Drawing First Blood in the Battle For Zendikar Prerelease

Posted September 27, 2015 in
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As avid Magic: The Gathering fans, Alex Springer and I both decided to give the upcoming set a try. While the full spoiler has been out for a week and plenty of pros like Luis Scott-Vargas have given their ratings on the set—going to the prerelease holds this strangely exciting allure. Sure, you can look at those flickering pixels of possibility on your computer screen all you like, but until you’ve got actual cards in your hands, the set just isn’t real yet.

Battle For Zendikar

From the first moment I had access to the full spoiler, it was pretty clear that this set was going to play with some really weird mechanical space. Keyword abilities like Devoid and Ingest seemed to confuse most players, and even the pros seemed to wave them off as somewhat parasitic and gimmicky. The Converge mechanic brought an unstable element to the table, giving small incentives to the domain players out there who just want to throw down all five basic land types and go to work. With the return of Landfall and the keywording of Rally, though, there was a sense of the familiar that fans of the original Zendikar would likely appreciate. With this strange mix of old ideas and odd new innovations, it became incredibly difficult to evaluate the cards in this set.

That said, I already had a list in my head of all the amazing cards I’d be ecstatic to pull. Yet, the typical Sealed format of the prerelease has always been a little unpredictable for me, and I wasn’t sure exactly what I would be getting myself into.

The Battle Begins

I arrived to the site of the prerelease a bit early, running mentally through the various cards that seemed obviously good from each color. When I checked in, I got a glimpse of the prerelease boxes, which didn’t seem to be divided up in the style of previous prereleases I’ve attended. This actually excited me a little bit, as the pre-seeded pack usually packaged in with a prerelease box almost always pissed in my cheerios. To get so many cards in one or two colors could be devastating if they weren’t backed up by good picks in the booster packs, and I often found myself with a deck that had only a little bit of good stuff from every color. If you got lucky, you could brew insane decks that would clean up this lesser opposition effortlessly, but the coin-flip just seemed way too real for me.

When we first tore into our packs, I noticed that nauseating trend of great cards spread through far too many colors. I also didn’t open a single Converge card in my entire pool, making me lean away from just playing five-color good stuff. We had about 15 fewer minutes than normal to brew our decks, and the pressure was on as I started evaluating my picks.

I had some pretty solid fliers in my blue picks, while my black seemed just good enough to edge out any of my big green beaters. I figured I would simply go for a deck that could get some early hits in and then win with some advantage-producing Processors. I was able to cobble together a basic black/blue tempo shell, but I had picked up so many great red cards that it just didn’t make any sense for me to not at least splash the color. Yet, as time went on, I realized that all of my best removal was split between red and white, but both lacked sufficient numbers of creatures to realistically support a deck. I was running against the clock, so I made the last-minute decision to shove a pretty deep splash of red into things. After all, who doesn’t want to jam Akoum Firebird into the red zone all day, right?

Just from the cards I opened, it seemed like white and blue were leading the way with control spells, while red wanted to beat down relentlessly. Green and black seemed like they were pretty middle-of-the-road colors, supporting more of a midrange strategy with big, nasty creatures and disruptive spells.

I was pretty nervous about my deck at first. It’s not an easy thing to pull of three colors with virtually no mana fixing and a lot of high-cost creatures, but I decided to give it a chance and see how well things could turn out for me.

Round One: Mathew Gibson – G/W Landfall 2-1

Gibson was on the Landfall strategy, and seemed to have a bit of an Allies subtheme to his deck. The first game went pretty long, but started pretty simple with a Sludge Crawler on my side of the table on turn 1. When I first saw this card spoiled, it didn’t really stick out to me—1/1 creatures for 1 tend to be pretty bad, especially in limited formats, and I was reluctant to run him out, even on an empty board. Nevertheless, this guy beat down pretty well. His pump ability seemed fairly relevant, and he sneaked in plenty of attacks that most 1/1s can’t really manage. Many of the set reviews I’ve seen have pegged this guy as a Bellows Lizard, which would be fair if Sludge Crawler didn’t also pump his toughness. This actually made a pretty big difference, as my opponent had to deal with the fact that this hungry little critter would be more than happy to gobble up whatever blockers crossed his path. His early Ingests helped me eke out some advantage in the mid-game, but Gibson also started tossing out some seriously powerful artillery. Turns out that a Territorial Baloth enchanted with Angelic Gift is really hard to deal with. 0-1

The second game was pretty much a beatdown—he never got to more than three mana, while I was curving out like mad, punching through with Fathom Feeder and Dust Oracle turn after turn. Those two cards are serious buddies, and while Fathom Feeder is a rare, their abilities combine into a repeatable Ghastly Discovery in the late game, which can be utterly back-breaking. 1-1

Game three actually went pretty well for Gibson at first, but as we started pushing into the mid-game, he kept missing his land drops, while I could merely sit back behind Fathom Feeder’s virtually limitless card advantage. I think he probably could have slipped in a few attacks at me, but Fathom Feeder‘s deathtouch seemed to keep him from going aggro. I finished him off with Akoum Firebird, which seemed really tough to deal with throughout both of the games it appeared in. 2-1

We talked after the match about his mana base and I realized he was probably running way too light on his lands. After three games, I was starting to get a handle on how this crazy grixis abomination I was piloting was supposed to work, and I made a few minor alterations to get things balanced right.

