Zendikar is finally officially upon us! While most of my Magic playing and thinking time lately has been taken up with Extended in preparation for the upcoming Pro Tour: Austin, I did find the time to pick up a case of Zendikar and get some drafts under my belt. I thought the format seemed exciting at the prerelease, and I’m happy to say that my drafting experience has backed up that first impression. While I’m sure my thoughts will shift as that case dwindles through drafts at the house we’re renting for the week in Austin leading up to the Pro Tour, these are my current impressions of the format.
I’m not going to offer “pick orders,” because I think evaluating cards purely on a numerical scale isn’t terribly useful for actual drafting. It’s more important to understand the general value of cards and their synergies so you can draft an effective deck than it is to consider in a vacuum whether one card is superior to another. Sure, pick orders can help guide your initial picks, but once you get even halfway through pack 1, you may be better off making a different pick than a numbered list would suggest based on the needs of your deck.
With that in mind…
White is one of my favorite colors in Zendikar out of the gates. Zendikar White is in the fairly position of having the most efficient removal spell in the format in Journey to Nowhere. It also has a number of efficient creatures in Cliff Threader, Kor Outfitter, and Kor Skyfisher, the latter of which has a “drawback” that is often a bonus in the world of landfall. While the Outfitter’s ability is rarely relevant, both it and the Cliff Threader are two-power bodies for two mana, which are important in the speedy Zendikar draft format, both offensively and defensively. Kor Hookmaster is another card that provides excellent tempo on either side of the ball, letting you stave off a few points of damage by keeping an attacker pinned down or push through some extra damage yourself, and more often than not both.
All of those are fairly obvious at first glance, but White has some sleepers as well. In the equipment and quest heavy format that Zendikar seems to be, Kor Sanctifiers is simply fantastic. I was playing a draft game against Paul Rietzl over the weekend with my fast B/R Vampire deck against his controlling U/W deck, and in the second game he demolished me with Devout Lightcaster and Kor Sanctifiers back-to-back. There are a lot of powerful artifacts and enchantments in the format, as well as a lot of 2/2s for two, so a 2/3 body that can Disenchant something on its way into play is a powerful card. Combine it with Kor Skyfisher for Flametongue Kavu/Arctic Merfolk style shenanigans and it doesn’t seem fair at all.
That sort of interaction is why I’m a fan of my next sleeper choice. Narrow Escape, at first glance, doesn’t seem terribly impressive, since it seems like it’s just a three-mana Rescue in a world without damage on the stack. It’s a very versatile card, however, letting you double up on enters-the-battlefield triggers, whether they be Kor Sanctifiers, Allies, non-basic lands, or just Landfall, along with the obvious applications of saving a creature from removal if you have the opportunity. On top of that, however, it’s important to note that the lifegain aspect of the card may be more relevant in this format than in any other thanks to the “bloodied” abilities on many of the Vampire cards. Your opponent has finally gotten you down to 10 and turned on his army of Grul Draz Vampires to swing past your team with Fear (okay, Intimidate, but in this case it’s basically Fear)? Narrow Escape something before blockers and suddenly you can block and kill the now 1/1 Vampires. Now that’s a trick!
Blue in Zendikar feels pretty straightforward to me so far. Most of the cards have been about as good as I’ve expected them to be. I think it’s fairly clear that Windrider Eel, Into the Roil, and Umara Raptor are the best Blue commons in the set. Reckless Scholar is solid, since card selection is always good, but between the speed of the format and the value of excess land due to Landfall, it’s not as good as it has been in previous blocks (and certainly not nearly as good as Merfolk Looter is in M10!). Welkin Tern is a great aggressive creature, especially if you can get your hands on some strong equipment like Trusty Machete.
