Battle for Zendikar is different than previous sets because, for the first time in many years, we are not going to choose a color/clan beforehand—we’re just going to play it like a normal Sealed Deck (which is a change that I like a lot). This changes the approach you should take. Whereas before it was important to identify which color was better, now it’s completely irrelevant.
My first and most important advice for the Battle for Zendikar prerelease, therefore, is this: do not force a color. Do not “choose a color” in your mind as you would before, do not rank them. Choosing a color beforehand was a restriction, and you no longer have it. Before, we analyzed powerful uncommons and rares because you had to choose a color, so you would want to choose the one that was more likely to be good, but now you don’t have to—there’s no point in seeing which rares you can open in red, because either you’re going to open those rares or not, and that’s going to happen before you have to decide if you want to play red or not.
This might be a bit hard to get used to, since, again, it’s a big change, but it’s very important that you keep an open mind—only then can you truly appreciate the Sealed Deck format. Of course, if you really want to play a color, go ahead and play that color regardless of what you open—the point of the prerelease is to have fun after all—but it’s not the best strategy if you want to do well at the prerelease.
So, instead of looking at colors to figure out their power level, I want to look at the format as a whole—the abilities, how power and toughness match up, the removal, the tricks, and so on.
Awaken is an extremely good Limited ability, to a point where any card can be playable if it has the right awaken numbers (in fact, there are very few awaken cards that you would not play). Awaken spells should mostly be treated as creatures with evoke rather than spells with awaken—you want to cast them as creatures most of the time. That said, they are a bit different than normal creatures, because a) they come into play tapped, so to speak, b) they have haste if you have an extra mana, and c) you lose a land in the process. Losing a land is not trivial, especially in a format that has this many expensive cards, so you can’t look at a 5-mana awaken card and think “this is just a creature”—you will end up having to tap it for mana a lot of the time, and you will lose some games because people are going to kill them. This is especially true once you get to the point where you awaken multiple lands.
With Awaken, it’s worth noting that you can pump different lands or the same land multiple times. In most board states, having a 6/6 is better than having two 3/3s, and it “locks up” one fewer land on top of that, so I think the default mode for awaken spells is probably going to be “pump the same land” unless you are playing against blue.
The presence of awaken also means that cards that interact favorably with lands get better, such as bounce spells. Bounce spells also get better because people will sacrifice Eldrazi Scions to cast their big guys early, and then can’t replay them when you bounce them. Blue has two bounce effects at common: Clutch of Currents and Murk Strider, and they are both among the best cards in the set. Grip of Desolation is also better here than it ever was, since it can kill a creature and an awakened land.
Another unassuming card is Volcanic Upheaval—normally it would be unplayable, but now it can actually kill creatures, so I think it becomes maindeckable, because the awaken cards are very good, so most decks will have them. Keep in mind you can also use it to fizzle some awaken cards that have only one target, such as Ondu Rising, by killing the land in response. Reclaiming Vines is similarly improved as a maindeck card.
My first impression of Allies is that they range from good to great depending on how often you can trigger them, but they’re rarely bad—most of the time getting one activation is likely to be enough. Simply put, giving all your creatures menace or first strike or double strike once is a much more powerful effect than giving one of your guys +1/+1 once, so you don’t need to be able to trigger those Allies repeatedly for them to be very good.
In Zendikar, you’d end up playing some Allies because of their vanilla bodies, and in this set you will play them because of their spell-like abilities—particularly the uncommon and rare ones. Take Tajuru Warcaller—she can be one of the best cards in your deck if you can trigger her multiple times, but she can also be good even if you have no other Allies, because 3GG for a 2/1 that gives +2/+2 to your team is potentially great if you have a lot of Eldrazi tokens.
This set also has more random allies than Zendikar did (or at least that’s how it feels)—there are many creatures that you would absolutely not mind playing and that happen to be Allies, which means that it’s very rare that you actually have no other ways to trigger Ally cards. I think that, even if you don’t have a dedicated Allies deck, you should still consider playing a lot of the rally cards.
Devoid is very straightforward—either you have cards that care about your cards being colorless, or you don’t. If you do, devoid cards get better.
