Duel Decks- Zendikar vs Eldrazi: Zendikar Deck Review (Part 1 of 2)
In the long history of the Duel Decks series (now reaching nearly half of Magic’s lifespan to date), there have been three major shifts in strategy that have shaped the course of the product to where we are today.
The first of these happened at the outset. The inaugural Duel Decks release, 2007’s Elves vs Goblins, pitted two of the game’s most iconic tribes against one another. Instead of replicating that model (sadly for the world, Zombies vs Merfolk was never meant to be), Wizards went an entirely different direction for the next release a full year later, setting up a product archetype that persists to this day: the clash of the Planeswalkers. Jace vs Chandra saw them pair off, and the planeswalker-themed model has proven quite the success.
The second happened early on as well, with the frequency of product release settling in to two per year. Wizards had to that point tried a number of different “special release” products that hadn’t always met with universal acclaim, but the Duel Decks was a keeper.
The final major strategic change to the product line came in Spring of 2012. Up until that point, the pattern of theme-planeswalkers-theme-planeswalkers had been running steadily. Elves vs Goblins preceded Jace vs Chandra. Then Divine vs Demonic (Spring, theme) followed, succeeded by Garruk vs Liliana (Autumn, planeswalker). 2010’s Phyrexia vs the Coalition was the Spring theme offering, capped off with Elspeth vs Tezzeret for planeswalkers in the Autumn.
But in 2012, Wizards implemented a significant change to the pattern. First, they’d be flipping the order of release, with the planeswalker-fashioned decks appearing in the Spring and the themed ones in the Autumn (this resulted in back-to-back planeswalker releases, with Ajani vs Nicol Bolas being followed by Venser vs Koth). But that wasn’t the only change. Going forward, the themed decks would foreshadow the blocks ahead.
Autumn of 2012 heralded Return to Ravnica with Izzet vs Golgari. The following year rang in Theros with Heroes vs Monsters. 2014’s Speed vs Cunning introduced Khans of Tarkir, which brings us to this year’s model.
There is, perhaps, a touch of the ironic in the notion of “bringing us current,” as for only the second time in the product line’s history, a new release was used to revisit the past wholesale. All Duel Decks contain reprints of past sets, of course, but only two releases have been clear repackages of a place we’d been to before. Izzet vs Golgari had the entire block of Ravnica to draw from, while Zendikar vs Eldrazi pulled itself almost exclusively from Zendikar, Worldwake, and Rise of the Eldrazi.
To those who were active in Magic in 2009-10, Duel Decks: Zendikar vs Eldrazi will feel like a homecoming. We begin our review with the residents of the tumultuous plane. The titanic Eldrazi have been slumbering, imprisoned within the world itself. Having awakened, the native inhabitants must band together to repel this ancient menace.
On the Brink of Extinction
On first blush, it would be easy to assume that the Zendikar deck is built around Allies, those hardy and intrepid adventurers whose abilities grow the more of them come into play. Indeed, wasn’t that one of the themes that the original Zendikar Intro Pack decks was built around (The Adventurers)?
While it’s true that there are a number of Ally cards in the deck, Zendikar is anything but. For one thing, the mana curve spikes at the 3-and-4-drop level, whereas a good Ally deck wants a faster start than that (though it’s worth noting that The Adventurers had a similarly suboptimal mana curve, though the 1-drop Hada Freeblade wouldn’t arrive on the scene until Worldwake). This is more than just a bunch of Allies jammed together.
That becomes clear right off the bat with the one-drops, leading with the Scute Mob. The Mob is a rare example of a one-drop you’d rather not see in your opening grip. For the early game, this Insect is a nothing more than a one-mana 1/1, which isn’t especially useful. Only later in the game, when that fifth land is dropped, does this bug come alive and begin it’s brutal growth cycle. At that point, it’s a must-answer threat.
