With this fall’s newest Magic release, we’re going back to Zendikar, where the land is alive and just getting from one place to another is an adventure. The plane is racked by the Roil - a rolling “tide” of sorts that affects not only the seas but also the solid ground, throwing chunks of rock up to float in the air and creating great chasms where just moments ago mountains stood.
The tumultuous nature of the place can be compared with the up-and-down experience that players have had with past Zendikar sets. The original block - Zendikar, Worldwake, and Rise of the Eldrazi, released in late 2009 and early 2010 - was praised for innovative mechanics and powerful cards. Our second trip - which brought the Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch sets in late 2015 and early 2016 - was not quite as warmly received, as a middling Limited gameplay experience was coupled with an uneven distribution of exciting new pieces.
The second block’s failings were in part due to the focus on the Eldrazi, colorless otherworldly horrors that emerged from their prisons to wreak devastation on both the plane and metagame. Thankfully, those flying spaghetti monsters have been defeated, and this jaunt through the wild landscape promises to focus on aspects of Zendikar that were sorely missed last time: namely, a focus on land-based mechanics and the sense of going on a journey or quest with your party members at your side.
If you didn’t catch it from the title, the set is called Zendikar Rising (ZNR) - fitting for an assumed return to form. It features both familiar faces and some wild, brand-new innovations, all of which we’ll cover here. Speaking of, let’s get to the review!
Magic lead designer Mark Rosewater has spoken several times about his original pitch for Zendikar being a “lands matter” world, with the terrain’s constant flux and the Roil being key to its identity, and its mana (magical energy drawn from the land) being particularly powerful and abundant. Zendikar Rising very much has this at its core after Battle for Zendikar block’s lighter treatment of the theme - in ZNR, the mechanics, art, and storyline all focus on the land.
Going hand-in-hand with that is the idea that the plane is full of adventure and ancient secrets to uncover. Zendikar has a long and fascinating history, from the construction of the Skyclaves - giant floating fortresses built by the white-aligned kor people - to the imprisonment of the Eldrazi by Ugin, Nahiri, and Sorin many millennia ago. Then, when the Eldrazi escaped, the world saw another tremendous milestone with the defeats of the titans Ulamog and Kozilek and the founding of the planeswalker superteam, the Gatewatch.
Now, two planeswalkers native to the plane - the aforementioned Nahiri, a red- and white-aligned kor lithomancer; and Nissa Revane, a green-aligned elf - have returned home to act as the land’s protectors. It would seem, though, that they disagree on how to best keep the plane safe; Nahiri is hellbent on finding a way to stop the Roil, but Nissa disagrees, maintaining that it is a natural force the plane needs.
Meanwhile, an expedition team has somehow triggered the defenses of one of the ancient Skyclaves, resulting in all seven of them awakening and rising back into the air. And of course, the blue-aligned planeswalker Jace is also here, because he can’t resist a good mystery (and it had been a minute since we’d seen Magic’s poster boy).
If this is your first time on Zendikar, you can look forward to many of the classic fantasy creature types - goblins, merfolk, and elves are all over the place - alongside the kor and the plane’s very distinct breed of vampires. There are also themes and mechanics that play with the archetypal Dungeons & Dragons classes of warrior, rogue, wizard, and cleric - but we’ll get to that when we talk more about gameplay.
The first thing to mention when it comes to the look of Zendikar is that the landscapes you’ll see defy not only gravity, but other laws of physics and space that we normally take for granted. Here, clifftops float, swamps are levitating bubbles of muck connected by vines, trees grow in corkscrew patterns - it takes some getting used to, but these mind-boggling sights are typical for this world.
You’ll also see lots of hedrons - floating diamond-shaped stones inscribed with runes that give them magical properties. These were used to trap the Eldrazi all those years ago, and their power can be applied in many different ways. Heck, the goblins have found that grinding them up and eating them makes their bodies tougher and more resilient (and also results in some gnarly rocky growths on their skin).
A couple other things to pick up across the whole set is the prominence of equipment - as a permanent type, but also as it is depicted on characters in the art. This is in line with the theme of adventuring, as any good party member needs to come prepared with the tools of their trade and some backup supplies. Note in particular how frequently you’ll see hooks and ropes; these are used both as ways to get to places otherwise inaccessible as well as weapons in the case of the kor.
