Motifs and Mechanics: The Themes of Zendikar So Far
- Tobi Henke
This September, Magic is making its third stop on the plane of Zendikar. What can we learn from our two previous trips? Which mechanics did the cards exhibit in those two blocks, the original Zendikar and later Battle for Zendikar? Let's take inventory of the themes Zendikar Rising may revisit.
In 2009, Wizards published Zendikar, a set with a mechanical focus on lands and the thematical hook of "adventure world." It was an immediate hit with players and so was its follow-up Worldwake. Then, in 2010, Wizards released Rise of the Eldrazi, which both was and wasn't part of the same block. It revisited the same setting, but with widespread doom and destruction, and it didn't continue any of the established patterns of play either. It featured an alien invasion and marked the first time we saw colorless nonartifacts, Eldrazi Spawns, colorlessness matter, and annihilator. When we returned to Zendikar in 2015–16, the same extraplanar forces gave us Eldrazi Scions, devoid, colorless mana costs, as well as the ability to ingest and to "process." The natives won the war against the intruders then, so we shouldn't expect any of this to play a role in the upcoming Zendikar Rising, although Wizards have left the door open for some remnants.
Rise of the Eldrazi's level up, rebound, and totem armor are theoretically part of Zendikar's own heritage and could see a return. However, they bear no connection to any of the other themes, so chances for an encore seem low. Instead, this article exclusively looks at the mechanical identity of the first two Zendikar sets as well as the non-Eldrazi part of Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch.
The Lay of the Landfall
Outside of Magic, "landfall" is a nautical term, at times meteorological. It would have fit so, so well on Ixalan. Alas, it's the ability most associated with Zendikar. Indeed, every Zendikar set except Rise of the Eldrazi contained at least a couple of cards with this keyword, while all other sets have always avoided the word. In the beginning, the standard landfall ability was for a creature to get +2/+2 until end of turn. It figured hugely in Zendikar Limited's rise to fame as one of the most aggressive environments of all time, and the duo of Steppe Lynx/Plated Geopede even became relevant in Constructed. Other notable landfall creatures from the first pass included Hedron Crab, Lotus Cobra, and Bloodghast.
Worldwake added landfall to a cycle of instants, the most prominent members of which were Searing Blaze and Groundswell. Battle for Zendikar repeated some of the earlier implementations, but also experimented with different boosts, with modal abilities, and with mana payments. Oath of the Gatewatch finally found room for just two landfall cards, Embodiment of Fury and Embodiment of Insight.
It may seem as if the designers have run out of ideas, putting the idea of new landfall cards in question. However, the trigger condition, if not the keyword, has since appeared on cards again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again — not to mention a couple of times previously. I'd be surprised, and bitterly disappointed, if Zendikar Rising didn't have landfall. It wouldn't be a proper Zendikar set without it, which is precisely why Rise of the Eldrazi wasn't.
The Question of Quests
Zendikar featured a fifteen-strong megacycle — both vertical (one common, uncommon, rare) and horizontal (in all five colors) — of enchantments that marked progress via quest counters. The commons earned counters via landfall and could be sacrificed for a simple one-shot effect, like lifegain or extra draws, at three. The uncommons needed between one and five quest counters, attainable through a wide range of trigger conditions, and also sacrificed for wildly varying effects. The rares required between two and seven counters to go active, then enacted a continuous effect going forward. Pyromancer Ascension was the big one, but Luminarch Ascension and Bloodchief Ascension saw some Constructed attention as well.
Worldwake added an incomplete cycle of two uncommons and two rares: Quest for the Goblin Lord, Quest for Renewal, Quest for Ula's Temple, and Quest for the Nihil Stone. All of them were cool designs that unfortunately had the various knobs turned in such a way as to forbid serious application. This failed experiment was the last we've seen of quest counters, speaking against a return. A contra-point, in favor of inclusion in Zendikar Rising, comes from the storyline. After the Eldrazi started ravaging the world, its denizens simply had no more time to embark on interesting quests — only the quest for survival.
The Trappings of Traps
Next to quests, nothing imbued the world with an Indiana Jonesesque feeling more than Traps. If the opponent did some misstep, you got your gotcha moment and could play these instants at greatly reduced costs. When sprung, Summoning Trap, Ravenous Trap, Archive Trap, and Mindbreak Trap didn't even require any mana at all. Zendikar had fourteen Traps, Worldwake another six — one cycle of color hosers of which Ricochet Trap proved most memorable, plus Stone Idol Trap.
To this day, these twenty cards remain all there is. There haven't been any Traps since. Cost reduction is of course fraught territory, and it's probably tough to find effects that are interesting both at a discount and at full price. But the reactive and generally destructive nature prevented problems in the past. If Wizards really want to return to a Zendikar pre-Eldrazi, Traps should be on the menu. However, other needs may outweigh the wants here.
All but two of the original Allies featured an ability that triggered whenever they or another Ally entered the battlefield. Most often it resulted in a +1/+1 counter, sometimes a temporary boon to the team, or an effect that scaled with the number of Allies. Sea Gate Loremaster alone dabbled in activated abilities. While the shakers and movers spread out over all five colors, everyone's favorite mascot Stonework Puma remained the only Ally without an Ally-related ability itself. Worldwake largely repeated the established formula, albeit with more activated abilities and a clone.
Battle for Zendikar changed the order of things in several major ways. The set included twenty creatures whose sole connection to the alliance was their creature type. The original trigger condition found itself rebranded with the preface "rally" — analogous to landfall — and appeared on fourteen cards. However, there were no more +1/+1 counters associated with it. At the same time, Zada, Hedron Grinder, Angelic Captain, March from the Tomb, and Veteran Warleader introduced new Ally ways that didn't fit the rally mold. Just one set after its adoption, Oath of the Gatewatch abandoned rally again in favor of the brand-new ability cohort. This one appeared on nine Allies and allowed you to tap its originator (if not summoning sick) and another untapped Ally under your control (even if summoning sick) for some effect. Cohort proved entirely forgettable.
