Last week I did a “random packs draft” – a draft in which no two packs drafted are from the same set. One thing you notice when you do this kind of draft is that a lot of sets just don’t play well outside of their block. Specifically, tribal and multicolor themes play awkwardly with traditional sets. That makes Invasion, Onslaught, Ravnica, Kamigawa (which is tribal, but with only one big tribe), Lorwyn, Shadowmoor, and Alara blocks less than ideal. If you consider affinity, rebels, and ripple/snow essentially tribal, which they are, that takes out Mirrodin and Coldsnap. That leaves Mirage, Tempest, Saga, Odyssey, Time Spiral, and core sets as the only blocks that play well outside of themselves, though gold is less problematic than tribal. Most of those sets were the first three blocks as Magic design since then has been dominated by narrow gimmicks. That’s not necessarily bad, but it probably helps to have a broader control group to make the deviations stand out a bit more.
Zendikar is a welcome return to traditional Magic. Yes, this is coming after M10, but that has its own limitations as a core set. Zendikar does have a tribal thing going on with allies that will not play well with other sets, but much like slivers in sets that have them, they’re not a huge subset of the cards and most of them are fine on their own.
Zendikar does an excellent job of allowing multicolor decks if you’re willing to work for it with base Green, rewarding mono color decks, and generally defaulting to two color decks, exactly the way one expects a Limited set to be. There is a healthy balance between excellent aggressive cards and controlling cards, and early and late cards, such that you can draft any kind of deck; as long as it’s a coherent deck, you’ll probably be rewarded for it.
Most of the cards are fair and flexible. Landfall creates uniquely interesting decisions on when to play versus when to hold lands. Kicker allows control decks to play powerful spells while still being able to drop random bodies in the early game if necessary, and allows aggressive decks to do something if they find themselves in a late game they would otherwise be less prepared for.
All of this has been done before, but it all comes together into a very neat package in Zendikar. Where Zendikar stands alone, from what I’ve seen, is in its potential for ridiculousness (potentially rivaled by Lorwyn, I suppose).
After only one weekend, I’ve seen a couple things that are completely unlike anything I’ve seen before:
13 mana spent on turn 5: Turn 2 Khalni Heart Expedition. Turn 3 Khalni Heart Expedition, land. Turn 4 Lotus Cobra, land. Turn 5 land, tap 2 lands, use a mana from Lotus Cobra, spend 3 mana to cast Harrow, float two mana with 5 untapped lands, sacrifice both Expeditions to float 4 more mana, tap four lands for 10 mana. Cast 3 allies, killing 2 Vampire Nighthawks.
I’ve played multiple extremely epic three-game matches where all the games were long, interesting, and thoroughly enjoyable, even if they wouldn’t have been possible in timed rounds.
The draft format, after only 4 drafts, seems awesome. My only concern is Sealed. My concern is that, at the prerelease I was at, the best players, who all usually do extremely well at prereleases almost all had fairly average performances. This should generally point to a higher variance format than average, and while I feel that my sample size is reasonable (several players in 4 events), it is far from conclusive. I also think it’s possible that people just didn’t approach this format properly, and that once people learn how to build better decks for the format, better players will more consistently rise to the top.
There are reasonable explanations for where this variance comes from though. Quests are extremely high variance. They’re awesome if you draw them in your opening hand (and with the landfall ones, if you’re not stuck on lands) and they’re terrible later. If you have landfall cards and you miss land drops, you’re in much worse shape than you would normally be if you miss land drops, and that’s already pretty bad. If you play more lands to make up for it, you can still just get flooded, even if some of your cards are working well because you’re hitting your land drops. Add to this the ridiculousness that is possible with allies working together or the ability of some of the aggressive creatures, especially Vampires, to just end a game before an opponent has an ability to really get started. You can start to see some very unbalanced games, especially in Sealed.
As a potentially useful observation, so far I’ve manage to win several games on very few spells, even in very aggressive decks with cheap spells, so I would say that it might be correct to err much higher on lands than it appears at first.
I guess this takes us into one of the most uniquely interesting things about building a deck in this set, which is the question of how many lands to play. I think the answer is much more variable than any other set, with 16-20 all being reasonable answers depending on the deck. In the deck from the game with the Lotus Cobra, when I was building my deck I could imagine playing 15-18 land. On the one hand, I had Lotus Cobra, 2 Khalni Heart Expeditions, 2 Harrows, and a Khalni Gem for additional mana sources, so even 15 lands would give me 21 mana sources, on the other hand, 4 of those pulled land out of my deck so I wouldn’t get too flooded in the long run, and 3 of them needed me to keep playing lands to work (although one of them helped greatly in doing that). I ended up playing 17 lands, and both times that I cast Conqueror’s Pledge, I kicked it. (I won one of those games. I got decked by Gomazoa in the other.)
