Last week, I expressed disbelief at Battle for Zendikar's lackluster first half. Naturally, the day that article went public, Wizards spoiled the set's other half. Its better half. Its playable half!
Ha, ha. I'm just kidding. Never mind "ingesting:" BFZ sucks.
I'm not sure I can do a better job on this bit than Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa in his article Everything That's Wrong With Battle for Zendikar. Still, I consider R&D's creature-typing blunders offensive enough to draw extra attention to them. The set's early spoilers contained virtually no tribal support, a disheartening omission for those who enjoyed the original block's boons to synergistic creature strategies. Only Allies seemed to be "getting any" in this expansion, but with the whole set spoiled, Vampires fans suddenly don't have so much to complain about.
The big issue with Battle's Allies isn't how hysterically overcosted they are. It's that they don't make any sense. I'll quote Paulo directly on this one:
How on earth am I supposed to know what is an Ally and what isn’t? I literally just looked at the white cards and I don’t remember whether Cliffside Lookout or Kitesail Scout is the Ally. One of them is “Kor Scout,” the other is “Kor Scout Ally.” Apparently one of them doesn’t care enough about Zendikar to ally himself with everyone else? The Vampires, too—they are both flying vampires that interact with life gain, yet one is an Ally and the other one isn’t.
I really expected the Eldrazi to be big, impressive spaghetti monsters again. But man, are they not at all spaghetti monsters. Oh, they look like spaghetti, and they're monsters. It's just that the cards don't do what Magic players have been conditioned to expect of Eldrazis.
Consider Dust Stalker. What the hell? Psuedo-dash on an Eldrazi? This card would make so much more sense even as a BR Ally, since at least it triggers enters-the-battlefield effects in that deck.
I don't see anything wrong with moving tribes and motifs in new directions. Often, new directions can take the game to very interesting places. But the Eldrazi in this set remind me more than anything of the Sliver design from M14, which had me asking, "That's supposed to be a Sliver?"
Even the common fatties leave something to be desired. Ulamog's Crusher shared something with his same-set big brothers in that opponents couldn't reliably chump block him for turn after turn. They needed to address the Crusher to not get annihilated out of the game. Bane of Bala Ged does a fine Crusher impersonation, but Ruin Processor and Ulamog's Despoiler utterly fail the for-6-or-more-mana-my-creature-should-actually-do-something test.
Obviously, there are plenty of Modern-unplayables in a set designed for Standard and Limited. This section focuses on cards that I've seen receive some attention, but that I don't personally think can make it in this format.
Beastcaller Savant: I wrote about Savant in the comments from last week’s article. Here’s what I had to say: "I’m no Elves expert, but it doesn’t blow me away. Mana dorks should cost one in that deck so that next turn you can have three mana instantly available. Savant requires an initial investment of two, and he’s only making you one [mana] the turn you cast him, so casting him basically equates to casting a Llanowar Elves on turn two (since you can’t retrieve the mana spent that turn). Except Llanowar Elves can also come down on turn one, and it can make you "hasty" mana on turn two with a Heritage Druid. That Savant doesn’t help cast Collected Company also hurts, since that’s the card Elves likes to ramp into anyway."
Clutch of Currents: The closest we’ve gotten to a playable awaken card. Unfortunately, I don’t think bouncing a creature is impactful enough an effect, since the decks that want to bounce a creature for one mana at sorcery speed have little use for an expensive add-on ability. A two-mana, hard (-er) removal spell with awaken would likely have made it to Modern.
Expedition Envoy: One of those “why is this an Ally” cards I was talking about. I think I speak for most Ally-lovers in saying I want my one-drop to attack for three or more after a couple turns.
Jaddi Offshoot: If this guy was 0/4, he’d be great against Burn. But he's not.
Vampiric Rites: Barrage of Expendables is no Goblin Bombardment. Molten Vortex is no Seismic Assault. And Vampiric Rites is no… playable analog to Vampiric Rites? Cheap enchantments that do nothing without a constant influx of mana have never been good.
All is not lost! BFZ's full spoiler offers a couple diamonds in the rough, if only for fringe Modern decks.
Blighted lands: Blighted Fen and Blighted Woodland seem the best to me, since they do things we don’t have on lands elsewhere. Blighted Gorge is a splashable, mini-Mouth of Ronom, but Blighted Steppe seems a little slow for the matchups its effect helps. Gavony Township is also probably better in the decks that would want it. I went over Blighted Cataract last week and still don’t think it supplants Desolate Lighthouse most of the time.
Bring to Light: Modern is a turn-four format. That increasingly seems to mean something different to everybody, but to me, it at least indicates that five-mana cards have no home here. That said, Bring to Light supports an interesting niche by slotting into splash-heavy decks that require additional copies of a key card. I think Scapeshift is far and away the best place for Bring to Light and expect to see some builds make use of the card. For readers wondering what other applications might come to light, check out the results of Travis Woo’s Brew Fest. (Yes, I know those lists are bad.)
Lantern Scout: Easily the best Ally in BFZ, Scout gives the deck a way to race other aggro decks on a fairly-costed body.
Retreat to Coralhelm: I overlooked this card last week, but it’s generated more attention this last week than any other Battle for Zendikar cards. Jeff Hoogland and company want to pair the card with Knight of the Reliquary to get a more-or-less instant win with Kessig Wolf Run and Sejiri Steppe. In the meantime, Coralhelm comes down on turn two off a manadork, turns that dork into Lotus Cobra, taps down blockers, and lets players scry with their lands (or double-scry with their fetches). Unfortunately, I think Bant is so limited in Modern that the deck cannot succeed in those colors (more on this shortly).
