Jesse K: It belongs in a museum! Hi folks and welcome back to Two Jesses flavor reviews, the only Magic set review that can tell you whether Battle for Zendikar is a golden idol or an identically weighted bag of sand, creatively speaking. This week we’ll look at Zendikar’s themes, mechanics, and important storyline characters. Grab your Trusty Machete and look out for the Lavaball, we’re going on an expedition.
Jesse T: I must have gotten some incorrect information about Battle for Zendikar. For some reason, I thought this was a world of ancient Lovecraftian horrors, where dead gods lie dreaming of madness deep beneath the earth. I must be thinking of another set. This is a pretty major oversight on my part, and I apologize for being so unprepared and unprofessional. In any case, this set will definitely be based on a popular tabletop role-playing game of some kind, and we just have to figure out which one. Hopefully things will become clearer as we move forward!
K: And boy are we starting out with a winner. Zendikar is the plane where lands matter, and if there’s anywhere that this set has unequivocally succeeded it’s the lands. They are pretty much all beautiful, do a variety of interesting things, and are spread across every rarity, from the basic in every pack, to the new super secret ultra mythic rarity. So we’re all disappointed that there weren’t fetches in this set, sure. But at the same time, there’s a lot we did get. Enemy colored landfolk and more full-art basics have been on my list for a long time, and the new duals and uncommon sacrifice lands are both extremely playable and interesting. If I were paid by the nitpick, I’d mention that I’d rather have seen full art basics from a different plane than the one we got them from last time, so they’d look more, you know, different. There’s only so many hedrons you can look at before you get bored.
T: It all just looks like a bunch of crags and floating rocks to me. If I had to match the art to the card, I don’t think I could do it. Which of these spurred escarpments is blighted, and which one is lumbering? Who knows!? The lands are beautiful, but completely interchangeable, much like the people in your playgroup.
K: Oh, and also landfall is back! Are you remembering Zendikar yet? How about now? Well, you can take landfall and put it in a landfill for all I care. This mechanic is a real landfail. More like blandfall. These are all jokes I could make if I didn’t actually really like this mechanic. It gives you the impression that the land itself really is more powerful on this plane, but more than that it changes the way the game is played. Back in original Zendikar, you’d build your draft deck with a land or two extra than normal, and sometimes topdecking a land was the best thing that could happen to you. They’ve toned down landfall somewhat, but it looks like it’s still going to be the case that the format will have a significantly different playfeel based on it. If your flavor is actually changing the way people play the game, you’ve done something seriously right. It’s cool that they’ve got some cards now that care about the lands that are falling, but I wish they had done more with this concept. Maybe a cycle of commons to go with the rares, maybe something with nonbasicfall? Doesn’t seem to be much of a reason to hold back, since the mechanic is a returning one. Maybe they’re saving it for the next set?
T: Well, at this point it’s clear that we’re not in the Call of Cthulhu world after all. I can’t apologize enough for the confusion. I always imagined that playing a land represented discovering or traveling to a new location. As such, landfall is very appropriately named, and it’s perfect for a set that’s all about adventures and expeditions.
T: Wait, what? If I didn’t know better, I’d say that I’m looking at the horrifying tentacle-faced visage of a Great Old One. Did we get the spoilers mixed up? Aside from the fact that these creatures look and feel completely different from everything else in the set, the Cthulhu Mythos, Arkham Horror, and the frozen corpse of H.P. Lovecraft are all trademarked intellectual properties of Fantasy Flight Games, and probably can’t be printed on Magic cards. These similar-but-legally-distinct elder gods are doubtlessly a big hit with Magic fans because they embody the gamer’s core ethos of crushing one’s enemies through the relentless accumulation of value.
K: Yes, the Eldrazi are back, and now they’ve got colors! Well, actually, it doesn’t sound that exciting when you phrase it that way. How about this — The Eldrazi are back, and this time we don’t have to sacrifice all our permanents! As we tend to do here on 2JFR, let’s start with the positives. First, I love the Eldrazi conceptually, and think they all look pretty great. There’s a rich vein of creativity to be mined from the Lovecraftian horror concept, and most of these cards deliver on that. Second, I think it’s great that the mechanical identity of the Eldrazi is no longer tied to a mechanic that is both boring and annoying to play against. However, what they’ve replaced it with… well, it’s hard to say. We’ll talk more when we get to the actual mechanics that they’re tried to replace annihilator with.
