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Silvestri Says – Tales of Zendikar Block

 

With States over, all value of talking about Standard is gone and it’s a little early to talk about Extended so today I’ll be discussing a format I’ve had a lot of fun with: Zendikar Block Constructed. Sure the format is effectively Magic Online only, but since I doubt that’s an issue for many of my readers, I figure people might have some good times with a format where Jund doesn’t exist. Plus the best decks cost a trifling 40-50 tix assuming you’ve never drafted or otherwise picked up Zendikar cards before, which makes it very easy to jump into.

Now for those that aren’t familiar with the format, there have been two top decks since the format came into existence and a few more starting to reach up into that top tier. The best decks in the format, results-wise, are easily Vampires and W/U Control. Yes, you read that right, a control deck is not only viable but pretty darn good in ZBC since it can smash the Twilight menace while having powerful enough cards to not roll over to other aggressive strategies. We’ll get more into the virtues of Control and why the Vampire brigade isn’t Faeries or Jund level dominant in such a small format.

For now, let’s take a main look at the building blocks of ZBC.

Mana Acceleration

Harrow
Khalni Heart Expedition
Lotus Cobra
Oracle of Mul Daya

As you can see, there isn’t a whole lot of it and it all happens to be Green so if you’re planning on being super-tricky, don’t bother. There will be no Llanowar Elves to accelerate out a three-drop and no mana fixing without wasting a bunch of slots on it. That said, the acceleration available is still good if you wish to pursue a Mana Ramp type strategy, and in fact many of these cards are the core of G/R Valakut. With the combination of Harrow and Khalni Heart Expedition, not only can you accelerate out your six and seven-drops, but you can take maximum advantage of Landfall triggers by sand-bagging.

Lotus Cobra is barely seen in ZBC, and in fact is non-existent in nearly every single Daily Event result. This I feel is a mistake, but also goes to show that not too much has happened in ZBC in regards to design advancement. There have to be people far more enamored with the snake than I am, so I’m just dumbfounded not to see a build using it. My personal recommendation would be to use the Cobra in a G/U or G/W type build, since both decks love Landfall triggers to begin with, and powering out an earlier Conqueror’s Pledge backed by Brave the Elements or Eldrazi Monument would straight beat the majority of decks in the format.

Oracle of Mul Daya is a tricker inclusion, as she is not only slow, but incredibly vulnerable to all of the cheap removal in the format. She obviously deserves some consideration in slower decks and has seen play in Valakut decks, where she acts like a better Future Sight. Unfortunately that seems to be the only deck where she fits reasonably well, as G/U doesn’t really want to waste resources protecting her and no other deck benefits from her type of card advantage enough to justify the inclusion.

Important Lands

Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
Oran-Rief, the Vastwood
Emeria, the Sky Ruin
Kabira Crossroads

Valakut is probably the most feared of any of the ability lands, since the “Mountain = Lightning Bolt” ability can completely dominate games, and the format is slow enough that it’s a reasonable strategy, unlike Standard. Expedition Map also allows for multiples to consistently hit the board, which turns it into a game-winner instead of just helping out your other threats. Meanwhile, cards like Oran-Rief, the Vastwood and Emeria, the Sky Ruin are still hanging around in lower rung decks and can be obnoxious in the obvious ways. Emeria in particular can end games, even if all it does is constantly bring back little 2/2 dorks, since card advantage is such a precious and rare thing in ZBC.

Still, there’s no question what the best land (and possibly card) in the format is – Kabira Crossroads. People don’t understand how much power this dinky little Limited-format land has. By providing two life for free, combined with the Refuge lands, Control decks typically start at 22-23 life and can go up even higher over a long game with no card disadvantage or investment. That two life matters a LOT, because ZBC is all about small advantages and a lot comes down to tactical timing decisions you make. With the free life you gain, you not only see more cards, but can play a bit looser with your decisions, perhaps waiting a turn later to Day than you normally would because the odds of being hit for lethal have notably dropped. It may sound like I’m blowing it out of proportion, but honestly, Kabira Crossroads may be the most subtle game-changer I’ve played with in Constructed in a long time.

