Zendikar Rising Set Review

Zendikar Rising Set Review

We are returning to Zendikar for the second time. During our first visit Zendikar was a dangerous and exciting world filled with mystery and adventure. When we saw Zendikar next it was at war with the unnatural and unknowable eldrazi. The eldrazi have been vanquished but has Zendikar kept that same spirit of adventure?

Like all my set reviews, I focus on my favourite cards in the set. This could for new designs, beautiful art, excellent flavour or fun gameplay. These are all more important to me than power level, so don’t be surprised if I skip stand out cards for constructed.

Top Rares and Mythics

Maddening Cacophony

A few months ago, mill became an official keyword and this much-loved and much-hated archetype has already seen plenty of new toys being printed such as Bruvac the Grandiloquent from Jumpstart. Maddening Cacophony really leverages the flexibility of kicker, with it’s two modes being only slightly worse than classic cards Traumatize and Glimpse the Unthinkable. If you love emptying your opponent’s library, both flavours of mill here are exciting.

Perhaps even more exciting is Ruin Crab. Very similar to Hedron Crab from original Zendikar, this is scary on turn one, and terrifying in multiples. Combining both crabs also makes mill much more powerful in older formats like modern, where decks live and die on consistency.

Jace, Mirror Mage

Theros Beyond Death showed that planeswalkers can now use mechanics from the current set. In Zendikar Nissa of Shadowed Boughs uses landfall, but Jace is my favourite planeswalker under this new trend. Jace’s coolest ability in lore is creating illusions and copies of himself. Jace, Cunning Castaway was the first planeswalker to have this ability, but you had to wait multiple turns to do this. The newest Jace makes it much easier, so you can realistically play with Jace and his illusions in more games.

Another reason Mirror Mage is more fun is the interaction between the two copies of Jace. Using one Jace to scry lets you mitigate the randomness of the zero ability on the other copy of Jace. This is probably the default play pattern, but Mirror Mage is a fun card to play with because you get lots of interesting decisions. Do you play it for three mana or wait? Which abilities do you use and which cards do you keep with the scry? All these options make it a very skill-testing card which rewards better players more. I like this Jace a lot more than a traditional planeswalker bomb that dominates the game.

Charix, the Raging Isle

I love Magic’s giant sea creatures like Kraken of the Straits or Waker of Waves. Now one of them has taken the record from Impervious Greatwurm as the toughest creature in the game. The art is fantastic, showing this huge beast towering over everything.

The second ability is very interesting from a design perspective. Reminiscent of Calcite Snapper from the original Zendikar block, except that you can give Charix enough power to almost one-shot an opponent by activating it multiple times. But if you control many islands, this stops you activating it over and over again. I love how this ability effectively changes from game to game and turn to turn.

Lithoform Engine

The Lithoform Engine is at the heart of the storyline for the set, as Nissa and Nahiri fight over the engine and how Zendikar should be restored after the Eldrazi invasion. It’s refreshing for Magic to have a storyline that doesn’t just involve good versus evil, where both sides have grounded motivations.

In game Lithoform Engine utilises new rules technology as copying a permanent spell has never been defined up until now. Putting all three modes together means the engine can copy almost any spell or ability put onto the stack.

I also had to mention the other mythic artifact Forsaken Monument. I loved the Eldrazi, but when they were the star of the show on our last visit to Zendikar, fans wished they could see more of Zendikar, and less of the Eldrazi. The monument is the only mention they get in Zendikar Rising.It parallels Eldrazi Temple and Eldrazi Monument from the first sets, as single cards that merely hint at a mysterious and ancient power. The decision to focus on the plane and not the Eldrazi was the right one, but I’m glad they haven’t been erased from history either.

