The next upcoming MTG expansion has been revealed to be a return to one of the most iconic planes in the entire multiverse: ZENDIKAR!
The upcoming Zendikar Rising expansion will hit shelves on September 25th and we are only weeks away from spoiler season reveals beginning to trickle in and it seemed like a perfect time to take a look back on what makes Zendikar such a fan favorite. There’s a reason fans are excited and that reason has much to do with the original Zendikar being one of the greatest, most iconic, and most popular sets in the history of the game.
For those who lived and played in the original Zendikar 1 era the article will likely serve as a fun stroll down good memory lane, and for those who missed it or were not playing yet, the article will highlight the key elements that make 2009’s Zendikar 1 a contender on a short list of sets considered to be GoaT expansions.
Zendikar 1 was released in October of 2009. It was such a memorable and highly anticipated release that I still remember that spoiler season and release with vivid detail. It’s hard to believe it was 11 years ago! A lot has changed in the past decade, both in MTG and the real world, but one thing that was true then and remains true now is that Zendikar is an incredible set in terms of design, great cards, and incredible flavor and changed the game!
FLIPPED THE SCRIPT
The biggest distinction between how Magic is played in the present, as opposed to how it was played back then, relates to the platform and venue. When Zendikar first came out the overwhelming majority of MTG was played by shuffling up sleeved cardboard at IRL Gatherings: Weekly game nights at LGS, FNMs, PTQs, Opens, Power 9s (Yes, Vintage was popular then!), Grand Prix, and Pro Tours were all trending toward the heights of popularity that would be realized years later. Paper Magic was booming and growing, and was the primary way most players experienced the Zendikar 1.
In the current era, and in no small part due to social distancing precautions related to the Covid-19 Pandemic, the majority of MTG is played online via either MTGO or MTG Arena. I noticed a perceptible shift in the direction of MTG design, game play, and marketing that I delineate with the public launch of MTG Arena and Ravnica Allegiance which tends to emphasize and translate to online being the fundamental mode of play. While the pandemic has clearly accelerated the flipping of the script from paper to online, I believe the design and marketing of MTG releases and competitive play in 2019 was already trending and intending to recalibrate in that direction regardless of whether or not there had been a global pandemic.
The biggest and most important distinction I see between 2009s Zendikar and 2020s Zendikar Rising is the manner in which the majority of players will encounter the cards. I played a ton of competitive Magic in 2009 and even qualified for Pro Tours and I played ZERO online Magic. It’s sort of unfathomable to imagine gaining access to the most elite levels of tournaments now without playing online (since, the elite tournaments have moved to online platforms!).
I definitely think paper Magic will have a big bounceback as soon as TOs and players are confident conditions are safe because it’s painfully obvious how much the majority of players miss the experience of gathering together for an IRL gaming experience with other people.
From one savvy collector to another, I have a strong inkling that popular, playable singles from the sets that have been released during the pandemic will be highly desirable commodities because of the perfect storm of: 1. People are anxiously awaiting and looking forward to the opportunity for paper play MTG again, and 2. A lot of paper players didn’t buy singles from sets released during the pandemic because there were no opportunities to play with them. It logically stands to reason that as long as conditions eventually become safe (and they will) and Magic itself doesn’t fold (it won’t) that there will be a confluence of low supply and high demand on singles that originated during the pandemic.
To get back on topic, right off the bat when we compare 2009’s Zendikar and 2020 we are talking about two distinctly different eras in MTG history, particularly with regard to how the game is played and experienced by the majority of fans and players.
ZENDIKAR WAS A BIG DEAL, EVEN DURING IT’S SPOILER SEASON
Zendikar left a tremendous legacy on the history of Magic and we’ll explore that legacy throughout the article. It’s also important to know that Zendikar was definitely not a “sleeper” set, but had incredible hype and buzz during spoiler season before it ever hit even shelves. It was widely recognized by fans and players that Zendikar was an incredibly powerful, flavorful, and exciting set for a myriad of reasons and was one of the all time sets in terms of garnering excitement and anticipation from fans leading up to the prerelease.
Magic was surging in popularity as a cultural phenomenon in 2009 despite the fact that the tail end of Shards of Alara block was a bit of a dud. Shards of Alara was incredibly popular with fans, and especially limited players, but Alara Reborn in particular fell flat. While the idea of an all gold set seems cool in the abstract, the set suffered from the issue that all of the cards looked the same and felt indistinct. Alara Reborn was also the first set where WOTC tested the water at selling premium packs of all foils. The set was so unpopular, nobody even wanted them! Not only did nobody want these premium Alara packs, but their existence tanked the value of the set.
