Is Battle for Zendikar short of Standard-playable cards?
By Neil T Stacey
Battle For Zendikar comes out next week and it’s one of the most anticipated sets in ages. New fetch-able dual lands. The first ever Enemy-coloured creature-lands. Full-art basic lands. Full-art foil fetches and shocks. There are no brakes on the hype train with this one.
Or are there? Since the full spoiler came to light, there’s been a lot of grumbling about the power level of Battle for Zendikar. Sure it has mana fixing that will define Standard, but so does every large set. You don’t get excited about the mana in Standard, you just play it. And sure, full-art basic lands are sweet and the Expeditions will be worth a fortune, but those are cosmetic features. If the only artwork you’re interested in is what your opponent signs on the match slip, then it’s hard to care.
The complaint I’m hearing in a lot of places is that most of the rares in Battle For Zendikar are kind of bad and that, lands aside, the power level of the set is unusually low. I’ll admit that I’m heartbroken by the lack of Modern-playable Allies in the set, but I am not otherwise convinced that BFZ is quite so bad as some are saying. I won’t deny that my initial response was along the same lines; the set is full of useless creatures with Ingest, dumb expensive Eldrazi I don’t care about and weird Eldrazi processors that want you to jump through hoops to get value.
But then, I’m a pretty negative guy. Even I’m aware that my pessimism isn’t to be trusted. So let’s take a more analytical approach to figuring out whether Battle for Zendikar is a weak set or not.
Firstly, we’ll need to lay out some groundwork by figuring out exactly what it means for a set to be weak or strong. As it turns out there are several different definitions, each of which will matter to different people. I, for instance, am an incurable competitive player so my initial evaluation of a set is generally along the lines of “can I use these cards to win matches”. Others look primarily at how fun a set will be for Limited play. Others look for interesting and elegant card design while others are interested in cool flavourful cards.
Today we’ll focus on that winning thing. Those other factors all have merit, but they’re a bit too much to get through in one article.
The most straightforward way of evaluating a set’s relevance is to count up how many of the set’s cards are playable and relevant in Standard. This raises another difficult question. How many Standard-playable cards should a set actually have?
There is no real correct answer to this, but we can say that only so many cards can be played in top decks at any given time and that we’d like for those cards to be reasonably evenly distributed between sets. I dove into the decklists from Starcitygames.com’s most recent Standard Open event and discovered that there were 153 different cards played among the mainboards of the top 32 lists.
This isn’t quite a complete picture of the format. If I had gone through more lists, that number would doubtless have climbed just a little higher. Not much higher, however; there is an increasing overlap that you find as you analyse more and more decks. Then again, there are also individual cards as well as entire archetypes that aren’t represented in the current metagame. No variety of Heroic managed to make a showing in that top 32, for example. That’s a deck that overlaps very little with other major archetypes, so that’s already a number of relevant cards not contributing to that 153.
Neglecting sideboard cards is also a serious faux pas that I’ll probably correct when I get an opportunity, but sideboards are far smaller than maindecks and with more overlap between different decks because of the specificity of sideboard cards.
All in all, we can say with reasonable certainty that there are around 200 to 250 relevant cards in Standard right now. WoTC have become very good at ensuring a diverse Standard format, with plenty of viable decks and constant metagame fluctuations, so I’m comfortable settling on 250 as our ball-park guesstimate for how many relevant cards there are in a particular Standard format.
Now, most cards will have their best chance of showing up in decks when the format is at its smallest, which will be 5 sets just after each rotation. Those 5 sets will generally include 3 large sets and 2 small sets, with large sets typically having about 270 cards and small sets being around 180.
Now, we ideally want the Standard-playable cards to be pretty evenly distributed for a number of reasons, so the ballpark figure to aim for is 58 Standard-playable cards per large set and 38 per small set. So here we have one way to answer the question of whether or not Battle for Zendikar sucks. We try figure out if the number of Standard-playable cards is below or above that benchmark and that gives us a good indication. So let’s plow into the set and start counting up playables. I will of course miss some; no-one is infallible, least of all me. I will also mis-identify some jank as playable, because I’m a sucker for value and flexibility often at the expense of power level.
Rares: The new dual lands are an automatic inclusion. The two creature-lands are too. Shambling Vent is a touch disappointing when you compare its stats to those of Stirring Wildwood, which is its main competition in Modern. Lumbering Falls on the other hand is a nice finisher in any deck aiming to blank your opponent’s removal spells by not offering good targets. That’s 7 playable cards I’m confident in and while the other three rare lands don’t impress I can hazard a guess that at least one of them will show up in a deck at some point.
