So let’s get the cold hard truth out of the way early; Battle for Zendikar stinks. Not in a “reminiscent of Innistrad scenario, where every card looks poor on paper but incredible synergies prove us all wrong” kind of way. Almost half of the cards in this set are giant, hulking Eldrazi Limited bombs. Most of the commons are built with a slower, grindier Limited format in mind, giving us [tippy title="Scythe Leopard" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] when I was hoping for something closer to Steppe Lynx. With big changes coming to Standard in the form of the revised rotation schedule, it’s clear that WoTC planned BFZ to be a slower, synergistic reset for Standard. Pair this with a design philosophy that pushed WoTC away from spikey hyper-aggressive Landfall Limited and annihilator and we get a set that truly is designed with Standard and Limited in mind, leaving Modern on the sidelines.
This has happened before, however, with sets like Innistrad and Mirrodin Beseiged. We’ll get to the decklists in a second but first I wanted to throw my hat in the ring and possibly give some context to what we are seeing. Relatively underpowered sets compared to the “norm” are a common sight at this point in Magic design. Power creep within two-year ranges is common and Wizards often prints a “reset set” that looks underwhelming on paper compared to its neighbors (Worldwake) but gets us back to where we need to be. Even these releases normally show some Eternal love however (Liliana of the Veil, Inkmoth Nexus, Green Sun's Zenith) which is where the frustration comes from regarding Battle for Zendikar (in my opinion). While it’s true that Battle for Zendikar is disappointing, I think there’s a reason for it, and possibly a silver lining.
BFZ = Underwhelming. Why?
[tippy title="Crumble to Dust" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] as a slightly easier to cast Sowing Salt? [tippy title="Ally Encampment" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] and [tippy title="Lantern Scout" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] as basically the only exciting additions for Modern Allies? [tippy title="Retreat to Coralhelm" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] for an interesting, but maybe underpowered combo? That’s it?!
There’s no denying that Battle For Zendikar just doesn’t have the same “oomph” as recent sets for Modern, and I think that’s the point. Read that sentence again. Recently, Modern has experienced a few violent and dramatic shifts due in small part to discovery of old tech (Amulet of Vigor/Nourishing Shoal) but mainly new printings. Look at what delve has done to the format! Gurmag Angler and Tasigur, the Golden Fang have contributed to a Modern landscape that is drastically different from what we have seen pre-Khans of Tarkir block. Breathing life into a whole new archetype in Grixis Control, affecting the de facto best deck (U/R Twin), and causing ripples through the rest of the metagame; their rap sheet is impressive! Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time are no longer with us, but they wasted no time making their mark on the format. Kolaghan's Command allowed both decks access to direct, maindeck artifact hate, ever-present graveyard synergies, and resilience to discard that Modern has never seen before.
Even Magic Origins spoiled us a little bit. The much maligned Jace, Vryn's Prodigy quickly silenced his naysayers, and is fast becoming a powerful force in the format. Hangarback Walker is popping up in Affinity lists, Day's Undoing has kept the brewers busy, and even Pia and Kiran Nalaar has seen play in Jeff Hoogland’s pile of Standard staples. The long winded point I’m trying to make is: we’ve been spoiled, and we are blessed. Modern is in a great place right now. Lantern Control just won a GP, Slivers Top 8’d an Open, and the bogeymen of the format have been chased out of the village. I’ll give Wizards a three month pass. We need to wait and see what Oath of the Gatewatch brings us before making the final verdict on Battle for Zendikar.
Enough talk: let's jump into some lists. First up is [tippy title="Gideon, Ally of Zendikar" width="330" height="330"][/tippy]. Gideon is priced comparatively with Elspeth, Knight-Errant, and does similar things to Sorin, Solemn Visitor and Sorin, Lord of Innistrad, so we know where we’re at regarding playability. In my opinion, Gideon provides a nice balance between these three walkers, and he probably competes with Elspeth, Knight-Errant for “best in show” moving forward. Sorin, Solemn Visitor makes a flying token, which is great in Modern and fits with B/W Tokens theme of ignoring Tarmogoyf, but the -2 compared to the 0 activation is no comparison. Speaking of B/W Tokens:
[tippy title="Gideon, Ally of Zendikar" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] gives a lot of weight to this archetype that might be just what it needs to push it over the edge into tier 2. A synergistic top-end threat that can provide either tokens or anthems (depending on what we need) Gideon can even lead the charge, hitting hard and closing the game out quickly. B/W Tokens has always been weak to mulligans and disruption (either in the form of discard or Abrupt Decay) and Gideon serves as a strong, army-in-a-can type effect that can win the game on his own. Credit goes to recent SCG Premier IQ Top 8 competitor (and fan of the stream!) Will Krueger for the base shell of the list.
