Dangerous Propositions: Green Sun's Zenith
The Modern ban list is a maximum security prison with 33 inmates, some of which pose a potentially serious threat to the meta. But now that Big Jace is free, anything can happen. Let's review each of those offenders to see if they're eligible for parole. This time we talk of green's best delivery service.
Green Sun's Zenith left Modern during the very first round of bannings in September 2011, when the ban list faced changes following the events of Pro Tour Philadelphia, which provided a better picture of the newborn format. In such a picture, Blazing Shoal was responsible for turn-two wins in Infect builds; Rite of Flame, Ponder and Preordain were fueling the Storm menace; and Cloudpost was just too scary for ramp. As for our little green spell, there wasn't a definite problem caused by some specific broken archetype; it was just deemed something that, given the choice, no sane-minded green pilot would do without.
Let's Do the Green Fetch Again
Mirrodin Besieged's Zenith cycle was generally strong, each color getting a repeatable effect that felt well-aligned with the color wheel. White got instant-speed tokens, blue a near reprint of Stroke of Genius, black received a sweeper that doesn't care about indestructibility or regeneration, and red got a card reminiscent of good old Disintegrate.
So board advantage, card advantage, sweeping, spot removal/burn. Green's case differs in that all the others are useful tools that occupy precise slots, but none of them actually impact the way the deck is built and, more importantly, the way it plays. Essentially, Green Sun's Zenith lets you cast any green creature in your deck (up to and including, say, Progenitus) for just one mana more of their original cost, which is a better deal than even Demonic Tutor would offer. More crucially, Green Sun's Zenith, like every Zenith, is tucked back into the library after each use, which means every time we play one copy, the chances of drawing another increase, even if only a bit.
Memories of Green
One of the most specific interactions of Green Sun's Zenith is with Dryad Arbor, which, being a zero-cost green creature, can be fetched via Zenith on the first turn. In his explanation of the September 2011 bannings, Erik Lauer (who refers to combo decks as “combination decks”, which is adorable) explicitly mentions the Zenith-Dryad connection, comparing it to the acceleration of a Llanowar Elves, although he failed to point out how casting Llanowar Elves on turn one is supposedly such a big deal. It's not, in fact, but the Zenith's role in the green decks of that brief era would go way beyond that.
In the Top 8 of Pro Tour Philadelphia, a Through the Breach deck used Green Sun's Zenith to corroborate its Cloudpost base with a series of increasingly effective green ramp creatures: first Overgrown Battlement, then Oracle of Mul Daya, finally Primeval Titan.
Jesse Hampton - BreachPost
|4Cloudpost||4Emrakul, the Aeons Torn||3Beast Within|
|1Dryad Arbor||1Oracle of Mul Daya||4Green Sun's Zenith|
|1Eye of Ugin||4Overgrown Battlement||4Through the Breach|
|3Forest||4Primeval Titan||4Gruul Signet|
|4Grove of the Burnwillows||1Terastodon|
|2Misty Rainforest||1Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre|
|1Mountain||4Wall of Roots|
|1Brooding Saurian||3Chalice of the Void||2Dismember|
|3Firespout||3Punishing Fire||1Qasali Pridemage|
|2Seal of Primordium|
Even higher up on that tournament's final rankings was Josh Utter-Leyton's Bant Zoo list, where the Zenith worked in a completely opposite direction, fetching early threats like Wild Nacatl, Tarmogoyf and Knight of the Reliquary.
