Thirst for Knowledge – More From Zendikar

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Wednesday, September 16th – It’s been a long time since any of us were truly thrilled about a new “large set” being released, as Shards of Alara wasn’t too hyped when it was released and Lorwyn’s return to tribal put a lot of people off. Time Spiral’s nostalgia theme was critical when it came to the hype for that set, but it seems like this time Zendikar is doing just fine on its own.

It’s been a long time since any of us were truly thrilled about a new “large set” being released, as Shards of Alara wasn’t too hyped when it was released and Lorwyn’s return to tribal put a lot of people off. Time Spiral’s nostalgia theme was critical when it came to the hype for that set, but it seems like this time Zendikar is doing just fine on its own. I mean, sure, I suppose it might have something to do with the enemy fetchlands seeing print, but this set was already generating an insane amount of buzz (and preorders) even before those were spoiled. So what is it? Why are we so enamored with this set?

For starters, this block’s theme is that of lands. Lands are, in general, just awesome. There’s a Legacy deck that plays forty-three of them. Lands are free, they’re powerful, and they let us cast our spells. We need to play lots of them in all of our decks (except for Ichorid, but even that deck plays four), and Zendikar seeks to reward us for doing what we already aim to do every turn anyway: play lands. Landfall could potentially be one of the best abilities the game’s ever seen given that it has enough support — that is, I’m a big fan of mechanics that give you benefits for virtually no input. For a good example of how dumb landfall is, take a look at this beast:

Ob Nixilis, the Fallen
Legendary Creature — Demon (Mythic Rare)
Landfall – Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control, you may have target player lose 3 life. If you do, put three +1/+1 counters on Ob Nixilis, the Fallen.

Alright, so let’s examine this card a little. For five mana we’re getting a 3/3, which is obviously way below the curve. But if we play a land immediately afterward, we’re looking at a 6/6 that also drains life from our opponent. Now, then, that five mana price tag seems like a steal. Furthermore, if the land we play happens to be a fetchland, then things just get stupid. If one was to drop this guy on turn 6 and follow it up with a fetch, you’re looking at a 9/9 for five that domes the opponent for six when it enters the battlefield (essentially). That’s just absurd in terms of cost-for-effect, and that’s exactly what landfall does: it makes all of your cards better without requiring you to do anything different than you normally would during deck construction. If you’re playing lands in your deck (hint: you probably are), then you’re building an ideal deck for landfall cards.

The most powerful landfall card we’ve seen thus far, however, is Bloodghast. Take a look, though I’m sure you’ve seen it already:

Creature — Vampire Spirit (Rare)
Bloodghast can’t block.
Bloodghast has haste as long as an opponent has 10 life or less.
Landfall — Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control, you may return Bloodghast to the battlefield.

Whoa. I mean, whoa. I chose not to talk about this card last week because I have a lot to say about it, and I wanted to wait at least a week to see if we saw more ways to abuse this creature, but I think there is a bit that just needs to be discussed when it comes to Bloodghast. First, this is the best Nether Spirit ever, hands down. Well, okay, that’s probably not true. Let me rephrase: this is the best Nether Spirit for aggressive decks ever. Yeah, that’s a lot better.

Bloodghast can’t block, so control decks can’t use him to infinitely block an aggro onslaught, but in an aggressive deck you can’t really ask for much more than this guy delivers. As a 2/1 for two, he’s reasonably costed, and he even has haste when your opponent has ten life or less (I really like the vampire theme of “blood frenzy” that they’re employing in this set — it’s very flavorful). But more importantly, the only way to truly deal with him is to Path him, because otherwise he’ll fight through counterspells, removal spells like Lightning Bolt, and even sweepers. And speaking of sweepers, could aggro have asked for a better answer to Wrath of God seeing Standard print again than this guy? People will HAVE to dip into white to deal with this creature, because without Path Bloodghast leaves most players looking silly with their pants down.

Give this card a sacrifice outlet and it’s nutty, and even in the aforementioned control decks it’s still a reasonable way to win the game in the event that you won’t need it to block. Unless your opponent can exile it, you can literally win the game on the back of just one of these. It is the most powerful landfall effect we’ve seen up to this point, and I’ll admit that it’s probably the best nonland card that’s been spoiled. If you’re looking for cards to preorder sets of, I’d strongly recommend this one. Even if it somehow doesn’t see any play in Standard, it will undoubtedly stir up Extended or Legacy in one way or another. I personally want to cascade into this off a Bloodbraid Elf

But wait, there’s more…

Vampire Lacerator
Creature — Vampire Warrior (Common)
At the beginning of your upkeep, you lose 1 life unless an opponent has 10 or less life.