Sea Gate Restoration

Modal Double Face Cards or MDFCs are the biggest new mechanic in Zendikar Rising. Like split cards they give you two completely different cards and the flexibility they give you is incredible. Notable in the case of Zendikar Rising is that the back side of an MDFC is always a land. The mythic cycle of MDFCs for example are big splashy spells or a land that can come into play untapped at the cost of three life. These immediately make me think of commander where three life to guarantee good mana is fine value, and where casting seven mana spells is far more achievable. My favourite is Sea Gate Restoration which can leave you with a huge grip of cards and no worries about discarding to hand size. Being able to replace a basic island with a card that has such potential is spectacular.

Turntimber Symbiosis is another great card from this cycle. Cards like See the Unwritten are fun but have multiple draw backs that Turntimber Symbiosis avoids. Being a land if you can’t afford a seven mana spell is incredible. The other danger of these spells is only finding a small creature. Nothing is worse than putting Llanowar Elves in your deck to cast a big spell and all it does is cast another Arbor Elf. At least with Turntimber Symbiosis the extra counters you get turn your elf into a mid-sized creature.

These cards are definitely great and extremely powerful, but I’m not in love. I appreciate, for example, that the angels of Emeria’s Call come from the sky ruin on the other side, but there isn’t enough of a connection between the two. Previous double-faced cards like the werewolves of Innistrad told a story of change, perhaps of growth, transformation or decay. The MDFCs however are just two tangentially connected cards pasted together. The two sides don’t feel like two halves of one whole, but instead are an inelegant mash-up. I am excited however for the future, because we know MDFCs will return and there are many exciting directions for Magic to explore. We have barely scratched the surface of what can be done with MDFCs.

Kargan Intimidator

The intimidator makes my list purely for the line of text “cowards can’t block warriors”. It’s a fantastic ability that first appeared on the iconic Boldwyr Intimidator. The only problem with the original is that seven mana can be impossible for an aggressive warriors deck. The new intimidator is much more appropriate as a cheap threat. The wall of text adds to the power level, but makes for a rather inelegant card which is my only disappointment with this card.

The subtheme for warriors in Zendikar Rising is equipment. Kor Blademaster rewards you for using equipment, and Resolute Strike is a very swingy combat trick that can be a total blow-out. Unfortunately for limited these are the only payoffs below rare. This is a shame because this set experiments with equipment by making each one equip for free when it enters the battle field. I’m disappointed the rewards for building an equipment deck are so infrequent in limited when we have this free equip theme running across the set.

While the equipment payoffs at common and uncommon may be underwhelming, Akiri, Fearless Voyager is a great card to build an equipment deck around. Red-white is the natural home for equipment decks with lots of good equipment themed cards and lots of double strike to take advantage of buffing up your creatures. Akiri isn’t the first legend you could build an equipment deck around, but it stands out for its ability to draw cards in red-white, something the colour pair really needed. I like that the two abilities encourage different things without conflicting. You can draw more cards if you attack all your opponents, but the second ability mitigates the risk of building a huge creature with lots of equipment on it. I expect Akiri will be a popular commander because of how fun building a huge scary creature can be.

Scute Swarm

We had Hornet Queen and Hornet Nest but I think no card has so elegantly captured the idea of a ever-growing unstoppable swarm of insects as well as Scute Swarm. Where as the original Scute Mob creates a huge creature, I much prefer the idea of a creature that slowly multiplies, and if you don’t kill it quickly suddenly exponential growth kicks in and your opponent is overrun. Once you have more than one, your opponent needs multiple removal spells or a Wrath of God to stop the swarm.

In the context of Zendikar, scute swarm is a fun card, but throw in the mutate mechanic from Ikoria and things get wild. Augmentations like auras, +1/+1 counters or equipment don’t affect any copies you make of a creature. Mutate however modifies the textbox, so copying a mutant copies everything. When you mutate an Everquill Phoenix on top of a Scute Swarm and start creating copies, you create 4/4 flying creatures instead. A big part of Magic’s charm is finding out about all these different and possibly unintended interactions between different cards and mechanics.

