Zendikar Rising: A Limited Primer
Artwork by YW Tang, C and TM Wizards of the Coast 2020
In just a few days, we’ll all see Zendikar Rising on Arena and in pre-release kits! Although I’m disappointed that the Eldrazi are gone, I’m wildly excited about the Limited design of this set. Zendikar Rising has a host of seemingly simple mechanics and themes that belie a hidden complexity in drafting and in gameplay. Let’s dive in!
Mechanics and Themes
Here are the key mechanics and themes to be aware of:
Zendikar Rising features four classes, represented as a creature subtype. Each class has its own themes; and is primary in one color, secondary in another, tertiary in a third, and absent in a fourth.
- Primary in blue, secondary in red, tertiary in white, absent in black
- Bonuses for casting instants/sorceries/Wizard creatures
- Card advantage and selection: drawing, scrying, looting, rummaging
- Evasive aggression
- Primary in red, secondary in white, tertiary in black, absent in blue
- Buffs: +1/+1 counters, temporary attack bonuses
- Primary in black, secondary in white, tertiary in red, absent in white
- Mill, bonuses if opponent has 8+ cards in graveyard
- Menace, can’t be blocked
- Defensive creatures, deathtouch
- Sneak in with a few, defend with the rest
- Primary in white, secondary in black, tertiary in blue, absent in red
- Tap effects
- Slow mid-range strategy
Notice that Green is not mentioned in these descriptions; that’s because it’s tertiary in all classes.
Classes guide you towards a specific style of play, with effects that work together to form a unified strategy. There are also class-specific cards that encourage you to build a one-class deck: ones that benefit from having other creatures of the same class, others that give bonuses to all cards of a particular class, and some with effects that scale with the number of class cards you have in play. However, there’s an added wrinkle, which is...
Party cards encourage you to play with multiple classes, providing a scaling bonus such as mana reduction for a spell or some other effect.
There are a few cards - all Rare - which give you an extra bonus if you have a full Party in play: one each of Cleric, Rogue, Warrior, and Wizard.
Party is the sort of mechanic that will sometimes just happen: you’ll cast a spell and realize that it’s cheaper than you expect, and think “oh, neat”. Many players will only discover its true power after multiple games of Zendikar Rising. At that point, I expect more people to draft multi-class decks with more deliberation - and to take more care in destroying their opponent’s Party before some devastating effect can go off.
A Limited deck can often be stifled if it has too few early plays or not enough expensive finishers. Kicker grants you the flexibility of having one card be both!
These sorts of cards ease your mana curve, but also result in difficult gameplay decisions. Is it better to cast a creature early and without Kicker to maintain a board presence? Or is it more important to save it for later when you can take advantage of its powerful Kicker effect?
For many players, Landfall is the Zendikar mechanic, and it’s no surprise to see it return in Zendikar Rising. Landfall will most often result in a +X/+X buff to a creature, but some cards have other Landfall effects.
The Landfall mechanic is further supported by cards that return lands to your hand or enable multiple Landfall triggers to go off in a turn.
Note that there are no Landfall creatures with a Party subtype; instead, they’re all wild creatures such as Beasts or Snakes or Insects. Don’t expect to play a Limited deck that’s dedicated to both class mechanics and Landfall. Landfall is primary in Red, Green, and White; Black and Blue cards with Landfall mostly serve to support other strategies.
The equipment in Zendikar Rising have a new twist: they all attach themselves to one of your creatures when they come into play. In that sense, they’re more like Auras that can be moved around and which don’t fizzle if the targeted creature is removed.
There aren’t a ton of cards that specifically care about equipped creatures, but that’s because Equipment cards are already very effective at eating large chunks of your opponent’s life total. I expect many aggressive Zendikar Rising decks to feature these cards.
+1/+1 counters are in a lot of sets, but they’re heavily featured in Zendikar Rising. There are cards that put +1/+1 counters on creatures; there are also cards that are more powerful if you control creatures with +1/+1 counters.
The +1/+1 counter cards in Zendikar Rising aren’t as explosive as past Limited strategies that use the same mechanic, such as Boros Mentor from Guilds of Ravnica or any deck with Winding Constrictor in Aether Revolt. Many of the payoffs are tied into Landfall or Kicker or Party, and will require both patience and planning to be effective.
