Happy release weekend! Friday marked the official release of Zendikar Rising — the latest expansion in the Magic the Gathering universe, bringing with it new cards, new lore and a new meta to discover. OK, so it has been playable online in MTG: Arena for the past week, but it’s only now can you pick it up in shops, and pick it up you should. Being able to play it on MTG Arena has been an absolute boon, especially given that paper tournaments aren’t happening this weekend thanks to you know what.
Return to return to Zendikar
So, what is Zendikar and why are we here again?
The plane of Zendikar is alive. It is a world where mountains float in the air, with waterfalls cascading over the side. Ancient and mysterious hedrons float by as the Roil sweeps the plane, birthing violent elementals that rip and tear their way through whatever’s in front of them. It’s beautiful, but it’s not an easy place to live.
Originally designed as ‘Adventure World’, our first visit to Zendikar was a resounding success. It was known for making lands more than just a resource for casting spells. On Zendikar, your lands matter more than anywhere else, thanks to the Landfall mechanic (simply put, playing a land causes things to happen, such as making your creatures bigger and better). This means that Zendikar sets tend to be associated with deep and complex lines of play.
Unfortunately, the last time we went to Zendikar, we had Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch — sets widely held as two of the worst in recent Magic and regarded by Mark Rosewater, head designer for the game, as one of the low-points of his design career.
So, with the terror of recent past still fresh, should players be afraid to return to return to Zendikar, or has Wizards of the Coast learned from its mistakes?
Out with the old
First things first, for those of you who play Standard game mode, September’s update means that the Ravinca cards are rotating out (will no longer be playable). This means that everything from Throne of Eldraine onwards (banlist notwithstanding) is legal.
For those of you who love playing with your Ravnicards, for want of a better term, you can still play them in Historic — MTG Arena’s eternal format.
In the lore, the Eldrazi — interplanar monsters who came to Zendikar to literally suck the life out of the plane itself — have been driven away and Zendikar is healing. In a more real sense, getting rid of the Eldrazi and focusing on why players love this plane also feels like a healing process; it’s a second chance to get Zendikar right.
And they’ve managed admirably. The return of Landfall, and premium cards such as Lotus Cobra, is extremely welcome. But with it comes Kicker, another fan favourite, and Party — a new mechanic inspired by Dungeons and Dragons. If you can amass a Rogue, a Cleric, a Wizard and a Warrior, or at least as large a party as you can, there is often a bonus in there for you. Between its land-matter and tribal mechanics, there is a lot to explore here. Unlike Oath, there is a lot of adventure to be had here and it feels good to be back.
Interestingly, Zendikar Rising adds a new type of double-faced card: the spell-lands and modal double-faced lands. One side of these has a land on it, the other is either a different land or a spell, giving you a huge amount of utility and making for some interesting in-game decisions. Spell lands are going to be important over the next two years, so make sure you don’t overlook them.
Standard, Sealed or Draft?
Diving into the games main game modes, the game’s main money-maker is Standard. Don’t play it. Uro has not yet been banned and it has a new deck in 4C Omnath. Sadly, until this card is banned, Standard is just a waste of everyone’s time and Sealed and Draft offer much better experiences
For those of you who started playing as a kid, Sealed is probably how you learned to play. In this mode you open six packs of 15 cards and make a 40-card deck with what you have in front of you.
I play a lot of sealed — especially in paper — and Zendikar rising feels like a pretty good set for this at the moment. It’s slow enough that you can make the most of the party mechanic unless you come across a hyper-aggressive Landfall deck, which is entirely possible. Sealed is also a good way to dip your toe into a set as you don’t have to worry about pick orders in draft.
Speaking of which, Draft is often referred to as the purest form of Magic and where we could sit and debate how best to draft this set for hours and have no consensus.
A quick primer on Draft: you sit in a circle of eight people who each have three packs of 15 cards. You each open a pack, take one and pass it to the person next to you. Eventually you each wind up with a pile of cards focused on whatever theme you honed in on as the cards came your way. Because of the number of choices made by everyone in a single draft, each pool of eight players has a mind-boggling number of different potential decks in it.
This makes draft a little more challenging for new players, especially on Arena where there is a time limit on your picks (after which the game selects a card for you). Ironically, it is the Quick Draft that doesn’t have the time limit, and there is no Quick Draft option for Zendikar Rising just yet. It will likely come in the next few weeks, but for now (as it is half the price of a normal draft), Wizards is focusing on the more expensive play modes.
Drafting Zendikar Rising is certainly interesting. Generally speaking, in any given draft you will have a set of archetypes you can lean on: ‘Blue White Fliers, ‘Green Blue Ramp’ or something similar. There is less of a clear-cut colour boundary here, as the mechanics in this set tend to go across the colour pie (the five colours of Magic: White, Blue, Black, Red and Green).
This time, rather than focussing on on colours or colour pairs, you can lean into the mechanics. Do you focus on Landfall, Party or the new Spell-lands? Either way, it’s good to note early on that there’s no dedicated Party deck — with four of the five colours (not Green) supporting it.
That said, there are some more powerful themes emerging in the game’s meta. Blue Black Rogues has some emphasis on milling the opponent to death (getting rid of their library so they can’t cast spells), while Green White Landfall feels quite powerful right now, with cheap creatures and good anthem effects.
It’s also worth noting that this more of a ‘prince’ than a ‘pauper’ set. There are some powerful rares here, and colour fixing isn’t great, so stick to two colours where you can — three colours is doable, but tricky and not optimal.
ON the whole, Zendikar Rising feels like a resounding success. Even a quick glance shows that it has a lot to offer, with the depth and complexity that our last sojourn to the plane drastically lacked. Though we’re just a week in, it feels good to be back. For those of you who play paper, there are some money cards emerging, but they’re all at the mythic slot, making the freemium equivalent — MTG Arena — a great place to play on the cheap.
If you haven’t done so, remember to go to the store and redeem the code PLAYZENDIKAR for some free cards celebrating the new release.