Ingest also depends on whether you have the processors (the cards that use exiled cards, like Oblivion Sower) or not. If you have cards that require one exiled card (such as Wasteland Strangler), then you can use any of the devoid spells and most of the black enablers, but if you have cards that require multiple exiled cards (such as Blight Herder) or too many of the small processors/repeatable effects (such as Cryptic Cruiser), then the blue creatures are a bit better, since they trade a smaller body for some sort of evasion (flying or unblockable). The blue cards can actually deck someone if the game goes really long, but I wouldn’t build my deck with that in mind.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of support for converge outside of green, but there also doesn’t seem to be much payoff outside of green. I think converge is narrow enough in this set that it’s not worth pushing—unless you have a ton of fixing, you’re not going to add a fourth color to make your Brilliant Spectrum a little bit better. It’s better to just not play it.
I think decks in this format are going to be mostly two colors, though you can go nuts if you open enough green fixing.
Landfall is normally an aggressive mechanic, since you can’t play lands when you’re on defense (with the exception of Natural Connection). In Zendikar, it strongly rewarded attacking and contributed to the fastest Draft format in many years. In Battle for Zendikar, it’s a little more mild—creatures have normal bodies that get slightly bigger with landfall, not small bodies that get much bigger (e.g. you have a 2/2 that becomes a 3/3 instead of a 1/1 that becomes a 3/3), so this effect is a little less pronounced, but you still have, for example, a 2/2 that becomes a 4/4. Landfall’s presence means three things:
- You can get away with more lands than normal, because you have use for extra lands in the late game. 18 should be the norm in this set.
- You have to hold lands in your hand to trigger potential future landfall effects. This is especially important when you have one of the rare landfall creatures, such as Oran-Rief Hydra. If that’s the case, then you must keep the relevant basic in your hand for as long as you can. If you have any of those cards, make a mental note about it before you start playing, or you will invariably end up holding an Island when you needed a Plains.
- Discard effects get a little bit better, because there’s now use for ordinarily useless lands (they also get a little bit worse, since people are more likely to hold lands in hand whereas before they would play them and have to discard spells, but I think they gain more overall).
Removal in this set is very interesting. It’s plentiful, but also low quality. There is little premium removal, but there are a lot of average removal spells that you can play if you want. Most of the removal, however, is conditioned—there isn’t a lot of flat-out “kill this creature.” This is a list of the common and uncommon removal:
While these are a lot of viable options, some of these cards aren’t great, and they especially aren’t great in multiples. Good removal is better than a good creature, but a good creature is still better than bad removal most of the time, and there is such a thing as too many mediocre removal spells.
In Draft, this would mean you take removal spells lower than you ordinarily would. In Sealed, it means you have to be careful not to run too many of them, especially if you play black or red. I think people have some sort of block against cutting removal spells from their deck, since they are usually so necessary, but in this format you’ll end up doing that a lot.
Since you have a lot of removal, and a lot of it is conditional (especially the early-game stuff), I think you should aggressively use it—this is not a format where you have to save your removal for bombs, because you’ll have more removal overall, and because the cheap removal spells would not kill the bombs to begin with. If your opponent plays a good 2-drop, such as Snapping Gnarlid, then it’s likely correct to immediately cast Complete Disregard on it. Since some of the cheap removal also exiles (Disregard, Touch of the Void, Unnatural Aggression), casting them early will also enable any potential processors you want to play in the future.
I’d expect creatures in a mashup of Zendikar and Rise of the Eldrazi to be either tiny or humongous, but that’s not necessarily the case, particularly because there are many spells with awaken 3 and 4. Instead, my general impression is that there is a lot happening at the 3 range—most creatures that don’t cost a million are 2/3s or 3/2s. This puts 2/2 in an awkward spot, because if your opponents have a lot of the 3/2s, then they trade up and are excellent, but if your opponents have the 2/3s instead (or the 3/3s), then they get brick-walled early and do nothing. The big winners here are 4/4s—they will prey on all the small stuff and survive, and they also survive two of the best common removal spells, so I think a card like Territorial Baloth is better here than it would be in many formats, and you should pay special attention to awaken 4 spells like Ondu Rising. Another card that stands out is Kozilek’s Channeler, which can block almost anything by the time it gets to play.