K: Back in Rise of the Eldrazi, we got our first exposure to a creature that was colorless but not an artifact. There’s an advantage to being a non-artifact creature, as you dodge all sorts of Shatter effects (look out for Terror, though), but that’s not really what being colorless was about. It was an indicator that the Eldrazi were something completely different from what we’d previously seen, something unnerving and alien, who didn’t follow the usual rules or Magic. So of course new Eldrazi have to be colorless. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that these new Eldrazi are at once colorless and have a color identity, but as a piece of mechanical information on a card it’s both amazingly meaningless in gameplay terms and extremely confusing when seen out of context. Sure, it’s easy to understand what this ability is, but I think that looking back there’s going to be a lot of “Why?” going on. I will say that I do like the devoid border, and what it does for the identity of the Eldrazi cards.
T: Even actual pro players are taking time out of their busy schedules of thinking about a children’s fantasy game all day to comment on the astoundingly bad flavor of Zendikar‘s new keywords. Devoid, from both a flavor and rules perspective, is functionally identical to having the Eldrazi creature type. I like having new borders and full-card art just as much as the next Jesse, but there’s no reason to invent a whole new keyword just for the sake of including them.
K: And here we have another ability that means almost nothing from a gameplay standpoint. I understand that some amount of parasitic mechanics for limited make sense and create an interesting format, but these are parasitic mechanics that don’t actually do anything. What else, exactly, am I going to do with exiling one card from my opponent’s library every turn? I am left to assume that this is another attempt at mechanic as flavor text, and from that standpoint, it makes more sense, but still not enough. Why are all Eldrazi equally good at ingesting? Shouldn’t the larger ones ingest more? And what determines which Eldrazi is an ingesting type and which isn’t? Maybe if the payoff for ingest was more interesting, I’d be able to get on board, but pretty much every processor is just a creature with an enters-the-battlefield ability that doesn’t always work. The only exception to this rule is Oblivion Sower, who is actually quite interesting. When it was spoiled I was optimistic that we’d see Eldrazi that could cast exiled spells or steal exiled creatures, or otherwise get some kind of benefit from the exiled cards, but that design space seems to have been left… unprocessed. Again, I am holding out hope that these cards get more interesting in the next set.
T: If you’ve ever processed words or lunchmeat, you’ll know Eldrazi processors are about as exciting as they sound. You get to shuffle around cards between your opponents’ exile zones and graveyards. The ability gets really interesting when you pair it with the ingest keyword, and you start to see the whole picture. Ingesters exile cards, and “processors” drop them off in the graveyard. Yes, that’s right: They keyworded Eldrazi poop.
K: I’m a little concerned that I’ve been too critical of these new mechanics the Eldrazi have, and I want to say two things on the more positive side. Even though these abilities will have pretty minor gameplay implications, it’s still better than the strongly negative gameplay implications that annihilator had. Secondly, from a flavor perspective I actually really like processing. By letting them play with the exile zone, it feels like the Eldrazi are accessing a resource that is spooky and weird and unreachable by normal means. Also, how creepy and unnerving when your creature’s body just appears in your graveyard after it’s been in exile? What did those things do to it? Overall, I feel like the conceptualization of the Eldrazi as confounding, unknowable horrors has been spot on. I just wish it worked out to more compelling gameplay experiences.
T: If anyone else is disappointed with the Eldrazi, you’re in luck, because the rest of the set has absolutely nothing to do with them whatsoever!
K: Turning your lands into creatures has always occupied a strange space for me where I love the flavor of it, but how badly it plays when one of them dies keeps me from wanting to ever actually do it. Regardless, this mechanic is a good fit for this block, a fitting spin on kicker and evoke. I especially appreciate the cards on which you can kind of see the land awakening, and wish it had been a visual cue for all of these cards.
T: If devoid and ingest feel like failed attempts at creating an identity for the Eldrazi, awaken feels like no one was even trying. Every card with awaken could just as easily have devoid, or no keyword at all, and I as a member of the audience wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference. Since when do white and black even have the ability to animate lands? Lack of visual cues and coherent meaning are consistent problems for every keyword in this set, and I can only hope that the cards are more fun to play with than they are to read.
K: Yeah, I concur. A little peek behind the curtains for you, dear reader: I actually forgot to put this mechanic in the set review! Does that say something about my increasingly addled brain, or about the random inclusion of this mechanic in this set? It’s probably a little bit of both. The most interesting converge cards are the ones where having some flexibility in what X is makes the card better and it’s not just “cast this for all 5 colors or it’s bad”, as in Radiant Flames and Painful Truths. When I wrote that sentence about converge I had to go back and make sure that was actually the name of the mechanic because I forgot it again. I guess that tells you everything you need to know about how impactful it’s been.
