Rise of the Eldrazi is almost here. Wizards assures us that the format will be slow enough to let us play eleven drops. Really? I looked at my recent matches in both Saga Limited and ZZW drafts. We will be playing 8-15 mana creatures? Just how different is this new set? We have almost three-fourths of the spoiler, let’s take a look.
Warning: Contains Spoilers.
I was playing in the finals of a ZZW draft yesterday. I was Mono-Green. My opponent was GB, and accelerated into a turn 5 Terra Stomper. I had an Oran-Reif bear, a 2/3 Snapper, and a Timbermaw Larva. I dropped Forest number five and swung with the team. When he blocked the Larva with the 8/8, I hit the other dudes with two Groundswells and a Primal Bellow, for the win. Turn 5, I dealt 17 points of damage, even though my best guy was blocked.
The game was over before I could play a five-drop.
Sure, that’s a fun anecdote. Still, anecdotes don’t prove anything — fun though they may be. I have collected several news reports of people falling off ten story buildings and living, but that does not prove doing so is either safe or typical, and I’m not using them as evidence to recommend abolishing stairs & elevators. Anecdotes are often most interesting when they are atypical, because they are atypical.
Let’s look at the data for more typical games and matches. I have, over the past few months, played a lot of ZZZ, M10, ZZW, and Urza’s Saga Limited online. I have tried to keep track of the turns on which the games have ended, and I reviewed many of my old replays to dig out that data.
I did massage the data a bit. First, I only counted games that were played out. Sometimes a player would muilligan to five, then do nothing and concede quickly. I didn’t count those. Next, I trimmed the ends off the bell curve. Most statistical data forms a bell-shaped curve, with most of the results being clustered around the median but some being atypically low and others atypically high. I didn’t count the game I described above, where I got a turn 5 kill. Likewise, I didn’t count the game where both my opponent and I hit our first nine land drops without playing a threat, while holding nothing but removal and more lands. That game ended on turn 20 or so, but is also not representative.
In addition to my own drafts, I watched replays of my fellow drafter’s games against other opponents, some replays of draft Top 8 matches in PEs, and some of the draft videos people like LSV and others post online.
Zendikar / Zendikar / Worldwake draft games typically finish on turns 7-9, with most ending within 6-11 turns. (ZZZ was just a touch faster.)
Urza’s Saga draft games typically finish on turns 8-11. Most finish within 7-15 turns.
Triple M10 draft games typically finish on turns 9-13, with most finishing on turns 8-18.
These are general averages, and individual games may vary. The results also vary based on archetypes. For example, LSV recently posted videos of a ZZW draft where he opened Day of Judgment and proceeded to draft a very controlling UW deck, with plenty of walls. Even with that deck, however, games were over on turns 8, 13, 17, 12, 8, and 10. The 17 was exceptional — both players drew lots of lands and no action. Games involving RB aggro decks tend to end sooner — but you know that.
In Zendikar block, I tend to play 18 lands. In Saga and M10, I generally like 17 lands. If a deck has 17 lands, assuming you are on the draw and do not mulligan, by the end of the turn you will have seen X lands, where X= (7 cards + number of turns) * 17 lands /40 cards in deck. Doing the math:
In a ZZZ game lasting 8 turns, you will see 6.8 lands from your 18 land deck.
In a triple Saga game lasting 9 turns, you will see 6.8 lands.
In an M10 game lasting 11 turns, you will see 8.1 lands.
Let’s run the equation backwards. Assuming we build Rise Limited decks with 18 lands, how long do games have to go on to have a real chance of casting an 11 mana creature? To draw eleven lands, in an 18 land deck, you would have to see about 24 cards. Assuming you start with seven, that means the game has to go on for at least 17 turns — plus another couple turns for the Eldrazi to actually attack and win the game.
Seventeen to nineteen turns.
Seventeen to nineteen turns is a lot slower than any Limited format I can remember (except possibly Masques block.) It seems almost impossible. In nineteen turns, you an almost win the game with a lone Suntail Hawk. The idea that you could ramp up to cast 10+ mana spells without mana acceleration — well, that seems massively unlikely.
