Battle for Zendikar: The alternative set review

With yet another spoiler season drawing to a close I wanted to talk a little about Battle for Zendikar. I don’t have the patience for a full blown list of every card (and there are plenty of regulars who would do a far better job of it than I) so I’ve decided to cover a few different categories.

  • The cards I most want to play with.
  • The cards I least want to play against.
  • The cards I most want to get hold of a set of quickly.

The format I play the most is draft but this will lean into the realms of constructed as well.

The cards I most want to play with.

First up I’m very much hoping that I manage, at least once, to pull of a Black/Green Eldrazi Scion sacrifice Deck in limited. There seems to be a reasonable number of options to do this without getting lucky with rares, although I want to start a draft with Brood Butcher.

Another limited deck I’d like to pull off is allies with a hint of lifegain. I’m a great fan of limited decks capable of ending the game on a silly amount of life (I’ve had some 3xKTK Abzan mirror matches ending on 50 or 60) and Lantern Scout strikes me as one capable of pulling that off. The allies deck itself seems pretty fun, but I’m not convinced it wont be the thing that’s fought over in draft (especially given its quite heavily in white and where I play whites often over drafted, although that’s probably just us).

en_2VDtpv4Pu8 en_Yuxp4WpiVBWhen it comes to the properly big stuff…I haven’t actually played in an environment where this kind of thing was particularly viable (I came back to the game around New Phyrexia). From what I head Rise of the Eldrazi was a hell of a format but with the reduced number of Scions vs Spawn and the fact that they’re more combat relevant I don’t know if it will actually be viable to try and cast a ten-drop in limited. That doesn’t mean though that I won’t be giving it a go. I’m rather hoping to get a desolation twin or Ulamog win in somewhere along the line. Here’s hoping for something even bigger and sillier in OGW.

The cards I least want to play against.

There are certain kinds of cards that rub me up the wrong way in draft games. Usually they’ll be things that very rapidly turn a game into something extremely one sided. Sometimes these are overpowered cards, or hard to interact with “if this happens you’re done” cards (recently Sagu Mauler springs to mind). “Bad” cards are just as likely to appear here because magical Christmas land doesn’t look so good from the outside.

First mention goes to a pair of cards which, while not inherently unfair are going to reduce a lot of draft games which could otherwise have been turned around into one sided smash fests. While both of these abilities require the player using them to at least have a board position and preferably a stream of allies but when they DO work it wont be a feel good moment for the player on the defense.

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Swarm Surge gives me the same feeling of a game rapidly turning into crap. Given the amount of devoid, colourless and scions around I can see it not being that unreasonable to be utterly blown out by this from a fairly stable board. Although I do want to give this one a try, especially if I can get a scion heavy deck.

The cards I will want to get hold of quickly

With every new set that comes out I always prioritize the same 2 things, before anything fun like planeswalkers and bomby creatures. Lands and removal.

These…whatever the final decision on their name turns out to be…slow-ish fetchable duals…They’re far from exciting (a major theme of this section) but they’re what we have and if we want to play standard we’re playing them. And I doubt an extra fetchable dual will hurt in commander or a lower power cube like mine (once i add fetches of course).

As for man-lands I have a particular liking for the black/white one, especially given I’ll be needing a replacement for Temple of Silence in the warrior tribal deck. Oh yeah and whatever the horrendous Abzan deck of the format is I’m sure it’ll slot straight in.

Then there’s removal, since RTR came out I’ve always focused on getting the better rare removal. Mizzium Mortars, Abrupt Decay, Dreadbore, Hero’s Downfall and similar cards are almost certainly going to get used at some point and most pull their weight through standard and on into commander and cube beyond that.

en_rU0CrkrtQ7“Not quite Hero’s Downfall” is by no means bad. I played Dreadbore plenty, especially in my late beloved Mardu Vampires deck and this has a nice little potential upside to it.

en_m3i8eGb71O“That exact thing there can sod right off” will probably slot into every commander deck I make on the general principle that it will fill in whatever removal void the colour combination lacks. My mono-black demon tribal Ob Nixilis deck immediately springs to mind.

