Right now, the internet seems to be split between two groups—those who think Battle for Zendikar is bad, and those who think it’s too early to say. I don’t like it.
I think Battle for Zendikar might be my least favorite set in Magic.
You might be asking what the point of writing this article is. It’s twofold: first, I want to vent my frustrations. Second, I want to spawn discussion about why people might dislike BFZ so much, so that it doesn’t happen again—and I am willing to be persuaded if people think there are positive aspects to those issues that I missed. My goal is not to convince you to dislike the set if you like it, or to berate you for not having the same opinion as me. Most of what I say here is based on a competitive player’s point of view (i.e. mine), even though most of my criticism is not about the power level of the cards but the philosophy behind them.
Above all, I don’t think it’s the end of the world if Battle for Zendikar is not a good set. WotC does a fantastic job with Magic, and the only reason this set feels lackluster is that they have set such a high standard everywhere else. That said, it’s important to figure out why this set is a failure, so they can avoid that fate with future Magic sets.
What Does Not Bother Me—Low Power Level
I think it’s obvious that most of BFZ is toned down in terms of power level. There might be one excellent card or two, and a couple of role players, but as a whole there are very few cards that scream “play me.” I don’t think this in particular is a huge deal, as it’s part of Magic.
Power creep is a tricky concept to work with, and I do not envy the developers or designers their task. Every time they release a new set, people expect better cards, though they obviously can’t keep making cards better and better every time, or we’ll soon have 1-mana 10/10s. At some point, things have to scale down so that they can go up again, and people can get hyped again.
I particularly like when cards aren’t straight-up worse, but different. Take, for example, some of the ramp in this set—Beastcaller Savant, Blighted Woodland, Natural Connection. Those cards are worse cards than Sylvan Caryatid and Rampant Growth, but I don’t mind that, because they are different. If they had printed an 0/1 Sylvan Caryatid without hexproof, then that would have annoyed me because it’s just blatantly trying to counter power creep, but I don’t mind a card that is overall weaker with a new angle.
I also think they found the perfect solution for this issue in the Expeditions. The new lands are gorgeous and they are going to be expensive, so they are great complements to a set that does not look like it’s going to have many money rares—if people won’t buy packs to get powerful cards, then they will buy them to get the lands. This is a great way to make sure people are still interested even when you have to tone the power level down.
I think part of the problem is that BFZ will follow a period where cards were exceptionally powerful. This is not a smooth transition—it’s a drop off a cliff. You can’t hope that people won’t notice the power level drop because the cards we had before were ultra-powerful. Gold cards are naturally stronger than single-colored cards, and the competition from the powerful cards we currently have in Constructed is overwhelming.
And now, for what does bother me.
The Set Transitions Badly from Previous Sets
Battle for Zendikar has five major mechanics: devoid, Allies, ingest, converge and awaken. Of those, only awaken and converge are not specific to Battle for Zendikar block. All the cards in this set operate under the assumption that you have a shell to make them work, but none of the cards from the previous set are part of that shell, so you can rarely fit a card into an existing deck.
On top of that, the previous block is multicolored, so there are a lot of incredible colorless lands that a lot of people won’t be able to play because decks just can’t afford them. Imagine having a deck and then trying to add a card with ingest to it—the ability does nothing until you a card that abuses it, but all the cards that abuse it are in the new set, so you end up with a bunch of cards that seem like they’d work in a self-contained block but that are very hard to insert into an existing format. Having one of these is usually not a problem, but this set has three, and that makes the transition seem very awkward.
I’ve heard the argument “sure, things are bad now, but once we have the whole block then they’ll be good, because we’ll have more Allies and cards that interact with devoid/ingest.” I don’t think this is a very good argument, because a) we have to spend months with those cards and no support, and b) you will end up creating the same problem for the next block—if the entire block is Allies, ingest, and colorless matters, how is a “normal” set going to fit into that Standard? This is a problem they had with Kamigawa, for example (Soulshift and arcane are very specific to that block and did not play well with the rest of Standard) and I am not sure why they are repeating it.
The Mechanics Are Random and Nonsensical
In this set, it’s very hard to tell what is what, or why a card has an ability and not another.
(Image credit: Mishra’s Photoshop [@MishrasFotoshop on Twitter].)
