Welcome back to Magic Gatherings!
It’s hard to believe it—the Magic Origins prerelease feels like it was just yesterday—but the seasons are turning, and that means it’s time to look ahead to Magic‘s new fall expansion, Battle for Zendikar. This past weekend at PAX Prime, a gaming convention of which you may have heard, Battle for Zendikar had its big debut party. Let’s just say they blew the doors off:
Magic Zendikar Ride
Battle for Zendikar returns to its eponymous plane, Zendikar, an “adventure world” full of ancient temples, dangerous environments, hidden treasures, and—for the planeswalkers among us—especially powerful (yet volatile) mana. Zendikar was the one of the most popular sets of all time and holds a special place in Magic history: it was one of the most popular sets of all time and marks the beginning of the spike in player growth that’s vaulted MTG to the forefront of hobby gaming—one which has only recently begun to slow down.
Designed as the first-ever block centered on lands, Zendikar captured the feeling of exploration through its signature mechanic, landfall, which caused abilities to trigger on your cards whenever lands entered the battlefield under your control. It also returned one of Magic‘s most popular (and versatile) mechanics, kicker, which gave players an outlet for all the mana they were encouraged to put into play. The set also mixed in unique card types like Allies (which represented adventuring parties), Quests, and Traps.
Except that Zendikar had one big, bad secret. As so often happens in popular horror stories or webcomics, Zendikar was secretly a prison for a cadre of abominable world-eating un-gods: the Eldrazi. And, of course, the Eldrazi got out.
When we left Zendikar after the third set of its block, Rise of the Eldrazi, in spring 2010, the world was struggling desperately to save itself from inevitable destruction. Except for a few background mentions in other stories (in Gatecrash, Gideon Jura travels to Ravnica seeking planeswalkers to help fight the Eldrazi; in Born of the Gods, Kiora travels to Theros to recruit all of its sea life to the cause), we haven’t been back, and we don’t have a good idea of what’s been happening.
Well, we’re going back, and now we know: the Eldrazi are still there, they’re winning, and things have gotten bad, bad, bad.
A Monster’s Gotta Eat
Originally billed as a cross between Cthulhu and Galactus, the Eldrazi are chthonic, ineffable creatures native to the Blind Eternities—the void between planes. In that space they exist in forms incomprehensible to the mortal mind, moving from plane to plane, consuming as they go. When they arrive at a plane to feed, their aetherial forms manifest as bizarre monsters that wreak havoc across the world, turning everything to dust in their wake. In the original Rise of the Eldrazi, these features were mechanically represented in a few ways: (almost) all the Eldrazi were colorless, (almost) all of them were enormous and expensive to cast, and (almost) all of them had an ability called annihilator, which made your opponent sacrifice permanents whenever your Eldrazi attacked.
Battle for Zendikar seeks to develop those concepts further, showing how the Eldrazi have grown while refining their gameplay style. Annihilator won’t be making a comeback, which I honestly think is too bad; I think few mechanics can match the visceral sense of despair annihilator can induce—though I can understand that the despair comes from feeling helpless and watching your resources crumble away as you are being attacked by an enormous monster, which is a tough feeling for a game to trade on.
This time around the ravening hunger of the Eldrazi is being represented by a mechanic called ingest. Whenever a creature with ingest deals combat damage to your opponent, your opponent removes the top card of their library from the game:
While I don’t think ingest can capture the sickening feeling of seeing your lands disintegrate, it does represent resources being whittled away, and it will probably have its own share of tough moments—seeing your best removal spell ingested by that Eldrazi you really need to deal with will be a downer, for sure.
Nevertheless, with ingest it’s hard imagine losing to having your library exiled before you’re killed by combat damage. So, the design team has paired ingest with another mechanic, informally called “processing:”
“Processors” put cards your opponents own from exile into their graveyards; in exchange, they do extra things. Other cards play in similar space: Oblivion Sower, for example, can put any number of lands your opponents control from the exile zone into play under your control:I have to confess a little reservation here. First, I’m concerned about the name: the Phyrexians, one of Magic‘s other marquee villains, already do a lot of processing (i.e., they kill you, take your body apart, and combine it with machines). Body horror is potent, but I worry about two big villains playing in the same space. On the other hand, since the Eldrazi are all about consumption, I wonder about them putting extra permanents into play under your control. As always, though, it’s best to withhold judgment until one plays with the cards; hopefully, this will feel sufficiently “alien” to capture the sense of Eldrazi consumption. If nothing else, this mechanic promises to play superbly with delve, which has had us all exiling cards from our graveyards nonchalantly for the past year.
Wizards has kept the “colorless” theme of the Eldrazi, but tightened it up by creating a distinct keyword for it, devoid. Devoid does just what it says on the tin:
As Mark Rosewater mentioned in the Battle for Zendikar PAX panel, devoid helps solve the problem of colorless cards being inherently strong in Magic, because they don’t force you to risk not being able to cast your spells. Consider something like [mtg_card]Wurmcoil Engine[/mtg_card]: it can show up in any deck and is competitive with six-mana spells in any color, so you see it in tons of Commander decks. Devoid gives the game access to colorless creatures that don’t skirt the color pie, so design can push their power level without breaking the game.