Since the spoiling of [tippy title="Retreat to Coralhelm" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] there’s been a lot of discussion regarding its interaction with Knight of the Reliquary. Any land (or Knight activation) will get the ball rolling, triggering Retreat which gives us an untap (or tap) trigger. When used in conjunction with Knight of the Reliquary’s activated ability, we can burn through our deck, grabbing Forests (or Plains) to keep the cycle going, eventually resulting in a large Knight of the Reliquary (limited in size by the amount of Forests/Plains in our deck). Searching up fetchlands lets us pull ahead (as each fetchland gives us two Retreat triggers), letting us tap down opposing blockers. Sejiri Steppe serves as our last tutor target, giving Knight protection from blockers or removal (if we have a fetch or an untapped Knight, we can tutor for Sejiri Steppe to give protection at instant speed). It’s worth noting that fetching a Sejiri Steppe in the middle of our combo means we need to have an extra Forest or Plains on the field to sacrifice (as the chain will be interrupted), but this seems minor, as 17 of our 22 lands are either Forest, Plains, or fetchlands.
In my opinion, this interaction fits best in a Bant aggro/tempo shell that can take advantage of Knight’s undercosted size and Retreat’s tempo-generating tap ability whether we have both pieces of the combo together or not. Geist of Saint Traft and Tarmogoyf both seem to be great fits (as their relatively cheap, hard-hitting nature plays well with our gameplan) and Geist in particular appreciates tapping down blockers with [tippy title="Retreat to Coralhelm" width="330" height="330"][/tippy]. Some lists I’ve seen plan on going bigger with creatures like Wilt-Leaf Liege and Thragtusk, but I’m interested in how far we can push the tempo plan with spells like Steppe Lynx and Remand. Steppe Lynx loves a landfall trigger I hear, and alongside seven-mana creatures we can be guaranteed to have a turn one play almost every game. I’ve foregone the Kessig Wolf Run splash, opting for Gavony Township instead, as it is better flood insurance and plays well with our plethora of dinky guys. Also the mana was getting painful and you need to cast Retreat and Knight, which Sacred Foundry or Stomping Ground can make awkward. The sideboard is rough and probably needs to change, but Crucible of Worlds re-buying tutored Ghost Quarters seems excellent against Tron/Amulet.
Best of the Rest?
Beyond that, there’s really not much left. Sheridan discussed [tippy title="Lumbering Falls" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] in Scapeshift, and although I agree that it fits into the deck, it just doesn’t seem that exciting. A 3/3 hexproof isn’t the best clock, and Scapeshift is largely ignoring the opponent’s life total until they are suddenly dead. It’s inclusion in Temur Twin is much more likely, as the deck could use another source of green mana that contributes to Serum Visions/Cryptic Command/Dispelneeds. The body isn’t exactly exciting, as Temur could play Treetop Village and hasn’t, but it’s possible that this has been due more to mana considerations than anything else. If a Treetop Village that also adds blue is what Temur is looking for, expect it to fit right into the deck (and Temur to turn even more tempo-based as a result).
Sky Mason wrote an excellent write-up on Allies here, so I won’t repeat him. Positionally, Allies seems great against Burn, Merfolk, and other creature decks, but worse against Jund and removal-heavy control. I’m interested to see how it stacks up. [tippy title="Blighted Cataract" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] seems awesome in these draw-go control decks that are floating around. The trade-off between Tectonic Edge and a land that can turn into two cards is pretty close, and I can definitely see one or two copies popping up in Jeskai and the more straightforward U/W Control lists moving forward. It’s possible a Bant Walkers list could exist (utilizing Gideon, Kiora, and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy) but I imagine that deck has difficulty going toe-to-toe with Jund and Abzan.
We haven’t played with the cards yet. While there are no “new entities” like the flip-walkers that we have to evaluate, it is possible that there’s something flying under the radar that we won’t see coming. I’m saving my final reservations for Battle for Zendikar until after the Pro Tour (when we will really see what this set is made of) but I’m still going to go ahead and give BFZ a C+. If [tippy title="Retreat to Coralhelm" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] can be a Tier 2 deck, maybe I’ll bump my grade up to a B, but I’m fine with that, because right now Modern is awesome. If another three months goes by where I can continue to cast turn two Tasigur, the Golden Fang, I’m happy.
Let me know in the comments if you think I missed anything! I’d especially like to hear your thoughts on my Retreat Combo list, and whether you’d be interested in seeing me play it in my new Video Series once BFZ hits MTGO. As always, feel free to follow me on Twitter or stop by my stream and say hi! Thanks for reading.
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