While I don’t have real numbers and fancy graphs to substantiate this, my anecdotal experience playing and judging Magic has told me a lot of the current Magic community either returned or started playing Magic around the original Zendikar block. Those sets managed to hit that oh so perfect confluence of interesting new mechanics, exciting cards that appealed to a variety of players, and marrying that with an rich setting and lore. So there was a ton of hype surrounding the announcement that we’d be returning to that plane, and some controversy if the set is living up to those expectations once we got the full spoiler. Regardless, as we move into pre-release weekend and start crafting new decks shortly after, here are some of the cards we’re excited to play with. Let us know which cards you’re hoping to open in the comments! Well besides the Expeditions lottery, who doesn’t want to open a several hundred dollar [mtg_card=Scalding Tarn]?

Justin’s Picks

[mtg_card=Gideon, Ally of Zendikar]

After premiering as one of the best five mana planeswalkers ever printed, [mtg_card=Gideon Jura], Gideon hit kind of a rough patch – in an ironic way mirroring his backstory. Despite some killer art and a sweet title, [mtg_card=Gideon, Champion of Justice] was practically a dud on arrival, rivaling even [mtg_card=Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded]. [mtg_card=Kytheon, Hero of Akros] has also failed to impress thus far, but worst case he’s still a fancy [mtg_card=Savannah Lion] and thus finds a home in a bunch of cubes. However, with our return to Zendikar Gideon stands to make a major comeback, perhaps propelling himself to the former glory of being a format staple again.

In keeping with his previous iterations, [mtg_card=Gideon, Ally of Zendikar] doesn’t feature the typical plus, minus, and ultimate planeswalker ability structure. Instead [mtg_card=Gideon, Ally of Zendikar] has access to all his abilities as soon as you play him. You can plus him for his iconic ability to transform into a creature and beatdown (note that he’ll still be summoning sick on the first turn), split out 2/2 Allies, or minus him into a [mtg_card=Glorious Anthem]. The last ability has me very intrigued, since extra [mtg_card=Gideon, Ally of Zendikar]s can always be cashed in to boost the team, including the tokens he generates.

He’s going to play extremely well with [mtg_card=Wingmate Roc] going forward since it’s almost impossible for your opponent to stop the raid, as they would have to remove both the 2/2 Ally and Gideon himself. It’s certainly the card I’m most excited to jam games with, especially with [mtg_card=Elspeth, Sun’s Champion] rotating out.

[mtg_card=Turn Against]

Sometimes all it takes is changing a single word for a card to radically fluctuate in power level. While this is certainly not uncommon when you jump from sorcery to instant for any number of cards, [mtg_card=Threaten] goes from a decent-enough card for removing a big blocker and closing out the game to just being absolutely brutal at times. Granted its five CMC is going to keep this strictly limited, but anyone that’s had the pleasure, or displeasure, of being one either side of a [mtg_card=Ray of Command] will know the blowouts this card can cause.

You can still just grab their biggest creature before combat and swing for lethal when it’s a game winning play, but where you can really take advantage of [mtg_card=Turn Against] is by using it after your opponent has declared attacks but before you declare blocks. Ideally your opponent will swing with a pair of big creatures that trade with each other, and then you borrow one to block his buddy. In the right circumstances it’s a clean two-for-one on your opponent’s best two creatures.

This is the [mtg_card=Hussar Patrol] of the set. Eventually folks will learn to play around their opponents having four and a red open, but for the first few weeks you can look forward to getting a few people with it, especially in the more bomb driven sealed formats.

Blighted Lands Cycle: [mtg_card=Blighted Steppe], [mtg_card=Blighted Cataract], [mtg_card=Blighted Fen], [mtg_card=Blighted Gorge], [mtg_card=Blighted Woodland]

These Blighted lands might need to steep for a few months with the color hungry Khan’s block cards still in the format, since adding a colorless land when you’re deck wants to cast cards like [mtg_card=Mantis Rider] on time is kind of a serious cost. But any deck that’s two colors or is only lightly splashing a third may want to take note, as long as you can still generate sufficient colors in the rest of your manabase.

