Exploring Zendikar

Posted in The Week That Was on September 25, 2009

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on DailyMTG.com, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

You would think that working on Magic day in and day out would leave the denizens of Wizards headquarters somewhat jaded to Magic but after spending the past week at the office, rooting around through old pictures and video for this year's Hall of Fame ceremony, I am once again amazed to find out that this is just not the case. This weekend is the Zendikar Prerelease, and most of the members of R&D are being dispatched to regional events as gunslingers and guests of honor and everyone has been pretty much abuzz about it all week. Everyone is proud of this set and eager to show off the fruit of their labors. R&D members who are not scattering far and wide across North America will be found here in Seattle this weekend at the Regional prerelease in town.

There are a variety of guests showing up at Prereleases across the continent, from Pro Tour stars to card artists to columnists and coverage reporters. I am heading to Columbus, Ohio today to gunsling at the Professional Event Services event. I will be happy to run my Sealed Deck build up against yours throughout the day and I may or may not have lined up a couple of key cards for my EDH decks should 99 card decks be a little more your style. I will also have a Standard deck available, but I am mostly interested in seeing the new cards in action. I love the fusion of high adventure flavor with function in this new set. Just look at the stunning full-frame land cards that you will get out of Zendikar boosters—how could you not want to explore this world?

If you have been following @dailymtg on Twitter or checking the Magic Facebook page, you have gotten to see the collection of gear that you will need to explore the Limited landscape of Zendikar. There is your Trusty Machete to hack through your opponent's defenses, your Trailblazer's Boots for navigating past the myriad nonbasic lands in the format, a Grappling Hook to engage a reluctant foe, and Spidersilk Net to protect your airspace.

Those are all fine pieces of Equipment that will facilitate any trip to Zendikar, but absolutely essential gear comes in the form of Blazing Torch, which is great if you are trying to get past the undead but is best thought of as a Moonglove Extract that occasionally will let you sneak past a some black creatures. Explorer's Scope and Adventuring Gear pair well together with the former turning on the landfall ability granted by the latter. Explorer's Scope is one of many ways in this format to "cheat" extra lands onto the battlefield for one of the set's defining mechanics. Remember that landfall abilities are cumulative.

Imagine a Windrider Eel equipped with both of these pieces of Equipment. You play one land from your hand, and the Eel becomes a 6/6 flier. Then upon attacking you reveal another land on top of your deck with the ability from the Scope, and you are flying in for 10 points of damage. The power, commonality, and relative inexpensiveness of the Equipment in this set means I will always try to play with whatever artifact removal I have access to and if it hits enchantments all the better with all the quests in this set.

Kor Sanctifiers is going to make a strong argument for you to play white, since it can deal with Equipment, other artifacts, or enchantments as long as you have access to the two white mana needed to cast it with kicker. White looks like an exciting aggressive color to play this weekend, with Armament Master offering his expertise in the form of a +2/+2 bonus to all other Kor creatures you control for each piece of Equipment attached to him. We have only gotten a small glimpse of the Kor in the Visual Spoiler but the Sanctifiers and Devout Lightcaster promise some great things for the tribe. You get to take out creatures and artifacts or enchantments while continuing to fortify your army of creatures.

I got my first look at the landfull mechanic when I got to preview Baloth Woodcrasher for my Top8Magic web site. I love the Woodcrasher and can imagine scenarios with Khalni Heart Expedition, Harrow, Oracle of Mul Daya, Explorer's Scope, and the brand-new fetch lands where this card can eat huge chunks of your life total in one attack. If giant tramply monsters are not your cup of tea, there are plenty of other ways to use and abuse landfall in this set. I have heard rumors of magicthegathering.com's own Kelly Digges making eight 4/4 tokens in one turn with Rampaging Baloths, Rite of Replication, a fetch land, and Harrow—basically going from 6 points of power on one turn to 44 a turn later with only two spells to get him there.