Yeah, that’s basically a better Carnophage. I mean, on the one hand, this one can actually kill you if you’re at one life, but in general this card is just simply better given that getting your opponent to ten life shouldn’t be too hard when you’re playing a deck with 2/2s for one. Black hasn’t gotten something this efficient in a very long time, and I’m happy to admit that I’m very excited to play with a card this powerful again in this color. Applying that much pressure that early is insane, and especially when we have a landfall-fueled unkillable monster in the same color to fill the two-slot. And, to boot, they’re both vampires…

To drive this home, consider:

Gatekeeper of Malakir
Creature — Vampire Warrior (Uncommon)
Kicker B
When Gatekeeper of Malakir enters the battlefield, if it was kicked, target players sacrifices a creature.

Vampire Nighthawk
Creature — Vampire Shaman (Uncommon)

So… vampires. This feels very reminiscent of rogues when Morningtide was released, but with one key difference: this isn’t a tribal block where it was okay to force an entire deck on us. But this just seems kind of awkward, doesn’t it? I mean, on one hand, the vampire “lord” kind of blows, so the fact that they’re all the same creature type isn’t all that relevant, but a solid Mono Black Aggro core exists here, and it scares me a bit. The joke was that the deck couldn’t beat a Great Sable Stag, but when you consider that between the lifegain from Tendrils of Corruption and the Nighthawk and the Edict tagged onto the Gatekeeper, Stag actually seems like a joke in and of itself. Take a look at a possible core:

4 Vampire Lacerator
4 Bloodghast
4 Child of Night
4 Gatekeeper of Malakir
4 Vampire Nighthawk
4 Tendrils of Corruption
4 Quest for the Gravelord

Oh, that last card? Yeah, that one I’m pretty excited about as well.

Quest for the Gravelord
Enchantment (Uncommon)
Whenever a creature is put into a graveyard from the battlefield, you may put a quest counter on Quest for the Gravelord.
Remove three quest counters from Quest for the Gravelord and sacrifice it: Put a 5/5 black Zombie Giant creature token onto the battlefield.

For the next two years, if you’re playing an aggressive deck with Black, you’re probably going to play four of these. Why? Because, in all honesty, this card is virtually a new (and arguably better) Greater Gargadon. It serves the exact same purpose that that card once did: a first turn play that would apply a ton of pressure on the opponent just by threatening that it will eventually come into play while also discouraging the control players from killing the aggro player’s creatures. On one hand it’s a bit worse than Gargadon since it can be Disenchanted, but on the other hand it has a MUCH easier condition to meet in order to trigger, not to mention the fact that it triggers off ANY creature being put into the graveyard, not just your own. Granted, a 5/5 is certainly no 9/7, but I don’t think it’s any surprise that this card is just simply very, very good. I predict it will be seeing heavy play in the future, and in this Mono Black Aggro shell can easily make great use of it. Day of Judgment is a lot weaker because this card exists, and the looming threat of a one-mana 5/5 in Black is just enough to make a lot of players go far out of their way to work around it.

And how does one work around something this powerful? White cards. And yes, that includes Path to Exile, as Path to Exile is arguably the best removal spell in the game save Swords to Plowshares. Because, really, Path itself will be more or less alone in keeping this vampire deck in check given that it nicely gets around the Quest’s trigger and also Bloodghast. However, dedicated White decks are also given this gem, which more than likely made the set to balance Bloodghast:

Devout Lightcaster
Creature — Kor Cleric (Rare)
Protection from black
When Devout Lightcaster enters the battlefield, exile target black permanent.

Yeah, this one seems pretty deliberate. And, ultimately, that’s fine. It makes a fantastic tag team with Great Sable Stag in GW Haterator decks, but more importantly it serves as one of the very best White anti-Black cards in the game to date. In fact, this card is incredibly flavorful and might end up making the list of all-time best sideboard cards, as the beating that this card gives Black decks is almost laughable. If Black really takes off in Zendikar Standard, this card might actually grace maindecks, though I’ll admit that the mere existence of such a card kind of makes me wonder if all of the pushing toward Black is for nothing. Is this card actually too good versus Black decks, and does it stifle any kind of clear advance into Mono Black deck design? It’s obviously a bit too early to tell, but at this point I’m wondering if Black decks can honestly handle Path to Exile and the Lightcaster, despite all their fantastic tools. This is definitely one of the top cards from the set so far.

Moving on, let’s examine another white card:

Pitfall Trap
Instant — Trap (Uncommon)
If exactly one creature is attacking, you may pay W instead of paying Pitfall Trap’s mana cost.
Destroy target attacking creature without flying.

