“Battle For Zendikar,” the latest Magic: The Gathering set from publisher Wizards of the Coast, is a mix of everything that makes modern MTG great. There are stories deep enough to intrigue, card mechanics that feel fresh and contextual, and a return of the art styles that fans have been clamoring for. It’s a great time to be a MTG player.
In a previous set called “Rise of the Eldrazi,” a race of slumbering, god-like monsters were awakened. These Eldrazi creatures, inspired by Lovecraftian horror, were above mana, beyond reasoning. They consumed whole planets for sustenance, or mana. As a result, the cards of the set were colorless, had game-ending mechanics like “annihilator,” and boasted some of the highest casting costs in MTG history. Battle For Zendikar continues this storyline while tweaking Eldrazi mechanics, making playing these horrors both more feasible and more fun.
The story of the new set released on October 2nd informs the almost 300 cards. The very existence of Zendikar is under threat from the Eldrazi, and so even the land itself has risen up to fight. A new mechanic called “awaken” lets players pay an additional casting cost with their spells to transform lands into quickly striking creatures. And an old mechanic called “landfall,” which triggers whenever a land card is put into play, bolsters this idea of a rebelling landscape even further.
Opposite the Eldrazi are the “allies,” creatures and powerful “planeswalker” cards that activate small but rapidly accumulating “rally” abilities whenever another ally enters the fray. A single ally is certain to die attacking even mid-range Eladrazi creatures, but together they can overwhelm the unnatural giants.
As in Rise of the Eldrazi, the Cthulhu-like Eldrazi cards of the new set are colorless, but go a step further with a new modifier called “devoid,” meaning the cards themselves have no color even if they cost colored mana to cast. And though the annihilator mechanic is gone – Battle For Zendikar has dozens of Eldrazi creatures, if each had the mechanic of the old set it would break the game – it is replaced with “ingest,” which removes cards from an opponent’s deck when damage is dealt. It’s not as devastating, but it makes more sense. Ingest exiles cards, and the new Eldrazi creatures now have abilities that synergize with exiled cards. It fits with the idea that these are dimensionless demigods able to manipulate even objects that have been erased from existence.
The new and returning mechanics in Battle For Zendikar are cohesive and fun. They tell a story from their intricacies and emergent strategies alone. The fast, immediate synergy of the allies and their rally abilities encourages players to attack quickly and frequently, before the otherworldly Eldrazi and their exile abilities (which cost much more to play) finally hit the board.
While there are some cards in the set that take advantage of strategies outside of this battle (gaining life and enchanting creatures are under-developed sub-themes and the vampires creatures entering the set amid the chaos feels out of place), for the most part the cards feel perfectly positioned.
New Magic: The Gathering players can jump right into the new set with Battle For Zendikar’s accessible and well-built “Intro Packs,” which feature a full, 60-card deck ready to play. (The inclusion of two booster packs and an alternate art foil rare makes each well worth the purchase.) Returning MTG players, opening booster packs in drafts or tournaments, will enjoy the same nail-biting anticipation they always have. The rare and “mythic rare” cards featured in Battle For Zendikar are both beautiful and useful, from the board-wiping Ulamog, The Ceaseless Hunger to the mana-fixing Flooded Strand. Ripping open booster packs is even more exciting with the return of full-art land cards in the form of basic and (all foil) Zendikar Expedition lands that can search for or produce mana of more than one color. Pulling a card like the aforementioned Flooded Strand is reportedly a 1 in 215 achievement. (As a result, the best of these cards are now selling for over $200 a pop.)
And like all MTG cards, the set’s card art is unified and gorgeous, conveying the battle against the Eldrazi in varying detail. Tentacles and faceless butchers grab smaller allies who are exiled to dust. The ground itself awakens and buckles as it takes Eldrazi-smashing shape. Allies look simultaneously resolute and terrified. The artists of MTG have gone above and beyond this time, creating cards that are as fun to look at as they are to play. It’s hard not to simply stare at the card version of Ulamog like you would a real cosmic entity.
Battle For Zendikar is an immensely playable, interesting, and approachable set. New players can jump right in with starter decks brimming with story and gorgeous visuals, and returning players can augment their decks with cards that are destined to be staples across formats. Now is the best time to be a Magic: The Gathering player; the only question is, which side will you be on?
IMAGES: Credit Wizards of the Coast
NOTE: Nerdist Industries received a review set of Battle For Zendikar cards including booster and fat packs, as well as starter and event decks.
Kyle Hill is the Science Editor at Nerdist Industries, and a huge MTG nerd. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.