Wizards may continue to insert some Priceless Treasures in Worldwake, the follow-up to Zendikar. If that’s true, you may want to bring earplugs to that tournament. Because if someone opens up a treasure next to you, you might end up with hurt eardrums. I did.
I’ve found a decent place to play Magic in Philly, Redcap’s Corner. It’s a little far from North Philly, which is where I’m staying for a year. North Philly’s a pretty rough part of the burg, and I’m taking care learning how to get around safely when returning from FNM at night. One of the first people I met there was Kevin, an affable guy who plays Vintage, EDH, and Standard, and loves playing wacky decks. He reminded me of a few of my friends in Japan who would refuse to play decks that won by damaging their opponent, as if pacifism was a key tenet in their lives. Now, Kevin does play men that turn sideways, but he has that same creative flair for deck design that the ‘Love And Peace’ Japanese guys did. And he’s a super nice guy. When I met up with him in line for registration at the Philadelphia Convention Center, he talked about how awesome the cards were at the midnight release he went to and some of the cool plays he saw involving Into the Roil and landfall. Only through other associates’ comments did I learn that he had opened a foil Lotus Cobra in his ‘pity pack’ he got for dropping. You’d think he’d have included a critical detail like that. But some of us still prize modesty.
So I sat down next to Kevin in the first sealed flight of the day, and I started cracking packs. I heard a loud gasp from Kevin’s general direction. Then I turned and looked, and saw something white-bordered with a brownish border. And then my head rang and rattled. “MOX PEAAARL!” echoed. And a loud hue and cry of cheers rose up from the rest of the room. Judges quickly zoomed over and oohed and aahed over the Unlimited gem. And I was genuinely happy for Kevin. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Still, ouchies.
I hope you get to enjoy these experiences firsthand in future Zendikar Limited events, and maybe even at PTQs. And I won’t blame you at all if you shout. But if you have delicate eardrums, consider using earplugs before the room’s product gets opened.
Cautionary note aside, Zendikar’s priceless treasures are only a small part of the appeal of the new set. Landfall is one of the most blatantly powerful and impacting mechanics in quite a long time. I saw one lucky player finagling a pool with not one, not two, not even four, but five Plated Geopedes. His curve stopped at around five, with most of the deck weighing in at three mana. But he was running 19 lands! In what we’ve come to expect from rational Magic environments, this would be crazy. But here in Zendikar, that’s the optimal play. It’s going to take a bit of time to regain our equilibrium. It’s all good, though. The learning curve is a huge part of what makes Magic fun for me.
I love the flexibility of the kicker mechanic. Having scalable effects on a wide number of cards adds so much to the tactics of the game. With that being said, the aggro Kor, Goblin, and Vampire decks have so much inertia on their side, there just aren’t that many opportunities to use the kicker. Especially with Vampire decks, which will punish any deck that fails to bring game early. The ‘bloodied’ mechanic is a cute in-game reference to a neat rules addition in the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons, WOTC’s other cash cow. When monsters go below half their starting hit points, their parameters change and they often gain special abilities. That’s pretty awesome flavor.
To be frank, I didn’t study the spoiler too much before going in. I typed my customary short hand spoiler, took a few notes on the traps, and that was it. I went in with a totally blank slate, trying to keep my expectations minimal and just be able to soak in the goodness. Here’s what I opened.
Felidar Sovereign (foil)
3 Pillarfield Ox
Quest for the Holy Relic
Mark of Mutiny
Zektar Shrine Expedition
Baloth Cage Trap
2 Vines of Vastwood
Take a few minutes to figure out how you’d build this deck. Consider taking notes and posting them in the forums. Peer reviewed work is always excellent for learning, even though errors happen.
Due to writing this simultaneously with my mid-term project, I’m not going to insert any fancy-schmancy filler, and instead rely on good old white space. Clean, friendly, neutral white space.
Okay, we’re back. Time to do my good old fashioned evaluations, with a bit of commentary.