My MVP in this matchup was definitely Fathom Feeder. That guy is the real deal—it drops early, threatens to eat your opponent’s biggest attacker, and then draws you a million cards. There’s really not much more you can ask for out of a two-drop, and I think that Fathom Feeder is one of the better rares in the set for its ability to be good no matter what stage of the game you’re in.

Round Two: The Mysterious Challenger – R/G Good Stuff 2-0

My second opponent preferred not to be named, but he was a friendly fellow who made it clear in advance that this was his first time playing Magic in a while. While there were a few minor play mistakes here and there, he put up a good fight and was very fun to play against.

Our first game saw some more of that sweet, sweet Fathom Feeder action, and was closed out by a combination of Akoum Firebird and Windrider Patrol. Seven damage in the air turn is a hard clock to stop, and while he did reveal his Omnath, Locus of Rage on the last turn of the game, it was too late to really do much. 1-0

Our second game, though, was a grisly one. We kept pushing into bigger and bigger plays, my deck trying to squeeze every bit of advantage possible out of the game while he dropped huge, lumbering bodies on the board that demanded an answer immediately. He even got Omnath online, pumping out a series of huge elementals that kept some serious pressure on my life total and defenders who were rarely big enough to stand in his way. However, after a couple of lucky removal draws, I started taking over the match. I had to keep casting my poor Akoum Firebird with every Landfall trigger, leaving very little mana up to deal with his threats. However, once his stream of creatures ran dry, my team was able to swing in without fear turn after turn. We heard the judge call out time and, in our last five turns, I was able to get him close enough to death that he conceded. I really appreciate his good sportsmanship and willingness to offer a win rather than a tie, and I accepted it graciously. 2-0

This matchup really tested the endurance of the tempo strategy in limited and it seems like R/G is going to be a powerful, aggressive deck with a lot of staying power in this format. Nevertheless, being able to reuse Akoum Firebird was extremely important in both games, and it turns out that a 3/3 flier on turn four can find its way past a surprising amount of defense.

Round Three: Jason Egginton – BUG Tempo/Control 0-2

Egginton was a quiet, yet polite player who exuded a calm confidence in his play, which was not surprising given the quality of his deck. BUG Tempo/Control is a real deck, and it brings the beatdown relentlessly.

Our first game felt very one-sided for the first few turns. He started getting out tons of fliers and began pummeling me with them relentlessly. Just as I hit five life, I was able to get back on the horse and start pushing back some of the aggression. Rising Miasma is a serious card, and against a wide board, it can really hurt. Most of the great tempo creatures in this format are at two toughness, and giving the whole board -2/-2 can be terrifyingly beneficial, especially when you’re the only one left with a viable creature afterward. I was able to get in a few attacks with the Akoum Firebird as usual, but even as I closed in on his life total, he was rebuilding much faster than I could deal with his threats. The match came down to a topdeck—I didn’t pull a rabbit out of my hat, and he was able to finish me off with only two life left. This was a seriously fun game, and the tempo/tempo matchup felt very decision-heavy and interactive. 0-1

Egginton really made me work for my second-game victory, dropping powerful threats and forcing me to really prioritize my removal. However, I was able to set up my tempo game a little bit earlier than he did, forcing him onto the back foot while I set up a practically unbeatable team. A well-timed Rising Miasma took advantage of his smaller creatures, and I was able to sneak in plenty of damage to take him out. 1-1

Our final game felt a little more inevitable, and Egginton’s deck gave me no quarter against its insane stream of quick-swinging creatures. He blew up lands and swung for the fences with his creatures, leaving me on the back foot from turn one. In my defense, I only drew four nonland cards over the course of the game, but his start was incredible—a reminder that BUG is a serious contender is sealed. After dealing with the few threats I could muster, he dropped a Void Winnower out of the big blue sky, leaving me facing down two lethal-damage dealing creatures with no blockers. I conceded the game—sometimes you just get mana flooded, and that’s okay. 1-2

Though I ended up losing both games, I never felt like I was completely out of options in our first two games. Egginton was a stellar opponent, forcing me to react until I could wrest the advantage from him, and even then, he was able to outmaneuver me most of the time. I appreciated the chance to play with such an advanced pilot, and hope I find myself across the table from him again one day.