Alara Reborn is also a set that a lot of Limited players thought devalued the limited experience of Shards block. Shards-Shards-Shards and Shards-Shards-Conflux were great draft formats, but adding Alara Reborn (mono-gold) tended to detract from diversity of strategy by incentivizing multicolor soup. I was drafting a ton back then, and because Alara Reborn prices were depressed and the format felt bad, my playgroup was actually running back triple Shards when Zendikar spoilers started to go up.
M10 was a great summer Core Set to lead into Zendikar and introduced Titans and the signature M-Lands (which would play an important role and tailor made role in Zendikar Standard Constructed) but fans were ready for something new by late September.
My LGS, RIW Hobbies, was one of the first to introduce midnight prerelease events way back in Ravnica 1 and Zendikar blew previous midnight events attendance out of the water. It was a moment in time and a set when people were extremely fired up to play that I’ve only seen paralleled a few times since (Innistrad 1 and Return to Ravnica both stand out as huge prereleases in my memory).
One quick aside on paper Prereleases: I freaking loved them and still do, even if they are likely a relic of the past being phased out. To me, they represented a signature moment (typically once per year in the last week of September when the first big set of a new block was released) when the entire local MTG community: past, present, and future came out to game together with brand new cards for the first time. As a player and a fan, that experience had a lot of value to me, and I remember signature prereleases at RIW, such as Zendikar, as special moments and with great fondness because it was something exciting and large scale that was shared between players in my local community.
The USA / Canada Border has not opened to non-essential travel and so I’m bummed there’s a chance that I may miss out on what could ultimately be the last Zendikar paper prerelease.
So, the timing of Zendikar was perfect for hype. MTG was coming off a block that overall was very popular with fans, but a final expansion that fell a little flat. Zendikar’s hype came at a moment when Magic fans were frothing at the mouth for a great set, and lo and behold, it delivered in a big way firing on all cylinders!
There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it, Zendikar was a swaggy set on every possible level.
One of the big marketing promotions for Zendikar was the inclusion of what were called “Hidden Treasures,” to emphasize and highlight the concept of exploring and treasure hunting that runs through the entire block.
Hidden Treasures were original copies of Reserve List cards that were randomly inserted into the first wave of Zendikar boosters and replaced a basic land card. So, instead of seeing a basic in a pack, it was possible to crack an Unlimited Mox or Revised Dual Land!
I drafted a ton of Zendikar. There used to be almost nightly gatherings in downtown Ann Arbor to team draft at Ari Lax’s apartment with a rotating cast of extremely accomplished players from all around southeast Michigan. The preferred style of game back then was 3v3 or 4v4 team drafts, with randomly selected Teams (usually team Stonework Puma V Team Basic Land) with the winning team keeping and splitting up all of the Rares opened in the draft. Since Zendikar was the first set to include “super premium cards” in packs, Moxen and Duals, it meant every draft had to start with an agreement about what should happen if one were cracked! Typically, the solution was: “If you open Treasure – you keep it.”
Zendikar is the only set to ever offer such a luxurious promotion of inserting highly collectible original Reserve List cards into current booster packs. I would argue it was a huge hit with fans, and ultimately became the model for other “super premium” inserts that would come later, such as Expeditions and Inventions.
The second fundamental innovation that was used in Zendikar is the introduction of Full Art Basic land in a tournament legal expansion:
Before Zendikar, alternate frame basics, while incredibly popular with players and fans and were exclusively reserved for UN sets. In the present, we’ve seen alternate frame cards and lands utilized more and more often, but it’s a significant footnote that Zendikar was the first set to give the people what they wanted and explore new aesthetic design space.
I’m excited to see what WOTC has in store for Zendikar Rising’s full art Basics and hope they pull something I’ve never seen out of their hat as a nod to history.
NEW MECHANICS FROM ZENDIKAR 1 THAT ARE NOW ICONIC
In terms of unique mechanics and game design, Zendikar pushed the envelope. In addition to being the first set to introduce “Landfall” (a mechanic that allowed players to trigger bonus abilities whenever a land enters the battlefield under their control) the set also featured Traps, Quests, and Allies (which were known as Traps, Maps, and Chaps during playtesting), all of which added a breath of fresh air to a Limited Format that is still remembered with distinction and fondness to this day.
Traps are cards that can be played for a dramatically reduced mana cost if certain, specific conditions are met:
The concept is that if you can anticipate an opponent is going to use a predictable play pattern (in these cases, Storm and Counterspells) we can head them off with a trap.
Each of the five colors also has a common (expedition), uncommon (quest), and rare (ascension) “Quest” variant. These are enchantments that accumulate counters when specific tasks are completed via gameplay, and once a critical mass of counters is reached, it unlocks a big swingy pay off. Here’s the Black Quest Cycle:
Zendikar is also the first set to include the Creature Type – Ally, which is similar to Tribal Slivers in the sense that creatures with this typing synergize and work together well for a common goal.
