So Many Insane Plays – Zendikar: A Vintage Set Review

SCG 10K Philadelphia... the first major event featuring Zendikar!
Monday, September 28th – Zendikar is finally here, and it looks like a fantastic set for Magic’s oldest format. Stephen Menendian runs down the essential cards that every Vintage fan should own… and who knows, maybe your Zendikar pack will contain a Black Lotus!

Zendikar has a significant number of Vintage playables. Let’s get to it.

Brave the Elements

I was intrigued by this card, mostly because of its sheer efficiency. I tried to read through every single “W” casting cost card in Magic, but there were a lot more than I thought there’d be. I’ve read through every “U” and “B” and “1” casting cost spell many times. There are a number of interesting “W” casting cost cards that lurk below the radar, like Angel’s Grace, Children of Korlis, and Mana Tithe. The closest card I could find to this was Divine Light, and this is better, primarily because it can be used offensively. I don’t think this card is Vintage playable, but I am wondering if any of you can find the closest analog.

Iona, Shield of Emeria

This is not the savior of Oath. That said, it is playable in Oath, and might even be an upgrade.

The fundamental structural limitation on Oath is finding, resolving, and triggering Oath of Druids. Nothing in the card pool has changed that fundamental limitation in some time. In fact, the restriction of Brainstorm has only made that constraint more limiting. However, within that constraint, Oath has evolved.

Perhaps the most important evolutionary leap in Oath was Meandeck Oath, which ran Akroma and Spirit of the Night, shortly after the printing of Forbidden Orchard. Competing Oath variants ran Darksteel Colossus. What they failed to recognize was that Akroma and Spirit produced 19 damage in two turns, an effective two-turn clock. Darksteel Colossus was a full turn slower. Since then, the improvements, with one exception, have been marginal. Spirit of the Night was replaced. Then Hellkite Overlord arrived, giving the deck an actual 20+ point kill in two turns.

However, last February, Tyrant Oath attempted a different angle. Rather than kill with the duo of large, hasty creatures, Tidespout Tyrant gave Oath an increased chance to win in one turn, rather than two. And if that was unsuccessful, wining on turn 2 was practically guaranteed. However, the Gushbond engine was restricted, and that deck went away.

This creature presents the possibility of winning by virtue of locking up the game the turn you Oath. The problem, however, is that it is legendary. If you could Oath up one, you would shut the door on your opponent. With the second one, you’d slam that door shut and throw the deadbolt. However, since its Legendary, you have to pair it with at least one other creature. I acknowledge that you can just run two and decide not to Oath up the second, but that would mean that your kill takes three turns. That isn’t fast enough to beat lots of decks from TPS to Ichorid. I can’t imagine running this as a two-of. That means that at least half of the time, you’ll be Oathing up something else. For that reason, I do not see this as strictly better than existing options. It’s playable, no doubt. It’s pretty good, that is fairly evident. However, is it the best option available? I think that question will only be known on an empirical basis, as this card is tested in the field. Most Vintage decks run multiple colors, and that could pose a fundamental problem for this card. In fact, if this card were good enough, it would almost certainly lead other decks to run tertiary color answers.

Kor Skyfisher

With a Mox, this card is a one-mana 2/3. It could also work with cards that have the enters-the-battlefield ability of Silvergil Adept or even Sage of Epityr. If this card has enough synergies, I could see it being playable. The reason it won’t be played, though, is because a two-power creature for one just isn’t good enough in Vintage anymore. If it was a 3/4, it would be another story. Creatures that don’t have utility bonuses or are highly disruptive do not see play in Vintage unless they are Tinker targets, or cards like Tarmogoyf, Psychatog, or Master of Etherium: very large and extremely efficient.

Steppe Lynx

Now this guy, on the other hand, is large enough for the mana cost to see play in Vintage. Turn 1 this guy, turn 2 Fetchland and break it for another land means that this guy is 4/5 on turn 2. If you can do the same thing for the next couple of turns, you should have no trouble winning. This card illustrates how powerful the landfall mechanic can be in Eternal formats. However, I’m most interested in this card in Legacy, where I think it could be a huge beating, now that you can run sixteen fetchlands! Not to mention cards like Ghost Quarter. He’s Vintage playable, but he’ll probably just see play in Legacy instead.