Fortunately, Rise of the Eldrazi has a ton of mana acceleration. With roughly 70 percent of the set spoiled at the time of writing, we can see some examples of all four classic forms of mana acceleration: artifacts, multi-mana lands, land fetchers and mana creatures. The mana creatures are also a new mechanic.
We have one accelerant land — Eldrazi Temple. It taps for colorless, or two colorless to be used for casing Eldrazi spells. The only downside is that it is a rare, so it is not going to help in very many Limited games.
The second form of acceleration is artifact mana. Dreamstone Hedron is three Mind Stones welded together. It is an uncommon. Beyond that, artifacts only give us a common mana washer, but that, combined with a reprint of Terramorphic Expanse, may indicate that splashing could be easy. That’s another article, however.
Rise appears to have one Rampant Growth card – Growth Spasm. Growth Spasm is common, and produces Eldrazi tokens, which we will talk about next. Rise also has a rare which is effectively a Gifts Ungiven limited to lands.
Rise has one common mana creature card — a new and improved Vine Trellis. More importantly, Rise of the Eldrazi features cards that produce 0/1 Eldrazi Spawn tokens. Eldrazi Spawn tokens can be sacrificed to put one colorless mana in your mana pool. There are a lot of such cards. I don’t have a complete spoiler, but of the 13 Black commons and uncommons spoiled so far, three create such tokens. I just counted Black, but other colors appear to have equally significant numbers of Spawn producer cards. The Red Ritual for this set (Birthing the Brood) produces three Spawn tokens. Green has an enchantment (Awakening Zone) that produces a Spawn token at the beginning of your upkeep, and a rare (Brood Warden) that gives your Spawn tokens +2/+1. That’s a lot of tokens.
What is relevant for this article is that the widespread presence of Spawn token producers means that you can probably accelerate out an Eldrazi-sized creatures more quickly than if you had to play out the lands to do so. Sacrificing tokens to play an Eldrazi is sort of going all in, but the set only has one bounce spell so far.
Another clear indication that the set will be friendly to Spawn tokens — both the obligatory pinger and Pyroclasm variant are expensive in this set. The set is also notable for a lack of anything like Nausea, Engineered Plague, Night of Souls’ Betrayal, or other mass token killers. Red does have a spell that deals X damage to all creatures an opponent controls, but that sorcery costs seven mana. Red has a pinger, but it requires some leveling up to activate, which means it is also quite slow. Black has an assassin that can give kill a spawn token with a —x/-x effect, but it is a rare. Red has a few Arc Lightning like effects, but they can only kill one or two spawn at a time. In short, expect Spawn tokens to live, once you get them onto the battlefield, unless you sacrifice them or block with them.
However, even if we assume that a player can get three to five spawn tokens into play, then sacs them to go all-in on an Eldrazi, that is not really enough. Wizards assures us that the format will be slow enough to cast monsters like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, who costs a whopping 15. That means that the format has to be significantly slower than any of the above examples. Even M10 was not reliably getting to nine mana, so let’s look at what Wizards has done to slow the format down even further.
Making Blocking Matter
We’ll start with the obvious / heavily hyped action — creating walls. Wizards has talked about “making Walls matter” and included a lot of walls in the set. More importantly, the set includes some walls that really hurt when you run into them — creatures like Soulbound Guardians, which is a 4/5 flying defender for 4W. We also have instants that grant Deathtouch to walls, and since many walls have at least one power, they will kill things.
The whole point of making a relatively cheap, common 4/5 defender is to slow down combat. People will also start dropping 2/4s early on, which pretty much kills the aggro goblins or WW approach. Ground combat is going to turn into a big stall, until something comes to mess that combat up. Something like a fattie with Annihilator.
Let’s look at a faster format for a comparison.
A few months ago, Wizards provided some stats on MTGO usage. One notable stat was the cards people most often first picked when they won a ZZZ draft queue. Here’s that list:
Top 10 cards picked first by drafters that 3-0 MTGO Queues:
1. Hideous End
2. Burst Lightning
3. Vampire Nighthawk
4. Journey to Nowhere
5. Marsh Casualties
6. Trusty Machete
8. Plated Geopede
9. Malakir Bloodwitch
10. Kor Skyfisher
The entire list is removal, cheap creatures with evasion (well, first strike is almost evasion) and one cheap, solid piece of equipment. More important, there is nothing in the list that is defensive in nature. Everything in that list is intended to either remove a blocker or connect with an opponent. Even Plated Geopede normally gets through for 6 or more, unless you topdeck it really late.
