The Evolution of Battle for Zendikar Limited

Posted in Event Coverage on November 15, 2015

By Marc Calderaro

No matter how many people said that they understood Battle for Zendikar limited by looking at the spoiler, they were dead wrong. This format is not the type you can look at and figure out. Not only that, this is not the type of format where you can play with the cards for a little while and know what they do.

Draft formats always evolve, but synergy-based drafts change all the more. Before the majority realizes that synergies are great, they are great. As more people draft based on certain archetypes that require certain cards, the worse they get. Take for example Hall of Famer, Luis Scott-Vargas on the format. Though he does a thorough limited analysis when sets are released, he's been doing a “Battle for Zendikar Re-Do” (emphasis the “do” for maximal pun-like effect). He's re-rated the cards that have changed the most for him—because so many of them have.

This is something each player has been doing on their own since the set's release. I sat down with a few pros to get the skinny on how their own feelings have changed towards the format, and why. Gerry Thompson, Tom Martell, Nathan Holiday, Neal Oliver, and Scott-Vargas all had some great things to say on the evolution of Battle for Zendikar.

Louis Scott-Vargas, Matt Sperling, and Tom Martell

“Devoid was much, much better,” was how Scott-Vargas opened. “And obviously, Green strategies have gotten much, much worse.” He continued, “This is a synergy-based format. It's not that everyone got it wrong, but after everything's shaken out, you can see which strategies get there and which don't.” He continued, “Everyone saw that there were ‘plants' for various decks, but we couldn't know if they panned out.” For example, he said, “White-Black Lifegain was really good, but Black-Green Sacrifice was not.” This is despite both Blisterpod and Bone Splinters together.

This combo-laden, intricately connected drafting format is exactly the type that Platinum pro Nathan Holiday gravitates to. “You can be slow; you can be aggressive; you can ramp.” Holiday said this playing his ramp-amazing Omnath, Locus of Rage–Nissa's Renewal draft deck. He attributes this variability to the Eldrazi Scions.

“I was a big fan of [Rise of the Eldrazi] so when I first saw the 1/1s, I thought they were too easy.” But as the format wore on, Holiday realized they are the grease of the format. “Scions are what make the games interesting; combat can get real interesting.” He said that the Scions can help whichever of the three strategies you want to do. They can be chump blockers; they can help you ramp; and they can be the go-wide attackers (echoing his Quick Questions pick of Swarm Surge as his card that's changed the most).

Nathan Holiday and Neal Oliver

Gerry Thompson added that this is one of the reasons Eldrazi Skyspawner is probably the best common in the format. It helps you with any of those strategies, while providing a flyer at the same time. “Without the Scion, that card goes way down. Wind Drakes aren't that good, and he'd be worse than that.”

And the Scions' impact on drafting affects more than just your own proactive strategies. “They make X/1s much harder to attack with, and the vanilla big guys much less appealing,” Holiday added. Holiday loves the format, even in this stage when the pros often get a bit antsy and are ready for a new set. But he was still excited to see what Oath of the Gatewatch will bring to the table.

About this time his good friend, Grand Prix Las Vegas Champion Neal Oliver, showed up and talked about a different aspect of synergy formats—the pendulum swing. Though he was really high on the standalone-powerful cards to begin with (the cards that make the White-Blue Awaken deck so appealing), he said he likes them even more now. As synergy strategies get picked and fought over, just getting the most abstractly powerful cards has gotten much better.

Oliver was also ready for Oath of the Gatewatch, but more so because he wants to see some more green options available.

Oh yeah, then there's Green. Talked about often at the Pro Tour and beyond, you can't discuss Battle for Zendikar draft without talking about the pro hatred for Green. It's well-documented, and at any premier drafting table, people will routinely get late green picks for this reason. But even that assessment has been shifting. The self-correcting nature of draft (if no one's taking Green, you'll get the best Green deck possible) has been sliding the color back up the scale—at least, for some players.

Nathan Holiday and Neal Oliver

Nathan Holiday, Gerry Thompson, and Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Tom Martell are all on the pro-green side. Martell said, “Everyone now thinks that Green is undraftable, but if you can get them, the Black-Green deck is a good deck; and the Green Allies deck can be very good too.” He continued, “When you're getting Brood Monitor fifth or sixth, you'll get a good deck.” However, as an aside, (21) Ari Lax just went 1-2 with a deck where he got Oran-Rief Hydra sixth, and said he should have cut Brood Monitor.

But Martell went even further, asserting that Red-Green Landfall—a deck poo-poo'ed by most pros—can be solid. “If you focus on the curve, and get it, it's good. Multiple Snapping Gnarlids and a Grove Rumbler or two; it's solid.” He said the problem is that deck doesn't actually want many green cards, but you need things like Snapping Gnarlid in the two-drop slot, which can do odd things to your manabase.

Gerry Thompson echoed those thoughts. “You know, I've never really felt that Green was that bad.” He continued, “I thought early that [Tajuru Beastmaster] was really good, and that hasn't really changed for me.” Although he was quick to add, “Just stay away from aggression.” So though he's down with the green rangers, he prefers them to be bit bigger than 1/1s.

Watching this format unfold has been awesome. Recent we've had some straight-forward drafting formats, and Battle for Zendikar has really shaken that up. As Scott-Vargas expounded, this is not Magic Origins. “In Origins, your 2/2s for two were 2/2s; you're 3/3s were 3/3s ... this is more like Rise of the Eldrazi where certain cards that were normally good ended up not being very good.” And vice versa. Just a quick peruse of his “Re-Do” article puts Mist Intruder as one of the best blue commons. In any other format, a Storm Crow wouldn't be anywhere near that high—but on Zendikar it's a different story.

It's been long enough that pros feel they have a good read on the format, but it's taken a while to get there. And Oath of the Gatewatch will be coming soon—and hopefully cause a whole different stage of card reevaluations in Battle for Zendikar.

The fight between the Allies and Eldrazi rages on, one draft at a time.

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