Welcome back to day three of our week-long review of Battle for Zendikar here at TCGplayer.com! All week we are bringing you a card-by-card breakdown of Magic's latest set! Thus far we have knocked out white, blue, and the artifacts from the set and today we will be moving to the black cards as well as the colorless options from the set (nonartifact of course!).
This time around we have changed up our review a bit to focus on Constructed applications of each of the cards, including any potential brews that could come out of said card. While we will give each card a Constructed rating, be sure to read about the card for cool uses or potential decklists!
Once again, we are going to roll out a new scale that more appropriately accomplishes what we are looking for. Our review will focus first on Standard applications of the cards and then make nods to Modern and Eternal when it makes sense. Here is what we will be working with:
5 - These are true Constructed all-stars and will define one or more archetypes in loud ways or will simply be everywhere as their power is nearly unmatched in a format. Current examples of this include Siege Rhino, Thoughtseize, and Hangarback Walker.
4 - These are less defining than fives but are very close in power level. These tend to be the bread and butter of most Tier 1 Constructed decks. Examples include things like Sylvan Caryatid, Languish, and Stoke the Flames.
3 - These are powerful cards that tend to be more niche than the higher ranks, or are more utility-based. In general, when you go to start a Constructed decklist, you naturally begin with fives and fours as they grab our attention, but threes come in to fill in the cracks afterward. Examples include Anafenza, the Foremost, Soulfire Grand Master, and Satyr Wayfinder.
2 - These tend to require very specific environments or decks in order to have success, but they can still be very strong. Additionally, sideboard staples tend to fall in this category. I generally rate wacky cards that I am not exactly sure of in this space too. Current examples include Minister of Pain, Lightning Berserker, and Revoke Existence.
1 - This includes everything else. That is to say most cards that won't see any Constructed play fall here or the ones that pop up very infrequently for very minor jobs (usually out of the sideboard).
This is one that has been around before and it always sees a little less play than it should, but I am certainly willing to give it the benefit of the doubt this time around. Drawing two cards at instant speed definitely costs more than two mana; so as long as you are turning the cost into some sort of positive, then you end up with a pretty sweet spell. In this case, we want to look for graveyard synergies or creatures that provide a benefit when they die. Here is a starting shell for that idea:
4 Bloodsoaked Champion
4 Den Protector
4 Despoiler of Souls
3 Liliana, Heretical Healer
4 Deathmist Raptor
4 Altar's Reap
So obviously this card basically has the same application as Ajani's Pridemate, only it comes in a slightly bigger starting size for double the price and is now black. Ultimately, I think this makes the card worse as a whole, but it does fit a midrange style much better. Being black means that you can pair this with value cards such as Foul-Tongue Invocation and Siege Rhino while still enjoying the benefits. That was a difficult thing to justify before as the 2/2 for two is just so much better in aggro than anywhere else.
This essentially goes into the same kind of shell that Altar's Reap does, although this will also occasionally pop up in sideboards or maindecks just due to how cheap of a removal spell it is. While the cost of sacrificing a creature is generally big, if the deck is B/W Tokens or something, it can justify that trade because one mana allows it to play an anthem in the same turn and go for broke.
This guy is actually quite impressive in my opinion. A 2/1 for two is fine when it comes with the upside of a 1/1 token that can turn into mana. Aggressive decks can use this as card advantage that also ensures they hit their one four or five-drop in hand and I think that is a very desirable set of traits. I see this going into black aggro decks or maybe even being a defensive option against aggro decks out of midrange black decks.
In all likelihood, this is probably a mana too much to see a ton of Constructed play but it is possible that the metagame just demands this. This answers cards like Deathmist Raptor and Hangarback Walker in an efficient manner. Most decks are not going to want to run too many of these in the main, as it is a rather weak removal spell in a vacuum, but some things just need to be exiled.
I can appreciate the effort here, but without some form of evasion or card advantage on this thing, I don't think there is enough to justify playing a bear in Standard. Even if ingest is attractive to you, this might not ever trigger it!
While this is pretty expensive, it also has a cool build-around ability that we can focus on. We have seen this in the past on an enchantment so we need to adjust for the idea being a little more fragile these days, although it is also much better on its own. Here is a rough shell I started when thinking about the card.