Here are a couple other lists — in this case the common and uncommon pick orders for Blue and White.
Oli’s Top 10 White Zendikar commons and uncommons (from here).
1 – Shepherd of the Lost
2 – Journey to Nowhere
3 – Kazandu Blademaster
4 – Kor Skyfisher
5 – Kor Aeronaut
6 – Kor Hookmaster
7 – Steppe Lynx
8 – Kor Sanctifiers
9 – Windborne Charge
10 – Cliff Threader
Oli’s Top 10 Blue Zendikar commons and uncommons (from here).
1 – Living Tsunami
2 – Welkin Turn
3 – Umara Raptor
4 – Kraken Hatchling
5 – Windrider Eel
6 – Whiplash Trap
7 – Merfolk Seastalkers
8 – Sky Ruin Drake
9 – Into the Roil
10 – Reckless Scholar
The White is mainly aggressive, With white’s one good removal spell sitting at number two. More interesting is the Blue, where a 0/4 wall sits in fourth place. The reason is that the Hatchling is pretty much the only relevant card that can actually block a Geopede in this set and live. In Zendikar, the landfall mechanic ensured that most attackers were significantly better than any likely defenders, which made blocking quite painful. Hatchling was the exception to that rule.
We can do some quick calculations on the average power, toughness and casting cost of the creatures on those lists. For White, the average power is about 2, the average toughness is about 2.5, and the average casting cost is 2.5. For Blue, the average power is 2, the toughness is 2.5 and the average casting cost jumps to 3.25. That is pretty cheap and fast.
Looking at White in M10 is similar, but it is different. Here is a quick list of M10 White commons and uncommons. I compiled this list pretty quickly and didn’t really concentrate on order too much, so my apologies if I missed something, or if you think third and fourth should be flipped. This pretty much worked well enough for me that I took the 2 boxes of packs I got for working GenCon and drafted my way to 4* of everything, plus two set redemptions. Put another way, 72 packs kept me in daily drafts for 6 months, even when I kept dropping after two rounds to head for work. Whatever — here’s the list.
Note: Excommunicate, Veteran Swordsmith, Elite Vanguard, White Knight, etc. are much more valuable in the aggressive Soldiers deck. That deck can work, but I much prefer the Walls and Fliers plan, so I left them out. Sue me. My walls and fliers deck beat literally dozens of soldiers decks, but whatever. This isn’t an article on M10.
Doing the math, we get an average power of 2.2, an average toughness of 3.2 and an average converted mana cost of almost 4. That is significantly slower than the Zendikar numbers, and the format shows it is terms of average game length.
I could do the same for Saga, but the presence of all the cycling Circles of protection, not to mention the Echo and Opal mechanics, make the numbers harder to calculate. For example, is Opal Gargoyle a 2/2 flier for 1W, or an enchantment — in other words, how do you count it?
The point is, simply, that Zendikar had a ton of aggressive creatures and almost no walls, which made it very fast. Saga had lost of removal and lots of beaters, and only a few cards like the 2/4 Acridian. M10 had a higher proportion of Walls in the relevant casting cost range, which slows games down. In what we have seen of Rise so far, the proportion of walls will be even higher, so ground combat will be prone to stalemate. The spoiler says that Glory Seeker will be back, but I suspect that he will be as useful in Rise as Raging Goblin is in M10.
Ground stalls can only slow down the game to a limited extent. In most formats, sooner or later, someone is going to find an evasive creature that can go over, under, or around to break the stalemate. In Zendikar, that job fell to the fliers and Intimidate guys (although ground stalls in triple Zendikar were rare.) In M10, it was fliers and the occasional unblockable guy, like Phantom Warrior or something wearing Whispersilk Cloak. Saga also had a lot of fliers, some Fear, and a smattering of landwalkers.
