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Rogue Report – Cracking the Zenigma

 

People seem to have largely figured out the nuances of Zendikar Limited by now. Zendikar is widely regarded as an aggressive format. It’s all a race. It’s been said that “blocking is the nut low gas, la” or something like that. Creatures with two power and three toughness are hot items – running a Kor Sanctifiers out there on turn three is very good, let alone a Vampire Nighthawk. Don’t draft green because it’s terrible. Disfigure is better than Hideous End. And, depending on your sources, the “practically an air elemental“ Windrider Eel is worse than Umara Raptor and Welkin Tern. Steppe Lynx and Adventuring Gear have gone from “ok” at the Prerelease to the core of draft decks.

I hear these things, and I agree with them, but I can’t help but ask why they are true. Usually “blocking is bad” is followed by murmurings of Plated Geopede and Windrider Eel. But I want to know more. As we were looking through the Zendikar spoiler before the Prerelease I didn’t hear these things. Nobody looked at the cards in the set and intuitively knew that green would be bad in Draft. (Well, except those people that always think green is going to be bad in Draft.) Yet as I look through the commons of the set I see red flags everywhere. The set is screaming “don’t block!” so why didn’t we hear it on day one?

I don’t plan on figuring out why we didn’t have the format solved on day one, but I do want to try to see exactly why the format is the way it is. Instead of accepting what I’ve said as fact, maybe if we knew why 2/3s were good beyond a simple explanation we could learn to identify these things as a set comes out. I’m also not trying to say that Zendikar is the only Limited format with these attributes, but that Zendikar Limited has each of these attributes, and it has them all in spades. That is likely one reason we didn’t have Zendikar solved on day one – we saw creatures that couldn’t block, but that was nothing new. We just didn’t notice how many of them there were.

For most of my analysis I’m going to be talking about commons, the core of Zendikar Limited. It’s still useful to talk about uncommons and rares, but more generally. It’s easy to look at commons specifically because they’re most of what you’re going to see in a Limited game.

Mine is Bigger than Yours

This is the problem most often attributed to Steppe Lynx and friends. I play a Steppe Lynx or Plated Geopede in the early turns. It’s very unlikely than any creature you play in the first three turns will be able to block mine profitably. In other formats I would play my Grizzly Bears of the set on turn two, and I am usually met with the option of trading for whatever Grizzly Bear of the set you played on your second turn. Sure one of us could have a trick, but often times the bears would bounce off of each other into the graveyard.

Instead, the creature I’m playing on turn two is likely going to be much bigger on my turn than it is going to be on your turn. Plated Geopede does not trade with other Plated Geopedes. This cycle is so bad on the defense compared to attacking that you’re not getting any value out of the cards by sitting around. Steppe Lynx has almost no value on defense, so any turn it does not attack it is losing value. Then Adventuring Gear comes in and makes it so that all of your creatures are like this. You can count Timbermaw Larva in this camp, too. It’s not just the top cards that have these issues – check out Hedron Scrabbler. Little Scrabbles often makes it in as a 23rd. You’ve even got Hagra Crocodile that straight up can’t block, but that’s a different problem I’ll get to.

This problem is not just limited to the +2/+2 landfall cycle; it’s also present in the ally theme, in what Wizards calls the “warrior” allies. Oran-Rief Survivalist is the best example of this problem. When I play an ally after my Oran-Rief Survivalist comes down, he’s going to be bigger than you’re two-drop. Imagine we’ve each got a deck composed entirely of Oran-Rief Survivalists, the player going first is usually going to have the bigger creature on their turn, making profitable blocking very difficult. It’s a bit of a subtle presentation of the “my creature is bigger than yours”, but when it’s on the Grizzly Bear of the set then you’ve got to take notice.

Set Phasers to Stun

There are a lot of subtle reasons in this set why creatures can’t block. I look at Goblin Shortcutter and I see an efficient two-drop. In any other set he would be pretty good, but you wouldn’t think much else of him. Then I started to realize that there were Goblin Shortcutters hidden throughout the whole set. There were so many profitable ways to make it difficult for a creature to attack.

Kor Hookmaster is the next creature that comes to mind. A team of Goblin Shortcutters and Kor Hookmasters makes blocking very difficult for your opponent. Then white gives us Kor Skyfisher and Narrow Escape so we can reuse our stunners. I count Nimbus Wings as a type of stun, and the reason that card can excel in this format compared to other formats is because, while your opponent might be able to answer it, they probably don’t have the time. Nimbus wings is like a big tempo boost.