Archive Trap

I love the Traps. I believe that Magic has far more design space that has been acknowledged, and conditional effects like this could be utilized far more than they currently are. Seedtime and cards like that have opened the door, but Wizards hasn’t really played with it in the way that I think that they could, until now. This card is functionally free. In Vintage, the average player probably searches their library for a card more times than they have turns. Whether it is a fetchland or a tutor like Mystical Tutor or Tinker, there are plenty of ways to trigger this card.

The problem is that 13 cards is just not enough to do anything. You won’t get nearly close enough to deck them, even if you pair it with Brain Freeze (which may be the only application). It’s a good thing that you can’t use this card on your own library, or it might actually be decent. I suppose this card is borderline playable, since it’s functionally free, but I don’t see a practical application at this time, even against Oath. I’d rather play Extract.

But if it has a home, perhaps it’s in this:

Archmage Ascension

This card is cheap enough to see play in Vintage, but my impression is that it’s simply too slow, and not powerful enough. First of all, triggering this card requires use of other good cards that are mostly restricted, or inefficiently using cards like Sensei’s Divining Top. Dark Confidant, for example, doesn’t work. Then, it takes three separate triggers, which will likely take more than three of your turns, before it even does anything. If you are drawing two cards a turn for three turns, I don’t think this card is even necessary. You’ve manipulated your library enough that you won’t need to tutor on every draw step. I don’t think it’s good enough to see play in Vintage.

Cosi’s Trickster

Another very annoying Merfolk for Legacy Merfolk decks. Ugh.

Into the Roil

Another Blue bounce spell, but a possible cantrip as well. Reminiscent of Repeal, but not as good of a card. Notable, but likely won’t see play.

Ior Ruin Expedition

First of all, this card, at it’s best, is a 1U Blue spell that draws two cards without having to discard anything in exchange. If there were such a card, it would be heavily played throughout the format, and possibly restricted. The question is: do the conditional elements of this card make it unplayable? Supposing that this comes into play on turn 1 off a Mox and a land, the card advantage won’t kick in, at the earliest, until turn 3. That’s a problem. First, waiting two turns to draw a card makes this just worse than Night’s Whisper. Second, in worst case scenarios, you don’t draw fetchlands, or you do but you don’t see another land, it could be even longer before this thing can be sacrificed for cards. That limits this card’s general utility. That said, it could be played in specialized decks like Turboland variants in Vintage or Legacy. Decks using Exploration or Fastbond could try to fuel themselves using this as a draw engine.

Mindbreak Trap

This card’s potential Vintage application has generated quite a bit of discussion. Before I give my analysis, two caveats:

1) I have not yet tested the trap. Testing always reveals things that a careful abstract analysis will miss.

2) The card appears to be very powerful. It’s a free counterspell with a bonus on top. That doesn’t mean it’s playable or will see play.

As an initial matter let me get it out of the way: this card is playable in Vintage. Cost: for all practical uses, this card has no mana cost. It’s far more conditional than Force of Will, but not, perhaps as conditional as other analogs such as Pact of Negation, Disrupting Shoal, or Misdirection.

The fact that it removes the spells from game is also no small matter. Removing certain win conditions can result in a win in itself, or greatly advance the cause. The conditionality is real, but it is also true that Vintage pilots often play multiple spells per turn. Because of the cost and the effect, it is playable in Vintage. That is, it is efficient enough to see play, and the conditionality, while real, is not an obstacle to playability. I would say that the degree of use will turn on the degree of conditionality of the effect. This is the X factor.

I have never counted which percentage of the time 1, 2, 3 or more spells are played on average per turn. I can only speculate. But even if the percentage of the time in which an opponent plays 3 spells or more is not very high, the importance of those spell heavy turns could still make the Trap powerful enough to play. For example, suppose Tezzeret wins (or functionally wins) by turn 5 on average. It might be the case that Tezzeret only plays 3 spells in one of those 5 turns, that might still make Trap powerful enough to play. However, if Tezzeret plays 3 or more spells in 2 or 3 of its first five turns, on average, then Trap would become even more powerful.

