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May 10, 2016

Battle for Zendikar: Swarming Instinct Review (Part 1 of 2)

by Dredd77

Today’s deck, Swarming Instinct, is in some ways a symbol of failure. It’s not the deck itself- we’d hardly make that kind of a judgment without looking through the deck first- but rather, it’s a failure that wasn’t at first apparent when Wizards released Battle for Zendikar. Indeed, only with the perspective granted by the passage of time (and good data collection) can we see just where things went wrong.

The core strategy employed by Swarming Instinct is a fairly straightforward one: buy time early with some defensive options while amassing resources. Then, once you’re sitting on a sufficiently bloated pool of them, drop your battlecruiser and destroy your opponent.

If that sounds exactly like the Rise of the Eldrazi environment- particularly the Limited environment- well, that’s no coincidence. And therein lies the problem.

Head designer Mark Rosewater can be delightfully candid about the game he helps create, and in this week’s Making Magic column on the mothership, he goes into some of the more notable set-level failures that have happened on his watch. One of them, notably, is Battle for Zendikar.

Here’s my analogy. I took my family to Disneyland. They had a great time. They loved all the rides and the characters and the treats. At the end of the last day, I was exhausted, so I took them to the Hall of Presidents so I could rest in an air-conditioned room. They were antsy the whole time because they could care less about animatronic presidents—except my wife, who actually found it interesting. Many years later, it’s time to return to Disneyland because I know my family loved it. What do I do? I take my family to all the animatronic shows.

This brings us to my lesson:

When returning to a world, you have to return to the things that players loved about it the first time you visited.

Shadows over Innistrad is the perfect example of us embracing this philosophy. We didn’t return toAvacyn Restored. We returned to Innistrad. Battle for Zendikar, in contrast, didn’t return to Zendikar. We returned to Rise of the Eldrazi.

It is Swarming Instinct’s cross to bear that it is constituted of those precise elements that Rosewater deems a failure- but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the deck itself can’t be enjoyed on its own merits. Let’s take a look at this Return to Rise of the Eldrazi Battle for Zendikar deck, and see what it looks like under the hood.


A Scion’s Cradle

The deck’s trio of one-drop Blisterpods helps to set the tone for what the deck is about: Eldrazi Scions. Reminiscent of earlier cards like Doomed Traveler and Tukatongue Thallid, this Drone replaces itself with a Scion when killed. As with earlier Eldrazi-themed decks from Rise of the Eldrazi like Eldrazi Arisen, the Scions are both creatures in their own right as well as means to ensure you are able to deploy your deck’s strongest cards. This deck has a substantial collection of pricey end-game options; if you had to wait on your mana drops alone, you might well fall to your opponent before finding joy.

As with the one-drops, the two-drop slot is represented by a single creature. The Tide Drifter is another nod to the old ‘battlecruiser Magic’ strategy of congesting the red zone to play for time, and weighing in as a 0/5 means it will do plenty of congesting. Not only that, but it grants a nice little defensive buff to all of your other creatures (thanks to devoid, even the ones with a colored mana cost are still colorless).

We see a touch of biodiversity in the three-drops, with two different creatures to choose from. The Eldrazi Skyspawner is another card we see three copies of, which tells us that the card pool for making this deck was a bit thin. The modern-day Intro Pack almost never offers a full playset of any card, and even three-ofs are somewhat uncommon.

The Skyspawner isn’t a bad deal. It’s a 2/1 evasive creature, which isn’t game-breaking but passes the ‘vanilla test’. In addition, an Eldrazi Scion comes along for the ride, making this a very solid value. There’s also a single copy of a Pilgrim’s Eye, a reprint from the original Zendikar, which is a touch smaller than the Skyspawner but brings along a basic land card to your hand. The 1/1 body isn’t especially relevant, but guaranteeing a hit land drop is very useful in a deck filled with expensive castings.

Moving up to the four-drops, we begin with another three-of, the Incubator Drone. This is similar to the Skyspawner in that you get a smaller bodied Eldrazi and a Scion all in one, but is considerably worse. For one more mana, you’re getting a creature with the same power, zero evasion, and just two added points of toughness. The only upside here is that in a deck that delights in early blocking while it builds up its resources, 3 toughness can cut down the damage intake. Still, it’s not a card you’ll be ecstatic to topdeck.

The Eyeless Watcher is almost worse. Instead of getting a single 2/3 body to go along with an Eldrazi Scion, you a 1/1 and an extra Scion. Nobody’s going to feel good about paying four perfectly-good mana for a 1/1 dork, but that two mana from the Scions can ramp you right into a quality six- or seven-drop the next turn (assuming you paid for the Watcher with land mana alone, and didn’t pop any Scions). The deck carries a pair of them.