The Best Creatures in the Format

Sphinx of Lost Truths
Devout Lightcaster
Malakir Bloodwitch
Gatekeeper of Malakir
Plated Geopede
Steppe Lynx
Kor Skyfisher
Conqueror’s Pledge

Yeah, yeah, Conqueror’s Pledge isn’t technically a creature, sue me. These eight creatures perhaps say more about the format than any detailed description or deck breakdown I could give. They emphasize that the most efficient creatures are things to be on the lookout for, the Protection from X creatures are absurd, Sphinx of Lost Truths is not only the best card drawing engine in the format; but a great wall to boot and that making a 2/3 Flyer while powering up Landfall again is sick. I already talked about many of these creatures, but in all honesty Kor Skyfisher is the most impressive creature on the lower half of the mana curve for any deck that has Landfall triggers in it. Skyfisher is an even bigger threat in ZBC because equipment is viable for use and Adventuring Gear or Trusted Machete can turn it into a 3-5 turn clock.

There are a few other creatures that are pretty good like Emeria Angel and Sphinx of Jwar Isle, but they aren’t efficient or unique enough in their abilities to be mainstays in decks. People used to run Sphinx of Jwar Isle in W/U Control decks, but eventually cut back on them or dumped them all together for maxing out on Sphinx of Lost Boys and Pledges. Simply put, Shroud doesn’t score as many bonus points in ZBC as it does in Standard, and there are too many cards that eat it in Vampires or can chump it for days in White decks.

Mass Removal / Spot Removal / Burn

 

As you can see, there’s a notable amount of solid Black spot removal, along with a WW killer. This is why Vampires is so tough to beat in a ‘fair’ fight if you go with a normal aggro or midrange deck; so many of your threats are simply blanked by cheaper removal, and it becomes difficult to do anything against good Vamp draws. You can also see W/U has a notable weakness against speedy attacks, especially by Lynx or Geopede, since they run no instant-speed spot removal (except a poor Unsummon) and really have to rely on Day to stay alive against swarms.

Red also has a weak burn selection / removal suite after Burst Lightning, which is arguably the most effective spot removal spell in the format. Inferno Trap may look odd on that list, but you have to realize Red decks can’t really beat a Vampire Nighthawk or Bloodwitch without it. Sometimes Vamps drops them late and you can just Spire Barrage them to death, but usually Red players aren’t that fortunate.

As for decks in ZBC

Vampires are big in Zen Block, despite losing Vampire Nocturnus, which is arguably its best card in Standard. Despite that loss, Mind Sludge gains so much value by moving into a slower format largely devoid of ways to recover from it that Vampires gets stronger. In fact, one could make the argument that Mind Sludge is the strongest card in ZBC; at the very least the card is the most warping in terms of deck construction. Other than Sludge though, Malakir Bloodwitch is a big threat and ends about as many games as Sludge does. Dealing with a Protection from White flying creature is about as awkward as you might expect until you land a Sphinx of either variety, though obviously Vampires has a number of ways to deal with them.

Combine these two big threats with a variety of creatures that are tough to deal with in combat and many which feature dual utility such as removing larger threats (Gatekeeper of Malakir and Vampire Nighthawk come to mind) along with Bloodghast to gain some card advantage, either virtual or real via Carnage Altar and you have a great plan. After the usual Vampire seasonings you can even take some amount of customization such as which Quest card to run and whether to run cards like Blade of the Bloodchief for assistance in the mirror.

The main alternative to Vampires is going with W/U Control, which features a mixture of the best spot removal, card-draw, creatures, Rite of Replication and some utility like Spreading Seas and Cancel. As I mentioned above, it’s very possible to grind out opposing decks in ZBC and this control deck is very good at it. It even has a way to cheat the opponent out of a real game by abusing Rite of Replication, either copying its own Sphinx or (more likely) the opponents’ best creature. You really can’t have a strong enough board position with Vampires against W/U Control, because silly things like the opponent gaining five Vampire Nighthawk or Malakir Bloodwitch (Goodbye 25 life). Even copying a set of 2/2’s can buy a bunch of time to draw into a Day of Judgment to retake board control.