The other one-drop on offer here is the Caravan Escort. The Escort makes use of the level up mechanic from Rise of the Eldrazi, as a number of other cards in Zendikar do. This mechanic, signifying a creature’s journey of increasing experience and power, allows a creature to get stronger as the game goes on. And while it also makes for a superb ‘mana dump’ later in the game, it’s a tactic not without risk.
A single removal spell can undo a tremendous amount of work, and the Eldrazi deck has a fair bit of that. For the Escort, that’s an investment of eleven mana to obtain a 5/5 beater with first strike. With great risk comes great reward.
We see two more level up creatures as we enter the two-drops. The Beastbreaker of Bala Ged. Starting life as a humble 2/2, the Beastbreaker can grow into a massive 6/6 with trample, but here again the cost is steep. It will take an additional twelve mana to get there, and most of the time there’s just a lot more you will want to be doing with all that mana.
It will be important to remember that the Eldrazi pilot will frequently be hoping you try and put all your eggs in one basket, so that they can set you back with a timely removal card. Level up is best employed here as a later-game use for mana you weren’t doing things with rather than a primary tactical strategy. The same holds true for the Knight of Cliffhaven, which can sprout into a 4/4 flying, vigilant body.
The final offering here is the useful Frontier Guide. On its own, the Guide isn’t very impressive as a 1/1, but its primary purpose is in fetching you land. As with the level up creatures, this isn’t a cheap option, but it serves two purposes here. First, of course, there’s the option for mana ramping and/or fixing. Playing against the battlecruiser-like Eldrazi has always been something of a resource race, trying to establish dominance on the battlefield before their massive beaters come on-line, and the Guide can help make up for a missed drop.
In addition, a number of cards in the deck have landfall, so having the ability to trigger that at-will offers another strategic avenue for the Zendikar pilot- especially if you manage to drop your top-of-curve option in the Avenger of Zendikar.
As we move on to the three-drops, two more of these options present themselves. The Grazing Gladehart is a 2/2 body that offers a modest dose of lifegain each time you play a land, while the Turntimber Basilisk can activate a Lure effect to force an opposing creature to block it. Though it will almost always die in the encounter (its toughness is a brittle 1), its deathtouch will usually ensure that’s a trade in your favor.
A slightly tougher basilisk is present as well in the Daggerback Basilisk, who gets that extra point of survivability in exchange for no landfall ability. Deathtouch is especially relevant when facing gargantuan-sized creatures, so look at this fellow as a strong defensive option against incoming Eldrazi. Nobody looks at the prospect of trading their nine-mana 10/9 beatstick for a three-mana 2/2 with relish.
The Affa Guard Hound is a two-trick pony, both of which are linked. Able to be an ambush creature thanks to flash, it also grants a defensive bonus to a creature when it enters the battlefield (which can also be itself). This is primarily a combat trick, but can also be used to stave off lethal damage from a burn spell.
The final three 3-drops are a trio of Allies. The Tajuru Archer has typically been an also-ran option, given the conditional nature of its ability. If your opponent has no aerial creatures, then it’s an ability wasted and an overcosted body. However, in a crafted environment like a Duel Deck, it’s a solid counter to the Eldrazi deck’s fliers.
The Stonework Puma is even worse. This was designed to be an Ally that can fit into any deck, and was always more valued in Draft than Constructed, so it’s underwhelming here. A three-mana 2/2 that does nothing else except trigger other Allies is a bit of a wastrel here, there aren’t going to be a lot of times that that’s the card you need to draw.
On the other hand, the Veteran Warleader, a preview card from Battle for Zendikar, is one you’ll frequently appreciate. With his power and toughness equal to the number of creatures you have in play, this card rewards you for fielding a large army and has the ability to gain one (or more) of three different, combat-relevant abilities through the dedication of an Ally. Of course, this being a modern Duel Deck, there are counters to the deck’s many sub-strategies in the deck of your opponent, and in this case the Eldrazi pilot has a nasty surprise at their disposal if you’ve overcommitted: Consume the Weak.