In terms of spells per turn, the fast storm decks invariably play multiple spells per turn. Decks like Belcher or TPS are obviously good targets for this effect. Whether this effect is better than more direct hosers like Arcane Lab or Mystic Remora remains to be seen. But it’s still good against it. The real question is how effective it will be against Mana Drain decks.

For decks that aren’t built around blue restricted cards, the hardest openings to fight are those that play multiple spells per turn. So, while on average Mana Drain decks might not play 3 or more spells per turn, it could still be the case that this card is good enough to run because it helps guard against the hands where the ‘fairer’ deck is most likely to lose. That is, it could stop something like this:

Mox, Sol Ring, Island, Tinker.

The real question is: what percentage of the time will an opponent play 3 spells per turn, particularly with knowledge that Trap might be present?

Even Stax decks sometimes play three or more spells per turn:

Mox Ruby, Mana Crypt, Goblin Welder, Land, Sphere of Resistance.

Thus, this could be used against a broad range of decks.

The problems with the card are:

1) The conditional nature of the card. For all of the games in which you can counter a key 3rd spells, there will be other times where your opponent only plays two spells:

Orchard, Mox, Oath


Mana Crypt, Island, Tinker


Dark Ritual, Necropotence


Mox, Mishra’s Workshop, Smokestack

2) Often, the opponent pilot can play the critical spells before this card could be used. Thus, they would hold back on playing additional Moxen, knowing they might face a trap. As we all know, traps are most effective when players walk into them. If opponents anticipate a trap, they will be less likely to walk into it.

3) Even if this is playable against a broad enough range of matchups, the opportunity cost of the card may be too high. So, even if it’s playable against every deck in the format, there is still the problem of having a dead card in hand until that particular turn.

4) As a SB hoser, it’s not clear at all that this is better than many alternative cards, such as Lab or whatnot.

What it does have going for it:

1) It can go into any deck.

2) It can be used on an opponent’s first turn, and can thus stop plays that would otherwise win the game, and thus win games that would otherwise be lost.

3) In addition to stopping plays that are otherwise unstoppable, it also stops particular cards that are difficult to stop, such as Mind’s Desire or Tendrils of Agony.

4) I suspect that most decks meet the condition at least once per game, most of the time.

As Paul Mastriano observed, this card is like a reverse Pact of Negation. 90% of the time Pact is only good on offensive moves for counter-backup. The Trap is 90% of the time only good for defensive plays to prevent the opponent from making a strong move. The exception would be a deck built around playing spells on the opponent’s turn. It only requires that an opponent plays two spells, like a Mox and Bob, for you to use this like a Force of Will, to protect Intuition, say. That’s potentially one very interesting avenue of design.

I would just note that this card would have been even more powerful in eras past. For example, this card would have been amazing in the Gush era, where Gush-based deck played many spells per turn, Flash was roaming around, and Ichorid was also played. It wouldn’t have been so good against the Workshop decks, which were quite good at the time, but it wouldn’t have been dead either. It would also have been excellent in the Gifts era, where Gifts Ungiven decks could find their win conditions removed from game! Removing cards against Slaver is also significant. Still, better late than never.

Spell Pierce

This card is clearly Vintage playable. It’s almost certainly going to see play, and probably more than marginal play.

First of all, everyone knows that creatures are the least important spell in Vintage. The fact that this card can’t counter creatures can be almost entirely ignored.

The effect is closest to Miscalculation. It’s not promising that Miscalculation sees no play in Vintage. Miscalculation is inferior to Mana Leak, among others. The primary reason Miscalculation sees no play is primarily because it’s crowded out by superior options at that mana cost. However, effect must always be measured against cost.

The “U” casting cost can hardly be beat. That said, Force Spike sees no play in Vintage. The primary problem with Force Spike is that it is too easy to pay off. With Moxen hanging around, too much of the time you have a free mana to pay off Force Spike. That said, Force Spike effects have seen play in Vintage and see play currently, like Cursecatcher and Daze, when combined with other mana denial effects, like Null Rod and Wasteland.

