Battle (Box) for Zendikar
Global excitement mounts as Battle for Zendikar will be available in stores tomorrow. In this article I take a look at what the new cards have to offer the Battle Box format.
A set full of giant colorless Eldrazi and the unfortunate Zendikari that are doomed to fight them. The story sounds exciting enough, but I have to admit I was a little disappointed when I was reading through the spoiler of the set. I have seen this sentiment shared broadly on the internet, and I’m pretty sure it is premature and probably incorrect. Every spoiler season sees the internet awash with reasons why the new set will be no good, and usually I wait patiently until the dust of the first few weeks settles before I make up my mind. I’ll do that again this time, but I’m finding it harder than usual and I think the reason for this is the Devoid mechanic. For those of you unaware of the new mechanics, Devoid basically says that a card is colorless regardless of what colored mana is required to cast it. And therein lies my beef with the ability. It is not an ability. It is barely a characteristic of the card. I’m not saying the templating on Ghostfire was great, but at least my mind skipped over the meaningless line without having to process it. With a card like Fathom Feeder, my mind is distracted by a bit of text that seems important (it’s keyworded so it must be) but I don’t know how to give meaning to. Sure, there are cards that care about a card being colorless, but none of those cards actually reference the Devoid ability. I really feel that if Wizards would have found a better way to template colorlessness the set would have been much better received. Anyway, enough ranting about faulty templating, it is time to get to the fun bit. Don’t worry, I’ll even talk about which Devoid cards are exciting.
Normally in these new set articles, I would list all the changes to my Battle Boxes, but this time I want to try something different. I will not be updating any lists, but rather analyse the new mechanics of the set, how interesting they are for the Battle Box format, and which individual cards will be Battle Box stars. This way, I’m hoping to give a bit more insight in what drives the Battle Box format and what to consider when looking at which cards to include in your Box. I’ll still occasionally publish update articles for my Battle Boxes, but they will no longer be tied to the launch of a new set. This way I can also publish the article when the set comes out instead of after weeks of ordering cards and playtesting Battle Boxes.
There are three important mechanics tied to the Eldrazi: Devoid, Ingest and the Scions. As long as we are talking about Devoid, let’s see what it actually means. The mechanic tells you that a card is colorless, even if you have to pay colored mana to cast it. Like I said earlier, this ability means little unless you are playing a lot of cards that care about the color of cards. This could be cards like Barrage Tyrant but also cards like Flashfreeze. Unfortunately, the nature of the Battle Box dictates that most color specific hate cards are mediocre at best because all players are playing spells of all colors. The same is true for cards that give you a benefit for playing colorless cards; with a five color communal deck such synergies would just not come up often enough to warrant including any of these cards. There certainly are Devoid cards that are interesting to include in a Battle Box, but all of them for reasons different from the mechanic itself. The Ingest mechanic has similar issues. Exiling the top card of the communal library is meaningless in the Battle Box format, but that’s not such a big issue. I expect exiling the top card of an opponent’s library will be meaningless in most other formats, unless your deck is full of cards that want to use the cards your opponents exiled. Again, this last bit is very synergistic and therefor ill suited for the Battle Box format. The format wants cards that can stand on their own, not cards that don’t do much unless they are combined with other cards.
The last Eldrazi “mechanic”, the Eldrazi Scions, is a bit more interesting. Getting one or more 1/1 bodies as an added bonus to some spells is great, and being able to cash those bodies for an extra mana is certainly relevant. Now, the Battle Box philosophy normally excludes mana ramp because equal mana availability is one of the defining qualities of the format. With that said, I think the Scions will not prove to be problematic by creating mana imbalances. They can only give an extra mana once, and using them for a mana means losing a 1/1 body in the process. In Battle Boxes with a high mana curve, the Scions may allow players to play fatties a little ahead of the curve, but as long as those fatties don’t have hexproof or indestructible I don’t think it will be a big problem.
Below is a list of Eldrazi cards that have potential in the Battle Box format. That’s not to say that cards like Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger or Oblivion Sower aren’t interesting. They just have abilities that are either too strong for Battle Box, or are too strongly focused on lands, card draw or library searching. Or, as mentioned above, they rely too much on specific synergies. With that out of the way, the Eldrazi cards that I would consider for my Battle Boxes are:
A one-drop that leaves behind a useful body when it dies is functional if not very exciting. Works best in Battle Boxes with a relatively low curve.
Breaker of Armies
A finisher at the top end of the mana curve, this card can eliminate a large chunk of your opponent’s creatures or push your other creatures through a strong defense.
A relevant ability attached to a sacrifice outlet makes for a fun card. Because a Battle Box is not tuned to making cheap sacrifice fodder, the decision to sacrifice a creature will almost always be meaningful.
