Black Magic – Zendikar Highlights

SCG 10K Philadelphia... the first major event featuring Zendikar!
Tuesday, September 22nd – With the Zendikar prerelease mere days away, Sam highlights a handful of cards he feels will have an impact on Constructed. He also shares his opinion on the much-debated Lotus Cobra. Will this powerful mythic change the face of Magic as we know it?

I was going to give you some decks this week, but then something happened. Some cards got spoiled that I’m much more excited about than I could be about any particular deck. It may surprise you that I’m not talking about Lotus Cobra.

Let’s get that out of the way. Lotus Cobra is good, but despite everyone telling me he’s completely busted, I’m much more on the “Yeah, he’ll probably see some play” side than the “How could they possibly make this mythic… everyone is going to need four to play a Green deck” side. I mean, I certainly don’t think the card should have been mythic, as nothing about it feels mythic and it might be too widely played for that rarity to be acceptable, so that does strike me as a huge mistake, but I think the card is a bit narrower than most people seem to believe.

I guess this comes from looking at the card while trying to build Extended decks. I could be missing something, but my first reaction wasn’t to try to jam him into everything or to try to build decks to take advantage of him. I still haven’t played with the card, but it just doesn’t excite me. I figure someone else will play him against me and I’ll see if it’s much better than I’m imagining. Maybe unfair things happen more often than I consider.

That card just doesn’t feel noticeably better than Birds of Paradise to me at the moment, and Birds of Paradise is actually a fairly narrow card (whose primary use it to play three-mana spells on turn 2). Now I’m not saying it’s a card that competes against Birds for the same role. Like I said, Birds plays three-mana spells on turn 2, and Lotus Cobra obviously doesn’t do that. His job is to play five-mana-plus spells on turn 3. That’s a pretty powerful thing to do, but five-mana-plus spells aren’t nearly as widely played as three-mana spells, and you can’t put anywhere near as many of them in a single deck, so that ability seems a little less consistently good. Yes, it lets you play multiple spells instead, but you still have to be careful not to overextend, and really, there are a lot of times when playing two spells on turn 3 isn’t that much better than playing a spell on turn 3 and a spell on turn 4. Dark Ritual isn’t that great on turn 3.

I’m not saying Lotus Cobra is bad. The format is moving toward more spells that cost four or more, and adding more than one mana in a turn is a very powerful ability. I just don’t see the format coming down to who sticks a Lotus Cobra.

Now, a card I did want to build around as soon as I saw it would be Punishing Fire.

Punishing Fire
Punishing Fire deals 2 damage to target creature or player.
Whenever an opponent gains life, you may pay Red. If you do, return Punishing Fire from your graveyard to your hand.

I’m exclusively talking about Extended here, the idea being to play this with Grove of the Burnwillows. I can imagine many players thinking this is cute, but not really good enough to bother with, but I think it is easily good enough. The cost to playing both of these cards is so low, and the potential gain is really high. Clearly the combo doesn’t kill your opponent quickly or provide a great finisher, but imagine trying to play last season’s Mono Blue Faerie/Wizard deck against this combo. I’m not really sure how you could ever win. You might concede that point but claim that, outside of that Blue deck, two damage doesn’t kill that many creatures. Kird Ape, Wild Nacatl, Tarmogoyf, Woolly Thoctar, etc all live through it. However, if you have five mana you can play this from your hand, buy it back with the Grove, and play it again to finish off their creature. All you have to do is live to the mid game, and if you’re stable, you blank all their creatures. That’s pretty good. This card makes me want to try to build either a G/R midrange/ramp deck or possibly a Gifts deck, where I could just play one Punishing Fire and find it with Gifts to take control of the board. It’s such a difficult combo to fight, and all you have to do is play a relatively good dual land and a pretty bad Shock to make it happen.

Really I’m just excited because it lets me spend 18 mana over 6 turns to accomplish very little, but it gives me inevitability through incremental advantages. That’s exactly what I enjoy doing most in Magic, which is exactly why I am sad to see Riptide Laboratory leave.

The next card I’m excited by is another card with a very low cost and a subtle but extremely powerful effect:

Magosi, the Waterveil
Magosi, the Waterveil enters the battlefield tapped.
Tap: Add U to your mana pool.
U, Tap: Put an eon counter on Magosi, the Waterveil. Skip your next turn.
Tap, Remove an eon counter from Magosi, the Waterveil and return it to its owners hand: Take an extra turn after this one.

I’m guessing most of you haven’t played a lot of Vintage, so you probably haven’t had Time Vault in play. You probably know that Time Vault is beyond busted in that format, but you probably also know that that’s because you don’t really have to put any effort into taking infinite turns with it thanks to Voltaic Key and Tezzeret.