Solid: Felidar Sovereign, Kor Hookmaster, Kor Sanctifiers
Decent: Kor Duelist, Kor Skyfisher, Nimbus Wings, Noble Vestige, Pillarfield Ox, Shieldmate’s Blessing
Poor: Caravan Hurda, Quest for the Holy Relic, Sunspring Blessing
Sweet! Foil mythic rare! And a good one, too. Vigilance plus a colossal body’s cute, but lifelink and that alternate win condition’s so much dressing on the top. Felidar Sovereign’s not a bomb rare by any means, because opponents will stop attacking and leave a swarm of dudes back to block this guy until they find a way to remove him. Your Sovereign will probably not make it through combat to break through for a win. But if you can get him out on turn five or six and keep pressing, he’ll do wonders for you.
Between the various quests, ascensions, equipment, and Journey to Nowhere in the current environment, you should never fail to run Kor Sanctifiers in a deck with white. They solve an insane number of problems. And a 2/3 body is certainly relevant in this tempo-driven format.
The amount of tempo Kor Hookmaster provides aggro decks cannot be underestimated. In a Red/White aggro deck, Hooker shuts down superior defenses. I’ll be very surprised if I see any of these past pick five in draft. Beware the power of TJ Hooker, or it’s going to be you that’s stuck on the windshield of a speeding car.
How do you make Holy Strength awesome? Pack Flight onto it. Nimbus Wings is a surprisingly elegant card that affords weenie decks a stunning amount of reach for the mana cost. I saw lots of players throw this on a turn 1 Steppe Lynx to provide surprisingly heavy beats. Against Blue decks, though, side Nimbus Wings out. Into the Roil will make your winged beater cry.
I’m sour on all of the Expeditions. Yes, they’re all pretty boffo when you play them on turn 1 or 2, and they mature three or four turns later. But when you draw them on turn 6 or 7, and it takes three discreet actions… let’s face it, you just had a dead draw. At least some of the Quests only require one or two instances. Luminarch Ascension and Beastmaster Ascension, on the other hand… they’re the real deal. Quest for the Holy Relic is the absolute worst. If you draw it on turn 5, you’re almost never, ever going to get the payoff. Even though this pool could go get the bombiest of bomb equipment for free, Grappling Hook, including the exorbitant equip cost, it’s still not worth the headache of mulliganing until you open with Quest and then manage playing five guys.
Yes, I like Babe the Pillarfield Ox. For four mana and two power, it’s a great wall. It’s not nearly as cool as the synergistic Makindi Shieldmate, but at least it has the potential to enter the red zone. Makindi Shieldmate plays the role of a big blocking body exceedingly well while getting the Allied forces hopping and popping. I recognize Shieldmate as a strictly better card in that role. But the Shieldmate’s never going to attack. And that is worth bringing up.
Kor Skyfisher is like Elliot Spitzer. He’s got the Hookmaster at the front of his speed dial list. There’s other comes-in-play abilities that are relevant, particularly on the lands, but the Hookmaster’s at the front of the list. He’s also a flier in a format with surprisingly few airborne men.
We’ve got an army that can take a piece of equipment and heft it fairly well. White’s worth considering.
Solid: Reckless Scholar, Sky Ruin Drake, Umara Raptor, Welkin Tern
Decent: Caller of Gales, Cancel, Ior Ruin Expedition, Paralyzing Grasp, Seascape Aerialist, Shoal Serpent, Spell Pierce
Poor: Trapfinder’s Trick
Did they just print the best Wind Drake for Limited ever? I believe they did. Umara Raptor’s an amazingly good three drop for blue, and in draft, it gets even better. I know that when I draft, there will be a lot of people forcing Vampires. That’s fine with me. I want to draft Blue Skies. It’s a clever little archetype. Turn one Kraken Hatchling, turn two Welkin Tern, turn three Umara Raptor, turn four Umara Raptor, turn five Umara Raptor, swing to taste. I predict that this will be a sleeper strategy that will be widely popular a few weeks into the format.
Want to see a guy who won’t get played in draft, but will wreck in sealed? Caller of Gales will see a lot of service aggravating Guul Draz Vampires in draft, but when you’ve got big, lumbering Red or Green goons at your beck and call who need to finish the job, Caller will give them the extra pick-me-up needed to take home the win. That sort of thing happens a lot more in Sealed formats.
