Zendikar is a whole new plane, and one where the lands themselves are key players in this magical game of ours. It is a place where the sense of adventure and exploration motivate its inhabitants to climb the highest mountain, swim the deepest sea, and generally behave in the sort of fashion that would be worthy of a good 80s power ballad.
Our own exploration of Zendikar begins next Saturday with the Prerelease event. Here, players from all over can begin their quest to delve into what this new plane has to offer, playing with the cards before the set is even released! This experience is a fun event for players of all levels and a great introduction to tournament Magic, where everyone is unified by the fact that they are getting to know new cards together.
Setting out such a journey is one of the most exciting parts of the game of Magic for me. I love playing, but more than this, I get a real kick out of putting together all the pieces in the puzzle, building new decks, and making up my own mind on how best to traverse new and unfamiliar territory. This is one of those fun occasions where one can crack open a pack, and see something wholly unexpected, sparking off new ideas aplenty, through the new options it offers.
A journey like this needn't be a venture into the complete unknown. In fact, I would strongly recommend packing as much of a guide-book with you as you can, because it would be a real shame to miss out on any of the sights just due to poor planning. In my real-life travels writing about Magic, I have on occasion gotten to an unfamiliar country and hoped to wing it, finding fun things to do with only happenstance as my guide. While this is sometimes fun, these days I'm not above trying to find out a little about where I will end up before I get there, so that I always have plenty to see and do.
Don't Be Afraid to Ask for Directions!
In my experience, people don't tend to ask for directions until they are well and truly lost. At the Zendikar Prerelease there is a whole team of people who are there to help make sure you stay on track for a fantastic day of Magic.
You have probably noticed all the preview articles here on what is colloquially known as "the Mothership." Magicthegathering.com has links to a whole host of useful bits of information for you going to the Prerelease. From locations and timings, to card previews and strategy ideas, this is a great place to start. Step one achieved!
Your Local Shop / Tournament Organizer
Once you've located a Prerelease you'd like to attend, your tournament organizer is a really helpful person to know. If you find that you are uncertain about any of the details about where the event is, when it will start, or how it will work in any fashion, the tournament organizer should have all the answers you could wish for. If you're unsure of anything like this, it makes sense to check if you can. I once found myself at entirely the wrong college campus to go to a Prerelease because I hadn't thought to check my directions. That was a long walk I could have done without.
Judges, judges, judges
Without the keen judging staff present at Prereleases, we'd probably have problems on our hands. These are the guys and girls who can help make sure that you understand how your cards work, how your opponents cards work, and how that all fits together. Judging staff are a friendly bunch, and especially at Prereleases, they tend to be as excited about seeing the new cards in action as anyone else. While judges aren't likely to give you too many tips about how to win more, they will ensure that if you have any rules confusion it is all cleared up, and they are good people to check with for most information about the tournament you are in as it is running. They have a bizarre love of getting asked difficult questions too, in my experience, so if something comes up that you are unclear of in one of your games, be sure to raise your hand and give them a call.
It might sound funny asking other players in the same tournament as you for advice on things, but more often than not at Prereleases, players will be happy to give you their two cents on things to think about in the new format. By sharing thoughts and ideas on the new format everyone gets up to speed faster, and I for one am normally pretty happy to make suggestions on peoples deck-builds at Prereleases (after we've played our match). Prereleases are unusual in that you are allowed to tweak your deck between rounds; while you are getting to know a format, it makes sense that you can apply what you've learned about what is hot and what is not from round to round.
Review the Previews
Here on magicthegathering.com we have already had a few spicy looking preview cards, and if you check out the visual spoiler you'll see that more cards have been previewed across a variety of sources. Right now there is a fairly incomplete picture of what Zendikar is like, but information is trickling through fast, and will become a veritable torrent by the time you are cracking packs at the Prerelease itself.
Looking at what we've seen so far, one strong theme has been lands. Landfall is a great little ability that rewards me for doing more of what is already something I want to be doing: hitting my land drops. Whether we are making 4/4 creatures or netting a little extra mana as a bonus, landfall looks to be a fun one in Limited.
