Zendikar hits Magic Online on October 19th, and based on early impressions it looks as if the power level of the set is pretty high. Check out this quote from renowned deck designer Zvi Mowshowitz for a glimpse at his perception of what Zendikar is about to bring to Standard decks in the near future.
"Just built my first Zendikar Standard deck. The only non-ZEN card in it is Birds of Paradise. This set is ridiculous."
Is he right about the 'ridiculous' power level? I guess we'll find out in the upcoming months, although if you're a betting man I'd recommend throwing your cash down on the same horse as Zvi when it comes to competitive Magic.
Whenever a new set comes out, I always love to write an article sketching out decks and ideas based on the new cards. (You can click here, here, or here to read about Shards of Alara. Here to read about Conflux, or here to read about Alara Reborn.) My goal with these articles is to talk about a whole bunch of different decks, combos, and strategies in order to give the reader an idea of what the new set is all about.
Of course I can't cover everything, and chances are I won't be building the next dominant Standard deck, but you never know. If I don't cover what you're looking for, there are Zendikar articles everywhere so check out a few others!
Enough talk, let's get started with some real talk about Zendikar!
Lands, Lands, Lands
The major theme of Zendikar, as you probably already know, is lands. Landfall is the most linear theme in the set, and something that tons of other writers have already covered. For that reason, I'm not going to spend too much time on this topic.
Let's say you want to make a landfall deck. When it comes to raw power, two creatures with landfall stand out amongst the rest.
Each of these cards provides an absurdly powerful effect, and yep they're both mythic rares. Lotus Cobra helps to ramp pretty easily into a third turn Baneslayer Angel - and with a bit more complication can ramp into something like Violent Ultimatum. Ob Nixilis is just a ridiculous creature, and absolutely busts up your opponent whenever a land hits the table.
While these two guys are the most talked about landfall cards, and probably the most powerful, there are some other sweet ones too.
These guys can really bring the combat zone pain when lands hit the table. Steppe Lynx does so immediately, and loves to get through the red zone in the early game... Emeria Angel and Rampaging Baloths create an army of beaters in the mid and late game respectively.
Bloodghast reminds me of an old favorite, Nether Shadow. I used to love that card back in the day and spent lots of time coming up with ways to abuse his unique ability. Bloodghast is a solid beater and very difficult to kill for good. This one is also useful for Classic Dredge decks as an additional way for that deck to bring decent creatures into play without paying for them.
This is such a disappointing card. I love Control Magic effects, and this is just a bad one. Did they really have to make it so ridiculous fragile? Even Shock kills this thing.
Let's say you're interested in getting the most out of your various landfall creatures. Sure you could just drop one land into play per turn, but there are always better options.
Of course you knew these would be in here. Fetchlands not only grab the land you happen to need at the time, but also create an additional landfall trigger. Expect to see decks of all shapes and sizes loaded with fetchlands for quite some time.
This is the first expedition we've talked about so far, and it just happens to work out awesome with landfall. Dropping this card on turn two and then playing a fetchland can easily allow you to ramp your land count up by two on turn four.
The bummer here is that if you're land screwed, this card won't help you at all. It only helps you get lands into play if you're playing lands anyway. Here's a card that WILL help you get lands into play, even if you're mana screwed.
That one works, but we've been there and done that. Here's the one I want to talk about:
Here's an old favorite that ramps our mana, color-fixes our lands, and triggers a couple of landfall triggers. Solid choice for any landfall deck.
Like I said above, I don't want to spend too much time on this section since it's covered so thoroughly elsewhere - but I really felt that I should cover the main theme of the block. I personally expect to see a bunch of decks moving forward that start out with this core:
... and then work from there. Here's one last related card that I really hope sees some playing time:
I've always loved this card, and if she's ever going to shine then now's the time. I guess we'll see!
The $9 Junk Rare
One thing that's always interesting to watch as a new set hits the street is how the prices of older cards develop. Every once in a while you'll see an unlikely card's price spike through the roof as it suddenly becomes part of a combo. The card I'm talking about today is Dark Depths:
Dark Depths has never really had a competitive application, although it has remained a popular casual card ever since its release. Every once in a while you run into a deck packing Dark Depths is the casual room, usually paired with one of these three cards:
Casual Urzatron and Cloudpost decks have been known to love the promise of a 20/20 indestructible creature from time to time, although competitive decks generally find something better to do with their thirty mana. For players who aren't into doing things the hard way, Aether Snap provides a two card, five mana Extended combo route to the same giant monster.