I have made no secret of my love for Lotus Cobra and its ability to do "stupid things" with your mana. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of a turn-three Identity Crisis or even the much-trickier-to-pull-off Violent Ultimatum, but I am perfectly happy to play turn-three Siege-Gang Commanders and Baneslayer Angels with little to help me in this endeavor but a fetch land. One of the decks I have been playing around with at Top8Magic.com for the impending Standard format is a deck that attempts to get Ob Nixilis, the Fallen and seven lands to come into play at the same time off of a Warp World fueled by Siege-Gang Commanders. When Warp World is finished resolving, you get to add up all your landfalls and stack 'em up. Even if you end up with two copies of the legendary Ob Nixilis, the triggers will still all go on the stack and resolve despite mutual legend destruction. (I have checked with Level 5 Judge Sheldon Menery on the details here, and it does work.) I have no idea if some more evolved version of this deck can become competitive, but it sure is a lot of fun to shuffle up and play. It also gives you a pretty good idea of how powerful the landfall mechanic can be in a number of different forms. Here is what the latest version of the deck looks like:

Ob Obv.2

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Elvish Visionary could swap out for additional ramping such as Harrow or Rampant Growth—either of those could also swap in for the Khalni Heart Expeditions as well—but I was looking for something to replace Nucklavee, which is rotating out. With Lotus Cobra you often find yourself with more than enough mana to cast another Warp World if you only had one in hand, and the Visionaries are there to at least give you a shot at drawing into them. The Lotus Cobra mana often give you another way to win, since it lets you pay for Siege-Gang Commander activations if you need a few extra points of damage to finish off an opponent. There is still a lot of work to do on this deck, but it has been a lot of fun so far and I will be keeping an eye out for other cards to tighten it up in the coming days.

The enemy-aligned fetch lands in this set play so well with landfall it is little wonder why they were reintroduced in this set. They are particularly sick with Lotus Cobra which turns any fetch land into a Dark Ritual—you get two landfall triggers and the mana from the land you fetch—and allow you to make turn-three plays like the aforementioned Siege-Gang Commander. I already mentioned the story about Kelly Digges copying Rampaging Baloth, but I have also heard tales of using Rite of Replication on turn three to copy Lotus Cobra which would give you eight mana on turn four with a fetch land—and I can't even count high enough to account for what happens if you have a Harrow.You won't need to open Lotus Cobra to ramp your mana, though, as you have cards like Harrow, Khalni Heart Expedition, and my personal favorite, the Oracle of Mul Daya. Oracle is the closest green will come to getting a card like Future Sight, and a handful of lands on top of your deck can quickly open the floodgates to playing some of the big spells in Zendikar such as Lorthos, the Tidemaker, or kicking Gigantiform, or better yet making five copies of something with Rite of Replication.

My goal for the coming weekend is to kick Rite of Replication targeting an Ally. Doing so on a Murasa Pyromancer would let you sweep even your opponent's staunchest board position with an army of ersatz Flametongue Kavus all dealing 6 damage apiece to any creature they wanted to. Kandzu Blademaster would parlay into a phalanx of 6/6 first striking soldiers, with a 7/7 thrown in for good measure assuming you were copying your own Blademaster. Turntimber Ranger might be the Holy Grail here, though, as you will end up with five 7/7s, one 8/8, and thirty 2/2 Wolf tokens—THIRTY! Rite of Replication is an early fave Limited card of mine from the set, and I am sure that I will try to jam it into multiple Constructed builds for the next two years.

Speaking of cards that I want to play in 40 and 60 card decks ... Scute Mob seems like a bomb in Limited and is sure to be played in a variety of Standard decks right out of the gates. With Misty Rainforest smoothing the way for green-blue decks, Scute Mob is a perfect card to play on turn five with four untapped mana to protect it from the likes of @doom_blade_guy with your counterspells so you can untap and bash for 5 ... and then 9. Scute Mob, which does not really want to be played on turn one, has incredible synergy with Ranger of Eos, and you could expect to see some Bant agrro control decks coming around in the new Standard. Personally, I want to play my Scute Mob and then untap and attack you without giving you a turn in between. I have had a ton of fun playing the turbo Time Warp deck in the current Standard but huge chunks of the deck are falling back into the realm of Extended only when Zendikar arrives. I started filling in slots with Zendikar cards and ended up with what I hope is a fun deck that looks something like this:

