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Battle for Zendikar — A Retrospective Review

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With Shadows of Innistrad (SOI) firmly in the bag and Eldritch Moon (EMN) about to be released, now’s a good time to look back at the Battle for Zendikar block with a critical eye.

The block was the first to be designed in the new two-block structure, Battle for Zendikar (BFZ) followed by Oath of the Gatewatch (OGW). Originally intended to be a three-block set, the transition happened mid-design, with various consequences.

So did the first block of the new structure fare? Was it a success? A failure? A mixture of both? In this analysis I’ll consider four aspects: story, design, limited play and constructed impact.

Story

Eye of Ugin
BFZ saw a return to the popular world of Zendikar. In the original Zendikar (ZEN) block, the Eldrazi — large alien/elder-god-eseque creatures — had been trapped by Sorin and Nahiri using the power of the hedrons. The block ended with the Eldrazi being awoken from their otherworldly torpor by Jace, Sarkhan and Chandra in chamber of the Eye of Ugin, as manipulated by Nicol Bolas. Nissa ultimately released them from their hedron prisons in the belief they would leave the plane of Zendikar. But she was wrong; the Eldrazi, too weak to leave, started to feed in order to gain strength, wreaking havoc upon Zendikar.

Battle for Zendikar saw Gideon assemble allies in the fight against the Eldrazi, first gaining assistance from Jace. The story of the block is, in essence, a disaster/monster flick, with our intrepid band of heroes trying to save Zendikar from destruction. There are a few subplots. The first revolves around Kiora, the bident she stole from Thassa on Theros, and her eventual clash with Jace and Nissa. A second subplot revolves around Ob Nixilis, the planeswalker who lost his spark and become a demon, and Nissa, who had left Zendikar for Lorwyn, and their conflict. A third subplot revolves around Jace’s interactions with Ugin. But most of the focus is on beating the Eldrazi.

In the original block we were introduced to three Eldrazi Titans; Emrakul, Kozilek and Ulamog. In Battle for Zendikar the only threat appears to be Ulamog until the end of the block, when Ob Nixilis disrupts the Hedron Alignment being used to capture the Eldrazi titan and Kolizek makes an appearance as we enter the Oath of the Gatewatch set.

Jace and Gideon eventually assemble a team, likened to The Avengers, titled The Gatewatch. The team includes Gideon, Jace, Chandra and Nissa, making amends for releasing the Eldrazi in the first place. Their supporters are the various races of Zendikar — Vampires, Kor, Goblins, Elves and Merfolk — coming together to defeat Ulamog and Kozilek. Although Ugin warned Jace to merely capture them, and not kill them, Jace works with Nissa and Chandra to use the mana of Zendikar to power up Chandra, enabling her to incinerate the two titans once and for all.

Gideon, Jace and Nissa were the central characters of the story, though Kiora’s story was just as interesting. Gideon had a genuine story arc, building on what we had learned about him during Theros block and the recent Magic Origins set, his character maturing from a one-dimensional Superman-style figure to a General who seemed to care about his troops and had to make hard choices to ensure he wasn’t the only one alive at the end of the battle.

Jace was typically Jace. I’ve found Jace harder and harder to come to terms with since Return to Ravnica, in which the Blue mage decided the best course of action was to erase his own memory for the second time. If anything, Jace is a U/R mage, often ignoring the facts and counsel of those around him and going with his instincts. In Revelation at the Eye, Jace ignores the advice of a millennium-old dragon, one who originally trapped the Eldrazi, warns Jace of Nicol Bolas’ manipulations, and that the Eldrazi are more than they appear; and he ignores him for no reason other than arrogance. If Blue is the color of understanding and acquiring knowledge to make an informed decisions, then Jace has increasingly appeared to be quite the opposite.

Nissa has proven to be the problematic character. In the original Zendikar block, Nissa was xenophobic, having been raised among the isolationist elves of Lorwyn and raised to hate ‘eyeblights’, ie non-elves. This interesting, yet challenging-to-navigate aspect of her character was essentially white-washed out of Zendikar block, in which she spent most of her time moping around Zendikar, trying to reconnect with the land and her elemental avatar, Ashaya. She did this enough for it to became something of a running-joke amongst those following the story. Wizards allowed one small peek of the old Nissa in her final fight with Ob Nixilis but it was never raised again. It’s understandable why an inclusive and progressive company such as Wizards would seek to tone-down the racist overtones of one of their key protagonists, but in doing so they lost an opportunity for Nissa to learn to be better; instead they simply made her better.