So why has Dark Depths suddenly shot from a 1-2 ticket casual favorite into a $9 card that suddenly costs more than TWO copies of Wrath of God?! Take a look at Vampire Hexmage.
This is what everyone is so excited about. Suddenly you don't need five mana and a narrow Aether Snap to get your Dark Depths to fire off all in one shot. Now you just need two mana and a Vampire Hexmage, which just happens to be a generally card on its own - certainly much moreso than Aether Snap. Not only does the Hexmage get in there for two or block with first strike, but it can also take down a Planeswalker or neuter an Arcbound Ravager in a single chop.
So let's say you have a copy of Mind's Desire on the stack and flip over one card at random from all of Zendikar. What's the most powerful card you can flip? No it's not Lotus Cobra... this Legendary Angel gets my vote:
If you manage to resolve this creature, then the impact of the board is ridiculous. Not only do you get a giant 7/7 flying monster, but you also lock your opponent out of casting (most likely) the majority of his or her deck. Not too shabby! But what's even better than locking your opponent out of the majority of his deck? How about locking him out of ALL of his deck? Enter this personal favorite:
Setting up a game state where you control both of these creatures is no easy task, but it locks your opponent almost completely out of the game. They'll be tasked to overcome your advantage with only what they have in play plus land drops. So how could we get something like this in play?
Well Painter's Servant is the easy part, just pay two mana and you can bring that guy online... but nine mana for Iona is another story. There's a powerful Vintage (and soon to be Classic) deck based on Oath of Druids that cheats ridiculous cards into play, and there's been talk of running Iona in that deck. There's one way. Another way is to run Iona as a singleton in the Extended Hypergenesis deck. Here's another way:
Is Tooth and Nail perfect or what? Sure you still need nine mana, but you get much more bang for your buck. Not only do you get to tutor for Iona and put her into play, but you also get to tutor for Painter's Servant and drop him into play all in one shot. Also keep in mind that this is nine green-ish mana we're talking about, which is a lot easier to accelerate into than triple white mana is.
Tooth and Nail is kind of a funny card. Magic R&D never thought it would be a contender, considering it costs nine mana - but if a card is powerful enough then no amount of mana is too much. Just look at Dragonstorm! Here's a deck from last Extended season based on Tooth and Nail:
What do these two cards have in common? They both go straight to your opponent's dome and try to run him out of one of the resources keeping him or her alive. One major difference between these cards is that Lava Spike has been used successfully in competitive Magic, and Tome Scour hasn't.
Burn is a deck that is always hanging around Classic and Legacy. Every once in a while something similar becomes effective in Standard or Extended. Here's a sample Classic list:
Burn is a deck built around the concept of redundancy and reducing your opponent's life total to zero as efficiently as possible. The gold standard for this deck is Lightning Bolt, which does three damage to your opponent. Three damage is 15% of your opponent's total life total. Not too shabby for one mana.
Today I don't want to focus on burn, at least in the conventional sense. I want to talk about milling. Yep, you remember the original namesake I'm sure.
Believe it or not, a Millstone deck won the first ever Pro Tour. Things have changed since Alpha/Beta/Unlimited though, check out one of the cool traps from Zendikar:
Milling is a frowned-upon strategy in all but the most carefully crafted metagames, and is often considered a joke amongst serious players. The problem is that, barring some crazy combo, milling just generally requires a TON more effort than just straight-up killing your opponent would.
Archive Trap may be a little different though. This one mills for THIRTEEN cards. Let's say your opponent draws seven cards to start and then three or four more within the first few turns of the game. Let's say we need to mill away 50 cards to win the game. Archive Trap mills for just about 26% of your opponent's library. Not bad, huh? This one costs four mana, but if we play it in Classic then we should often be able to play it for free - most decks in the metagame regularly search through their decks with fetchlands and tutors.
Is there any hope of crafting a deck that's structured like a red burn deck except with blue mill cards instead? How about something like this?
Is this deck any good? It's probably not Classic tournament competitive, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun. When Zendikar hits I'll probably test it out a bit. Blue Burn does have a few advantages over a red burn deck that are probably worth calling out. First off it runs Islands instead of Mountains, and in Magic it's usually good to be in blue. This lets us run cards like Force of Will and adopt some minor control elements.
Another benefit is that our opponent is constantly marching himself towards a loss. Each turn he takes, each draw step he goes through, each Ponder or Brainstorm advances our game plan for us. This is also often true when it comes to his life total through the use of cards like Dark Confidant or the fetchlands, but it's not quite as universal as just drawing cards. Blue Burn also has the ability to surprise a deck like Dredge and force them to draw out at instant speed. After they do their whole dredge thing, fire off a Tome Scour and then target them with Cephalid Coliseum for the win.
