As a competitive player and avid brewer, I always look forward to spoiler season. I check the spoiler page at midnight and then again at 5 AM even though there’s almost certainly nothing new. Some moments of elation justify this diligence; I remember my head exploding when Hooting Mandrills was spoiled. So it hurts to say that Battle for Zendikar‘s spoiler season is one of the most underwhelming I’ve ever experienced. At the time of my writing this article, we’ve only seen half of the set, but I’m unimpressed by its contents. Even Theros had me more excited than BFZ!
Before we look at individual cards, I’ll say that I understand R&D’s direction with Battle for Zendikar. Wizards has told us countless times that it tests non-Standard constructed formats minimally, if at all, and focuses heavily on Limited dynamics for set design. When I say that a card could cost less mana, I’m not questioning the testing R&D does in regards to Standard or Limited, as I believe in its competence regarding the maintenance of these formats. I just mean that for a card to be Modern-playable, it frequently will require a power boost.
The Problems With Battle
Battle for Zendikar‘s main issues are its weak mechanics and uninteresting design. I want to be careful here, since I love the design on some cards (more on these below). I mean that we can look at a card like and instantly pass it off as unplayable, whereas if it cost just one mana less, it would prove an interesting addition to certain Modern strategies. In this section, I’ll only cover weak mechanics, tackling “uninteresting design” in my playability analysis below.
Converge: A sunburst rework that applies to spells on the stack. I actually really like converge, since it asks players to build decks in special ways and rewards splashing. Engineered Explosives remains one of the coolest Modern cards for this reason. Unfortunately, none of the converge cards are as good. seems less versatile than Anger of the Gods or even Firespout, while embarrassingly takes a backseat to a Standard-legal common, Read the Bones.
Awaken: The other BFZ mechanic I can (in theory) get behind, awaken could prove very strong if printed on an already decent card. and mark noble attempts, but Cancel and Hero’s Downfall are already too slow for Modern, and Path is a sorcery to boot. Since awaken compliments grindy decks, we’re mostly looking for cards that cheaply interact with opponents early on (removing a creature or countering a spell for two mana or less) to double as big threats in the late-game. If exiled a creature instead of Time Ebbing it, we might have something that could fight with Detention Sphere for slots in UW Control.
Rally: While it’s nice to have a keyword for this ability, rally brings nothing new to the table.
Devoid: Like rally, devoid doesn’t do anything novel.
Ingest: A mechanic as bad as it is disgusting. I love the flavor here, but creatures that need to connect with opponents to gain effects that possibly create value with additional cards don’t exactly scream “Modern staple.”
Landfall: A returning mechanic from Zendikar block, Landfall still stands tall as the best designed and most fun of the bunch. We’ve yet to see any cards here approach the power levels of Searing Blaze or even Plated Geopede.
I’ve divided this section based on card playabilty. As I mentioned, many BFZ cards would be interesting in Modern if costed more aggressively. As it stands, the set is too Standard-oriented to make as defined a footprint as the seminal Khans of Tarkir block.
Cards That Don’t Get There
- : If Modern doesn’t play Steppe Lynx, it won’t play this cute little guy.
- : The decision to put this four-mana Oblivion Ring at mythic says a lot about BFZ’s power level. It’s a double-O-Ring for six, but that versatility makes it much worse at an earlier game stage, which is where O-Ring shines.
- : Decks that want to abuse Herald are better off with Etherium Sculptor.
- : Can be fetched by Knight of the Reliquary for a big attack against other aggro decks, but Sejiri Steppe is a much better instant-speed utility land for Knight decks, if they choose to run one at all. The other lands in this cycle also do too little.
Cards That Almost Get There
- : True to its name, Awry is my pick for most disappointing card in the set (just ask Trevor), since I’m always on the lookout for cheap counterspells. If it also hit noncreature spells, or if it cost one mana instead of two, this card would see Modern play (at the very least, by me) and alone buoy my interest in Battle for Zendikar.
- : This card prompted some discussion at my LGS, as players compared it to Electrolyze, Venser, Shaper Savant, and Cryptic Command. While Expulsion may be easier to cast than Cryptic in some decks, like Grixis Control, it lacks the perpetual usefulness of “Draw a card.” Cryptic’s tap-team mode also gives it tremendous flexibility. A best-case scenario with Expulsion might look like Remanding a Collected Company while Pillar of Flame-ing a Kitchen Finks, and Cryptic can do a lot better than that. Still, Expulsion does kill Etched Champion and Master of Waves.
- : At one less mana, this card would improve both in playability and in flavor, but since we don’t see any in BFZ, R&D must have wanted to avoid fully coloring devoid spells. I can imagine Transgress being played at a single B, but not in its current iteration.
- : An instant-speed Reave Soul effect that exiles creatures, this card, too, would inject a little spice into Modern and give black decks some much-needed additional variety in removal choice. But at three mana instead of two, feel free to completely disregard it. (Ha! Ha!)