While Force Spike can be paid for an unacceptable amount of the time (unless combined with other cards), this card cannot be paid for that frequently. In the first 4-5 turns, your opponent’s will not have two free mana to play around this the vast majority of the time. In other words, the difference between Force Spike and this card is enormous.

For that reason, this card is not only playable in Vintage, it’s likely to be very good. In fact, it almost reminds me of a Blue Duress. Duress is a card that is most powerful in the early game, and declines in power as the game progresses.

Because the card’s primary vulnerability is creatures, I suspect that this card is going to be gangbusters in any deck that runs 4 Dark Confidant and some number of Goyfs. You will care much less about opposing Goyfs if you have Goyfs of your own. But, besides, its threats like those that make the tempo of this card so unreal. Consider: on turn 2 you can play a Goyf or a Bob off a Mox and a land, and then tap your second land to Spell Pierce their Force or their Drain. This card will likely be auto-inclusion in BUG Fish and my Grow list.

The question, in my mind, is whether it will have broader usage than Fish decks and other Aggro-Control decks. I think chances are good, although it’s far from a certainty. For example, this card may be good enough in a hybrid UB Storm deck. It may also be good enough as a two-of in Drain decks that want a couple of blue counters, perhaps instead of Duresses.

This card is very good. It’s awesome to see Wizards exploring new ways to print conditional U mana counterspells. The conditionality clearly affects the formats differently. Spell Snare and Force Spike are too conditional for Vintage, but this card’s conditionality — the fact that it can’t counter creatures — is negligible in Vintage, even though it makes it much worse in other formats.

Sphinx of the Lost Truths

As has been pointed out repeatedly, this card replaces Cephalid Sage in Dredge decks that run Sage. It’s much better. Vintage playable.

Trapmaker’s Snare

After reading through all of the traps, I don’t think this card is good enough for Vintage for two reasons. First, there are really only two traps that I think are good enough to see play in Vintage. A third might be marginal. Second, and this is the more important reason, the best use of the traps might be in decks that either won’t have or won’t have available 1U to play this to tutor them up. Another reason this isn’t playable in Vintage is that the traps are simply too narrow to justify running a tutor and consuming a deck spot.


Vintage playable. I don’t think it’s better than Ichorid, although that is debatable. It’s very similar to Ichorid. Both cards aren’t going to come into play until turn two at the earliest. Ichorid has the advantage of being able to attack immediately, and is slightly larger. However, with a Fetchland, you might be able to get two bites out of this card on turn two. The downside is that Dredge decks tend not to have that many lands. It’s possible that a Dredge deck in Vintage might never be able to get this guy into play! I think it will see play, though. There are enough Dredge decks that run sufficient lands that this guy will be featured in Vintage dredge decks. I’m sure Matt Elias will provide further insights on this card’s potential applicability in Vintage Dredge.

Gatekeeper of Malakir

This card is interesting because it can take out a Darksteel Colossus or an Inkwell Leviathan. Unfortunately, the card’s cost is too intense for general use by 2-3 color beats of Fish decks in Vintage. However, it might have niche use. It’s a maybe.

Grim Discovery

I don’t see this card as any better than Nature’s Spiral, which has seen no Vintage play. I think this card is unplayable in Vintage.

Ravenous Trap

Clearly Vintage playable.

I had wrongly predicted that Faerie Macabre would be a top card from Shadowmoor because of both Flash and Dredge. Faerie Macabre ended up seeing little play. However, the restriction of Flash only a month later definitely contributed to its lack of play. This card is better because it takes out your opponent’s entire graveyard and removes it from game.

This card joins the litany of anti-dredge cards; Leyline of the Void, Yixlid Jailer, Tormod’s Crypt, Extirpate, etc., and now Ravenous Trap. It’s also notable because unlike half of those cards, this card can be played in any deck. It’s probably the best anti-Dredge card in GW Beats, for example. A nice addition to Vintage.

