Thirst for Knowledge – Zen and the Art, Part 1

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Wednesday, September 30th – I’ll be the first to admit that Wizards has made their fair share of mistakes over the course of the last two decades, and even with Zendikar it’s apparent that they still have a lot to learn (Warren Instigator and Lotus Cobra at Mythic, for example). However, sometimes… they just get it right.

I’ll be the first to admit that Wizards has made their fair share of mistakes over the course of the last two decades, and even with Zendikar it’s apparent that they still have a lot to learn (Warren Instigator and Lotus Cobra at Mythic, for example). However, sometimes… they just get it right.

Last week, a thread appeared on MTGSalvation where a poster stated that he had cracked an Ancestral Recall in his Zendikar booster. Naturally, nearly everyone called him out on his statement and sent him packing. The next day, however, another user on the same website made a post explaining that he’d opened a Candelabra of Tawnos in a pack of Zendikar, and he even had pictures of it. Now, any idiot can put a Candelabra of Tawnos on top of a stack of Zendikar commons and say that he found it in the pack, but this guy owned his own online store and lying about something like this would simply ruin his business. Nevertheless, few believed him and even the ones who voiced their support were being belittled by those who felt that this was an “impossible” event. I have a question for the nonbelievers: what do you think now?

When I first read about the Recall, I was more than skeptical. But by the time the Candelabra was opened, I thought about how legitimate this whole thing really could be. Wizards may not yet have perfected their art, but they certainly know what works and doesn’t work, and I don’t ever feel like it’s incorrect to place my faith in them in that regard. That being said, I withheld judgment about it just as I had back during Time Spiral rumor season — no use in making myself look like a heel by shouting “fake” at the top of my lungs, right? I mean, let’s be honest with ourselves — did we really expect to ever see the enemy fetchlands? How about Lightning Bolt? I’ve found that the key to being satisfied with the guys over at WotC is not to question what they won’t do but rather think about what they will do. We might not ever see Counterspell in Standard again, but it would be rather foolish of us to ever assume that they wouldn’t do something outrageous like this.

To clarify my feelings on the matter, allow me to make a simple statement: putting old money cards into packs of Zendikar might be the single best idea Wizards of the Coast has ever had. And yes, I definitely mean that. On one hand, this clearly pushes the average price of a box of Zendikar higher than it really should be, but the upside is that more people will be buying them. I think the typical player won’t really appreciate this aspect of the situation, as whether or not other players buy boxes is of no concern to any individual, but singles prices will inevitably drop due to the sheer amount of product in circulation and that’s quite obviously a good thing. In addition, who doesn’t w ant to open a pack of Zendikar with one of these “loot” cards (I think the loot cards from the World of Warcraft card game are easily the best comparison to this phenomenon)? If I sit down for a four-man and my first pack has an Underground Sea in it, I’m probably going to be pretty content with my draft. The best part? These cards in no way affect Standard. Their rarity may be about a thousand steps above Mythic, but it’s not like you need a set of Recalls for your Standard deck or something. They’re also no reprints, so the Reserved List is not violated and the prices of the older cards will hardly be altered, if at all. The biggest argument against this whole treasure thing was that if Wizards was giving out Black Lotuses in Zendikar packs, the price of that card for those who paid cash for them or have held onto theirs for 16 years will drop. But, in reality, how true is that? Given that the cards inserted into the packs aren’t all mint cards, it stands to reason that the cards didn’t come from some “vault” at the WotC offices but instead were obtained from current circulations of the cards for this promotion. But even in the event that they were from some secret underground storage facility in Seattle, how much would those few extra Lotuses or Recalls really affect singles prices?

Regardless of the singles market, the benefits of this decision are astronomical. First of all, they’re essentially enabling each booster of Zendikar to randomly be worth a very large (or sometimes not-so-large) chunk of money, which is exciting and makes opening packs fun. Secondly, they’re giving all of us who weren’t around for Alpha and Beta a chance to open Power, which I honestly can’t express in words in such a way that would do justice to how awesome that is. And lastly, the marketing for this was entirely word-of-mouth, and the power that comes with that is flooring. They kept this a secret all the way until the pre-release, and it made for an amazing weekend.