Brewing With the Best
It might hurt to call the best of BFZ the best of anything, but in the interest of maintaining the Retreat to Coralhelm discussion, here's my (untested) take on the deck:
When I design decks, I start with a very streamlined list, jam a bunch of games, and tweak the numbers based on what I want to see more, less, any, or none of. The above list hasn't been tested, but it's where I would start for a Coralhelm brew. In this section, I'll go over my choices and my initial thoughts about Knight-Coralhelm decks in general.
Why the Red?
Splinter Twin combo decks shine in Modern because they can assume so many roles. It's easy for Twin decks to alternate between playing proactively and playing reactively, allowing them to assume the best possible stance in a given matchup. The Knight-Coralhelm decks I've seen so far lack this angle; they have a watered-down aggro plan with Knight of the Reliquary, Qasali Pridemage, and Voice of Resurgence, and a combo plan with their own namesake enchantment.
Both of these plans are extremely proactive and they both operate entirely at sorcery-speed and in the red zone. That means one kind of hate - unconditional removal like Path to Exile or Terminate - can stop either plan cold.
Like Twin, Knight-Coralhelm is a two-card combo deck that can, and does, win by attacking. But unlike Twin, it lacks tools to maximize this plan from a midrange angle: Cryptic Command is a tougher fit here, Kolaghan's Command is way off-color, and the combo pieces don't work towards a tempo plan like Exarch and Pestermite do. Rather than jam some Keranos, God of Storms and Batterskulls into the sideboard and hope to out-Twin the Twin decks, my solution is to move the deck closer to aggro, something Splinter Twin can't do because its color identity lacks powerful aggressive creatures besides Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration.
Another, perhaps more obvious reason for red (yes, more obvious than Lightning Bolt!) is Kessig Wolf Run. In my opinion, if you want to water down your aggro deck to fit a combo, it had better win you the game on the spot. A single Sejiri Steppe doesn't do it for me, as opponents with two creatures of different colors can still chump the Knight after we "go off." (Steppe also interferes with the Nacatl plan, since it enters the battlefield tapped, doesn't make useful colors, and doesn't pump the Cat.) Wolf Run grants our attacker trample, giving the combo some needed oomph.
Wild Nacatl: Between Birds, Hierarchs, Visions, Bolts, and Wild Nacatl, it's hard not to have a first-turn play. Nacatl pushes us into the aggressive territory I want, offering pressure from the first turn and "surviving" a Bolt to the Bird, whereas Geist of Saint Traft might be too late to matter if the dork dies.
Eight dorks: For big-mana decks, I like the full eight dorks, and for roughly half the deck to be mana. I always start with 30 mana sources. For my Blood Moon midrange decks, which brought me success during Abzan's reign of terror, I ran full sets of Birds and Utopia Sprawl. Hierarch obviously fits better in aggressive decks and, as a bonus, gives you an out to Ensnaring Bridge.
Tarmogoyf: The best creature in Modern, and the best Lightning Bolt insurance. What happens when your opponent does his job and Bolts that turn-one Birds of Paradise? We can sit around and wait for turn three to play Retreat, in which case we've probably lost, or play some more dorks (we've still lost). Tarmogoyf seems much more appealing, and has other applications, as Nacatl into Goyf provides a huge amount of power for a minimal cost.
Voice of Resurgence: A meta call to harass blue decks. I don't like this card very much and would love to switch it out if it fails in testing, or if the meta moves away from Twin. For now, I'm splitting its numbers with the sure-shot Qasali Pridemage, as I'm not sure which I'll prefer in testing.
Serum Visions: Of course I'll save the weirdest for last. Serum Visions is criminally underplayed in Modern, and I like it in nearly every deck I make. 60 cards is a lot of cards, and we need to see the right ones at the right time. Even if the deck's streamlined enough that Visions usually just finds or ditches lands in the late-game, I think Visions is worth it. I also love how it interacts with mana dorks, giving an outlet for the extra mana that ensures our game keeps moving. Visions finds sideboard cards and synergizes with the tech choices I'll surely make when I get around to actually testing the deck.
With Nacatl, Goyf, and Bolt, the Burn matchup should prove trivial. The blue-Naya color spread also allows us some of the best Affinity hate in the format, especially important with the rise of Lantern. That covers Modern's boogeyman aggro decks, which I presume straight-Bant versions of the deck will struggle with. The sideboard can then focus down combo and midrange. I expect Negate, Kitchen Finks, and maybe even Keranos to have a place here.
Forgive and Forget
Wizards deserves a round of applause. They make a mean game. Battle looks really sweet for limited. And it's not like we're short on new Modern cards; Chapin took that RUG list with Abbots to an 8-1 Day 1 at GP OKC, I'm still exploiting Day's Undoing, and Khans block made the largest impact on Modern of any block, ever. It doesn't really matter that BFZ is such a flop for Modern, because Modern doesn't need any help. Sure, Battle for Zendikar might disappoint die-hard Modern players, and I count myself among them. But on the bright side, in a few months, it's spoiler season all over again! So don't despair, there's still plenty of territory to explore in Modern.
What are you brewing with? Any playables I missed? I'll see you in the comments!