Modal Double-Faced Spells/Lands
The modal double-faced cards - MDFCs for short - in Zendikar Rising can be played as either spells or lands. The spells are worse than they would be if they were non-modal - compare the three mana Act of Treason to the five mana Song-Mad Treachery - but that cost is balanced by the flexibility of being able to play the card as a land.
What does that mean? A typical Limited deck has 23 spells and 17 lands. If you replace spells with these MDFCs, you increase your potential land count without diminishing the chances of drawing a castable spell: perfect for decks that depend on Landfall, or Kicker decks that want to consistently play six+ lands.
Alternatively, you can replace lands with MDFCs, thereby ensuring that you rarely flood out. This would seem ideal for an aggressive deck... except the land side of non-mythic MDFCs all come into play tapped. As a result, I don’t think aggro decks would want to cut multiple lands for MDFCs; maybe one or two at most. On the other hand, an aggressive midrange deck - think +1/+1 counters - may want to do exactly that. Keep in mind that if you go this route, you will have to draft in an extremely disciplined manner, as you are effectively drafting your spells and your lands.
Previously marginal effects will see wider play. In most Limited formats, I wouldn’t dream of playing a card such as Zof Consumption. In Zendikar Rising I expect that I’ll lose to that card quite a bit!
The removal in Zendikar Rising looks very strong. Black has multiple super-efficient removal spells at common and uncommon; Red has a three damage spell that hits any target; Blue’s standard “tap” aura can be played for only one mana.
However it’s important to note that most of the cheap removal spells are sorceries, with most of the instant-speed removal spells either expensive or conditional on mechanics like Party. That makes it more difficult to interact with equipment, Landfall, or a strong Party effect. As a result, you may need to be proactive in the early game if you suspect the opponent will quickly strike with those mechanics. Note that these mechanics also make Blue tempo effects that bounce or tap a creature at instant speed far more powerful, as it’s an easy way to negate a self-equipping equipment or to diminish a Party effect.
The fixing in Zendikar Rising is very, very bad - worse even than War of the Spark! There are no lands that provide generic mana fixing, nor are there any artifacts that efficiently produce colored mana.
As a result, unless you’re base Green, I would strongly suggest being disciplined and limiting yourself to two-color decks in Zendikar Rising.
Let’s take a look at the Zendikar Rising Limited archetypes! As per modern Limited design, each two-color pair has a “signpost uncommon” that explains how those colors are supposed to play.
White/Blue: Patient Party
It can take time to build up a Party, but if you do so with care then the White/Blue Party cards will have some amazing payoffs for you. Drawing three cards and gaining three life for six mana at instant speed isn’t bad... and it’s flat out insane if it costs four, three, or even two mana.
Of course, you still have to win the game somehow, and both Emeria Captain and Seafloor Stalker provide excellent Party-based ways of doing so. The trick with the White/Blue Party deck is to survive long enough for your Party to be established so that you can reap the benefits, so make sure to draft cheap defensive creatures and low-cost interaction.
Clerics are the class with the least defined strategy. There’s a lifegain theme, but any experienced Magic player knows that gaining life is not the same thing as winning the game.
However, there are a few cards that provide game-winning effects if you can consistently gain life. These effects are slow, but White/Black is good at slowing your opponent down to make sure you have the time to win, while reanimating any key creature that might have died along the way. You probably won’t win quickly with a WB deck, but you can definitely get there.
Blue/Black: Rogues (Mill)
The Blue/Black Rogue deck is full of cards that seem ineffective or mediocre - until the opponent has 8+ cards in their graveyard. Then those cards become incredible and hard to defend against. The trick then is to mill your opponent as fast as possible, something that Soaring Thought-Thief does very well.
A few Rogue cards are more subtle in their power. Merfolk Windrobber will rarely become a powerhouse beater, but it helps you mill your opponent before turning into what will hopefully be a better card. Also note that many Rogue creatures have some kind of evasion - anything from flying to menace to unblockable. That makes Mind Carver especially strong, as it ensures that you have a way to quickly close out a game.
Blue/Red: Wizards (Instants/Sorceries)
Blue/Red instants-and-sorceries is a not-uncommon Limited archetype that is hampered by the tension between needing sufficient non-creature spells while still maintaining a high enough creature count to reliably affect the board. Zendikar Rising addresses that problem by batching instant and sorceries together with Wizards. This enables a nicely aggressive and evasive strategy.