In Grand Rapids, only two old cards were opened over the course of the weekend spread across three stores — a Revised Tropical Island and an Unlimited Volcanic Island. Not too shabby, but clearly not nearly as insane as it could have been. I only played in a single release event, but what I played of it was really enjoyable (my pool was a tad awkward, but good enough to enable some gross plays and fast starts — still, I kept losing in game three of my matches and called it quits about halfway through the main event). Once I had dropped, I judged the rest of the event and watched a ton of matches being played in both draft and sealed. The format looks to be heavily focused on combat primarily between 2/2s, which means that a majority of combat phases in Zendikar limited will end up involving lots of trading one-for-one. The 2/2s were so common, in fact, that any 2/3s that hit the field could almost entirely halt aggression from a good deal of the decks I saw being played in sealed. There was a point in round two where I was facing down a trio of 2/3s and had nothing but 2/2s to fight back with, and I remember feeling incredibly awkward. I realize that one could say that I might have just been unlucky with my pulls and not gotten many of the 2/3s or 3/3s, but the number of 2/2s seemed to be fairly consistent as I walked around the tournament. And it’s not even that the bears are bad or anything, but rather that they just don’t feel too fantastic when thrown up against Kor Skyfishers or (God forbid) Vampire Nighthawks.

In addition, Zendikar seems far less bomb-centric than any of the limited formats that I’ve played in a long while. While you still have cards like Hellkite Charger and Sphinx of Jwar Isle in the rare slot, they are nowhere near as game-breaking as Flameblast Dragon or Caldera Hellion. You still have your bomb Mythics like Sorin, Chandra, and the Baloths, but I never felt like the bombs were impossible to deal with or simply ended games like they had in previous formats. The creature quality also seemed to be drastically lowered from even a set like M10, which actually helped to make play more interesting and rely more on skill than on power and luck.

All in all, we’re looking at a great setting for the next PTQ season and leg of the Grand Prix circuit. Landfall is an incredibly swingy mechanic and cards like Harrow and the Expeditions can really turn entire games around in mere seconds all without the help of bomb rares, and I look forward to getting more time in with this set. I mean, who doesn’t want to draft this set? Fetchlands, Lotus Cobra, and Black Lotus? Yes, please.

As much as I love Limited, let’s move in another direction. Although it’s a long time until any relevant Standard tournaments, there’s a StarCityGames.com $5000 Open in Philadelphia in a few weeks, so let’s take a look at what to expect. First up, the new face of red:

While it’s true that you could easily take this archetype in a different direction and lose the goblin theme altogether, I’m much more inclined to stick with it as Warren Instigator and Goblin Chieftain are rather cute together, and I’ll admit that swinging my Siege-Gang and all his tokens the turn I drop him would be something I’d like to do. The biggest concern I have for this deck is that it completely folds to a Volcanic Fallout, but the more I think about it the more I realize that there isn’t much we could be playing that doesn’t given that Ram-Gang and Figure of Destiny are gone.

The good news is, though, that since we aren’t playing a ton of black we don’t have to play many awkward Swamps. Also, since Goblin Guide is our only real one-drop, we can play lots of tapped lands and have a really consistent manabase as a result. Burst Lightning is certainly no Flame Javelin, but it’s almost better than Lightning Bolt in theory, so any less than four seems like a very incorrect number. Blightning is probably no worse than it was before, but Volcanic Fallout is. Fallout kills all of our guys as well as theirs, and so the much-better Terminate can easily take its place. Terminate is simply better than Doom Blade now since Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender is gone, and we definitely need a maindeck solution to Baneslayer Angel.