As I noted in my set review for Core Set 2021, I’m loving that certain new artists are getting more exposure with their pieces featured here in ZNR. Wylie Beckert is at it again with the excellent black rare Soul Shatter; black uncommon Thwart the Grave; and green common Reclaim the Wastes, the collective debut of which doubles the number of cards to his name. Ilse Gort also gets two new cards in her growing portfolio, with white commons Makinidi Ox and Prowling Felidar showing off more of her excellent depictions of fantasy fauna.
As for personal favorites, PINDURSKI’s work on white rare Legion Angel is striking, featuring the trademark slipped halo that all Zendikar angels wear as a reminder to be vigilant. The prolific and consistently amazing Chase Stone adds another iconic powerhouse with green mythic rare Ashaya, Soul of the Wild; and Scott Murphy’s piece for black common Malakir Blood-Priest speaks to me as a fan of the macabre and sinister.
Zendikar Rising features two returning mechanics, one new mechanic, and a new take on double-faced cards which warrants some explanation here. First off, landfall is back - this reminder word appears on permanents that all have an ability that triggers when a land enters their controller’s side of the battlefield. Many of these are simple buffs for creatures, while others are more complicated and game-changing.
Kicker is the other mechanic that has been brought back. This is its sixth time it’s been featured, and that level of frequency indicates how cleanly and simply it plays out, as well as its versatility. Cards with kicker have an additional optional cost that can be paid in addition to the normal casting cost of the card in the top-right; you’ll see this extra cost in the text box immediately following the word Kicker, and each card with the ability will explain what additional benefits are gained from paying the kicker cost. Again, some of these are minor augments to a creature with the ability, while others will amplify the effect of a spell in other ways.
New to the game is “party,” which I alluded to earlier when speaking about Dungeons & Dragons’s classes of warrior, wizard, cleric, and rogue. Cards that care about your party generally get more powerful (or cheaper to play) according to the number of those core classes that are represented by the creatures you control. An effect will scale according to how many different types you can account for; for example, your party size would be 3 if you had one warrior, one cleric, and one rogue on the battlefield, and thus cards that need to determine how many creatures are in your party would use 3 as their value in that situation.
It’s important to note that even if a creature has more than one of the pertinent class types, they can still only count as one of those types, but you will always get to choose which type they count for so as to maximize your party count. This is particularly relevant in the cases of three cards that have each of the types: artifact common Stonework Packbeast, green uncommon Veteran Adventurer, and green rare Tajuru Paragon.
Finally, let’s address the new kind of double-faced cards, which have been dubbed “modal double-faced cards” (MDFCs) by Wizards of the Coast. These are cards that have two different faces, one on the card’s front and one on the card’s back, that each represent unique cards.
You can choose to play either card when you have these in your hand, assuming you have the mana, but they are considered to be the front-face card when not in play. There is also no way to change which face is in play once they’ve been played, as they cannot “transform” the way DFCs in the Innistrad blocks did; you make the decision of which face is being played before you announce that you’re playing the card, then make your intent clear as you play it.
All of the MDFCs in this set are a land on at least one of their sides, which provides a level of flexibility that fans of the game have been longing for since the game’s inception. The ability to play these cards either in addition to or in the place of the basic lands that would otherwise be included in your deck is a huge advantage and should go a long way in preventing the dreaded “mana screw” and “mana flood” situations that face even the best of players.
Those MDFCs that feature a spell on one side are somewhat tempered in that the spell is typically overcosted in terms of mana, but once again, the power of them is the ability to choose which face is more beneficial as the game plays out. Keep an eye on all of these, as they may seem underwhelming on the surface but are in fact a huge development (and something that will be in future sets, according to Rosewater).
With the first Zendikar block fondly remembered for fast, aggressive gameplay and huge bombs, but the second visit widely regarded as disappointing (outside of the advent of “Eldrazi Winter” once Oath of the Gatewatch was released), ZNR is poised to land at a happy medium. Anyone who feared that the dials would be turned down due to the many bannings in the Standard format over the past year can breathe a sigh of relief, as there’s plenty of power here, but the hope is that balance has been achieved between the different pieces of the set as well as in the larger metagame.
For now, it seems like the party mechanic will see most of its action in Limited (Draft or Sealed), as six of the two-color combinations focus on one or more of the relevant creature types in some way, but it likely won’t shake up Constructed (namely Standard) due to the concept being brand-new and not supported much by the other sets in the format released over the past year.
One exception here is the pocket of cards in blue and black that care about the rogue creature type and getting eight or more cards in the opponent’s graveyard - folks have already started to experiment with lists hinging on blue-black uncommon Soaring Thought-Thief, and I personally love to see this more control-oriented color combo embrace a more assertive, tempo-based strategy.