Scute Warp

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There is something about this set that has seriously rekindled my deckbuilding fire. All three of the new planeswalkers that have been showcased are super-exciting in that regard. Sorin Markov is an obviously powerful, and ridiculously flavorful, ultimate that is begging to be broken. All of the Zendikar Vampire cards I have seen are spectacular in this regard from the Galitas, Bloodchief of Ghet, to the Gatekeeper of Malakir, to Bloodghast—a powerful landfall creature I did not mention earlier. I don't know how prohibitive the double black in its casting cost will be but it certainly seems like a fun one to play in Extended with a suspended Greater Gargadon. Sacrifice Bloodghast to Gargadon and play a fetch land. Sacrifice Bloodghast and activate the fetch land. Sacrifice Flagstones of Trokair ... You get the picture. Assuming you had some way of ensuring a land every turn, it also seems like a fine Nether Spirit-type card for a Contamination lock. For the new Standard and for Block, Vampires look to have the most powerful tribal synergy in the set, and although some of the cards like Galitas and Sorrin are a little pricy, you may be able to offset that cost with the Crypt of Agadeem.

Chandra Ablaze seems like an exciting card to ramp into and play with an empty hand against a controlling style of deck. You can just activate the second ability and draw into three new cards while you shred the hand your opponent has been gameplanning around. More appealing—and admittedly far-fetched—to me is the idea of playing Chandra in a blue-red Extended deck with Time Warps and Painter's Servant. Assuming you have correctly named "red" with your Servant, you can pitch any card you want to do 4 damage—including Time Warp or Savor the Moment. When you use Chandra's ultimate, you get to cast all those extra turns for free out of your bin for free ... I said it was far-fetched.

The planeswalker that seems to get the least amount of press of the three is the one that actually prompted a decklist to form in my mind. I just love the combination of Nissa Revane and her chosen elvish warriors. I love the idea of holding the ground with a steady stream of Nissa's Chosen and ultimating into a board of Elves and Elf lords with a kicked Gigantiform for good measure. Assuming there are any other good white removal spells in the new set, you could easily replace the silly but fun Gigantiform with those.

Nissa's Chosen

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Another of the flavorful aspects of the new set are the Trap cards. This weekend, make sure you do not fall into the trap of evaluating them strictly on the basis of their Trap conditions and costs under those scenarios. It is perfectly acceptable to pay full price for Mindbreak Trap and just counter a spell. Pitfall Trap would be a staple Limited combat trick at its printed casting cost of without any Trap mechanic added onto it. The trap for many players—myself included—will be focusing on the Trap condition so carefully that you miss an opportunity to pay full price when the card will be just as effective.

My other piece of advice for you in Limited is to open and play Eldrazi Monument—unless you are playing against me in Columbus. That card seems utterly insane and will win you otherwise unwinnable games quite quickly.

For a final tune-up before hitting the tables Saturday, check out this six-video playlist of the key Zendikar mechanics. With in-game examples explained, these may help you head off troublesome situations before they arise at the prerelease.

Doubling Up

You may recall that in 2006 the DCI ran its 1,000,000th sanctioned tournament. Amazingly, just three years later, in the wake of the creation of the Wizards Play Network, the DCI passed the 2,000,000 mark this past week at Happy Harbor Comics Volume 3 (it is one of three stores in a small chain) in Edmonton, Canada. The event was an eight-person Standard tournament organized by Jason Bardyla. Level 4 judge Jason Ness surprised the tournament participants with an official Wizards visit to bring pizza and soda to the attendees and augment the prize pool with fifty assorted foils from throughout FNM history, including the very first FNM foil, River Boa.

Firestarter: Save this Space

Be sure to check in over the weekend and let me know how your Prerelease experience went. Who was gunslinging at your event, and how did you do? What cards did you open, and how did you build your deck? And of course, what were your overall impressions of the deadly perils and priceless treasures to be found in Zendikar?

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