Zendikar is officially on store shelves today, but if last weekend’s prerelease events are any indication, it may not be there for long. Rumor had it over a week ago that the first run of Zendikar had sold out at the distributor level – and that was before anyone knew that they could open a real Black Lotus rather than just a snake that stole its name! It’s already impossible to find boxes for under $100 online, and I don’t expect it to go down any time soon.
Wizards put a lot into making Zendikar an incredibly exciting set for new and old players alike. I’ve gotten dozens of messages from players who told me they were going to their local prerelease as their first event in years and were asking me for advice. The local event I attended at Sky High Comics in San Marcos was virtually sold out in preregistration, and from what I read on Twitter and the like over the weekend, attendance was up across the board, with attendance records broken left and right.
The biggest news from the past week was certainly the “Priceless Treasures” – old cards inserted in Zendikar packs. It’s a very cool idea, and absolutely brilliant from a marketing perspective. When it was confirmed, I posted on my Twitter/Facebook that I was impressed that Wizards managed to make “loot cards” in a way that is far cooler than WoW was able to do. Granted, I have a soft spot in my heart for Spectral Tigers, but the fact that Magic is able to generate the same if not a higher level of excitement with actual game cards speaks volumes to the strength of the brand and its history.
There is tremendous value to the “golden ticket” phenomenon in collectable products. Sports card companies have built an entire industry around manufactured collectability. The notion that a single pack can have a card worth vastly more than the pack itself costs is a huge driver for a certain type of customer, but it’s dangerous territory if it’s not done correctly. In the early stages of WoW TCG design, for instance, there were some people who felt that it was important that the loot cards were not only highly sought after for the in-game items they conveyed, but also for their power in the TCG. The argument was that they’d be that much cooler and more desirable if they were attractive to both TCG and MMO players. The opposing camp to that idea (to which I belonged) argued that having such powerful cards be incredibly rare would frustrate competitive TCG players to the point that they wouldn’t bother trying to play the game seriously because the barrier to entry would simply be too high. Thankfully for WoW, cooler heads prevailed, and the idea of loot cards being powerful tournament cards was largely dropped.
Wizards clearly came to the same decision with their own loot cards, since they are simply a bonus that can only be played in Eternal formats in which they are already legal, but seems to have made a very different decision with their Mythic Rares. Again, from my experience working on the WoW TCG, I was in the position of dealing with an additional level of rarity, which in that game is called Epics. The decision was made to have Epic cards that would be approximately twice as rare as the typical Rare card — similar to the scheme that Magic uses now, if I remember the ratios correctly. The goal for Epics was very similar to the initial stated goals that Mark Rosewater laid out for Mythic Rares — big, exciting, and thematically important cards. In my time working on the game, we worked to ensure that the Epic rarity wasn’t just a place to put powerful tournament cards to drive sales of the set (and in fact may have erred too much on the side of caution), but I certainly recognize the need for having popular and powerful cards at high rarities — it’s just the sort of popular and powerful cards that you put there that make all the difference. I think Wizards did a tremendous job with Mythic Rares in Shards block and M10 in meeting their goals and making exciting cards that felt Mythic, but I think they’ve dropped the ball with Zendikar.
I don’t mean to harp on this issue, but I feel it’s fairly important. Mark Rosewater said in his column this week that the definition of Mythic rares was still evolving when he posted about it before, and while I certainly respect that, I still don’t feel like a number of the Mythic Rares in Zendikar really feel deserving of the status — specifically, Lotus Cobra, Mindbreak Trap, and Warren Instigator. As I’ve said before, I have no problem with powerful Mythic Rares, nor with Mythic Rares that are popular tournament cards — Baneslayer Angel, in my opinion, is a perfect Mythic Rare. Planeswalkers are perfect Mythic Rares. Iona is a perfect Mythic Rare. These are cards that are powerful, exciting, and impressive looking to absolutely anyone who plays the game and looks at them. Lotus Cobra? Perhaps I’m mis-evaluating the perspective of the average casual player, but I don’t think the typical kitchen table gamer looks at that card and thinks “Wow, I can play a five drop on turn 3 if I have a fetchland!” And even if they do — is that anywhere near as exciting as a Baneslayer Angel? As a Shivan Dragon, even? I think if you put Lotus Cobra and Terra Stomper next to each other and asked the average player which should be the Green Mythic Rare in Zendikar, the response would trend significantly toward the uncounterable fatty. Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t see it.
