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Rogue Report – Zendikar Top 5s

 

I couldn’t believe how happy I was on Saturday. As I was shuffling up for round one of the Prerelease I couldn’t stop smiling. Part of it was how fun Prereleases are in general. Another part of it was how awesome it was to play with a new block of cards. Still, I think what pushed me over the edge was how much I couldn’t wait to play with these cards. I’m so glad the upcoming PTQ season is Zendikar Sealed – I can’t wait to start PTQing, on and off-line.

I’ve been trying to work on my Limited game between PTQ seasons, because I know that’s the biggest weakness in my game – specifically drafting. I’ve made top eight in three Limited PTQs, and lost in the first round every time. Sure, Zaiem said my last top eight deck wasn’t so bad, but I can’t help but feel like I’m to blame. I know I fall into damaging patters when I draft. I avoid certain deck types, or always fall into the same colors (like Grixis in Shards block draft). My card evaluation is off, and it not only causes me to take weaker cards, but also to think a color is open just because a card I like came a bit late. If I want any chance of winning an upcoming PTQ, I’ve got to step up my drafting.

Early trials of Zendikar Limited show a very aggressive format. The one and two-drops are very angry, and the removal is very cheap. The cheap removal can help keep you alive if you’re not attacking early, but it means it’s also hard to block because the aggro deck can keep the pressure up and remove a blocker. It also seems like the aggro decks have a lot of reach, between lands that dome and removal that also goes to the face. Evaluating the power of a quest or equipment is hard because of how time or mana-intensive they can be.

It’s refreshing to again have five piles as you’re laying out your Sealed deck, without all the weird overlaps of shards and two-color cards. It’s time to find archetypes instead of having them largely handed to you. Step one, at least for me, is to try to get a handle on the relative power of each card. Wizards has done a good job lately making cards that have changing value depending on your deck, but it’s still a worthwhile exercise. I’m going to try to get my card evaluation I line by ranking the top 5 commons of each color.

White

My white ranking focuses more on the aggressive cards. I prioritize cheap spells here, but that doesn’t mean white has no defensive capabilities. Pillarfield Ox, Makindi Shieldmate, and Caravan Hurda give white a lot of toughness, and Narrow Escape and Shieldmate’s Blessing are each decent tricks that can keep you alive. Kor Cartographer is another card that didn’t make my list, but just barely. It’s an amazing card that is losing out to more aggressive creatures. If you have enough Steppe Lynxes, though, the value of a Cartographer jumps.

1) Journey to Nowhere
Hands down an easy number one for white. I didn’t think it was as good as Oblivion Ring because of it’s inability to handle things like Planeswalkers or a powerful non-creature permanent like Obelisk of Alara (or in the case of Zendikar, Eternity Vessel). In this format, however, I’ll gladly take the cheaper removal.

2) Kor Skyfisher
Better for some decks than others, I expected Kor Skyfisher to be one of those cards that looked good but played terribly. Instead it’s actually played much better than it looks. The best case scenario on turn two is returning a one-drop like Explorer’s Scope. You’re not setting yourself back hardly at all. The fact that it’s a 2/3 means that even if you return a land, chances are you can block your opponent’s two-drop, so as long as you have a low curve you’re actually getting ahead in the race. It’s when you look at the ability as a bonus instead of a drawback that things really start to line up. Lands with ETB (enter the battlefield still looks weird) effects are great to reuse, and in a deck that supports allies you can gain a lot of long-term advantage. All of this on a two mana, easy to cast, 2/3 flyer.

3) Kor Hookmaster
I don’t often love aggressive cards, but my heart melted the moment I met Kor Hookmaster, a close number three. This is exactly the creature you want when you’re attacking, and is one of the primary reasons why blocking is so hard in Zendikar.

4) Steppe Lynx
I’m scared that I’m overvaluing these landfall guys, but I’ve got to respect their performance. I hate this type of card, but it’s been killing people left and right. Getting a one-drop in this format is so good (soooo good) and Steppe Lynx is one of the best. He’s a little weak later in the game, but when it looks like decks are running 18 lands at a minimum, you tend to have some in your hand even later, just waiting for an effect.

5) Kor Sanctifiers
This is a particularly potent creature in this format. A 2/3 for three mana is great in a format full of aggressive two-power creatures, but it’s the ability that really shines. This is a way to kill quests and equipment–not to mention Journey to Nowhere–that comes with a lot of value attached. I could easily see Kor Sanctifiers value rise if people are playing a lot of quests and equipment.

