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May 26, 2016

Battle for Zendikar: Zendikar’s Rage Review (Part 1 of 2)

by Dredd77

If you’ve enjoyed fantasy and science fiction, you’ve probably come across Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” (also known as the “monomyth“).  In studying a number of world mythologies and legends, Campbell found that there was a template that came up in a large number of them. A simple summary might go as follows: a hero goes on a journey or adventure, overcomes adversity, and emerges transformed by the experience. (This is a superb illustration of the principle). This was in fact the template quite deliberately used for The Weatherlight Saga, Magic’s multi-block story arc that kicked off with Tempst (after having the table set with Weatherlight itself).

Over time, one gets a similar notion about the design stores of lead designer Mark Rosewater. Thanks to his weekly column on the mothership, Blogatog where he handles Q&A from players, and his weekly ‘Drive to Work’ podcasts, we have an almost unprecedented level of access to behind-the-scenes insight on how Magic gets made.

Many of Rosewater’s stories, however, tend to follow a similar template. MaRo proposes something radically different or new for a mechanic, concept, or vision. He is met with stern resistance from the status quo. They are skeptical of his ideas. They’re too radical, or run against everything they’ve ever known about how to make Magic. MaRo is defeated, his ideas rejected. “If you want to make that,” he’s told, “you need to show us it can work.”

Aha! He’ll do just that! MaRo goes and builds, and tinkers, and refines. He comes back with some mocked-up cards. His peers are skeptical. “Just try it,” MaRo urges. They do. They love it! He was right all along! MaRo’s vision is celebrated, and becomes a big success! He has the acclaim and respect of his peers… until the next time he pitches an unusual idea.

Now in fairness, Rosewater himself points out that he’s had some clunkers, too, such as making all of the rare creatures in Kamagawa legendary. But today’s mechanic, landfall, is one of the success stories. It made a tremendous impact in the original Zendikar in 2009, and has returned for Battle of Zendikar- with even an odd twist or two!


Harsh and Unforgiving

With a diverse spread across the different mana drops, the deck opens with a pair of Lavastep Raiders. These one-drops have a 1/2 body, and carry a slightly-less efficient form of Firebreathing that returns +2 points of power for every three mana you funnel into it. Pumpability, or some other kind of mana sink, is especially welcome in smaller, cheaper creatures like this one, since it gives them the promise of at least some relevance when drawn later in the game. Here, you get two of them.

Next up is the Scythe Leopard, which is a sort of a “Steppe Lynx without the variance.” The Lynx, from the original Zendikar, was a 0/1 that became a 2/3 whenever you hit landfall. That means it was either feast or famine, while the Leopard is at least a 1/1 whether you hit land or not. Consequently, its landfall bonus is a more modest +1/+1. Unlike the Raider, though, you’ll seldom be happy to see the Leopard drawn late in the game, when land drops may be less frequent. Of course, the deck does have other ways of getting land onto the battlefield, as we’ll soon see.

Moving on to the two-drops, the Snapping Gnarlid is a Grizzly Bears with landfall, and it’s the same basic bonus we saw on the Scythe Leopard. This makes it a decent beater, often a 3/3 swinging in on turn 3 with mileage varying after that. Still, this gives it some relevance, even if the bonus isn’t all that impressive. The deck gives you a pair.

The Red version of the Snapping Gnarlid is the Makindi Sliderunner. A 2/1 instead of 2/2, it packs along trample to go with its landfall. While we will see some larger landfall bonuses as we go, it’s the same small increase here on the smaller creatures. The heftier bonuses we saw on Steppe Lynxes and Plated Geopedes seem to have gone the way of the dodo, at least this far down on the mana curve.

With its low toughness, the Sliderunner might not get many chances to turn sideways. Luckily, you’ll still reap some benefit in its passing thanks to the Rot Shambler. This Fungus rewards you for having things die, gaining a +1/+1 counter each time. It will require at least two deaths to begin to show value through size, which should give some clue as to this deck’s preferred strategy.

Finally, there’s a pair of Oran-Rief Invokers. A callback to the Invokers of Rise of the Eldrazi, those were intended as late-game mana dumps in an environment where you’d expect to have a lot of mana floating around. Because Zendikar’s Rage has a lot of land-ramp (a by-product of actively working the landfall angle), you’ll certainly welcome the ability to dump some of that to power up the Invoker in the late-game. A 7/7 trampler comes in handy, even with the substantial price tag it commands.

Moving up to the three-drops, we find another new Invoker, the Valakut one. Back in Rise of the Eldrazi, the Lavafume Invoker offered a power boost across the board. The Valakut Invoker isn’t messing around, giving you repeatable Lightning Bolts at eight mana a pop. That’s a great bit of burn that, in keeping with the Invoker’s purpose, can help take a game towards its inevitable conclusion.

Staying at Valakut for a moment, the Valakut Predator is another creature with landfall. This time, though, we see a more substantial bonus of +2/+2. That can make this humble 2/2 into a much more substantial threat, particularly if you manage to find more than one land in a turn. You’ll be delighted to pull those Evolving Wilds with this guy on the battlefield!

