Feature Article – On Zendikar Limited

StarCityGames.com Open Series: Indianapolis on March 13-14
Thursday, March 4th – Considering both the advent of online Worldwake Release Events with the issues raised concerning Zendikar Limited by the end of the San Diego PTQ season, it seems like a good time to evaluate Zendikar Sealed and see how Worldwake impacts the format.

Considering both the advent of online Worldwake Release Events with the issues raised concerning Zendikar Limited by the end of the San Diego PTQ season, it seems like a good time to evaluate Zendikar Sealed and see how Worldwake impacts the format.

Zendikar Limited was often accused of being unfun. In the Northwest, popular opinion held that drafting and Sealed deckbuilding was fun and skill intensive, but that the games themselves were over too quickly and afforded little opportunity for skill to dominate.

Now, players often complain about Sealed formats, claiming they are significantly less skill intensive than eight-man drafts and provide no real options other than the ones you open. I disagree with that assessment, but the point remains that complaints about Sealed are nothing new. However, even Zendikar draft received the crushing ‘unfun’ label. People complained about missing their third land drop – even with eighteen lands – and getting crushed by a one-two-three curve. Others complained that so much creature trading just meant that whoever drew fewer lands in the midgame won. Some players thought that all of the creature combat was boring and dumb.

It’s hard to assess the validity of these claims without sounding incredibly arrogant – there is no single arbiter of what is and is not fun – but I want to explore what aspects of a format people generally enjoy before questioning whether or not Zendikar is skill intensive.

My impression is that most Magic players enjoy creature combat and fast-paced games that don’t quickly bog down into overly complex board states. Here, Zendikar delivers. Creatures are pretty much always in the red zone, and most interactions are via the combat step. Also, crucially, the slower games tend to be due to various linear mechanics building up steam and doing cool things; the Ally deck is usually pretty slow and ponderous, but it’s pretty sweet when you get to play Murasa Pyromancer, kill their guy, gain some life with Ondu Cleric, and get to power up your Tuktuk Grunts. Hedron Crab decks are slow and grinding by definition, but they also interact in a novel way and are rare enough to provide variety without being monotonous. Splashy landfall creatures like Roil Elemental and Baloth Woodcrashers and even Glazing Gladehart let you do fun, cool things for the cost of doing something you wanted to do anyway. All of the sweet landfall guys are just gigantic freerolls.

And it’s not like the splashy landfall guys aren’t skill intensive either. You certainly have to plan whether or not you will need to use Harrow to accelerate you and allow you to play multiple spells per turn, or whether or not you can afford to wait and maximize your landfall triggers. Or, whether or not you want to be able to power up late-game kicker spells or save your lands to eke out more value from your Gladeharts.

It’s worth pointing out that the success of Zendikar or any other set isn’t measured by how skill intensive it is. Fundamentally, the measure is in the number of packs sold,* but that’s largely a function of how fun the set is. Games that are skill intensive are not necessarily fun, and games that are fun are not necessarily skill intensive.

Still, the contention that Zendikar was not skill intensive deserves attention. Players are frustrated when they perceive a lack of options, and it’s important to recognize that those frustrations exist whether or not their perceptions are correct. The perception of Zendikar Limited was that it was a brutally fast format wherein games were based more or less on who had a superior draw. Further, because games ended so quickly, ostensibly superior players had no opportunities to leverage their skill.

It is true that most games of Zendikar Limited saw creatures battling as early as turn 2, but it’s not like this was some big secret. When you know a format is as aggressive as Zendikar and your deck is a bit slow, it behooves you to play cards like Ondu Cleric and Tempest Owl to just trade on turn 2 so that you don’t take infinite damage while setting up your higher curve. If your opponent has enough two-drops to always have a bear on turn 2, it means he draws a lot of bears after turn 6, and if you just survive long enough to unload your more expensive spells, your board will outclass his pretty quickly.

Sure, you probably don’t want to go as far as maindecking something like Caller of Gales, but only because he doesn’t add much value in the long game. Owl and Cleric certainly do, and I’ve boarded in Caller before. People eventually recognized the need to block intimidate creatures with Hedron Scrabbler and Stonework Puma because of how format-defining those commons were; I would argue the ubiquitous nature of two-drops in Zendikar Limited was even more central to the format. I routinely splashed Seismic Shudder because it brought most aggressive decks to their knees. You have to build your deck in such a way as to maximize your advantages against what you should expect to see.

It also goes without saying that you should have been drafting aggressive two-drops highly and looked to be aggressive with your Sealed pools; the complaints about fast aggressive decks were not totally unwarranted. Aggressive decks should be looking for ways to maximize their mana and minimize the times that a, say, Pillarfield Ox (or some other high-toughness creature) just brings their offense to a screeching halt. Adventuring Gear and Slaughter Cry are obvious ways to break through, but Slaughter Cry usually took up your entire turn. Cry was sometimes necessary to get through cards like Vampire Nighthawk (we’ll get to the Hawk in a minute, I promise) and other large-toughness animals, but I tended to prefer cheaper tricks; I like trading Shieldmate’s Blessing for their bear and some tempo while adding another creature to the board.

People also complained about game-breaking uncommons in Zendikar Limited. A Vampire Nighthawk on turn 3 was excruciatingly hard to beat if you were even remotely aggressive. You can usually build any Sealed pool in such a way as to be able to handle a horde of angry two-drops, but Nighthawk had that magical three toughness, made racing almost impossible, and could trade with nearly anything, while being difficult to remove without exposing yourself to a two-for-one. And even if you were an aggressive White deck, spending your third or fourth turn casting Journey to Nowhere instead of playing more beaters was usually bad for your tempo.

