Early Thoughts on Zendikar Rising

I didn’t play Magic when the original Zendikar was released. However, I did play when Dominaria was the only Plane, and we didn’t need an entirely new otherworld just to cover a genre or trope. Magic’s early expansions all took place in different parts of Dominaria. It was like Earth is, able to encapsulate a wide range of biodiversity. I’ve struggled with some of the more recent expansions, where it seems like we’re not going to a place, we’re going to a trope. Could all of Amonkhet exist in a small corner of one of Dominaria’s continents? Could all of Kaladesh be contained in a big peninsula just south of the Dominarian equator? The idea of an entire universe of Vikings or Gothic Horror creatures is starting to feel more and more like bad sci-fi/fantasy, where any premise can be a world so long as you don’t stray too far from the kinda miniscule capital city or look into things like ecology, economy, etc.

I started playing Magic again when the Eldrazi were in the process of wrecking Zendikar completely. That was a huge draw. I liked the set a lot, despite it being kinda lacklustre in hindsight. Zendikar without Eldrazi confuses me. People at Wizards seem intent on selling it as the Adventure World plane, but I feel like maybe that’s a bit vague. We spend a lot of time on Adventure World planes, it seems. After leaving the Adventure Worlds of Amonkhet, Ixalan and Dominaria, we spent time in the worlds of Ravnica, Eldraine and Theros, which are not Adventure Worlds, just worlds where people have adventures, and in the case of Eldraine, cast Adventure spells. Ikoria seems like an Adventure World, too, but one where a plucky band of small creatures is fighting against a massive, out of control monster population. Like Zendikar last time we were there.

Zendikar also feels a lot like Ravnica, where once you get past the colour-pie ‘diversity,’ it all seems so shallow. If you’re any of the ten guilds in Ravnica, guess what, you’re that personality type, too. Another player commented to me once about this, about how there are only ten personality types total on Ravnica, despite an near-infinite population. Zendikar seems like the same, but divided by colour. Here’s the red continent, here’s the green, etc.

In fact, a lot of sets feel like that, where it seems like ‘colour pie meets trope’ defines a lot of the cards, including almost all of the chaff, and only a few cards are really given a thoughtful design. Advertisers and production companies rely pretty heavily these days on ‘if you liked X, we think you’ll like Y’ and ‘we know you liked X, so here it is with some tweaks/adjustments/new packaging so you can buy it again!’ and I’m afraid that’s what we’ve got here. They know we liked Zendikar, so here it is again, with a new Omnath, Nissa, Drana, etc, plus Landfall, Kicker, and a teaser to their upcoming crossover product…. And the return of the Expedition lottery!

The Omnath feels a little lazy. ETB draw a card? How innovative. Escalating triggers is kinda new, I guess, but considering how easy fetches and Evolving Wilds et al make things, this doesn’t seem like escalation so much as 3 abilities you should be able to get every turn, simply by playing lands. This is a four-colour creature that’s going to come down on turn 4 every game where it’s a Commander and wreak havoc in difficult to counter fashion without spending mana. Oh and it cantrips. And we wonder why decks that don’t play simic cards struggle to compete. Blue/Green Landfall might go to a whole other level with this set.

I hope they don’t think a card like Confounding Conundrum is a counter to Landfall, either. Maybe it’ll slow down ramp in Standard, but it feels like it’s only going to enable an opponent who wants Landfall triggers. I’m confounded by this one, too.

Perhaps what’s confusing me is that the entirety of the draw of the set is ‘a trip to Zendikar’ not, ‘something interesting is happening on Zendikar, and we’ve gotta be there to see it.’ Battle for Zendikar had that in spades. Even original Zendikar seemed to have that by leading you to the appearance of the Eldrazi.

Don’t get me wrong, the terrain of Zendikar is cool, with the floaty clumps of lands everywhere, but that’s just an aesthetic. James Cameron’s movie Avatar was also very successful in using such a landscape, and for a while there were even support groups for people who didn’t want to leave that landscape for the drudge of Earth. It’s kind of a shame that the look of these places doesn’t translate in any way to the cards. There’s a few references to ‘Roil,’ Landfall and turning lands into creatures, but none of that feels anything like hopping around a sky full of islands. I guess the adventure is just being there.

