The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Zendikar Thoughts

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Friday, September 18th – In the first article of a new weekly column, Brian Kibler looks at the effects of Zendikar on the various Constructed formats. He outlines some of the cards he believes will shine, and a couple of sleeper cards that are worth watching. Welcome aboard, Brian!

Hello everyone, and welcome to the inaugural article of The Dragonmaster’s Lair! I’ve been writing here on StarCityGames.com pretty much weekly for a while, but now it’s official. You can expect to see my thoughts here every Friday for the foreseeable future. I certainly didn’t expect to be back to writing about Magic on a regular basis a year ago, or even six months ago, but I have to say I’m excited to be back.

I’m also excited about the upcoming release of Zendikar, as I’m sure all of you are. From the previews we’ve seen so far, Zendikar looks to be an absolutely amazing set that’s sure to impact every Constructed format in which it’s legal. And we’re not talking one or two cards that may see play in fringe decks — this is a set that’s sure to make its presence felt everywhere. And we haven’t even seen half of the set yet!

The most obvious place to start looking at the set is with the cards that seem to be the most controversial by far — the enemy color fetch lands. While Arid Mesa and friends won’t change the formats that already have fetch lands much except to tidy up manabases a little, they will have a big impact on Extended, which otherwise would have been fetch land free with the rotation of Onslaught block. While most players seem excited by the prospect of these cards in Standard, especially those who are fans of Putrid Leech, it is their impact on Extended that has a lot of pro players upset.

Now, I must confess that my experience with an Extended format full of fetch lands and Ravnica duals is limited. I only played one Grand Prix and two PTQs in the last Extended season, so while I can understand the perspective of players who say they are just sick of the sort of manabases the fetch lands enable, I haven’t gotten to that point yet myself. I think that the fetch/dual land interaction allows for a great deal of options that wouldn’t otherwise be available, and think that building correct fetch/dual manabases is actually much more challenging than most players believe, so on that front I’m happy they’re around.

The big problem I see with the fetch lands is a logistical one. Fetch lands everywhere means searching decks and shuffling all the time, and those both aren’t fun and make matches take longer than they would otherwise. This is less of a concern in Standard when fetch lands will generally be used to search for basics, and most decks will likely have a reasonable number of each basic to get. In Extended, however, many decks will have multiple different one-of lands, making searching take considerably longer. Take Saito’s GP: Singapore manabase, for instance:

1 Forest
1 Mountain
1 Plains

4 Bloodstained Mire
2 Sacred Foundry
3 Stomping Ground
1 Temple Garden
4 Windswept Heath
4 Wooded Foothills

A total of twelve fetch lands to search for six different lands, four of which are one-ofs — and this is only a three-color deck! You have to wonder how much time was taken up in the average game just searching or shuffling. That being said, the fetch lands are a perfect fit with the Landfall mechanic in Zendikar, and certainly are bringing a lot of excitement to the set from players of Eternal formats, so I completely understand WotC’s decision to print them despite the logistical costs. I’m personally excited to play with them, and it’s very clear that I’m not alone.

The next big new-but-not-new card on the block is Day of Judgment. I have to say that Day of Judgment feels much different to me than the situation with the fetch lands, because we just lost Wrath for the first time ever in Standard and now it’s back with a different name, different art, and only marginally different ability. I can certainly see the design rationale behind removing Wrath for the much simpler Day of Judgment (and giving River Boa a chance to relive his glory days by making regeneration matter!), but I personally would have preferred to live in a world without Wrath (or a four-mana analog) for a little bit longer.