This card is simply superb. In fact, it’s one of the best White removal spells we’ve seen since Wing Shards, although obviously Path is miles ahead of it. Still, it’s hard to ignore how much BETTER this card is than Path in the early turns. Considering that flying creatures tend to cost one more mana than most other aggressive creatures, the first couple drops of the game will be easily devastated by this card. Consider having a White fetchland up on your opponent’s first turn when he plays and attacks you with his Goblin Guide (the 2/2 haste for one Red that gives you lands when it attacks — see my last article or the MTG Salvation spoiler). You let the Guide’s trigger resolve, get your land (hopefully, anyway), sacrifice the fetchland for a Plains, and then Pitfall the thing. What a blowout. Path simply would not work in this situation because putting them that far ahead is fairly awkward on turn 1, but Pitfall Trap is just bonkers. Because of its inability to hit fliers I can’t see running a full set maindeck, but it’s more than reasonable as a four-of after sideboarding and easily as a two- to three-of main. I’d expect to see a lot of this card in the future, because even when you’re being attacked by two creatures it’s still a fine removal spell at three mana regardless.

The only Blue card I want to talk about today is this one:

Mindbreak Trap
Instant — Trap (Mythic Rare)
If an opponent cast three or more spells this turn, you may pay 0 rather than pay Mindbreak Trap’s mana cost.
Exile any number of target spells.

I knew about this card last week, but I was under the false assumption that it read “exile up to three target spells,” instead of “exile any number of target spells.” That’s a pretty huge difference. What I thought was merely an improved Double Negative is now a storm combo killer. Granted, this card doesn’t in any way inhibit storm decks from existing, but it certainly makes life harder for them. Even in Legacy, this card is actually very frightening because it single-handedly shuts off a Tendrils of Agony (though in that format, Orim’s Chant is the weapon of choice versus any reactionary deck). In Extended, it spits on Dragonstorm’s face, and in Standard it counters Bloodbraid Elf and company and it also “counters” Great Sable Stag.

The joke is that Extended Dragonstorm is dead, but that’s absurd. Dragonstorm, as a Blue and Red deck, is now officially dead and buried, but the deck with a splash of White and/or Black is totally still on the radar. Thoughtseize can preemptively deal with any Canonists, Rule of Laws, or Mindbreak Traps, and Silence is also an option for the White splash. The problem with the Silence plan is that they’ll just counter it and play the Trap for free, so Black is probably better, but even so it’s still a possible solution. Considering that Hypergenesis is so narrow and easy to hate on, it stands to reason that combo players will attempt to find the most consistent way to win, and I think Dragonstorm with a color splash to deal with Mindbreak Trap and all its friends will be the best course of action.

The reason this card is still so scary despite the existence of lots of solutions to it is this: any deck can play it. I mean, any deck in Extended can sideboard it versus Dragonstorm, whether they have Blue mana or not. That’s just unheard of, gentlemen. And to make matters worse, Gigadrowse is completely worthless at tapping them out to prevent the spell, since it’s totally free to play! Still, the Gigadrowse + Silence plan is probably very legitimate, and I will certainly be looking into a way to make Dragonstorm work in the coming weeks.

To wrap this article up, I want to talk about one of the Planeswalkers:

Nissa Revane
Planeswalker — Nissa (Mythic Rare)
[+1] Search your library for a card named Nissa’s Chosen and put it onto the battlefield. Then shuffle your library.
[+1] You gain 2 life from each Elf you control.
[-7] Search your library for any number of Elf creature cards and put them onto the battlefield. Then shuffle your library.

This is exactly what I hoped they wouldn’t do with Planeswalkers: make them incredibly narrow. For reference, here is Nissa’s Chosen:

Nissa’s Chosen
Creature — Elf Warrior (Common)
If Nissa’s Chosen would be put into a graveyard from the battlefield, put it on the bottom of its owner’s library instead.

I’ve seen a number of people saying how good Nissa is in a control deck or something to that effect, and it doesn’t fail to amuse me each time. Yes, she’d be superb in a control deck which includes such powerful late-game draws as Elvish Warrior! Let’s be honest, folks — she’s no Garruk, and unless we get a ton of powerful Elves in this block, I can’t imagine this card every being good at all. I was totally wrong about Elspeth once, but I really just don’t see it with Nissa. She’ll be a huge hit with EDH and casual players, but when we’re forced to play Elvish Warrior in our Constructed decks to make her useful I think we’ve gone down the wrong path.

And that’s it for this week. There’s still a lot of set to see, so stay tuned as I trudge through more and more spoilers leading up to the prerelease.

Until next time…

Chris Jobin
Team RIW
Shinjutsei on MTGO and everywhere else