Zendikar, visually

The Zendikar sortable visual spoiler has gone up. Now’s the time to head over, ooh and aah at the pretty art, and make sure that the cards work the way they were rumored to.
Here’s how I’m looking at them, sorted by CMC.
I’m finding a lot of the cards really fun this time around, flavor-wise. “Trusty Machete” may well be my favorite equipment name ever.

It just attacks and blocks

In The Magic Show episode about Pro Tour: Valencia, Evan went around asking people what the “best” creature was – motivated in great part by the recent appearance of Tarmogoyf. I liked Zac Hill’s answer to this question, vis-a-vis Tarmogoyf, as it distills out the fundamental reason I’m never excited about playing a Goyf – “It just attacks and blocks.”
Now, Zac was partially speaking from his self-avowed combat disability there, but I tend to agree that a dude, even a highly cost-effective one, remains, simply, a dude. A 5/6 or 6/7 for two mana is good, and great in Zoo-style aggro decks, but in most other contexts, I’d rather have creatures that do something beyond simply tearing things up in the red zone.
So what about this little dude?
ScuteMobPreview.jpg
The flavor on this card is great – scute bugs keep pouring out of the landscape in an ever-expanding mass. I also love the art (Zoltan and Gabor strike again!).
Clearly, the Mob gets out of hand incredibly quickly if you’re in the mid-to-late game. If there’s nothing facing off against it on the other side, it starts swinging as a 5/5 and then follows up as a 9/9. Oof.
That said, it still “just attacks and blocks.” As a finisher in control decks, it feels intuitively like a “best case” finisher – that is, a finisher that is amazing only when you’re doing okay already. This is, of course, another variation on “win more.” In contrast, the current control finishers can not only win games quickly, but dig you out of holes. Broodmate Dragon gives you two evasive bodies, and Baneslayer gives you evasion, lifelink, and first strike. The former can yield a blocker even after the opponent comes over the top with removal, or a finisher even if they have removal for half the pair. The latter pulls you out of danger very quickly and decisively, courtesy of lifelink. Scute Mob, in contrast, just swings big.
That, of course, is why we prepare to take down both finishers when we’re planning to oppose control decks running them, and this is why I’m dubious about Scute Mob. In my recent aggro build, I ran eight removal options to nail opposing Baneslayers, since a Baneslayer quickly yields an unwinnable gamestate for an aggro deck. The problem here is that everything that kills Baneslayer, well, it kills Scute Mob as well. So it’s a finisher that generates fewer options, but dies just as well to the preparations opponents are already making for just such an occasion.
The counter-argument would be that you can drop a Scute Mob with lots of mana open to defend it, unlike a Baneslayer or Broodmate. True, but any aggro deck that is prepared to kill a Baneslayer is prepared to kill it through countermagic anyway.
So…although I adore the concepting and art, I think the Mob may prove less than thrilling in constructed play.
As always, with only a third of cards available, your mileage may very significantly by the time the full set comes out.

Iona makes the cut

On the face of it, a nine-mana creature, no matter how cool, is pure Timmy territory unless the environment is set up in such a way as to support long games with big mana haymaker plays (say, early to mid-Kamigawa block play). Even with ways to cheat them into play, big creatures need to be truly exceptional to make the cut.
Consider Reya Dawnbringer, who for nine mana is sort of a Debtor’s Knell stapled to a 4/6 flyer. Cheating one into play early in a reanimator strategy may seem powerful, especially since a reanimator deck probably has good tools to ditch additional powerful creatures into the yard…except that she’s going to immediately eat a removal spell that’s been held back explicitly for that purpose.
And that, of course, is the issue with many “one big critter” reanimation strategies in modern Magic. With reanimation in Standard pushed back away from abusively early appearances to more reasonable slots in the turn four to five range, you can’t simply chuck something gigantic and hideous into play and hope it makes it all the way. This is why the most recent Standard reanimation successes have hinged on card advantage, whether that involves reanimating token generators (a la Torrent decks) or from bringing back card advantage generators (a la early Mannequin or more recent Calderaquin builds).
However, the namesake angel of this post offers the possibility of “big single creature” reanimation as a valid strategy once again. Let’s take a look:
Iona,ShieldofEmeriaPreview.jpg
In addition to naming an angel after my friends’ daughter, Wizards has, depending on what comes our way in terms of reanimation, given us a pretty solid “eggs basket one” (as Rich Hagon might say) reanimation target.
Take a moment to consider decks you’ve seen in the last year or two. How varied are their removal options, color-wise? Looking at the impending Alara-Zendikar Standard, we already see strong suggestions that people will consider mono-color builds, and even if they decide to go multi-colored, a lot of their removal that could potentially deal with a 7/7 will live in the same color brackets (Path, Bant Charm, and Day of Judgment are all White, for example). Given that, it’s entirely possible that a reanimated Iona can shut off all possible ways your opponent has of dealing with it. What with being a flying 7/7, that’s tremendous.
All of this depends, of course, on what reanimation appears in Zendikar. Alara block, home of the powerful Unearth mechanic, has ways to reuse creature cards, but no especially effective ways to dump creatures quickly back onto the battlefield from the graveyard. M10 gives us Rise from the Grave, which is okay, but is not as fast as it might be, and can’t carry a strategy on its own. So far, Zendikar gives us Emeria, the Sky Ruin – presumably the place Iona is shielding, given her name – which offers up a recurring Iona, but not a quickly recurring Iona.
I’m not one to try and make a deck with roughly a third of a set spoiled, especially with critical components (say, another good reanimation spell) left out of the mix, but I’m pleased at the possibility of “one big critter” reanimation as a strategy, especially if it means that Iona can serve as an effective foil against mono-color strategies.
On an unrelated note, this card has awesome art, and the real Iona’s parents are happy that her Zendikar parallel is so impressive.

