This coming weekend, September 26 and 27, thousands of game stores around the world will host prerelease tournaments for the upcoming Magic: The Gathering extension, Battle of Zendikar (BFF). Today, partly for journalistic reasons and partly to satisfy my own deeply geeky tendencies, I invited Wizards of the Coast to Ars Technica headquarters to play a few rounds BFZ. If you’re not sure if you’re going to a prerelease event, or if you just want a little more information on what a prerelease event entails, read on for our experiences playing prerelease Battle of Zendikar. (Spoiler: It’s really, really good.)
I should preface this story by saying that I’m a bit of a Magic Newcomer; I played quite a lot when I was a teenager, but only started playing again early this year after a 15-year hiatus. I’m still learning my way around a lot of the new Magic mechanics, and I have limited experience with non-kitchen table formats, such as booster draft or sealed deck.
Fortunately the Battle of Zendikar Prerelease Pack is quite beginner friendly. Inside it are six booster packs, a spin-down life counter, and a handy little pamphlet that tells you how to build a decent deck. I’ve never played the sealed deck format before, so I just followed the printed instructions. I was a little worried about choosing the right suits and building a deck with a somewhat healthy mana curve, but apparently just following the instructions was enough: after our little play session ended, the Wizards employee said that my card game was pretty solid.
(In case you’re wondering, the best card I drew was Undergrowth Champion. No mega-rare expeditions for me, unfortunately.)
To play Battle of Zendikar Advance edition
After we built our decks, it was time to play BFZ. I stared across the table Dan Barrettthe European community manager for Wizards of the Coast, who, much to my chagrin, has a lot of booster draft and sealed deck Magic over the years. I won the dice roll and decided to play first. “You’re going down,” I said uncertainly, trying to tease Dan.
I had a strong start: I bravely chose a deck of three suits, and drew a country of each type in my starting hand. Furthermore, I had a few cards that I could play in the first two turns, and a 7-mana Eldrazi, Bane or Bala Ged; a pretty strong hand, all in all. After the first few turns, I was in a strong position: I had played a flying creature that Dan couldn’t block in turn three, and it had reduced him to 11 hit points. Through a clever use of Landfall I had also managed to get my life total to 26. I won’t lie: I felt pretty confident. I could really beat someone from Wizards of the Coast…
Finally, around turn 7, I played Bane of Bala Ged. In most cases, the strange and tentacular Eldrazi – a mysterious elder race of Cthulu-esque plane-hopping demigods – would have won me the game. Unfortunately, on the next turn, Dan had the perfect counter in his hand: Scour from Existence, which immediately banished my creature from the battlefield. Damn.
The game then went on for about 10 more turns, each of us building up bigger and bigger ground armies. Dan used one of the expansion’s new mechanics – Processors – to build a small army of scions, while I used another new mechanic – Awaken – to build an army of killer islands. Eventually I also got the Undergrowth Champion in the game. But neither of us could really find an opening. In Magic, the battle is strongly in favor of the defender, and neither of us could muster a force large enough to break the bilateral siege. Dan hovered turn after turn at only four hit points, but I lacked the ability to deliver the killing blow.
And then, with about 10 cards left, Dan drew Ulamog, the incessant hunger and the bottom fell from my level of existence. Ulamog is the most powerful card in BFZ, and so much more powerful than all the creatures that were printed when I first started playing Magic. When Ulamog enters the battlefield, if you can’t counterspell him or kill him before the first attack, you’ve probably lost. And that’s exactly what happened: I lost.
But hey, no hard feelings. I had a lot of fun building a deck and the new Battle of Zendikar cards were also a lot of fun to play with. Mechanics like Landfall and Awaken made the late game much more interesting, while the ubiquitous threat of huge creatures with high mana costs meant there was always an element of fearful doom; you knew a great, world-ending being was coming, you just don’t know when. I’m excited to rip open even more packs and build some constructed decks when the expansion officially releases on October 2nd.
Before then, however, there are the Battle of Zendikar prerelease events on September 26 and 27. If you are an expired Magic player like me, and you’ve been thinking about getting back into it, you should consider coming along to one of the events. The entrance fee varies from store to store (probably £15-20), but you get to keep the contents of the Prerelease Pack and you’ll have a few hours of fun with it too. Visit the Wizards Store & Event Locator to find your nearest game store.
If you are a complete Magic newbie, then i would suggest to download the new (and free to play) Magic duels computer game, which is available on Steam, and the iOS and Xbox One app stores. Wizards has not announced when the new BFZ cards are added duelingbut hopefully soon.
We’ll be getting a full look at the Battle for Zendikar expansion in the coming weeks.