2020 will go down in the history books for many reasons, but while I’m writing a Magic blog, I may as well add that it’s been an absolute bumper year for new card sets. From Theros Beyond Death to now, we’ve seen twelve new product releases, if you count digital-only ventures like Amonkhet Remastered. And it’s only August!
Unbelievably, that pace might be speeding up in the next couple of months. So while Amonkhet Remastered is still fresh in the minds of many, I want to get a head start on analyzing the next big Standard set: Zendikar Rising.
This is our third trip back to Zendikar, and while the two previous blocks set here centered around the existential threat of the Eldrazi, Mark Rosewater has been clear that their defeat in Oath of the Gatewatch and Eldritch Moon was final… at least for now. That means that Zendikar Rising will be a return to the flavor of the very first Zendikar set — one that drew heavily on Dungeons & Dragons and Indiana Jones to create a world of trap-filled dungeons and perilous quests. And of course, Zendikar’s overarching planar theme of “lands matter” will tie everything together.
Knowing the theme and aesthetic of the set, here are some of my predictions for what cards and mechanics we might see in Zendikar Rising!
WHEN IS A QUEST NOT AN ADVENTURE?
For me, the most exciting part of reintroducing Zendikar is seeing how R&D chooses to represent that flavor in their card designs. Mark Rosewater’s panel at ComicCon promised a mix of old and new ideas that all evoke the “world of adventure” theme, adding in the land-centric mechanics that have always been a staple of the plane.
The first thing that comes to mind when considering how R&D might represent adventures in game is… adventures! Of course, Throne of Eldraine was only last year, and concepts like “adventure” play out differently on different planes. I don’t think we’ll be seeing the mechanic make the jump from Eldraine’s fairy tales to Zendikar Rising — precisely because those cards are still in Standard. The synergies around Lucky Clover and Edgewall Innkeeper are already top-tier in Standard, and they aren’t rotating for a long while; supporting an entire new set seems way too big a risk.
No, MaRo has promised that only two mechanics from past Zendikar sets will return to help nail down Rising’s identity. My first prediction would be Quests! This card type represented adventure in original Zendikar, and its powerful design space allows for unique effects while its conditional nature provides ample “knobs” to balance around.
Quests also synergize with the enchantment theme of Theros Beyond Death. The right Quest enchantment can justify a spot in any strategy, which means any deck can then consider further enchantment support in its build. This is the sort of open potential WotC looks for when choosing which mechanics to add to Standard.
My guess for the second returning mechanic is, of course, landfall. Yes, it makes a comeback every time we go to Zendikar, but it’s a player favorite and it plays so nicely with the essential mechanics of MTG that it’s hard to run out of design space. If there’s one thing almost all decks share, it’s playing lands! There are so many mana accelerants in Standard that allow for extra land drops that I wouldn’t be surprised if WotC has been laying the groundwork for powerful landfall engines.
While it’s possible Traps could return (they have the same pros and cons as Quests and give WotC a chance to print powerful sideboard cards for Constructed), their design space is a little narrower. Free spells are always dangerous, as we learned from Once Upon A Time, and with only two returning mechanics advertised, I can’t imagine they’d leave Landfall out just to print a couple new Traps.
We’ve also heard there will be a new mechanic that riffs on a “popular theme” in a Zendikar-specific way. Since there’s no overarching mechanical identity associated with the adventuring side of Zendikar yet, this may as well mean “putting lands in it”!
There are a LOT of mechanics that could suit this purpose, but let’s try and guess the most likely ones.
Land tokens: These have been raised as a hypothetical many times, and seem to be in line with a lot of WotC goals. For one, they allow ramp effects like Solemn Simulacrum to be written without the need to search and shuffle the library, a physical hassle WotC has repeatedly tried to eliminate. Having these spells say “create a basic land token of your choice” would be so much easier. I’m sure they would love to put the same text on Ghost Quarter effects! Of course, this can also be used in more interesting ways, and synergizes brilliantly with landfall.
