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Sep 25 2015 1:00pm
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Welcome to Ars Arcanum, the MTGO numbers-based limited column. This installment is the Battle for Zendikar (BFZ) spoiler analysis. Zendikar is a set that is close to my heart. It represents the time where I went from being a solid player to being a limited commentator in the Magic community. I went from just playing Magic to writing and talking about Magic on a large scale. While I am always excited for Magic set releases, Zendikar carries such emotional tones for me that I feel a special connection to its return. In this installment I’ll try to approach the spoiler from a numerical standpoint and try to divine some of the key trends and principles of the format.

These articles are based on three major principles. First, I focus mostly on creatures stats because they are the foundation of limited. Second, I like to focus more on analysis and exploration rather than prediction. It is more useful to look at the format and raise questions than to try and make perfect predictions about a format that almost no one has even played. Third, one of the foundations of these articles is the concept of rarity weight, which basically means that I run the numbers based on how frequently a card will appear in a draft with 24 packs, which means that commons are weighted more heavily than uncommons and so on. I will also focus my energy on analyzing triple Battle for Zendikar draft. While there are certainly many differences between draft and sealed, I hope that many of the things we see in this analysis will be transferable to the sealed format.

All right, let’s jump into the numbers!

 

Converted Mana Costs

Converted Mana Costs of Creature in Battle for Zendikar

Converted Mana Cost Comparison of Creatures in Magic: Origins

Comparing the converted mana costs of these sets side by side gives us our first impressions about how the format is going to play. It tells us how much we are going to pay for our creatures, but it also tells us which slots on the mana curve are going to see the most competition.

The second chart in particular gives us a sense of how Battle for Zendikar is a significant outlier for CMC. We see a chart with a few two drops but with an about equal number of three and four drops. And unlike most formats, we also see Battle for Zendikar holding steadily near the top for every CMC slot after four. This is very strange. Most of our recent formats feature more three drops than anything, followed by several twos and fours. When I was staring at the curve for BFZ, I had a really hard time figuring out which set was most similar, so I went back through my spoiler analysis articles and found Dragon’s Maze. In that set, we saw more threes and fours than anything else, and we also saw more late game cards than in most sets. For Dragon’s Maze, this was caused by the Gatekeepers and Maze Elementals respectively, common cycles at particular mana costs that made the set bunch up at four and six.

It’s hard to say how this will affect BFZ. Dragon’s Maze was a small set that entered as a partner to two large sets, so it had a very minimal impact on its draft format. On the other hand, Battle for Zendikar will be drafted by itself for several months. My best guess is that Battle for Zendikar will feature a lot of tension between two competing factors for two drops. On the one hand, premium two drops like Makindi Sliderunner or Snapping Gnarlid are going to outshine the other two drops by a huge amount, and the competition for those cards will be very steep. On the other hand, there will be plenty of powerful three and four drop creatures that can come down and outclass the two drops. Having the best two drops will put players at a significant advantage relative to the field, but having mediocre two drops will be a serious liability. My best guess is that the aggro and tempo decks will be well-positioned to be successful in draft, but that many decks will revolve around midrange and control strategies. Of course, this is all speculation based on just mana cost, but I would count this indicator in favor of the format being slightly slower than normal.

Battle for Zendikar comes with another peculiarity that is appropriate for Zendikar, which is an abundance of cards at the 6, 7, and 8+ range of mana costs. This is exactly what we expect, since we have Eldrazi that need to come down and clean up the late game. I am still not entirely sure how the abundance of these cards will affect the format. It definitely means that long board stalls will be difficult to maintain in the format, since you can just jam your Breaker of Armies in and wipe out your opponent’s entire team. On the other hand, every deck is going to have access to powerful late game cards, which may turn the later turns into more of a top deck battle.

However, the key thing with these expensive cards is that in practice they are not as expensive as they appear. In a normal set, you can reliably hit land drops up until turn 4, but then it starts to become difficult to make each drop consistently. In Battle for Zendikar there are lots of reasons to play extra land, as well as utility lands that make mana and act as spells, which means you are more likely to hit your later land drops, but even more importantly, roughly 10% of the cards in any given pack produce Eldrazi Scions, which are 1/1 colorless token creatures that can be sacrifice to generate 1 colorless mana.