Oath of Jace
On the other end of the spectrum, Kiora and her flawed attitude to everything was much more interesting. Her arrogance and self-confidence, twice undone — once by an Eldrazi, once by Jace — provided enough character growth to keep her interesting, but her walk-off-into-the-distance ending was entirely unsatisfying, considering how she had pushed against the actions of the Gatewatch in the final chapters of the storyline, quite the unfair end for such an interesting mix of protagonist and antagonist.

Overall the block story felt relatively flat. The ‘world at war’ theme tends to play itself out again and again in Magic due to the combative nature of its core premise (two planeswalkers dueling). As a ‘sequel’ to the original Zendikar block, there weren’t going to be too many surprises going in; the audience knew the world, knew the characters, and the real question was who would win. After the 2011 block Scars of Mirrodin it has been clear Wizards are willing to let the bad-guys win, so there was no guarantee Zendikar would be saved. Considering the damage done during the story the question now becomes can Zendikar recover — and if it does, is it worth coming back to?

There are also a number of unanswered questions around the Hedrons. In the original block, the Hedrons were the tools of the Eldrazi. Take a look at the flavour text of Dreamstone Hedron (Only the Eldrazi mind thinks in the warped paths required to open the hedrons and tap the power within.”) or the picture on Eldrazi Monument, for example. The cubes in the Eldrazi Monument or inverted pyramids in the artwork for Eldrazi Temple are likewise never spoken of again. I’ve not had a chance to read the Zendikar art-book, so perhaps the answers are hidden within, but it would have been nice for a story explanation.

Of note are Mark Rosewater’s comments:

‘“We chose to return to Zendikar because the original set was so popular, but instead of embracing what made it popular, I embraced the very aspect that we knew was the least popular part about it. Even worse, to make room for the battle between the Eldrazi and Zendikari, I had to exclude all the adventure world tropes—the very stuff that I now believe was what made the first set so lovable.”

“Shadows over Innistrad is the perfect example of us embracing this philosophy. We didn't return to Avacyn Restored. We returned to Innistrad. Battle for Zendikar, in contrast, didn't return to Zendikar. We returned to Rise of the Eldrazi.”’

Design

Ghostfire
The Wizards design team was faced with a huge challenge for Battle for Zendikar. Originally a three-set block, with the mechanics and the three original Eldrazi titans spread evenly between them, the new two-block structure meant Wizards had to rework everything.

The ‘big mechanic’ of the block was the introduction of colorlessness as a theme. Wizards avoided the need to return to ‘Eldrazi Tribal’ spells seen in ZEN through the use of Devoid — or colorlessness. Devoid is an inherently weird mechanic, first teased on the timeshifted card Ghostfire, that still requires a card to be cast using colored mana, but with the card having no color by rules text alone. If Wizards wanted to push the idea that Eldrazi were ‘weird’, this was certainly one way to do it. By using cards that provide bonuses to Devoid cards, or triggered abilities when Devoid cards were cast, Wizards could keep the tribal theme without necessarily referring to the Eldrazi creature type on cards.

Was this approach worth it? It feels a little like complexity for complexity’s sake. I don’t believe players would have begrudged Wizards taking a straighter line with it, especially as the theme was Eldrazi vs The Rest of Zendikar. The difficulty may have been Eldrazi simply become another Sliver clone, working well with each other and nothing else. Devoid, at least, provides some synergy with colorless artifact creatures — though that may not make any sense to the Vorthos out there. The trouble is there is little done with Devoid that could not be done with creative use of Eldrazi Tribal mechanics. Certainly the Eldrazi would have been better backwards compatible with the Eldrazi of the original Zendikar block as a result. One clear criticism of the new Eldrazi is they do not play well with many of the original cards.

Another criticism is that while the original Eldrazi were giant, unknowable alien things, the new Eldrazi felt too much like the new Slithers; ie anthropomorphised to the point of banality. Maybe familiarity really does breed contempt, but the Eldrazi went too quickly from an unstoppable-unknowable-force to four-armed-duders who die to burn spells. While there were one or two weird-design standouts — such as the rules text of Void Winnower and the art of Eldrazi Skyspawner — for the most part the Eldrazi became Just Another Threat. Compare this with the build-up of mystery and unknowableness in Shadows of Innistrad and it becomes clear how a great opportunity was missed.

Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
Kozilek, the Great Distortion

Wizards settled on Battle for Zendikar being fronted by Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and Oath of the Gatewatch being fronted by Kozilek, the Great Distortion, with Emrakul sitting on the sidelines. Ulamog and Kozilek had their own flavor of Eldrazi spawn, reflected in the mechanics of the set.

In the original set, Annihilator had been the key mechanic of the ‘big’ Eldrazi. Wizards’ internal polling had demonstrated that players found Annihilator exceedingly unfun to play against and so dropped it as a mechanic for the new Eldrazi titans.

Ulamog represented the devouring nature of the Eldrazi, chewing up everything in its path and turning them into other, as represented by the Ingest/process mechanic that sent things to exile (the blind eternities) for further use. Most notable was that only an opponent's Ingested cards could be processed — both a great flavour win and a sensible limit on abusing the mechanic. However, as far as parasitic mechanics work, Ingest/process is pretty high on the scale. While processing does have some back utility (with cards such as Oblivion Ring), as presented in BFZ the mechanic is insular and doesn’t play that well with other library destruction mechanics, such as milling.

Kozilek represented the alien nature of the Eldrazi and the manipulation of space and time. Kozilek, lore-wise, leaves behind Bismuth in its wake, a neat allusion to generic mana being made up of all five colours. The key mechanic was the use of colorless mana as a required cost to do weird things, as represented by Warping Wail, Thought-Knot Seer, and Reality Smasher. Colorless mana was represented by the new colorless symbol. This required a huge back-change of all references to colorless mana by every mana-rock and colorless producing land ever, as it defined the difference between generic mana, mana of any color, to colorless mana, mana of no color, in a meaningful way for costs for the first time.

I don’t subscribe to the theory. This was the introduction of a ‘purple’ mana, in the same way that snow-mana wasn’t. It simply enshrined something that, in reality, had always existed. However getting this across to players, especially new players, was surprisingly difficult, with Wizards repeatedly having to reiterate the difference between the two on social media. It also created strange scenarios where a player could draft a Hedron Archive with the old 2 symbol next to a Crumbling Vestige with the new colorless symbol.

It felt odd to players, and eventually Mark Rosewater himself discussed it.

“If I could ignore the realities of making Magic sets and could just snap my fingers, there is a lot to be said for starting off with colorless mana and devoid going hand in hand to drive home the colorless theme of the Eldrazi. The set could also introduce exiling as being part of how the Eldrazi functioned and then have Ingest and Processors be something that built upon that in the second set.”

This nails the issue on the head, and it’s unfortunate Wizards came to that conclusion after the set was released, rather than before it. The natural flow of Wastes, colorless mana matters, and Ingest in Set 1 into Devoid and Process in Set 2 would have made for a much more natural transition and coherence in design. Unfortunately they missed it, and the block as a whole suffered for it.

The other key component of design for the block which tied the two sets together were the Allies. Allies, in the lore, were the various different races of Zendikar forming the army that fought the Eldrazi. In the original Zendikar block, all Allies either had a triggered ability whenever an Ally entered the battlefield, or an activated ability that counted the number of Allies you controlled.

Kitesail Scout
Makindi Aeronaut

In Battle for Zendikar block, Allies were far less consistent. Some had enter-the-battlefield abilities, some had abilities that required you to have another Ally on the battlefield, and some had no abilities at all. More confusingly, the rules for why a creature was an ally or not an ally were impossible to determine. Cards such as Kitesail Scout and Makindi Aeronaut showed no discernable difference between why one card would be an Ally and the other not.

The Allies stretched across all five colours, culminating in General Tazri as their emblematic leader, with a five-colour activated ability. This mirrored the colorlessness of the Eldrazi nicely. Drana, Munda, Noyan Dar and Zada from the storyline were each represented on cards, with Mina and Denn, who frankly I don’t recall from the stories, filling in the gap in Green. However, the Ally that has made the most impact on Constructed is Sylvan Advocate, a card that could easily lose the Ally attribute without any effect.

It’s unfortunate the first block since Scars of Mirrodin to have two clearly opposing forces didn’t commit more to the premise and capitalize on the set up. Instead there were flavors of Eldrazi and flavors of Allies and a whole bunch of flavorless chaff in between.