It is with landfall in mind that we come on to my own preview card. I fully expect it to be a powerhouse in limited. You will likely be happy to open one or two, and as a common, it is entirely possible that you could end up with even more. Check it out.
Now Harrow is not a new card. It has been around the block twice before, first in Tempest block, and then again in Invasion. In Invasion it felt like it received a functional boost in power due to the multicolor nature of the block, compared to the predominantly monocolored Tempest decks. With Zendikar, Harrow has been let off the leash to be more than a little bit crazy.
Just as Shatter was rendered extra powerful in Mirrodin block due to the high density of artifacts, Harrow becomes exactly the trick you need to pull off some spectacular plays in a format that leans heavily on the power of lands.
So what makes Harrow so good? It is similar in many respects to Rampant Growth, as a green spell that searches for a basic land and leaves you with one more land than you started with. That is fine, but there is a little more going on under the hood than just that.
The first thing to note about Harrow is that it supports splashes quite phenomenally well. Because it is fetching two lands (albeit at the expense of one that was there before), Harrow on its own will get you the mana to either have splashes in more than one color, or in a single color with a heavier colored mana commitment. Recently in a Magic 2010 draft, I found myself with a first-pick Royal Assassin before getting cut off hard on black spells. Royal Assassin is powerful enough that I'd have loved to make the splash in my green-blue deck which required some more removal, but the mana fixing wasn't quite there. Harrow lets you be just a little greedier on splashes, meaning that your deck will be able to play more powerful spells by cherry picking from more colors. In Invasion block, it became one of the signature cards of the "five-color green" draft strategy, and with good reason.
The next thing to think about with Harrow is the speed at which it works. Rampant Growth represents a fairly unexciting turn for the green deck, which has tapped lands to cast a spell and threaten very little. The card comes out of your hand on your turn, and the land it provides won't be doing much until the next turn. All your opponent has to fear is the possibility of what that Mountain you've fetched might mean in the longer term. Compare that to Harrow. It waits in your hand, and you keep your mana up to threaten any number of sneaky tricks. Then, at just the right moment (which might well be during your opponent's end step, since Harrow is an instant), you tap three lands, sacrificing one of them, and fetch two minty-fresh untapped lands. Bam. You just accelerated and fixed your mana while keeping your opponent guessing.
Finding just the right moment for Harrow can be tricky. It fetches those lands untapped, meaning that if you had, say, a Terminate in hand and three Forests on the battlefield, you could spring a trap where you played Harrow to get the right lands, and cast Terminate to stop your opponent's best creature, leaving them feeling a little stunned. Even more dastardly, if your opponent tries to do something naughty like casting Primal Command targeting one of your lands, you could cast Harrow to allow yourself to sacrifice it in response. Even before the advent of landfall, Harrow was a pretty tricky card.
And so we come on to landfall. Landfall turns the power of Harrow up to 11. Landfall is pretty good when you are simply hitting your land drops each turn. If each turn you make your land drop, then each turn Plated Geopede gets to attack as a 3/3 first striker.
If you cast Plated Geopede on turn two and follow up with turn three land, Harrow, you will get a total of three landfall triggers, one for your regular land, and a further two from the lands that Harrow has fetched. Attacking for 7 on turn three while accelerating your mana is the sort of play that will make life pretty hard for many decks.
Now start casting Harrow on your opponent's turn. One of the more dependable things in Magic is that your opponent will only be playing lands on their turn. Being able to get lands onto the battlefield on your opponent's turn means that all those landfall abilities suddenly become combat tricks. At the Prerelease weekend, there will be more than one player who gets hit by the terrifying combination of Rampaging Baloths and Harrow. Surprise 4/4s turn the sublime Baloths into something quite ridiculous. Another Baloth, Baloth Woodcrasher, would make for quite a surprise as well.
