Battle for Zendikar is the first set in the Battle for Zendikar block, Wizards of the Coast's return to the much beloved world of Zendikar. Released on October 02, 2015, this set was also the first in Wizards of the Coast's new block structuring for Magic: The Gathering, in which blocks would contain only two sets instead of three, and Standard rotation would happen on a much more frequent basis.
Today, TechRaptor will be taking a look back at Battle for Zendikar from a competitive standpoint, looking at how well the set performed in the Limited Draft and Sealed formats, and looking at what contributions the set made to Standard and the non-rotating formats of Modern, Legacy, and Vintage. We'll also be looking at Battle for Zendikar from a setting viewpoint, seeing how well it carried on the original Zendikar's flavor and themes while adding its own distinct feeling to the lore. Finally, we'll touch on the Zendikar Expeditions, a product that was released alongside Battle for Zendikar, but isn't a part of the overall set.
Much like the original Zendikar set, Battle for Zendikar contained special treasures with low odds of finding one in Booster Packs. Unlike the original "Priceless Treasures," which were authentic Reserved List cards inserted randomly into Booster Packs, the "Zendikar Expeditions" were special foil full-art printings of the ten fetch lands, ten shock lands, and the five ally-colored "battle lands" from Battle for Zendikar. I'm of two minds on the Zendikar Expeditions; I did think they were a good call back to the original Priceless Treasures and gave players something to "hunt" for, in reference to the original Zendikar themes of treasure hunting and exploration. I also liked that, unlike the Priceless Treasures, players could use Zendikar Expeditions if they pulled one during Draft or Sealed events.
However, instead of letting players discover them organically, Wizards of the Coast spoiled them during spoiler season and used them to hype up interest for Battle for Zendikar. Many players now feel that the Zendikar Expeditions were used to sell what would have been an otherwise underwhelming set. Additionally, the foiling process used for the Zendikar Expeditions was prone to errors; I myself pulled a Scalding Tarn with a mis-cut corner, and the foiling started to chip away at the top and sides as I sleeved it. Other players have also encountered these same errors and reported them to Wizards of the Coast, so it certainly isn't an isolated incident. For what is supposed to be a premium product, the Zendikar Expeditions seem like anything but. In fact, I would compare the feel and quality of the foiling to another product with similar issues, the From the Vault series.
Battle for Zendikar contained two hundred and seventy-four cards—seventeen of those cards were reprints from previous sets. Of those seventeen cards, only seven were originally printed in the Zendikar block (Dispel, Dragonmaster Outcast, Evolving Wilds, Felidar Sovereign, Goblin War Paint, Pilgrim's Eye, and Territorial Baloth). For many players, who were expecting reprints of powerful (and setting-defining) cards from the Zendikar block like Stoneforge Mystic and Goblin Guide, the decision to reprint cards that saw very limited use when they first were printed was baffling. Even the non-Zendikar cards were of similar uselessness.
This feeling was only compounded by the fact that very few of the cards in Battle for Zendikar were actually usable in Constructed formats like Standard. The Eldrazi, once mighty behemoths with the terrifying Annihilator ability, were reduced to run-of-the-mill generic creatures and, barring a few outliers, didn't fit into any of the existing Tarkir-Origins archetypes or had enough support to stand as their own archetypes. The replacement for Annihilator, Devoid, was confusing to new and returning players and widely panned as an unnecessary addition to the Eldrazi, as was the second new ability, Ingest. Landfall, once a very strong mechanic in the Zendikar block and one that players were looking forward to seeing again, was watered down in comparison to its original iteration. Even Rally, the ability word for the Ally Creature subtype, was unusable due to not having enough support and having inconsistent effects.
The few cards that were used from Battle from Zendikar all but disappeared once Khans of Tarkir and Fate Reforged rotated out of Standard when Shadows Over Innistrad released. Without being able to run the mana-fixing fetch lands from Khans of Tarkir, the three-and-four color decks that had swept Standard disappeared, as did the cards that were only usable in three-or-four color decks (such as Bring to Light and Radiant Flames). Even when the fetch lands were in Standard, cards from Battle from Zendikar were limited to Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, Drana, Liberator of Malakir, Exert Influence, Painful Truths, Bring to Light, Radiant Flames, and the allied-color battle lands.
