Feature Article – Zendikar Limited Impressions

SCG 10K Philadelphia... the first major event featuring Zendikar!
Thursday, October 1st – Quentin Martin takes a look at the new Zendikar Limited format, highlighting a selection of interactions and insights. He also gives us the best commons in the format, an overview on how varying strategies may develop, and then throws in a couple of Extended decks for good measure!

Zendikar had a lot of hype. A bunch of exciting cards were previewed early, and things looked fun. Both Extended and Standard were facing huge shifts, where newness and innovation would reign. Then they spoiled the new fetchlands, and Extended was without change. Luckily, Standard looks beautiful and new — a realm free of the brilliant, and oppressive, Cryptic Command. Lotus Cobra’s hype still makes me chortle, but I’ll let that one slide, because we’ve finally had time to play some new Limited!

My first two reactions to Zendikar Limited made me realised how spoiled we’ve been of late. We’ve had formats rich with powerful gold cards and, consequently, full of fixers available to every color. On top of this, we’ve had packs that were often easily eleven playables deep, so you always managed to play a solid twenty-three cards, and almost every Sealed pool had a solid deck in there somewhere.

Alas, Zendikar is a fresh breath of stale air. I don’t that to sound negative. I think it’s a good thing. I loved formats that allow you to juggle a precarious manabase to keep treading the fine line between power and consistency. It’s refreshing to finally have to scrabble for playables in pack 3. Where reading the correct signals as soon as possible whilst drafting is not just good, but necessary if you hope to wind up with a complete deck. Where bad opponents get more loses from trying to play too many colors. Scarcity is back in Magic, and I, for one, relish the return to old.

Not everything is good news. This means more Sealed decks than before need more than their fair share of luck (though still far fewer than most of you think). It is good news for drafting, though. Landfall and some of the Quests can massively increase the variance of the game. For example, if you play a Windrider Eel on your fourth turn and you’re holding a Whiplash Trap, you’re doubly punished for failing to get your fifth land. Landfall is an excellent ability for promoting and encouraging playing more land and land management, but I feel that is punishes mana screw more severely than need be. Eighteen land is looking like the correct number in almost all decks.

Zendikar is also a format that is too hasty, as of old, to punish color screw. A lot more cards have, in my opinion, too heavy a color emphasis. This works out great for the more expensive powerful cards, as I’ve often felt it unfair that you would successfully cut off a color, say Black, only for the guy on your left to snag ‘your’ Shriekmaw because it was so easy to splash. In Z, a lot of the best common spells – especially those with kicker like Mold Shambler, Heartstabber Mosquito, and Torch Slinger – involve a heavy mana commitment.

However, I think there are too many early drops, like Vampire Hexmage and Kor Outfitter, which suffer from their cost. A lot of these are White, but this might have the spin off effect of mono-White being a draft option, though for the most part this will just mean that White mages will just get color screwed more often. Even cards like Murasa Pyromancer, a card clearly designed to be splashed in a heavy color, heavy Ally deck, have two colored mana in their costs!

As I said before, it’s a fine line between power and consistency, but Wizards have learnt over time that being screwed is the least enjoyable part of Magic, and have done everything in their power to make this not the case (which is exactly why Morph and Cycling came into existence). It looks like that line in Zendikar is pulled as taut as possible… I just hope that managed to get it right.

Despite this, I’m a happy man. There are lots of new ideas to experiment and explore before Austin comes round in a few weeks. There are three archetypes I’m looking forward to tinkering with: Suicide Black, Allies, and Big Five Color GU.

Suicide Black is pretty simple. Spearheaded by Vampire Lacerator, Surrakar Marauder, and Guul Draz Vampire, it represents your classic rush deck. Depending on how many Mind Sludge, Gatekeeper of Malakir, and Crypt Ripper you end up with, it may well be a mono-colored deck. The most likely pairing will be Red, for additional cheap men and removal. I’ve found that a lot of decks end up shy or scrabbling for playables, but this archetype makes use of other peoples’ dross, which means that it is hard to counter draft and will almost always reach a solid amount of playables.

Allies is pretty self explanatory. This deck will mostly be drafted in one of two ways: a solid two-color base or many color Green. I think that the three best common Allies are those that get bigger with more additions, so I would expect it to be either base GB or UB or UG. The five color version will be looking to pick Harrow as highly, as possible as Khalni Heart Expedition will be too slow in most cases. The cycle of ‘gain life’ tap lands will also be a priority. Once you have the mana right, then a never-ending stream of Allies will roll your opponent.