Paralyzing Grasp is decent but not amazing. It’s certainly better than Entangling Vines in M10, both because it’s cheaper and because you can put it on an untapped creature preemptively. It is fodder for Kor Sanctifiers or Kor Skyfisher, along with the other good enchantment removal in the set though, so I certainly wouldn’t suggest relying on it exclusively for creature control. The other enchantment Blue has to offer is Ior Ruin Expedition. I’m not a huge fan of the quests in general because of their high variance — they’re great in the opening hand and usually pretty bad at other times — but Ior Ruin Expedition is the one I like the most because it’s the least conditional. There’s basically no time that drawing cards isn’t something you want to do, unlike the Black expedition (my next favorite), which requires two good creatures in the graveyard to maximize.
In my experience so far, Blue has seemed best paired with White. White’s low curve allows for a deck that can make the most of Whiplash Trap, which is a card that I have had mixed experiences with. It has been rare that I have never had the chance to play it for the trap cost, which makes it much better in an aggressive deck that can take immediate advantage of the Undo effect to continue to apply pressure. In slower decks, however, Whiplash Trap has performed very poorly for me. It’s a card that I want to be playing with Welkin Terns and Kor Skyfishers in my deck, not Sky Ruin Drakes.
Black is pulled in two distinct directions by its commons in Zendikar. There are the aggressive vampires that support the “bloodied” theme that wants to push your opponent’s life total down quickly and the more controlling attrition cards that give you incremental advantages as you draw the game out. Regardless of which direction you go, your best cards are the same — Disfigure and Hideous End. It’s not clear to me upfront which of these is better, but my gut tells me it’s Hideous End. The single mana cost on Disfigure has huge tempo implications, but the fact that Hideous End can remove big creatures means it can answer otherwise unbeatable rares like Rampaging Baloths.
One of the best decks I’ve had in the format so far was a focused aggressive B/R beatdown deck. It had two copies of Gruz Draz Vampire, Blood Seeker, and Vampire Lacerator, so it was heavily invested in getting the opponent down to 10 or less life. Combined with many of the more aggressive Red cards, like Goblin Shortcutter and Ruinous Minotaur, the deck could put a ton of pressure on very quickly to turn on the “bloodied” cards. Once the opponent’s life total got to 10, the Grul Draz Vampires become huge threats. It’s interesting how the 10 life mechanic makes cards that would be chaff in other formats, like Blood Seeker, into serious contenders in Zendikar.
The other side of the Black cards is the controlling attrition deck built around slowing the opponent down and grinding them out with removal and card advantage. It’s a deck like this that makes the best use of the Soul Stair Expedition quest — having slow cards that don’t impact the board just doesn’t work if you’re trying to rush your opponent down to 10 life. Giant Scorpion helps hold the ground, while the kicker Mosquito takes to the air and takes your opponent’s creatures with it. I’ve found that B/G makes for the best control pairing to give you some amount of mana acceleration, fat creatures to dominate the board, and perhaps most importantly Glazing Gladehart. But I’ll get to him soon enough!
Red in Zendikar has some excellent aggressive cards and some seemingly beatdown oriented cards with interesting defensive applications. The obvious best Red common is Burst Lightning, which is actually even better than it appears at first. Being able to double as Shock and Lightning Blast is huge, because the card can provide excellent tempo in the early game, take out a big creature in the midgame, or just go to the face to finish your opponent off. With all that going for it, it’s possible it’s the best Limited common in the set, and it fits equally well in beatdown or control decks.
The beatdown brigade gets a major threat in Plated Gigapede, who can do a ton of damage early on and is very difficult to block. Magma Rift is a removal spell that I’ve found is much better in beatdown decks that don’t need to build up to bigger creatures — I’ve just fired it off on turn 4 in B/R aggro to clear the way for my vampires. Goblin Shortcutter helps punch through extra damage in the mid game while also providing a respectable 2/1 body early on — pretty much everything you can ask for from a two-mana creature.
As for control cards, I’ve found the new Storm Shaman to be surprisingly effective. An 0/4 body for 3 is very wall-like, but he can start attacking for scary amounts of damage once you’re able to stabilize the board, along with threatening to take out attackers if you leave mana up. Torch Slinger is obviously good, providing card advantage with a body attached. The card I found somewhat surprising was Zektar Shrine Expedition. When I first saw Billy Moreno playing with it in a relatively slow G/R deck, I was somewhat confused, but when he used it on his opponent’s turn to make a 7/1 token to block I wised up to how effective it could be. The next time I tried it for myself, I was far behind on the board to a powerful ally deck, but was able to pop the Expedition and copy the token with Rite of Replication to force my opponent to chump with half of his team. My fliers mopped up soon after. Don’t underestimate this seemingly weak quest — it has a lot more going on than it seems at first.
