First Impressions of Battle for Zendikar

Posted in Event Coverage on September 12, 2015

By Oliver Gehrmann

It’s preview time and over the course of the past few weeks, we’ve already been introduced to more than a quarter of the cards that make up the upcoming expansion Battle for Zendikar. That should certainly suffice for some of our veterans to come up with a few early predictions of what the future metagame or draft format might look like. Without further ado, let’s hear it from the pros …

Ondřej Stráský

Ondřej Stráský finished his round-four feature match in just ten minutes, so I expected him to have an amazing deck. Ever the level-headed 20 year old, he quickly pointed out that his opponent hadn’t drawn into any good cards, so it wasn’t as big of an accomplishment as one might imagine. He added that he really liked Magic Origins: “It’s like my favorite set in a long time. It’s probably the best core set I’ve ever played.”

With that, we changed the conversation and talked about Battle for Zendikar. He immediately told me that he thought the set felt “super weird.” He elaborated, pointing out that many cards would only work well together with other cards and there’s no guarantee that you’d open them together. He said he expected another format where Limited decks would mostly sport two colors and felt it was more likely that the Standard metagame would shift toward monocolored decks instead of three or even more colors.

Stráský predicted the new lands to have the most significant influence on the metagame. While I’m not quoting him here directly, he basically claimed that they would open up a whole pandora’s box of possibilities: “There are so many options thanks to the dual lands. They improve your mana base a lot, so you might either be able to play some crazy five-color deck or super consistent two-color decks.”

Stráský told me that he was most excited for Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar when the new cards would first make their mark on the competitive scene. “The first Pro Tour after the rotation is always the best,” he said.

His favorite card out of the ones he had seen already was Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Asked about a “sleeper card” (a card others might underestimate in his opinion), he quickly pointed to Undergrowth Champion. He said that thanks to its powerful landfall effect, it might see a lot more play than people were expecting at this point in time.

Martin Dang

Martin Dang had already won a Grand Prix as well as a Pro Tour this year. The Dane was now aiming at a true hat trick, trying to travel back from the Spanish capital with yet another trophy in his luggage.

He was visibly excited when asked about Battle for Zendikar: “We talked a lot about it in our group. We identified a lot of good cards that can serve as a foundation for new decks; there are a lot of cards to build decks around. In fact, we already started brewing and we’re now really hoping that some of the remaining cards will fit in nicely with them!”

Dang agreed with Stráský over the lands having the biggest impact on the competitive scene. According to him, they would allow for three- or even four-colored decks. Suddenly, new combinations would become viable and players would be able to operate outside of the rather established shards and wedges.

While his team hadn’t tested a lot, he was feeling confident that some of their ideas would turn out to be viable, even though the lands do have the drawback of entering play tapped most of the time.

“We’re very much looking forward to trying out the Eldrazi Scions. We want to combine them with the big Eldrazis, like Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger to assemble a powerful ramp deck,” said Dang. He admitted that he was a big fan of the devoid mechanic. He explained that it probably was the best way to bind the creatures together and, in his opinion, far superior to making the cards all cost generic mana.

My next question was about a sleeper card and he quickly came up with Forerunner of Slaughter: “It could turn out to be a really powerful card. Other colorless cards are also powerful, but in their case, it’s often a lot more obvious, so you can’t really call them a ‘sleeper.’”

Unlike Stráský, Dang said that he liked Kiora, Master of the Depths the most out of the new Planeswalkers. “She’s gonna be a powerhouse in the new Standard format and she might as well be my favorite card in the new set. You just need to find a home for her, but I think she’ll see plenty of play.” His more detailed explanation included the fact that she works really well with many of the current Standard staples, so there would be an extremely high chance she was going to make some big waves (pun intended).

Before I let him off, Dang told me that he was a huge fan of the Zendikar Expeditions. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on some of these premium full art cards.

Raphaël Lévy

Raphaël Lévy was a lot more hesitant to point out cards that would have an impact in the future. He listed a number of reasons. Firstly, he thought it was very hard to make a correct prediction whether the new colorless (devoid) creatures were any good. Without enough support, they might not be that relevant.

Secondly, he said that a single card could quickly change an entire format. “Just think Siege Rhino. It turned the metagame upside down all on its own; everything we assumed to be true for the format turned out to be incorrect as Siege Rhino played such a major role. That’s why I don’t like to look too much at a set in advance. Sometimes, you’re jumping to conclusions that will then turn out not to be true at all.”

He admitted that he was a big fan of awaken, though, mostly since all of the cards that seemed to feature it were already rather playable without it. He compared it to kicker and said it felt somewhat similar.

Lévy’s favorite Planeswalker out of the three that have already been previewed was Ob Nixilis, Reignited. When I pointed out that all the other players we asked so far settled on the other two, the Hall of Famer explained his choice: “Gideon is good, but we’ve seen similar effects before. It seems slightly worse compared to existing cards, so I don’t think it’s the best out of the bunch. Kiora is double-colored and that’s always proven tricky. Also, her colors haven’t been very popular so far.”

Even the new lands weren’t a huge reason to rejoice for the French veteran. Once again, he made a number of great points explaining his hesitance. According to him, Abzan was mostly this good because of the scry lands. “They allowed you to reliably play three colors; if you were short on lands, you could simply dig deeper and find the lands you were missing,” he explained. “The dual lands don’t get you the fourth or fifth land when you’re missing them, so they don’t get you where you want to be.”

Lévy followed up on this interesting insight and made a somewhat bolder prediction; he told me that most of the multicolored cards would likely turn out worse than people were thinking at the moment.

I laid out Stráský’s reasoning why the Limited format might turn out to be a little “clunky.” Lévy didn’t hesitate this time around, immediately pointing out that he was siding with the Czech prodigy. He compared the new set to past blocks like Scars of Mirrodin, where you had themes like infect (and non-infect). Many times, you weren’t able to put together a deck that was making the most of the tools of the respective archetype in the Limited formats as you were lacking enough cards that featured the important keyword.

This led me to a challenging question to round out this article: Come up with your best case scenario for the missing cards of the set. Lévy wouldn’t take the bait and instead of giving us concrete examples of cards that would enable various strategies, he went with a more generic statement: “I think anything that’s different from Theros would be good. Anything that makes the format shift a little—not just cards to replace the rotating Theros cards—would be great. You want to play other games instead of the same old, so that’s my hope for the remaining cards.”

You can tell that some of our veterans have already spent quite some time thinking about the new cards. A wise man once said that “luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” If that is to be believed, many of our veterans will be very lucky once Battle for Zendikar becomes tournament legal.

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