We need a short aside on terminology before we discuss Seascape Aerialist. Seascape Aerialist, despite possessing the Wizard card type, is part of what Mark Rosewater defines as the “cleric” type. When triggered, Clerics give the allied forces a one shot boosting effect until the end of turn. Wizard allies such as Murasa Pyromancer give a scaled spell-like effect. And fighters like Tuktuk Grunts get +1/+1 counters. Now, if you really like drafting three to five color decks, a rainbow Ally archetype’s there waiting for you in Zendikar. It’ll take me a while before I feel comfortable drafting it, though.
Seascape Aerialist’s an awesome Ally who just finishes games abruptly if you’ve got the rest of the JLA together. You need to have a number of ‘fighter’ Allies to maximize his impact. I’d say four fighters should serve as the minimum to consider Aerialist. He works reasonably well as an enabler for Wizards, but you might have considerably better options with Stonework Puma or Ondu Cleric, to give some examples.
I know I said I don’t like Expeditions. I know that if you play Ior Ruin Expedition on turn 5, there’s a very real chance that you won’t be able to live long enough to draw the extra cards. And all you’re getting for your time is a return plus one. Still, I do love cards that draw me more cards. I feel decadent and lazy putting this into the Decent column, because all my reasoning and analysis points to downgrading it to Poor. Save this card for U/G draft strategies coupled with Harrows. That’s where Ior Ruin Expedition will pay off in spades.
When Reckless Scholar’s on the table for more than two turns, he’s so good. Looting is a real pleasure and one of my favorite Limited abilities. I’m thrilled to get this ability for three. Now, if things are going south, Scholar takes a small guy with him while still getting the chance to filter away trash.
During Alara Limited, I played Blue more often than not. I know that pattern informs my deckbuilding habits, and knowing that tendency is significant. We need to know our habits so that we can better question the information those habits offer up to us. I like this Blue, even if it isn’t the strongest.
Solid: Blood Seeker, Vampire Lacerator
Decent: Crypt Ripper, Giant Scorpion, Grim Discovery, Guul Draz Vampire, Quest for the Gravelord, Vampire’s Bite
Poor: Mindless Null, Mire Blight, Sadistic Sacrament
Guul Draz Vampire needs a critical mass of cheap guys to partner with. Then he’s a beating plus plus. But he’s also useful in being a roadblock against Surrarkar Marauder. I care about that sort of thing.
When I played Blood Seeker in my second sealed flight, without fail my opponents winced. This guy’s going to deal a boatload of damage unless your opponent draws removal. This guy’s definitely a Constructed-worthy man to bring in against token decks.
Giant Scorpion’s a fine man. There’s no such thing as a bad deathtouch man. You know a common creature who trades with Baneslayer Angel? Pestilent Kathari with first strike, that’s who! This guy trades with big Green five- or six-drops. That’s good enough for me.
Sadistic Sacrament wins you most games of Limited when you’ve stabilized the board and hit ten mana. How often does that happen? Hardly ever. And hitting three Black in the early game to scout your opponent and his threats is a real challenge. In the early game, you need better things to do than play this unkicked. In Sealed, you’re probably not playing Sadistic Sacrament until at least turn 4, and even then you’re only removing three problems that will occur later on. If you last long enough to kick this, then you deserve to have won the game already. Sacrament just doesn’t do enough, and it’s not a blowout like, oh, Grappling Hook.
I am very disappointed in you, Black. The little guys here are good, sure, but there’s nothing else here. No evasion, no spot removal. This Black won’t let us win any games.
Solid: Burst Lightning, Hellfire Mongrel, Inferno Trap, Kazuul Warlord, Magma Rift, Plated Geopede
Decent: Demolish, Electropotence, Geyser Glider, Goblin Shorecutter, Mark of Mutiny, Molten Ravager, Murasa Pyromancer, Ruinous Minotaur, Slaughter Cry, Tuktuk Grunts
Poor: Zektar Shrine Expedition
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Burst Lightning and Magma Rift will balm that which ails you. Plated Geopede is an insane beating and good even when drawn on turns 4 or 5. Anything that has a Rack effect on it is worth playing if it’s anything resembling reasonably costed, and Hellfire Mongrel certainly fits that bill. Inferno Trap’s only downside is that Trapfinder’s Trick can turn multiples into a tragedy. Kazuul Warlord’s the best Ally for Limited. Period. Now for nuance.