Fetching

With the confirmation of “enemy fetches” – that is, fetchlands grabbing non-adjacent lands – in Zendikar, there will naturally be a lot of speculation concerning how this impacts deck design across all formats. I was actually a bit disappointed to see that we won’t have an Extended Pro Tour or season without fetches, as I thought the gigantic revision in mana bases would generate fascinating deck design space. On the other hand, this will be my first time dealing with a Standard format with this variety of fetchland. Given that I’ve been fetching up basics with Terramorphic Expanses for a while now, I’m particularly interested in having even more fetches to work with (also, they play into some other designs I’ve been considering).
I’m not much for whole-deck speculation before we have the bulk of a set’s cards available, so I won’t be touching on that right now. But given my lack of direct experience with fetches in Standard, I thought I’d do a bit of a historical overview of Standard when Onslaught was legal, and then take a final look at how our approaching Zendikar standard is uniquely dissimilar from Onslaught Standard, including a brief take on how Zendikar’s fetches interact with Shard mana. Click through to the extended entry to learn more.

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Superlinear

Today’s Doug Beyer article spoils the third Zendikar planeswalker, Nissa Revane. Here’s the card:
NissaRevanePreview.jpg
I’m really interested in Nissa from a design perspective, as she explores two interesting design spaces that planeswalkers have not previously touched on.
First, we have a planeswalker that’s placing cards onto the battlefield, which is interesting. Most planeswalkers have a way to generate virtual card advantage, and Jace generates real card advantage, but Nissa is the first one to just drop actual cards onto the field.
Second, we have a planeswalker built onto a decidedly linear theme. With the planeswalkers from Lorwyn/M10 and Alara, you can plug them fairly liberally into any deck. Clearly, each planeswalker is better in certain types of decks, but they aren’t specifically tied into a conventional “linear” theme. Nissa changes this up, with two of her three abilities being entirely contingent on the linear theme of elves.
My first blush reaction to this is that it should drive the price down on Nissa, as she’s much less modular than every other planeswalker to date. That said, there’s decent support for elves right now even post-Lorwyn, and certainly she should be a big casual win, as her ultimate is pretty crushing in a dedicated elves deck.
It’s interesting to compare Nissa with Garruk, which seems like the clearest possible comparison. Where Garruk gets smaller to generate 3/3s, Nissa gets bigger to generate 2/3s while thinning your deck. Of course, you need to run some number of slots for these guys in your deck:
Nissa'sChosenPreview.jpg
…but that’s probably worthwhile if you can pull them out at will. Her ultimate is not nearly as easy as Garruk’s is to reach, and is only devastating if you’ve built along the linear to some extent. At the moment, we have 17 elves from Shards of Alara block and 4 elves from M10. In Shards, interesting elves include Bloodbraid (although it doesn’t interact well with Nissa’s ultimate, it’s still an amazing card) as well as possibly Elvish Visionary and Naya Hushblade. M10 elves of interest are Llanowar (duh), that same old Visionary, and Elvish Archdruid.
Still, Elspeth has demonstrated to us that “getting bigger while making dudes” is a fine ability, so “getting bigger while making bigger dudes and thinning your deck” seems like it might be worth just running four copies of Nissa and four copies of her posse with no other deck space spent on the linear elves theme.

Arc Slogger 2.0

ChandraAblazePreview.jpg
This is the completed Chandra Ablaze preview, from the Facebook slow roll.
In addition to liking the art (one more for that “women in fantasy art who are credible threats” thread over at RPGnet), I appreciate how the abilities work together. A couple astute watchers predicted something like the ultimate ability based on the first one. In at least one podcast someone had it almost exactly right, and was told that would be “broken.”
The Arc Slogger reference in the title is because I see this Chandra Variant potentially operating from a very similar position in Big Red decks. Hit six mana, drop Chandra into play, smack them for 4 damage. Next turn, repeat. Then ultimate them for nigh-on infinite harm.
Of course, the big difference is that whereas Slogger also had a substantial body, you need to protect Chandra from harm, either by directing her initial burn at opposing creatures or having some additional bodies of your own to stand in the way.
Still, in the right context, this is clearly worth six mana, and reasonable to imagine including in a Standard constructed deck.