K: And here’s where the set really falls apart for me. If I wanted to play “slivers, but with no flavor”, I’d go back to M15. Apparently someone indicated to Wizards at some point that people really like allies. Maybe they do, and that’s fine, but they’re not for me. Allies have, as far as I can tell, zero flavor connection anymore. I mean, their old flavor connection was the very tenuous “they’re in an adventuring guild together,” so it wasn’t like they had far to fall. In this set, ally just seems to mean “actively fighting the Eldrazi,” which is at once surprising in that it’s not every living thing on the plane, and surprising in how many creatures just have the type randomly tacked on. Why exactly would someone not be an “ally” at this point? It’s not like you can get on an Eldrazi’s “good side,” right?
T: The flawed design of allies has already been well-noted by many people who actually know what they’re talking about, and by writing this sentence, I’ve already put more thought into it than the entire design team apparently did.
K: As for rally, I guess it’s slightly better than the old version of the ally mechanic in that it doesn’t just do nothing the vast majority of the time. My biggest complaint here is that I’ll be forced to mispronounce so that it rhymes with ally for the entire draft format.
T: I can hardly believe that with the possible exception of landfall, I don’t like a single keyword in this set, especially after so much great stuff has come out in recent years. Design must struggle with their own version of power creep, since they can’t just keep making every set better than the last one, and there occasionally needs to be a Battle for Zendikar to reset the bar nice and low. I can only hope that the characters and setting make up for it, which isn’t a great place to be.
Legends and Planeswalkers
K: Oh hey, it’s whatsherface, from that set. You know, the one with the stuff in it? Yeah, I’ve got nothing for Drana, although I guess she’s a good guy now. All I remember is how miserably overpowered her original form was back in the old draft format.
T: Drana is pretty cool. I guess I would roll her as a dark paladin, or maybe a DPS rogue/bard hybrid class. I’m surprised no one’s ever done this whole “vampires as protagonists” thing before. I could see it being real popular!
K: You ever see a mid-level action movie with a slightly lower budget, and they can’t really afford a real star, so they just cast whomever, and the movie just doesn’t really stick with people and is forgotten after a few months? Why do I bring this up now, in my comments for Gideon, everyone’s pick for most compelling planeswalker to build your block’s story around? No reason.
T: Zendikar doesn’t need white knight allies. Zendikar needs comrades!
K: Kiora is probably one of my favorite planeswalkers, and it’s cool to see her getting a new version. Her increased sea creature summoning prowess is explained by her having stolen Thassa’s bident back when she was in Theros, and, yes, this is a thing that really happened. I love the art on this card too. There’s great contrast between Kiora’s regal poise and the giant octopus she’s sitting on in the middle of a radical wave. It’s interesting that now she’s more into Octopi than Kraken, as the plane of Zendikar seems to contain both, but if you could summon a bunch of Lorthoses, wouldn’t you?
T: Kiora was born on Zendikar, where the merfolk apparently breastfeed. Merfolk live in the ocean, so it makes sense that she wears a bathing suit all the time. Personally, I think the Las Vegas showgirl thing is a little over-the-top, but who am I to judge? She still looks pretty awesome riding through the rip-curl of a wave like that.
K: I feel like ambushing an Eldrazi is a surefire way to get dead, but Munda seems to have made a career out of it. This is one of those legends that has zero flavor connection for me, which is a shame if you’ve already got part of the word ‘mundane’ for your name. He appears on two flavor texts for two giant Eldrazi, and on both he seems to be a bit down about his odds. I guess it’s not easy being the clearly less exciting of the two supported tribes in the block. I guess this is an ability that you’d want from an ally legend, keeping the allyfall rolling turn after turn, but the ability reads as unexciting because it will never actually draw you a card, or pump your other allies for that matter. Also, he is egregiously not the 5-color commander you want for your ally legend, making the unenviable task of building an ally EDH deck even more difficult.
T: Zendikar was already a mash-up of DnD and Call of Cthulhu, and now we have Sony Playstation’s God of War in the mix too! Wizards’ collective finger is really on the pulse of the Zeitgeist. At least they had the good sense not to put this character in Theros block. That franchise butchered Greek mythology worse than he’s butchering Kiora’s octopi right now. Those things were on his side!