In general, I think this format makes attacking a lot easier than blocking and rewards aggression as a result. Creatures with landfall are much better at attacking. The push to introduce intimidate as a keyword and the exploration flavor leading to the printing of more landwalkers has, I believe, lead to an above average amount of evasion in the set, and other good creatures, like Timbermaw Larva and Welkin Tern are much better at attacking. Black’s push to get the opponent down to 10 life also encourages extremely aggressive play.
In Sealed, the decks I’ve been most impressed by have all been aggressive Red/Black decks. I usually hate Red/Black in Sealed, since its creatures are so bad and it generally doesn’t have a good way to get card advantage, so it just kills creature for awhile until it draws more lands than the other player and then it loses. In this format there are a huge number of excellent one- and two-mana creatures that can actually kill an opponent, and the removal seems to easily buy them enough time to get the job done, especially backed by the huge amount of reach available in the format.
That sums up my general conclusions on the format after 2 Sealed tournaments, 2 Two-Headed Giant tournaments, and 4 Drafts, so now I’ll move into some preliminary lists, since people seem to like those:
Top 5 commons of each color:
1. Journey to Nowhere — Obviously the best White common, this is a great removal spell
2. Kor Skyfisher — This is an extremely efficient creature that often functionally has an advantage, allowing you to hit a landfall you’d otherwise miss, reuse a kicker, or trigger ally abilities again. It’s not ideal on turn 2, but there are certainly hands where it is correct, and it’s a fine play.
3. Kor Sanctifiers — Thanks to quests and common equipment, this creature will often have a target, get getting maindeck enchantment and artifact removal attached to a respectable body at a cheap price is excellent.
4. Kor Hookmaster — The order gets a little more iffy here, but this is a great tempo card that serves extremely well in a race.
5. Makindi Shieldmate — I’m somewhat torn between putting him and Ondu Cleric in this slot. Ondu Cleric has been amazing in the ally decks I’ve seen, but I think the Shieldmate gets the nod because it’s good enough on its own that you can take it when you’re not heavily ally based.
1. Umara Raptor — On his own, this guy is solid. With any other allies, he gets ridiculous
2. Windrider Eel — It’s just such a big flier.
4. Reckless Scholar — Looters are just really good. This guy can also attack or trade reasonably in a pinch.
5. Welkin Tern — Solid aggressive man.
Looking at Blue as a whole, it looks really deep and impressive. I’m not sure I’m right to leave Paralyzing Grasp off this list, but I think I am. Whiplash Trap could easily be better than most of these, and Sky Ruin Drake is also awesome. Blue just looks amazingly deep.
1. Hideous End — Amazing removal spell that helps get the opponent to 10.
2. Disfigure — Maybe even better due to being so efficient, but there are a lot of big creatures, so I think it’s a bit worse.
4. Guul Draz Vampire — We’re getting into the range where there are several comparable cards here, but I’ve been very impressed by this card. It’s not that hard to get someone down to 10, especially when you play a creature on turn 1, and then he becomes a huge monster.
5. Heartstabber Mosquito — Getting to 7 mana doesn’t seem that hard in a format where you’re encouraged to play so many lands, and a 2/2 flier for 4 isn’t that bad anyway. I have less experience with this than many of the other cards, but I think this is about the right place for him.
2. Torch Slinger — Easy two-for-one.
4. Highland Berserker — I like both aggressive creatures and allies.
These lists are always hard with Green. Green always has a bunch of excellent fair men at different costs that you want differently depending on your deck, and good fix that you sometimes desperately need and sometimes don’t care about. Take this list with a huge grain of salt.
2. Oran-Rief Survivalist — This is potentially one of the scariest things to see on turn 2.
3. Harrow — Enables multicolor decks and does wonderful things with landfall, this easily could have come first on the list.
4. Vines of Vastwood — One of the best pump spells ever, this has new levels of flexibility as a counterspell for enchant creatures or any spot removal.
5. Territorial Baloth — Just a big efficient manâ€”I’m not particularly sure it’s better than several of the other offerings.
I don’t think I’ve played enough with the uncommons and rares to have reliable lists for those, so it’s time for me to rectify that while everyone in town is looking to use their hard earned packs from the prerelease. I’m looking forward to the coming GPs, and I think PTQ attendance should be awesome. This is an excellent time for Magic.
I suppose I should probably close with a note on the “Priceless Treasures.” It’s not the kind of thing I generally concern myself with – the sales and values of cards – but I had to notice the impact this time around. I’m not convinced that enemy fetchlands and a few hyped up Mythic could possibly draw crowds like I saw this weekend, but I think excitement about old cards could. I don’t know how much was that and how much was the fact that more people are getting back into Magic because of the success of Duels of the Planeswalkers or whatever else, but wow. I almost wasn’t allowed to play in the midnight Friday prerelease in Madison because it was full. (The 108 player cap was eventually lifted to allow the last few in, and I won the coin flip for the last slot before that.)
The whole thing is silly, since it really doesn’t affect anything much, but it was a brilliant marketing decision, and I’m excited that Wizards is still finding new ways to do that.
Thanks for reading and enjoy Zendikar!