Electropotence is great for a deck that features a slew of Grizzly Bears. When you hit five mana, you can start ripping down the opponent’s line and start setting up savage end games. But without those two drops, you won’t be able to get there. If the deck doesn’t meet those standards, don’t play Electropotence unless you’re scrabbling for a 23rd pick card.
A 4/4 for five is normally par for the course, and the fact that Geyser Glider can get evasion on offense is sweet. But I’m still not that happy with the guy. Hitting five mana is tough.
Goblin Shorecutter is going to be absolutely crucial for any Red drafter. It’s a superlative two-drop and ruins combat math. Be prepared to draft these early. In Sealed, it’s best in RB builds that rush to get the opponent to 10 or less, and then let the Twilight crowd do their thing. But it’s always going to be playable.
Similarly, Mark of Mutiny drafts your opponent’s blocker or his best fattie. And it hurts just that tiny extra bit more. Because of the +1/+1 counter, if you’re facing off Red and are trying to figure out the math of what might happen if your opponent plays a Mark, remember: This isn’t Threaten. It’s Threaten +1. So modify your math accordingly.
If you’re planning to win over the long term, Molten Ravager is surprisingly playable. You’ll come for the 0/4 defensive body and come back for the big hits. Do not underestimate the value of this cheap man.
Accompanying the obviously awesome Kazuul Warlord, two more reasonable Allies show up here. Murasa Pyromancer is a little needy as Flametongue Kavus go, but the synergy is undeniable. Then there’s Tuktuk Grunts. Hasty, occasionally growing beats? You will probably be seeing them a lot in draft, provided that there’s enough time to get them out.
A little flavor inquiry here. In Bangkok, some guys travel around on little bicycle-drawn or motorcycle-drawn rickshaws, or as the locals call them, tuktuks. Now, I don’t know if that’s a real world reference or not. I guess I’ll have to wait for Wizards to explain the nomenclature of Zendikar a bit more. I don’t think that Thai taxi drivers like to be compared to goblins, but who would? Everyone I know who’s been to Bangkok complains about the traffic.
Yes, you already know I don’t like the Expeditions. But let me lay the ire on even more. There sure do seem to be a lot of common and uncommon guys in the format with first strike or double strike. That makes Zektar Shrine Expedition no fun at all. It’s not a viable trick when the opponent sees it coming from a mile away. Most red decks will be packing quite a few cheap little guys, so there’s a lot of competition for the two drop space. I’m going to be a couch potato and say no to this hike.
With all the burn and Allied cameraderie, denying Red a space in the main deck feels utterly wrong. I love killing things and hardy men with power, and we’ve got that here.
Solid: Baloth Cage Trap, Baloth Woodcrasher, Harrow, Savage Silhouette, Turntimber Basilisk, Vines of Vastwood
Decent: Cobra Trap, Joraga Bard, Nissa’s Chosen, Primal Bellow, Relic Crush, Scythe Tiger, Tanglesap, Tajuru Archer
Poor: Beast Hunt, Nissa Revane
Jon Becker, who is remarkably affable for a man with a reputation as a curmudgeon, said he was astonished by the amount of life his Grazing Gladeheart bought him while gunslinging. I honestly think this is a sleeper card right now. Green needs its time to get set up and deploy the fatties. How do we do it? Give the Gladeheart a try. It’s better than anyone thinks. A 2/2 plus eight or ten life on the instalment plan for three mana is awesome.
Let’s rap about Baloth Cage Trap. (Yes, I am trying to sound like an out-of-touch educator there.) Would I pay five mana for a one-shot Beast Attack? In draft? Probably not. In Sealed? Yes. I don’t see the discount happening all that much, but an instant-speed 4/4 blocker’s always welcome in my book. This is a great removal spell with benefits.
