Flow of Ideas – How Does Worldwake Change Zendikar Limited?

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Thursday, January 28th – While I try and avoid doing a card by card review when possible for that particular reason, I think looking at the impact of how a set will change the dynamic of a Limited format before the pre-release and subsequent night of drafting can be an interesting and informative exercise…

Ah, the fresh smell of a new set. The time where set reviews inevitably occur; when the same things are uttered about the same cards over and over.

While I try and avoid doing a card by card review when possible for that particular reason, I think looking at the impact of how a set will change the dynamic of a Limited format before the pre-release and subsequent night of drafting can be an interesting and informative exercise. I’m not as interested in how each individual card will play — I give you enough credit to do decent card evaluations on your own — but looking at how the format will shift can be an interesting process indeed.

Up front, I’d like to apologize if this is similar to any other articles that run this week. Set reviews flood the internet at this time of the year, so I tried to write one about the less trodden path of Limited with the hope I wouldn’t be following a route already taken through Worldwake. If this article is flanked by two other attempts to analyze the Post-Worldwake Zendikar Limited Format, I apologize for the repetition. (Sorry Darwin Goh!) Either way, hopefully my article will still shine bright enough for you to continue reading.

Zendikar Limited has been one of the fastest Limited formats in a long time. While initially a nice change of pace, many players have voiced complaints about its breakneck speed because the games have little interaction. It often feels as though the games play themselves. Turn 1 Steppe Lynx, turn 2 Plated Geopede, turn 3 Goblin Shortcutter, still had this Burst Lightning, nice deck, et cetera.

Does Worldwake provide the panacea for Zendikar’s ailment of beatdown? With the dominant, successful strategy in Zendikar Limited various forms of aggression, does Worldwake have the tools to remedy this problem? That is the question people have been wondering for a solid two months, and, even with just one pack of Worldwake in your draft, could be something which could drastically change how you should build your deck.

Well, all 145 Worldwake cards are up on MTGSalvation, and, assuming all of the information is accurate, the answer seems to be no. Well, kind of.

The good news is that there are a handful of cards in the set which are good complements to defensive strategies. They’re primarily in White and Blue, the colors which already have cards like Kraken Hatchling and Makindi Shieldmate at their disposal, and have been the color combination mostly responsible for the handful of defensive decks drafted in Zendikar Limited.

There’s Guardian Zendikon, a 2W enchantment that turns a land into a 2/6 wall; Perimeter Captain, a 0/4 defender for W that gains you two life whenever a creature you control with defender blocks; AEther Tradewinds, a Peel from Reality that can target any permanent; Calcite Snapper, a 1/4 shroud for 1UU that switches its power and toughness when a land comes into play under your control; and Halimar Excavator, a 1/3 for 1U that mills a player for the number of allies you control whenever it or another ally enters the battlefield.

Each of those is certainly playable. In enough quantities, you can even make a solid control deck. I’m sure a turn 1 Perimeter Captain completely disables certain offensive draws. The issue is that there’s no consistent way to do that. You’re seldom going to be able to draft enough of those cards to create a strong defensive core.

Let me explain. The vast majority of cards in Zendikar Limited are aggressive. The cards are cheap, cost efficient, and the creatures have a strong power-toughness and ability ratio. Cards which would be amazing in other formats, like Whiplash Trap, are relegated to later picks simply because of how fast the format has become. As a result of the density of Zendikar’s aggressive cards, it becomes very easy to draft an aggressive deck. No matter what level of player you are or which cards you value over others, a lot of solid aggressive cards are going to fall into your lap.

While defensive foils to aggressive strategies do exist, they exist in a much lower density than aggressive cards. For every card like Kraken Hatchling, there are four cards like Goblin Shortcutter. Because of the dominant nature of aggressive cards, the defensive cards you want to have to mitigate the resounding offensive of the format are often high picks. Seldom do you see Kraken Hatchlings looping the table like you might have early on in the draft format.

