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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Sep 17 2020 11:00am

Another Magic year has arrived, and it would be hard to be worse than the previous one in many aspects. Thankfully Zendikar Rising seems to be another power-down for Standard, instead forcing playables with extremely good lands (both the duals and most of the modal double-faced cards). However, what does that mean for Limited? Let’s start this Limited Review with the mechanics:



Party and related Tribal Themes:

While the lands are the star of the show, at its heart the tribes are what will define Limited for Zendikar Rising. While Clerics, Rogues, Warriors, and Wizards each have their own themes that will define Limited archetypes, the combination of members into a Party is much more interesting. Each color has different densities of the classes, and other than green each color is missing a class.


The payoffs are mostly evenly split through the non-green colors as well (though the blue ones aren’t great), but the question is how big you can expect your party to be. It feels like most of the effects are okay with one, good with two, and insane with three or more, so two feels like where you should aim for in general. This means the creatures with ETB abilities (Shepherd of Heroes, Drana's Silencer) are the best as you’re all but guaranteed one. The cost-reducing cards (Deadly Alliance, Seafloor Stalker also are mostly fine, as the top end is just getting a spell a bit later. Conversely the spells that scale on party size (Practiced Tactics, Strength of Solidarity) look bad as they’re difficult to set up and easy to disrupt.



The other trademark Zendikar theme is the one that makes you actually want to draw lands in the late game. Here it’s almost entirely in the Naya colors and almost entirely aggro-focused—not only are most of the Landfall cards focused on buffing creatures, the only instant-speed Landfall enablers are the uncommon Roiling Regrowth and Murasa Rootgrazer. However, unlike Battle for Zendikar, multiple creatures get +1/+1 counters on Landfall, so it’s useful long-term.



Another returning mechanic gives you a use for all the extra lands you’re playing. Every color gets a bit of kicker, but it’s heavily focused in Simic, including multiple payoffs for kicking spells. However, don’t be afraid to cast kicker spells without kicking them, especially if you need to for curve or the benefit is minor (Field Research, Bubble Snare). In general, it feels like most of the benefit of Kicker spells is on the front end this go-around, with Kicker as a bonus. That’s a good sign, as flexible cards are always better than they look.


Modal Double-Faced Cards (MDFCs):

Big picture, it’ll be interesting to see how “split permanents” play through the entire Magic year, especially if they’re as powerful as these cards—make no mistake, this land/spell split cards are extremely powerful, even the non-rare ones. If you played Amonkhet Remastered you know how powerful the cycling deserts are, and not only are most of these spells more powerful than “draw a card,” Landfall is a super-charged version of the Desert synergies, and there are a lot of ways to bounce lands to play their spells in the late game. It’s obviously not at the level where you should splash these lands, but these cards are near the top of the list, especially if they have any application in the late game (removal spells, protection, and relevant creatures).



White/Blue: Value Party

As one of the colors with all four party classes either primary or secondary, it makes sense that Azorius would be “Party-matters.” However, a control deck generally doesn’t want focus a lot of typically small creatures, a tension clearly demonstrated by the signpost Spoils of Adventure, which is great even with two party members, with everything else being gravy. However, it feels like there’s a cluster of random cards, without much direction, especially since most of the party cards in this combo are spells, which aren’t the ones I want to rely on. If it’s easier to keep a party around this deck could be good, but my gut is to splash Spoils of Adventure in one of the other tribal decks instead.


Blue/Black: Mill Rogues

Mill is a strange mechanic in Limited, especially when it’s the basis of an archetype and not a single build-around like Teferi's Tutelage. However, there’s actually a lot less mill than you would expect at lower rarities, with the repeatable sources all being uncommons. Instead, the most likely way to get to eight cards in the opponent’s graveyard is to trade cards with your opponent using removal or discard—in particular Mind Drain and Nimina Skydancer are efficient ways to enable the mill payoffs, but they still shouldn’t be the main focus. Overall it feels this archetype managed to hit the balance of making mill work in Limited without being overpowering, but that’s hard to tell without playing the set.


Black/Red: Aggro Party

Another Party-matters deck, but this time it’s an aggro deck, which makes more sense for putting a lot of creatures on the battlefield. On one hand the signpost Ravager's Mace seems bad compared to the average signpost (+2/+0 and Menace doesn’t seem great for three mana), but the other “Party-matters” payoffs seem great, including Acquisitions Expert, Thwart the Grave (seriously, this seems good even at full price, especially since you can use cards like Fissure Wizard to set it up), and Thundering Sparkmage. I don’t know how hard this deck is to build (or how many Stonework Packbeasts you need), but it seems very powerful if you can balance a party, and you still have a lot of great removal to fall back on.


Red/Green: Aggro Landfall

Wait, don’t run away people who played Battle for Zendikar! The aggro RG Landfall deck actually seems decent this time, as not only do you get a red Steppe Lynx (Akoum Hellhound) and multiple +2/+2 triggers at uncommon (Skyclave Pickaxe, Skyclave Geopede, Brushfire Elemental), enablers like Kazandu Stomper and especially Pyroclastic Hellion (which has fine stats on its own) give you the reach necessary. You also get the best MDFC’s, as green gives you the extremely efficient Bala Ged Recovery and Khalni Ambush, while Songmad Treachery and Kazuul's Fury give you “free” ways to close out a game. This deck might be dependent on picking up a bunch of MDFC’s (which will certainly be undervalued in the early days of the format, as all value lands are), but it has a very high ceiling.