Verdict: +8 to our playables count.
Uncommons: Blighted Gorge is awful. Blighted Steppe is quite narrow but will certainly have its uses. The other three Blighted lands are just unambiguously good. The colourless option, Spawning Pool, is pretty sweet too. I don’t think it will replace Foundry of the Consuls right away, since it costs one more to activate and its critters don’t have evasion. However, if there is a deck that cares about Eldrazi Scions then it will want this card. Not to mention that there will come a time when Foundry has rotated out and Spawning Pool hasn’t.
Commons: Single-colour tapped lands with a small ETB effect aren’t that appealing when we have a full cycle of two-colour tapped lands with small ETB effects. Mortuary Mire and Fertile Thicket are the two standouts here; Thicket lets you get away with lower land counts in your decks, while Mire lets you redraw your best threats in the late game. I was excited about Skyline Cascade until I read it thoroughly enough to realise it doesn’t tap the creature, just stops an already tapped creature from untapping. Urgh. Sandstone Bridge and Looming Spires each have some chance of popping up in aggressive decks to push creatures through in combat. I’ll count each of those as a half since they’re both iffy bets.
Short section here. I don’t think Pilgrim’s Eye cuts it even for fringe play with the power level of creatures these days. Hedron Archive is worth a look and Aligned Hedron Network could be a sideboard tool against specific decks, so I’ll count those as a half each.
Other Colourless cards
Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger could easily get a chance to shine in Standard at some point. There aren’t a lot of reasons to play a mana ramp deck right now, but if ever there is one, this is a good choice for the top end. Desolation Twin is on a similar level but I reckon it’s a bit of an either/or thing with these two. Void Winnower might have some use somewhere, I guess, though I can’t see what it is. The rest of these look janky to me.
Catacomb Sifter looks like a reasonable bet. 3/4 stats spread across two bodies is a reasonable rate. Unrelated to our current endeavour, I’m keeping an eye on the cheap Eldrazi; they can be cast for cheap with Eye of Ugin and/or Eldrazi Temple in Modern and there could be a deck there.
Skyrider Elf is solid. A 2/2 flier for 2 mana is alright and having the option of growing it gives it a lot of potential.
Kiora’s biggest issue is her inability to affect the board. On the other hand, her -2 is such absurd value it will sometimes be worth a card and 4 mana even if Kiora doesn’t stick around. The possibility of getting a creature and a land while putting two cards in the graveyard is a pretty big dream for 2 loyalty. She’ll play best in decks with Hangarback Walker because her +1 seems tailor made to untap Hangarback along with the land you’ll need to activate it again. I’m not a fan of Kiora but I’m going to deem her Standard-playable anyway because there’s a high ceiling on the power level here, and the floor isn’t all that low.
Those three cards are the only multi-colour cards I expect to make it in Standard. Brutal Expulsion has a similar effect to Remand if you assume that Shock is equivalent in value to drawing a card. The option of bouncing a creature instead isn’t worth the two extra mana, and holding 4 mana open is awkward.
Ulamog’s Nullifier could be amazing if the format plays into the Processor mechanic, but I’m always sceptical of cards that require me to jump through hoops.
I tend to under-evaluate multi-colour cards, so I’ll assume that I’m being a bit harsh and missing something decent here and include a bit of a multiplier.
The new Gideon is the obvious standout. Possibly the best non-land card in the set.
Planar Outburst is a decent multi-purpose card; it’s the sweeper you need to survive to the late-game, and it’s the value card you need to win in the late-game. Definitely playable.
Stasis Snare is instant-speed removal for three mana which is something I guess we can live with. It gets stomped on by Dromoka’s Command but hey, you can’t win them all. Fringe playable.
That’s 3 playables I’m confident in, but that’s about it.
Dragonmaster Outcast saw a little bit of fringe play last time around, so he’ll appear in some decklists early on at the very least.
Makindi Sliderunner is a 2-drop that can occasionally crash in as a 4/3. And when it’s just a 2/1, that’s not the end of the world for a red deck that’s mostly looking to curve out. Worth testing.
Radiant Flames is a nice cheap sweeper, stepping in to replace Drown in Sorrow and Anger of the Gods at 3 mana. Definite playable.
Tunneling Geopede has the potential to get you a fair bit of free damage. I’m willing to try it out even if it under-performs in the Vanilla Test. I don’t think too many other people will be, however.
Scatter to the Winds is definitely playable. Cancel with upside is kind of a staple effect in Standard, and this is a solid version of that effect.
