I’ve been working on a set of theme decks for Battle for Zendikar lately, and it’s made me think in-depth about the structure of the set and what kinds of decks it encourages players to build. That’s one of the reasons I love building theme decks- it forces you to get out of the way and just let the cards do what the cards want to do. It’s often more a process of exploration than of creation, and it leads me to discover things about the game that I never would have noticed otherwise.
When it comes to Battle for Zendikar, one realization in particular caused me to sit back and evaluate how I was approaching its themes.
What was this ground-breaking epiphany, you might ask?
Well, to put it simply, Battle for Zendikar doesn’t really care about the Eldrazi.
Or, at least, not in the way that we’re used to.
The First Time Around
Of course, when I say that Battle for Zendikar doesn’t care about the Eldrazi, I’m not talking about the little bitty drones and spawn that skitter about like so many creepy alien insects. I mean the huge, colorless monstrosities- the ancient beings from the spaces between worlds that have arrived to devour you and everything you hold dear.
When we first saw these creatures in Rise of the Eldrazi, they looked like this:
This original crop of Eldrazi shared a few common characteristics:
- They were super-expensive. The cheapest of the lot weighs in at a hefty eight mana, and it stretches all the way up to fifteen.
- They were powerful. The smallest numbers here are 7/7, which means that your Eldrazi will almost always be the strongest creature on the table.
- They had Annihilator, which meant that the opponent couldn’t just render all that power useless with a series of chump-blocks. Even if they had creatures to throw in the way of your attack, they were still losing something.
Because they were powerful, expensive, and highly effective as late-game threats, these Eldrazi lent themselves to a dedicated ramp-control theme deck:
Eldrazi Annihilators (Rise of the Eldrazi Theme Deck)
The idea behind this deck is simple: accelerate your mana with Eldrazi Spawn, using a handful of theme-appropriate removal spells to stay alive during the process. Eventually, you start the parade of gigantic Eldrazi titans, which Annihilate your opponent into oblivion.
How Things Have Changed
At first, Battle for Zendikar seems to contain the same Eldrazi-related themes as Rise, with Eldrazi Scion tokens filling the role of the Eldrazi Spawn and a new cast of colorless leviathans just waiting to be ramped into. However, a closer inspection of the cards reveals subtle differences that have dramatic consequences.
For starters, look at the new cast of Eldrazi titans:
There are three major differences between this lot and the crew from Rise of the Eldrazi:
- They’re cheaper. Whereas every big Eldrazi from Rise cost at least eight mana, a whopping 50% of the Battle for Zendikar titans cost six mana or less. Where we once had an uncommon Eldrazi at eleven mana, now even the legendary titan Ulamog tops out at ten.
- They’re smaller. Even the puniest of the Eldrazi from Rise was a 7/7. Now, we have multiple titans with six or less power.
- Annihilator has been changed out for a range of utility. Rather than just being powerful finishers like they were in Rise, it feels like Battle for Zendikar works to give each individual Eldrazi its own personality and purpose.
What this breaks down to is that the Eldrazi from Battle for Zendikar are smaller and more versatile than those from Rise of the Eldrazi, which makes them less suitable as finishers for a dedicated ramp-into-titans theme deck. They’re cheaper, too, which is a good thing given the other major change from Rise of the Eldrazi to Battle for Zendikar.
The Changing Face of the Swarm
You wouldn’t think that a single point of power would be all that significant, but it turns out that there’s a world of difference between these two tokens:
Here are some of the cards that make Eldrazi Spawn from Rise:
Contrast that with cards that make Eldrazi Scions from Battle:
There’s a definite drop in mana-production from the first set of cards to the second. Because Eldrazi Spawn tokens had no power in combat, we were allowed to produce them faster and more efficiently, making for an easier ramp strategy (and thus making the expensive Eldrazi more feasible). Because the Scions from Battle can actually trade in combat, there’s a little bit of a premium on their production. There’s a pro/con trade-off here: we lose focus from the dedicated ramp strategy, but we also gain a legitimate tokens theme that can be useful even if you’re not interested in accelerating your mana.
