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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Jan 04 2017 12:00pm
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Welcome to the first Flashback Favorites of the year! Yes, this is very similar to the Modern Flashback Series, but there are a lot fewer of them (only two are scheduled so far, through the beginning of April) and they aren’t all Modern formats. However, that isn’t the case this week, as the first format is triple-Zendikar. As such, while I’ve already done that article, it wasn’t the best: it was the first article I wrote implementing PureMTGO’s hover technology, and not only was my style not fully-acclimated to easy hovers yet, the hovers were very glitchy, even eating parts of the article. As such, while this is a “remaster” of my previous article (the strategies haven’t changed much—heck, I don’t even believe there were any cards removed due to bugs), I hope it’ll be better (and if nothing else, shorter).
Ah, Zendikar, the start of the ramp up of Magic becoming the force it now is. While the reason for this isn't certain (Fetchlands, full-art lands, and “Priceless Treasures” for enfranchised fans; Duels of the Planeswalkers, New World Order, and the resonant theme for newcomers), it's a success for the “land set” only Mark Rosewater believed in. While lands as a theme was something new for Magic (other than in Prophecy, the worst block set ever), it turns out designing a format where players are happy to draw lands (even more than spells in some cases) is a good thing. The adventure theme also help masked the pure “lands” theme, as this is the first set where the entire set couldn't be defined by a singular theme (like artifacts matter for Mirrodin, or tribal for Lorwyn). The format certainly isn't perfect (as it's one of the fastest formats ever), but what it does, it does well. On to the mechanics!
Landfall is a signature of Zendikar, and in its debut it shows up a lot at common, with two cycles plus some other cards. While I'll cover the quests in their own section, the cycle of pump creatures is important, especially Steppe Lynx and Plated Geopede, as these two creatures (and Windrider Eel to a lesser extent) are a major reason this format is so fast. You also need to watch for things that put lands into play at instant speed—Harrow is nearly a bomb in this format.
Another important part of a format that wants people to play a lot of lands is mana sinks, and Kicker is the most-pure mana sink there is. This probably should be a less-generic Kicker variant, but the “generic” mana sink works well enough (and stayed from early design). Kicker does have a consistent identity here though: colorless costs just make the spell bigger (notably in a cycle of rares with large kickers), while colored costs can add an additional effect. One strange thing is that there is a cycle of common creatures that have Kicker costs that affect another permanent (like Torch Slinger and Heartstabber Mosquito)—these feel like they aren't worth the NWO cost, but maybe they are simpler than they look since they're virtual (french) vanilla otherwise?
Allies are the first supported tribe in Zendikar, and were a new take on the Slivers concept. Unlike in Battle for Zendikar, almost every Ally (the only exceptions being Stonework Puma and Sea Gate Loremaster) has an “enters the battlefield” trigger (what would eventually become Rally), and those effects generally only care about Allies. Following the adventuring/Dungeons and Dragons theme, there are three main categories of Allies: Warriors, Clerics, and Wizards. The Warriors all get a +1/+1 counter on every Rally trigger (including itself), and this is very strong, especially since most of them are fairly costs after just the initial trigger. Next, the Clerics buff your Allies with every Rally trigger, and would be fine, except that Highland Berserker is the only reasonably priced one below rare. Finally, the Wizards give you a spell effect on the Rally trigger, which generally scales off the number of Allies you control. Allies are very good, but they're spread through all five colors—don't be too greedy, as this format is very fast.
Quests aren't a named mechanic and aren't that important to the overall mechanics of the set, but work well to help establish the adventure theme. Quests are enchantments that get counters when you fulfill a specific condition, then allow you to either activate an ability or get an extra benefit, and exist in three tight cycles in Zendikar. There are three cycles of Quests (one for each rarity), but the most important are the Expeditions (the common cycle) which all work the same way: they trigger off Landfall, and allow you to sacrifice them when they have three counters and get a simple effect.
Another adventuring staple, the Traps have slightly more mechanical cohesion than Quests (as the subtype allows Trapmaker's Snare to exist), but mostly exist as a subset of interesting cards. The Traps are expensive cards with big effects, but are massively discounted if a specific condition is met by the opponent. Each color has two non-rare traps (and it's worth looking at them all if you want to play a lot of Zendikar limited), but the only two common traps are both blue. Lethargy Trap probably won't see much play (even if it should in an aggressive format—keep it in mind when sideboarding), but Whiplash Trap is a top common, especially since the base cost isn't even that bad (if expensive in this fast format). Otherwise, most of the playable uncommon Traps are removal spells, and removal's still removal, so the trap cost doesn't matter quite as much.