Ashaya, Soul of the Wild

Ashaya is my favourite mythic in the set. It feels very green, very Zendikar, and does weird and unusual things without complex rules text. It’s perfect with landfall, as now all your creatures also trigger landfall. My favourite thing is how fair it is. In a world where cards are banned on a regular basis, Ashaya doesn’t even have trample. It will be routinely be enormous, but your opponent has the chance to chump block or find removal. It’s fun, powerful, but beatable which is how big green mythic creatures should be.

It also pairs very well with fellow green mythic Ancient Greenwarden which combines a Panharmonicon for lands with Crucible of Worlds. Given how powerful these cards are, I expect this to be very popular. Anything that makes fetch lands even better is usually a good card.

Inscription of Abundance

The inscriptions are part of a partial cycle that represent a change of philosophy. Players love cycles of connected cards across all five colours, but it can be hard to design cycles with equal power level, or where they all see similar levels of play. If one colour gets a weak card in the cycle, fans of that colour can be very vocal in their upset. This has happened many times in the past, so it’s not surprising to see a change in approach. The new philosophy is to filter out weaker cards in cycles, leaving only the best cards. This is the reason there are only three inscriptions. I love cycles so I’m a little disappointed, but I understand the decision, especially for modal spells, where it’s challengng to find enough effects of similar power levels that combine well.

The other inscriptions are interesting, but the green design is by far my favourite. The three effects feel much more connected. When kicked, you make a big creature with the first ability, and then use that big creature to gain life and fight. It reminds me of The First Iroan Games and other sagas in this way. However you don’t have to kick it, you can just choose one part of the story if you need a cheaper effect. I wish the other inscriptions had this story-like structure to them because it makes such an elegant design when the different options feel like they belong together.

Brightclimb Pathway

Dual lands appear in many sets and they have never made my list before, but the pathways push against a fundamental rule of design. Basic lands are iconic, and are at the heart of the majority of magic decks. After the extremely powerful dual lands in Alpha, lands were almost always designed to be balanced against basic lands. If they tapped for multiple colours or had extra abilities, they come with a drawback. The pathways represent a new chapter in magic, because they are much closer to strict upgrades over basics than anything since the alpha duals.

The five basic lands are played in all formats of magic, have been reprinted over 500 times and let players personalise their deck more than anything else in the game. I hope their ubiquity never changes, but for the first time I am concerned. The pathways are the simplest of all the double-faced cards on Zendikar. They are nice and simple mono-colour lands on both sides. Not being basic prevents most ramp and fixing effects searching for them and makes them more vulnerable to many land destruction effects, but in most games these will always be better than a basic. Power levels of colours and card types fluctuate constantly from set to set, but these cards break one of the few consistently balanced rules of the game. I do however like the option that is now available for players to play decks that consist of nothing but double faced cards. With more to come in sets next year, these decks could be a lot of fun to play.

Zareth San, the Trickster

Over the last year the blue-black archetypes have included rogues, flash and mill. Zareth San combines all these themes from previous sets to give you an exciting focal point for the deck. This is an easy casual deck to build by combining the commons and uncommons from all the recent sets such as Drown in the Loch and Cunning Nightbonder. It’s very rare we see three themes that overlap and combine so well together, while feeling distinct and seperate which makes it more excting when you do combine them.

Another great rogue is Soaring Thought-Thief. It powers up all your other rogues in two ways. The power boost is obviously great, but the mill effect is fantastic for all the other cards that improve when your opponent has eight cards in their graveyard. If Rogues become an archetype in standard, escape cards from Theros like Underworld Rage-Hound become very interesting. Milling your opponent then gives them resources and by escaping cards they can turn off abilities and weaken your rogues by emptying their graveyard. Fighting over graveyards could add a fun dimension to standard.