That aggression doesn’t always have to come in the form of combat damage. Rockslide Sorcerer provides an alternative damage engine that can clear away troublesome creatures or provide the final points of damage. And remember that Blue/Red is not quite as all-in as a low-curve aggro deck, with cards like Windrider Wizard giving you good card selection to find the right cards at the right time.
Black/Red: Aggressive Party
Similarly to the Rakdos decks in Ravnica Allegiance, Black/Red in Zendikar Rising is an aggro party; unlike those Rakdos decks, you don’t want the participants on your side to explode. A BR Limited deck usually plans on trading creatures away for damage, but in Zendikar Rising you want your Party creatures to survive for even more damage, as Ravager’s Mace illustrates.
Malakir Blood-Priest illustrates this strategy as well; draining your opponent for four is much better than draining them for one. And Shatterskull Minotaur encourages this playstyle in a slightly more indirect fashion: a 5/4 haste creature is reasonable for six mana, terrifying for four mana, and utterly insane for two mana.
Black/Green: +1/+1 Counters
In some Limited formats, the +1/+1 counter strategy is extremely aggressive. In Zendikar Rising it trades some of its offensive oomph for longer-term payoffs, something that Moss-Pit Skeleton illustrates very well. Its stats are good-but-not-great, but the ability to continually recurse a 5/5 can be backbreaking for your opponent in a long drawn out game. Doing so requires drafting the proper synergies, however.
Skyclave Shadowcat is another card that illustrates how +1/+1 counters can work well in the later turns of a game. Of course it’s still possible to simply grow a creature past an unprepared opponent’s defenses, and simply use a card like Gnarlid Colony to trample through for the win.
The Red/White Warriors deck doesn’t have a complex plan: just hit and hit and hit until you win!
This kind of super-aggressive strategy is even better in a set such as Zendikar Rising because many of the other mechanics are either non-defensive (Landfall) or slow (Party, Kicker). Draft commons such as Goma Fada Vanguard and Paired Tactician highly, play them on curve, and take an unwary opponent by surprise!
Red/Green: Aggressive Landfall
Red/Green encourages an aggressive Landfall deck: play creatures with Landfall on curve, play a land every turn, and beat your opponent down for the victory!
A Red/Green Landfall deck won’t want to spend too much time playing around with increasing their Landfall triggers through ramping or by bouncing their own lands. Instead you’ll want a couple of MDFCs to increase your deck’s land count while still ensuring you have enough spells to affect the board.
Green/White: Mid-Range Landfall
The Green/White uncommon is quite powerful in enabling both additional Landfall triggers and in ensuring that you’ll have lands in hand to make those Landfall triggers. You can’t use both abilities in one turn however, and so there’s a greater element of decision making with Green/White Landfall decks.
Although you’ll still be able to occasionally wreck your opponent by playing aggressive Green and White Landfall creatures on the curve, the archetype is more slanted towards a mid-range game plan. Makindi Ox is a potent finisher in such a deck; combine it with cards like Murasa Rootgrazer and Scale the Heights to tap down an opponent’s entire board, and you’ll find yourself falling into an easy victory.
A Kicker deck can be slow; fortunately Lullmage’s Familiar mitigates some of that drawback by giving you a way to increase your life total, buying you time to reach the endgame: casting superpowered spells for a lot of mana.
There are other ways to strengthen a Kicker strategy. Murasa Sproutling lets you play a card with kicker both early and late. And Roost of Drakes gives you a win condition that’s hard to eliminate. A Green/Blue Kicker deck needs to have a plan to deal with faster strategies, but once it reaches the late game it will be very hard to beat.
- Zendikar Rising is highly synergistic, and less of a “good cards” format. You’ll need to draft carefully and with discipline if you want an effective Landfall or Party deck.
- The mechanics of Zendikar Rising are simple, but the gameplay is not. A Green/White Landfall deck will want to carefully plan for a turn when it can create multiple Landfall triggers; a Party deck will want to bait removal to ensure a larger Party survives. Slower decks will want to anticipate these play patterns and hold their interaction spells for the proper moment.
- MDFCs and Kicker spells will make it easier to draft a deck with a good curve. The challenge will be to make the right decision regarding how to play these modal cards.
Good luck and have fun!
Pokemon TCG Vivid Voltage Elite Trainer Box *Preorder*
Buylist Hot Buys