One thing I like about Allies is that they are not Slivers2.0 but rather have their own distinct game play and flavor. Slivers tend to “buff” each other’s stats on the battlefield, whereas Allies tend to generate additional ETB triggers.
Zendikar also featured a “rules tip insert card” in booster packs that explained the new mechanics (a great idea!) and the explanation of Ally had reminder text that said: “Rhymes with, ‘shall – I’” Just to be clear, these are not Backstreet Boys!
Last but not least, Landfall.
When looking at the mechanical innovations of Zendikar together and in context, it’s clear the set took bold steps to explore a variant of limited and constructed game play that emphasized and provided opportunities to farm as many bonus triggers as possible. Zendikar 1 & 2 are both sets where triggered abilities are fundamentally important to how a lot of the cards interact with one another.
Obviously, Zendikar is a set fans most closely associated with a “Land theme” in terms of flavor, but in terms of gameplay mechanics, when I hear Zendikar I’m thinking of a style of gameplay that is all about Triggered Abilities.
We also know from history that the Zendikar mechanics tend to be reserved for Zendikar themed releases and so I look forward to seeing which ones will return in Zendikar Rising and what new twists will be added. Landfall, in particular, I would be surprised not to see included in the upcoming release.
Zendikar is a memorable set for Limited play. In the present time, when we read a player’s limited review of a new set we tend to hear phrases like “fast” or “slow” to describe whether aggressive or grindy decks tend to be advantaged in games of sealed or draft.
When somebody tells me a new set is “fast.” My immediate follow up question: Is it Zendikar fast? To which the response is typically, “No.”
Zendikar Limited was an extremely unique experience compared to the overwhelming majority of Limited sets that came before because the aggressive decks in Sealed and Limited were format defining. In particular, Red and Black were incredibly deep and focused at Common on bringing the beatdown to the point where the Limited metagame warped around either focusing on building aggressive Rakdos or building decks to defend against Rakdos.
Creatures that received Landfall bonuses, such as Plated Geopede, tended to incentivize beatdown strategies because these creatures tended to be way above average in combat early in the game when receiving trigger bonuses, but also because Landfall made drawing unwanted lands in the late game (when they would typically be dead draws) less punishing. In fact, depending upon how many Landfall creatures were in play, topdecking what would typically be a dead draw basic was often the best possible draw!
Since the format was incredibly fast and focused on beatdown, Vampire Nighthawk (an absurdly good card at racing) was a high pick and coveted sealed deck inclusion. I don’t remember the specific numbers, but I attended a Zendikar Sealed Grand Prix and after Day One remember reading in the coverage that there was a strong correlation between having one or more Vampire Nighthawks and X-1 or better Sealed Decks. I had two Nighthawks, but finished 7-2 with both of my losses coming to people who rode in my card to the event and were both incredibly talented Limited players, D.J. Kastner and Ari Lax. The RIW crew practiced a lot for that event and staked a lot of bodies into the Top 16.
If you were truly blessed in Limited, you had a Malakir Bloodwitch. I remember this was a lot of player’s consensus best possible pick for Limited because it was incredibly powerful and slotted perfectly into the best archetype.
NOTABLE CONSTRUCTED STAPLES
I noted Zendikar had a lot of hype. Well, that hype was well earned because Zendikar was a huge game changer. The most obvious and impactful addition:
We can’t talk about Zendikar without talking about Fetch Lands because it was the first to feature the enemy color versions of the original Onslaught cycle.
Something many players likely take for granted now, that has not always been the case, is that there didn’t used to be equal incentive to play all color pairings. In fact, pairing “allied” colors was typically better supported in the game design.
If you look at the back of a Magic card you’ll notice five color dots that represent the five colors of Mana. The dots that are positioned next to each other are allied colors, the dots that are across from each other are enemies.
Blue’s allies are the two colors, Black and White, positioned next to it. It’s enemies, located across the circle, are Red and Green.
The Ally (rhymes with ‘shall – I’) Color Combinations: UW Azorius, UB Dimir, GW Selesnya, BR Rakdos, and RG Gruul.
The Enemy Color Combinations: BW Orzhov, UG Simic, UR Izzet, BG Golgari, and RW Boros.
The reason this matters is that typically allied combinations would get better options, especially with regard to meeting mana requirements necessary for building competitive decks. For instance, the first allied pain lands were released in Ice Age (1995) and received multiple core set revivals before the enemy pairs were first introduced in Apocalypse in 2001. The allied Fetchlands were introduced in Onslaught in 2002, but the enemy combinations were not released until Zendikar in 2009!