Five planeswalkers featured across the block: Gideon, Kiora and re-sparked Ob Nixilis in BFZ, Chandra and Nissa in OGW. The timing was a little awkward, however, with the release of Origins overshadowing their release. In particular, Jace in Origins, clearly missing from the Oath of the Gatewatch team, filled a huge hole in the format. This was made a little more awkward by the fact that OGW contained four “Oaths” as Legendary Enchantments, one for each planeswalker. With Jace so often printed (and to be born anew in the coming Shadows of Innistrad set) it’s understandable that Wizards might want to keep him out of OGW, but it fought against the theme of the set to do so.

The 3-mans Nissa of Origins fought for position against the 3-mana Nissa of OGW. As the Origins Nissa both enabled Landfall (one of the key returning mechanics from ZEN) and fetched Ashaya, it felt as though the two could easily be swapped and no-one would notice (dual-face issues aside).

Most of the planeswalkers fell into the usual routine of card advantage / protection / ultimate. Gideon had the biggest impact, with an ultimate that could be used once it hit the table as an un-answerable anthem effect. Chandra, once again, was over-costed, without a game-winning ultimate. The planeswalkers were fine but hardly exciting, which is hardly where Wizards wants to be with their headline publicity vehicles.

Overall the design for BFZ and OGW were muddied by the reduction from the three-block structure to the two-block structure. The Design and Development team had settled into comfortable and familiar Act 1 - Act 2 - Act 3 structure for years, so moving to a 2-block structure mid-design was always going to be disruptive. It’s unfortunate the solutions became clear only after the set was released; even basic restructures would of improved both the narrative and the block design. But it’s the larger framework of reducing an existential threat to a mere army that’s the greatest design flaw of BFZ, and again, it’s biggest missed opportunity.

Limited Play

Drana, Liberator of Malakir
On the plus side, Limited Play for BFZ felt great. Coming off the back of a shard set (ie. 3-colours matters) , BFZ established firm roles for each of the 10 color pairs in Limited. The need to consider colorless costs and requirements added a nice touch to the usual color pair considerations.

Although the usual caveats applied around some colors and color pairs being stronger than others, overall the Limited environment felt relatively balanced. The bombs never felt too bomby and the removal suite felt just constrained enough to matter, but not too constrained to let the stronger cards dominate. Both BFZ and OGW avoided the ‘Pack Rat’ trap of a single card dominating the Limited format, especially as Wizards continues to print cards that can ‘deal’ with Planeswalkers more effectively. Cards such as Crush of Tentacles, Quarantine Field and Drana, Liberator of Malakir were well positioned at Mythic, able to steal a win in Limited without dominating constructed, yet also able to be answered in the Limited environment.

BFZ returned Landfall from ZEN block, along with Allies & Devoid, plus the new keywords Awaken, a kicker variant that permanently turned a land into a creature, and Converge, which provided benefits based on the number of colors used to cast the spell. While Allies, Devoid and Awaken were well supported, some of the most fun in Limited was drafting the U/W Halimar Tidecaller Awaken deck, Converge didn’t have the necessary support to be worth drafting.

The third new mechanic was Ingest, which exiled the top cards of an opponent’s library upon combat damage. The payoff was “Processing”, though the mechanic was not officially keyworded, which involved returning a card to its owner’s graveyard from exile for benefit. The deck, when it came together, was possibly the strongest archetype in triple BFZ; the difficulty was getting it to come together. The “asfan” (how many times the theme/mechanic shows up when as a booster pack is fanned) for ingest was a little too low to pay off committing to processing early. It played particularly poorly in sealed, where you may find you’d open either Ingest, or Process, but not both.

Often it came down to the Storm Crow question. Is drafting a 1/2 flyer (Mist Intruder) good enough in the format to risk not being paid off with the Process cards? As it turned out, it wasn’t, and if the deck didn’t come together you usually had an unwinnable pile of jank.

The seaming randomness of the ‘Ally’ attribute also caused that archetype to struggle in Sealed, though not as badly as Ingest/Process, as people would often splash for a third Ally color or Ally bomb if necessary.

The saving grace of the Limited format was the range of archetypes. Most color pairs had a couple of directions they could go. While G/R was largely an aggressive Landfall deck, U/B Ingest had the option of either going Aggro with cards such as Eldrazi Skyspawner and Ruination Guide, or Tempo/Control with cards such as Murk Strider and Ruin Processor. B/G could go big or go wide.