Sadistic Sacrament

A more powerful, but more difficult to cast, Bitter Ordeal. Ultimately, I think this is an improvement. This is a tool for Dark Ritual decks to fight UB decks of all stripes. It may even be a sideboard tool for TPS-type decks to fight non-Dark Confidant based Tezzeret decks, by stripping out Time Vault, Tezzeret and Inkwell Leviathan. This card is Vintage playable, although I think the chances it will see play are better than Bitter Ordeals. It may also be playable in a Suicide Black type hate deck.

Vampire Hexmage

This card combos with Dark Depths for both hilarious and possibly broken results. I honestly think this card has potential in Eternal formats on account of that combo. Granted, Dark Depths has vulnerabilities (Repeal, Chain of Vapor), but not that many, and it only needs to hang around one turn to win. Add Dark Confidant to the mix for a draw engine and Duresses for disruption you have the start of a deck, perhaps a much improved Suicide Black budget deck (just think, you can run Consult too!). Something I’ll put some thought into in the near future.

Goblin Guide

Some are saying that this is the best R drop ever. I still think that distinction resides with Goblin Lackey. Still, this card is beefy. And it’s ‘drawback’ is probably more of an advantage (as most have gathered) by informing you of your opponent’s hand contents. Yes, having haste is amazing, but Goblin Lackey can drop Siege-Gang Commander or Goblin Ringleader onto the table on turn 2, and those plays are uncounterable by conventional means. That said, I’m skeptical that this guy — even with haste — is good enough by himself. A two-power one-drop creature with haste does nothing to stop the opponent from winning first. Look at my Beats decks and you’ll see my philosophy on Vintage beats decks, which I believe are viable. They just need to be very disruptive. Speed doesn’t matter that much.

Goblin Ruinblaster

This guy’s casting cost is a little bit prohibitive, but with Lackey or Goblin Warchief to power him out, he could be decent. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can kick a creature that comes into play with Lackey (or Vial). Otherwise, this card could be a decent tempo creature (it has Haste too!).

Warren Instigator

People have been down on this card, but I’m still very impressed. He gets two hits in, which means two possible Ringleaders on turn three! I don’t see how this guy isn’t good enough. Still, Goblins is incredibly fringe in Vintage.

Lotus Cobra

This is not Vintage playable. Say you are playing a Beats deck with this creature. You play this guy on turn 2, and he resolves. On turn 3, you can then play two creatures, thanks to this guy. However, the opportunity cost is that you’ve lost the ability to play a crucial disruptive spell on turn 2, like Gaddock Teeg or Qasali Pridemage. I just don’t see it.

If this card cost “G” it might be Vintage playable. Then again, it might not be.

Summoning Trap

This card is interesting. If this card is to be used, it almost certainly will not be in a green deck. One could imagine playing a Goblins deck where a Goblin is countered and you use this card to power out a Ringleader (although, probably in a Legacy match). I think it’s borderline playable in Vintage, and definitely playable in Legacy. It’s unlikely that it will see play in Vintage, but it’s powerful enough to be there.

Expedition Map

Spending three mana to Demonic Tutor for a land is not a good deal. I don’t see this card being used in Vintage.

Enemy Fetchlands

These are a tremendously important addition to Vintage. I extensively discussed their application two weeks ago. They will see play for the foreseeable future, which could span decades. Get them now.

So, where does that leave us?

Here is your Vintage checklist for Zendikar:

4 Misty Rainforest
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Marsh Flats
4 Arid Mesa
4 Spell Pierce
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
1 Sphinx of Lost Truths
4 Mindbreak Trap
4 Ravenous Trap
4 Bloodghast

And if you haven’t spent your whole budget, pick up 4 Sadistic Sacrament as well. I know this may seem like a big list of cards for the average Vintage player, but most of these cards are investments in the future that will be well worth it.

Also, apparently, Wizards has decided to drop some Vintage gems into packs as “priceless treasure.” What does that mean? That means you might crack some Zendikar packs and open a Mox Jet or a Black Lotus. That is pretty exciting for Vintage players. It’s the first time you had a chance to open a Black Lotus since Unlimited, over 15 years ago. Enjoy the best Vintage set since Future Sight.

Until next week…

Stephen Menendian