Blue

White looks deeper than blue, but there are still a few likable cards that didn’t make my list. Again, I’m focusing on aggression, so a card like Ior Ruin Expedition, while still a perfectly fine inclusion, looks a little slow. Sky Ruin Drake is one of the best blockers in the set, but takes a back seat to a glut of other great flyers. Reckless Scholar is also a great card. I love playing with looters, and the ability to dig for a land or a spell looks very good in this format. Still, it’s the efficient and angry spells that win out.

1) Windrider Eel
Creatures like this are another reason why blocking is pretty bad. A four-mana air elemental a lot of the time, Windrider Eel is probably the most threatening common you can play on turn four. It’s amazing in most decks on it’s own, just by naturally drawing and playing lands, but when you start abusing this thing with something like Harrow, things get nutty.

2) Welkin Tern
Did I mention blocking was bad? We debated the Welkin Tern against Windrider Eel pick, and the consensus was that both cards are pretty good. It’s painful when their two-drop is a Kor Skyfisher, but most of the time you’ll get in a lot of damage with a Welkin Tern. I love creatures like this with Teetering Peaks.

3) Into the Roil
What a kicker! You’re telling me I get a two-mana bounce spell, with the option of drawing a card? Sign me up! Mode one is great for staying alive or gaining extra momentum in the early game, and mode two is just amazing.

4) Umara Raptor
I find allies hard to evaluate this early because I’m not sure how viable the “ally deck” is. So far it looks like you’ll have a smattering of allies, but if you’re the ally guy, Umara Raptor is probably one of the reasons. Turn three Raptor, turn four ally is a beating. What I can’t tell right now is how good this guy is as one of the only allies in your deck. Are 2/2 flyers for three enough?

5) Whiplash Trap
I’ve never seen the trap activation go off, and I still love this card. I had this in my Sealed pool, and it won the game every time I cast it. Usually I just bounced two of their creatures and attacked. My favorite was when I saved my guy from a removal spell and bounced one of their creatures with it. I can only imagine how much of a beating it is when you actually get to tap a U.

Black

This is easily the color I understand the least. Cards like Vampire Lacerator and Guul Draz Vampire are the opposite of what I usually play, but they seem to be the heart of the aggressive black archetype. As for the cards that didn’t make my list, Heartstabber Mosquito looks like a good card, but really asks the question of how much you’re willing to pay for a Nekrataal. I’ve gotten a lot of value out of Grim Discovery, so it’s growing on me, but I’m cautious of overrating it. Crypt Ripper kept going around the table, but always with the “it can’t be this bad” comment attached.

1) Disfigure
I feel weird putting Disfigure over Hideous End. My instincts tell me that Hideous End has got to be better, but the ease with which you can cast Disfigure is so valuable. Casting a disfigure in the early turns of the game puts you so far ahead, and it’s yet another reason why blocking is bad.

2) Hideous End
If Hideous End cost 2B instead of 1BB, I would be much more inclined to put it in the number one spot over Disfigure. Instead I’ve lost games because I stuttered on double black and couldn’t cast my removal spell until turn five. You can’t afford to stutter in this format, so if given the choice between the two premier removal spells, I’ll fight my instincts and take Disfigure.

3) Soul Stair Expedition
The few times I’ve played with or against Soul Stair Expedition I felt like the game was won the turn it was played. I could tell there was no way I could overcome my opponent’s onslaught when they had a “free” double Raise Dead waiting to go off. It’s a little awkward in the later turns of the game, but you can usually have access to lands if you want them, so the landfall-based quests are much easier to get off than some of the others.

4) Vampire Lacerator
5) Surrakar Marauder
6) Guul Draz Vampire

These three creatures are the heart of the aggressive black archetype, but that’s a deck I am still learning. I know I undervalue Vampire Lacerator when I see it in a pack, but one drops are so good. I hate Gruul Draz Vampire, but it keeps killing people, so I’ve got to give it some respect. Gruul Draz Vampire is one of the reasons the aggro decks have so much reach. Once these guys turn on, they’re dangerous.

Red

Red seems deep in the sense that a lot of the cards past the top one or two feel about equal in power. Red has the best common in the set, and then a lot of decent creatures and semi-awkward removal spells. I don’t value Spire Barrage or Magma Rift very highly, but they get the job done. Ruinous Minotaur and Zektar Shrine Expedition look great in certain decks and might be the way to go, but you’re sacrificing a lot of short-term power for long-term gain.

1) Burst Lightning
If I value Disfigure so highly, you can only imagine how good Burst Lightning is. Seriously, this card is nuts. Shock would be a very high pick in this format, but a shock with lava-axe kicker? Nuts. This spell will kill so many people. So many.

