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Magic: The Gathering’s Zendikar Rising set offers some satisfying surprises in the familiar setting - preview

Up and away.
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Image: Wizards of the Coast

I’ve got a great fondness for the plane of Zendikar. Despite how much Magic: The Gathering I’ve played, my first pre-release was Battle for Zendikar. I remember being giddy because a) it was past midnight and I was pumped full of energy drinks, and b) Zendikar is the plane of massive creatures and land that can punch you in the teeth. Every MTG player loves big obnoxious creatures, even those who generally prefer a more subtle approach to the game.

So it makes sense that I’ve been fairly excited for Zendikar Rising, even if I would have liked to see a return to other less well-explored planes.

Zendikar Rising marks the death of a lot of sets in Standard, and that means that we’re on the cusp of the great shakeup that marks the beginning of a new era of Magic: The Gathering. That all sounds rather dramatic, but we are talking about a game where you can get the land to kill an interdimensional being, so I think it fits.

For a lot of people, myself included, Zendikar Rising has a lot of hope riding on it. It’s got some large shoes to fill thanks to the legacy of the plane, as well as the rotation itself - and while it doesn’t have to fill them entirely, it at least has to sell us some equally comfortable ones. Thankfully, Zendikar Rising is a pretty good set that’s filled with some exciting new mechanics - and the return of some other favourites, too.

Party adds an awful lot to casual play in terms of pure entertainment and a nice theme to build a deck around.

Party - which marks the beginning of a crossover between Dungeons & Dragons and MTG that many simply weren’t expecting - is a mechanic that takes note of the types of creatures you have in play. Any party can be made up of a cleric, rogue, warrior and wizard. The Party mechanic then confers special benefits based on how many of these boxes you can tick. It’s a bit silly, and adds a dash of flavour into mixing the various tribes of MTG that wouldn’t see play together normally.

I like the mechanic. It’s not absurdly powerful - I don’t think it’ll come into play very often in competitive matches - but it adds an awful lot to casual play in terms of pure entertainment and a nice theme to build a deck around.

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A number of legendary creatures make an appearance in Zendikar Rising, such as Kaza, Roil Chaser. Image: Wizards of the Coast

Zendikar Rising also sees the return of the Kicker mechanic, where you can put extra mana into spells to do extra things; Landfall, where having a land enter the battlefield causes stuff to happen; and double-sided cards. While the former two mechanics are exactly what they’ve always been, double-sided cards take on a whole new life in this set.

The double-sided, half-land cards have the potential to shake up how we view deck construction.

Rather than being a transforming card, say a werewolf or a tentacle-monster, these double-sided cards are all half-land. That means you can decide whether or not you want to cast the spell part or use it as a land. This has the potential to shake up how we view deck construction. Can you add more spells and take out lands if you’ve got cards which are both?

It might only change things by a small amount, but for a lot of decks it could lead to some amusing decisions, at least during the games themselves. Trying to decide if you should cast the spell as-is or play it as a land to allow you to unleash something more impressive next turn makes for some really interesting strategic choices.

Overall, the mechanics within the set are a lot of fun. Each one is easy enough to understand, and you can build a deck around them without having to think too hard… unless you want to.

Each mechanic is easy enough to understand, and you can build a deck around them without having to think too hard.

The actual cards in the set are also fairly interesting. For the most part the reprints are all fairly low-level, but any talk of Zendikar Rising would be lacking if it didn’t mention the fact that reprinting Lotus Cobra, a card which gives you one extra mana of any colour whenever you play a land, is just the best news. This silly mana-generating card should see more play, although it may be too powerful for Standard.

Onto the rest of the cards in the set, and there is a lot of fun to be found. While my current dream is to build a White/Green Landfall deck around Scute Swarm - which makes 1/1 bugs until you have six lands, and then gains the ability to copy itself - and Canyon Jerboa, which makes creatures bigger whenever a land enters the battlefield, there are a few cards I’m expecting to see in Modern play.

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Lotus Cobra stands out as one of the most exciting reprints in the set. Image: Wizards of the Coast

The first of these is Confounding Conundrum. This is a two-mana Blue enchantment that draws a card when it enters the battlefield. Also, if a land enters under an opponent’s control and they’ve already had a land enter that turn, they have to return a land they control to their hand. This has the potential to really slow down some formats that rely on fetch lands or anything that hinges on ramp strategies. Even if it doesn’t actively mess up what they’re doing, the threat will often need answering or the opponent risks having to change their game plan.

Another cool Blue card is Sea Gate Stormcaller. This one copies the next instant or sorcery you play that costs two or less mana. You can also choose to kick it to copy it twice instead. I’m not 100% sure that this is going to change the game at all, but it has a whiff of Snapcaster Mage to it - as it also costs two mana and helps you cast extra spells - so it might be a powerhouse in disguise.

The final Blue card is more of a pet card, but it will see play even if it’s not any good. Ruin Crab is a one-mana creature that mills your opponent for three whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control. I love mill as a strategy, and this might be the thing to make it stick in Modern.

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There are a number of Blue cards with a good chance of becoming mainstays in Modern. Image: Wizards of the Coast

We talked a bit about Death’s Shadow in our list of the best budget Modern decks, and this set brings in a card called Feed the Swarm that slots into that strategy nicely. For two mana, you get a Black Sorcery spell that can destroy any creature or enchantment you want, and the only other cost is that you lose life equal to that card’s mana cost - that’s not a bad thing with Death’s Shadow. If I had to only pick one card for Modern, it’d be this one.

There are a few other notable cards that might affect Modern, such as Wayward Guide-Beast - a hasty 2/2 with some interesting land return ability - and Magmatic Channeler, a card that not only draws you cards but gets larger as they enter your graveyard. The last card I want to highlight is an absurd Commander card called Lithoform Engine. This artifact can copy abilities, spells or permanents. It’s the kind of thing that’s going to end up in nearly every EDH deck, and I always like to see these cards around.

There are a few cool legendary creatures, too. Take Zagras, Thief of Heartbeats, who makes Deathtouch tribal a very interesting choice thanks to granting the ability to always kill planeswalkers. Maybe you prefer something a bit more combo-y, in which case Orah, Skyclave Heirophant, who can bring other Cleric cards back from the dead, is for you. It all means we could see a slew of new Commander decks because of the set. That always makes me happy, because Commander is the best format. Oh, and there’s a new Omnath card, who might be my favourite MTG character because it’s just the land itself and is often angry, and keeps gaining colours and powers as the game goes on.

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The legendary creatures in Zendikar Rising have the potential to shake up Commander. Image: Wizards of the Coast

I’ve only played with the set in the Limited Draft and Sealed formats so far, but I’m having a great time with its gameplay.

Zendikar Rising feels like it has a lower raw power level than the last couple of sets, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

There are a lot of really strong archetypes within Limited, and each of them is entertaining to try out. Green/White Landfall feels pretty powerful, but you can quite easily build a Blue/Black mill deck, more traditional aggro deck with Red and Black, or an equipment deck with Red and White.

It’s always good fun to explore a new set and the Limited environment it brings with it. While there are a couple of game-winning cards you can find, most decks work really well when they’re full of synergy; I really enjoy that kind of game because it leads to absurd interactions and huge comebacks.

Zendikar Rising feels like it has a lower raw power level than the last couple of sets, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. The mix of new and old mechanics with interesting card design means that it retains a really strong sense of identity and fun, fitting the plane that it’s set on. I’m really looking forward to seeing how it impacts not just Standard, but Modern and EDH too.