4 Seeker of the Way
4 Bloodbond Vampire
4 Ojutai Exemplars
2 Wingmate Roc
4 Defiant Bloodlord
4 Ondu Rising
2 Demonic Pact
3 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
2 Alhammarret's Archive
4 Blighted Steppe
4 Scoured Barrens
This is mostly useless due to it being expensive, slow, and conditional, but it could have a use if there is some 5/5 indestructible creature running around, so keep it in mind for that niche use.
This is actually around the minimum rate I would want for a black or colorless aggressive deck, so I could definitely see this playing that role. This doubles as true for said deck if they have a need for exiled cards as this might just rack up a few of them. We will go over some deck ideas later on when we reach more exciting offerings, but this is playable.
Drana, Liberator of Malakir
So before I get to the review, allow me to clear this card up first. Basically, because of the way first strike works, this will put a +1/+1 counter on each of your creatures without first strike, before they Deal Damage. The first strike creatures will have dealt their damage already, although they still get the counter. This makes Drana a flying Anthem for any kind of aggressive deck but specifically seems amazing in some kind of token strategy
4 Carrier Thrall
4 Dragon Fodder
4 Drana, Liberator of Malakir
4 Hordeling Outburst
3 Pia and Kiran Nalaar
4 Hangarback Walker
Drana is also a pretty decent beater all on her own though, so you should definitely consider her for your midrange decks as well. Once she connects once, she gets to four toughness which is pretty safe and anything beyond that probably just means you've won the game.
This has always been playable, but it takes a deck that really knows how to abuse this to consider it because of the four mana price tag. I don't think any deck wants this right now, but we will have to wait and see if this makes a Dutiful Return to Constructed.
Even as a 5/4 menace creature for five mana, we still want more out of this before we would really consider it. I think black will have plenty of other toys for us to play with though.
So this is kind of the super Eldrazi enabler as you get a little of everything that you want plus this even replaces itself. While there is no one thing on this that is all too impressive, the combination of a bunch of utility could easily get this into somewhere. It is worth noting that this isn't a great sideboard card to hate the graveyard as you have little say over what gets exiled.
Grip of Desolation
Typically I would think of this as costing too much mana, but given the scarcity of ways to deal with lands in a format with a lot of good lands, this actually could be a decent one or two-of in decks that go long. Control getting to two-for-one a Deathmist Raptor and a Lumbering Falls is huge. If they then want to do something with the exiled cards, they even have that option. Don't sleep on this completely.
Guul Draz Overseer
This guy is a bit expensive to really get much value out of because he wants to be at the top of your aggro curve. As is, this doesn't come online until your seventh mana, which is just too slow, I fear.
This is an ally! That is about the only positive thing to say about this as neither Grey Ogres nor five mana -1/-1s are very well positioned in Constructed.
This is an ally as well and that matters very much because this is one of those allies that provide you with individual triggers, allowing you to potentially combo off with this. Specifically, I am thinking back to Monday and our look into Unified Front. If that card comes with a four-point Drain attached, it starts looking a lot better.
Are you kidding? This card is obviously too busy defending the wall from impending darkness to have time for our petty Constructed games!
Rating: Our last hope!
If this guy got a counter like the other designs we have seen, I would be pretty excited about a flying Pridemate. As is though, it is pretty difficult to abuse this guy as all of your life gain needs to occur in one turn. If this sees play, it will probably be as a flying deathtouch creature to take down various dragons and whatnot.
Obviously as a colorless Hill Giant, this is making no traction in Standard, so let's just assume that if you are playing this, you can trigger the ability reliably. In that world, I think Mind Raker is marginally playable, but not necessarily exciting. You can pair this with a ton of other value discard spells and try to go for some kind of The Rack strategy, which might work out, but otherwise, this won't be seeing much play.
Finally we get to some black awaken action! Here we have a slightly more expensive Mind Rot, or a six mana 3/3 Mind Rot on legs. Neither half of that gets me excited, but the versatility of offering both options is pretty nice. This is much more playable than Mind Raker in a similar role, but they also work in tandem, so be sure to consider that.