en_PitAVDWBFmSpeaking of Ob Nixilis, it’s Ob Nixilis. This new one doesn’t exactly break new ground, but…well it’s just a huge heaping pile of value on a card. Basically new Ob Nixilis is the card you would design if you wanted to explain the textbook examples of a solid planeswalker. At the absolute minimum he’s card parity, killing a creature or drawing a card to replace itself and if left unchecked will absolutely dominate the game. He isn’t too expensive, he has enough loyalty to survive a lot of pounding and his ultimate will win the game in short order.

en_cWrCnmEiuPOf course there’s a place for creatures too and I’ve taken a liking to Undergrowth Champion, particularly along with Avatar of the Resolute. I’m thinking of attempting to build up either GW +1+1 counters or going into Abzan for Abzan Ascendancy…yes and Siege Rhino. Alternatively you could go all in on mono-green with hardened scales, Managorger Hydra…maybe Den Protector.

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There’s a bonus mention here for “All the Eldrazi” as all this colourless goodness is making me crave a 5 colour Eldrazi ramp EDH deck complete with all the Eldrazi legends (because sometimes casual is fun) and Progenitus as commander. All silly, all the time.

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Filling this sets desirable uncommon slot is Sylvan Scrying. Not a lot to say but I’ll definitely want to pick up a few.

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Also in the desirable uncommon slot is Stasis Snare. While it’s not as universal as O Ring, “exile target creature” is still pretty good. Especially as a sideboard vs anyone unlikely to be able to easily get rid of it.

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Scatter to the Winds is another “unexciting but playable” entry. This time “cancel with slight upside” makes a 3/3 in the late game. That’s by no means bad. I was quite happy with Dissolve and Dissipate and they were both fairly slight upsides. I’d happily play a couple of these in a deck that wants them.

And Finally…

Today’s honorable mention, the Battle for Zendikar special award for the card I will most come to resent opening in packs…

It’s a straight up tie…I couldn’t make my mind up between hard to cast, limited targeting mind control and a derpy limited effect enchantment.

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Granted I might be horribly undervaluing these but…I don’t THINK so.

I’m a little warmer to the other converge cards. Lose 3 and draw 3 is by no means bad and an adjustable Pyroclasm could be cool.

My rampant speculation for the next set is “Red will be pushed”. Every other colour seems to be getting nicer toys in this one so I’m going to go for a playable Chandra and a couple decent burn spells at the lower end (perhaps not a 1R for 3 burn but something to serve as constructed burn filler).

Introductory decks for new players/casual games

A few months ago a couple of friends expressed an interest in learning to play and I started thinking about what I had which would be suited to teaching a new player (or for a first few paper games for someone who had only played duels).

All I really had at the time that was playable were my commander decks, which aren’t really the best introduction and the cube which…well I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

I did have some modern and standard decks but nothing which is on any kind of similar power level or which is intact from one week to the next (I sacrificed many decks to build the cube).

There are the wizards starter decks (see here, theyre little 30 card dealies made of recent commons and uncommons) but I didn’t want to go and get these online, nor do I particularly like the decks themselves. I would much rather, if teaching someone to play, give them something with a higher power level, some more appealing cards  and a full 60 card deck.

That in mind I set out to make a set of decks for new players (and for the odd casual game where someone wants to test a deck, not modern level stuff just casual/standard level decks).

I settled on one deck in each colour, using a small number of rares and some favourite commons/uncommons that I don’t often get to use.

I also wanted some of the traditional archetypes such as green being big dumb creatures, and black being big on removal.

The original decks were including cards up to Khans block but I wanted to upgrade to some origins cards so here are the new versions.

New Player Training Deck - White - 10/09/2015

Creatures (28)
Elite Vanguard
Doomed Traveler
Gideon's Lawkeeper
Consul's Lieutenant
Alabaster Mage
Precinct Captain
War Priest of Thune
Attended Knight
Fiend Hunter
Gideon's Avenger
Mausoleum Guard
War Oracle
Serra Angel

Spells (2)
Midnight Haunting

Enchantments (4)
Pacifism
Honor of the Pure

Artifacts (2)
Bonesplitter

Land (24)
24 Plains

The white deck has a pretty clear theme of making tokens then buffing the whole team, so pretty traditional white weenie. There’s some “temporary removal” and Serra Angel as an iconic white card (and just because its cool). This is also the only deck to have any equipment, and it’s as simple an equipment as you can really get.