In the non-rotating formats, such as Modern, only Bring to Light sees any play, and only in a select few Scapeshift decks. None of the cards from Battle for Zendikar see use in Legacy or Vintage, which is to be expected—it's very hard for new cards to make it into those formats.
Limited (Draft and Sealed) was similarly a disappointment. An overabundance of abilities and mechanics all the way down to common-rarity cards meant that constructing a playable deck relied on having an exceptionally high-quality card pool, even more than usual in other sets' Limited formats. While there were a variety of archetypes in Limited (Red/Green Landfall being one of the most prominent), the lack of any real support combined with low-playability of most cards meant that the new mechanics in Battle for Zendikar (Awaken, Converge, Ingest, and Rally) really shown in Limited games; though, the lack of any Constructed-playable cards, combined with the fact that the weak Battle for Zendikar block was stuck between the very strong Tarkir and Shadows Over Innistrad blocks, meant that Limited was really the only place they would be viable.
Unfortunately, the flavor of Battle for Zendikar draws just as much criticism as its gameplay. Where the original Zendikar block had themes of exploration, adventure, and treasure hunting, Battle for Zendikar has none of that. The focus of the set (and ultimately the block, which we'll get into with our Oath of the Gatewatch review) was on the war between the Gatewatch and the natives of Zendikar, and the Eldrazi and the demonic Ob Nixilis. As stated earlier in the article, the Eldrazi, once a massive, terrifying, overwhelmingly power force, were reduced to generic threats with no real individuality. Instead of feeling like an insurmountable force that not even the strongest of the Planeswalkers could vanquish permanently, they became filler and a manageable threat. Instead of feeling like a distinctly alien presence on Zendikar, they felt only a little foreign and were much more generic in design and functionality. The only Eldrazi that really captured the feeling of the original Zendikar block—of big, threatening, bizarre-looking eldritch monstrosities—were Desolation Twin, Bane of Bala Ged, Void Winnower, and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. The allied forces were dysfunctional, trying to capture the experience of an entire world coming together to defend itself while only really touching on key figures within the group (mostly the Planeswalkers that would go on to form the Gatewatch in Oath of the Gatewatch).
It really is a shame; Zendikar was a fan-favorite block for many reasons to players, and it feels like Wizards of the Coast focused on the wrong parts of the Zendikar block, resulting in something that was very dysfunctional and inconsistent, and failed to have any noticeable impact on Standard or other formats, while also not carrying on Zendikar's themes or focuses.
Defining cards: Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger was one of the few Eldrazi that really captured the original feel of the Eldrazi during the Zendikar block—it was big, it was monstrous, and it had an absolutely devastating effect on your opponents. Kiora, Master of the Depths was also one of the defining cards for Battle for Zendikar, due to her ability to provide ramp effects while also dropping large creatures once her Emblem was on the field. Finally, Omnath, Locus of Rage was the strongest example of Landfall done right in Battle for Zendikar, as it had massive benefits for you not only when lands entered the battlefield, but also when your Elemental Creatures died. Omnath was also really the best example of the plane of Zendikar rising up to fight against the Eldrazi—nothing says "go away Eldrazi" more than a massive, angry representation of the elements.
Notes on price and print run: Booster Packs have an MSRP of $3.99 and Fat Packs have an MSRP of $39.99; the set has a normal production run so product quantities aren't restricted. However, due to Wizards of the Coast marketing the Zendikar Expeditions, and the fact that the Fat Packs contain an eighty card full-art "basic land pack," many game stores charged well upwards of MSRP for Fat Packs. If you could find one at or near MSRP, you were a lucky player indeed.
Bottom line: Battle for Zendikar is a travesty of a set that fails to capture not only the atmosphere of the original Zendikar block, but also the mechanics and gameplay players were hoping to see, and has had little to no impact on Standard or any of the non-rotating formats. The set's setting, the Zendikar Expeditions, and the full-art lands were used by Wizards of the Coast to hype up an underwhelming and lackluster set, and if it wasn't for those things, the set would have been forgotten immediately.
If you didn't purchase any product from this set, or play in Draft or Standard during this time, you're really not missing out.
The author of this review participated in Battle for Zendikar drafts, pre-release events, Standard format competitions and purchased Battle for Zendikar product at his local game store.