If you have any say in the affair, do not suffer a Baloth Woodcrasher to live. Otherwise, you will be in a world of hurt every time he faces you from the other side of the table. This is what green wants to ramp to.
Nissa Revane is the worst Planeswalker in a Limited environment to see print. To those of you who want to play her, I say no. No, no, nyet. Even Chandra Ablaze lets you turn red spells into Flame Javelins. This card is not worth your four drop unless you have three or four Nissa’s Chosen. Nissa herself is extremely fragile. And in the unlikely case your opponent’s packing evasion, the environment even has a common answer to her, or any other planeswalker, in the form of Mold Shambler.
Savage Silhouette is the third coming of Armadillo Cloak. It makes any man nearly impossible to keep down, and Red and Black removal has problems. Regeneration is nothing to sneeze at. In draft, it might be a little slow, but in Sealed this is a superlative card.
Turntimber Basilisk is a good way to illustrate one of my personal maxims. There’s no such thing as a bad deathtouch guy in my book. I like men who trade, and this guy’s provoke ability lets him call the shots. He’d also be a superlative target for Savage Silhouette, allowing people to live the age-old Lured Regenerating Thicket Basilisk dream with only two cards.
There’s only one really big fattie, and there aren’t a lot of high power midrange men. High toughness, yes, but with little evasion, that isn’t going to do the job. The individual card quality is high, but I don’t think there’s enough meat to really flesh out the army. We’ve got combat tricks to keep our forces alive, but are any of them worth the extra card investment to keep them around?
Man, this equipment is tasty. Do we want to win our fights? Or should we be reaching for card advantage? There is an upward limit of how much space we can devote to equipment in relation to creatures and removal. We can’t have it all. The lands, on the other hand… eh, nothing that special.
If the board position stalls and you get Grappling Hook online, your opponent is dead meat. Now I understand why Batman won all the time. Double strike coupled with provoke yields an Abyss, or insane amounts of pain. The two turns it takes to get your guy online is tragic, however.
Even with the demand on tempo that exists, I do want to say that I am a firm believer in playing one, but no more than one, bomb that utterly wins you the game that is in color and costs nine mana. Remember Kuro, Pitlord? I do. And even though in eight out of ten games you draw Kuro, you won’t play him, he’s still worth including for those two games where you draw him. Because he’ll cause a blowout. That’s how I feel about Grappling Hook. I’m happy to play it.
Remember my comments on Sadistic Sacraments? Yeah, this seems awfully similar. You’re blowing two turns on this thing. So why would I play Grappling Hook while not playing Sacraments? The difference is that you only have to invest two turns in the mid-game to get it online. You don’t need to hit ten mana to get this online.
Explorer’s Scope is insane. If you’ve got even four landfall guys, it’s sick. It’s incredibly cheap, and it lets you improve the quality of your draws when you don’t care about landfall. Rare will be the deck that fails to play Explorer’s Scope.
I can’t believe that Trusty Machete saw print. Bonesplitter and Vulshok Morningstar turned a hell of a lot of combats in their wielder’s favor during Mirrodin, and one of the reasons that they were priced so cheaply is because Mirrodin had a slew of ways to destroy equipment. Zendikar, on the other hand, doesn’t have quite as many answers. Keep that in mind when you look at this card and say “Now there’s a knife”.
Oh, hello, Misty Rainforest. I honestly think you’re going to end up as a mere ten dollar bill, not a fifteen dollar bill. But I still love you anyway. This card makes me ask, ‘how many landfall guys do I have again?’
Good job forgetting the old formats, Eli.
With all that evaluation complete, you’ve seen my work, and now here’s the results. Behold!
0cc: Spidersilk Net
1cc: Caller of Gales, Burst Lightning, Trusty Machete
2cc: Goblin Shortcutter, Plated Geopede, Welkin Tern
3cc: Hellfire Mongrel, Molten Ravager, Reckless Scholar, Umara Raptor, Magma Rift, Slaughter Cry
4cc: Grappling Hook, Inferno Trap
5cc: Geyser Glider, Kazuul Warlord, Seascape Aerialist, 2 Sky Ruin Drake, Tuktuk Grunts
6cc: Murasa Pyromancer, Shoal Serpent
Red had to be in the deck due to the solid amount of burn and powerful guys up and down the mana curve. I wanted to make sure that the deck had some closing power, and a stalling weenie draw is easily trumped by any number of cards, so I decided not to go with White. Green’s enchantments and tricks were very good, but the creatures themselves were coming up a bit short. Blue had evasion, reasonable Ally support, and helped fill out my critical two and three drop slots.