This means you probably don’t know how good Time Vault can be when you’re playing fair. The idea is pretty simple, and at its most striking in a control mirror. You’re in the mid game and neither of you really has anything going on. You have all your mana untapped, and your opponent just missed their first land drop and passed without playing a spell, knowing you’d just counter whatever they did and untap and do something powerful. You have Magosi in play, and in their end step, you tap it to give them another turn. They can do almost nothing with that turn. Now, the next time they try to double threat you by playing a powerful instant, you can counter it and cash in on your extra untap step and take a turn while they are tapped out, which you can either use to do something powerful or just pass with mana up, and then charge it up again at the end of their next turn after they didn’t play their powerful sorcery because you had mana up. Moreover, if they ever do go for something on their turn, you get two unmolested turns, so you can play a creature, untap, attack with it, and pass with mana open to protect it.

In short, it’s extremely difficult to play a control mirror against this card if you don’t have one, and I love seeing the mechanic on a card that can be effortlessly inserted into any control deck, because I think it will add a lot of skill to any match where it’s relevant.

Its applications aren’t limited to that, though. I’ve recently been impressed by Time Warp, and the main reason I was impressed now (I didn’t really like the card the first time) is because of planeswalkers. This card is just as good with them. You let your opponent take an extra turn before you have a planeswalker in play, when they can’t possibly kill it, and then when you do play a planeswalker, you take an extra turn. This lets you do something like play Liliana Vess, use its second ability to find whatever you need to protect it, take another turn in which you untap, draw that card, and cast it to ensure that Liliana is safe, activate her again, and pass the turn. Alternatively, it lets you hit Garruk’s ultimate without ever letting your opponent do anything about him, for times when you just wanted an Overrun.

Even in creature mirrors, giving them an extra turn when the board is stalled so that you can take an extra attack while they’re tapped out (possibly because you did something like cast Sleep) can be huge.

This card just makes games really interesting, so I can’t wait to play with it.

As long as we’re talking about lands that are relatively painless to play and have huge potential upsides, I might as well mention this:

Oran-Rief, the Vastwood
Oran-Rief, the Vastwood enters the battlefield tapped.
Tap: Add G to your mana pool.
Tap: Put a +1/+1 counter on each green creature that entered the battlefield this turn.

It may not be Treetop Village, but with Treetop Village leaving Standard, Green decks might have room for a land that comes in tapped, and this card easily offers enough of a benefit to make it worthwhile. I’m not sure how much needs to be explained about this card, but essentially giving all your Green creatures Kicker G: +1/+1 is pretty sweet.

Those are the cards that are most exciting to me, but the set also has a lot of really nice cheap utility cards that I’m happy to see.

Brave the Elements
Choose a color. White creatures you control gain protection from the chosen color until end if turn.

This card is an awesome answer to cards like Volcanic Fallout and an amazing Falter effect for White, in addition to countering one-for-one removal for a single mana. I’m not sure if it will end up seeing any Constructed play, and it competes very directly with Harm’s Way if you’re just looking to dodge Fallout, but this is a really versatile and efficient spell. I think the most likely incentive to play it in Constructed will be as a way to play Baneslayer Angel with backup with only one extra mana.

Journey to Nowhere
When Journey to Nowhere enters the battlefield, exile target creature.
When Journey to Nowhere leaves the battlefield, return the exiled creature to the battlefield under its owner’s control.

This is an interesting midpoint between Path to Exile and Oblivion Ring. It’s not an instant and it costs twice as much as Path, but it doesn’t give them a land. It’s not as versatile as Oblivion Ring, but you’re usually removing creatures anyway, and two mana is a lot less than three mana. It will be interesting to see how people choose to build their decks with all of these options available. One reasonable solution is to play one of Journey to Nowhere and one Oblivion Ring to play around Maelstrom Pulse.

Spell Pierce
Counter target noncreature spell unless its controller pays 2

I really like this card. I can’t find a way to fit it into an Extended deck between Mana Leak and Spell Snare, but I still think it’s a great card and I hope I get to play it in Standard soon. I also look forward to the version that counters only creatures.

Target creature gets -2/-2 until end of turn.

Last Breath lite. Black gets surprisingly little one-mana removal, and that makes this card something of a big deal. Even in Extended it can kill a turn 1 Wild Nacatl. (This is not to say that I expect the card to see a lot of play in Extended, but I think it will be a great tool for Standard).

Burst Lightning
Kicker 4
Burst Lightning deals 2 damage to target creature or player. If Burst Lightning was kicked, it deals 4 damage to that creature or player instead.

The one-mana hits don’t stop. A lot of the time, you’re killing a creature that your opponent played on turn 1 or 2 with a Lightning Bolt, and Shock would be the same card. In this case, Burst Lightning is also the same, of course. In the late game, kicking up to 4 damage is huge, whether it’s killing a creature a Red deck would otherwise have a card time killing (especially with Flame Javelin rotating out) or do four to a player. This card compares very reasonably to Lightning Bolt (I do think it’s a little worse, but surprisingly little—probably about on par with Incinerate, maybe better) and that’s saying a lot, even if Lightning Bolt is legal. This card also plays excellently in the same deck with Lightning Bolt to get maximum value out of all of your cards.

All told, this set has a lot of really splashy cards, a lot of subtle powerful cards, a lot of versatile utility cards, and a lot of wonderfully flavorful cards. It also looks like it’s done a lot to solve a lot of the traditional pitfalls of Limited. I’m very excited to play with this set in the prerelease next weekend.

Thanks for reading…