Blue has the often overlooked Tempest Owl that serves as a full Panic Attack. Sure, he’s not the best guy in the world, but you’ve got to respect a card that you just lose to sometimes. Islands also have very profitable ways to bounce creatures with Into the Roil and Whiplash Trap. Unsummon would likely be a good card in this format even without damage on the stack, but these other two bounce spells take efficiency to the next level. Into the Roil let’s you just straight-up bounce a blocker without losing a card, and Whiplash Trap gets two blockers off of the table. If you play a creature on turns two, three, and four, and then Whiplash Trap on turn five, it’s very hard for anybody to recover.

Black just has cheap removal, though that’s nothing entirely new. The fact that black has Hideous End over Weed Strangle is still worth noting, though. You look at Magma Rift, Disfigure, Journey to Nowhere – that’s some pretty cheap removal that you can play in the early turns that let your two-drops keep attacking. Still, black contributes to the format more in other ways, which I’ll get to.

Red is a lot like black, with cheap removal backed up by Goblin Shortcutter, though red also has a lot of other qualities to offer when it comes to aggression.

I’ve got Ranks in Attacking

Zendikar is full of creatures not only with evasion, but with de-vasion, and no card exemplifies this better than Welkin Tern. It’s a cheap two-power creature with evasion, and it often doesn’t even have the option to block the turn it hits the table. As for other aggressively-costed flyers, you’ve got Kor Skyfisher, Umara Raptor, and Windrider Eel.

Sure, every set has flyers, but Zendikar takes things a step farther. Cards like Cliff Treader, Bog Tatters, and Zendikar Farguide, while some are better than others, have built-in conditional evasion. Cliff Treader itself is already good in the format, and sometimes almost randomly he’s unblockable. Then there’s intimidate, and black and red strategies often hinge on Bladetusk Boar and Surrakar Marauder to activate Guul Draz Vampires. Even the big black removal spell of the set, Heartstabber Mosquito, has evasion! Backing up this evasion you’ve got Hagra Crocodile and Mindless Null that have trouble blocking.

Allies again come in and make aggressive strategies more profitable. What Wizards calls the “clerics” of the set tend to give the buff for your turn. If you’re not attacking with your Highland Berserker-granted first strike, or your flying gift from Seascape Aerialist, then you’re not gaining full value for those allies.

Speaking of full value, there are other abilities in the set that aren’t being used unless you attack, namely haste. Crypt Ripper and Tuktuk Grunts are the major haste creatures of the set, and they were unimpressive to me at first. Now that I’ve played Zendikar Limited, however, I’ve realized that the value of haste is much higher than usual. Haste is just another way that blocking plans go awry, especially with a card like Goblin Bushwhacker. The little goblin not only pumps my guys on my turn (which works towards the first attribute I mentioned) but he gives them all haste, a beating if you can use it on more creatures than himself. Even Goblin War Paint has jumped in value since building that first Sealed deck.

Then there are cards that really want your deck to be aggressive, like any vampire in the “bloodied” cycle. Vampire Lacerator and Guul Draz Vampire are the core of aggressive black decks. They are commons that hate to not attack. Blood Seeker is a card that I’ve seen have mixed results, but it definitely wants to be in an aggressive deck, and is pretty useless outside of one. Hideous End’s twinge of pain isn’t nearly as useful to a control deck. Even the looter of the format, Reckless Scholar, is aggressively costed enough to make looting an option instead of his job. When Reckless Scholar has a chance to attack, it’s very hard to justify sacrificing the two damage to loot.

Heck, the lands make attacking better! Teetering Peaks, Soaring Seacliff, and Turntimber Grove – all very hard to use while blocking.

It’s a Trap!

So let’s imagine none of these other problems existed. I’m attacking my 2/2 into your 2/2. Do you block? What if I’m attacking my two 2/1s into your 1/4 ? Certainly you have to block there, or why else are you playing the 1/4?

Chances are I have mana up on my turn and you don’t. There are tricks in every format, so is Zendikar any different? Definitely not. The thing about the Zendikar tricks, however, is that the majority of them seem to be on the verge of playability. Sure you’ve got Disfigure at the top end as arguably the best black common, but that’s what makes it so good – it’s a cheap efficient trick, as well as removal.

A lot of the tricks, however, look like Shieldmate’s Blessing. Bold Defense. Vampire’s Bite. Seismic Shudder can be a trick. Vines of Vastwood is pretty good, but the green commitment is a little much. (More on green later.) I’ve played each of these cards before, and they have been surprisingly good. I actually want Bold Defense in my white deck with a lot of little creatures, and Vampire’s Bite has proved very valuable in the race that usually develops. The trick that really makes blocking scary, however, is Slaughter Cry.

Normally Slaughter Cry wouldn’t be that big of a deal. They are still trading you one-for-one, assuming you didn’t let yourself get wrecked by double-blocking. Somehow Slaughter Cry seems better than normal, though. My theory on Zendikar Limited is that the aggro decks want ways to keep their two-drops attacking every turn of the game, and that’s what Slaughter Cry lets you do. It lets you attack your team of 2/1s into their 5/5 and not lose any ground, unlike the other tricks, even Vines of Vastwood. When you attack three little guys into their big guy, they can’t really afford not to block, but Slaughter Cry makes them unable to afford blocking, too.