Fliers do exist in Rise, but the commons and uncommons are not fast, aggressive creatures. White’s fliers are either Fighting Drake clones or only fly once they level up. Blues fliers are also small or require some time and effort to level up. Black gets two very small ones — a 1/1 flying Gravedigger and a 2/1 for 2B. Several colors get big, flying walls, and I didn’t see anything that was unblockable. Evasion is not going to break many stalemates.
Something else Saga had was Falter — creatures without flying cannot block this turn. M10 had a more limited version of this — Panic Attack — which negated three blockers and was usually enough to at least force some unfavorable chump blocks. Rise has one Panic Attack variant, called Wrap in Flames, which may or may not be relevant for breaking ground stalls. However, Wrap in Flames can also be used to kill Spawn tokens, which creates some interesting tension — use it to slow their mana, or wait and try to get an alpha strike through?
Not a whole lot to say here, but I will note that they reprinted Soul Warden again, with a new name. Soul Warden was never that exciting in M10, but this is not M10. A lot of cards in this set dump Spawn tokens into play. A lot of tokens. Just saying.
We also have cards like a double-the-life-gain Venerable Monk and a few others. All of those seem likely to be able to undo anything that drafting a lot of little guys could accomplish.
The one life gain card I don’t see on the list is Congregate. How insane would that be with Spawn tokens?
Tweaking Archetypal Spells
In every large set, we can expect some specific spell archetypes. Red always gets a burn spell. White always gets something to mess with attackers, and a cheap “removal” spell to incapacitate a creature. Black gets some sort of Terror, and Green gets a Giant Growth. The spells may be tweaked a bit, but something like that is in every set.
What makes them interesting this time is that some of these have been tweaked in way that slow down combat.
For example, one standard is the cheap White “removal” spell. Urza’s Saga, and M10, have Pacifism, which leave the creature on the battlefield but keeps it out of combat. Zendikar had Journey to Nowhere, which exiled the creature. Other sets have had cards like Temporal Isolation. Rise has Guard Duty, which prevents creatures from attacking but lets it block. A beatdown deck can use any of the other cards to get rid of a blocker, but that does not work with Guard Duty.
White is also, nowadays, the color of Fog. This set does have a Fog variant — sort of — but it is a pretty significant tweak. First of all, it costs four mana. More importantly, it only prevents damage by the attacking forces. Defenders still deal full damage. In other words, this common destroys attackers while preserving all of the defending forces. Once again, that should lengthen games.
The White equivalent of Condemn / Divine Verdict / Exile is a relatively cheap instant, but only kills creatures with a low power. That makes it great against smaller evasive creatures, but useless against the Eldrazi.
Black’s variant on Terror is Vendetta, a reprint. This is a pretty interesting choice, since it makes killing a Wall painful, but makes it pretty easy to kill a small, evasive creature. It can also kill most Eldrazi, but that is going to cost a lot of life. Still, that probably beats having something with Annihilator: lots attack.
One final interesting tweak. Mill strategies work best in a long game, and they could be brutal in Rise. However, I have not noticed the typical Blue mill cards so far, and certainly not any common ones. We won’t see any Hedron Crabs or Mind Funerals here. What we do see is a Mill Stone variant. Keening Stone is rare which costs 6, but it also mills a lot faster than the original. However, milling may not be the plan if your opponent has one of the Mythic Eldrazi. They all act as Gaea’s Blessings.
Which is probably deliberate.
Wizards made a lot of interesting choices with this set, and I think it will be quite exciting — in a slow and measured way. I think Rise Limited may sometimes play out like the old Steve Jackson game OGRE, where your army fights a massive, nearly unstoppable monster tank, and it takes everything you have to defeat it. Game 1s should be especially exciting, since you will never know whether your opponent will actually have the monster tank, or if she intends to grind you down with normal infantry and artillery.
I have to say that I’m excited about Rise of the Eldrazi. I can’t wait to try the format. I’m planning on playing in Midnight Madness event at Misty, even though I know I will never be able to stay awake long enough to win packs, Saturday if I can, and then I’ll be running an event at Pegasus Games on Sunday.
See you there.