Another life gain trigger that isn't very well suited for Constructed. How good of an assassin can you be if you can only take out targets after someone else helps you out with something first? I need drop-of-the-hat assassining here!
Ob Nixilis Reignited
I absolutely love this card. While this is a pretty simple design for a planeswalker, it also just comes with all of the bells and whistles that you want in a walker. Card advantage? Check. Removal that protects itself? Check. Reasonable price tag? Check. The only thing kind of lacking on Ob Nixilis is his ultimate, but seeing as how those get activated in about 2% of games, I am not too saddened by that fact.
Typical play pattern is going to be to cast this, kill something threatening, and then try to get it to survive for a while as you draw cards. If you were lucky enough to cast this to an empty board, the card advantage should be more than enough to keep you happy. Pairing this with Languish is really nice as they curve into each other and Languish should clear up the board, leaving either no creatures in play, or maybe one which Ob Nixilis can take out.
One of my favorite cards in the set almost on rate alone. Three cards for three mana is just not something we are used to getting, even if that comes with a few points of life attached to it. I expect this to be hugely popular, seeing play in everything from Abzan aggro decks to dragon control and just about everything in between that can actually get away with three colors of mana.
If you are trying to cast this in a two-color deck, I think you probably could look elsewhere, but a bad Read the Bones or Divination is still playable.
Retreat to Hagra
This particular landfall enchantment seems best suited in an aggressive shell just so that the player can take advantage of both abilities regularly. I feel like the drain trigger will be the most commonly used, but pushing through a creature that otherwise couldn't get damage in is more valuable when it does come up. If this finds a home, it will probably be in the sideboard as an element of reach for black aggressive decks, or possibly in life-gain-matters decks as we have seen plenty of synergies there.
While this comes in at a mana more expensive than Infest, it is also a black pip less than Infest and Languish, making this a better option for four and five-color lists that cannot reliably get double black early on. The awaken ability is a nice touch for the late game as this is a spell that can otherwise fall off. I actually expect this to be a fairly popular card both in maindecks as well as sideboards, although decks that can play one of the "better" sweepers in the format probably will. Look for this to supplement one of the five-mana sweepers as an earlier defensive measure against aggro.
Hero's Downfall is back! Losing instant speed is obviously a big loss as the card has commonly been one of the best answers to just about anything at the end of your opponent's turn. In exchange, we pick up a pretty strong awaken ability as a 4/4 is no slouch. That actually means this can take out both a creature and planeswalker in the late game as a hasted 4/4 does the later, most of the time. This might see a little less play than Downfall did, but it won't be by much as there are not many alternatives for black mages.
This is a pretty interesting card in that it is fairly resilient with four toughness but strangely offensive with two damage that is essentially unblockable. I don't think this will be hugely popular, but if it pops up in some colorless aggro decks on occasion, I wouldn't be too surprised.
Alright, perhaps I valued the last guy a little too highly considering Skitterskin is mostly better in the four-drop slot. While evasion is lacking here, being able to regenerate on a 4/3 body is pretty nice. You need to be running this in a colorless matters deck to increase the odds that you get to actually activate this, but this still has a clear home as a result.
When I see this card, I instantly think back to Vector Asp from Scars of Mirrodin. If you remember that block, artifacts were obviously at a premium, but seeing someone play a one-mana 1/1 with effectively no abilities as infect was not desired, was crazy. This was not just a random FNM deck either; people were actually playing with four copies of Vector Asp at the Pro Tour! Sludge Crawler could actually be desirable for a similar reason except, in reality, it is way better. Having the ability to grow in combat as well as the ingest ability adds to the viability and versatility of this quite a bit. I wouldn't expect this to see a ton of play, but it might be the hero we need at some point.
Alright, perhaps I rated both of the previous four-drops a little too highly because this is easily the best of the bunch. First of all, we have a sacrifice build-around here which instantly lends more credit to the Altar's Reaps and Bone Splinters of the world. Additionally, this is colorless which means if there is any kind of colorless aggro deck, this will almost certainly be involved, if not the incentive to be that in the first place! Keep in mind that even if you choose to sacrifice this, it will still trigger the draw.
You could easily slot this into the B/G sacrifice deck that we look at above, but let's take a look at an even more niche archetype. B/G Eldrazi Leap!
