This weekend sees the release of Battle of Zendikar (BFZ), the new Magic: The Gathering expansion – and this time the collectible card game tries fantasy-meets-Lovecraftian horror. It is the sequel to the Zendikar and Rise of the Eldrazi expansions, both released five years ago, that continue their themes with a brand new set of 250+ cards that take us back to the plane of Zendikar, a place of hidden treasures that turns out to have a dark secret bubbling beneath the surface.
To begin with, a quick note: this review is mainly aimed at new and returning Magic players. Intermediate to expert players may want to move on, where we’ll discuss how BFZ can affect the competitive scene or figure in a higher level deck building strategy. With that out of the way… bring on the tentacles!
With the advent of Hearthstone and other digital TCGs, MagicYou may already be familiar with the game’s core concepts: customizable decks of cards that compete against each other using both minions and spells, with the goal of killing the other player while defending your own health points. unlike Hearthstone, Magic also contains land cards, which produce mana – the fuel that powers your spells – and also allows players to act during their opponent’s turn, sometimes ending with both players throwing spells back and forth to try to make a key – or counter Play.
The first thing you notice when you pick up something new Battle of Zendikar cards is the work of art. It’s as beautiful as it is disturbing, with plenty of tentacle-infested horrors against the normal-looking humanoid natives of Zendikar. The real stars are the landscapes where the battles take place: finally, and after much shouting from the player base, BFZ finally sees the return of “full-art” countries eschewing the normal half-art design for a map that is 90% art.
The set’s headliners are the giant Eldrazi Titans – massive abominations from the Blind Eternities, the spaces between worlds – and Planeswalkerswhat kind of people returning to Magic after a break of ten years will be completely new. The Eldrazi roaming Zendikar are the spawn of the titan Ulamog, whose card costs a whopping ten mana and, as our editor recently found out, ends the game in short order when released. Ulamog’s minions make up about half of the set’s creatures, with the rest of the cards representing the plane’s desperate, defensive natives.
Planeswalker cards represent allies that are much stronger than mere minions, but also have several vulnerabilities. This set brings us Gideon, Kiora, and Ob Nixilis, each returning from a previous set, but with a new card representing them at this point in the storyline. These cards are powerful and satisfying to play, but balanced by being attackable as if they were a player who gives everything Magic decks a way to fight them.
The other thing you’ll notice when browsing through a pack of the new expansion is the language on the cards. Magic past cards tend to use simple, if overtly nerdy, words: counterplay, Dark ritualand yes, there is even one Bolt of lightning. Once you pick up some cards from BFZhowever, you immediately see that the Eldrazi come from another world, another setting. The words you find on their cards are otherworldly…devour, process, ingest. scion, drone—while the defenders, on the other hand, use landing, rallyand wake up. These words describe special skills and help you learn what cards do without having to read the exact details every time.
In Magicdo your dead creatures usually go to a place called the cemeterybut BFZ is something else: those evil, chulical Eldrazi are not satisfied with ordinary kill. Instead, many creatures and spells have the banishment effect, which usually completely removes another card from play. Creatures with the ingestion feature doesn’t even wait to kill anything – they ban directly from an opponent’s deck when they wound them. processor Eldrazi can use these cards in your enemy’s exile deck for additional effects, returning them to the graveyard as part of their cost. For people who haven’t played yet Magic for a few years this will feel like a very unusual style of play. But it’s purposely weird depicting the otherworldly nature of the Eldrazi, and it hits that nail on the head. It can be a little frustrating to have one part of the combination without the other, but it’s well balanced – it doesn’t happen often enough to spoil the overall experience.
At the bottom of the Eldrazi be hierarchy count, small henchmen that are summoned in various ways: sometimes as a small bonus to your spells, or sometimes alongside your Eldrazi drones. These little guys can fight smaller creatures, nibble on your opponent, or be sacrificed for a one-time boost to your mana.
And you’re going to need those boosts because there are some massive spells to cast, not just Ulamog itself. One of the beloved features of the original Zendikar were giant monsters, and BFZ does not disappoint. Cards like Breaker of armies, Leadership of Ruinand Invalid Winner represent towering abominations, some with unusual (and fun!) abilities. destroyera mechanic from the original set that made it difficult to fight back against these cards has been removed, making the game feel less hopeless for someone facing one of the huge monsters.
The residents of Zendikar who band together to fight back against the Eldrazi is represented by the rally mechanic, where each creature boosts your team when you play it, then repeats that boost when you play more rose creatures. Wrap-around decks rally are well designed to counterbalance the slower, menacing threat of the Eldrazi, with good results. This is an evolution of a similar (but unnamed) mechanic in the original Zendikar set for rose creatures, but feels much better to play with as it always boosts your whole team instead of just one allies.
The living world of Zendikar is represented by its mechanics landfall and wake upthe first of which returns from the original Zendikar. Landfall makes your cards get some kind of bonus when you place a country, which players are usually allowed to do once per turn. Usually this means playing a rhythm of landing and then attacking your opponent with your boosted creatures. However, as you begin to see more of the set, you’ll see cards designed to be smart about this – cards that pick up more lands, even on your opponent’s turns, allowing you to suddenly boost or destroy a defender. respond to a key spell. awakening appears as an added bonus on some spells in exchange for casting them with more mana. By casting these spells for their awakening cost, one of your countries will “wake up” into a creature, which can then fight for you as any creature can.
There’s an interesting tension between playing your land to build up enough mana to cast your massive spells versus stopping them from activating landfall on certain key cards. It also helps reduce the problem of your draw being an unwanted country later in the game. Overall, it’s a simple but solid mechanic with plenty of room to explore. awakening also gives the player options for their cards at low and high mana counts, which has the double bonus of introducing another decision point (allowing players to show skill by choosing correctly) and of preventing the card from becoming unusable if you is stuck on low mana (removing a potential frustration for players).
There are also plenty of special countries to play with. In addition to the basic lands that form the basis of most decks, there are lands that grant a small bonus when played, such as boosting one of your creatures, or later turning into creatures themselves. There are also countries that can produce more than one color of mana, with the disadvantage that they are not always immediately available for use. All of these options add up to more tools for deckbuilders, without severely penalizing players who start with the baselands.
Finally, speaking of countries, there’s something special going on Battle of Zendikar that might appeal to the gambler in you. Some packs of BFZ have a super rare foil card (shiny) from the set-in-a-set: Zendikar Expeditions. These cards are a special group of countries, with deceptively simple effects that experienced players know to be very powerful. While there has been much debate about the effect of super rare cards on a deck, as well as speculation about how this affects the secondary market and the cost of accessing tournament formats, for the most part they are just fun and very visually appealing – additional. Following the pre-release event last week, some Expedition Cards are already selling on auction sites for over £100.