Josh Utter-Leyton - CounterCat
|4Arid Mesa||1Gaddock Teeg||3Bant Charm|
|1Dryad Arbor||4Knight of the Reliquary||4Green Sun's Zenith|
|1Forest||4Noble Hierarch||4Lightning Bolt|
|1Hallowed Fountain||1Qasali Pridemage||3Lightning Helix|
|1Horizon Canopy||4Tarmogoyf||4Path to Exile|
|2Marsh Flats||4Wild Nacatl||2Elspeth, Knight-Errant|
|3Aven Mindcensor||3Flashfreeze||2Gideon Jura|
|1Grim Lavamancer||1Qasali Pridemage||1Rule of Law|
|1Tectonic Edge||3Unified Will|
Something that was typical of decks featuring a Green Sun's Zenith playset at the time was keeping some silver bullets around, most notably Gaddock Teeg (useful against Splinter Twin and Blazing Shoal) and Qasali Pridemage.
These aren't the only memories of that one Green Sun Summer, though. The Zenith didn't limit itself to fuel ramp and zoo decks. Ante litteram Abzan lists of the time would employ it to consistently summon Doran, the Siege Tower (remember him?) by spending just one color of mana rather than three.
Doran Rock - August 2011
|1Dryad Arbor||1Birds of Paradise||3Green Sun's Zenith|
|1Forest||4Dark Confidant||2Inquisition of Kozilek|
|1Godless Shrine||3Doran, the Siege Tower||2Maelstrom Pulse|
|4Marsh Flats||3Noble Hierarch||4Path to Exile|
|3Murmuring Bosk||1Qasali Pridemage||3Thoughtseize|
|4Kitchen Finks||4Naturalize||4Relic of Progenitus|
|3Rule of Law|
Some peculiar Selesnya lists instead would use a Zenith toolbox to fetch Vengevine via Fauna Shaman, or else Scryb Ranger as the best Sword of Fire and Ice carrier (while also providing multiple activations for the Shaman or Knight of the Reliquary).
Maverick - August 2011
|1Dryad Arbor||4Birds of Paradise||4Green Sun's Zenith|
|3Forest||1Eternal Witness||4Mana Tithe|
|1Horizon Canopy||4Fauna Shaman||3Path to Exile|
|4Misty Rainforest||1Gaddock Teeg||4Sword of Fire and Ice|
|2Tectonic Edge||1Knight of the Reliquary|
|4Verdant Catacombs||4Noble Hierarch|
|3Dauntless Escort||2Harm's Way||1Kataki, War's Wage|
|1Kitchen Finks||1Path to Exile||1Tarmogoyf|
|2Tectonic Edge||2Thorn of Amethyst||2Wheel of Sun and Moon|
So, what's the verdict? Could Green Sun's Zenith safely return to the Modern arena one day? Well, for one thing, I never entirely bought into its omnipresence as reason enough for its banning. It's certainly one of the major tools of a green player, but just in the same way Lightning Bolt is for red and Path to Exile is for white. Granted, these are just direct damage and/or removal spells, they don't interact with the deeper structure of your deck. Should Green Sun's Zenith actually be unbanned, the main benefit would clearly come for Creatures Toolbox decks, which would definitely exploit it to some degree, although both their current fetchers of choice, Chord of Calling and Collected Company, work in the opponent's end phase.
At the same time, didn't we just prove Green Sun's Zenith used to show up across a variety of different lists and strategies? Did it make those decks viable all by itself? In a way, it did, but they weren't oppressive decks because of it, and they certainly weren't the bogeymen of their time. Once the Zenith was no more, a card like Doran was entirely pushed out of the meta, and it was never a major player to begin with. It was one more facet of diversity, though. The meta was richer when lists based around Doran or Scryb Ranger were competitive. Maybe I'm green-biased (and I am), but it seems to me that, even more than Birthing Pod, Green Sun's Zenith was a gateway to creativity, an invitation to try out different things, not to rely on the same safe cards over and over again. Some outlier green creature might have seen play because Green Sun's Zenith was helping improve its odds. And you wouldn't need to run four of any power player, because the Zenith will stand in for them, so you can diversify your list, which results in a wider share of the card pool showing up in the competitive environment. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Think of it this way: were Green Sun's Zenith still around, maybe even Yisan, the Wanderer Bard builds would have been a thing.
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