In order to better understand the effect of the Scions, I decided to do a side-by-side comparison of what the more expensive cmcs look like when you can consistently use just one Eldrazi Scion to power them out. I only did this simulation for cards that cost 6 or more mana, because most of the cards that produce Eldrazi Scions cost either 3 or 4 mana. This means you will often not have any Eldrazi Scions online until the point where you want to start dropping your five drops. This is what that comparison looks like:

This chart gives us a very different picture. Now we see an abundance of five drops, passing up even the four drops. It’s impossible to accurately predict how Eldrazi Scions will be used in game, but this chart demonstrates that adding only a pinch of ramp into the format means that you can usually bring your expensive and game swinging spells online much sooner. It seems that Battle for Zendikar is going to have a more dynamic and swingy late game than most formats, but that late game also seems like it will come online much sooner than in other formats. It will likely be a necessity to have a plan to deal with large swings in board position from turns 6 and onward. This might mean building a more aggressive deck with some key removal and pump spells. That type of deck will likely be able to put out threats that are too efficient for the ramp decks to handle in the early game, and then destabilize their opponents with some well-timed disruption to power through a rocky late game. It might mean valuing tempo spells like Clutch of Currents a little more highly since they can throw the slower decks off balance, and it definitely means that aggro decks will want to take advantage of late game mana sinks like Valakut Invoker or Oran-Rief Invoker. The other difficulty is that the slow decks will have to be aware than any deck is going to have dramatic plays in the late game, and that simply having a couple of Eldrazi in your deck won’t mean that you have the late game locked up.

 

Power and Toughness

Distribution of Power and Toughness Among Creatures in Battle for Zendikar

Average Power and Toughness Per Converted Mana Cost

Average Greatest Power and Toughness per Land Drop

 

Battle for Zendikar Average Creature Stats

CMC

3.720659

Power

2.604442

Toughness

2.833264

P/T Differ

-0.22882

  

 

The CMC chart for BFZ was very different from other sets that we have seen, but the Power and Toughness charts are about as predictable and standard as we could hope. We see that the 2 and 3 power are the most common averages powers as well as toughness. It is important to note that 3 toughness is a little more common than 2 toughness, and that toughness hovers above power at each slot after two. Toughness does sit a lot higher than power, we aren’t seeing a difference like we had in Khans of Tarkir, for example. The biggest difference between this set and others is that there are simply more creatures at the 6, 7, and 8 mana slots, but the format is still going to revolve around 2/2s, 2/3s, and 3/2s, like most of the formats that we see.

The Average Creature Stats chart for BFZ is fascinating. We have the highest Average CMC for any set that I’ve analyzed, though Rise of the Eldrazi would probably come in higher. It would be comparable to KTK if that set just didn’t have morph, but that’s a similarity that is very deceptive, since morph was so pivotal to that set. Power also has the highest average of the sets I’ve analyzed, though not by as much as CMC, and Toughness does not rate as high on the historical averages, coming in a bit behind Dragon’s Maze.

Of course, the most important indicator on is Power and Toughness Differential (P/T Differ). This is the difference between the average power and toughness, and it is so important to these analyses because it is highly predictive of the speed of the format. Essentially, this number expresses how easy it is for a player’s creatures to attack into a board and trade with something. Average toughness is almost always higher than power, so this number is almost always negative, and when it isn’t, those sets tend to be very fast. P/T Differential is definitely not the only indicator that matters; the way the mechanics interact with the set are also a huge part of the speed of a format, but it is very good for giving us an approximate range. Magic Origins, for example, had a P/T differential that suggested the speed of the format would range from a little faster than average to a bit faster than average. The mechanics for the set ended up putting it farther along the fast spectrum. For BFZ, the numbers would put the set in the middle to somewhat fast range, which doesn’t seem to jive with what we’ve seen from the CMC charts.

