Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar

Posted in Limited Information on October 14, 2015

By Marshall Sutcliffe

Marshall came back to Magic after discovering Limited and never looked back. He hosts the Limited Resources podcast and does Grand Prix and Pro Tour video commentary.

I'm sitting in my hotel room in Madison, Wisconsin. I'm here to cover Grand Prix Madison, and then make my way to Milwaukee for the Pro Tour the following weekend. There is a huge flurry of information that comes out in the immediate weeks after a new set comes out, but rarely have I felt the need to study a new set as closely as Battle for Zendikar.

Even as I sit here typing, my brain is processing as much as it can about the Grand Prix and what it means for the coming Pro Tour weekend.

I've got some predictions for what we'll see at the Pro Tour this weekend, and I thought we'd go over them this week for those of you planning on tuning in this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

At the Pro Tour, the players will do two Booster Drafts: the first on Day One, and—for those who make it—another on Day Two. This means they'll play a total of six rounds of Limited (the other ten rounds being Standard).

And in Draft, this set is all about synergy.

Synergy Is Queen

This is a big change from what we got used to in Magic Origins, which was a format where synergies weren't rewarded as much as raw card power.

Building synergistic decks is a tricky road to navigate while drafting. The key is finding your "lane" (which archetype you are drafting) during the draft, and sticking with it. The hard part is that if someone else is in your lane, you may be forced to change plans and go for another archetype. This is inherently problematic, as synergy-based decks encourage you to commit to them in a big way, and don't often have a lot of overlap with the other archetypes.

For example, let's say you first-pick a Vile Aggregate, thinking you may go for an aggressive black-red devoid deck, or possibly a red-blue colorless deck. You zealously pick colorless cards over the next few picks, getting a Kozilek's Sentinel, a Dominator Drone, and a Culling Drone.

But then things dry up. Someone to your right is taking all of the black-red devoid cards and forcing you to another archetype. While this is not great news, you've noticed it early enough to course-correct and fix the problem, right?

Sort of.

The good news is that, yes, you can in fact move to another archetype from here and still have a good deck by the end of the draft.

The less good news, though, is how poorly these heavy archetype-driven cards fit into other decks. Lets say that you decide to pivot into a red-white Allies deck, which you feel is open at the table.

In a normal set, this would be a pretty effortless transition as you've already dedicated some early picks to red. Sure you'll miss your black cards, but so it goes in the world of Booster Draft.

And here we find the issue. Kozilek's Sentinel and Vile Aggregate are not good in the red-white Allies deck, even though they are ostensibly playable red creatures.

Vile Aggregate needs a ton of other colorless creatures to be good (and when you have them, it's very good) and Kozilek's Sentinel is merely okay, even in a deck completely surrounded by colorless creatures. And of course neither are Allies.

So how do you combat this? There are a few ways, one of them is to identify the "pivot cards" for a given pair of archetypes. These are the cards that are good in multiple archetypes (even though they may be better in one than the other).

Cards like Nettle Drone, Rolling Thunder, Stonefury, Touch of the Void, Turn Against, Valakut Invoker, and Vestige of Emrakul range from playable to outright good in either the black-red devoid deck or the red-white Allies deck, for example.

To be fair, Rolling Thunder is just awesome in any deck that can cast it, so it kind of breaks the rule—but it's on the list for that reason. My goodness, that card is ridiculous.

Vestige of Emrakul represents a nice in-between point for both archetypes.

All of this points to some interesting early pack decisions for our pro players. Do you take the card that is really awesome in a given archetype but not great elsewhere (like Vile Aggregate), or do you hedge a bit and take a more medium power-level card (like Vestige of Emrakul) that goes better in multiple decks?

The answer, most certainly, is to take the best possible card and then see if your seat allows you to get the great deck. After all, this is the Pro Tour; you are playing some of the best Magic players on the planet. You're going to need a good deck and tight play to get the coveted 3–0 start to your Pro Tour.

Sleeper Archetype for the Pro Tour

What archetypes are the pros going to be looking for when they sit down to draft? Each team will have made its own conclusions about which archetypes are best and which are better left alone, but I have a few predictions to throw out there myself.

The one I want to focus on here is white-blue flyers.

