I had high hopes for Zendikar at the prerelease, and they panned out remarkably. I can’t remember being this excited for a Limited format in a long time. Zendikar has a lot of really interesting archetypes and dynamics, and between the different themes pushed in the set, solid fixing and acceleration, and aggressive creatures, there are a lot of ways you can take your deck. Not all of them are worth exploring though, and misevaluating the strength of your archetype can lead to disastrous results.
The first thing you have to understand about Zendikar Limited is that it is a fast format. Sealed is fairly fast, albeit a little slower due to the nature of Sealed, and draft can be blazingly quick sometimes. There are several reasons for this, but there are three main ones.
First off, the creatures in Zendikar are not only aggressive, but aggressively costed. There are a bevy of highly playable 2/1’s and 2/2’s for two, which give decks a strong low curve. Furthermore, several of these creatures — Surrakar Marauder, Welkin Turn, Goblin Shortcutter, and so on — have evasion or help to get other creatures through. Creatures higher up on the curve that do have evasion, such as Windrider Eel, are also all very good. Life totals can drop quickly, and missing creatures early on in the curve can be fatal.
Second, the nature of the landfall mechanic encourages players to send their creatures into battle every turn. Cards like Plated Geopede and Windrider Eel make for great attackers, but are extremely poor on defense. As a result, each player sends with their creatures every turn, and the game quickly falls into a race.
Finally, the spells are very good at pushing damage through. Cards like Spire Barrage, Burst Lightning, Vines of Vastwood, and Unstable Footing can create a lot of damage. Furthermore, the average toughness of playable creatures seems to fall into the two-ish range, making a “Shock” effect like Disfigure very, very good, because it will usually kill what you need it to kill. Since spells that deal with two-toughness creatures are so cheap, they reward you for having a low curve and being able to Disfigure something and still play another creature.
With all of that said, you might be wondering if there’s the possibility for any kind of long game-oriented controlling strategy. The answer is certainly yes, but you need to have a substantial Plan B. I am a big fan of Kraken Hatchling and Makindi Shieldmate for soaking up damage and reaching the endgame, not to mention Ondu Cleric for keeping a quick onslaught manageable (As an aside, I feel the Cleric is one of the most underrated cards in the set — it reminds me significantly of Judge of Currents), but if your opponent has a lot of evasion creatures (not an uncommon occurrence, as mentioned above) it can still make winning the game very difficult for you. As a result, I like my control decks to still have a fairly aggressive sub-strategy, ideally an evasive one, but guys on the ground can be passable as well. The thing about playing with aggressive creatures in your control deck is that they can either attack and move you toward winning, or just trade off with your opponent’s incoming attackers. Either way, they are beneficial for you.
Because of Zendikar’s beatdown-based nature and interesting land theme, it creates an interesting tension in the gameplay. You want to be hitting all of your land drops, so your bigger spells will likely be able to be cast at some point, yet you want to be able to play creatures in the first few turns. All of this is compounded by the lack of card drawing. What often ends up happening is that there is an initial creature barrage, and then some fat creature — a Territorial Baloth, or something — ends up coming down and cleaning up whatever’s left. However, even the large creatures seem aggressively costed, so you can certainly build your deck to fit more on the top end if you have ways to get there a turn earlier, such as Harrow or to buy time early, such as the Makindi Shieldmate. By far the best way to buy time, though, is the innocent looking Grazing Gladeheart.
Grazing Gladeheart is a card everybody initially underrates. A Gray Ogre than gives you a few life on average. “Yeah, sure, I guess he’s alright,” is often the evaluation. However, after playing with him and against him several times now, the dreaded antelope is absurd, and I would pick him fairly highly. In fact, I would not be surprised if I ended up first picking him in pack 2 or 3 if I’m in Green. During the course of a game, this abnormally friendly antelope can easily gain you 10+ life. In a format all about racing or surviving until you can unload your fat creatures, the perpetual lifegain is phenomenal. He’s even attached to a fair body which fits into the curve and can help provide some pressure. He is definitely worth a removal spell, and I would never cut him from one of my decks. Not to mention, he’s just idiotic in multiples. Keep your eye out for this one. In draft, you’re probably going to be able to snatch them up later than they should be going for the first few weeks.
On the other hand, a cycle of cards which are being taken far too highly and are very overrated is the Expedition cycle. The only one I’m happy to play is the Black one, although the Green and Blue ones can make the cut depending on your deck. At first, the Green and Blue ones were very exciting to me. After playing with them, I quickly found that they had numerous problems. First of all, playing an expedition on turn 2 means you’re not playing a creature on turn 2. If your opponent plays a creature and you match them with an Expedition, you’re letting them initiate the tempo of the game. More problematically, there is no guarantee that they’ll do anything to affect your board when you start falling behind.
