Zendikar Limited Potpourri
No real theme this week, just random musings on Zendikar Limited.
Let’s start off where I was initially the most off about the format – Landfall. I undervalued not just the Landfall cards individually, but Landfall as a theme to build around. The Landfall cards are actually quite like Allies: the more you commit to the theme, the better the cards get. This is very obviously the case for Allies, and I factored in their potential when evaluating them, but I failed to do the same for Landfall as I didn’t appreciate the mechanic as a linear theme. Unlike Allies, the Landfall theme is not parasitic – the effects and to a lesser degree the enablers stand on their own quite well – but don’t let that fool you into making my mistake.
The more Landfall cards you have, the more valuable each land drop is to you. With just one Landfall creature, a land may be worth a couple damage or life, but if you get up to something like four Landfall effects, each land drop may well be worth an eight life point swing, easily worth as much as a good spell. With enough Landfall, enablers like Harrow, Khalni Heart Expedition, Khalni Gem, Frontier Guide, etc. become very powerful spells even ignoring their effects beyond triggering Landfall multiple times. It’s pretty common for these mana sources to be among the best topdecks you could ask for, which is just crazy. Of course, the more Landfall enablers you have, the better each Landfall card is. The synergies just kind of snowball up into a strong linear theme, the most prevalent and powerful theme in the set.
Steppe Lynx in particular is a card I did not give much credit, but easily cracks White’s five best commons, and I would now put it right up alongside Kor Hookmaster in terms of power and pick order. What I missed about Steppe Lynx is that it is not a 2/3 attacker that goes dead earlier when you start missing land drops, but instead it retains relevance in games long past when a genuine 2/3 would. By the time you are missing land drops, the board is probably such that most weenies aren’t able to do much attacking. Where another 2/3 would just get caught up in a ground stall, Steppe Lynx can take advantage of multiple Landfall triggers in a turn to remain a significant threat.
So sometimes you are mana screwed, and the Lynx is basically just a blank. Well, you are probably not winning those games anyway, even if the Lynx were something else. It’s not like having another spell you aren’t going to have time to cast is going to be any better for you. Spending one mana and one card on a near blank when you are short on lands but have a ton of gas doesn’t really cost you much.
Not blocking as a 2/3 is a little awkward, but Steppe Lynx would just be completely busted if it did. A 2/3 blocker is well worth three mana in this format. Pretending that Steppe Lynx decks aren’t interested in blocking is just wrong, as the majority of decks in the format are going to be quite aggressive and a body deterring attackers, even if just for one turn before it starts tapping, will help win races preventing some damage. But Steppe Lynx is good enough at racing to make up for being a worthless blocker.
None of this is unique to Steppe Lynx, it just made for a good example. Plated Geopede and Adventuring Gear, for instance, are also much better than I initially thought, for all the same reasons. Plated Geopede is definitely Red’s second-best common; Bladetusk Boar and Torch Slinger aren’t even especially close.
Trusty Machete is my choice for the very best card pack 1 pick 1; there’s not a single card in the set I would take over it. Even once you are settled into a color, I’m not convinced that any of the commons are better. At uncommon and rare, I can just about count on two hands the number of cards I would want over Machete once in their colors, and Machete is still very close to all of them.
So what makes the Machete oh so trusty? First of all, it makes blocking an absolute nightmare. You may legally be able to block equipped creatures, but blocking is almost surely going to mean trading down, and you are going to have to do so repeatedly. It’s very hard not to get ground out when all of your opponent’s creatures outclass yours, and if they have a Machete that is almost certainly going to be the case. Trusty Machete is also just very efficient when it comes to racing. It adds a hasty two power for three mana, which on its own is fine if not impressive, but it will commonly allow creatures that otherwise couldn’t profitably attack to be able to get in for damage. Finally, Trusty Machete is actually good on defense. It’s better attacking, where you immediately and more safely get a damage return for your mana investment, but attacking into an active Machete is every bit as difficult as blocking versus Machete. Trusty Machete is at its very best playing both sides, both getting in extra damage on your turn and scaring off potential attackers on your opponent’s turn.
