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Magic: The Gathering—Battle for Zendikar Review

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Magic: The Gathering is a long-running collectible card game that encourages you to buy packs of cards, open those cards, and holler in excitement or scream in rage when you do or do not get the cards you want. Developed during the proliferative era of the 1990s, when thin plastic, cheap cardboard, and hobby shops seemed infinite and beautiful, this basic fact of randomization frames every single interaction with the game. The most competitive decks are in the hundreds of dollars. Playing a sealed format, where you (relatively cheaply) buy cards at the location and play with them, has an entire weird economic principle that often causes people to make objectively bad gameplay choices (or choose not to play at all) because of what they do or do not open in their random packs.

The newest set of Magic, named Battle for Zendikar, leans powerfully into the randomization effect, and it leans so much that it might be the most important quality to talk about in this set. That’s sad, by the way, because the card content of the set from a design and flavor perspective is some of the most excellent that I’ve seen in my time playing Magic. More on that later, but at the top we need to address that ultimate randomization experience: Expeditions.

If you’re not familiar, Expeditions are very special foil lands that appear very rarely in packs of Magic cards. By “rare,” I mean that they appear slightly more commonly than foil mythics. The hierarchy of Magic cards goes like this: there are eleven common cards, three uncommon cards, and one mythic or rare in every pack. The mythic rarity is the most enchanted, and there are around four or five of those rares in each booster box. The chance of getting a foil mythic is about one per case, or one per six booster boxes, or numerically stated 1/216. If you bought those at your local Wal-Mart, it might cost you around $860 plus tax. Buying them from your local game store would be cheaper.

Expeditions drove most of the conversation about Battle for Zendikar over the past few months. People pre-ordered boxes and cases based on the early speculation of prices around the cards, with the highest prices being estimated at $400 or more for some of the most in-demand Expeditions. The randomized contents of Fat Packs, a kind of “here’s what the set is” collectors box, were even more highly valued, and post-release these packs are selling for nearly twice their MSRP.

Expeditions drove sales, and popular opinion was that the massive amount of product would be opened so that people could find the Expeditions. Now that the set is released, where are we?

Some Expeditions are worth a lot of money. Some of them aren’t. Incredibly useful cards for Standard play (which is where you build a deck with currently-released sets) like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Drana, Liberator of Malakir seem to be holding their $20+ prices, and everything else in the set is continually dropping like a rock as more and more cards get opened every week.

That’s the economic frame of Battle For Zendikar, and I can’t help mentioning it up top because many people have focused on that to the exclusion of everything else. Zendikar is as much about the spectacle of shiny cards in the public discourse as it is about the actual play of those cards, but I want to talk about the latter more than the former, so with the discourse around Expeditions firmly planted in your head, I want to talk about playing a card game.

Battle for Zendikar is a sequel block (a set of discrete sets of printed cards) to 2009’s Zendikar block, which was made up of the sets Zendikar, Worldwake, and Rise of the Eldrazi. The basic idea of Zendikar is that it is “adventure world,” a place where the land floats around willy-nilly. In every hidey hole there’s a treasure; that treasure is surrounded by peril. It’s a tomb raider experience, and Zendikar itself was chock full of trap cards, weird interactions, and fun creatures.

Rise of the Eldrazi, the set that closed out the Zendikar block, raised the stakes. Some planeswalkers released the Eldrazi titans named Ulamog, Kozilek, and Emrakul. Without going too deep into the lore, the Titans are giant, unthinkable monsters that cannot be defeated by traditional means. They consume the land around them. They take over other beings, spawn giant monsters, and are totally colorless (in contrast to the colored mana of 90% of other things in Magic).

In the story of Zendikar, the planeswalkers looked at the Eldrazi and got the hell out of there. Many sets have happened since then, but now those planeswalkers are back to try to beat up the Eldrazi themselves. It’s going to be hard.

The cards of Battle for Zendikar are based around these two factions, the Allies who are attempting to fight the Eldrazi and the Eldrazi broods themselves. The former are based in the colors white, black, and red, and they have some of the best creature-killing spells in the set like Smite the Monstrous and Gideon’s Reproach at their disposal. The Allies are made out of a giant cohort of different species, and they’re all united, with most of them having a “Rally” ability that grants battle benefits to other creatures when they or other Allies enter the battlefield.

Also, they have vampires on their team. If you have vampires on your team, you’re going to have a good time.

The other side, the Eldrazi, also exist across all colors, but are concentrated in black, green, and blue. However, in a great twist, the Eldrazi cards all have the Devoid ability, which means that the cards are all colorless for the purposes of the game (if this means something to you already, you understand why it is neat; if you don’t, it isn’t worth learning why). Where the Allies want to help out their team by Rallying, the Eldrazi want to Ingest and Process. Ingesting is a mechanic where a creature that does damage to a player will force that player to exile the top card of their library. Processing is an ability on other, usually bigger, Eldrazi where they can remove those exiled cards for some kind of sweet effect. For example, Oracle of Dust can process through cards to allow you to filter through your deck a little bit later in the game.

The major mechanics of Battle for Zendikar haven’t quite penetrated into the larger competitive metagame of constructed Magic play, though. For the most part, a scant few cards have been added to the previous competitive mainstays, and we’re still waiting for Battle for Zendikar’s cards to make a splash in the competitive scene as cards that you build around as opposed to cards that you augment with.

For a new player who is interested in getting into Magic right now, there are a few products that you can pick up. The Event Deck is a premade Standard deck that you could take to any card shop this Friday to try to pick up some wins. It’s excellent to play with, and does a lot of work to drain the life of your opponent if you like the idea of that. There are also several Intro Packs, which are decks constructed around a particular theme like “attack with a bunch of allies” or “get big Eldrazi” on the board. They’re the sampler platter for the set, and if any of the set ideas that I’ve talked about previously in this article get you excited about playing the game, then check one of these packs out ASAP.

Magic: The Gathering is a game that has a reputation for being hostile to new players, but Battle for Zendikar is weird enough that it proves welcoming for new and old players alike. Its interactions are fairly well self-contained, and if you have the opportunity to Draft or play a Sealed game with the cards in the set, you should give it a chance. I’ve Drafted the set around ten times at this point, winning about as much as I lose, and each time has been an opportunity to do strange things with unfamiliar cards. I like to laugh and have fun while playing Magic, and Zendikar has provided ample opportunity for comedy. That’s one of the highest compliments that I can have for a set, so if that gets you excited, find a local store and start playing (and convince a friend to go with you.)

Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.

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