Two 10/10 Eldrazi for 10 mana should represent a top-of-the-curve threat in Battle Box. I’m not entirely sure the Twins will deliver, as they are both easy to kill and to chump block. On the other hand, the fact that there is two of them should raise some eyebrows. Definitely very flashy.
An Eldrazi that is good at any point of the curve but at the same time not overwhelming is a nice Battle Box addition. It may be that the decision when to play this will not be that interesting because you basically wait until the first instance you have no better use for your mana, but I’m willing to test it before making up my mind.
Similarly, this is a nice conditional counterspell. You could question why you would play this over Essence Scatter but I’m guessing the card counters the vast majority of cards in most Battle Boxes, and exiling the countered spell might actually be enough upside to balance the limitations.
Scour from Existence
This decade’s Desert Twister. Seven mana is steep, but it’s nice to have a few catch-all answers in the Battle Box. Be aware that this also exiles lands, although my guess is it will not often be used for that.
It’s Cone of Flame on steroids. Distributing 9 damage to three creatures for 7 mana is not a bad rate, and not being able to hit players prevents this from becoming an “oops, I win” card. Still, it may very well turn out to be too powerful after testing.
Much like with Brood Butcher, without reliable sacrifice fodder in the communal deck the decision of what creature to sacrifice will be interesting. Again, the payoff is quite strong, and the fact that you can sacrifice the Abomination to itself is a nice safety valve. There will not be a lot of synergy in sacrificing creatures through other outlets, but I’m expecting the Abomination to be good enough on its own.
Reading this card made me wonder why Ray of Command isn’t in my Battle Box. Sure, it is a bit more expensive than the red alternatives, but having instant speed does make this a nice combat trick.
Another card where you pay a slightly higher rate (than for instance Pit Fight) to get a card exiled. In the end, I don’t think the exile is worth the extra cost in this case, but I could see that having a slightly more expensive spell could actually be good for the balance in your Battle Box. For example, if your threats are all relatively expensive, your removal spells can not all be extremely efficient. Having some options to play with this balance is actually nice when you’re designing your Battle Box.
On the other side of the battlefield are the land and people of Zendikar. Even more than in the original Zendikar set, the land itself rises up to battle the Eldrazi. The four mechanics tied to the Zendikari are Allies, Landfall, Awaken and Converge. Let’s start with Allies. As you will have probably guessed, Allies rely on synergy with other Allies to be any good. And because synergies are difficult in Battle Box, well, you know. Luckily, Wizards of the Coast has evidently realized this and this time they seem to have made an effort to design Allies that work even if you don’t have a deck full of them. The abilities are still relatively expensive because of the “Ally” bonus, but at least we can find some nice utility cards here.
Landfall and Awaken are interesting abilities to consider. In Battle Box, landfall is basically triggered once every turn for the first ten turns of the game and then not triggered again after that. This makes landfall cards relatively good early in the game, and relatively bad (or even completely useless) later in the game. This doesn’t have to be bad; if your Battle Box games are mostly decided within the first 10-15 turns, I think the landfall cards are perfectly viable. If your Battle Box games tend to draw out longer, I would hesitate to put in too many landfall cards (especially the all-in ones like Retreat to Emeria). My biggest worry with the landfall cards is not power level however. I’m worried that with the Battle Box’s predictability of land drops, the landfall ability will not feel like an exciting ability but more like an administrative nuisance. In the format, there’s no way to maximize the ability by triggering it more than once in a turn, and there is little incentive to skip a land drop just to maximize a future turn. I’m afraid this will make the landfall cards much more unexciting than they are in other formats, which could be a good reason not to include them at all.
Awaken is possibly powerful in the Battle Box, but there is a great risk attached. Lands that are animated can suddenly die to simple creature removal, which goes against the “no land destruction” philosophy of the Battle Box. In a normal game of Magic, by the time you can afford to pay the Awaken cost of spells, you will probably have one or more lands that are unimportant to your mana requirements. For example, let’s say you have 4 plains in play while the spells in your deck never need more than two white mana to cast. Making one of those plains a creature has a relatively low opportunity cost, as it won’t impact your deck running smoothly. In the Battle Box format, you will never have more than three sources of any one color (two duals and one basic for each color). Losing one of those three will almost always be a big deal. Even if you don’t need the mana immediately, you cannot predict which colors you will need in future turns. My gut instinct says that one or two Awaken cards might be a fun addition to the Battle Box, even adding a little excitement because of the possibility of losing a land, but more than that will start to impact the mana balance in the box in a dangerous way.