The last creature in the three-drops, the Tunneling Geopede, is a 3/2 that pings your opponent for a point of damage on landfall (or all your opponents, if you’re playing multiplayer). That’s not a bad ability, since a 3/2 body for three mana is serviceable in Red. Again, this deck has ways to cheat more land onto the battlefield, so what might seem as a little bit of damage can begin to really add up. It’s a great inclusion here, and can showcase the power of the mechanic if even a few of your landfall-enablers show up.

Moving to the four-drops, we’re greeted by the Grove Rumbler first. This one’s a simple riff on the landfall-pump model, being a 3/3 that gets +2/+2 for each land. Crucially, the Rumbler also has trample, ensuring that all of your hard work to inflate it won’t go to waste if your opponent opts to chump-block it.

Next up is the Murasa Ranger, which has a nifty twist on the landfall mechanic. Rather than being a simple triggered bonus, the Ranger gives you the choice of spending some mana to make it permanently bigger in the form of +1/+1 counters. While helpful, it’s a very expensive boost at four mana, and you’ll often see it go to waste as you may have better uses for that mana than pumping up a single creature. Still, it’s a good end-of-game card you’ll be happy to grow if the red zone has stalled out.

Lastly, a pair of Broodhunter Wurms– simple vanilla 4/3 creatures. These are about as good as you’ll get from Green for their cost. In all of Magic’s history, there has never been a 4/4 for four mana that only needed one Green mana, that didn’t have a drawback. The closest we’ve ever gotten is probably the Wickerbough Elder, which first appeared in Morningtide but later saw reprinting in Archenemy. The good news here, at least, is that the 4 is in the power slot, not the toughness.

There’s not a lot of options here at the top of the curve, the deck seems happy to be solid throughout rather than relying on the power of closers. A pair of Territorial Baloths are straight-up reprints from the original Zendikar, and become 6/6’s with the drop of a single land thanks to landfall. Lastly, there’s the Oran-Rief Hydra, which does the +1/+1 counter growth right. Rather than costing mana, as the Murasa Ranger demanded ,the Hydra- already a 5/5 trampler– gets a +1/+1 counter with a landfall trigger, and double that if the land is a Forest.  This may seem the same, but it actually represents new design space, since no landfall card in Zendikar or Worldwake cared what type of land entered play. It’s a strong closer, and a must-answer threat.

The Power of Zendikar

Typically in the non-creature support section we begin with the removal, but in a deck like this let’s instead look first at the enabling cards. Clearly landfall wants you to play land- the more of it the better. Specifically, the deck wants to help you play multiple lands in a turn, to maximize some of the triggered benefit.

The deck’s second rare is the leader of the pack here. Nissa’s Renewal gives you three basic land cards right onto the battlefield, in addition to a nice dollop of lifegain. That makes your Territorial Baloths 10/10’s all on its own, and 12/12’s if you played a land that turn. Natural Connection does the same, but for a single land card.

Sylvan Scrying doesn’t let you stack land drops, but rather helps ensure you’ll hit them by putting a land into your hand. You get two of these, as well as a pair of Seek the Wilds. The Wilds give you a wider range of target- creatures or lands- but rather than searching your library, you’re instead limited to one of the top four cards of it.

Finally, there’s the combat trick Swell of Growth, a card that does two things at once. One of them, of course, is to give your creature a power and toughness boost, in the grand tradition of Green combat tricks. But it also lets you put a land from your hand onto the battlefield, which can double up the number of surprises for your unsuspecting opponent.

As for removal, there’s not a lot of it here. Stonefury is an instant that targets creatures only, doing damage equal to the number of lands you have in play. Since a primary aim of the deck is to get loads of lands into play, this should hit for decent damage, though it’s not a cheap spell. By the time you’re able to cast it, though, it should be able to kill almost anything your opponent has fielded against you.

Your other bit of burn here is a reprint from Tempest, Rolling Thunder, which lets you deal damage however you see fit. Although it doesn’t directly synergize with lands the way Stonefury does, it’s obvious that the more lands you have in play, the stronger your X-spell can become.

You also get a singleton Reclaiming Vines to deal with some pesky, non-creature elements. Sure Strike is another combat trick, one that grants a nice offensive bonus backed up by first strike. Finally, there are a pair of landfall-based enchantments, Retreat to Kazandu (Green) and Retreat to Valakut (Red). These give you a choice of two options each time you play a land.

The Green one lets you choose between lifegain and creature reinforcement, while the Red one offers either a power boost for a creature or a Falter effect. This is interesting, in that it offers the same things you’d get from the original Red “spell-lands” from Zendikar block, Teetering Peaks or Smoldering Spires. The Green is not so tidy, extending the bonus of a Turntimber Grove, but opting to offer a dose of lifegain rather than the 0/1 Plant token of Khalni Garden.

Speaking of nonbasic lands, you get a fair number of them here. A trio of Evolving Wilds give you the tantalizing prospect of a double-landfall, while Fertile Thickets helps to ensure your next draw is going to be a land. Finally, a Blighted Woodland offers one least dose of landfall-triggering with a Nissa’s Renewal-type effect.

Overall the deck seems effective, but of course we’ll want to take it into battle before rendering a final verdict. See you then!

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