Of course there are also some downsides to this version. Brain Freeze is used in many different storm decks as a finisher, and as a result lots of decks in the metagame have the means to fight this. Blue Burn will suffer splash damage from these combo decks whenever it runs into something like Gaea's Blessing. The biggest downside is that our 'burn' spells are completely single-purpose. Lots of cards in the red burn deck above double as creature removal (Lightning Bolt, Rift Bolt), and others can double as chump blockers (Keldon Marauders, Mogg Fanatic). None of the mill cards in the blue have much of a dual-purpose, they all just pretty much mill. There are some other options we could consider in different builds, such as Grimoire Thief, that would potentially have additional utility.
Five mana for four power is a little under the current Standard power curve, so it seems like you'd need a pretty good reason to run Malakir Bloodwitch in this day and age. I can think of a bunch of different reasons:
And those are only the ones off the top of my head! Malakir Bloodwitch is a fantastic example of a card that is much better than it may initially seem due to the characteristics of the current Standard metagame. Not only does she battle the current number one threat in the format, but she dodges just about all of the popular removal.
In addition to all of this, she hangs out with a pretty impressive new tribe, that we already talked about a bit above.
What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse
With Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block rotating out of Standard, you may have thought that top decks in the format would no longer be described with one tribal word (Elves, Faeries, Kithkin, Merfolk, etc.) - but Vampires may be trying hard in Zendikar to prove you wrong. I guess this is Wizards' attempt to cash in on the recent sissy-Vampire pop culture explosion? At least Wizards kept their creatures of the night classy.
Here's a Vampire deck that's pretty typical of what people have been experimenting with:
Much of the Vampire core is pretty consistent across decks. Just about every list you see will run some variation of the Vampire creature core in the deck above, along with another cool 'quest' - this time for the Gravelord. The design on this card is great, it really feels like you're putting together pieces of dead creature to create one Frankenstein monster. While the core of this deck is somewhat agreed on, there are a bunch of different decisions to make when building this deck. Is Duress something you want to run? The list above doesn't. How do you want your removal suite configured? This build uses Disfigure, Tendrils of Corruption, and Doom Blade - but I'm not sure at all what the correct balance is.
Another question that arises in this deck is: how many lands should you run? I've seen decks similar to the one above running anywhere from twenty-one to twenty-four lands. I actually proxied up this deck on paper and goldfished about fifty hands. With the knowledge gained from this experiment, I would personally never run this deck with fewer than twenty-three lands. It's just so important to hit Vampire Nocturnus and Malakir Bloodwitch mana as this deck moves into the mid-game. These cards help provide the reach necessary to finish off your (hopefully) swarmed opponent. Cutting a land or two for additional threats may seen appealing, but if anything I'd lean towards ADDING a land due to the importance of the spells at the top of your curve.
This deck relies a little less on Vampire Nocturnus and Malakir Bloodwitch for reach, instead gaining the ability to send packets of three damage to your opponent's head. The biggest downside of this splash is the need to run Akoum Refuge. It really sucks to run any lands that come into play tapped, but lands that can tap for black and red are at a premium. It's so important to be able to cast Gatekeeper of Malakir with the kicker on turn three, while still having mana for things like Blightning.
The original version of the mono black deck above I threw together ran a playset of Piranha Marsh. Being able to Tim your opponent with a freakin' LAND may be tempting, but it's bad for the same reason that Akoum Refuge is bad in the red splash version. Running this land slowed the deck down by a turn way too often, and just wasn't worth it.
The art on Gatekeeper of Malakir is a lot better though, I think. The Gatekeeper is dark and creepy, and Disciple of the Vault is kind of weird and washed out looking.
Lands of Legend
I've always loved lands that did 'other stuff'. Want to see the very first one I ever owned? Here it is:
This card used to be banned, believe it or not, back in the day. It was a whole different world then. There's a whole cycle of five sweet lands in Zendikar that do 'other stuff' - one for each color. Let's go through these guys quickly.
This card is ok, although doesn't it just feel kind of like a Cabal Coffers ripoff? I also hate how it comes into play tapped, which is something that Wizards overuses BIG TIME on lands. I'm so sick of seeing new lands that come into play tapped, there's got to be something better!
The art on this one is pretty sweet though. I can't tell what's in the crypt, but it seems pretty impressive!
Magosi is essentially the "fixed" Time Vault in land form. At first I was pretty excited about this card, since at first glance I thought it formed a cool combo with Garruk Wildspeaker. The problem is that this one doesn't work - total nonbo.