You might expect that Forerunner of Slaughter hints at a “colorless matters” theme, and you’d be right on the money there:
You’ll notice that Titan’s Presence exiles, which is a nice bit of mechanical overlap with ingest and processing.
Finally, Battle for Zendikar brings back Eldrazi Spawn, a type of 0/1 token you could sacrifice for 1 mana. In Rise of the Eldrazi, these helped ramp out your big Eldrazi and threw chump blocks to buy you time to cast them. Now, though, they’ve grown up a little bit, as you might have noticed on Blight Herder, above—they’re Eldrazi Scions now, and now they’re 1/1s. So attack away!
Overmatched as they are, the inhabitants of Zendikar aren’t taking this invasion lying down. The other half of Battle for Zendikar‘s cards captures the ragtag resistance doing its best to hold off the Elrazi’s inexorable advance. They also look to reprise many of Zendikar‘s most popular mechanics, starting with the most beloved mechanic of all, landfall:
Landfall has evolved this time around and now cares about the land types of the land that triggered it. So far it’s not clear how widespread the mechanic will be; we’ve only seen a few uncommons, a few rares, and a mythic. (In Zendikar, landfall was everywhere, and was chiefly responsible for the set’s reputation as one of the fastest and most aggressive limited environments, ever.) I’d guess that it will be fairly widespread, if only because Battle for Zendikar has a new mechanic playing the role of kicker:
Like kicker, awaken gives you something to do with all those extra lands you stuffed into your deck so that you could trigger landfall over and over again. While Sheer Drop is a perfectly reasonable limited removal spell for three mana, if you draw it when you happen to have six mana available, you get the bonus of turning one of your lands into a 3/3 creature. There’s some nice flavor here, as you get to see your lands themselves come alive to fight off the Eldrazi.
Since it’s all hands on deck to defend the plane, the popular Ally creature type is making a comeback with a revised ability, Rally:
This is a change I’m happy to see, as I have to admit that I never really cared for Allies in the first go-round. I found them to be very parasitic—that is, they only play well with other cards that say “Ally” on them—but in spite of that, there weren’t enough in any one color to build a good deck around. Moreover, the original Ally mechanics tended to read pretty clunky; take [mtg_card]Bala Ged Thief[/mtg_card], for example. Giving Ally cards the ability to affect all your creatures, whether they’re Allies or not, should clean up some of the shortcomings.
Finally, some cards feature a new ability called coverge, which cares about the number of different colors of mana you pay to cast a spell:
A more versatile version of sunburst (as seen on cards like [mtg_card]Skyreach Manta[/mtg_card]), converge sets up a very interesting and appealing contrast with the “colorless matters” devoid cards: you’re on team “all colors, all together” or team “no colors, never.” Of course, in actual gameplay, you might be able to have it both ways—even if you have an ambitious manabase, your Eldrazi Devastator doesn’t care what colors of mana you’ve drawn, so long as you drew eight of them:
Clash of the Titans
Battle for Zendikar is also exciting because it marks the first full block of Magic‘s new storytelling techniques, which were hinted at back in Magic Origins. Already we’ve seen stories featuring Nissa, Jace, Chandra, and Gideon preparing to deal with the Eldrazi breakout. Wizards has even put together a site for collecting the episodes of the story as it progresses, at battleforzendikar.com (click that link to see just how much Zendikar happened at PAX this weekend!).
These weekly stories will dovetail in with important story moments highlighted on the cards, story threads in the Magic Duels game for Steam, iPhone, and Android, and so on. There’s even an upcoming expansion for Magic’s new board game, Arena of the Planeswalkers!
Of course, it wouldn’t feel like Zendikar if the lands didn’t get a little extra love. Battle for Zendikar also features the return of full-art lands, a concept that was first introduced in the jokesy Unglued and Unhinged expansions before hitting wide release in the original Zendikar.
On top of all this, Wizards is trying something else new: ultra-rare, ultra-premium collectible full-art foil versions of Magic‘s most popular (reprintable) lands. Dubbed “Zendikar Expeditions,” these cards are slated to show up slightly more often than a premium foil mythic rare—while estimates online have varied, that seems to be roughly 1 in every 200 or so booster packs. While I’ve seen some frustration over how rare these will be, I’d encourage everyone to take them as what they are—just-for-fun special surprises that will be a real treasure for those who are lucky enough to open one.
That’s all we’ve got for this week, and I haven’t even gotten to the big preview cards yet! Next week I’ll be on vacation, and I have a special article lined up. The week after I will be back to talk about all the new info from the first week of Battle for Zendikar spoilers, which start September 7.
In the meantime, let me know in the comments or on Twitter (@cutefuzzy_): what’s your take on the new mechanics? Are you excited for full-art lands? Any Expedition you really hope to open? And most importantly: Zendikari or Eldrazi?