This creates a supply and demand issue. This concept was first explained to me in Magic terms by Dom Camus — some of you might know him better as Bateleur — in the specific context of Zendikar Limited, as found in his fabulous MTGSalvation article “Designing for Draft.” Look at the cards which are actively good against aggressive strategies at common. First there are removal spells, but those are so aggressively costed in this format that they are almost always taken between first and third pick. After that, what are we left with at common? A few cards in the vein of Kraken Hatchling… and that’s it. Many defensive cards — like the aforementioned Whiplash Trap — are just too slow to do anything against the consistent onslaught of efficient one-drop, efficient two-drop, efficient three-drop. Moving up the scale past commons you have the uncommons and rares, which are not only opened less frequently, but, because of the dearth of good answers to aggressive strategies, are usually taken just as early as removal spells.

Dom critiques the Zendikar draft format as a whole by making the design claim that “a set’s weaker cards should support as diverse a range of priorities as possible,” but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that the wide range of cards which are good to counteract aggressive strategies are taken so highly that they are seldom seen later on, while the excess of powerful aggressive cards means that they can float downstream to become sixth, seventh, and even eighth picks.

Now let’s look back at the list of cards I just mentioned.

Calcite Snapper and Halimar Excavator are both likely to be high picks because of their defensive capabilities coupled with bonus abilities and, in the case of the latter, a strong support card for the Ally theme. AEther Tradewinds is likely to be a little later of a pick, but it creates tempo loss for you as well as your opponent. As a result, it is really only a strong defensive card later in the game when you can set up for it to be so — a position which requires substantial defensive support to reach in Zendikar Limited. Additionally, it suffers from the aforementioned removal problem of also being good in aggressive decks.

Perimeter Captain is undoubtedly strong as a Kraken Hatchling, with the incredible upside of making it unprofitable to attack with two 2-power creatures, but as an uncommon it is less likely to make an appearance on the Limited tables. (Though I definitely think it’s Constructed playable.) That leaves Guardian Zendikon as the only early game defensive card I think will commonly come around later on, and it suffers from turning into a tempo black hole if your opponent answers your turn 4 Guardian Zendikon with a Hideous End.

Now let’s look at the number of new aggressive cards jammed into Worldwake. A Teetering Peaks that makes it so a creature can’t block instead of giving +2/+0. Cheap creatures with evasion or landwalk that multikick for +1/+1 counters. A cycle of creatures that turn on if you control a specific basic land, ranging from a White Kird Ape to a 1U 2/1 first striking lifelinker if you control a plains. A 4R 3/3 that Goblin Shortcutters every time it attacks. A slew of cheap, efficient removal spells and aggressively costed creatures. And that’s just the tip of the Worldwake iceberg.

Sure, there are some cards outside of White and Blue which are good in more controlling decks as well, but they’re not going to carry themselves. For example, there’s Shoreline Savager, a Black Hill Giant that draws you a card if you control an Island when it deals damage to a player, would be awesome in the control decks of most other blocks. But in this format, it doesn’t have the support to be a control backbreaker. Mysteries of the Deep is solid, sure, but tapping five mana on your fifth turn just to draw three cards is suicide in this format.

So what’s the verdict? Does Worldwake bring good defensive options? The answer is yes. However, it’s no different than Zendikar: the defensive options are still far outnumbered by the good aggressive options. I would expect the format to stay as aggressive as always. Keep your options in mind going into the last pack, but your decks are still likely to be crammed full of far more 2/1’s for 2 than 0/4’s for 1.

Or at least, that’s how it looks.

With the pre-release this weekend, I’m interested to see how the sealed and draft experience plays out. I’ll be judging for the first half of the Seattle pre-release (which is opening up around 6 in the morning!), but I’ll be eager to jump into drafts afterward and see which Worldwake cards play better than they seem, and vice versa. I’d love to hear your comments either on the forums or via e-mail about how your pre-release went and if you still feel Zendikar Limited has a heavy aggro emphasis. Hopefully we can get some good discourse going.

Lastly, after about a year of appearing on Thursdays, next week Flow of Ideas will be moving to Mondays for the time being. I figured I’d let you guys know so you don’t accidently miss the next column on Monday. I look forward to seeing you then.

Until Monday, see you in the forums! Have a good pre-release!

Gavin Verhey
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else