- : Sometimes I feel like Wizards draws scraps of paper from a word bank hat to name cards. Snare doesn’t hit noncreature permanents, so it’s probably worse than Oblivion Ring most of the time despite the flash.
Cards That May Get There
- : A searchable “extra threat” in Tron that doesn’t ask pilots to sink an entire turn into finding a monster. Eye of Ugin gives Tron its late-game inevitability and a constant stream of fatties. But I’ve won many games against the deck with Delver builds because Eye got them a Wurmcoil Engine one crucial turn late. Sanctum asks Tron to have a threat to trigger it with, but it’s still nice Path to Exile insurance. It also triggers off All is Dust! (Before it gets mentioned, does not do enough for this deck, since Tron should have its lands tapping for two or three mana by the time Shrine even comes online.)
- : Repeatable damage to creatures and players is generally nothing to scoff at. Nursery’s expensive cost limits its applications, but I like that it triggers other copies and gets nastier in multiples. Ghirapur Aether Grid, Nursery’s closest analog, sometimes makes the cut in Affinity sideboards for help with the mirror or against Stony Silence, but multiples do nothing. Nursery seems less than perfect in that deck, though, since by the time it comes down, most of the colorless cards (Mox Opal, Springleaf Drum, Ornithopter) have already made it to the board to power out the enchantment in the first place.
- : A late-game utility land in the unfortunate shadow of Desolate Lighthouse for the URx midrange decks that might want it. I can picture a one-off Cataract in controlling color combinations light on utility lands, such as UB or BUG, since it gives them something to do with spare mana other than attack with Creeping Tar Pit. Colonnade is probably good enough in UW decks to win out over Cataract.
- : A four-mana planeswalker that resists Lightning Bolt and trains an army without losing loyalty. His 2/2 bodies beat Elspeth, Knight-Errant‘s 1/1s, but I don’t think his other abilities stack up very well against hers; besides, Elspeth herself hasn’t ventured into a Modern Top 8 in a while. Probably too low impact, but if Allies is a deck it might want Gideon.
- Rolling Thunder: An exciting reprint that saw Extended play in the format’s glory days. Thunder can wipe boards, deal a lethal blow, or do both for a relatively low price. I don’t know what deck wants this, but it has the pedigree to get there.
- , , , , and : Color me surprised if these see no Modern play. But given the format’s speed, most decks will forego these slower duals. The decks that want them most would likely prefer enemy pairings (UR, UG), but I think one will work its way into an archetype and stay there. My money’s on , which slots nicely into the UW Control decks we’ve seen a surge in lately.
- : We’ve seen various iterations of Modern Ally decks perform passably by now, and Encampment gives them an extra boost. Its greatest application is facilitating a splash; combined with Cavern of Souls and Aether Vial, the land gives Ally decks Sliver-level color support. The ability also works well with utility Allies, especially with Aether Vial. It’s a shame the Allies spoiled as of yet are terribly overpriced.
- : Kiora slots into Modern’s Devotion to Green decks, which already sometimes splash blue for Kiora’s Follower, but usually stay GR. The planeswalker’s loyalty effects may push the deck into a preference for blue.
- : Though he lacks annihilator, this new Ulamog removes two problem permanents to Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre‘s one. He also gives Tron decks a non-damage win condition, which helps against infinite life combos when Karn isn’t available.
- : Speaking of Tron, it’s in for an icky surprise. Sowing Salt just got a whole lot easier to splash, and (for whenever that’s relevant) you can’t even Flashfreeze it anymore!
- : As Sky Mason pointed out this week, this untouchable, mana-fixing Treetop Village may show up in RUG decks like Tarmo Twin and Temur Midrange.
- : I love these sorts of “lock effects,” and Winnower boasts a truly unique one. It costs about seven mana more than I’m comfortable paying for a creature, but between Winnower’s text and his wonky power/toughness, this card does it for me aesthetically.
- : Simple and graceful. A Chimeric Mass you never have to animate, for better or for worse.
- : Gaea’s Skyfolk made history as one of the first tempo threats, a creature players could cast early and defend as it won them the game. Skyrider, complete with a splashing incentive, does Skyfolk justice as a powercreeping successor. My only complaint here is the absence of Terese Nielsen art.
Takeaways and Zendikar Expeditions
Even if the set’s other half follows in this one’s footsteps, we still have Zendikar Expeditions to look forward to in Battle for Zendikar. The original Zendikar block had it all: pushed tribal strategies, powerful, cross-format staples, “priceless treasures,” and an unforgettable limited experience. Wizards has since wizened up when it comes to sales, packaging high-profile reprints and “money cards” with otherwise lackluster product to incentivize everyone to buy while keeping value high. Battle for Zendikar will be a huge hit if only for Expeditions and those ugly (yeah, I said it) full-art basics, so kudos to Wizards there. But it doesn’t do much for players who prefer pack foil fetches and shocks, or care primarily about format growth. If BFZ has you shaking with excitement, terrific! But for my part, I’ll keep hitting F5 and hoping for the next Hooting Mandrills to peek back out at me.