Harrow, Khalni Heart Expedition, and Ior Ruin Expedition are the backbone of my five-color deck. They also combo particularly well together. As you will be double-tutoring for your fixing land, you will often be able to afford more exotic splashes. A core of Into the Roils, Reckless Scholars, Sky Ruin Drakes, Whiplash Traps, and Summoner’s Banes will do a good job of keeping you alive for as long as possible with enough cards to ensure that you’re still ahead. Landfall finds a solid home here, so Grazing Gladeheart, Windrider Eel, and the fat Green guys also fit the theme.

I think it’s a little too early to be examining pick orders now, but having a good idea of the best common in each color will at least stop you from sending the wrong signals. It’s not always clear cut, so I’ll mention the contenders if they’ve a good enough case.

White is easy — Journey to Nowhere. Although my hot, hot, Great Sable Stag-giving girlfriend thinks that there is room to throw it to the jury. She’s wrong. Hehe!

At first I thought Blue was going to be really tough, but as time eternal has shown us, I’m going to lob my vote in with Reckless Scholar as it’s difficult to go wrong with a common Looter. Kor Skyfisher is my shaky nomination for second. I preferred Cephalid Looter to Wild Mongrel and, off the top of my head, I think Errant Ephemeron is one of the few in-color commons to top a Looter. My back-up would be Whiplash Trap, as it’s such a huge tempo swing, with a nod to Umara Raptor for when the Allies floweth.

Black is somewhat interesting in general. If the color continues to be a mainstay for turbo aggression, then the one- and two-drop Vampires gain much in strength, but they’ll never top Hideous End or Disfigure. Dark Banishing effects are always going to beat out Shocks, but I’m going to stick my neck out and say that Heartstabber Mosquito is in serious contention for Top Gun. Tower, this is Ghost Rider requesting a flyby.

Red seemed a doozy at first, but it’s really tight. I think Burst Lightning wins on sheer flexibility and splashability but let Torch Slinger not be shunned its chance in the limelight. Common Nekrataals are always going to be amazing, and there are plenty of solid targets for this lad to nuke. First pick, first pack, and I’d lean towards the instant, but depending on my curve, removal options, combos (Kor Skyfisher and Raise Dead effects), and tempo, and I can easily see myself going with the lonely goblin.

Green is a crazy kettle of fish. A lot of people will say that it completely depends on your personal preferences, or how far into the draft you are. Oran-Rief Survivalist is the Ally and the cornerstone of the archetype; it’s also fantastic outside the archetype but it’s not the apple of my eye. Mold Shambler is a glorious card and probably shouldn’t have been a common. It’s a two-for-one, and a card that I’ll probably pick over the Ally. Flexibility and card advantage are hard to beat, and it’s certainly a more powerful card than the number one slot. However, Harrow claims the crown. It’s just too synergistic not to. It opens up every single door, and closes none. It’s so essential in some archetypes that you cannot afford to let it go late. It’s also one the few instant Landfall tricks, and when you pull it off, it’s often a blowout. It was possibly the best common in Invasion Block, and I’ll be damned if it’s not top of my Green list.

So, when the dust settles, what’s the best common? What’s the go-to card before you look at the four cards at the back of the pack? What’s the card that all rares become judged against? I don’t know yet! It’s probably not a Black card. Journey to Nowhere is probably better than Burst Lightning. So that leaves us with Harrow, Journey, and the Looter. Age old experience would place them in that exact order, from Harrow to Looter, with the intrepid Blue guy getting the crown, and I see no reason to break that unless more experience proves me otherwise. I can see Harrow rising to the top more than Journey though. For now, I raise my glass, only somewhat unsurprisingly, to a Blue card — Reckless Scholar!

I’m going to take a quick time out and look at cards that I feel are under/overrated or have some unusual quality.

Merfolk Wayfinder: Total drivel. Do the math. Let’s look at one of the best case scenarios. You play eleven Islands and have only drawn one when you cast it on turn 3. You have ten Islands left in a thirty card deck, so you should hit one Island with the guy. However, you will seldom play more than 8/9 Islands, meaning that you will miss far more often than you’ll hit. Let’s move on.

Whiplash Trap: This card provides a crazy tempo boost that probably isn’t deserving of common status. Forget that it’s a ‘trap,’ just make sure you play with it in mind when they pass with five mana up, and try not to get blown out by it. But you still will.

Summoner’s Bane: Possibly the most powerful uncommon (?). In Limited, a Mystic Snake that only counters creatures is still a phenomenal two-for-one. Do not underrate.

Summoning Trap: Akin to Tangle Spider. It’s a clunky ambush effect which will still be great in some matchups, especially if you have some bombs. Definitely consider it as a card rather than a drossy rare. On a similar note, Baloth Cage Trap is still great. Sure, it might just be half a Beast Attack, but it’s huge and cheap and will net you card advantage more often than you’d think.