Why Does This Matter?
When you combine all of the smaller changes in the various Eldrazi going from Rise of the Eldrazi into Battle for Zendikar, a stark contrast emerges that makes it impossible to approach the two sets from the same angle.
Cheap acceleration in the form of Eldrazi Spawn tokens and expensive, powerful finishers in the form of the giant annihilating Eldrazi titans made a focused ramp deck the obvious choice when building an Eldrazi-themed deck from Rise.
In Battle for Zendikar, the choice is much less clear-cut. The Eldrazi titans are cheaper, smaller, and more versatile, making a dedicated ramp strategy both less necessary and less rewarding. The Eldrazi tokens you’re ramping with are harder to make (once again weakening the dedicated ramp strategy), but they lend themselves to a wider variety of purposes.
I feel like, where Rise of the Eldrazi gave a singular mechanical and flavorful identity to the Eldrazi, Battle for Zendikar is instead encouraging me to branch out and build multiple Eldrazi-themed decks to explore the faction’s trade-off of power for variety.
So, then, how exactly do you go about building a theme deck around a faction that no longer has a unifying theme?
The Many Faces of the New Eldrazi
My first instinct is to try embracing the Eldrazi’s new-found diversity and build a series of theme decks, one for each major facet of the Eldrazi identity. There’s even a double-cycle of cards that gives me some guidance for this:
Using these as sign-posts, I’m going to put together four archetypal Eldrazi theme decks for Battle for Zendikar:
- U/B Ingest and Proliferate: Slowly eat away at your opponent’s cards and then convert that food into energy to activate powerful abilities.
- B/G Sacrificial Scions: Flood the board with Eldrazi Scions which can either ramp out larger Eldrazi, serve as sacrifice fodder to feed other spells and abilities, or just run over your opponent’s face.
- B/R Devoid Aggro: Beat your opponent’s face in with aggressive colorless creatures, leveraging a critical mass of Devoid permanents in order to ratchet up your damage potential.
- U/R Devoid Control: Lock the opponent out of the game with colorless counter-magic and burn, paired with several cards that feed off of your steady stream of Devoid spells to generate incremental advantages.
Just as I do with every theme deck project, I’m going to lay myself a couple of basic rules to start off with.
First, every spell in each deck is going to be colorless. That is the one truly unifying factor for the Eldrazi in Battle for Zendikar, both flavorfully and mechanically. Plus, I like the way that the design for the Devoid card-borders provides an aesthetic link for the decks.
Second, I want to have playsets of each of the aforementioned gold uncommons and rares in each of their respective decks. These cards do a great job of defining their various themes, and I want to strengthen that definition as much as possible.
Third, I want to avoid overlap where feasible. Each deck should feel distinct, and the simplest way to accomplish that is to give each one its individual card pool. This is going to be difficult, given the small number of cards available, but I’ll do what I can.
Here’s the deck I’m starting things off with:
U/B Ingesting and Processing (Battle for Zendikar Theme Deck)
This deck is all about show-casing the Ingest/Process mechanics and demonstrating the slow march of consumption represented by the Eldrazi horde. You start out by playing one or two seemingly innocuous Drones that nibble away at your opponent’s life total and library simultaneously. A selection of removal spells protects your own life total, disrupting their plans and adding to your growing stack of Eldrazi-chow. As the game progresses, your Processors use that huge stash of food to fuel powerful abilities that stabilize your position and eventually pull you far enough ahead to put the game out of the opponent’s reach.
This post has already gone on for awhile, so I’ll reserve the more in-depth analysis and commentary for next time. Until then, what is your opinion of the changes the Eldrazi have undergone between Rise of the Eldrazi and Battle for Zendikar? Am I approaching the new Eldrazi theme decks the right way? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think!
