Battle for Zendikar: Rallying Cry Review (Part 1 of 2)
Back in 2010, while reviewing The Adventurers from Zendikar, I wrote, “[Allies are] a solid and delightfully fun mechanic, one that I hope is revisited in future sets down the road.” Although it somehow feels like less time has elapsed somehow, it was just a six-year wait.
As initially designed, however, the Allies were a bit different than what we know to be their final form.
As explained by Mark Rosewater, Allies initially were cards that had a keyword called teamwork. This ability was designed to have creatures with teamwork obtain some sort of bonus when they were in the company of other creatures that had teamwork. This ended up pushing board complexity to an unacceptable level, so they took the idea back and reworked it as a variant Sliver-like mechanic that involved the granting of +1/+1 counter bonuses.
Once the design file was turned over to development, however, it became clear to Wizards that this ability posed a challenge due to power level. Development kicked it back to design, forcing Rosewater and the design team to take another stab at the “adventurers.”
Drawing upon the look and feel of the plane- an “adventure world” inspired by classical fantasy role-playing like Dungeons & Dragons, the design team split the adventurers into three groups: Warriors, Wizards, and Clerics. Warriors would convey a bonus in the form of +1/+1 counters (see: Makindi Shieldmate). Wizards brought an ETB effect along with them when summoned (Murasa Pyromancer), and Clerics buffed the team (Ondu Cleric).
The Allies received only a modest tweak rather than an overhaul in Battle for Zendikar, but it was an important one. Here’s developer Sam Stoddard:
What we tried to do differently with the Allies in Battle for Zendikar was to make their rally triggers less about permanent +1/+1 counters, as they had been in the original Zendikar block. As much as possible, we wanted for players to have really powerful game-enders like Tajaru Warcaller, but when the game just comes down to playing Allies on turns one through five and each time permanently boosting them, basically asking your opponent to have a Wrath or not, we found that the gameplay was very repetitive no matter which combination of Allies you chose to put in your deck.
While the Allies would go on in Oath of the Gatewatch with cohort, let’s examine the deck for Battle for Zendikar- a deck designed to maximize the rally mechanic.
Born in War
The deck kicks off with five one-drops, not enough to guarantee a first-turn opener every game but enough to ensure you’ll see them early. First up are a pair of Expedition Envoys, simple but effective reskins of Savannah Lions/Elite Vanguards. It doesn’t do anything fancy, but swinging for 2 on the second turn is a nicely aggressive start. And of course, like every other creature in the deck it’s an Ally, which as we’ll see is highly relevant.
The other offering here is a trio of Cliffside Lookouts. The activated ability of the Lookouts is fairly minor, pumping all of your creatures +1/+1 for five mana, but it’s important to this deck in two regards. First, it’s a great place to dump excess mana later in the game if you don’t have a card to play, ensuring that your resources get maximized turn after turn.
Second, since it hits all of your creatures, it naturally gets stronger the more of them you have. That means it’s right at home in a deck like this, where you’ll be flooding the board with creatures. In Constructed environments, board sweepers (see: Wrath of God) tend to keep this sort of tactic in check. Overextend, and your face melts in horror as your opponent wipes the board of your six cards to their one. In the preconstructed environment, however, you have much less to worry about.
Moving up to the two-drops, we see our first instance of rally with the Kor Bladewhirl. The Bladewhirl offers first strike to your side, each time you play a creature (since you have no non-Allies). There’s also a trio of Reckless Cohorts, which offer a different take on the tribal identify. Ordinarily Allies offer benefits when played, but the Cohort has a drawback that is only mitigated if you’re playing Allies. If you’re looking at the cohort like it’s basically Grizzly Bears, you’ve got the right idea.
Finally, a pair of Kor Castigators level off the two-drops with a nice bit of offense. The Scions blocking restriction is a nice dab of frosting, preventing an easy trade from any opponent running Eldrazi. The real threat of the Castigator is that high power. Although the 1 toughness means most anything can kill it, it can take a good variety of foes down with it.
The three-drop slot is a touch thin in comparison, comprising only four cards, but each of the them brings another instance of rally to the table. First are a pair of Makindi Patrols. Weighing in as a 2/3, these are a touch weak for three mana, but this is typically where White starts to lose creature efficiency. But with rally, we know that the value of what the Patrol bring to the table will largely be in a triggered ability, and in this case, it’s in granting vigilance to your creatures.
That’s not terrible, though Rallying Cry isn’t a deck that’s highly inclined towards defense. Instead, with its high creature count and incentives for playing as many Allies as you can, your ability to win comes from aggressive red zone play. Our second pairing of three-drop cards, the Firemantle Mage, is much better suited towards the task.
Although the Mage loses a point of toughness when compared to the Patrol, its ability to cut in half the number of available blocks by your opponent is a great offensive tool. We often see with aggressive decks filled with small creatures a ‘tipping point’ where an opponent can stabilize, and the smaller creatures lose their effectiveness as bigger blockers come on-line. The Mage’s menace can help sidestep that, letting you get through another burst of damage as long as you have enough ground troops.