New Player Training Deck - Blue - 10/09/2015

Creatures (22)
Palace Familiar
Mindshrieker
Azure Mage
Jeskai Elder
Jhessian Thief
Wind Drake
Watercourser
Mist Raven
Mistfire Adept
Tower Geist
Soulblade Djinn

Spells (10)
Unsummon
Mana Leak
Dissolve
Crippling Chill
Divination

Enchantments (2)
Domestication

Artifacts (2)
Aether Spellbomb

Land (24)
24 Island

Blue is, as you would likely guess, the spell heavy tempo deck. Theres some prowess added from Khans and Origins along with a big pile of evasion.

Also this deck wants to draw a LOT of cards. Physically the creatures are a little weaker than the other decks but if you can stall out the game you should be able to drown your opponents in cards.

New Player Training Deck - Black - 10/09/2015

Creature (24)
Typhoid Rats
Malakir Cullblade
Hand of Silumgar
Child of Night
Onyx Mage
Blood Scrivener
Markov Patrician
Nantuko Husk
Soulcage Fiend
Undead Executioner
Rakshasa Gravecaller
Bloodgift Demon

Spells (10)
Sign in Blood
Doom Blade
Murder
Tribute to Hunger
Gild

Enchantments (2)
Shadows of the Past

Land (24)
24 Swamp

I’ve opted for a sacrifice/death trigger theme for black with an alternate win con of Shadows of the Past (or just an incredibly hench Nantuko Husk).

New Player Training Deck - Red - 10/09/2015

Creatures (24)
Forge Devil
Lightning Berserker
Ashmouth Hound
Stormblood Berserker
Abbot of Keral Keep
Crimson Mage
Scab Clan Berserker
Acolyte of the Inferno
Goblin Heelcutter
Scourge of Geier Reach
Zealous Conscripts

Spells (10)
Fiery Impulse
Tormenting Voice
Searing Spear
Pyrotechnics

Enchantment (2)
Madcap Skills

Land (24)
24 Mountain

Red has a lot of creatures which are either hard to block or which punish blocking plus a good assortment of burn. Burn goes without saying. I’ve also allowed a little bit of dash into this one as its a fairly straightforward mechanic (the previous version actually had archwing dragon).

New Player Training Deck - Green - 10/09/2015

Creature (26) (26)
Llanowar Elves
Darkthicket Wolf
Jade Mage
Alpine Grizzly
Netcaster Spider
Briarpack Alpha
Somberwald Alpha
Giant Spider
Thragtusk
Woodborn Behemoth
Arbor Colossus
Garruk's Horde

Spells (8)
Titanic Growth
Tread Upon
Prey Upon
Cultivate

Enchantment (2)
Triumph of Ferocity

Land (24) (24)
24 Forest

Green is exactly what you would expect, ramp, big creatures some things that play off having the biggest baddest creature on the field.

I’ve played a fair few games with people who only have casual decks with these and they’ve worked pretty well for that. They’ve also been a success when taking people through their first couple of games.

The match ups weren’t perfect in the previous versions, for example green tended to die to the flyer heavy decks a little too often. These current versions contain some tweaks which I’m hoping will rebalance them slightly.

The KING of Draft Decks

Sometimes a draft just comes together and you get a fantastic polished machine of a deck, something that almost feels like constructed-lite. I was lucky enough to have one of those last Friday. For context this was a 6 man draft and in the end Blue seemed pretty open even with me hogging all the good red (Blue is traditionally rather under drafted in my group, at least in this set).

The draft opened with a Scab-Clan Berserker, and I followed that by sticking to red as my main colour throughout pack 1. In general I try and stick to 1 main colour in pack 1 just to stay open for later in the draft and that worked pretty well here as I pretty effectively staked out red and had my choice (mostly in pack 2 where i picked up Skysnare Spider, Undercity Troll and Valeron Wardens) of pretty much anything as support.

In fact for the entire draft red stayed wide open so I was able to pick up multiples of some of the better cards. In fact its only Undercity Troll that really convinced me to not try mono red.