This is the problem that I’ve been trying to resolve with this set. The set seems to be basically split down the middle between very fast cards and very slow cards. It’s going to be impossible to predict how the format will end up playing out until after we get to play more with the cards. I will say that fast strategies tend to put more pressure on the format. We could assume that WotC developed the set so that the slow strategies would be balanced with the fast strategies, but it’s important to keep in mind that WotC has an inveterate habit of underestimating how fast a format will end up being. We saw this with Zendikar where landfall made the format much faster, but we also saw this in Avacyn Restored which was intended to be a slow format, Theros which was supposed to have tension between faster decks and slow decks that built up monsters, and even in Dragons of Tarkir which was a fast enough format that the 4/4 dragons for 6 were often unplayable, and never exceptional. R&D’s job is to test all kinds of decks to figure out what is the most fun, and that kind of mindset makes it easy to underestimate the speed of the format since they will push themselves into strategies that might be suboptimal to see how playable they end up being. That simple act draws pressure away from the speed of the format. But when a set goes to the public, we push as hard as possible on the most optimal strategies, and so we tend to skew more towards efficiency and speed, which drives the format to be faster.

This is my worry for Battle for Zendikar, that several interesting strategies will be laced into the set, but that they will just be suboptimal compared with aggressive Landfall, Devoid, or Ally decks that put too much pressure on the rest of the format. It’s possible that this won’t happen, but the numbers are trending in that direction.

I do have one more chart for Power and Toughness that might be a good sign for people wanting to draft these bigger strategies. In the CMC section, I showed what the format looked like when accounting for having an Eldrazi Scion to drive down the cost of the more expensive cards, and I also ran the numbers of Average P/T per CMC when we account for the Scion:

This chart shows a much steeper curve than the previous chart. It shows high quality creatures with an average of about 4 power and toughness coming down on T5 with some consistency, and then quickly ramping up to 5/5s and 7/7s. This steeper chart might mean that the inclusion of scions in the format is enough to put the ramp strategies into competition with the more conventional strategies. This could be key, because these big strategies can overwhelm conventional strategies provided that the big strategy can come online before it dies. This is the biggest question in the format, how will the slow strategies compete with the fast strategies?

In the next section, I’m going to have several charts for removal. This is a feature I added to my last spoiler analysis. There were people asking for more detail on those charts, so I’ve decided to include the full charts for each of the six categories. It’s worth mentioning that in removal, I’ve included both point and kill removal spells as well as things like bounce spells or edict effects, though those spells have different ratings on effectiveness and card advantage.

 

Removal

Percentage Removal per Pack

Percentage Removal per pack is a fairly obvious category. It refers to how many cards in a random pack will be removal spells on average. The average over time has stayed almost exactly at 20% for years, which is about 2.8 cards per pack. This number has fluctuated up and down, but overall Magic sets tend to have the same number of removal pieces. Battle for Zendikar comes in a little bit higher than that, but about where we expect large expansions to be anyway. There are around 3 removals per pack, but the quality of those removal cards is what really matters, and that’s what the following charts are trying to demonstrate.

Rarity Weighted Converted Mana Cost of Removal

Battle for Zendikar continues the trend upwards for the cost of removal. In fact, it comes in with the third highest average CMC for removal since Invasion, just behind Legions (the all creature set) and Worldwake. The removal in Battle for Zendikar is expensive, even relative to recent sets. The good news is that the average CMC of creatures in the set is also higher. It is important to point out that this is another indicator that favors the faster and more conventional limited strategies, since they will be gaining tempo on the removal in BFZ.

Rarity Weighted Toughness Hit

This part is a little bit hard to grasp at first, but Rarity Weighted Toughness basically just asks how much damage the removal does. It also includes –X/-X effects, which is why it isn’t just called damage, but it basically tells us what toughness the removal spells can kill. BFZ continues the upward trend for toughness in removal, coming in as the fourth highest in this category, a bit behind the outliers of Saviors of Kamigawa and Innistrad and Khans of Tarkir. Saviors was an outlier because it had several cards that scaled according to the number of cards in your hand, and Innistrad was an outlier because it had an “unlucky 13” theme which skewed the average to be much higher. Outside of the outliers, the toughness affecting removal in Battle for Zendikar hits bigger creatures than any set except for Khans of Tarkir. This is mostly because creatures have gotten bigger over time; dealing 3 damage now kills about the same number of creatures that 2 damage killed 10 years ago.