K: Speaking of legends with no flavor, that’s kind of what Omnath was back in the original block. He doesn’t appear anywhere in flavor text, and there are no stories about him as far as I can tell. He’s just one of many elemental manifestations of Zendikar’s planar energy. However, Omnath had something Munda doesn’t, and that was an interesting ability. While being a living Upwelling is hard to top, he does give you the landfall general you’re looking for, if nothing else.
T: Omnath is also known as the “flickering heart” of Zendikar, which explains why he is ostensibly modeled after a disembodied human heart on legs. Omnath and his clones explode when you kill them, so remember to use the piles of rubble in the room for cover.
K: Ooh, generic evil planeswalker is back, and now he’s more back than ever. I appreciate that they set up a story arc for Old Ob here, and it’s cool to have a demon planeswalker (Tibalt doesn’t count, as in all things). I like that he occupies a distinct design space from Liliana (who tends to focus on discard and necromancy) and Sorin (who’s all about draining and other vampirish antics). However, I don’t really get what Ob Nixilis is doing for this story. He’s not the major bad guy of the block (that is clearly the Eldrazi), nor does it seem likely that he’s going to join forces with the heroes or the villains. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have any plans at all, besides flying around choking dudes and making villainous quips. I guess that’s fine, but you have to be careful about having too many characters who don’t have any discernible motivation.
T: Ob Nixilis can fly around and shoot fireballs, and his armor makes him basically impervious to regular attacks. You have to get him to take off his helmet and expose the hidden gem on his forehead before you can actually damage him. I recommend buying him dinner at a fancy restaurant that doesn’t allow hats.
K: Now this is a legend that tells a story. I might not know or care about Noyan Dar himself, but he does a better job of showing the changes that have occurred in Zendikar than Omnath (Now he’s angry!). Zendikar is such a tumultuous plane that they once had lullmages to calm the land, but now that Eldrazi are on the loose they’ve reversed the streams and cranked it up to 11 because YOLO. Of course you didn’t need me to tell you this because the card’s flavor text and mechanics already explain it pretty darn well. You don’t even need to know that Noyan Dar has appeared on a bunch of original Zendikar flavor texts (mostly on counterspells like Spell Pierce and Mindbreak Trap) for his card to make sense.
T: I can’t tell if his name is an anagram, or if they just wanted to make him a Noyan. Lullmages play a pretty unexciting support role most of the time, but it’s also the only class where you can get a seashell on a stick for your weapon. He definitely needs make another WIS check if he thinks he’s pulling off that bivalve codpiece.
K: Ulamog, the hungriest and most boringest of the original three Eldrazi, serves as this set’s boss monster. I guess they’re saving the cooler ones for a different set. I think this is good as a “fixed” version, but it also plays significantly differently. As I said before, no annihilator feels like a good thing, and this version of Ulamog does feel like he’s really famished, devouring massive amounts of your opponents libraries while fueling any other kind of exile related shenanigans that may be going on. The “exiles two permanents” thing is a little bit weird, and I assume it’s a result of needing to make the card feel like it’s not just different, but also “more”. For what it’s worth, I think this version has a worse art style than the original, but I would guess that’s a matter of taste.
T: Like Garfield, Ulamog is always hungry. Compared to Emrakul and Kozilek, who represent death and insanity, hunger isn’t particularly terrifying. Ulamog is notable for having the most elegant hands of the three Eldrazi titans, and constantly walks around like he’s playing Firth of Fifth on a giant invisible rack of keyboards.
K: Compare with Ambush Guy Who I Already Forgot the Name Of, and you’ll see that this is how you do a legend with no backstory. Zada’s got a very cool and unique ability, and her name, art, and flavor text combine to explain what her role in this world might be and why she deserves to be a legend. She’s the only person on this plane crazy enough to try grinding these hedron thingies up, and who knows what’s going to happen? Love it, and am somewhat tempted to make a commander deck out of her.
T: Literally and figuratively, Zada grinds hedrons for mana the same way Spikes grind PTQs for Planeswalker Points. If you complete her sidequest, she’ll join your party until you leave the hedron fields. Her weapon of choice is a giant mortar and pestle, and it’s definitely good to have her in the mix.
K: Well, that’s all the adventuring we have time for today. Join us next time when we award some superlatives and discuss the set’s biggest flavor hits and misses.
T: Thanks for reading! Remember your +1 modifiers!