Landfall and kicker differ from party in that they are sure to figure prominently, as the actions they ask of the player - playing lands and tapping them for increasing amounts of mana - are normal steps taken in every game of Magic. Aggressive landfall decks are emerging and making use of red common Akoum Hellhound, red-green uncommon Brushfire Elemental, and green rare Kazandu Mammoth to steamroll opponents.
More conspicuous in terms of landfall cards, though, is the reprinting of green’s Lotus Cobra - originally a mythic rare when it debuted in the original Zendikar, it’s now at rare, and it’s pumping out mana like a machine in many multi-color shells. Alongside the Cobra in the first wave of new builds is multicolor mythic Omnath, Locus of Creation.
This recurring legendary creature - now in their fourth iteration as they continue to add new colors of mana to their mana cost - is a major threat with several different landfall abilities that trigger in succession as more lands enter play in a single turn. Unfortunately, folks are quickly calling for a banning to keep this particular archetype in check, as its ability to play four colors with few drawbacks leads to a parade of powerful mythic rares hitting the board and ending the game in short order.
But we’ll leave that for Wizards to assess and deal with as the meta shakes out. I’m more interested in whether the support exists for more tribal decks - white-black clerics, red-white warriors, or red-blue wizards, besides the rogues noted above. There also seems to be some potential for a blue-green kicker-centric deck featuring blue uncommon Roost of Drakes and green uncommon Vine Gecko.
Finally, there are some can’t-miss MDFCs to keep an eye on, particularly the six-card cycle of Pathway lands (which are two different lands on each of their faces, tapping for one color of mana if played front-face up and another if played back-face up) and the five-card cycle of mythic rares with expensive spells on the front side and lands on the back side that can come into play untapped at the cost of 3 life (see white’s Emeria’s Call here as an example).
Here we examine both what you can physically access in terms of the new cards, as well as how well this set is suited for teaching new players the game. First up, the product line has expanded yet again, and there’s a lot to break down.
There are the products we’ve come to expect - Draft Boosters that are sold singularly, in 10-pack bundles, and 36-pack booster boxes. Theme Boosters are here again too, with different versions for each of Magic’s colors as well as a “Party Theme” booster, and they contain 33-34 commons and uncommons and 1-2 rares/mythic rares of the appropriate color or theme.
Also back are Collector Boosters, which include five foil commons, two foil uncommons, a foil full-art basic land, an extended-art rare or mythic rare, a foil rare or mythic rare, a Showcase common or uncommon, a Showcase or borderless rare or mythic rare, a foil Showcase common or uncommon, and one more slot that can be a foil Expedition or foil rare or mythic rare in any of the Showcase, borderless, or extended art frames.
To explain a couple things mentioned there: the new Showcase treatment (versions of which we started seeing with last fall’s Throne of Eldraine) harkens to the prominence of the diamond-shaped hedrons on the plane. Also, Expeditions are back from Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch - these are reprints of extremely desirable lands in a brand-new frame and only appear in Collector Boosters and as “box toppers” that come with booster boxes.
But back to what you’ll see on the shelf, a new offering is Set Boosters, each of which contains a total of 12 cards, including a guaranteed foil, up to 4 rares/mythic rares, an art card, and a 25% chance at a card from “The List,” which is a collection of 300 cards from Magic’s past being reprinted for inclusion here and possibly elsewhere. We’re also getting two new Commander decks set on Zendikar that are part of this product launch, but the cards in them aren’t technically in ZNR, so I won’t go into great detail (find out more if you’re interested here).
Now to the other matter, that of whether Zendikar Rising is a good set to use when bringing the inexperienced into our fold of Magic players. Probably the most daunting element of this release is the MDFCs, which are a little complicated when it comes to what card they are when in various zones, as well as when their controller has the option between the two halves. While it can be confusing, it’s worth going into with new players considering we’ll be seeing more like them in the future, and the rest of the set and its mechanics are simple enough, relying on either normal game actions or a single number that ranges from 1 to 4.
That leads me to think that while it might not be the best release for the previously uninitiated, Zendikar Rising is still a perfectly suitable entry point. There are familiar tropes like the creature and class types that many folks can identify with, as well as planeswalkers that are central to the larger story that can help folks catch on to the lore.
With that, we’ve about wrapped up this review, which means it’s time for your adventure to start. Gather your trusty team, tread lightly on this wild land, and uncover the secrets that Zendikar has to reveal!
Written by John McCurdy