2) Plated Geopede
This creature is no different than his other aggressive landfall brethren. Plated Geopede is so good even without abuse, it’s almost impossible to trade with this guy in combat. Start using Teetering Peaks or Harrow, and you’ve got yourself some synergy.

3) Torch Slinger
Obviously Torch Slinger is a good creature. Sometimes it looks a little expensive, but every time I’ve seen him hit the table he’s been amazing. The key to a creature like this, one with a great kicker that always looks within reach, is knowing when you need to cast it as a gray ogre.

4) Shatterskull Giant
This is where I feel the red quality begins to dip a bit. Shatterskull Giant is a decent guy, but when you compare reds lower-end to white or blue, decent guys aren’t that impressive.

5) Goblin Shortcutter
Goblin Shortcutter is a weird two-drop because you don’t really want to play him on turn two. He’s amazing when you’re doing the double two-drop on turn four or five, and sometimes all you need is a 2/1 on turn two.
P.S. Blocking is bad.

Green

Green is a very solid color all the way through. If you want big creatures in the later turns, you’ve got Timbermaw Larva, Territorial Baloth, and Vastwood Gorger. Green even has some of the best card advantage in the set if you’re willing to pay for it with Khalni Heart Expedition, Oran-Rief Recluse, and Beast Hunt. However, these don’t even touch what made my top 5.

1) Harrow Imagine that–Harrow is good in the land-themed set. The things that Harrow does are endless. It immediately fixes your mana, accelerates you, and thins you deck. Once you take into account the absurd things it does with landfall, the card is insane.

2) Grazing Gladehart
Grazing Gladehart gives green the best top two commons out of all the colors. You can’t race this creature, especially if its controller is doing anything remotely interesting with their lands. When they can’t race you, now you’re forcing your opponent to play the game on your terms. Suddenly cards in their deck that were amazing are pretty terrible. The longer you draw the game on the worse their Plated Geopede becomes as they run out of lands. I can’t stress the power of Grazing Gladehart enough.

3) Oran-Rief Survivalist
A Grizzly Bear would be pretty good in this format, but if you’ve got any kind of ally theme going on, Oran-Rief Survavalist is so much more than a bear. Along with Umara Raptor, this is what the ally deck wants to be doing.

4) Mold Shambler
I’m scared to rate Mold Shambler higher because of the six mana it takes to kick him, but a hill giant is pretty good in this format anyway, so you’re not losing much when you don’t kick him. Just like Kor Sanctifiers, being able to nab quests or equipment is very relevant, not to mention hitting their splash color.

5) Vines of Vastwood
I’ve been so scared of this spell, I continuously find myself in a position where I lose the game if they have it. Having to pay double green to pump is a little annoying, but the advantage you gain by spending one mana to counter their removal or bounce spell is crazy. You can ever counter their own effects on their own creatures without pumping them. I’m probably undervaluing this card.

Artifacts

At the Prerelease I felt like a lot of people were playing terrible equipment, so in general I’m not a fan artifacts in Zendikar. There are exceptions, but most of the common ones are pretty bad. Explorer’s Scope is probably the best one, and I’ve grown to respect its value as I’ve seen it played, especially if you’re the Steppe Lynx guy. Hedron Scrabbler is another card that’s better than I originally thought, but I’m still not that excited to play him. Otherwise, the rest of the artifacts are pretty expensive for what they do, or just aren’t worth the card. Adventuring Gear has potential, but I think you have to be that deck for the card to be worth it.

Land

I love all of the common lands. Kabira Crossroads is probably my favorite if I had to rank them, but they are all really good. The trick is deciding when to take a land over a spell, and I think that’s influenced heavily by how many spells you already have – you don’t want to be stretching for playables. Teetering Peaks is probably better than some of my top five red commons, but I can’t see myself taking Kabira Crossroads over any of my white top 5. What will be interesting as the season goes on is how often off-color common lands are played. When you’re the landfall deck, being able to Soaring Seacliff your guy over a blocker is definitely worth splashing.

Time to Draft

I’d love to hear feedback on this article – I need you to help me help you. It’s still early in the format, so my rankings are bound to shift as the season progresses. Once archetypes form, evaluation will be a lot easier. Well, I’m off to get a draft started. The drafting frenzy that happens after the prerelease is awesome, and I want to be a part of it! First pick [card]Harrow[/card], here I come!

Thanks for reading,
Jonathon Loucks
Loucks at gmail
JonLoucks on twitter

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