Speaking of River Boa — now that’s a gentleman (gentlesnake?) I’m happy to see back. River Boa was one of my favorite creatures in Magic’s early days, from playing him in 5cG in 1997 for his Islandwalking against Blue decks to his role in my Red Zone deck at PT Chicago 2000 (Ahhhh, Chicago!), where he was my intended Armadillo Cloak target even though the enchantment always seemed to go on Rith when it counted. River Boa is one of the few creatures of that bygone age that can really compete with the power of creatures today. I’ve heard a lot of talk about power creep in Magic lately, but I feel like the direction Magic has gone hasn’t been so much just more powerful cards but specifically more powerful creatures. With Wrath, Terror, Incinerate, and similar “no regeneration” clause removal a thing of the past, River Boa’s regeneration is likely to matter more than ever. Path can still take it out, but who wants to Path a 2/1 for two mana?

Literally as I’m writing this, the new dual land cycle just went up on magicthegathering.com. They are basically reprints of the Coastal Tower cycle from Invasion with the added benefit of one life when they enter the battlefield — two color dual lands that enter the battlefield tapped. I have to say from a design perspective I’m not a big fan — it just seems like a fairly arbitrary cookie to add onto a cycle of cards simply because they would otherwise be functionally obsolete immediately upon being printed because of the Shards tri-lands. Perhaps more importantly, it seems like a cookie that’s very easy for players to forget — playing a land is a pretty automatic action for many players, and they often just absentmindedly play a land and say go, which can cause a lot of missed triggers with these cards. If there are ways to search for nonbasics like Knight of the Reliquary in this set (which I would not be surprised to see, given the theme) these cards may be more interesting, but on their own they seem like a somewhat forced cycle.

One question that came up in a previous article I wrote about the future of Standard was what I saw for the future of mono-colored decks given the multicolor push in Alara block. My answer then was that I didn’t see much that seemed worth giving up on powerful splashes like Bituminous Blast and Bloodbraid Elf, or even just playing four or five colors. Wizards has not surprisingly been very aware of this with their design in Zendikar and we’ve seen some cards that really push for heavy investment in single colors. Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and Emeria, the Sky Ruin are both extremely powerful lands that push you to play mono or nearly-mono colored decks due to their reliance on basic land types, and we’ve been told those are part of a cycle. With Mind Sludge confirmed in the mix, I for one am particularly interested in what the Black land in the cycle will be, as it seems there may actually be the makings of a black control deck. Sorin Markov can provide some of the board control punch Liliana Vess lacked — maybe both of them will find their way into another incarnation of Mono Black Control. Gatekeeper of Malakir is a fine fellow who can make up for the card advantage of Bloodbraid Elf, and Mind Sludge/Haunting Echoes was a win condition for more than a few decks back in the day…

One card that has gotten a lot of attention on Twitter and the like is Scute Mob. While I think the comparisons to Tarmogoyf that I’ve seen are vastly overblown, since one of Tarmogoyf’s most important characteristics is the fact that it can come down early and play defense, I can see how Scute Mob may have some potential. The fact that it immediately jumps out of Bituminous Blast range when it grows is a big deal. I think my biggest question about its potential is where it really has a home. The Tarmogoyf comparison is rooted in it being an extremely low cost creature so a control deck doesn’t have to tap out to play it. Tarmogoyf lived in a time of much better countermagic, however. Are we backing up our Scute Mob with Cancel? Is that really that exciting? Sitting back on turn 5 and playing out a 1/1 and leaving our mana open to protect it (or to protect us) just doesn’t seem nearly as impressive as just tapping out for Baneslayer Angel when there isn’t great countermagic worth leaving mana up for. Cryptic Command is gone, and the only replacement we’ve seen is Mindbreak Trap.