This deck can use some polish, but man does it look sweet or what? I will let you mess around with it on your own because there is a ton of different directions to go, but one thing to take note of are the Tomb of the Spirit Dragons down in the lands. Eldrazi Scions are colorless and this deck makes a ton of them, so being able to turn that into four or five life a turn is huge.
These global pumps are always playable if there is a deck that can take advantage of them. We could alter the above list to be more aggressive rather than midrange, for example, and then it might consider this. The first strike clause is nice, but that hardly restricts this to colorless decks as usually you want to win the game the turn you cast this.
Transgress the Mind
Two mana feels so bad to be paying for this, but with Thoughtseize rotating and only Duress remaining there is a real chance this is our best option to deal with the likes of Ulamog, Ob Nixilis, and Ojutai before they ruin our lives. The exile clause is nice for decks with random processors as well.
I kind of cheated and included this in the deck above, but hopefully you can see where this might go. You can also go for some classic Act of Treason-style shenanigans to use this as a repeated Terminate with upside.
I think that if this managed to not have both drawbacks of a mana cost on the activation and then the sorcery speed clause, it might be worth looking at for the kind of sacrifice decks we keep talking about. As is, I just see this as being too clunky for Constructed.
This is a very strange card to see at rare in my opinion. If you compare it on power level to something like Shriekmaw or Nekrataal, it isn't very different. They all come with conditional removal and a medium/small body. If anything, this requires additional setup to execute properly, so I definitely feel uncommon about this. Oh well.
It terms of power level, if your deck can reliably trigger this, it is probably going to be very good in the upcoming Standard. I don't see a lot of decks going out of their way to trigger this though, so it kind of either needs to fit in or not. It is possible that this makes for a strong sideboard card against opponents who are exiling their own stuff.
I left this guy out of the various sacrifice shells I have talked about thus far, but I think that he could easily be worth the inclusion if you were aiming for a more aggressive approach. Similar to Disciple of the Vault, this card looks rather harmless until it doesn't, and by that point you might just be dead. This gives black decks a ton of reach as well which is difficult to prepare for. While the applications here are niche, I think this card could be a sleeper.
Bane of Bala Ged
One of my favorite cards in Rise of Eldrazi was Bala Ged Scorpion, so I am happy to see a throwback, even if this functions dramatically different. If this is going to see play, it is going to be with some kind of haste granting reanimation spell or Through the Breach type of effect. Swift Warkite is all we have in Standard and obviously that doesn't work, but keep this in mind as future sets get spoiled
This is easily one of the biggest payoffs for processing exiled cards, which makes me really want to explore a deck that can reliably do this. In all of my decks using From Beyond, I have wanted to include this as a tutor target, but then I quickly realize I had no reliable way to ensure exiled cards for food. I will be highly interested to see where this finds a home, because seven power and eight toughness across four bodies is no joke for only five mana.
Breaker of Armies
If you are reanimating a giant colorless creature, I suppose this one has some merit over the Bane of Bala Ged, but for the most part, a giant lure creature is worth than exiling a couple of permanents.
Conduit of Ruin
This is a pretty nifty fatty that I am sure will find a home over time, although the pool of big colorless creatures that this wants to grab is fairly limited right now. A 5/5 for six mana that tutors you a card is already something and this has the added benefit of being a true ramp spell for those more expensive options. Finding Ulamog and being able to cast it two turns early can absolutely change the landscape of a game. Outside of the Eldrazi we'll discuss today, the only other legal targets for this are Mage-Ring Responder and Pilgrim of the Fires.
Not exactly the best of the best.
This card is not very great in most matchups, but seems like quite the force against control. I would include one in the sideboard of the above sacrifice deck, for example, as From Beyond tutors it up and then it constantly comes back, running control out of removal and countermagic. Vigilance is a nice touch as well.
This is a pretty cool card, regardless of just how good it is. Because you only get the bonus 10/10 when casting this from hand, the number of ways to actually abuse this goes way down. Still, producing 20 power in one card has potential as some kind of combo killer should you actually be able to cast this and give it haste or something. In general, I am going to recommend playing Ulamog over this, but maybe it'll find a use.
