s been a long time since anyone’s had any real use for a decklist. I’m hoping that next week we’ll have enough of Zendikar spoiled that we can actually start putting 75 cards together and seeing how they look. In the meantime, I’ll be seeing what I can learn about Extended now that I actually have time to play decks against each other.

Thanks for reading.