Saturday, October 24, 2009

Zendikar Commons Review

Well, Zendikar has been out for a while now, but it was just released on MTGO and the first pauper tournaments in which Zendicards will be legal in begin next week. There have been a bunch of set reviews so far, but this one will be a bit different because of it's focus on Standard Pauper constructed. For those who don't know, Pauper is a Magic format where only commons are allowed. For more information, check out This might be a little late to do a set review, but I've had a chance to play with or against all of the commons in the set so I should be in a little better position to make predictions than in my M10 predictions. Speaking of which, lets look back and see how my evaluation of M10 commons turned out.

Analyzing the top 8 decklists from the last month of standard pauper tournaments has shown that my predictions were pretty good, but M10 as a whole has made a very small impact on standard pauper in general. I correctly predicted Soul Warden, Essence Scatter, Doom Blade, Sign in Blood and Lightning Bolt would be played, and gave an honorable mention to Jackal Familiar and Borderland Ranger. All of those cards turned out to be played, but outside of Lightning Bolt, haven't really shaken things up. The cards I thought would be played but weren't were Veteran Armorsmith, Illusionary Servant, Ponder and Vampire Aristocrat. Ponder and Illusionary Servant were the biggest surprise to me, but pretty much the only blue cards that get played are UW gold cards or Mulldrifter. Finally, there were a couple cards I didn't predict at all, Pacifism, Duress and Solemn Offering. I should have given more credit to old school powerhouses like Pacifism and Duress. Solemn Offering was played in a couple sideboards as an answer to creature enchantment based decks (Clout of the Dominus, etc).

Other than the cards mentioned so far, there really wasn't anything at all out of M10 that got played. This is probably because of the low amount of synergy between cards in M10. While cards from M10 are reasonable powerful by themselves, they really don't gain much power when paired with other cards. It is pretty hard to compete with the color matters decks of Lorwyn Block or domain or artifacts matter decks of Shards of Alara Block. For example, I've seen people talk about how with Zendikar, you can use lotus cobra + a fetchland to power out a turn 3 Baneslayer Angel. Well, in pauper we've been doing that for the last 6 months in the form of Esper Stormblade (or any number of UW 2 drops) + Steel of the Godhead. This type of synergy has been format defining and gives pauper decks some real powerful options. However, because of this high level of synergy, cards that are just powerful by themselves don't see much play.

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So, with an eye out for powerful constructed synergy and with actual experience playing the cards, lets have a look at my top 10 Zendikar Commons for Standard Pauper.

Starting it off is Adventuring Gear. Equipment has traditionally either been uncommon (or rare) or terrible. In addition, the only good common equipment cards, bonesplitter and cranial plating, have been banned in some formats. Adventuring Gear will be good because there is a ton of removal in pauper. Therefore, you shouldn't expect your creatures to stick around very long. This makes creatures with "enters the battlefield" abilities, as well as cheap effective equipment very powerful. Finally, Adventuring Gear has one of the important keywords on it, Landfall. Landfall is one of a couple powerful synergies in Zendikar. I expect many players will take advantage of this keyword to make explosive decks when they hit their lands.

Bladetusk Boar shows the new keyword "Intimidate." Intimidate is basically fear, except it can go on non-black creatures. Red creatures with evasion have proven to be great in the past with clout of the dominus and the UR noggles, and I would expect this guy to be topping the curves of aggressive red decks for the next few seasons. Normally red has to depend on burn or fling effects to get in the last few points of damage, Bladetusk Boar looks to be a much more reliable option.

Burst Lightning is pretty crazy, even when compared to the old school powerhouse that is Lightning Bolt. The ability to choose 4 damage if you need it, even if it does cost an additional 4 mana for the 1 extra point of damage over lightning bolt, will be very useful. In addition, there aren't many low drop creatures who would die to a Lightning Bolt, but not a Shock, so the lower damage when played without kicker doesn't seem like much of an issue.

Explorer's Scope is a pretty nifty card. For decks that want to ramp, it is a funky Rampant Growth, if you connect once with the ability, it pays for itself and anything extra is awesome. For decks with a bunch of low drops that aren't interested in more lands, the scope is great as well because it filters your draws so that you draw less lands. Finally (and probably most importantly), Explorer's Scope fits well with other Landfall cards. The more Landfall cards you have in your deck, the better they become as every land drop can become equivalent to a 4-6 point life swing. I'm sure people will be saying "comon topdeck land for the win" plenty of times in the coming months.