Welcome, fellow magical bookworms, to a second installment of my on-going series of literary reviews. This time we’re going to talk about a novel that finally vaulted Brandon Sanderson into place in my mind as one of the all-time fantasy greats: Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians.
Our main character’s name is Alcatraz Smedry, and, like all good fantasy protagonists, he’s an orphan. Placed into foster care by parents he never knew, Alcatraz was shunted from family to family because of his uncanny ability to break anything he touched. Vases, cars, even entire kitchens- nothing was safe from Alcatraz’s curse.
Then, on his thirteenth birthday, he received an odd “inheritance” from his father- a bag of sand. When that bag of sand is stolen by an Evil Librarian (masquerading as his social worker), his heretofore-unknown Grandpa Smedry shows up to help him retrieve it, and Alcatraz’s world becomes both extremely exciting and extremely complicated.
You see, the world as we portray it on maps and globes and such is actually a lie. Hidden in the blank spaces on those maps and globes (I mean, c’mon, what sense does it make for the world to have so much water?) are foreign lands that contain noble knights, powerful magic, and advanced technology that far surpasses our own.
We used to have those things as well, except that a cult of Evil Librarians took over our lands and transformed them into the Hushlands. Inside the Hushlands, all knowledge of magic is suppressed. An insidious campaign of mis-information was launched such that, over time, the inhabitants of the Hushlands forgot all about the rest of the world. The Cult of Evil Librarians rebranded themselves as benevolent providers of knowledge while keeping secret the most vital knowledge of all.
Outside of the Hushlands, the Free Kingdoms wage constant war against the Librarians to keep themselves from being swallowed up as well. Magical sand is smelted into special types of glass that can be crafted into powerful lenses. Gifted people called Oculators can use these lenses for a variety of purposes from tracking footsteps to unleashing beams of fire, depending on the type of sand used in their creation.
It’s up to Alcatraz to harness not only his hidden Oculator powers but also his ability to break things (which it turns out is a magical talent related to the Smedry bloodline) to liberate the Hushlands from their sinister Librarian overlords while keeping the remaining Free Kingdoms from falling into their clutches.
I came into this book straight from reading The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance, the first two installments of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. I’m a sucker for epic fantasies with sprawling, immersive worlds and diverse characters, and I was absolutely blown away by Sanderson’s ability to let the reader experience all of the tantalizing corners of his world while keeping their interest strongly rooted in specific characters and plots. I’ve never seen another author pull that off quite so well, to the point that I think the Stormlight Archive has unseated The Wheel of Time as the best epic fantasy series I’ve ever read.
Coming off of this tour-de-force of action and drama, I decided to try out one of Sanderson’s young adult offerings, so I picked up Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians … and I fell in love with Sanderson’s writing all over again.
On its surface, it’s a typical Brandon Sanderson fantasy novel: a complex world with a coherently developed magic system, anchored in fascinating characters and a dynamic plot. It’s not too different in form from other contemporary fantasy-adventure YA fiction (like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series), but there’s an underlying depth and maturity to its construction that reveals the author’s background and experience.
So far, so good- we’ve got all the trappings of a quality fantasy. Where Sanderson sets this book apart, though, is the narrator. We are told the story through Alcatraz’s viewpoint, but it’s not with the voice of young, new-and-disoriented Alcatraz. It’s the voice of an older, experienced Alcatraz who can look back on all of this with snark and humor, with words of warning and cutting criticisms of his younger self.
It’s this narrator, this character-who-isn’t-a-character, that made me love this book. His wry sarcasm and not-quite-absurdist satire evoke memories of Jim Butcher and Terry Pratchett. He envelops the reader into the story, creating a character for them that exists in a meta-narrative outside of the actual plot (much like another of my favorite YA serials, P. Bosch’s Secret Series). This way, the reader actually becomes a passive actor in the book, a connection that’s strengthened by the familiarity and irreverence of the narrative tone.