The problem with Khalni Heart Expedition is that if you don’t have lands, it’s not going to help you find them. Unlike a Rampant Growth or Harrow, the Expedition is only going to ramp you at the point in the game in which ramping is less consequential. While yes, I’ve had the turn 2 Khalni Heart Expedition turn 3 Harrow play multiple times now, it doesn’t really speed you up otherwise. Really though, my biggest problem is it doesn’t function like a land. In many decks, I feel like a land is just better. Khalni Heart Expedition won’t pull you out of mana screw, and I feel like that’s what my ramp cards need to be doing.
Ior Ruin Expedition is one of the few ways to draw cards in the set, but even then I have been thoroughly unimpressed by it. On turn 2, sure, it’s fine. But even on turn 4, it takes so long before you finally get to draw your two cards that it’s seldom even worth it. And that problem harkens into the primary problem with the expeditions: they often take three turns to do anything. While you often sandbag a couple lands in this format so that your landfall triggers work, even if you have the three lands in your hand, the prospect of waiting three turns and just playing lands to ramp up your Expedition when you need to draw gas is infuriatingly weak. I would rather just have another spell in place of the Expedition.
Like I said earlier, the one exception is Soul Stair Expedition, and the reasons are twofold. First of all, it costs one mana as opposed to two, so you seldom have to choose between messing with your curve or playing an Expedition. You can just lay it when you have a mana floating around and let it start building up counters. Second, it’s just more powerful. Unlike Ior Ruin Expedition, where on average you will probably draw a land and a spell, Soul Stair Expedition brings back two worthwhile creatures. In a format full of aggressive creatures that trade off, a Soul Stair activation can be game swinging.
By far, the most highly debated card in the set is Explorer’s Scope. The opinions on this card range from unplayable to a high pick. I feel it’s somewhere in the middle, but I’m really not sure on this card yet. The problem is that it’s so swingy. If you hit twice early on it’s absurd, but all too often you will pay two mana and essentially discard a card because it doesn’t do anything. One argument is that if you keep seeing spells, then you’re probably ahead anyway because you continually have spells on top. My problem is that you can’t always be sending your guys into the fray (although the format is certainly aggressive), and that just because you keep seeing spells doesn’t mean they’re necessarily what you’re looking for at that point in the game. However, the games where you hit every other time, which seems about average, make the Scope out to be alright. I’m interested to play more with this card and see what other people have to say. Let me know in the forums what your experiences with this card have been.
While I feel no color is undraftable or particularly shallow in this format, and that any color pairing can be successful, there are also archetypes layered beneath the color pairs. I think three such archetypes to keep in mind are the Ally deck, the Kor deck, and the Mono-Red deck. (As a side note, surprisingly, I haven’t really seen the vampire deck be successful. A lot of the cards you really want seem to be uncommon, although I’m sure the deck is fine if enough of the good uncommons are passed around.)
The Ally deck is very good if it comes together. There are many variations and I’m not sure which is best yet, but playing Oran-Reif Survivalist into another ally creature (preferably Umara Raptor) is definitely one way to go. Another way is more midrange to long game, with allies like Hagra Diabolist, Murasa Pyromancer, and Ondu Cleric. I will reiterate again that I feel the Cleric is one of the most underrated cards right now, and until people catch onto him he will be a card that will loop around the table and you can really take advantage of it. I would try and draft an Ally-based deck at least once if you can so you can see how it works out — and how strong it can be.
The Kor deck is a White Weenie deck with a lot of the common equipments that go around late. You pick up all of the aggressive two-mana Kor, and cards like Steppe Lynx. That’s really all there is to it. It’s a solid archetype with quick starts that beat up on anybody who stumbles. Cards like Kor Outfitter come around late, and they can even make cards like Spidersilk Net playable. A turn 2 2/4 is both great for attaching next turn, as well as making sure they can’t attack you. (Credit to that one goes to Bill Stark.)
Finally, the Mono-Red deck picks up all of the Spire Barrages and Unstable Footings that it sees, and then has plenty of aggressive cards like Plated Geopede, Tuktuk Grunts, Scatterskull Giant, Molten Ravager, Ruinous Minotaur, and so on. You can even play Zektar Shrine Expedition — a card I would normally never play — in this deck. You just get in some damage, and then burn them out with all of the Unstable Footings that undoubtedly looped around. This deck can be absurd if your draft table allows it to be, so keep your eyes open to see if the Unstable Footing in your pack comes back around ninth — it may be time to move in.
The format is looking to be a pretty interesting one, and the Sealed PTQs excite me a lot more than the Shards ones did. Bombs seem to have less of an impact overall because of how aggressive decks can be, which is something I’m really happy about. In addition to everything I’ve found, I’m sure you have your own thoughts on the forum. Post in the forums or send me an e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com and let me know what you think. Talk to you soon!
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else