Land morphs: We may finally be arriving in the future Zoetic Cavern predicted! Lands that can be played as creatures build on the success of Awaken spells and the creature-land cycles from previous Zendikar sets, and would help with the age-old issue of land/spell balance by acting as either one depending on your draw. MaRo has teased a cycle of six new dual lands, which could easily be “morph duals”… I just pray they don’t always ETB tapped, as do all the existing dual lands that will be legal in post-rotation Standard. Perhaps if they “un-morph” to their land side they gain a second color?
Landstorm: It’s gnawing at me just a little that WotC would promise exactly two returning mechanics to feature in their “Return to Original Zendikar” when Traps, Quests and Landfall all seem so essential. I don’t think they could manage a Zendikar set without any Landfall cards, but what if their excuse was to bring back a new version of Landfall that counted how many lands you played in a turn? Or only triggered on your second land drop, forcing you to prioritize triggering the effect instead of “getting it for free” on most turns? It would cost a bit of Landfall’s universal utility, but making the condition trickier might open up new design space around more valuable payoffs.
Landkicker: WotC will never miss a chance to remind us of the popularity, elegance and magnificence of Kicker. Even for those who don’t quite share their love affair, the simple appeal of Kicker as a design tool makes sense. It allows you to choose how and when to play your spell, thus reducing the impact of luck and variance. Putting a triggered ability on lands as they enter play — effectively stapling an optional spell to them — has similar benefits to morph-lands, but with less mechanical overhead. So long as they don’t have land types to be fetchland-searchable, WotC could really try out some powerful effects. And, since they’ve been diligently seeding Stifle effects into Standard, Pioneer and Historic, it seems like there would be sufficient counterplay available to even powerful triggers of this sort.
AFTER THE WAR
Of course, just because the Battle for Zendikar was eventually won doesn’t mean there will be no consequences for the plane. There are plenty of ways to show off a landscape damaged by the ravenous Eldrazi, and I’m sure that concept will inspire at least a few cards. If MaRo’s new dual land cycle does include an unusual sixth card, as he claims, it seems very likely that this would be some sort of colorless-focused land to “complete” the cycle. Or the whole cycle could be “dual lands” between a color and colorless “Eldrazi mana,” with additional advantages — that need not be Eldrazi-specific — to make up for their narrowness.
And lands aren’t the only cards WotC can use to show off the lingering marks of the Eldrazi invasion. Devoid and colorless mana can both be effective mechanics, even if they’re used sparingly. I can see WotC featuring a cycle of native inhabitants of Zendikar, veterans of the war, who bear the “scars” of Eldrazi attacks and have had some of their colored mana drained away; these could be devoid cards featuring colorless ability costs, for instance. You can even have devoid Kor, Elves and Merfolk dungeoneering with the rest of their kin! I think this would be a very powerful tool for ensuring the history of Zendikar is still felt without distracting from the new focus.
Of course, I do think we’ll see a singular Eldrazi creature at rare or mythic — a forgotten spawn trapped in a hedron, or perhaps an Eldrazi that has gone mad after being severed from its brood. This lets WotC drop in a nice strong colorless beater with essentially any abilities they like; if your premise is “an Eldrazi that is weird even by Eldrazi standards,” then nothing is off the table.
THE SCOUTS HAVE RETURNED
So there you have it: how the past could influence the design of Zendikar Rising, what hints we’ve been given so far, and some educated guesses about what we might see in the upcoming spoiler season.
We have a bit of time left before official previews begin, but if you’re looking for more MTGA and Zendikar Rising content in the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter.
Tom’s fate was sealed in 7th grade when his friend lent him a pile of commons to play Magic. He quickly picked up Boros and Orzhov decks in Ravnica block and has remained a staunch white magician ever since. A fan of all Constructed formats, he enjoys studying the history of the tournament meta. He specializes in midrange decks, especially Death & Taxes and Martyr Proc. One day, he swears he will win an MCQ with Evershrike. Ask him how at @AWanderingBard, or watch him stream Magic at twitch.tv/TheWanderingBard.