Creating an extra turn for yourself and then skipping this extra turn is the same as doing absolutely nothing at all. Just a public service announcement to other Johnny players out there - don't get excited!
Oran-Rief seems like a less-exciting version of Novijen, Heart of Progress to me. Not only does Oran-Rief come into play tapped, but it also has a color restriction on the +1/+1 ability. The new Zendikar land may cost less to activate and tap for green mana instead of colorless, but those are simply good qualities - not exciting ones =)
This is a very deceiving card at first glance. You may look at it quickly and think that once you hit five Mountains you can start Lightning Bolting stuff... but you're still not even really close. You need five Mountains OTHER than the one you're putting into play PLUS Valakut. So assuming you hit a Mountain for each land drop other than Valakut, you're going to get a Bolt on your seventh land.
Maybe this one is deceiving... or maybe I just need to read more carefully.
This is, by far, my favorite of this cycle of lands. I've always been a fan of mono white control decks, and this seems like a fantastic option for that type of strategy. You need eight lands in play to get this one going, but there are tons of awesome targets to recur - Kitchen Finks, Exalted Angel, Baneslayer Angel, Akroma, Angel of Wrath, etc.
Emeria really reminds me of two casual favorites:
If you've enjoyed playing with either of these in the past, then be sure to check out Emeria!
Here's a Merfolk decklist that I played to a Classic top 8 a long time ago... March 14th to be exact.
Anyway, this deck runs four copies of Cursecatcher. Merfolk decks have never had a slam-dunk tribal one drop. They don't have their own Goblin Lackey so to speak. Up until recently, this was the one-mana Merfolk of choice:
Alongside Lord of Atlantis, Tidal Warrior lets you get your whole team through unblocked even if your opponent isn't running Islands. In Shadowmoor, a new creature took over this slot in the majority of decks:
Cursecatcher is a strong option in Classic (and also Legacy), given the presence of so many powerful sorcery and instant spells. For the most part, this is the default one-drop in modern Classic Merfolk decks.
In Zendikar, there's a new one-drop Merfolk that seems like it's worth taking a look at.
Cosi's Trickster is a little 1/1 Merfolk, but grows a bit whenever your opponent shuffles his or her library. Here's a list of ways that your opponent will typically shuffle his deck in Classic:
Of course these aren't all the ways to shuffle a library in Classic, but it's a decent representation. One issue that surprised me while making the list above is what bad news is it for you if your opponent is shuffling his library. Other than Ponder and cracking fetchlands, shuffling the library is tied to some seriously powerful effects. Not exactly a fair tradeoff for +1/+1 on one of your little bitty creatures.
I wanted to test out this card in Classic, but obviously it's not online yet... so I played a bunch of games with Merfolk in Legacy with the Standard Classic list -4 Cursecatcher, +4 Cosi's Trickster. The result? I was seriously underwhelmed.
The first issue is that even when played out on turn one, I never managed to grow a Cosi's Trickster above 4/4. Maybe I didn't play enough test games or whatever, but putting the "grow" in your opponent's hands can really keep it under control. Sure a 4/4 for one mana is really awesome, but the Trickster is just so inconsistent. If you topdeck one later on in the game, then there's a much smaller chance of seeing any grow at all. On the more subtle side, Cursecatcher plays really well with Merfolk's mana denial subplan of Wasteland, Strip Mine, Stifle, etc. This synergy can often turn an on-board Cursecatcher into a Daring Apprentice that doesn't require a tap.
Maybe I'm wrong about Cosi's Trickster, but the initial impressions of this guy are not great.
Wrap This One Up
Time to wrap this one up - it's getting seriously long. In addition to this, I'm submitting it from a hotel room in San Francisco and it's been a long day of delays and flights. I'm about to pass out at the keyboard. Hopefully this article gave you a bit of a unique look at what's coming in Zendikar. I did my best to cover the fundamentals of the set while finding some unique angles on cards and ideas. I know that I missed out on covering some stuff, like Allies specifically, but I was having a very hard time feeling inspired by these guys in Constructed.
To sum it all up, Zendikar is a powerful set and will have a huge impact on constructed Standard. I'd say it registers a B on the 'exciting' scale for me, although it definitely started off as an A. The fetchlands are cool, but are pretty much 'been there, done that'. Landfall seems like a cool non-linear mechanic at first glance, but the more you dig in the more linear it seems. Other than these (somewhat) minor complaints, the rest of the set seems like a lot of fun. There are plenty of cards in here that I want to build decks around, and isn't that really what it's all about?