Endless Whispers 6 – Zendikar Prerelease Primer
So, the Zendikar prerelease is just around the corner, and finally we have the bulk of the spoiler available. At the time of writing we have 191 cards available, meaning just under 60 are still unaccounted for, but I’ll do my best to give you an idea of what to expect from your weekend sealed pool. I’ll attack the spoiler by looking at the set’s broad themes that you should be aware of. I won’t pay too much attention to the rares, as it should be obvious that Sphinx of Jwar Isle or Eldrazi Monument are insane bombs, and if someone offers to trade you their pain-lands for your shiny new fetch-lands you should think twice about the deal. All spoiler info is from the fine folks over at MTGSalvation (http://mtgsalvation.com/zendikar-spoiler.html)
The land set
Mark Rosewater says he had a hard time selling the idea of a land set to the brand team which surprises me, as lands are some of my favourite cards. People are going hog-wild for Lotus Cobra but Tolarian Academy was pulling those shenanigans back in 1998. I guess they are not that exciting to a theoretical new player who is more excited about fatties and burn spells, but R&D have managed to work a ‘land matters’ theme into every part of the set.
This new keyword ability triggers whenever a land comes into play to grant some beneficial effect, and it appears on creatures, artifacts and enchantments so far. The creatures it appears on range from Plated Geopede, a first striking 1/1 for 1R that gets +2/+2 until EoT when a land comes into play, to Grazing Gladeheart, a 2G 2/2 that gains you 2 life when a land comes into play, and the rare Bloodghast, a BB 2/1 who has conditional haste and landfall: returns from your graveyard to play. The artifacts that have landfall have similar creature pumping effects, and the enchantments with landfall are all so far part of the ‘Expedition” cycle that will be discussed under quests, further down. Landfall is significant as it is so common in the set, with 26 mentions in the Orb of Insight.
If your sealed pool has many landfall cards you want to play, you will also want to modify your deckbuilding and playstyle to accomodate them. In deckbuilding, don’t skimp on lands where you might normally, you will mind a lot less about getting flooded if you can activate your landfall abilities with late lands, in some cases drawing a land will be better than drawing a spell even if you can play any spell in your deck. You can also maximise your landfall abilities with cards like Harrow and Khalni Heart Expedition that let you put more than one land into play on a turn. In play, you normally might start holding lands once you have enough to play your spells to represent a trick or to protect your spells from Mind Rots. With landfall cards, you will want to think carefully about whether or not to play a land on any given turn – as there are any number of possible situations that could come up in play, I’ll leave it up to your best judgement.
There are plenty of nonbasic lands in the set, and though some are the traditional “get two colours of mana” kind, there are also some that have spell-like effects. There is a rare cycle with hugely powerful effects, lik Emeria the Sky Ruin that acts like a land version of Reya Dawnbringer, that I’m excited to build a deck around. More relevant to the prerelease though, is the common cycle of one-coloured lands that have a comes-into-play effect, and also come into play tapped. We have all of the cycle (and every land in the set, in fact), so I’ll just go over their effects briefly. Each one comes into play tapped and makes one colour of mana. In addition, Teetering Peaks (red) gives a creature +2/+0 until end of turn, Turntimber Grove (green) gives a creature +1/+1 til EoT, Kabira Crossroads (white) gives you 2 life, Soaring Seacliff (blue) gives a creature flying til EoT, and Piranha Marsh (black) pings your opponent for 1. The white one is probably the worst of the lot, since there are a couple of uncommon cards that penalize life gain severely – Needlebite Trap and Punishing Fire. I think Soaring Seacliffs will be the best one generally, as the pump effects aren’t that exciting without instant speed. If you can Harrow a Teetering Peaks into play mid combat though, that is another story.
Though not as tribally oriented as Lorwyn block, there are a couple of significant creature types to know about for Zendikar. The minor ones are merfolk – which matters to Lullmage Mentor; goblins – which matters to Warren Instigator; and elves, which matters to Nissa Revane. These creature types could become more significant with the last 60 cards, but at the moment the only significant ones are Vampire and Ally.
Not the sparkly Twilight kind, or the leather-clad ninja Blade kind, these are Zendikar vampires and they are a nasty, aggressive lot. Their curve starts with a 2/2 for 1 (Lacerator), and continues with 2/1s for 2 that can be recurred (Bloodghast at rare) or that have first strike and can be sacrificed to kill a planeswalker, reset quests, or mess up anything your opponents have with counters (Hexmage). The 3 drops are especially good, with Gatekeeper of Malakir a Cruel Edict stapled to a 2/2, and Nighthawk a 2/3 with Flying, Lifelink and Deathtouch. Crazy! Feast of Blood and Blood Tribute are two powerful spells that care if you have vampires or not, but even without powerful tribal synergies these black weenies work very well together in an aggressive strategy.