It’s not Easy Being Green

Black has been accepted as the strongest color in Zendikar Draft, but green seems to be even more hated. Why is that? You could just listen to the pros saying “green is bad” and take their word for it, but like I said, I want to know why.

I noticed something as I was writing this article – it was rare that I mentioned green cards. It has a decent trick in Vines of Vastwood, and has a few guys that are bigger while attacking like Territorial Baloth and Timbermaw Larva, but the attribute green severely lacks is the ability to keep attacking, and that’s its downfall. Green has no Whiplash Trap, Goblin Shortcutter, Hideous End, or Kor Hookmaster.

Green’s best common seems to be Grazing Gladehart – it’s no surprise to me that the best green card in an aggressive format gains life. A lot of people still think Harrow is green’s best common, and while it’s certainly good, I don’t like how it interacts with the format. And by that I mean it doesn’t interact with the format at all. Yes it has synergy with your landfall guys, but they weren’t blocking them anyway.

Otherwise green just has creatures. Sure, some of them are good at blocking like Nissa’s Chosen. Oran-Rief Survivalist is the go-to ally and can get quite large. There are also decent kicker options for some card advantage and will usually have a good target in this format, Mold Shambler and Oran-Rief Recluse. Unfortunately, green isn’t doing what needs to be done to succeed in Zendikar. Green has no way to regain tempo lost from opposing Kor Hookmasters or Whiplash Traps, where the other colors can just fight back with their own tempo grabbers.

When you cast Territorial Baloth and I Kor Hookmaster or Goblin Shortcutter or Slaughtering Cry it, I was probably going to do those things anayway no matter what creature you played. You spent five mana and then let yourself get stunned when you could have just spent two. Sure, green can counter tempo with Vines of Vastwood, but not when it has to tap out for Territorial Baloth. Not only does green get few tempo options itself, it can’t even try to block the intimidate guys.

Simply put, green lacks the tools to succeed in this format.

Break it Down Now

Not every card in Zendikar is aggressive, but knowing that the format is aggressive makes the outliers stand out. When the format is this aggressive, conventional defensive options don’t work as well. That’s why something as efficient as Kraken Hatchling, while almost completely defensive (though he has been known to pick up a Trusty Machete and some Adventuring Gear in his day), has to be noticed.

Kraken Hatchling has gone from an accidental 13th pick to something I actively want in my blue decks. When you know that the format is aggressive, that gives you the extra knowledge you need to make the mental leap and take Kraken Hatchling, knowing that it’s what you need to get the slower cards in your deck, like Windrider Eel, active. I used to think that the Hatchling was only useful if I was trying to be controlling, but I’ve since found him useful in aggressive decks just because he’s such an efficient creature that’s good in a race.

Narrow Escape has increased in value, but that’s in some part due to interesting targets. But even cards like Ondu Cleric or (dare I say it) Sunspring Expedition are quite good at times. It takes a format as aggressive as this one to make Sunspring Expedition even remotely playable, but think about it like a Windborne Charge moving in the opposite direction. When I’m racing I’m definitely willing to spend a card to gain life.

Stonework Puma, while never completely unplayable just by the mere fact that it a Gray Ogre, has become even better because of how it interacts with the format. A creature that can block Surrakar Marauder or Bladetusk Boar is very valuable in decks that couldn’t otherwise do so. It’s gotten to the point where I’m sad that my Sealed pool doesn’t have one.

Then there are the card that would normally be ok, but get worse in an aggressive format. Paralyzing Grasp, besides being easily thwarted in this format, is weak because it needs to target a creature that has probably already attacked. Ior Ruin Expedition has joined my nearly unplayable list because of how slow it is – you can’t afford the time it asks for, even though in a few other formats you would play the card advantage and not ask questions.

Now and Zen

And THAT’S why Zendikar is the way it is. At least, that’s more of the story. I don’t think we can every fully solve a format, and different strategies succeed in different groups. However, I know that I’ll be looking at the next set a little more carefully next time trying to identify trends. It seems clear now as I look through the Zendikar commons how much they hate blocking.

Maybe it’s the game designer in me that enjoys knowing why, but I don’t like taking things for granted. The next time somebody tells me that Blood Seeker is unplayable, I’ll try to look deeper. A card’s strength can only be considered in context of it’s format, so without understanding the format you can’t evolve your card evaluations. Hopefully my thoughts on the format have helped you develop yours, but there’s always more thinking to be done.

Thanks for reading,
Jonathon Loucks

Loucksj at gmail
JonLoucks on twitter

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