Kor Hookmaster: Better than it looks. This effect is more powerful than it first seems. Great in small rush decks boosted by equipment. Imagine a RW deck with plenty of these and the equally underrated Goblin Shortcutter.

Kor Skyfisher: Flyers with three on the butt are a very valuable commodity in this format. The magic number of Zendikar seems to be three with Disfigure, Burst Lightning, and Marsh Casualties heading the conditional removal. It doesn’t stop there, though. The ability to cast for a single mana late on when you were going to miss your land drop, or to trigger Landfall, or to retarget a Journey to Nowhere, or to bounce a creature with an enters-the-battlefield (still a mouthful!) effect, means the Kor Skyfisher is much better than it looks.

Ruinous Minotaur: In incredibly aggressive mono-Red or RB decks, this card can be key. It’s big enough, early enough, to cause issues, and you can afford the drawback as your curve will tend to terminate at four anyway. It also helps get your opponent to ten very quickly for all the conditional Vampires.

Khalni Heart Expedition: This card is overrated. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it, but that people, for the most part, view it incorrectly. It is not to be counted as a mana source or as a mana fixer. This provides you with lands 5 and 6, and that’s assuming you cast it on your second turn. This Expedition is for those decks that either need a lot of land, or a lot of colored mana late, or those decks that look to continually abuse Landfall.

Ior Ruin Expedition: First, let me say that I think this might be Standard’s new card advantage spell. With fetchlands, you’ll trigger it fast enough. You seldom need the cards straight away, it’s something to do on the second turn, and it’s one of the cheapest actual mana investments in decks that want to never miss a land drop. It won’t feature in Cascade decks, but that’s neither here nor there. Anyway, back to Limited. I love this card. Control decks won’t have too many two-drops, and there is little else in the way of pure card advantage, so man up and accept that this is what you’ve got to work with.

Greenweaver Druid: Very good acceleration in the big Green decks full of boom booms, which also allows you to still consistently trigger their Landfall abilities as you should still have some left in hand.

Baloth Woodcrasher: I first picked a Journey of Nowhere over this guy, and I’m really not sure that was correct. This Baloth is a monster. It possesses the power to easily end games. Throw in a combo with Harrow or Khalni Heart Expedition and you’re attacking for 16! A contender for ‘best uncommon.’

Khalni Gem: Already my pet card. This is one of the best cards in the UG Five Color archetype. It mana fixes and re-triggers Landfall. Watch for this one to rise in peoples’ pick orders.

Oracle of Mul Daya: Wow, did I underrate this guy! Sure, he looks fine and kind of cute, but I didn’t see how powerful he was at first. At first, I thought he was just there to get some more land and activate some savage Landfall (though he is sick with Grazing Gladeheart). I didn’t realise that you will never draw land again after you’ve cast this guy (unless there’s three in a row on top of your deck), but not in an overly-costed Abundance kind of way. If you don’t have land on top, boohoo, you’ll still just be drawing a spell, but you will also be dumping all the land in the meanwhile straight into play. The only downside is that your opponent knows all of your draws. He’s a little like a cheaper Green Future Sight.

At the beginning of every new draft format, everyone states how fast it is and that it’s all about tempo. This is always because aggressive tactics work more easily than the control archetypes that get created reactively. By the time people understand how a Limited environment works, the format slows down to the normal speed of Magic, and it all revolves around card advantage again. I’ve seen it happen with almost every single set, and I can confidently claim that it will happen with Z.

People scoffed at me when I listed Aethersnipe as the third most powerful Lorwyn common when I looked through the spoiler. I wonder how long it takes before the afore-mentioned common kicker cards (Mold Shambler, Heartstabber Mosquito, and Torch Slinger) to claim their place on the pantheon along with the already highlighted commons. Card advantage always, always rules.



P.S. – Here are the tier 1 decks that I believe should be making up your Austin test gauntlet: Zoo, Hypergenesis, Nearly Mono-Blue Fae, Tezzerator, and Next Level Blue. The decks that skirt just outside of these elite few, but still worthy of gauntlet inclusion, are Affinity, Doran, UG Tron, and Dredge.

An idea that I’ve been toying with for a little while is using Fieldmist and Wildfield Borderposts to increase the number of White cards a Martyr of the Sands deck plays so it can play another color more easily. The spinoff is that you can then abuse Knight of the White Orchid and Weathered Wayfarer. My only concern is that I’ve not included enough basic lands to play the Borderposts effectively. Testing will possibly alter those numbers. Here are the two decklists that I’ve come up with:

There are a few problems with both decks, aside from any basic land issues. Martyr Tron is cold to Pithing Needle, and Sundering Titan may not be the best back up kill condition. It might be easier to run Crucible of Worlds in the Tron list so you can cut the Temple Garden. Either way, these are early versions, and I hope that they are as thought provoking as they were challenging to build.