Trusty Machete was also often very frustrating to play against because of how it changed the nature of trading. In Zendikar Limited, usually a player began to stabilize when they got a three-toughness creature into play; such creatures could deter your opponent’s entire squad from attacking. Machete allowed bears to tear through almost any defender, and defending players had very little recourse against it.

It’s hard to address most of these issues from a developmental perspective, because there is a much bigger picture involved. Nighthawk and Machete sell a lot of packs for their Constructed applications, and it’s hard to nerf them for Limited play without taking away a lot of their appeal. Lifelink and deathtouch, particularly together, give Nighthawk a lot of appeal. Machete could probably appeal to the crowd that wants to use equipment to assemble Voltron if it cost more and made creatures even larger, but making it a large, clunky piece of equipment doesn’t make Machete play as well with the rest of the block.

There are certainly some changes that could have been made. Take Plated Geopede, for example. Having a two-drop that trades with four-drops is pretty good. Having a two-drop that takes four drops out behind the woodshed and comes back without them, well… maybe first strike is a little excessive? People are going to play Geopede for his body whether he has first strike or not; first strike just makes him more frustrating to play against.

I also feel like Tajaru Archers and perhaps Noble Vestige could do with an extra point of toughness. Most Green decks tend to have a slower curve that has a hard time staving off faster decks, and having to use Timbermaw Larva on defense means that you are stuck with an expensive bear on defense instead of a having huge animal to mash your opponent. Having a few more x/3s, even at uncommon, would give Green a few more options in the early turns. Noble Vestige at 1/3 would make Welkin Tern a lot worse, though; perhaps costing Vestige at 1W might have been better.

But I digress. Worldwake. Right.

Worldwake slows the format down significantly. The loss of three packs of Zendikar makes it much harder for Sealed decks to achieve that critical mass of two-drops necessary for a true pressure deck. Worldwake isn’t devoid of one- and two-mana creatures, but there aren’t nearly as many as in Zendikar. Games develop more slowly and allow for more options in the midgame.

Because the format is slower, you don’t need to be as worried about the guy who opened multiple Marauders and Geopedes and should be more concerned about how you plan to achieve strategic dominance going long. You can’t just totally ignore your mana curve, but because you can be reasonably sure that you won’t be getting actively run over in the midgame, you need to figure out a plan beyond “survive into the midgame.” You can’t just take over a board with Hill Giants anymore.

Evasion wasn’t as important in a format with as little blocking as Zendikar, but with Worldwake, having ways to break through in the midgame is pretty important. Intimidate and flying are still obviously good, but there are other ways of powering through. Specifically, now that Green has a few extra creatures to fill the bottom of its curve, you can just outclass your opponent’s creatures by rounding out your squad with Territorial Baloth or Vastwood Gorger and lumbering into combat.

Essentially, where most decks in Zendikar Limited were midrange decks tending towards aggro, with Worldwake most decks are midrange tending towards control. Because the format is less aggressive, you have more room to maneuver in constructing board states to your advantage, and you should build your deck with that in mind. Obviously, you want to maximize the power of your draw step after turn 6, which implies landfalling, but you also want to make sure that you have as many spells as possible that are live going long. Everyone has experienced grinds in the midgame where you draw three lands, your opponent draws three spells, and you are just totally dead without having anything to say about it? If you draw a card like Highland Berserker on turn 8 without any Allies in play, it has close to zero relevant text, and if your opponent draws a “real” spell, you are now virtually down a card.

Spells that cost four or five are just more powerful than cards that cost two or three. Moreover, most games of Magic are decided by whoever spends more mana. Obviously you don’t want to just cut all of your two-drops, but you do want to ensure that you are drawing reasonably live on turn 8. I recognize that connecting with something like Slavering Nulls is really good, but if you have to spend a removal spell on your opponent’s mediocre three-drop to make it happen, you aren’t gaining much advantage, and if you draw it on turn 5 when the other guy has two creatures in play it’s basically never going to happen.

What I’m trying to say is that you should recognize that most Sealed decks are naturally going to contain some number of four-drops that are going to make a random two-mana 2/1 look positively embarrassing. For example, no one goes out of their way to play Pillarfield Ox or Mold Shamblers, but they make most White and Green decks, respectively. When your deck is aggressive enough to just swarm around Hill Giant-esque blockers, that’s fine, but more often your Kor Outfitters is going to deal maybe four damage and then hope to be part of gang block someday. Build your deck accordingly.

There are also triple Worldwake drafts still firing on MTGO. Obviously, any deck containing a million Allies is going to be pretty unfair, but people figured that out real quick and it can be tough to obtain the requisite Allies these days. Triple small set draft isn’t really my thing, but Josh Silvestri has been having a lot of success by focusing on Blue-White decks that use Calcite Snapper and Guardian Zendikon to hold the ground while smashing through the air with Apex Hawks, Fledgling Griffin, and the uncommon Blue fliers. I’d recommend that approach for anyone in those queues.

Worldwake Release Events run through 12 March on Magic Online. Good luck grinding!

Max McCall
max dot mccall at gmail dot com

*Zendikar is the highest-selling set of all time, incidentally.