A dramatic epic fantasy is great for when I want to dive deep into a story, immersing myself completely in a new world. For a light, entertaining reading experience, though, I’m a sucker for exactly that style of irreverent, fourth-wall-breaking novel (as evidenced by the dog-eared copy of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy next to my toilet).
The fact that there’s an author out there capable of hitting both of these styles on the nose … well, I think I can confidently say that Brandon Sanderson has earned a place at the top of my list of favorite fantasy authors.
For those of you who have been cut off from the Magical world for the last couple of weeks, the Battle for Zendikar pre-release took place September 26-27 (last weekend). For two precious days, the hungry masses had the opportunity to get a taste of the upcoming set a full week before it officially hit store shelves. The alluring scent of freshly cracked booster packs filled the air as players oohed and aahed over their shiny new toys while crafting the perfect deck with which to destroy their opponents (and win even more shiny new toys).
For years, I joined the frenzied masses in their mad scramble for fresh cardboard. For years, I waited with growing anticipation as I crossed days off of the calendar in anticipation of that magical midnight. For years, I joined my fellow Magicians in joyous exultation of the gifts that Wizards of the Coast had bestowed upon us.
But I left all of that behind when I rose to the exalted status of Card Shop Employee.
My Life is Made of Pure Awesome
Do you remember earlier when I talked about my new part-time job at the Mid-Continent Public Library? Well, that wasn’t the only amazing thing happening to me at the time. I had also been extended an employment offer by my very own neighborhood card shop, Action-Sports.
Working at a card shop has been a dream come true. I get to spend my time working with a hobby that I love and get paid for it. I get to put my years of experience to good use in a low-pressure environment so divorced from my prior retail position (Wal-Mart) that it seems to exist in a different world. From the store owner to the customers, everyone is friendly, easy-going, and a genuine pleasure to work with. It’s hard to imagine a better job than this.
Except, I guess, being a librarian. Did I mention how freaking awesome my life is?
Of course, this much amazing doesn’t come without a price. My role behind the counter has left me with precious little time to actually play Magic. I can usually grab a few casual games here and there with customers who just show up looking to play for fun, but my days of weekly FNMs and marathon drafting are over.
Becoming a Card Shop Employee (and, yes, the capitalization is required) changed more than just my income- it also changed my over-all role in the Magic community, and nowhere is that change more relevant than Prerelease weekend. Where before I was a happy-go-lucky Magic player cracking packs and duking it out with my friends, now I’m the guy who’s actually in charge of making everything run smoothly and ensuring a fun experience for the players. I’m not saying that my role now isn’t just as fun and engaging as it was before, it’s just different, and it takes some getting used to.
Prerelease Weekend from Behind the Counter
The first thing that hit me as an employee during the Prerelease was the sheer number of hours that you work. Let me break down the numbers for you:
- We hold five different tournaments over the course of the weekend: Midnight Friday night, 2 PM and 6 PM Saturday, and 10 AM and 2 PM Sunday.
- That means that I work from 4:00 PM Friday afternoon to 5:00 AM Saturday morning, from 1:00 PM Saturday afternoon until midnight Saturday night, and from 9:00 AM Sunday morning until about 8:00 PM (depending on how much time is needed for clean-up) Sunday evening.
- That’s a 13-hour shift and two 11-hour shifts, for a total of 35 hours over the course of three days (not counting any morning shifts I might need to work at the library Friday or Saturday).
This makes the Prerelease a little bit of a surreal experience for me. For three days, I basically disappear off of the face of the earth and spend every waking moment at one job or the other. It’s a very intense, high-energy weekend, and I often find myself riding what I can only describe as an adrenaline rush by the end of it all.