A 3/4 is also very good, and a card like Tajuru Stalwart will dominate the board for many turns if you can get enough converge. 4/3s, on the other hand, are sub-par, since they will trade with a lot of the 3-drops. I think Broodhunter Wurm is quite a bit worse here than that 4/3 Giant was in Khans, for example.
The Eldrazi go over the top of everything, and though there is less ramp than there was in Rise, you can still reliably cast them with cards like Hedron Archive and Kozilek’s Channeler. They can be great kill conditions, since there is not much that flat-out gets rid of them, and having a 1-of Breaker of Armies in your deck can win almost any sort of stalemate, but I think it’s going to be hard to have a dedicated Eldrazi deck, so you have to be careful not to play too many of them. 10 mana is still a lot of mana, even if you have a lot of ramp and Eldrazi Scions. If you have a very aggressive deck, then you shouldn’t even bother with any of the big Eldrazi.
Eldrazi Scions look like Eldrazi Spawns, but they are significantly better, as the difference between 0/1 and 1/1 is enormous. Since they are better, there’s also a bigger opportunity cost to sacrificing them. In original Rise of the Eldrazi, you’d sacrifice the Spawns at the earliest opportunity to play a big Eldrazi. In this format, you have to think twice about it. Sometimes it’s not worth sacrificing a 1/1 to get a 5/5 now—it’s better to wait a turn and get a 1/1 and a 5/5 next turn.
Since Spawns are better, they also “cost more” to make. If you played Kozilek’s Predator in Rise, for example, and then sacrificed both Spawns, you’d be left with a 3/3. If you play Eyeless Watcher and sacrifice both Scions, then you’re left with a 1/1, which is not a real card—it’s like you just played a Ritual.
The presence of Eldrazi Scions makes 1-toughness creatures much worse than they were before, and 1 damage effects much better, but it doesn’t look like there are many of either of those in the set (and one of the few 3/1s can’t be blocked by them anyway).
A big part of the prerelease is having a notion of what you have to play against. In this set, tricks seem to be mostly removal spells, with the occasional instant-speed awaken card to ambush attackers. Other than those, I’d highlight the following:
It’s not a lot, but some of them can really blow you out (like Encircling Fissures and Roilmage’s Trick), so keep an eye out for those. Lithomancer’s Focus in particular is cheap enough that you’re unlikely to be able to play around it anyway.
So, This Is the TL;DR:
- You do not have to choose a color beforehand, so don’t. Don’t force any colors, build what you open. In the end, it doesn’t matter at all what color is the best, it only matters what you open.
- Cards with awaken are effectively creatures, so count them as such when you’re deckbuilding. Most cards with awaken are playable.
- Because of awaken, bounce spells are better in this format than they would normally be, and land destruction is playable.
- Do not go out of your way to make converge cards work, they’re generally not worth it.
- You should probably play two colors, but many-colors-green is a possibility.
- Allies that have an effect are almost all worth it, even if you do not have many other Allies.
- Play at least 18 lands—between Eldrazi and landfall there’s enough use for them.
- There is a lot of removal, but it’s a bit lackluster. Be careful not to get mediocre-removal flooded.
- 2/3, 3/3, and 3/2 are very common in this format. 4/4 is very big and 4/4 creatures should be valued higher.
Before I leave, I wanted to talk a bit about the Expeditions. As you may or may not know, Battle for Zendikar has a number of promotional lands that you can open, some of which are worth hundreds of dollars. Since it’s not obvious that those cards are super expensive, some people are going to be actively trying to get as many as they can at the prerelease, from people who don’t know how much they’re actually worth—usually kids. Don’t be one of those people. Don’t let anyone else be one of those people. If you see a person trying to rip someone off with those lands, jump in and stop them. If you’re a tournament organizer or a judge, tell your players that those cards are valuable. Let’s not make anyone feel horrible for being tricked with the Expeditions in this prerelease.
See you soon, and good luck this weekend!