The creatures we find in the four-drop slot further reinforce the strategies we’ve seen emerging in the deck. Enabling landfall and mana fixing? Have an Ondu Giant. Using Level Up to increase the power of your already-deployed forces? Meet Kabira Vindicator. Want a late-game mana sink? Hello, Wildheart Invoker!
You also get a couple more Ally options, first with a pair of Graypelt Hunters that grow larger with each Ally you play. The Joraga Bard offers your other Allies vigilance each time you play one. Given that Allies only make up about a quarter of your available forces, this joins the Puma as last-picked in the schoolyard. Finally, a lone Makindi Griffin gives you a touch of relevance in the sky.
At the top of the mana curve, we find a couple of Territorial Baloths, 4/4 beaters that get even larger when you play a land. Although you’d have rather seen a couple of Baloth Woodcrashers here, who give a bigger landfall bonus as well as trample for only one additional mana, you get what you get and an occasional 6/6 isn’t terrible.
Finally, the pièce de rèsistance. your Avenger of Zendikar. This card more than any other in the deck can impact the moment it hits. Not only does it give you a minimum of seven 0/1 Plant tokens, but it powers them up each time you play a land. A mythic rare in Worldwake, it’s a worthy inclusion as the mythic rare here as it can help you overpower your Eldrazi opponent either on its own or with a suddenly-massive Veteran Warleader.
The True Measure of Darkness
With so many creature cards in the deck, there aren’t a lot of card slots remaining for the supporting spells. The removal is particularly spartan, so you’ll need to do most of your talking with the cards you already have in play. Oust lets you whisk a threat away to your opponent’s library (giving them a negligible amount of life in the process), but it typically only delays rather than destroys. Often, that will be enough.
You also have a pair of Sheer Drops, new cards from Battle for Zendikar that show off the awaken mechanic. These are great removal even if they’re at sorcery speed, and the option to sink extra mana into it to turn a land into another creature is helpful later in the game. Zendikar, it seems, has little shortage of places to spend all that excess mana!
For combat tricks, you’re also more or less on your own. Repel the Darkness is an instant-speed tapping effect that cantrips, which is helpful to either clear out a couple of defenders before your assault or to delay an alpha strike from Eldrazi for another turn. Groundswell is a pure combat trick that’s slightly skewed towards offense, since you get the most of it if you’ve deployed a land. That said, we’ve seen a few ways to squeeze land out onto the battlefield at instant speed, so it can be maximised under the right conditions.
In addition, you have recourse to a Harrow and Khalni Heart Expedition, which give you additional ways to get land onto the field to surprise your opponent with. Explorer’s Scope offers the promise of an occasional free land when you attack, and Retreat to Kazandu delivers another landfall benefit to playing land at any time in the game. Extra life isn’t always great, but you’ll seldom find a +1/+1 counter going to waste.
Lastly, there’s a Seer’s Sundial, which gives you a cheap if conditional source for extra cards, and another gem in the crown in the form of a Primal Command. Part of a cycle of rare cards from Lorwyn which most famously included Blue’s Cryptic Command, the Primal version has seen print only one other time since, in 2010’s Archenemy. A multi-modal spell that gives you tremendous flexibility to respond to conditions on the field, this Swiss Army knife delivers your choice of lifegain, removal, graveyard recycling, or conditional tutoring.
As for mana, in addition to the basics you have several nonbasic options to round out the deck. Evolving Wilds offer some mana fixing at the expense of slowing down the deck’s mana development. A pair of Graypelt Refuges are a poor-man’s dual land, coming into play tapped but giving you a point of life in consolation. Turntimber Grove calls back to the “spell lands” from the original Zendikar block, offering a modest creature bonus on the turn they enter play. Finally, one of Worldwake’s “man lands” finds a home here in the form of Stirring Wildwood, which can give you temporary use of a 3/4 body with reach as en extra attacker or defensive option.
So there you have it, the forces of Zendikar ready for battle against the otherworldly menace from beneath their own soil. We’ll take this deck into battle, and return with the results!