White's sub-theme is Equipment, and while the Equipment is better than what we get these days, specific support like Kor Duelist has a low floor (since you don’t want that much Equipment in your deck). Instead, white is the color of great two-drops, with Kor Skyfisher (a way to get extra Landfall) at common and both Kor Aeronaut and Kazandu Blademaster at uncommon. There are also a lot of good ways to get those creatures through, with Kor Hookmaster (which can also be bounced with Kor Skyfisher if necessary) and Brave the Elements being great enablers for aggressive strategies. There's also good removal: the pair of Pitfall Trap and Arrow Volley Trap are fine, but nothing can top Journey to Nowhere, which is so much better than Pacifism even before you consider that Narrow Escape lets you abuse the Oblivion Ring trick to permanently exile things.
Commons Uncommons
Blue's sub-theme is supposed to be Traps, but it should be really good fliers. On the smaller end, Welkin Tern's initial printing pushes the aggressive theme, while Umara Raptor builds upon itself (as Ally decks generally don't want blue) while starting as a Wind Drake. On the higher end, both Windrider Eel and Living Tsunami are virtual 4/4 fliers for 4 (that work well together), while Sky Ruin Drake is one of the few defenses to those fliers. Blue can even hold the ground well, as Kraken Hatchling holds off most aggressive creatures, while Merfolk Seastalkers stops everything relevant on the ground while being an evasive threat on its own (as Spreading Seas is playable, especially against greedy decks). There are other good cards that can fit in the same decks, as Into the Roil joins Whiplash Trap in the bounce suite, and Reckless Scholar is still common. Finally, while Hedron Crab is the rare mill card that can win the game on its own (especially if you have land support from other colors), it's just too slow to be playable except in specific situations.
Commons Uncommons
The sub-theme in black is Vampires, which have a minor tribal theme in Zendikar (though the actual tribal is only rare). Lots of Vampires care about whether the opponent is at ten or less life (whether the opponent is “bloodied”, in another Dungeons and Dragons reference), which leads to the format being more aggressive. Speaking of that aggressive trend, it's telling just how pervasive that trend is when Giant Scorpion is one of the best creatures: it wins fights against all the two power creatures, while at least trading with everything except Plated Geopede. Black also has a lot of good removal: Disfigure and Hideous End are great common removal, while Marsh Casualties might as well be Plague Wind in a world of 2/2's (especially ones that are only big on your turn due to Landfall). Staying at uncommon, the Vampires are extremely good: Gatekeeper of Malakir is tough to cast but functions as a two-drop and removal spell, Vampire Hexmage is another good two-drop that is versatile, and Vampire Nighthawk is one of the best non-rare creatures ever—remember I said Giant Scorpion was great in this format, and this is almost strictly better in great ways.
Commons Uncommons
Red is the height of the aggressiveness in Zendikar, and it's highlighted by Plated Geopede—almost nothing can compete with a 3/3 First Strike for 2 below four mana (one reason why all the 0/4's are good, even something like Molten Ravager), and even then it still eats generic Hill Giants. Red also has a lot of Haste with cards like Goblin Bushwacker, Goblin Ruinblaster (whose Wasteland effect is a lot more relevant here than it would be in most limited formats) and Zektar Shrine Expedition, and Goblin Shortcutter even gives an efficient way to get damage through. The removal is also good, as Burst Lightning and Punishing Fire leading the charge. One surprise is that there's actually a lot of decent slower red stuff here, like Geyser Glider and Spire Barrage, but it's just underwhelming compared to the faster stuff in the format.
Commons Uncommons
As you would expect, Green is the color of ramping, but while Harrow is the near-bomb you would expect, Khalni Heart Expedition is almost as good—sure, it's a bad topdeck and probably won't ramp you into much, but once it's active your Landfall creatures become mammoth threats, from a gigantic Baloth Woodcrasher to a lowly Steppe Lynx. In addition, Grazing Gladehart is a natural counter to the speed of the format, and lets you get to those expensive creatures that can stand up to your opponent's two-drops. Then again, the better thing to ramp into might just be the flexible Mold Shambler and Oran-Rief Recluse, or extra Forests for Timbermaw Larva (which is much better than it looks—the average case is attacking on T5 as a 4/4 or 5/5 for 4). Savage Silhouette is also better than it looks—sure, instant speed removal exists, but if you can dodge it, casting this with regeneration mana up provides a nearly-unkillable threat. That's not to say green can't be aggressive too—in particular, a mono-green deck that can reliably cast Nissa's Chosen and make the most out of Timbermaw Larva and Primal Bellow looks good, but it can be hard to get when garbage like Beast Hunt and Scythe Tiger is clogging the packs.