Adventuring Gear may be the poor man’s Machete, but in Zendikar there is a very equitable distribution of wealth. It does everything Machete does, minus playing defense, and does it all nearly as well. At some threshold of Landfall enablers (albeit an unrealistic level of enablers for any deck to be playing), Adventuring Gear is actually going to be better than the Machete. I’m still taking the premiere commons in each color over it, but the more I play with and against the card, the less convinced I am that I should be doing so. I would not be completely surprised if Adventuring Gear comes to be accepted as the best common pack 1 pick 1.
Don’t forget that you can move around Adventuring Gear post-Landfall. When you are triggering Landfall multiple times in a turn, it can come in handy to be able to spread around the pumps to enable a profitable attack with an extra creature, or to avoid putting all of your eggs into one chump-blocked or removed basket. Adventuring Gear is especially synergistic with Armament Master, as swapping the Gear around lets you have your cake and eat it too.
I’m still not entirely sure what to make of [card Explorers Scope]Explorer’s Scope[/card], but I find that I’m never really happy playing one. The more aggressive decks aren’t very interested in investing in a Scope. Slower decks do want the effect, but having to attack is a huge barrier. It does have a place as a resonable Landfall enabler in more midrangey Landfall decks, but I don’t know that it is very desirable even there. I think you need to be getting more than five or so attacks in with it per game for it to be worthwhile, and you often won’t be.
Grappling Hook is borderline unplayable. It is horrifically slow in a format that is not friendly to slow effects, and its effect fails to justify its huge cost. The Hook is not just expensive – the format is not overly hostile to expensive spells, as long as they are high impact – but slow beyond its price tag. Not only does it take eight mana to get going, but it takes several turns afterward that investment before it starts being worth the cost. You don’t have that kind of time for your eight mana investment to mature. The Hook doesn’t do much to help you avoid racing, and it is very inefficient when it comes to winning a race. From a clogged up board it can serve as a game-winner, but there are better ways to do so. Even if a game goes long and you have time to get it active, it doesn’t even make your random 2/1 bodies into relevant threats. Too much has to go right for the card to do anything at all, and even at its best Grappling Hook is unimpressive and underpowered for its cost.
Blade of the Bloodchief is almost in the same boat as Grappling Hook in terms of playability. It may not cost much, but it doesn’t actually do much either. The Blade is not “the blade”. Keep in mind that blocking is disincentived enough such that trading is less common in this format than you are used to. It’s also not too difficult to play removal without triggering the Blade, as it’s not always going to be equipped. The big problem with the Blade is when the equipped creature trades off or however else dies, you get nothing. What are you going to do, equip up a random duder and then never attack or block into a trade, hoping to grow the creature some? This will lead to missing out on or giving up damage that may well be more valuable than the pump anyway. Alongside Vampires, Blade of the Bloodchief is playable, but it is still not a high pick, and without a high density of Vampires, the card is best avoided.
Though Soaring Seacliff is awful paired with Blue cards, it is the best of the common lands by far. Its “fair” uses are fine and all, about on par with the rest of the cycle, but it is somewhat abuseable with the right partners. Paired with a Ruinous Minotaur, Soaring Seacliff is a bona fide Lava Axe, and you most certainly don’t need to be playing Blue for your Red deck to want to take advantage of that interaction – mono-Red is more than happy to be playing Seacliff. As good as Seacliff is in Green decks just sending giant monsters to the skies, it is all the better letting Oran-Rief Recluse go all Heartstabber Mosquito on a ground guy, and turning Tajuru Archer into quite the FTK.
Magosi, the Waterveil returns to your hand when you take an extra turn. Even if you aren’t getting anything out of swapping turns around, as long as you aren’t losing anything, Magosi can do a passable Oboro impression to continue triggering Landfall. While not enough to make Magosi any more than a mid-late pick, it is enough for Magosi to make the cut in most any Blue deck.
It’s been awhile since I let LSV write a conclusion, so even if he is really tired from his infinite plane travel, I’m ending this here. After all, I’m waaaaay over the 1000 word maximum I try and stick to.
Here it goes, I guess – LSV
Even though I went from calling Steppe Lynx unplayable to one of the top commons, I’m pretty sure I got it right this time. To be fair, the landfall cards don’t lend themselves to a middle ground; they either fall into the “unplayable” or “awesome” categories. If you manage to land enough of them, they present a pretty fast clock, even if you are mostly giving up on actually blocking. I also like equipment a lot, which is another departure from my usual style. Hey, Zendikar is a new horizon, so I guess I get to strap on my Gear and explore!