Do you have need for an 8/9 trampler? You do?!? What about an 8/9 trampler for eight mana? Wait, where are you going?
Poor Ivy Elemental. That card has been outdone so many times now and this is just the final nail in the coffin! This card is actually interesting in that it fits into whatever situations you throw it into. While none of its modes are going to wow you, the fact that it has so many different modes and is always something is more than most cards can say. This might even be worth including as a one-of in From Beyond lists.
What a weird card. I don't necessarily see this finding a home in Constructed just because of the parlay it asks players to connect. You need a field full of colorless creatures, six mana, and an opponent's field full of creatures of equal or lesser size and then you need to skip some amount of attacking with your big creatures that turn to instead use them to "fight." That sounds like a dream scenario in Limited, but setting that up in Constructed feels very difficult. Maybe this finds a role in the sideboard?
While I love the idea of a big dude making mana for bigger dudes, the more Constructed viable version can be seen on Conduit of Ruin or even Hedron Archive. Having your five mana creature live a turn so that you can cast bigger and better things is asking a lot. Most five mana creatures just present that level of threat all on their own (Ojutai) rather than needing to be chained into something else.
Well this is a card... This is basically the only Eldrazi processor that has a way to enable itself which is interesting, although to get consistent value from this, you probably want to have other ways to exile cards as well. Because this only cares about lands, we can actually use some of the new land exiling options to help us out.
4 Crumble to Dust
4 Grip of Desolation
4 Oblivion Sower
4 Scour from Existence
Scour from Existence might be a stretch, but this is a decent start to that idea. Of course, Oblivion Sower can be cast without help and it will still generate value and it is a 5/8, so you could do worse.
Scour from Existence
In most ways this is way worse than Utter End, but as we just talked about, it has some niche uses that might be enough for it to see some play. Spending seven mana on a one-for-one hurts to think about, but sometimes ya gotta do what ya gotta do.
Assuming you are making the plunge and running a bunch of colorless fatties, this card seems pretty great. As we talked about with Complete Disregard earlier, there are definitely some creatures in this format that need to be exiled to be safely dealt with and Titan's Presence does so for a pretty efficient rate as long as you have the fodder in hand to fuel it. This will probably be a standard in any kind of colorless control or fatties deck and won't show up too many other places due to unreliability.
Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
So the original Ulamog is a card arguably defined by its Vindicate ability when cast. While it has a lot going on including annihilator and indestructible, so often the value of a Vindicate that couldn't be countered made or broke your inclusion of the card because you could always cheat something better out (like Emrakul) if you just cared about its size and in-play abilities. This time around, Ulamog is the big fatty of choice and its ability has been upgraded from a single Vindicate to a double Scour from Existence, which is obviously a huge upgrade.
Perhaps the biggest upgrade is the fact that this Ulamog can actually hit your graveyard, making it able to be reanimated which was always an annoying nontrait of the first cycle. Ulamog will probably make a lot of appearances as a one-of, especially when paired with From Beyond, Conduit of Ruin, or Sanctum of Origin, but other decks looking to cheat it out should gladly run additional copies as well.
As far as older formats are concerned, you need to make an argument for running this over Emrakul or Griselbrand, which is a tough argument to make, but there are certainly some situations where this will be the right choice.
Yes, yes, we know, you can't even. Outside of this being a cute card to talk about though, there isn't a ton left for Constructed purposes. While the effect could be strong, especially in specific matchups, it also comes attached to a nine-mana body that is otherwise vanilla in nature. That is a lot of resources spent on something that just gets swept away by the Ruinous Path or End Hostilities your opponent has.
Today actually contained a lot of exciting cards. Black got some staples that it will certainly be playing for the next two years, like Ruinous Path and even Ob Nixilis, while also getting a couple of cool ones to think about like Smothering Abomination to allow your brewer's imagination to Run Wild. The colorless creatures deliver some of the same, with Ulamog likely to help define this moment in Standard as it just has such a huge impact on the game without even needing to resolve.
Tomorrow, we will take our journey over to the red cards from battle for Zendikar and we will pair them with the lands from the set. The lands are actually where a big chunk of power lies in this set, so be sure to come back and check out what brews we may arrive at with them! Until tomorrow, thanks for reading!