I know, I know. I just finished telling you how synergistic this set is and how much it rewards you for committing hard to a linear archetype. And now I'm going to tell you that the age-old classic, white-blue flyers, is good in this set. I'm just as surprised as you are!

Let's look at the pieces that make the deck work.

Any good flyers deck needs flyers, of course. And there are some decent ones in Battle for Zendikar.

Angel of Renewal, Eldrazi Skyspawner, Courier Griffin, Ghostly Sentinel, Cloud Manta, Shadow Glider, Windrider Patrol

Eldrazi Skyspawner may be the best blue common in the set, and even though it wants to be paired with colorless cards or ways to take advantage of the Eldrazi Scion token, it does just fine in a good ol' flyers deck.

Courier Griffin, Ghostly Sentinel, and Shadow Glider have effectively no synergy with any of the major archetypes, but don't let that sway you. They are simple, relatively efficient flying creatures, and they are often the bread-and-butter of a deck like this. Cloud Manta is perhaps a step below these flyers, but still good enough to make the cut.

If you're feeling especially lucky, you'll get your hands on a Windrider Patrol or maybe an Angel of Renewal. These uncommon flyers make an excellent top end for this archetype and should be taken early and often.

I want to note that although Kitesail Scout looks like it may fit into this deck, it actually doesn't. You need your flyers to get in for reasonable chunks of damage so you can outrace your opponent, and 1 damage a turn just doesn't get it done. Avoid if possible. Same goes for Mist Intruder in this deck.

Another main ingredient in a deck like this is a way to lock down the ground so you don't get run over while trying to beat down in the air like a civilized person.

How DARE you . . .


Fortified Rampart, Incubator Drone, Stone Haven Medic, Tide Drifter, Ulamog's Reclaimer, Oracle of Dust

Fortified Rampart looked like a bit of a throw-in at first glance. Getting 6 toughness for two mana is good, but it doesn't have devoid, isn't an Ally, and doesn't produce Eldrazi Scion tokens. It just didn't feel like it had a home.

As it turns out, it's actually pretty good in the format. When the removal spells often cost five mana, you have to do something to affect the board early, and Fortified Rampart does the trick. It's especially good against the landfall decks, as they can't really get through it, but they also have to keep playing lands just to develop their board, wasting precious landfall triggers. Don't underestimate the little wall that could.

Stone Haven Medic is fine as a two-drop blocker, as is Tide Drifter. As you work your way up the chain, creatures with a lot of toughness and creatures that make multiple blockers fill out the curve.

The last pieces of the puzzle are removal and tricks. I'm going to skip the hard removal part, as those cards are fairly obvious and will make the cut most of the time anyway. Instead, I want to focus on the tempo cards, as they go particularly well in this deck.

Adverse Conditions, Clutch of Currents, Encircling Fissure, Ondu Rising, Roil Spout, Rush of Ice, Tightening Coils

Since you are trying to set up an air assault to kill the opponent, all you have to do is stall them out long enough to get in for the last damage. This means that you often don't even have to actually kill your opponent's creatures, but rather keep them at bay for just one more attack.

Clutch of Currents does this quite nicely, while also providing a valuable attacker or blocker. Rush of Ice is like Clutch of Current, but worse. Still playable in a pinch, however. Both are good at punishing the ramp decks whose main plan is to produce a massive Eldrazi of some sort.

Encircling Fissure has been really interesting—and I think pretty darn good, too. It effectively nullifies one full attack from your opponent and even kills a creature or two from them as well sometimes. Ondu Rising has a similar effect if you have your flyers at the ready, often firmly swinging a race in your direction.

Adverse Conditions is a card that doesn't stand out on its own, but ultimately does a good job of neutralizing two big threats for just long enough to finish the job in the air. The Eldrazi Scion token it makes helps block big ground creatures, too.

Roil Spout is another excellent tempo play and virtual removal spell. Tightening Coils is perfect in this kind of deck, as it gets blockers out of the way and also doesn't punish you by leaving an opposing creature on the battlefield as you are flying over it.

I think this archetype is a sleeper in the format, and even if it's not as flashy as some of the super sleek decks you can draft, it can certainly get the job done.

I hope you'll join all of us on the coverage team this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for all of the great Limited (and Standard) action from Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar.


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