Now that you know why these are the two best decks in ZBC, let me explain what you ideally should be able to do with a non-Vamp or W/U deck in this format.

Questions your deck should be able to answer in the Zendikar Block format:

1. Can I ignore or answer a turn 5 Mind Sludge?

2. Can I stop an early creature rush backed by Burst Lightning, Elemental Appeal and Spire Barrage?

3. Does my deck beat W/U Control before they kick a Rite of Replication? Can I deal with kicked Rite of Replication?

4. Do I have enough answers to a turn three equipped Kor Duelist or Armament Master?

5. Does my deck have a way to stop / ignore Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle?

For reference, here are what I think are the top five decks in ZBC and all have placed in Daily or Premier Events thus far.

W/U Control

 

Vampires

 

G/R Valakuut

 

Mono Red Aggro

 

WW

Josh Silvestri

E-mail me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom

9 thoughts on “Silvestri Says – Tales of Zendikar Block”

  1. Nicholas Gulledge

    Oddly enough, I’ve had better luck running a vamp list without fetches/grim discovery (whilst including 4x Lacerator/Feasts MD), and the only reasonable explanation I could postulate is that the incremental lifeloss from the fetches was becoming a significant enough factor in the mirror. Particularly when it came to “activating” bloodghast’s hasty-feet or turning off the lacerator’s drawback, the damage my opponent was dealing himself with his fetch-based card advantage seemed more beneficial than the CA I could likewise muster with a similar configuration.

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  3. The part where you mention the best creatures in the format, you take a Skyfisher over a Nighthawk? I can’t seem to justify that.

  4. Love the article, but Nighthawk is the best creature in the format. It’s the best creature in Vamps on Vamps (the most important matchup) AND it’s even getting play in the UBW control decks that are popping up.

  5. He mentioned that skyfisher was the best creature in a deck USING LANDFALL.

    As for fetches in vamps, if you’re using 4x sludge in your build, in addition to saving you some life, running 24-25 lands (as opposed to 24-25 virtual lands) makes it more likely you’ll hit that turn 5 sludge/witch, which can be really key. Vamps is really more of a midrange aggro deck in the format as you’re consistently throwing 5-mana haymakers if things go right. RDW/Boros/WW really occupy the true aggro role.

    as for Lotus Cobra, I think you answered your own question when you listed the viable removal cards in the set. I tested a GW Emeria/Summoning trap deck for a little bit, but you can’t lean too heavily on the cobra, as he’s too easy to knock out from under you. Not to mention the deck was very expensive, which kind of went counter to my main interest in ZBC.

  6. Jotram got it right. For decks that can use LANDFALL, Skyfisher is nutter-butters. As for Nighthawk itself, I just forgot to mention it on the list. Honestly I’ve become less concerned with the Nighthawk since it’s irrel against W/U and Valakut, even Mono Red doesn’t have a tough time with it anymore thanks to Inferno Trap.

    Saying it’s the most important creature in the Vamps match doesn’t mean a whole lot to me unless you run equipment as well. Mind Sludge, Sorin Markov and Carnage Altar are all way bigger game-changers in that mirror. Almost all the creatures in the match are bound to die or be stuck in bad racing situations anyway… And then probably come back from Soul Stair Expedition or Grim Discovery.

    Vamps vs. Vamps is the most important match if you play late-night or early morning Dailies w/ minimum 16 people. For the most part W/U and Vamps have had a pretty even cut of placings over the past few days. Mono Red and WW have also picked up in popularity since they’re surprisingly resilient.

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  8. nocturnus is the best creature in standard really?

    how does a lord that randomly turns into hill giant compare to a 4/4 for 2 baneslayer angel. bloodbraid elf, and a birds of paradise upgrade?

  9. “Vampires are big in Zen Block, despite losing Vampire Nocturnus, which is arguably ITS best card in Standard.”

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