Lastly, Converge is another mechanic that has some issues in the Battle Box format. Because it is so easy to get all 5 colors in Battle Box, the upside you’re given for having to play many colors is just too easy to achieve. As a consequence, most Converge cards are going to be too powerful for the Battle Box format. On the other hand, these mechanics do tend to feel good to try and maximize, even if that’s not actually all that hard. I’m definitely looking to include some of the more balanced Converge cards in my Battle Boxes.
Below is a list of the Allies, Landfall, Awaken and Converge cards I would consider putting into my Battle Boxes:
Angel of Renewal
Six mana is a little pricy for a 4/4 flier, but in the Battle Box, getting any 4/4 flier is usually pretty powerful. The lifegain rider will sometimes make a difference, but never so much that it will completely swing the game. All in all, a nice creature.
Similarly, this evokes (no pun intended) memories of Mulldrifter. It is slightly more expensive which I think is a good thing because frankly Mulldrifter is way too powerful for the average Battle Box.
A 2/2 flier for three with a marginal upside is exactly the right power level for most Battle Boxes.
A one-sided fog is a nice combat trick, and being able to safely add another blocker to your team is just icing.
Infuse with the Elements
Giving +4/+4 and trample should normally cost about 2 mana, so paying an extra two for the power/toughness boost to be permanent seems good but reasonable.
There are quite a few of these “grant all your creatures X” cards. I’m not that worried about only triggering the ability once, because giving your team double strike even only once seems quite powerful. A similar case could be made for Firemantle Mage, Hero of Goma Fada and Lantern Scout, but those abilities felt a bit less exciting. Of course, this is a question of taste, so feel free to use whichever creature-boosting Ally you fancy.
As I said earlier, the Retreats have a serious drawback because they are basically dead cards when drawn later in the game. That said, I like Retreat to Coralhelm and Retreat to Emeria best. Retreat to Valakut might be OK, the others seem underwhelming.
Dealing 1, 2 or 3 damage to every creature by spending your mana wisely makes for a nice Battle Box effect. A versatile but small board sweeper, which can help clear out annoying blockers or stabilize the board.
This being a symmetrical effect will make this difficult to time right. Having an extra hasty creature available afterwards can help push through some damage before your opponent can regroup.
Scatter to the Winds
Most of the time this will just be Cancel and that is fine. And sometimes you get a creature thrown in. I think it will be interesting to see whether having the mana available will always result in paying the Awaken cost. I can imagine many situations where you would refrain from animating your land for fear of losing it. As a Battle Box designer, be aware of how many Awaken cards your Box can handle; I would certainly not recommend including every Awaken card in this list.
Destroying a tapped creature with the option to awaken a land makes for a powerful but fair effect.
I think Battle for Zendikar is an interesting set that turns a lot of things we are used to upside down. I think this is for the good of the game, because it pushes everyone to be creative and to challenge their own assumptions. Unfortunately, the specific mechanics of the set just don’t fit that well with the Battle Box format. The format’s high level of randomness and fixed mana development just don’t mesh well with abilities like Landfall and Devoid. Luckily, every set always has something to offer outside of its core mechanics, and Battle for Zendikar is no exception. I’m going to leave you with a list of the best of the rest, so until next time: have fun Battle Boxing for Zendikar!
Aligned Hedron Network
Lock up every large creature for an undefined amount of time. Hits your own fatties as well, so not always useful but a nice safety valve if your box contains a larger number of big creatures. I think I would probably slightly increase my artifact removal if I were to include this in my Box.
It’s a cheap cantrip that provides a relevant ability. Sure, flying isn’t the flashiest ability, but it will at the very least be useful in most cases.
The Battle Lands
With any new dual land, it is interesting to wonder whether they might fit the Battle Box land sets. I think the battle lands provide a nice tension in that you need to play 2 basic lands first. As it is, it is not unusual for the second basic land to only hit play around turn 5 or 6, so it will force players to rethink their mana development. In the end, I think the requirement will prove to be a little too easy to achieve, but I’m willing to test these to see if I’m wrong.
A little more expensive than the average Battle Box removal, but it does get around indestructible and regeneration. -5/-5 will generally be enough to kill most creatures.
I think it’s amazing that after 22 years of making Magic, they can still find clean designs they haven’t done before. Probably my favorite card in the whole set, it will be a nice challenge to squeeze the maximum value out of this. I prefer this over Massive Raid because I try to avoid cards that win the game too suddenly.
This card reminds me of Evolutionary Leap. While the jury is still out on the power level of that card, I feel that the extra mana this costs to activate plus the fact that you’re not guaranteed to hit a creature will make this card’s power level acceptable regardless of the verdict on Evolutionary Leap. As always, be aware that drawing a card in Battle Box is more powerful because you are guaranteed to hit a non-land card.