Angel of Destiny

My favourite mythics are the weird and confusing ones. Alternate win conditions are one of the most exciting things you can print on a card. We’ve seen life gain based win conditions multiple times before with Test of Endurance and Felidar Sovereign but what makes Angel of Destiny interesting is that it cancels out your creature’s attacks against your opponent. It doesn’t just give you a new way to win the game, it takes away another way of winning the game.

However it isn’t that simple. You can still kill your opponent with combat damage but you have to do it all at once before the lifegain trigger. This makes it tricky in draft when you aren’t a dedicated life gain deck. The angel can even become a liability despite its power level. Mythics can be even more challenging to play with and against because of how infrequently they show up. Opening a mythic you have never played with in draft can really test your card evaluation skills and I love it.

Top Commons and Uncommons

Bloodchief’s Thirst

Powerful removal spells are something that sees plays in every format, so it’s not hard to see that Bloodchief’s Thirst will be played in many formats. It’s flexibility resembles Fatal Push but it’s challenging to definitively decide which is the better option.

Being sorcery speed is a big drawback, but this spell does several fantastic things. It’s super efficient at dealing with cheap threats, keeping you alive against fast aggressive starts. Normally such cheap and efficient removal spells are weaker in the late game, but this spell is still viable, even if four mana is a lot in larger formats. The first copy keeps you alive long enough that you can afford the second copy. The biggest weakness of removal spells is they are useless against creatureless control decks. Fatal Push does nothing in these match-ups but it’s hard to imagine a deck Thirst doesn’t have a use against. The intricacies of these comparisons is fascinating, and makes deck building more interesting.

Roost of Drakes

Kicker once again appears as a limited archetype, but this time it gets even more support and love. It last appeared in Dominaria, where Hallar, the Firefletcher and Elfhame Druid supported the red-green deck. The individual kicker cards were great, but the Hallar was the only real payoff for dedicating yourself to kicker. The only other reward you got for kicking spells was on Bloodstone Goblin. This time we get a lot more cards with kicker, and really big payoffs for prioritising kicker cards. Coralhelm Chronicler, Vine Gecko and Murasa Sproutling are all great. I really like the sproutling. For example, you can play Roil Eruption for example as a cheap removal spell, and get it back later. This softens the disappointment of casting your spells early and missing out on the full effect.

As much as I like the gameplay of the sproutling, Roost of Drakes is the best kicker build around, and one of the best limited build-arounds of all time. Burning Vengeance is an example of a classic build-around that does stone cold nothing with out support. Roost of Drakes gives you a great 2/2 flier without any support, for just one extra mana over Wind Drake. It also has kicker itself, so it enables all your other payoffs too. It’s perfect to play on turn four after a Risen Riptide or a Lullmage’s Familiar. I will be playing blue-green kicker every time I get a Roost of Drakes in limited and having a blast.

Umara Mystic

If you’ve played enough magic, you see the same limited archetypes again and again. Spells matter is the staple blue-red archetype. Sometimes it’s wizards tribal, and the wizards inevitably care about spells. But if you put too many wizards in your wizards deck, you don’t have enough space for the spells you need. Zendikar Rising introduces a more refined version of wizards tribal, that lets you freely mix wizards and spells without compromising. Umara Mystic is almost an exact reprint of Wee Dragonauts but just that small tweak makes it perfect for a wizards deck. Sometimes a small change can be really pleasing.

Another wizard for this deck is Kaza, Roil Chaser. Kaza lets you fill your deck with wizards and then cast really big spells cheaply. It’s still a red-blue spells matter deck that we have seen many times before, but small creative ideas like this enable more cohesive, distinctive and flavourful versions of the archetype.

Feed the Swarm

The colour pie was one of the biggest card game innovations that has been integral to the game ever since it was first released but it isn’t fixed in stone. The colours all have their own strengths and weaknesses and these have changed over the years. Whenever these changes happen, they can cause a lot of excitement and controversy. After decades of being unable to answer enchantments, black is now able to destroy them.