Unfortunately aggro is generally not the greatest strategy in sealed as you usually can’t get the critical mass of weenies that makes your deck consistent and fast, which is the strength of any aggro strategy. Be very careful before you take the plunge with vampires as you might end up bashing your Lacerators fruitlessly against your opponent’s big creatures. If you have a nice finisher like Halo Hunter, or some tasty disruption like Mind Sludge or Gull Draz Specter then black aggro might be a possibility, but without these kind of cards you are relying on your uncommon Nighthawks to finish the job. I think vampires will be the real deal in draft, but in sealed they will be a lot weaker.
Flavoured to represent your traditional D&D adventuring party, these guys are kind of like slivers, in that each one cares about how many others you have in play. Some confer benefits on each other, some get bigger depending how many you have, and some have activated abilities that get better with more allies in play. I think these guys are likely to be strong in sealed, despite being spread over all 5 colours there are enough ones that are worth playing that you should be able to have an ally themed sealed deck with going beyond 3 colours. I could be mistaken, if you feel your manabase is too shaky to support your allies then make sure you consider more consistent decks in your pool as well. Some strong ones to look out for are Kazandu Blademaster, Hagra Diabolist, and Murasa Pyromancer all at uncommon. The common allies are less exciting, but playable enough if you get a critical mass of allies.
Quests, Traps and Kicker
First a quick word about kicker. I won’t go into the kicker cards in great detail, as they are pretty straightforward. I like the new wording and I am looking forward to the new kicker variant that Mark Rosewater has talked about, coming in Worldwake. For the current batch, if you have the mana to play it with kicker and it is beneficial to do so, then do it. What more can I say? If you expect to kick any of the ~10 mana rares, you had better build a deck that can make it to the long game.
There are 3 cycles of enchantments that use quest counters – The common expedition cycle, the uncommon quest cycle, and the rare ascencion cycle. The ascension cycle is pretty great, and you will probably want to play any you open. Each of the expedition cycle is an enchantment with landfall – add a quest counter. When each reaches its end goal of 3 counters, you get a spell-like effect that is cheap for the initial cost you paid for the enchantment. These are fine in the early game and are horrible topdecks late, making me think they are unlikely to make the cut in sealed unless their effect is very strong. The blue one is embarassingly bad in comparison to M10s Divination, and I can’t see myself ever playing it. The green one is excellent at fixing mana and triggering landfall, and is my favourite of the cycle. The black one gives you a double Disentomb which is quite strong, and the red one gives you a free Ball Lightning+1, which is reasonable. The white one is unknown.
The Quest cycle is generally better than the parallel expedition cycle, with each having a different mana cost and quest counter trigger. The blue one is possibly even worse than the blue expedition, only useful as a sideboard card against milling. The black, red and green ones all seem very strong, and the white one is again unknown. I think you will want to play any of these bar the blue one. One other thing to note with quests is that Kor Sanctifiers and Relic Crush, the enchantment removal so far previewed, becomes much stronger than usual and I will try to maindeck one of these on the weekend. Vampire Hexmage can also, in a pinch, remove the counters from your opponent’s quest and put them back to square one.
Trap is a new subtype for instants, and each one is an instant that has an alternative “trap” cost that can be paid if your opponent performed a specific action this turn. For example, Pitfall Trap usually costs 2W to destroy an attacking creature, but if your opponent attacks with just one creature you can play it for just W. As an added bonus you can declare that your opponent has “activated your trap card,” and smugly grin as you lay it on the table. This is slightly classier than the expected response, “It’s a trap!” I will be going to the second day of the prerelease in Perth, so hopefully everyone will be tired of these crappy jokes by then. I doubt it, though.
That said I love trap cards! I think knowing what triggers your opponents potential traps is one of the key things you can gain an edge through in early limited events – don’t worry about the rare ones unless you’ve seen them, but the common and uncommon ones in your opponent’s colours should certainly be in the back of your mind when you are deciding whether to play 2 creatures in a turn, or attack with one creature, or draw 3 cards in a turn. Please take a look at the spoiler and pay particular attention to the trap cards, as they will really ruin your day if you walk into the prerelease blindly.
There is hope though, if you are playing against an opponent with plenty of traps – Trapfinder’s Trick is a common sorcery, 1U: Target opponent reveals their hand and discards all trap cards. I think this is definitely maindeckable and it will destroy more than one trickster’s hand. I am not sure what the trap player can do about this if they see it, as the traps are really strong and you won’t want to side them out if you can help it. Counterspells or targeted discard are probably good sideboard options if you are depending on your traps – particularly Spell Pierce as your opponent will want to find your traps as early as possible to try and empty your hand.
I hope this has illuminated some of the basics of Zendikar sealed. I am looking forward to not having to sort my pool into 17 different piles like we’ve had to do with Shards, Shadowmoor and even Lorwyn sealed, and trying to cobble together some synergy and raw power into a winning deck. I have an epic planechase report in the works as well, hopefully after I finish my current university essay I can get it typed up and submitted.