Commons Uncommons
While having relevant lands is something you would expect from the land set, the quality of them is hurt by having them all be tapped. While the Refuges are clearly worth it if you need the fixing, the common lands are hurt by entering tapped—sure, the two life from Kabira Crossroads is meaningful when it doesn't cost a card, but when that's your second land (or your only white source) in your opening hand and you can't cast a two-drop, that looks a lot worse. As such, Teetering Peaks and Soaring Seacliff look better as spells you would want to cast that fit better in this aggressive format. As for the artifacts, as I mentioned, most of the Equipment here is actually good: Adventurer's Gear and Explorer's Scope are both good, cheap Equipment that work well in the aggressive Landfall decks, Trusty Machete is a good “generic” Equipment I wish we could see in new sets, and Blazing Torch is a removal spell (even if the tribal clause wasn't nearly as relevant here as in Innistrad). One final artifact to note is Khalni Gem: There's obvious upside here (color fixing, added Landfall triggers, and a net gain of mana once the lands are replayed), but the risk is so high (getting it Mold Shamblered or Into the Roiled is a disaster), so it should be played only when you're out of land drops (so you're only down one land and one mana that turn) or if you have spell-lands.
There isn't much to pull us away from the traditional color pairs here with the main exception being mono-green, as it looks like it has the card quality and density of mono-color rewards (Primal Bellow, Timbermaw Larva) to do so. On to the color pairs!
I would say UW Fliers, but white only contributes Kor Skyfisher to that plan. Maybe this is the best place for Equipment, as putting an Adventuring Gear on a flier is naturally better?
Another controlling archetype, as black's removal (and Giant Scorpions) clears out all the threats while any of blue's fliers can win the game on its own. Again, I'm weary of slow strategies in this format, but this could work.
One of the more-clearly aggressive archetypes, the removal and cheap creatures are both great here, while red's slow cards can finish a game if necessary. This looks like a great deck for all aspects of the format.
This is one of the more Landfall-heavy archetypes, and while it looks strong, the fact that both red and green want lots of their respective basic lands is a notable anti-synergy. Then again, if you're sticking the Plated Geopede and Harrow parts of the colors rather than Timbermaw Larva and Spire Barrage, that shouldn't come up as much.
This color combination feels a little disjointed—the Ally synergy focuses on the early game, while the Landfall stuff focuses on the late game. The card quality is here, but I'm not sure there's a coherent theme.
There are certainly pieces of the “drain” archetype that's shown up in recent sets as the WB archetype here (notably Blood Seeker, along with the rest of the “bloodied” synergies), but it feels like something is missing. I think it's just that the Cavern Hurdas aren't well positioned here, so I wouldn't rank this highly.
All of the removal and bounce combined with the efficient creatures points to a clear tempo strategy for blue/red. My one concern is that I don't know if I want to be spending cards on bounce if I need a steady stream of lands for my Plated Geopedes and Windrider Eels to be good, but playing tempo in Limited isn't my strength.
This is where color tendencies tend to hurt a color pair: Black and green want to be slow, and while pieces could work (Grim Discovery recurring a land you Harrowed away and a Heartstabber Mosquito sounds awesome), but you'll be dead before you can even kick Heartstabber Mosquito, and not much else in the color works.
As you would expect, the most aggressive color pair is great when it can go Steppe Lynx into Plated Geopede and has plenty of removal spells. However, everyone wants those cheap creatures to defend against you (though Steppe Lynx generally only fits in the aggressive decks), so this deck will probably be the most contested.
This color combination actually works better than you would expect, as it has the defenses to survive until the Landfall synergies can take over. This is probably one of the harder decks to draft, but I think it's underrated.
The first Flashback Favorites article is in the books—unfortunately the next one on Invasion block won’t be as easy. Next time you see me should be the limited review for Aether Revolt.

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