We first saw this change in philosophy with Mire in Misery and Pharika’s Libation, but this is the first black card that can actively target an opponent’s enchantment. Notice that it can’t destroy your own enchantments, meaning iconic cards like Demonic Pact or Necropotence that represent a deal with the devil can still kill you.

Some have questioned the need for this card. Adding the ability to black’s arsenal now means three colours can kill enchantments, which matches the number of colours that can kill enchantments. This also still leaves black with a weakness against artifacts, so the colour still has weaknesses. Since this development in the colour pie is so recent, it’s hard to predict what comes next. My best guess is that this is about as powerful as enchantment removal gets in black, and that white and green will still have the most efficient answers. Feed the Swarm in fact surprised me at how powerful, flexible and efficient the card is, especially compared to the previous black enchantment removal options. Will there be more surprises to come?

Cleansing Wildfire

This common is maybe the biggest surprise of the set. Two mana land destruction that draws a card! Land destruction has not been this cheap in decades. This will a staple sideboard card against tron and other decks using incredibly powerful lands. It also offers a way for red decks to fix or trigger landfall twice in one turn. The art is beautiful, but my favourite use for this card is with Flagstones of Trokair or Cascading Cataracts to create an unexpected source of ramp.

Black also gets a similar card Lithoform which also nullifies powerful abilities on lands and also draws a card. In most cases however Lithoform Blight gives your opponent a fantastic land that is even better than Mana Confluence. It also lets black splash cards from any colour, an ability normally reserved for green. I don’t expect it to see play, but it’s too weird to not get a mention.

Canyon Jerboa

I always save a slot in my review with cards with great art. A lot of reprints got great art this time, with Into the Roil, Lotus Cobra and Smite the Monstrous but I prefer to focus on new cards. Canyon Jerboa is adorable, and following in the footsteps of the tokens from Enchanted Carriage this is the first real mouse in Magic. I have no idea how something so small can give such a big boost to your entire army, but I love it!

Scale the Heights

Magic prints hundreds of new cards every few months, and there are still cards that make you wonder why it didn’t already exist. Three small effects, typically bonus effects on other cards are grouped together here to create a card full of value. None of these are typically worth a card individually, but when combined it becomes a lot of fun. Black and Blue both got similar bundles with Glacial Grasp and Mind Drain. Mind Drain is fantastic in comparison to the usual Mind Rot. Like the inscriptions, I would love to see the red and white versions.

Deadly Alliance

Party was the most surprising mechanic of the set. It’s unlike any tribal mechanic we have seen before that rewards you for having a variety of different creature types in your party. Cards with the party ability get cheaper or stronger if you control a warrior, a wizard, a rogue and a cleric. The more of these you control, the better party cards get. Unlike other tribal mechanics, having multiple warriors or multiple wizards doesn’t matter. The art and flavour of deadly alliance show this wonderfully. A motley crew of different adventures gang up to create a fantastic removal spell. Without any effort random creatures in your deck will give you a small discount on Deadly Alliance, but if you focus on building a party deck you can it becomes incredibly efficient.

Party cards appear in all five colours, but whilst most colours specialise in certain classes, green only has a small number of party cards and creatures with relevant types. This means certain colour pairs have an easier time assembling a full party than others. Blue-White has access to all four types and some great spells. Spoils of Adventure and Practiced Tactics become draw-droppingly good with a full party. Red-Black however leans more aggressive. With good removal and creatures that get stronger together as a group, this could be a very strong deck in limited. Imagine casting a rogue and a cleric on turns one and two. On turn three you can cast Ardent Electromancer and Shatterskull Minotaur which is phenomenal. Your opponent won’t know what hit them.

Some have complained that the party mechanic has been completely ignored in constructed formats. I think this is unfair because mechanics that revolve around amassing creatures will be naturally stronger in limited than constructed where control decks can play as many mass removal spells as they please. Party brings such an interesting puzzle to limited that I think it’s worth its place in the set. Kicker, landfall and MDFCs in particular have a lot to offer in other formats, so I don’t think it’s a problem if an individual mechanic fails to impact standard as long as it does something important in limited.