Can anyone explain why Jace is back in Zendikar? I’m not interested in reading stories about him or starring him, so someone would have to catch me up. I sometimes entertain a theory that Wizards creates problematic/divisive cards on purpose, because the resulting internet attention/discussion is worth more than they could spend on equivalent advertising. How much content has been created/devoured over the past couple years just on bannings, banning speculation, and bannings that never happened but should? I know I’ve read hundreds of columns, myself. Do bannings undermine consumer confidence, or tap into consumer passion? Are sales deterred, or are there immediate rebuys of the next best thing and renewed interest from speculators? In this event, I feel like Jace is a deliberate and divisive choice. He’s not back because people love him, but because enough will hate him being on Zendikar that they’ll create content and conversations about it. I’m doing it now. We could have had Kiora in Jace’s place: native to the Plane and making for an all-female Planeswalker set. We could have had Kasmina, who’s got about as much reason for being on Zendikar as Jace does. But no, another Jace. And probably a weaker intro version somewhere too.

Personally, I hate Jace. I feel like he’s portrayed as a smart character, but he doesn’t actually make many smart decisions and instead is the benefit of luck, plot progression or having a group of colour pie friends who can’t help but save the day when they get together. I feel like the makeover he got in Ixalan was akin to someone going on a weekend crossfit retreat that one time, and then never shutting up about how much it changed their life. I feel like if Jace were a creature that wasn’t ever going to be a Planeswalker, he’d be a 0/0 with a conditional +1/+1 counter so long as you’re really smug about playing him and other blue ‘permission’ cards. And he’d use his ‘mind-powers’ to sell used Vehicles. Chandra gets a lot of flak for being ONE NOTE, but Jace is totally a high-pitched whine. I think it’s entirely intentional that this latest iteration of Jace can be ‘kicked.’ But you still have to get a copy and play it to do that. No thanks.

Party also makes me cringe. It’s really bald product placement, and the mechanic is pretty questionable. I’m glad Party isn’t like Delirium, where you have to have the full conditions met, or no bonus. Some Party cards look like they’ll slide along a scale. The issue is that the scale stops at 4. And only optimizes when you have 4 creatures in play simultaneously. That seems extremely fragile, resource intensive and needing incredible payoffs to compete (in Standard) with things like Embercleave, or the single card quality of many Planeswalkers and Mythics. I would much rather have had a new twist on Allies, but I guess this is it. Commander needs a unifier for Party to be a thing. If it’s not a legendary creature, then Party decks become tutor decks, or sputter. I’m not into D&D, so Party has no intangible cache for me. I’m interested to see if the D&D players of Magic think it’s up to their game.

One of the biggest uphill climbs for Party is in contrast to Landfall. Landfall is a star. Landfall is one of the strongest things to do in Commander, because lands are hard to interact with, and there are unwritten rules about Mass Land Destruction (MLD) being Poor Form (UJERK). Landfall gives you bonuses for something you’re doing anyway. Landfall makes flooding out into a tsunami for the opponents. Landfall cards sometimes look like Field of the Dead. Landfall wins games. Expect to see a lot of Landfall in Commander this fall.

Party might also look bad in reference to longstanding mechanical stalwart Kicker, which is probably going to be pretty playable after the set drops. Hallar, the Firefletcher is an extremely powerful card, and a great place to start.

If you’re a card speculator, you can look at the upcoming sets and see that the four creature types of Warrior, Wizard, Rogue and Cleric are likely going to dominate. Vikings likely means Warriors, Wizards’ School means Rogues and Clerics, and then we’re right into D&D. Cards that help those types, or buff them, are likely going to draw a lot of interest. Changelings gain another level of relevance, too, especially Irregular Cohort who is always half your party.

I don’t love the new flippy dual lands. I doubt I would play them myself, mostly because there’s no upside beyond coming in untapped. Velocity matters, but you can sequence around it. What you can’t do is give bonus abilities to lands that don’t have them. Once they’re in play, they’re even more basic than a basic since they don’t have type synergy. But they’re still susceptible to Blood Moon. The lands that are also spells are cool, but some are clearly better than others, and my opponents’ being able to blink my lands to exile them is less exciting. The big plus, however, is that we got a new kind of ‘checklist’ card that can stand in for all the flippy cards, from alpha werewolf on up. That’s a big deal. I wish they’d take the place of ad/art cards in all packs.

I’m sure this Zendikar will be a huge success. The Magic community is very optimistic, especially when presented with banning after banning after banning. Plus the oppressive Nissa will rotate out of Standard, and maybe the new one won’t be so bad! Things have to get better, right? I’m sure it also has to do with Wizards’ knowledge of how crazy people get for fetchlands, and printing them as expeditions again is going to drive sales, no matter what the set is like.

I hope I’m just being grumpy about stuff, and the new set will be a deep source of interesting narrative that’s a draw on its own. That Party will be achievable in few enough turns to actually compete. Anything’s possible in an Adventure World. In the meantime, I hope you have some Real Life adventures. The kind that are exhilarating, but safe. Keep your parties to 4. Get your fresh air, but keep your social distance, and be kind. We’re all in this together. Your life matters! Black Lives Matter! Thanks for reading.


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