So landfall looks like a solid mechanic that will reward you for playing a regular game of Magic. It also gives you something to do with lands drawn in the late game, when you already have enough mana to play your spells. It probably won't mean you want to build your deck with many more lands than normal (about 17 in a 40 card deck remains a good idea), but it will mean that drawing a lot of them isn't so bad. In play, I would recommend thinking very carefully about when you make land drops now. If you have enough lands in play to cast your spells, normally it is good to hold back a few lands. Now, the value in doing so changes a little. If you have landfall cards on the battlefield, then throwing down those extra lands might be a good plan. If you are waiting to draw those landfall cards, holding back a land or two ready to trigger them seems a good idea.
Allies are another theme of the set, and they get better the more of them you happen to have, as they like to work together. From what we've seen thus far, they are a little like Slivers, only you don't need to worry too much about having your day spoiled when one or two of them get offed in true "red shirt" tradition for an exploration party. In your Sealed Deck building, it's worth having a look as to how many Allies you have. If you open a lot of them, I'd imagine they get quite powerful, much as we saw with exalted creatures in Shards of Alara.
Traps are the definition of sneaky. They get cheaper to cast when a condition is filled, and are generally pretty good at upsetting various applecarts. As we get to know more about Zendikar, we will get better at spotting Traps, but it is fair to say that at the Prerelease there will be plenty of people setting them off. Once you've encountered a Trap once, it is probably worth trying to remember what triggers the common ones, so that you can avoid too many mishaps. Even better, try to set a few for your opponent!
Finally we have those quests. The common quests that we've seen thus far look like a great deal. One can cast these enchantments early, and then over the course of the game they aren't that tough to complete. When they're "completed," the effect is often quite a bit bigger than the mana cost that you originally paid. I wouldn't expect to complete many of them super-fast (though I'm sure Steve Sadin would be happy to find a Harrow in his pool along with his Khalni Heart Expedition), but those that I've seen thus far, I'd be pretty excited about playing.
Speaking of excitement, as tempting as it is to load your deck up with all the tricks in the format and every good card you've opened, if you are looking to perform well in your tournament, I would recommend a small amount of restraint. The core tenets of Sealed Deck will likely remain true. Imagine the following etched in a monolith somewhere—these are the rules you need a pretty good reason to break.
40 cards is the right number. That way you draw your best cards more often
Without a lot of mana fixing, two colors (perhaps with a splash of a third) is the ideal. You want to be able to cast your best spells when you draw them.
When choosing colors to play, look for creature removal and threats that will win the game. Creatures that are hard to block (for example, those with flying or intimidate) are a good choice here.
Yes, I understand that this would look a little unwieldy on a monolith. The etching involved would be significant. If you can make peace with those ideas though, it will do a lot to improve your chances in this uncharted territory.
When the first set of a brand new block comes out, it tends to prove a big spur for trading. For one thing, a whole slew of cards cease to be Standard-legal, so there will be some older cards that become easier to trade for. On top of that there are sure to be plenty of people trading for cards in the new set. Trading can be a little daunting if you don't have a good idea of how cards stack up against each other, but it is definitely a good way of getting together the cards you are looking for for your new deck! If you are ever in doubt about a trade, my advice would be to walk away. Both people involved with the trade should be happy with what they are getting, so work out what it is that you are interested in trading for and what you'd be happy to trade away, and dive in!
The new extended-art basic lands are definitely going to be an interesting element to trading at the Zendikar Prerelease. I already know of quite a few people who are looking to build up sets of these lands to use in their Constructed decks. This is a great thing for those who aren't as fussed about having super-pretty basic lands. All of a sudden everyone in the room will have a small amount of cards to trade that aren't going to affect their ability to play the deck they want to play. What is a fair trade with these lands? That will be up to those trading them, but don't be surprised if you see a few people trading very well for them.
Bringing It All Together
We wouldn't call it exploration if you could see it all at a glance. In all likelihood there will be plenty going on at your local Prerelease. I'll be in London battling at the challenge tables, where players can win a booster by beating me with their Sealed Decks. At the same event there will be Sealed flights, drafts, artist signings, Two-Headed Giant, a teams event, and almost certainly some other shenanigans.
The unifying concept behind all of these elements is fun with Zendikar. If you're in London, I hope to see you there. If not, I wish you all the luck in the world at your local Prerelease. Happy travels!