Removal Restrictions

Restrictions basically refers to the range of creatures that can be affected by removal. Murder gets a 1, Doom Blade gets a 2, and Dark Betrayal gets a 5. R&D has made a concerted effort to increase the restrictions of removal over the past 10 years, but we can see an obvious change in philosophy since Khans of Tarkir. The development team has said that they feel they pushed the removal quality too far down and that they are trying to swing the pendulum back towards the middle, and it appears that they are doing exactly that in the restriction category. The spells are more expensive than they have ever been, but they also kill things that need to be killed, just at a higher cost.

Removal Effectiveness

Effectiveness is a difficult rating, but it basically asks “how dead is the creature.” Exile is the most deadest the creature can get, so it is the highest rating. Bouncing is a two because the creature is off the board but it is coming back later. A one means that the creature is merely weakened on board, such as in the case of a card like Tightening Coils. Battle for Zendikar sees a bump up in removal effectiveness, but I suspect that this is an artifact of the exile matters theme in the set. If we ignored the exile theme, the average would probably fall closer in line with recent sets.

Card Advantage of Removal

This is the first category for Battle for Zendikar where we see a significant difference from previous sets. Card Advantage has seen the biggest decrease over the past ten years out of all the six categories. Removal no longer helps your game plan progress forward, it merely stops your opponent’s plan. But in BFZ, that is different. We’re seeing numbers here that puts BFZ more in line with silver age removal like in Zendikar or Lorwyn block. This is mostly a result of Awaken spells like Sheer Drop, which can kill a creature and then leave something on the board. Again, it seems that R&D is trying to swing back the pendulum from how far the removal has fallen, especially in RTR and Theros blocks.

I’m not sure if this favors the fast decks or the slow decks. For the fast decks, it means that they can take out big creatures, gain tempo, and still add threats to the board. But perhaps it means that the slower decks can lean more heavily on removal spells that can take out key creatures

 

Conclusions and Recommendations

Figuring out Battle for Zendikar has been very difficult. Khans of Tarkir took more work simply because I had to model so many things to figure out the Morphs complexity, one I did that, the analysis basically wrote itself. Battle for Zendikar, by comparison, has taken me more thinking and pondering and talking with other people than any other format. This format is a tough nut to crack, and it looks to be among the most strategically complex limited formats that we have seen ever. Or, it might just be that the fast decks overwhelm the format the best archetypes quickly become clear. Who knows?

I really can’t come down on a hard prediction for the speed of this format. I don’t think that it is going to be fast like Magic: Origins, but I am also sure that it will not be nearly as slow as Rise of the Eldrazi (by example). In fact, I suspect that it will be faster even than Khans of Tarkir. I very much doubt that this is going to be a slow format, though I’m certain that there will be people that call it slow. I don’t even think that the “slow” decks are that slow; they are really just ramp decks that are putting out late game threats earlier than they would be able to do in another format. This is a format with lots of powerful and cheap creatures, it’s a format with lots of haste creatures in Awaken that can swing a board position quickly, and it’s a format that can ramp out board dominating threats two turns earlier than would be normal. I suspect that even the slow decks will be trying to race their opponents more than they are trying to control the board, though there is also probably a UB Devoid control deck to be found.

One of the biggest questions that people always have when I write these articles is for me to rank the colors in the set. I don’t find that analysis to be very valuable, since it is so much more important to figure out the key principles of the format, the factors and pressures on the format that will be driving the gameplay, so I won’t include that here. With that said, I’ve added a new feature on my blog in which I give weekly limited power rankings, and here is a link to my BFZ Week Zero Power Rankings.

As always, thanks for sticking through to the end of the article. If you want to find more information from me, you can check out my blog at oraymw.wordpress.com. I’ve had some pieces go up lately that I am very proud of, and I also always link to the latest Ars Arcanum from there, and I’ll be providing a few extra details that didn’t make it into the article at that location. You can also follow me on twitter @oraymw for updates about when articles go live, as well as daily discussion about Magic and limited. Finally, feel free to leave any comments below, or drop me a line at my blog or on twitter. See you next time!

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