Anyway, enough of that — I truly feel Zendikar is an awesome set, and I don’t want that to get bogged down with the negatives. After all, if the biggest problem with the set is that three cards are slightly rarer than I might like, that’s a spectacular success! Granted, I’ve only had a chance to play in a single prerelease event, but I had a great time and felt like all of my games were very interactive and had interesting decisions in which every card was important, which is a far cry from M10 Limited, and weren’t defined by mana problems, which is a very welcome change from Shards block!
Here’s my card pool from the event:
Arrow Volley Trap
Journey to Nowhere
Quest for the Holy Relic
Into the Roil
2 Windrider Eel
2 Whiplash Trap
2 Shoal Serpent
2 Crypt Ripper
2 Needlebite Trap
2 Soul Stair Expedition
3 Goblin Bushwhacker
Mark of Mutiny
2 Molten Ravager
2 Shatterskull Giant
Baloth Cage Trap
Khalni Heart Expeditions
Oracle of Mul Daya
Jwar Isle Refuge
Magosi, the Waterveil
My main debate was between playing U/W and G/B. The red seemed decent creature wise, but didn’t offer much else, and frankly I was more interested in trying out the new mechanics than just playing Lowland Giants and Storm Shaman. It’s entirely possible that Goblin Bushwhacker is bonkers in a sufficiently aggressive deck, but I didn’t feel like I had the pieces to make that happen. I wasn’t sure how good Whiplash Trap is, but a pair of Undos with two Windrider Eels felt like it had to be good, especially since I had Journey to Nowhere and the two white traps to back them up. Ultimately the creatures in the U/W deck just felt a little underwhelming, and the G/B deck offered a chance to play with a bunch of allies and some pretty solid removal, so I went with the following:
2 Oran-Rief Survivalist
2 Crypt Ripper
Oracle of Mul Daya
Baloth Cage Trap
Soul Stair Expedition
The card that stood out most in my games was Oracle of Mul Daya. Wow is that card powerful — and I didn’t even have any Landfall to really abuse with it. If the Oracle doesn’t die immediately, it can generate a huge resource and tempo advantage as you’re able to start casting multiple spells a turn very quickly. It also significantly improves the quality of your draws, since you can effectively burn through all of the land on top of your deck to dig for your action spells. It was easily the most powerful card in my deck and the MVP of my matches — I think it’s an easy first pick in draft.
The allies felt very powerful, even with the relatively limited selection I had. The Survivalists are very threatening early plays that can be hard to catch up to if you can back them up with another ally or two, and the Archers can really give white or blue opponents fits. I was even impressed by the Puma, who is a non-trivial body that can boost the rest of your allies. Hagra Diabolist felt a bit slow, and was probably the worst of the lot in my deck, but I can imagine him being much more effective in a draft deck with more allies than my Sealed pool had.
As for the spells, Marsh Casualties was outstanding, which shouldn’t be surprising since it’s “Infest You,” but I found against aggressive Black decks with the Grul Draz Vampire and the Landfall intimidate 2/1, the ability to play it unkicked on the early turns can be very important as well. Savage Silhouette was much more impressive than it looks at first glance. Almost all of the removal in the set (maybe all of it, even) allows for regeneration, and if you put it on a mid-sized Black creature you can even tap out without having to worry too much about getting two-for-oned. The Soul Stair Expedition was worse than I’d expected. Not only is it high variance in that it’s much better if you draw it early than late, but it’s also a card that you have to telegraph on the board, which lets your opponent make informed decisions about racing rather than trading to avoid letting you take advantage of the quest.
Overall, I’m excited to start drafting Zendikar — the set looks like it has a great balance between aggro and control strategies, and seems like it will be an interesting puzzle to figure out. I’ll be back next week with a deeper look once I get more of a chance to play with the set.
Until next time…