The four-drop slot is the deck’s leanest, consisting of just two cards. The Chasm Guide offers haste as its rally ability, which is a little underwhelming at first. After all, this guy clocks in at four mana, so how many other creatures are you likely to cast that same turn? However, with the Guide in play, every subsequent creature you cast will be able to sprint for the red zone right off the blocks. This may compel your opponent to play a little more conservatively, as they have to prepare for new threats able to attack each turn, and that’s where your deck’s removal suite will do some of the best good.
The Ondu Champion, meanwhile, gives your creatures another combat-relevant ability, trample. This one is a bit less useful here, as many of your creatures have fairly low power, but there are enough 3-power and 4-power Allies to make it have some ability to push through a few extra points of damage. The Champion himself has 4 power, so you’ll always have at least one while this ability is in effect.
Finally, we arrive at the top of the curve, and it’s surprisingly loaded. If you’d thought you’d be looking at a narrow, streamlined deck front-loaded with smaller creatures so you could quickly overwhelm your opponent, think again. That’s not to say that these top-of-curve Allies don’t bring a lot to the table themselves, but with eight in the deck you’ll often draw one or more early, and they’ll be a dead card when you least need it.
First up are the Kor Entanglers, and you get a pair of them. As mentioned above, one of the perils of a ground-based aggression game is when your opponent starts to erect defenses. The Entanglers, as you might expect from previous similar cards like Kor Hookmaster and Kor Line-Slingers, tap down an opposing creature. This is another way to break through a creature stall, and gives a second useful purpose to early drops like the Expedition Envoy. If you can cast two or three Allies in a turn after you bring out the Entanglers, you can tear a hole in your opponent’s defenses.
The Shatterskull Recruit is another Ally that offers nothing to any of your other Ally cards on its own. A 4/4 with menace, it’s a solid card for five mana, and you get two of them. On the other end of the spectrum is the Resolute Blademaster. Although five mana for a 2/2 is painful, its rally ability offers your army double strike. Combined with a card like the Entanglers, the Firemantle Mage, or Ondu Champion, it really can do some damage.
Next up are a pair of Angels, intriguing new options for the Ally subtype. The Angelic Captain is an evasive 4/3 that gets larger on the attack for every other Ally you’re sending into the red zone. That’s a solid closing option, especially given the fact it has flying. The Angel of Renewal, however, isn’t quite as exciting. As a 4/4, it’s slightly more robust in its natural state than its cohort, but it carries a simple enters-the-battlefield ability that gives you a one-time dose of lifegain.
Finally, the Hero of Goma Fada caps off the creature suite as the deck’s premium rare. A 4/3 beater, the Hero’s rally gives your side indestructible. Once again, the deck finds ways to get around the usual creature stall that can happen with so many smaller creatures in the deck. Although a touch bloated on the back-end, there certainly seems to be some foresight here in this deck’s design. Of course, creature decks often need a little help in the form of removal and combat tricks. Let’s look at the noncreature support suite.
Hold Nothing Back
With a deck so dense with creatures, there isn’t a lot of room left over for support. While tightly focused, the card options here are a bit weaker than you’d like. For instance, it carries a pair of Smite the Monstrous. That’s useful for dealing with an opponent’s worst threats, but only those above a certain size. If your deck is looking to overwhelm your opponent, however, you might have been happier with a card like Gideon’s Reproach, which can handle whatever speed bumps your opponent tries to put in the way of your onrushing army. Fortunately, the deck’s Red component offers a pair of Outnumbers, which can usually get the job done- and at a cheap cost.
As for combat tricks- always a staple in creature-swarm decks- we have a pair of Lithomancer’s Focus. This is a cheap Giant Growth-style spell that has an occasionally-useful rider. By preventing damage from colorless sources, it gives the deck a leg up over Eldrazi-based ones. For buffing the side, you have a pair of Inspired Charges, a reprint from Magic 2011. These offer a potentially hefty boost, and the synergies here with cards like the Hero of Goma Fada or Ondu Champion are obvious.
Finally, a one-off Angelic Gift gives you an extra dose of evasion. This aura looks to mitigate the risk associated with auras, in that if the creature you enchant dies, you lose two cards. In this case, you get to draw an extra card when Gift enters play, though you can still get hosed if your opponent responds with instant-speed removal to kill your target. Then, you’ll lose both the creature and the aura, and not get to draw a card.
The nonbasic land suite is fairly robust here. You have a touch of mana fixing in a pair of Evolving Wilds, ensuring you can cast the spells you need. Sandstone Bridge is a “spell land,” much like the ones in the original Zendikar block. In this case, in this case, playing the Bridges will give your creature a small stats boost and vigilance. Finally, you get one more piece of removal in the Blighted Gorge, which can be popped for five mana for a Shock.
Overall, despite the concerns about the mana curve, this seems like a solid deck and worthy successor to The Adventurers. We’ll test it in the field and report back with our findings!