Fetch Lands are obviously incredibly powerful and that fact that only half of the possible 2-color combinations could use them was a huge incentive to play allied color decks. The completion of the off-color fetch cycle dramatically leveled the playing field by giving all combinations access to the same top tier of mana fixing options for the first time.
It was actually a bit strange to play Standard at this time, since the enemy colors had the unconventional advantage of superior mana options! It’s also important to note that the Fetch Lands also generated 2 landfall triggers (one when they are played, and a second when you fetch) as well as provided a way to generate landfall triggers at instant speed and during an opponent’s turn (EOT, fetch, cast Searing Blaze).
In terms of shaping and changing the game, the addition of off color Fetches is the highest tier of game changer. In terms of ‘all time game changers,’ Fetches would be very close to #1 on my list (if not #1 outright) and Zendikar brought us 5 new ones. So, it’s hard to oversell the importance.
Beyond the fetches, it’s important to note the set is actually incredibly deep in terms of quality playables that continue to be useful cards today, more than a decade later. Looking back on the set, it’s not at all surprising that I remember it as a set that had incredible buzz and spoiler hype because it is packed with incredible cards.
These are the ones that I don’t even have word count to address specifically, haven’t mentioned already, but I would consider noteworthy and continue to see Constructed or Commander play 11 years later: Mold Shambler, Archive Trap, Blade of the Bloodchief, Crypt of Agadeem, Rite of Replication, Disfigure, Eldrazi Monument, Emeria the Sky Ruin, Gatekeeper of Malakir, Goblin Bushwhacker, Gatekeeper of Malakir, Day of Judgment, Goblin Runeblaster, Punishing Fire, Pyromancer Ascension, Ravenous Trap, Mindbreak Trap, Spreading Seas, Emeria Angel, Warren Instigator, Hellkite Charger, Hedron Crab, Khalni Heart Expedition, Kor Skyfisher, Lotus Cobra, Luminarch Ascension, Marsh Casualties, Ob Nixilis the Fallen, Vampire Hexmage. And let’s be real, there’s at least five or six cards on this list that would be worthy of a write up from almost any other set that wasn’t as legendarily deep as Zendikar 1.
If the cards on the list aren’t good enough to talk about… what is!?
Let’s start with a card that signaled a renaissance of Tron as a premier archetype across multiple formats and is a mainstay in virtually every Commander deck.
Fans of aggro were incredibly excited, and for good reason, to see a 2/2 Haste creature for a single mana for the first time ever AND with great creature typing.
Oracle was a solid Standard and Commander card but has reinvented itself as a power player in the various Prime Time land combo decks over the past few years.
Even with several over the top fatties having been printed since Iona the card remains as a staple of Reanimator style decks. The ability to lock an opponent out of entire color while also presenting a fast clock is an incredibly powerful pairing. It often serves as “Meddling Mage your entire strategy!”
The best green combat trick of all time. Vines is a fixture of the “paup-ular” Stompy archetype, but also a key component of Infect in every format where the strategy is played. The ability to protect creatures from targeted removal and also threaten a large boost of damage is an incredible boon.
Land based combo decks have evolved over the past decade as new cards have been added but the OG synergy that put the archetype on the map was Primeval Titan + Valakut, which was incredibly legal in Standard together and lived on in Modern for years as a top strategy.
My pick for the most game changing card from Zendikar (excluding, of course the fetches) is Bloodghast.
It is incredibly uncommon (and for good reason, it’s broken!) to see cards that can be played without having to pay a cost. The cost of Bloodghast flirts about as close to ‘no cost’ as it gets in Magic: it has to be in the graveyard and then the player needs to play a land to trigger landfall. The bread and butter of graveyard based Dredge decks has always been to ‘get free stuff’ and it’s unsurprising that the ‘freest of the free stuff options,’ Bloodghast, is a fixture of virtually every graveyard based synergy deck. The fact that it doesn’t require any mana to return to the Battlefield from the graveyard, and the same Bloodghast can return from the graveyard multiple times in the same game make this nasty vampire Dredge’s MVP creature.
I’m well over my word count at this point, but I’ve managed to at least touch upon the important keynotes that stand out as most important and distinct to me about Zendikar in 2009, as well as the legacy the set continues to have in the present day. It’s truly a fantastic set that came at a moment in time when fans and players were ready to explore new territory (which is nicely mirrored in the primary flavor themes of the set).
With the recent ban wave clearing the stink of year-old garbage from the air, I’m actually really excited to see if Zendikar Revisited will be able to recapture some of the original Magic of Zendikar (as well as Battle for Zendikar, which I also enjoyed), as lightning in a bottle. I think the climate is similar (although, opposite in terms of online / paper as the primary way players are playing) in the sense that fans seem anxious, excited, and ready to explore a truly great new set – and if anything, Zendikar is a plane with a track record of delivering the goods!