The sideboard is naturally a bit up in the air, but I think it covers a lot of ground. Earthquake is certainly as awkward as Fallout, but we can use it to burn opponent out while also clearly the way should other aggressive decks get too far ahead of us. Goblin Ruinblaster is an all-star against the control decks of the new format, and he’s also pretty exceptional versus Jund since he not only blows up a land of theirs but can also apply pressure and trade with a Bloodbraid Elf (on its own) or a Putrid Leech (with a bit of assistance). The rest of the sideboard is probably fairly self-explanatory, though I should note that Deathmark’s spot in the board is reliant on how many or few GW decks are in the format.

With Story Circle, Kitchen Finks, and Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender gone from the format, there may actually be a chance for red decks to be really good. The Hellspark Elemental/Ball Lightning/Elemental Appeal approach might just be better than the list I’ve posted above, but both decks more or less build themselves and so when I say “red decks” I think at this early stage the decks are pretty interchangeable. Baneslayer Angel is basically the only thing keeping red decks at bay, and so if enough preparation goes into dealing with that card I think the archetype has some real hope this go around.

Next up is Jund:

Jund was a superstar before rotation, and I think it will undoubtedly remain so now. You’re simply playing all of the best creatures in the format not named Baneslayer Angel, and you get to cast the very best removal spells: Bolt, Pulse, and Blast. Sprouting Thrinax is an incredibly annoying creature to play against in the new format, and nothing short of a Path to Exile will make it any less than a card advantage machine for you, especially in creature match-ups. While there are fewer control decks for Jund to prey on, I think the card advantage from Bloodbraid Elf and Bituminous Blast put it far enough ahead of the other aggressive decks that there’s little room to doubt that this archetype will quickly and easy jump to tier one and become the headlining aggro deck of the new Standard.

The Maindeck slots are more or less out in the open, but the only slot I’m really questioning is the Stag slot. If the format has lots of Leeches and even Vampire decks, I think Stag is the best call. However, if Five Color Control ends up being good then I’d definitely want Anathemancer over it — the same goes for Nighthawk versus small creature decks. I’m otherwise pretty happy with the maindeck, though admittedly Sign in Blood could be potentially awkward to cast early. We can’t use it as a turn-two dig anymore, but reducing the number to just two makes it more of a card you’d want to draw later in the game to refill your hand a bit.

In a similar vein…

Brian Kowal’s Naya Zoo deck lives on, and although Figure of Destiny is nowhere to be found, the deck is as strong as ever. Again, more time with the format will work the kinks out, but this is probably a good place to start. Scute Mob is a strong card, but I certainly don’t want to draw too many too early, I think two is probably a fair number given that we have three Rangers to fetch them later, but maybe a third is reasonable as well. Ajani Vengeant is a fairly amazing card in the new format since he can keep Baneslayers tapped and his Lightning Helix kills 95% of the format in most cases, and Behemoth Sledge is as nutty as it ever was. A third in the sideboard, again, is reasonable.

Given that this is only the first week to talk about the new format, I’ll save any more in-depth thoughts for when there is more information and I have more to say. But before I wrap this one up, the final agro list I want to share:

It’s definitely no Kithkin, and somewhere Cedric Phillips is having a funeral procession for Goldmeadow Stalwart, but Soldiers will have to do. If this deck turns out to be a large part of the format, cards like Volcanic Fallout will likely see more play. On the other hand, though, with less token producers, cards like Deathmark that trade one-for-one will probably make the cut against a deck like this rather than a sweeper that may or may not actually kill more than one or two guys. Soldiers are still fast and really consistent, and within the next few months we’ll be able to find that “perfect” build that will find its place as one of the best decks. At this point, my only concerns are whether or not Ranger of Eos has a place and if Pledge is better than Captain of the Watch. I suppose time, as well as more testing, will tell.

And that does it for this week. Next week will be the second part of this series, where I’ll discuss what control decks will look like in the new Standard and share further thoughts on Limited. If you haven’t already, get out there and play some sealed or run through some drafts. Wizards has a very fun set on their hands, and it’d be a shame to pass it up!

Until next time…

Chris Jobin
Team RIW
Shinjutsei on MTGO and everywhere else