Think of these has being roughly half a land and half a spell. In general if you’re looking to close the game out quickly you probably want the man lands, or no tapped lands at all, while slower decks will be more interested in the Blighted cycle and turn extra lands in the late game into resources. The Blue and Black lands are both valuable effects for drawing cards or killing creatures. Green probably becomes an EDH/Commander staple for stapling ramp on a land. The Red and White ones are the weaker of the bunch, though they could have situational potential.

The advantage and desire behind these Blighted lands, and the man lands as well, is that you’re able to run a more stable number of lands in your deck while simultaneously fighting mana flooding.

[mtg_card=Ulamog’s Nullifier]

I got the chances to proxy test against this card earlier in the week, and wow did this impress during our games. It certainly takes some work to set-up, but the payoff is really worth it. My opponent was using [mtg_card=Transgress the Mind], the various Devoid [mtg_card=Counterspell]s, or simply waiting for me to delve in order to enable it. Using removal on it always felt awful since it already came down and ate one of your spells.

Much like it’s [mtg_card=Mystic Snake] predecessor, [mtg_card=Ulamog’s Nullifier] is just solid 2-for-1 value. It even gets to gain a point of toughness, very key for surprise blocking 2/2s, and it gets evasion on top of that. It’s one of those cards where all the individual pieces are not great. At four mana you’re not going to be super excited for conditional [mtg_card=Counterspell] or a 2/3 flash flyer, but when you bake them together you get delicious peanut butter and chocolate goodness.

There are a lot of control players with fond memories of [mtg_card=Nephalia Drownyard] style almost-zero-win condition control. Just imagine creating a super grindy control deck with no other win conditions except [mtg_card=Ulamog’s Nullifier], man lands, and some awaken cards, and you can get pretty close to that.

[mtg_card=Retreat to Coralhelm]

*see next page*

Josh’s Picks

Retreat Cycle: [mtg_card=Retreat to Emeria], [mtg_card=Retreat to Coralhelm], [mtg_card=Retreat to Hagra], [mtg_card=Retreat to Valakut], [mtg_card=Retreat to Kazandu]

I enjoyed Landfall so much in the original Zendikar that I ended up building three wholly different Landfall decks while it was in Standard. [mtg_card=Groundswell] wasn’t great without Landfall active, but it still packed a punch as a combat trick or with Infect. Landfall isn’t an ability that seems to add much to the minimum cost of any given card, so getting more value from the keyword is almost always a profitable endeavor. Sure, [mtg_card=Groundswell] might not quite be [mtg_card=Giant Growth] without Landfall, but it’s better than the long-time classic buff spell when it is, and you know what people do a lot of in Magic? They play lands. Sometimes you’ll only drop three or four, but most games you’ll be playing out six or more lands, which, when you look at triggers, can mean a ton of value.

The cards in the Retreat cycle in Battle for Zendikar don’t do anything on their own, but they add something new to the mix; choice. Over the years, I’ve loved a lot of cards that didn’t do much in constructed play, because they gave the opponent a choice, which competitive players tend to avoid. In this case, you’re getting a choice each time you play a land, to maximize the benefit for the current situation. I like them all to some extent, but [mtg_card=Retreat to Emeria] is definitely a favorite. It’s a tad mana intensive, at 4 CMC, but the triggers can be brutal in a number of situations. If you’ve flooded the board before you drop it, you can buff the whole team for a devastating attack. If you’re going Ally tribal, you can proc every one of your Rally abilities every time you play a land. Given how powerful some of these can be – “creatures you control gain Lifelink until end of turn” – getting it for free over and over again is particularly exciting for me.