I wanted to build a deck that made everyone crystal clear about who was in charge of the Red Zone. I didn’t save the removal for the late guys, because I knew I’d dominate the late game with my equipped, brutal men. And that game plan worked.
In this article, I’ve relentlessly rambled about curve. But this is a prerelease, and people don’t always worry about that sort of thing, so I decided to give myself the luxury of playing a bunch of really powerful maindeck guys. I also went in knowing that I’d want the extra card, and chose to draw every time. I didn’t feel like racing. I had the evasion to win in the long game, and a surprising amount of synergy with the Allies to break down any game stalls.
Now, you’re wondering about why I didn’t include Explorer’s Scope in the maindeck. I had it in the maindeck during the first round, but everyone else was playing tempo decks. I found myself scrabbling for opportunities to get profitable attacks in. Explorer’s Scope is awesome and cheap to use, but ultimately, it’s a win more card, and I needed to make sure I was in the game in the first place. Also, I only had three men who cared about landfall. So I left the Scope in the board. It’s a decision I’m still questioning. That’s also why I left the Misty Rainforest in the board. I don’t want to thin this deck’s mana too much, since it has all the five-drops.
The deck performed more than adequately, going 4-0 in matches, but only 8-3 in games. I dropped two games in rounds 1 and 2 to vicious Red/White aggro builds who kept cracking in with the early beats (and in one case followed up with Felidar Sovereign), and my third round opponent managed the combolicious Conqueror’s Pledge and Beastmaster Ascension one-two. That hurt my pride a little. He got a turn 3 Ascension in game 3 as well, but unfortunately, he never had any profitable attacks, and my dudes came with serious heat. I only managed to 2-0 a five-color player who was running Harrows, multiple Expeditions, and a number of bombs.
I’d call my build a solid yeoman’s effort, but I don’t think I can rest on my laurels yet. I knew about the Blazing Torch, but kept putting it to the side because I wanted more creatures. That was a mistake. It would have been fine in this defensive deck.
At the end of this pool rested thirteen packs of booty. I then joined another flight where I went 3-1 with an extremely aggressive Black/Red weenie build curving out with a pair of Kazuul Warlords. Two Marks of Mutiny really helped me ruin people’s days. The guy that managed to beat me had a ridiculous Kor weenie deck that pulled more Trusty Machetes than a pack of Paul Hogans. All in all, it was a good day’s work. I got to meet quite a few of Philadelphia’s Magic luminaries, and I look forward to meeting more new faces at the StarCityGames.com $10000 Open in two weeks. Also, three more fetchlands didn’t hurt.
Last minute thoughts: My first pick for the most undervalued common in draft is Stonework Puma. Yes, he’s an Ally who tunes up the rest of the team. But even if you have no other Allies in your draft pile, you want Stonework Puma, because he trades with Intimidators. Surrarkar Marauder and Bladetusk Boar are two solid beaters who will be thwarted by this man.
Mike Flores wrote a few good pieces collected in Deckade on Tempest block limited, and as I reread them now, Tempest feels extremely close to Zendikar. Zendikar’s got a whole lot of racing, and the relevant evasive one-, two-, and three-drops are going to rule the roost. Even though expensive landfall guys like Windrider Eel and Territorial Baloth are brutally powerful when turned sideways, I’m not sure that they’re going to be that good at winning the race. But perhaps I’m way off.
Thanks for reading. I’ve decided to join the modern age and get into this Facebook thing, so if you’re inclined to give feedback or otherwise talk, add me by searching for Eli Kaplan and picking the one with the picture of Domo-kun with the Obama sign in front of the White House. Or comment in the forums, as always. Keep on hitting them land drops when it counts.