Green is the color that I feel has the biggest split between picks based on the kind of deck you’re drafting. While the removal spells are pretty much always the best cards regardless of strategy in the other colors, Green doesn’t have the luxury of Journey to Nowhere or Burst Lightning to make your picks easy for you. A lot of people are big fans of Vines of Vastwood, and while I agree that it’s a very powerful card, I think that the mere existence of the card at common should make it far worse than it would be at a higher rarity. I know I’m much more likely to play removal on my own turn to avoid getting blown out by a kicked Vines, so the “counter their removal and hit them for 4 more” scenarios that people tout as making Vines so good really shouldn’t come up much against good players. I still think it’s the best Green common for aggressive decks, because both effects provide excellent tempo, but I don’t think it’s the best common overall.
My love for Kor Sanctifiers might lead you to believe that I’d be high on Mold Shambler, and I do think the Shambler is an excellent card, but the 1G kicker is a lot more than the W kicker on the Sanctifiers. One of the big pluses of the Sanctifiers is that you can kick them to remove most Expeditions before they get counters, or take out equipment before it has a chance to have a major impact on the game. Mold Shambler is great at killing late game Journey to Nowheres, but six is a lot more mana than four, and waiting two turns to kick the Shambler can wreck havoc on your curve. Yes, Mold Shambler can hit lands too, which can be nice against a Living Tsunami recurring a comes-into-the-battlefield effect land or a Valukat, but I’ll take the mana discount over a corner case like that any day. Kor Sanctifiers the Shambler is not.
No, I think the best Green common for anything but the most aggressive decks is the unassuming Grazing Gladehart. What controlling Green decks need is time, and Landfall: Gain two life is pretty much the best way to get exactly that. It keeps you out of “bloodied” range, helps race evasion creatures, and just generally makes it very difficult to lose a race. If your opponent doesn’t kill a third turn Gladehart, you can very easily gain 10+ life from it alone! It gives additional utility to already-good cards like Harrow, and makes the aforementioned Living Tsunami into Ivory Tower. It just does everything you want in a card, at the low price of 2G. And they’re even better in multiples. I, for one, welcome our new antelope overloads.
The common artifacts in the set are actually all remarkably solid. Adventuring Gear is a powerful equipment for an aggressive deck, in particular one with fast evasive creatures like Welkin Tern (by the way, it has been suggested that the next set should have Welkin Flop, and the third set Welkin River). The Explorer’s Scope is about a 40% chance to get plus one card and accelerate your mana whenever the creature attacks, along with any associated landfall triggers. Blazing Torch serves as a slow, inefficient removal spell, but sometimes you take what you can get. Even Spidersilk Net is surprisingly effective, giving decks lacking in fliers a decent answer to evasion that has a reasonable boost to toughness even in ground fights. Explorer’s Map makes for easy splashing, as well as giving a way to search up the powerful rare lands if you happen to get lucky enough to get them.
All in all, Zendikar Limited feels very balanced and very fun, with a diverse range of options for each color to draft that leads to lots of interesting choices. I haven’t tried for an all-ally deck yet, but I would not be surprised if it were possible with the mana fixing that’s available. I look forward to drafting this set for a long time to come, and I’m sure I’ll keep learning while I do.
By the time you read this I’ll already be on the first leg of my trip to PT: Austin. I’ll be in Las Vegas through the end of the week, and then I head to Austin on Sunday, where I’ll be staying with the motley crew of Patrick Chapin, Ben Rubin, Gabriel Nassif, David Williams, Mark Herberholz, Matt Sperling, and Paul Rietzl to prepare for the Pro Tour. I’ll give you a glimpse into that world in my article next week.