There is no way to tell what is an Ally and what isn’t other than reading the card. Sure, you can just read the card, but most of the time there are clues as to what creature type something is if you look at the name or the picture—with Allies, there is absolutely nothing. Look at these pairs of cards, for example:
How on earth am I supposed to know what is an Ally and what isn’t? I literally just looked at the white cards and I don’t remember whether Cliffside Lookout or Kitesail Scout is the Ally. One of them is “Kor Scout,” the other is “Kor Scout Ally.” Apparently one of them doesn’t care enough about Zendikar to ally himself with everyone else? The Vampires, too—they are both flying vampires that interact with life gain, yet one is an Ally and the other one isn’t.
Devoid at this point is basically flavor text to me—I read it and it means nothing. Sure, this card is colorless… am I supposed to care about that? Devoid is a major mechanic in this set—I think there are 36 instances of it—yet it would hardly make any difference if those cards just didn’t have the ability.
Like Allies, it seems like what has devoid and what doesn’t has been randomly chosen, to a point where any card could have devoid or not and there’s no way to know why it’s there. Granted, there is a pattern—cards with devoid will usually either exile or make Spawn tokens—but why do they have to exile, if not so that they make sense with devoid? It’s unclear which one of those “comes first” and which one tries to tie everything together. Take Brutal Expulsion—it would have been a perfectly fine card without devoid and exile. Yet, they want it to be a devoid card, so it exiles. Or they want it to exile, so it has devoid. Either way, if you remove “devoid,” that changes very little on the card.
It gets particularly interesting once you compare it to awaken, which has also been thrown onto cards for no reason. Take these pairs:
Counter target spell and exile it.
Counter target spell.
Awaken 3: 4UU
Target opponent chooses and exiles two cards from their hand.
Target opponent discards two cards.
Awaken 3 – 5B.
Deals 3 damage to target creature or player. If a creature would die this way, exile it instead.
Deals 3 damage to target creature or player.
Awaken 3 – 5R
Only one card in each pair is in this set, but, templating aside, they all could be. There’s very little to tell why something has awaken and why something has devoid other than the fact that they wanted those cards to have those abilities. It also feels a little cheap, because both awaken and devoid are mechanics that add to what a card already does—you can have an existing card and just jam one of them in there, which means you don’t need any big sources of inspiration (you can basically have “Awaken Shock, Devoid Shock, Awaken Growth, Devoid Growth, Awaken Counterspell, Devoid Counterspell,” and so on). I do not mind an ability like this (since design space is finite) but I think you should not have had both in the same set, because it feels like I’ve already seen all those cards. We can even add ingest to the mix, which is another ability you can throw onto an existing card to make a “new” card.
The Colorless Lands Are Great—But We Might Not Get to Play with Them
This is one of the things that annoys me the most. In my opinion, the best and most interesting cards in the set are the lands.
Except that most of them produce colorless.
We’ve just come from a multicolored format that has little room for colorless lands, but, even if we hadn’t, there’s a limit to how many of those a deck can play—even mono-colored decks usually can’t afford many. On top of that, they just printed a new mechanic—converge—that punishes you a lot for playing colorless mana. This will create a scenario in which the best 2-3 lands will get played, but the 4th-best land will not, even though it is good enough that it would have seen play in any other format.
Let’s take a look at the playable colorless lands we have right now:
That is so many! It was already a struggle to play Haven and Radiant Fountain in the same format—and Foundry of the Consuls and Mage-Ring Network have definitely suffered because those two were there—and this new set adds a ton of very interesting ones. It feels like a waste to me, and I think those very interesting designs (such as all the Blight lands) would have been better off in a different format.
In the end, I think the biggest problem with Battle for Zendikar is that it just goes overboard on things that I would consider slightly bad, and piles them up to a point where it becomes really bad. You want to have a mechanic that doesn’t interact with any other set? That’s fine, but do you need three of them? You want to have a mechanic that just adds to existing cards, also fine, but do you need multiple? You want to have tons of colorless lands, sure, but do you have to print those next to a multicolor format that already has a ton of colorless lands? And do you have to print converge in the exact same set?
None of these would be a big deal individually, but together they make for an utterly unappealing set.