Playing Defense in the Battle for Zendikar

The newest Magic the Gathering set, Battle for Zendikar, will go into prerelease this weekend. What that means, if you aren’t in the know, is that people will be able to go to events and play with the cards of the brand new set before they are available for purchase in stores. It’s one of the many fun things to do, and it’s meant to give you a taste of what the set is going to be about before it begins to take over competitive limited (“build your deck at the event”) and constructed (“build your deck at home before you get there”) play.


Battle for Zendikar, like all other sets before it, has people up in arms. There are a lot of reasons that people get unhappy when sets change:

  • They have finally mastered the cards in the current sets and are very unhappy with losing some of those cards and having to master new ones.
  • They have cards they really enjoy and those cards will no longer be available to play with.
  • The new cards are new and new things are frightening and they don’t want to be scared lil babies.
  • And many more!

The past few weeks have been what we call “spoiler season,” which is when Magic the Gathering developer Wizards of the Coast slowly trickles out new cards in the set through their websites, fan websites, and special events.

Spoiler season is a time of strife. Wizards shows us the ones they think will get us the most riled up, and it is the most brutally effective marketing tactic. Web forums light up with constant chatter, comment sections fill up, and strategy thinkpieces are leveraged on the backs of single cards trickled out like peanut butter from a water hose. The cards come slowly. We don’t get them quickly. It is a metaphor.

Battle for Zendikar is a follow-up to a set from long ago, Zendikar, which was known for being super powerful and wiggly all over. It enabled many kinds of play and introduced three things that dominated limited and constructed play.

  1. Landfall. Landfall is an ability that creatures (and some other permanents) have that causes something to happen when their controller plays a land. Creatures get bigger! They attack! You win the game really fast! It was a very aggressive time.
  2. Allies. These aren’t super anomalous in Magic history, but the general idea was that Allies mattered and when you controlled multiple creatures with the type Ally you could do cool things like draw lots of cards. This was super useful in a limited concept, and gave the world a nice synergistic feeling of alliances across colors and creature types.
  3. Eldrazi. The Eldrazi are big Lovecraftian monsters who literally annihilate their enemies in front of them, and there were many decks that simply ramped up into big creatures and attacked you with them.

The Zendikar block also produced Jace, The Mind Sculptor, one of the better cards ever printed. It was a weird and wild set all over that took a lot of risks and produced some very, very powerful cards that made it very easy for older, more experienced players to just steamroll new players for almost a solid year. It was not a great time to be playing if you didn’t have a lot of money to throw at the game (or didn’t have years of experience).

In returning to Zendikar to have a Battle for Zendikar, Wizards are very clearly paying attention to what they did in the past while planning for the future. It contains all three of the things I listed above, but all of them exist in a severely depowered state that certainly will not replace the power that is rotating out of current constructed play.

This is a weird time for the game. We are changing from having 3 “sets” of cards in a “block” (three separate releases of cards that make up one big set of cards treated as a competitive unit) to two sets in a block. Additionally, the core set, a kind of yearly “here’s some stuff” block, has been discontinued in favor of just getting more cards in the competitive rotation.

The reason that I am writing all of this is that someone sent me this article on Channel Fireball that purports to tell you everything “wrong” with Battle for Zendikar without actually doing so. Instead, the article is lamenting that Battle for Zendikar is out of step with contemporary Magic.

The article claims that Battle for Zendikar is both confusing (because the usefulness of new mechanics like Devoid isn’t immediately apparent) and poorly designed to interact with the other cards in Standard (because the fourth-best colorless lands cards, though despite being good, just cannot be supported in play with the rest of the cards we have in Standard).

On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with the arguments. They are factually true in the sense that, yes, the new mechanics do appear to be floating in a kind of [non]useful haze of indeterminacy. All of those lands might not make it in.

But this is also a weirdly backward-facing understanding of how Magic can function. The real strength of the original Zendikar is that is did not care about how it related to the set before it (the Alara block), and that functionally broke the game with Jund decks and Baneslayer Angels locking thousands of players out of having a real chance of playing the game.

Battle for Zendikar has the game devil-may-care attitude about its relation to the rest of the game. It does not dovetail neatly into the design concepts of the Tarkir set or even the weird stutter-step of Magic Origins. Instead, it lands us, fully-formed, on the violent plane of Zendikar with its colorless monstrosities and nonsense allies. It is a set that is looking forward to a battle that will cause one of those parties to be annihilated, and more than that it is looking forward to several new blocks in the coming year that will integrate themselves into the new competitive format.

That might not be appealing for those who see the design of Magic as a constant negotiation with top-level players and their infinitely minute deck tinkerings. But I see it as bravely walking into a new format for the game proper with some straight-up weird cards that, like most Magic cards, might not come into their own for quite a while.

I’m willing to take a weird chance on a purposefully weird set like Battle for Zendikar. I want to see giant monsters tackled by rag-tag groups of allies that don’t even look like they belong to the same universe, let alone the same group. I’m willing to do the work to figure out the payoff. Here’s hoping.


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1 Response to Playing Defense in the Battle for Zendikar

  1. oogenhand says:

    I like the idea of a set that says F*CK YOU to other sets.

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