Speaking of Mindbreak Trap, I think it’s a very cool card and appreciate how the trap design keeps it relevant in Eternal formats to deal with Storm while the multiple spell counter helps keep Cascade in check in Standard. My one gripe is that the card is a Mythic Rare. Aaron Forsythe posted on Twitter that his definition of a Mythic Rare is “A card that makes someone’s jaw drop,” but I’m not really buying it with this one. I feel like we were sold Mythic Rares as big impressive spells or major characters from the universe — like Planeswalkers or Legends — and now in Zendikar we’re seeing a utility spell that will likely be played in the majority of Blue control decks as a Mythic Rare. I feel somewhat similarly about Warren Instigator, who doesn’t really feel terribly Mythic to me, but at least that’s a creature and not a utility spell. Maybe part of it is the term WotC chose for the new level of rarity. “Mythic” sounds like something that should describe awe-inspiring monsters and world-shattering spells. This feels to me a lot like as if the Command cycle had been Mythic rares — not that I think Mindbreak Trap is as good as Cryptic Command was, because it’s clearly not, but it feels like it’s on the same scale given the context. I did a lot of struggling with the Epic rarity in the WoW TCG during my time at Upper Deck, and I understand the need for “chase” cards at your highest rarities to drive sales, but this seems like a bad place to pull the trigger on a chase card.

As far as other Mythic rares are concerned, Iona, Shield of Emeria is certainly a card worthy of the status. Iona is one of the most powerful creatures the game has seen that comes with no anti-reanimation clause, and while Standard may be lacking with only Rise from the Grave available for traditional reanimator decks, I can certainly see white control decks playing Iona as a finisher and powering it through countermagic with the Sky Ruin. The newly spoiled Eldrazi Monument seems like an impressive card that would have been completely absurd in the token decks of yesteryear, and still may be a force to be reckoned with alongside Captain of the Watch and company. Artifacts may remain vulnerable due to Maelstrom Pulse, but against decks that don’t have that kind of flexible removal, this card could very well win games virtually on the spot. As the preview article suggests — think about it with Elspeth, Garruk, or the new elf-lady Nissa Revane. Anything that’s remotely playable that grants indestructability is worth keeping a close eye on, especially now that Hallowed Burial is gone.

Another big set of cards that are all pretty exciting are the Quest cards. Luminarch Ascension has gotten the most hype, and for good reason, since it’s a card that hugely punishes any kind of slow, controlling deck that doesn’t put forth any pressure in the early game. I would be shocked if Luminarch Ascension decks didn’t pop up very quickly, especially in combination with Planeswalkers. Both Planeswalkers and the quest push you toward cards that protect them, like Wall of Denial, but even better they each benefit from having the other around. If your opponent manages to breach your defenses and you have an active Jace along with a quest that just needs one more counter to go active, you can bet that you’re going to get at least one more use out of Jace. Quest for the Gravelord seems like a card that will see a lot of play at least in the sideboard of creature heavy decks (and possibly removal heavy control decks against creature decks) since it can pump out an incredibly efficient creature, but I think the Green quest — Khalni Heart Expedition — is a real sleeper. It has the easiest condition to meet naturally of the quests we’ve seen, and can also be powered out quickly with fetch lands and cards like Harrow. The ability to double Rampant Growth is huge, especially since it’s going to turn on the rest of your landfall effects while it’s at it. One fetch land, one Harrow, and this quest and you’ve got any number of lethal Landfall creatures heading in for the kill.

Speaking of Landfall creatures, both Plated Gigapede and Steppe Lynx seem like they have potential, especially the former. The Gigapede can hit for 3-5 on turn 3, which coming out of a red deck packing cards like Lightning Bolt and Ball Lightning is pretty dangerous. I expect aggressive Red decks
to be popular in the early weeks of the new Standard — as they always are — but in particular because they have new tools like the Gigapede, the new Avalanche Riders, Goblin Guide and Elemental Appeal, while they no longer have to worry about Kitchen Finks or Forge Tender, two cards that have been nightmarish for red decks for years now. The Lynx isn’t in quite the right colors to get the same kind of supporting cast in Standard, but it comes down a turn earlier, and may even make the cut as a beatdown creature in Extended Zoo, which as we saw above are more than happy to play as many fetch lands as they can get their hands on.

That’s all I’ve got for today, but we haven’t even seen half of Zendikar yet! I’ll be back next week for more hot column action. If there are any particular topics you’d like to see me cover, reply with your ideas in the forums or message me on Twitter @bmkibler. I’m always interested in feedback.

Until next time…