Of course, every single hour of work is worth it, since I’m the guy in charge of the Pre-release! For those of you who don’t understand how important this is to me, let me refer you to some of the earlier posts on this here very blog. For most of my Magic-playing life, the Prerelease has been the single most important event on my calendar. It was the one day when every single Magician could come together and sling cards in peace and harmony. The casual players left their kitchen tables and the competitive players set aside their testing for just long enough to sit down and share the joy of exploring a new set. It’s basically the Magic equivalent of Christmas.
And I get to be Santa.
Creating a Magical Weekend
Running Prerelease weekend is one of the most intense and enjoyable experiences that I’ve ever had. Most of the actual work comes with running the event: taking entries, managing the tournament, answering judge calls, and still running the register while all this is happening.
The fun comes in the planning.
Over the time that I’ve worked at Action-Sports, I’ve learned one important lesson: a large tournament succeeds or fails based on the preparations you make. The more work you put into the event beforehand (prepping the event space, establishing a system for seatings/pairings, organizing new product, etc), the better the final result will be for both you and your players.
This is especially important for a Prerelease, since you’re not just planning a tournament- you’re planning an experience. You want players, new and old alike, to immerse themselves in the new set and have a good time regardless of their performance in the event. This means adding some bells and whistles to your plain old hum-drum tourney.
In the past, Wizards of the Coast has provided cool, engaging activities for players to participate in that added an extra dimension of flavor and fun to their weekend. Battling the Hydra in Theros, facing the oversized Garruk in M15, unleashing your dragon-fire against unsuspecting peasants in Dragons of Tarkir- all of these were activities that the players could have a lot of fun with, whether or not they were interested in the tournament. I hadn’t seen any announcement of something like that for Battle for Zendikar, so I was excited to see what Wizards had up their sleeve this time.
Super-Awesome Exciting Fun-Times
A cardboard hedron from Ikea. That’s all we got. No, seriously, it came flat-packed, took an hour to assemble, and still wouldn’t stand up straight when I was done (I ended up jury-rigging it by wedging dice into the base). No engaging activity, no faction wars, no special promo cards or dice.
Consider me disappointed, Wizards. I hope you can feel the weight of my frowny face from across the keyboard.
That said, I will give credit where credit is due. Once it was assembled and adjusted, the hedron looked pretty awesome as both an advertisement for the Prerelease and a centerpiece for the event. It was a frequent topic of conversation leading up to the tournament, and people posed next to it for pictures throughout the weekend.
Furthermore, they didn’t exactly leave me high and dry when it came to creative event ideas. The this-is-how-to-hold-a-Prerelease insert that came with the Prerelease kit listed a website where I could find some cool papercraft patterns. A few hours of assembly later, and I had a double handful of each of these:
The first one is a hedron that fits comfortably within your hand. The second one is a ring of tentacles that fits over your head. Yeah, I know the quality isn’t stellar, but cut me a break here- I never claimed to be an artist.
I chose ten people at random before round one began. Five of them got a “Z” next to their names on the pairing sheet. They became the Champions of the Zendikari and were granted the Hedrons of Power. The other five got an “E” next to their names, marking them as the Champions of the Eldrazi and granting them the Tentacle Crowns.
Whenever someone defeated a Champion, they claimed that player’s trophies. At the end of the event, everyone who had trophies could come up and redeem each one for an entry into the drawing for the giant cardboard hedron and a chance to “loot Zendikar” (pick from a pile of random foils and promos).
At first I was afraid that the grown men playing would think it was lame, but people really got into it. I looked out for chances to highlight matches where champions were playing each other, and I had each final victor pose with their trophy(s) next to the giant hedron for a picture (you can see the photos on our Facebook page).
All in all, I think everyone ended up having a good time, and I’m counting this weekend as a success. Are there things I would do differently next time? Definitely, and I’ve made careful notes of what I want to watch out for in the future. That said, I had an absolute blast, and I hope everyone else did too.
As always, feel free to leave any thoughts and/or critiques (including your own impressions of the BFZ prerelease) in the comments below.