Justin’s note: [mtg_card=Retreat to Coralhelm] is the sleeper hit of this cycle and honestly could end up getting broken. It seems pretty unassuming, but the first ability lets you do some crazy things when paired up with the right cards. Whether it’s allowing for another infinite combo with [mtg_card=Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker] and [mtg_card=Dryad Arbor], or the real excitement is around [mtg_card=Knight of the Reliquary] – which has already doubled in price. With enough plains and forests you can make a giant [mtg_card=Knight of the Reliquary] and generate a ton of mana. Some interesting ways you could go with it is to make a bunch of mana, search up an [mtg_card=Eye of Ugin], and then fetch up and cast [mtg_card=Emrakul, the Aeons Torn]. Not bad for a turn 3 play is you lead with a mana dork.

[mtg_card=Zada, Hedron Grinder]

I built gimmick decks around [mtg_card=Precursor Golem] back in the day, as I expect every casual player did. It’s a fun effect to play around with, and makes things like [mtg_card=Groundswell] even more ridiculous. Zada takes it a step further, copying any spell you target Zada with for every creature you control. It’s not always going to have a big impact, but when it does, it’s going to be huge. Gargantuan. Eldrazi-sized, even.

A Boros (Red/White) Ally deck, for example, might have a low-end mana curve, so you can spit several creatures onto the board in the first few turns. If they stick around until you can drop Zada, you’ve got some impressive potential. [mtg_card=Center Soul] isn’t the worst card on its own, but when you can make your entire team unblockable with Protection from your opponent’s creatures’ color. Since each of the copies are independent of the original spell, you can choose a different color for each of your creatures, allowing you to cast it after blocks to save your entire team, and hopefully take out a couple blockers in the process. It seems incredibly powerful, but more important to me, it seems absurdly fun to build around.

[mtg_card=Quarantine Field]

I play a lot of control decks, which rely heavily on either card draw or 2-for-1 exchanges to be effective. If you don’t get your draw spells, or you draw only single-target removal spells, things can get dicey really quickly. [mtg_card=Quarantine Field] isn’t cheap, but it is an X-for-1 exchange, and, more importantly, targets everything but Lands.

There aren’t a lot of ways to remove a creature, an Enchantment, and a Planeswalker simultaneously. In fact, this may be the only one, excluding the non-immediate effect of [mtg_card=Bearer of the Heavens]. Now there is, and I’m really excited to see what I can do with it.

[mtg_card=Void Winnower]

Screwing with my opponent’s ability to do what they want to do is a big part of my fascination with deck building. You’ve got cards like [mtg_card=Thalia, Guardian of Thraben] that makes spells more expensive, delaying your opponent’s plans. There are more powerful effects that we’ve seen as well, like [mtg_card=Iona, Shield of Emeria] from the last visit to Zendikar. This time, we’ve got a very similar creature, at the same 9 CMC, but all colorless, allowing you to include it in any deck of any color(s) that can support the cost.

I haven’t analyzed the even vs odd casting cost breakdown of cards that see competitive play, but I’m not concerned with that anyways. i just want to cast a [mtg_card=Void Winnower] and see what happens. The “can’t block” effect for even-costed creatures is just icing on the deliciously trollish cake.

[mtg_card=March From the Tomb]

I’m not sure that Orzhov (Black/White) Allies will ever be a thing outside of casual play, but I’m definitely going to be tinkering with it in a casual environment. I have loved [mtg_card=Animate Dead] effects my whole Magic career, but it’s most often reserved for decks that discard giant creatures and then reanimate them into play. As much as i like big creatures, I don’t like waiting, so I enjoy running a million little guys out there as quickly as possible. They get outclassed very quickly, though, so having a way to bring them back en masse is really valuable. The fact that they’ll each have a Rally proc, which, it is important to note, will proc for every Ally that entered, is even better.

You could potentially get… mathmathmath… 64 triggers off this, if you bring back eight 1-drops. I’m not sure what else there is to say, honestly. Except, perhaps, “JUDGE! Slow play!”

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