Farsight Adept

One of the biggest controversies of current magic is white card draw. Commander fans are asking for more card draw and ramp options to let white decks catch up to the other colours. This meant Farsight Adept was met with crys of frustration but this wizard wasn’t intended for commander and is fascinating in limited.

A three mana three-three that replaces itself is fantastic. Giving your opponent a free card is a horrible draw back. Rating this card forces you to compare these to see if you have a good card or not. If the wizard is good, it’s because your deck is fast and aggressive enough that you can kill your opponent before they have time to use the extra resource you gave them. Others will say giving your opponent a card is never a good idea, and never consider playing it. I can’t wait to see who is correct.

Another piece of the puzzle is party. The adept is the only wizard in white. Even if you don’t like the card, it might be the one creature you need to field a complete party. The four party types are not divided equally between colours. In white you will easily pick up clerics and warriors and need another colour to get any rogues. Trying to complete your party will add an extra and unusual challenge in draft. I doubt any other format asks you to care about four creature types simultaneously. If party is good, Stonework Packbeast will be stellar as it always grows your party unless your party is already complete. Seeing how small details like a rare type change card evaluations and shape the format will be a big part of Zendikar Rising limited.

Bala Ged Recovery

The uncommon MDFCs make Zendikar a unique draft format. With an MDFC in every pack, it’s easy to get two or three in your deck. Every one you add to your deck makes mulliganing much less likely, and makes mana flood much less dangerous. These are incredible for limited, and even a weak card becomes a high pick when it can be replaced by a land whenever required. My favourite is Bala Ged Recovery. It’s hard to think of a situation where this disappoints. In your opening hand it means you avoid many dreaded mulligans and if you draw it off the top of your deck you can replace it with a removal spell or a bomb creature.

Other MDFCs I like are niche cards like Spikefield Hazard and Kazuul’s Fury that are only powerful in certain situations. With a land on the back the risk of these narrow cards being useless is significantly reduced. Together the MDFCs form an interesting puzzle for limited players. How do you rate cards that are unlike anything we’ve seen before? How highly do you draft them? Do they replace lands or spells in your deck?

There are even more cool things you can do with MDFCs. You can bounce them with Tazeem Raptor or Kazandu Stomper to play both sides of the card. You can play several of the same colour as a splash. The first becomes a land that can cast the next one you draw. You can even play decks that technically don’t have lands to power up cards like Goblin Charbelcher and I’m sure clever deck builders will find more creative uses for them.

Bubble Snare

Kicker is such a great mechanic, I had to include more kicker cards. Blue removal is almost always terrible, but no-one told bubble snare. When kicked at four mana this is comparable to a traditional blue removal spell. the option to cast it for one mana is incredible in addition to potential kicker synergies. This is a fantastic common that I’m certain will be a high pick in limited and one of the all time most exciting blue removal spells.

I must also highlight Reclaim the Wastes. It has fantastic art and I’m going to love drafting a deck where this is a key card. It will let me splash any bombs I draft, ensure I never miss a land drop for landfall and trigger all the kicker payoffs. What more could you ask for from a common?

Akoum Hellhound

Zendikar wouldn’t be Zendikar without landfall. It has appeared in all three Zendikar sets. Because your landfall abilities rarely trigger outside of your turn, the mechanic leans aggressive. The original Zendikar draft format was extremely fast, in no small part thanks to Steppe Lynx. Landfall was weakened in the previous return, so I’m glad to see it restored to its former glory. With Hellhound, the Lynx is now shifted into red, and such an aggressive creature is perfect for red.

Skyclave Geopede and Brushfire Elemental are natural partners for the hellhound. The elemental in particular has incredible art. I’m happy to see such a popular mechanic got enough cheap threats to fully support an aggressive strategy.

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