The five-drop slot is occupied by two copies of Kozilek’s Channeler. This is a solid body at 4/4, but also a quality ramping option to give you two more mana. In a world where we’re accustomed to our mana creatures being 1/1’s or 0/1’s, the beefy Channeler will feel a little awkward to tap for land. Geez, buddy, don’t you have anything better to do? Get off the couch and get to that red zone, willya? But again, this opens up the ability to play something substantially larger the very next turn. And once the Channeler’s played its part, you’ve got a solid body to throw at your opponent.

Ordinarily in our deck reviews, we tend to lump together anything that costs five and up, since there doesn’t tend to be many and they all typically fill a closer’s role. Swarming Instinct gives you eight cards here, rewards for hoarding all those Eldrazi Scions. The first of these is the Brood Monitor, a 3/3 that drags along a trio of Eldrazi Scions- basically, just a larger version of what we’ve seen already. The 3/3 boy is decent, but potentially being able to cast any card in the deck next turn is the card’s real thrill.

The deck’s premium rare is next, the Drowner of Hope. Hey look, another Eldrazi that dragons along Scions. *yawn* BUT… this one has a nice little bonus attached to it, which is that you can pop your Eldrazi Scions to tap down your opponent’s creatures. It’s not a cheap ability, but given the size of the beaters you’ll be summoning, its the kind of thing that can set up a game-winning alpha strike all on its own.

Things only really start getting sexy, though, with the Bane of Bala Ged, your seven-drop. Equipped with a more potent version of annihilator: 2 (it exiles the sacrificed cards, whereas the original annihilator simply deposited them into your opponent’s graveyard), it also hammers in with a brutal 7 power. This is a great card here, and not as difficult to play as it might be given how much mana ramping in one form or another the deck carries.

Two copies of Breaker of Armies clock in as the eight-drop. The Breaker is another alpha strike enabler, pulling every available defender to itself while allowing the rest of the team to pass unimpeded. The fact that it’s a robust 10/8 means that even if it falls in battle, it will be taking quite a number of opposing creatures with it.

Finally, the Desolation Twin is the deck’s most powerful Eldrazi. It holds that honor on its own as a 10/10, but if that wasn’t enough it also brings along a token 10/10 as well. Twenty power in creatures for ten mana? Boom.

Dust and Memory

The noncreature support suite of Swarming Instinct is fairly focused and straightforward, aimed largely at disrupting the opponent while you continue building up your forces. Generally speaking, once you’ve landed your largest threats, the game is yours to lose- but you do need to survive long enough to get to that point.

The other thing to note here is that the removal is modest, clunky, and pinpoint. This deck doesn’t want to solve your problems through spells so much as just go over the top of them with massive beaters. Still, it helps to be able to remove the occasional nettlesome pest, and the first tool to do that is Unnatural Aggression. This lets one of your creatures fight another, but remember that your creatures are largely weak up until your five-drop 4/4 Kozilek’s Channeler. The longer you wait to cast a card like this, the more you’re going to be able to kill. Once you’ve found your battlecruisers, your opponent is likely at your mercy with little to match their titanic size.

Similarly, Titan’s Presence is creature-power-dependent, but since it keys off of a creature in your hand rather than one on the board, you have a much broader field of fire. The trouble with decks that pack in so many expensive cards is that you’ll often begin the game a card or two down compared to your opponent. That opening-grip Desolation Twin might as well be a mulligan, since it will sit in your hand dead almost the entire game (though things may radically change once it’s been summoned). This gives those ‘dead’ cards some utility, and a three-mana instant is priced just right.

Far pricier is Scour from Existence, clocking it at seven mana. Still, there’s a lot of bang for that buck, exiling a permanent of your choice. The deck gives you two copies. That’s it for hard removal, though you do get one more piece of disruption in Adverse Conditions, a card that ‘freezes’ two of your opponent’s creatures while giving you (yet) another Eldrazi Scion.

Next up in the disruption vein is Spell Shrivel, a stronger version of Ravnica’s Convolute. Not only does it counter the spell (unless the tax is paid), but it exiles it rather than lets the countered card go into the library. You get two of these, and two copies of Hedron Archive. Another mana accelerant that lets you cash it in later for extra cards, this is added insurance that you’ll be able to play your most expensive cards.

Finally, there’s a trio of Call the Scions, which- you guessed it- adds more Eldrazi Scions to the board.

The deck also sneaks in a few more spell-like effects on its nonbasic land suite. In addition to the de rigeur Evolving Wilds, you get a touch of added card draw in the Blighted Cataract, and a little more creature disruption in a pair of Skyline Cascades.

All in all, the deck seems either a little thin or remarkably consistent, depending on your perspective. It will be interesting to see how it plays out on the battlefield. We’ll take it to battle and give it a final grade for the conclusion- see you then!

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