Retreat to Coralhelm has plenty of combo potential with Knight of the Reliquary and Ruin Ghost in Modern. I wouldn’t be surprised if something emerges with it in Standard at some point.
Horribly Awry is certainly useable from the sideboard, even if it’s a little worse overall than Essence Scatter which was always a bit marginal.
Anticipate is certainly playable; I know this because of how people are already playing it. Still counts, though, since there will come a time when it’s only in Standard because of its printing here.
Coastal Discovery has a bit of a more expensive Mulldrifter feel to it. It could work in the right deck, though I think the format will initially be too fast for this sort of durdling.
Five-colour decks could be a thing at some point, and Brilliant Spectrum promises them a ton of cards draw and selection. It’s janky but it might see the inside of a sleeve at some stage.
Ob Nixilis is almost certain to be a Standard staple, so that’s one safe bet.
Ruinous Path is more or less a lock too. It’s not quite Hero’s Downfall and to be honest, I wasn’t thrilled to be paying 3 mana for removal in the first place. Nonetheless, decks need removal, and this is what we’ve got, so we’ll play it.
Complete Disregard is underwhelming too, but it has its place.
Drana, Liberator of Malakir is a solid threat that gets out of control quickly with tokens around. I particularly hope to see it alongside Kolaghan, the Storm’s Fury, powering up Hordeling Outburst tokens in droves.
Many people are excited about Smothering Abomination, but I think those people are wrong.
I am amped for Greenwarden of Murasa. Eternal Witness effect on a body large enough to force your opponent to trade for it, and then you get the Eternal Witness effect again. It’s a three for one with onboard presence. Sign me up.
Jaddi Offshoot has some super-narrow utility frustrating red decks from the sideboard for just one mana. I don’t like it, but someone will.
Plummet is solid sideboard material from time to time.
Scythe Leopard can get in as a 3/3 if you play a fetchland, so that’s a reasonable aggressive rate. It doesn’t have the explosive potential of something like Steppe Lynx, but it does at least attack for damage when you aren’t able to trigger landfall.
Sylvan scrying is great in durdley Modern decks, but I don’t see much of an incentive to play it in Standard.
Undergrowth Champion is extremely threatening, potentially closing a game in a handful of hits. It’s also resilient in combat and to certain types of removal (read: Roast) so I’d say it has the potential to do pretty well.
Woodland Wanderer has two very valuable abilities and the potential to be very large in decks with expansive mana. I can see this wandering around stomping on Rhinos.
In total, I believe that’s 48 Standard-playable cards, a full 10 cards short of our expected benchmark. I have doubtless missed a few reasonable cards and of course, that benchmark is totally made up. Nonetheless, Battle for Zendikar is not an unusually powerful set by any means, but in terms of power-level it doesn’t seem quite deserving of the negative reaction that followed the full spoiler. I suspect that reaction is in part due to the fact that a large fraction of the set’s playable cards consist of cycles of lands. Like I said earlier, lands aren’t something you get excited about; you just play them.
The other factor is that when you think about a cycle of similar cards, you mentally process them as one unit rather than as individual items to get excited about separately. Cycles of lands, therefore, will tend to worsen our perception of a set, which leaves WoTC treading a fine line between overloading with playables to compensate, and releasing a set with underwhelming spells.
We’ve seen them err in the other direction a few times in the recent past. Only so many cards can be played in Standard and if too many of them are from one set, too few will come from other sets. Return to Ravnica, for instance, was headlined by five shocklands, but it was also stacked with multi-format staples. The second set in that block, Gatecrash, had the other five shocklands and enough other playables to make a solid impression. The consequence of this was Dragon’s Maze, which is widely regarded as one of the worst sets in recent history, having scarcely any impact on Standard. Voice of Resurgence sold for $50 at one stage, largely by virtue of how little of the set was opened.
Another example is Khans of Tarkir, which featured five fetchlands along with a slew of powerful cards. Fate Reforged ended up bearing the brunt of that imbalance despite being a solid set in its own right. It has so far under-performed in format overrun with Khans of Tarkir’s flashier offerings.
I can see how WoTC would want to avoid that kind of scenario. They need their next few sets to sell well to prove the viability of the new two-block paradigm. So it makes sense to be conservative now and with the Expeditions and full-art basics, they can afford to. The set could be filled with total jank and it would still fly off the shelves like gravity had stopped working. As it stands, it looks to me as though WoTC have been just a shade conservative, which is fine and hopefully bodes well for the next few sets.