Harrow has proven to be a great constructed as well as limited card, and I predict it will be great in Pauper as well. Harrow plays nice with the Landfall cards of the set, enabling at 3 or more landfall triggers in a single turn. In addition, Harrow works well with the Domain mechanic from Shards of Alara Block. Powerful cards like Matca Rioters and Wild Nacatl get a lot easier to use with Harrow. Being an instant seems unnecessarily awesome for an already good card.

Oblivion Ring has been heavily played in pauper, however, it is almost always used to remove creatures. Journey to Nowhere appears to be almost a strict upgrade over Oblivion Ring. Removing a borderpost with an Oblivion Ring is a pretty nifty trick, but usually doesn't get you as much as you would like. Removing creatures is a great ability, and there will probably be less enchantment removal in all decks now that the color matters creature enchantments (clout of the dominus, etc) are rotating out so Journey to Nowhere and Oblivion Ring should both be better in the upcoming Standard environment.

Kor Skyfisher is a very powerful card on it's own, and is reminiscent of Aven Riftwatcher, except it is 1 colorless mana cheaper and you get to keep it after 3 turns. The downside may actually be an upside with the amount of creatures with "enters the battlefield" abilities that get played as well as with picking up lands to replay for Landfall triggers. I expect this guy to be picking up Aven Riftwatchers a ton in extended.

After Landfall, Allies are the other major synergy at common rarity in Zendikar. Oran-Rief Survivalist is probably the best of the bunch since he is in green and low costed, but you will need a bunch to make them really effective. Even a couple Allies can give a limited deck explosive draws, so a constructed deck packed with 3-4 colors of Allies should be impressive. There may just be enough playable Allies to make this deck work, but it will be tricky since none of the common allies actually do much by themselves the turn they come into play. Another downside of Allies are you need to play your spells pre combat which is sort of bad if you have, or are trying to bluff, some trick.

A land that doubles as a spell seems powerful for aggressive decks worried about being flooded. Unfortunately, the downside of coming into play tapped also hurts these same decks. Still, with some evasive creatures like Bladetusk Boar, having your lands shock your opponent instead of yourself (see Ravnica Duals) seems like a nice play. This land is also especially good for landfall creatures since you may only be attacking once every other turn when you hit your land drop, so you want to be able to swing for as much as possible.

Finally, a creature with a comes into play ability. For 5 mana, this guy isn't quite Shriekmaw, but then again, not much is. 2 damage is sufficient to take out most creatures in pauper (the same reason why burst lightning is comparable to Lightning Bolt) so I expect this guy to sling a bunch of torches in the next few months. In addition, he will be good as a combat trick to finish off opposing creatures after attacking your small dudes into their big guy. Blocking will become even more difficult against a red deck with 5 mana open.

Now for the honorable mentions. These cards didn't quite make the top 10. While I could see them seeing play in a deck or two, I don't expect they will have as large an effect as the cards listed above.

Surrakar Marauder - Cheap and evasive, would go great with Blightning.
Plated Geopede, Steppe Lynx - Two solid Landfall creatures. Without the reliability of fetch lands, these guys may be a bit weak when compared to the blade cycle, but panormas and Terramorphic Expanses may be enough to make these cards deadly.
Heartstabber Mosquito - "Enters the Battlefield" effect and a 2 for 1 when kicked. This guy seems pretty solid, but I don't see many decks wanting to get to 7 mana in the upcoming Standard environment.
Windrider Eeel - This guy is big and evasive. Swinging for 6 flying off a Terramorphic Expanse seems almost too good to be true. Even when you miss your Landfall Trigger, this guy is still a 2/2 flier for 4, not too bad. I could definitely see a UW flier deck taking shape.
Vines of Vastwood - Most pauper creatures aren't really worth saving, if they have removal, just play another creature. However, Vines of Vastwood can turn an attempted removal spell into a big lifeloss when kicked and will probably force opponents to use removal on their own turns if they know you are playing Vines of Vastwood.
Scythe Tiger - This guy is on the list, not because he is good, but because he is bad. While Scythe Tiger will probably see a fair amount of play in Naya Hushblade shroud decks, losing a land is a really brutal drawback. In addition, you can't even do anything cute like casting it turn 2 off a borderpost. Scythe Tiger will be great versus control decks, but considering the sorry state of card draw, I doubt many people will be running control.

Make sure to hit your land drops when adventuring in Zendikar.