These options actually narrowed with the release of OGW. Ingest/Process became almost completely unviable in Draft with only a single BFZ to grab Ingestors. The new Surge mechanic that rewarded playing two spells in a turn, the Support Mechanic that pumped creatures, and an increase in worthwhile Allies pushed the format to reward Aggro strategies and punish (non-Reflector Mage-based) control. Aggro battled it out with value-based Midrange decks and as a result the number of viable color pairs significantly reduced. Maybe that’s a flavor win for the Eldrazi.

That’s not to say OGW wasn’t a fun Limited format; certainly the Surge mechanic made the pre-release 2HG format a blast. However it definitely lost during from the transition from BFZ.

The thought experiment of what it would of been like to release the mechanics of Colorless Matters/Ingest first and Devoid/Process second puts an interesting spin on what the Limited environment may have been like. Ingest without process seems like a miserable Mill mechanic but one that may have appealed with enough support. Certainly the payoff with Process and further Ingest cards would have allowed players to see a significant shift in an already new mechanic, which could have been pretty cool to go through. Likewise, introducing colorlessness before Devoid may have established draft priorities a little better. Unfortunately, we can only wonder.

Constructed Impact

Thought-Knot Seer
No set has a greater immediate impact on Modern, Legacy and even Vintage than OGW. Ironically, the enablers of this impact weren’t even printed in BFZ or OGW, but in the original Zendikar block: Eye of Ugin and Eldrazi Temple. However they waited, dormant, until the printing of the Devoid and Colorless Eldrazi creatures in OGW; primarily Eldrazi Mimic, Matter Reshaper, Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher. This perfectly curved suite of value-creatures so severely warped Modern that the period during which Eye of Ugin and Eldrazi Temple remained legal was known as “Eldrazi Winter”.

Some of us sensibly argued Wizards should, or would, ban either Eye of Ugin and/or Eldrazi Temple. After dominant performance after dominant performance, Wizards finally pulled the band-aid off and banned Eye of Ugin, the most broken of the two enablers, in Modern; then banned Modern from the Pro Tour.

Why the latter? My guess is two reasons:

  1. The Pro Tour needs to focus on selling the latest cards for Standard to justify the PR expense
  2. R&D do not play-test cards for Modern impact and having an untested competitive format is dynamite waiting to go off (for Wizard’s actual explanation, see here).

The frustrating element was Wizards delaying the banning until April 3, months after OGW’s release and after Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch. Everyone knew the deck was broken; it completely dominated the Pro Tour and most subsequent GPs until the banning. Wizards was in a bind, as the deck did highlight the newly printed cards quite well. However, as the banned cards were from a set several years old, it should have been a clear cut choice to save the format from disaster. That didn’t happen.

Boy GP Melbourne was miserable.

But for every loser, there is a winner, and in this case the winners are Legacy and Vintage. It’s not often that these two Eternal formats gain a viable archetype, but OGW combined with the ROE lands and, very importantly Cavern of Souls, pushed enough reduced CMC value to create viable decks in both formats. I hear someone took a Modern Eldrazi deck, shoved four Ancient Tombs and Wastelands into it, and went 3-1-1 in a Legacy event.

Boy GP Melbourne was great.

Now there’s evidence of an unpowered Eldrazi deck going 6-2 at a Vintage event. Disruption of older, more settled, more broken formats through the introduction of new cards that more people have access to, especially when they neatly skip the Reserve List, is generally a positive. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take another 4 years to create another viable archetype (the previous new one was Miracles from 2012, though admittedly Infect was only a year before that).

As for Standard? Eldrazi had some impact, especially at the height of Modern’s mad period, with Eldrazi Displacer doing good work in the format, but has since dropped off considerably as the Shadows of Innistrad cards have come into their own.

In Summary

It’s hard to get a feel for how BFZ and OGW should go down in the history books. Certainly, there’s a lot of lessons for Wizards; lessons they have already admitted to learning. The story missed the point about what people loved about Zendikar and made the unknowable mundane. The draft format was good, but could have been better. Modern was ruined, which should have been prevented.

At the same time, the injection of new life into older formats is not to be underestimated. Colorless mana as a cost has now been formally defined and can be used as a building block in future sets. The Oath of the Gatewatch has been formed to defend the Multiverse.

Plus Emrakul is still missing.

Jump-cut to Innistrad.

Mistakes were made.


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