Every set set on Zendikar contained a double-digit number of Allies — again with the exception of Rise of the Eldrazi, which had none. Zendikar Rising will have to follow suit, or it will have to provide a pretty strong in-universe explanation why people (and their pets) no longer ally with one another.
A Kicker with a Kicker
Landfall gave players an incentive to drop a land on each of their turns. What to do with all the resulting mana? The answer for Zendikar was kicker. Kicker costs then covered the whole range from maximally cheap to hilariously expensive. For several cards, the unkicked version provided just a minor effect, whereas the real value lay in the supposed add-on. See for an example Vines of Vastwood. Worldwake went one step further and introduced multikicker in simple forms as well as quite complicated implementations.
When it comes to landfall, quests, Traps, and Allies, I'm a staunch traditionalist. But I'm happy that Battle for Zendikar didn't repeat kicker, or multikicker. After all, the set found a vastly superior alternative …
The Land Awakens
A central plot point of Worldwake was that the world itself turned into an active combat force. Although a cycle of rare creature lands, plus Dread Statuary as the only uncommon, and a cycle of common Zendikons didn't fully capture that, I'm afraid. The idea remained more tell than show.
Battle for Zendikar fixed this, to a degree, with awaken. If you paid extra for your spell, you also got to turn one of your lands into a creature. This hit two birds with one stone: it's a mana sink akin to kicker and fits the flavor. The awakening of lands in some form or another shall continue in Zendikar Rising.
Monocolor Incentives? Multicolor Incentives?
The original Zendikar block favored players who focused on one type of basic land. White offered Emeria, the Sky Ruin and Landbind Ritual, green had Primal Bellow. Black got Mind Sludge, Mire's Toll, and a lot of heavy mana requirements like Gatekeeper of Malakir. Red mages got to play with Spire Barrage and Claws of Valakut as well as Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle itself. Though we all know that the latter turned out to be best in green decks. Notable too was the lack of multicolor. The whole block made do with two mythics as the only gold cards.
Battle for Zendikar then flipped the script. The set contained 23 cards with two colors in their cost, nine of which were however devoid of color by decree. It also introduced converge, possibly intended as a showcase of everyone coming together to fight the common enemy, the colorless Eldrazi. Spells such as Radiant Flames or Painful Truths figured in Constructed for a while, and Bring to Light does so to this day.
A return to monocolor would play well with Throne of Eldraine and with Theros Beyond Death. In the old days, a theme got to develop over several sets. Here's an excellent opportunity to add some cohesion to a Standard cycle in a blockless world.
More Land Interaction
Our introduction to Zendikar included twenty nonbasic lands, an unprecedented number for a set at the time. Zendikar and Worldwake also featured lots of vaguely connected and unconnected land interaction, for example Scute Mob and Dragonmaster Outcast; Explore and Walking Atlas; Goblin Guide, Explorer's Scope, and Treasure Hunt; Grim Discovery; Avenger of Zendikar; Terra Eternal …
Real estate never goes out of fashion. When the unruly Eldrazi moved in, property values crashed, but the name Zendikar Rising already implies that the market is in an upswing again.
Zendikar's white and black cards have always played with the concept of life, in a multitude of ways. Bloodghast, Vampire Lacerator, and Ruthless Cullblade cared about getting the opponent down to 10. Sorin Markov could arrange that. The white and black Ascension both cared about life loss. There was lots of life gain and drain all around. Death's Shadow loomed. Et cetera.
Battle for Zendikar codified the various strains into somewhat of a coherent theme, helmed by Drana's Emissary. At least, Serene Steward, Bloodbond Vampire, Defiant Bloodlord, Kalastria Nightwatch, Malakir Familiar, and Nirkana Assassin all listed the same condition, whereas its fulfillment depended on a range of activated, triggered, and static abilities.
When embarking on an expedition into dangerous territory, you obviously need the proper equipment. Consider bringing a Grappling Hook and a Trusty Machete, some decent boots and other Adventuring Gear. The Kor — Kor Duelist, Kor Outfitter, Kitesail Apprentice, and of course Stoneforge Mystic — can help you. In contrast to some of Zendikar's initial features, this one carried on all the way to Oath of the Gatewatch. It would be a shame if Stone Haven Outfitter and Stoneforge Acolyte were to be the last members of this club.
In addition to Allies, the first Zendikar block supported an illustrous cast of creature types, mostly through random one-ofs: Kor, Merfolk, Kraken, Leviathan, Octopus, Serpent, Goblin, Elf. Wherever that came from, the second Zendikar block stopped with the cuteness, probably for good. Even Vampire tribal found itself discontinued. This one had actually been a real thing previously, highlighted by Malakir Bloodwitch, Anowon, the Ruin Sage, and Kalastria Highborn.
Oath of the Gatewatch came up with a bunch of new abilities, almost as if the express goal had been to break with tradition. As mentioned, we got cohort instead of rally. Surge supplanted kicker. And +1/+1 counters no longer came from Allies but from the blandest possible support mechanism, aptly bearing the most generic name. Since the goal of Zendikar Rising will be to meet rather than to defy expectations and to please rather than to alienate longtime fans, I'd rather expect the new set to draw inspiration from any — indeed many — of the sections above.
I hope you enjoyed this look at Zendikar's rich history. Which elements would you like to see repeated? Which elements could you do without? And what do you think we'll end up with? This is your last opportunity to voice predictions. We should be getting correct answers starting next week …
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.