Also as a fun little bonus I picked up a Hangarback Walker as my rare in pack 3, although he didn’t come out that much except as win-more in a couple of games. The walker was only hugely relevant in one odd game where I started with it and removal and pretty much had to play defensively for a long time (in that situation the Walker is an all star, constantly threatening to get beyond the reach of combat).

By the end of the draft I had the following

Draft - 28/08/2015

Creatures (16)
Hangarback Walker
Subterranean Scout
Undercity Troll
Leaf Gilder
Akroan Sergeant
Ghirapur Gearcrafter
Thopter Engineer
Scab-Clan Berserker
Valeron Wardens
Firefiend Elemental
Skysnare Spider

Spells (7)
Titan's Strength
Fiery Impulse
Ravaging Blaze
Wild Instincts

Land (17)
Mountain
Forest
Sideboard (18)
Thopter Engineer
Lightning Javelin
Goblin Glory Chaser
Magmatic Insight
Cobblebrute
Volcanic Rambler
Smash to Smithereens
Mage-ring Bully
Elvish Visionary
Evolutionary Leap
Vastwood Gorger
Hydrolash
negate
Nivix barrier
Nantuko Husk
Fetid Imp
Heavy Infantry
Throwing Knife

Round one was vs BG Elves and opened with a truly ridiculous start of T2 Undercity Troll, T3 Valeron Wardens, T4 Firefiend Elemental. By the end of the game I had a full board on top of about 6 cards in hand from a stream of renown triggers. It was a sort of magical christmas land moment.

Game 2 wasn’t so outright ridiculous but still progressed similarly.  I did over extend a little but decided the odds of the one card that could stop me, Eyeblight Massacre (which admittedly my opponent had in his deck), actually appearing was limited enough and the risk did pay off.

Round 2 was a UB control build. In games 1 and 3 he just didn’t have the blockers to survive the relentless onslaught of dudes. Game 2 my opponent got pretty much all removal until a Possessed Skaab to return MORE REMOVAL while I got badly flooded out (it happens to us all from time to time) and couldn’t maintain any kind of relevant board presence.

Round 3 was a tempo-ey UW flyers deck. Again the early rush proved too much except for one bizarre game where I opened on Hangarback Walker + a guy and my opponent removed the guy and put Grasp of the Hieromancer on a creature putting me in a strange defensive position of having to bluff the boardstate into allowing me to appear to need to chump with the walker then pump him to get large enough to trade. That series of things drained enough of my opponents toys though that I was able to rebuild afterwords with an assortment of Thopter makers.

Sadly over the entire course of the night I never saw Skysnare Spider or Ravaging Blaze.

As a thought experiment I’ve put together what is probably the best mono-red deck you could get from this pool.

Draft Mono R Variant - 28/08/2015

Creatures (16)
Hangarback Walker
Goblin Glory Chaser
Subterranean Scout
Akroan Sergeant
Ghirapur Gearcrafter
Thopter Engineer
Scab-Clan Berserker
Firefiend Elemental
Cobblebrute
Volcanic Rambler

Spells (7)
Titan's Strength
Fiery Impulse
Ravaging Blaze
Lightning Javelin

Land (17)
17 Mountain
Sideboard (18)
Magmatic Insight
Smash to Smithereens
Mage-ring Bully
Elvish Visionary
Evolutionary Leap
Vastwood Gorger
Undercity Troll
Leaf Gilder
Valeron Wardens
Wild Instincts
Skysnare Spider
Hydrolash
negate
Nivix barrier
Nantuko Husk
Fetid Imp
Heavy Infantry
Throwing Knife

The question to me is do you run Goblin Glory Chaser or Throwing Knife…Im genuinely not sure…probably the Knife.

 

NOTES FROM A WEEK LATER:

This Friday just gone I managed to end up with an extremely similar deck, albeit slightly slower. I don’t have the full list to hand but this time I had 3 Lightning Javelin, 1 Exquisite Firecraft and 3 Fiery Impulse…yeah…quite happy with that. Creature wise I lost the thopter makers and Hangarback, getting double Zendikar Incarnate, another Undercity Troll and a couple of Yeva’s Forcemage.

I didn’t manage 3-0 this time, instead i won the first two rounds then lost to a bizarre Angels Tomb+War Horn+Flameshadow Conjuring+wide assortment of 1 drop creatures deck. I didn’t see THAT coming I can say that much.