Green/White: Value Landfall

Unfortunately, I’m not nearly as high on the other Landfall archetype. While the dream proposed by Murasa Rootgrazer is nice, by itself it’s just a two mana 2/3, and other than Fearless Fledgling the white Landfall cards aren’t great—Makindi Ox and Prowling Felidar are fine, but they’re also slow and don’t compete on the same axis, and I’m not even sure this deck really wants Canyon Jeroba. Unless this deck can go wider than it looks, I don’t think it’s a good idea to aim for this deck.


White/Black: Lifegain Clerics

Yes, lifegain makes sense to work with Clerics, but the theme is starting to get fatigued. However, there aren’t actually that many payoffs, just Marauding Blood Priest at common and a couple uncommons. Instead the creatures like Expedition Healer and Malakir Blood-Priest are efficient, and the MDFCs Skyclave Cleric and Zof Consumption work well in the theme. Overall it’s an average deck that’s reliant on getting enough payoffs to be good.


Blue/Red: Spell Wizards

Another familiar archetype, but again, the spell-connected payoffs are all uncommons and fine but not spectacular. Instead, the strength of this archetype comes from good individual cards like Expedition Diviner, Cunning Geysermage, and Fissure Wizard, along with good removal and tempo spells. Another fine deck, though it doesn’t feel like it has as much of a top-end as some of the other archetypes.


Black/Green: +1/+1 Counters

The one archetype that isn’t based on a tribe or a mechanic in Zendikar Rising is another traditional mechanic (even if it doesn’t appear in Golgari as much), and it’s a bit of a sleeper. It feels like Wizards is compensating a bit here, as unlike most of the archetypes the +1/+1 counter deck has multiple payoffs at common, with Hagra Constrictor and Gnarlid Colony to pair with the powerful uncommon build-arounds like Moss-Pit Skeleton (which seems very, very good). In addition, the color pair also is a good combination of the variety of party members in green with the great party payoffs in black, which you just get as a bonus, even if most of the important +1/+1 counter cards aren’t party members. It’s strange that this feels like it could be the best archetype, but the combination of strong cards with cards other archetypes don’t want works.


Red/White: Equipment Warriors

Another single tribe, another deck with undercooked payoffs. The equipment below rare isn’t great (a Relic Axe or Scavenged Blade is fine, but not something I want multiples of), and the Equipment payoffs are boring—heck, Kargan Warleader doesn’t even care about Equipment at all! However, unlike the other tribes, the baseline power isn’t here—Expedition Champion and Paired Tactician-type cards are fine, but the other decks either have better synergies or higher baseline power, so this feels like a deck I want to avoid. However, there’s an exception to that: Fireblade Charger is an extremely efficient card when combined with the cheap Equipment, and I can envision a deck that gets a ton of them (like 4 or more each of the Chargers and Relic Axe/Scavenged Blade) being a strong Slither Blade-style gimmick deck, especially if it’s mono-red or only splashes a couple bombs or pump spells.


Green/Blue: Kicker Ramp

As I mentioned in the opening, while the Kicker spells are good in this set, it doesn’t feel like you’re going to be kicking them as much, which is a problem when all the payoffs want you to kick the spells to get value. As such, it feels like the important Kicker spells are the cheap ones like Into the Roil, Bubble Snare, Shell Shield, and the best build-around Roost of Drakes. Strangely the ramp portion doesn’t feel as good, as there aren’t any common ramp spells and the uncommons ones are slow. Maybe Vastwood Surge is good enough on its own to make this deck work, but I wouldn’t start here.


Other Important Cards:

Looking at the entire set, there are a lot of “virtual vanilla” commons with ETB abilities, and a lot can swing combat like Angelheart Protector, Drana's Silencer, and Dauntless Survivor. The red removal is also a little bigger than usual, as while the premium common being 3 damage (Roil Eruption) isn’t surprising, there’s a lot of 4 damage burn spells in the set: Sizzling Barrage, Synchronized Spellcraft, and Thundering Rebuke. That makes five health the magic “safe” number in the set, which puts a premium on cards like Pyroclastic Hellion and Veteran Adventurer, as opposed to cards that look stronger like Shepherd of Heroes and Dreadwurm. Finally, one more reminder that versatility is better than you think it is, both with the Kicker cards and MDFCs. Overall, Zendikar Rising feels like an interesting set for Limited and Constructed, and while it isn’t the Masques-level downgrade that was needed after last year, it is a step in the right direction—and it can’t be worse than Battle for Zendikar.



When I originally wrote this up, I assumed I’d be entering a lighter period of articles, as my Pioneer Masters design was complete. However, then the Arena State of the Game threw everything into flux. While I’m glad Pioneer Masters is actually going to be designed like a Masters set (instead of just being a collection of constructed cards, though I don’t know why the Arena team needed to learn that Magic players like new Limited formats), swapping it with Kaladesh Remastered means I have a new set to design quickly (though it validates my design decision to exclude it from Pioneer Masters), so expect that soon.


As for the rest of the articles, Time Spiral Remastered’s design is mostly done, but I’m still planning to wait a bit on the article. Instead, the MTGO schedule brings back an article concept I had floated before: Mystery Boosters. I feel like there’s a way to do a “big picture” article on the set, so I might try and write that. The schedule also reminds me Commander Legends is coming to MTGO, but I feel out of my depth there—not only is Commander really not my format, I’m not sure if the format will lend itself to the type of analysis I do. After that, Kaldheim starts the cycle all over again, and then Pioneer Masters will show up eventually. Until then.



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