For an MVP, I look to Rising Miasma. This card was able to swing games in my favor every time I played it, and while I did lose my hold on the reins in game one, it seems like not too many decks can really deal with it. Granted, it gets way worse in the late game when giant Eldrazi start blowing up the board, but being able to clear out all the clutter from a go-wide deck can really help narrow the threat count and give you unexpected survivability.

Final Round: Dalton Bode – UG Ramp/Midrange 2-1

Dalton’s deck was pretty intimidating at first. His creatures were often bigger and more impactful than mine, and his deck underscored that, while my grixis tempo deck may have been able to squeeze out a surprise victory, UG is a real powerhouse in Battle For Zendikar.

Game one went pretty well for me—I caught him off-guard from the start. Dust Stalker came crashing in with Halimar Tidecaller for two turns in a row, and he stumbled on his mana colors early. While he did eventually pull into his plan of playing huge, unbeatable Eldrazi, I kept finding my way around them—whether it was bouncing Bode’s Ruin Processor with Clutch of Currents (and, regrettably, giving him another 5 life) and forcing him to play it again or blowing up his 7/7 Endless One with Stonefury. I met with some pretty strong resistance near the end of the game, but my own Ruin Processor was able to finish the job. 1-0

The second game went all kinds of sideways for me. Bode’s ramp plan was no joke, and when he was on track to casting his Eldrazi early on in the game, it started to really hurt. I did put up some token resistance, but his creatures just outsized mine until they rolled right over me. 1-1

The third game was, unfortunately, won due to a tragic mana flood by my opponent. Normally a ramp player is more than happy to be drawing more lands than average, but once his threats dried up and I started drawing two cards a turn with Fathom Feeder, the game was well out of his hands. I think that, if he hadn’t flooded out in the final game, I would have had a really difficult time staying on top of that game, as there were plenty of times I was able to simply bide my time and spare my attacks until I knew they would go uncontested. 2-1

My MVP for the final round actually ended up being a pretty humble sideboard card—Boiling Earth. While I usually hate to run this kind of effect, it was able to blank a lot of his Eldrazi Scion token production, and even allowed me to only one-for-two myself on his Brood Monitor—incidentally, an absolutely insane card—when he played it on turn four. Boiling Earth is actually much better in this format than it might seem at first blush. There are very few good instant-speed mana sinks that can allow your opponent to make good use of their soon-to-be-dead Scions. When, with one spell, I can remove three creatures and a potential three mana from my opponent, I’m interested. Still, this is a sideboard special, the kind of card that won’t do well against most decks, but will absolutely wreck the ones it’s good against.

Aftermath

Battle For Zendikar easily surpasses whatever expectations I had when I was just swiping through spoilers. The prerelease brought out a fair number of interesting deck archetypes, and I’m sure that more will develop as the more selective draft format isolates the optimal card choices for each archetype. Right now, each deck seemed to have its own pace and flow, and while some decks really push the big Eldrazi bombs, I fully expect that fast, aggressive tempo decks will be able to find their way underneath the more ponderous ramp strategies. Control seems like a difficult prospect unless one is playing white and pulls some seriously good removal, but there are some real benefits to keeping the games going long.

As for the picks I made, I think I could have just as easily gone with white over red. Granted, red was bristling with removal spells, and pulling a self-recurring threat (Akoum Firebird) is usually a pretty good reason to be running a color. However, looking back over my pool, cards like Smite The Monstrous, Roil’s Retribution and Planar Outburst are probably good enough for splashing by themselves. Green, meanwhile, went deep with creatures—especially the Eldrazi Scions—but I think I stand by my decision to avoid it due to a lack of good ramp effects in my pool. If I had to go about that draft again, I can think of some small substitutions, but hopefully I can try out this sweet grixis tempo action in future drafts.

Ingest actually turned out to be a pretty interesting mechanic. Granted, I don’t know how good it is on its own, but I had heard many other tables that had more turns in their games ended up realizing the mild mill effect of ingest really mattered. Games can get deadlocked pretty easily (though with the right stuff, breaking through that deadlock isn’t unreasonably tough), so some decks will just want to sneak in three or four Ingests early on and just endure for the rest of each game. We’ll see how far people can push this mechanic, but I think I can see its utility independent of the processors who make that ingest into powerful spell abilities.

Most of all, I was impressed by the power level of some of the set’s commons and uncommons. This set rewards creative deck construction with weird, surprisingly synergistic cards at low rarities, and never feels like it unduly favors whichever player pulled the most Grizzly Bears. While I still have to draft this set to get a full picture of how it will shape up over the coming months, it’s easy to see that this isn’t your grandpappy’s limited format.

Check out Alex Springer’s take on the format in Battle For Zendikar: How To Harness Cosmic Evil for Fun and Profit.