March 28, 2017

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Battle for Zendikar's Impact on Modern

The Battle for Zendikar block will probably always be remembered for making Eldrazi tribal into a tier one threat in Modern. From the relatively humble beginnings of black/white “processor” builds to the brutally efficient decks of Eldrazi Winter, to the current top tier builds, the tentacled horrors have indelibly seared themselves into the Modern psyche. But how much of Eldrazi Temple’s newfound power can we attribute to the actual Battle for Zendikar set? And did BFZ bring anything to Modern besides undercosted eldritch monstrosities?

Here is my list of Battle for Zendikar cards that have made waves in Modern, in rough order of impact:

At the top of the list is an Eldrazi that actually earns most of its pedigree from a deck without Eldrazi Temples. “Newlamog” has pretty much completely replaced Emrakul, the Aeons Torn as the end game for Modern’s Urzatron decks. Trading “sacrifice six” for “exile two” is a downgrade, but Ulamog is just one Tron land past Ugin, the Spirit Dragon/Karn Liberated on the mana curve, whereas Emrakul requires multiple otherwise-useless land drops before resolving. Emrakul will always be the best Eldrazi Titan to cheat into play for a turn, but if you’re looking to hardcast one (more-or-less) honestly, Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is the more efficient choice.

The second most important card from the set looks like a reasonable first pick in draft, but not a card that belongs in any constructed format. This is in part indicative of how much Oath of the Gatewatch had to do with breaking Eldrazi in Modern, but also indicative of how much a card like Eldrazi Temple can warp card evaluation. I still don’t totally understand it, but somehow when you’re slamming giant creatures way ahead of schedule, a six mana 5/5 that can clear two blockers out of the way equals a legitimate Modern threat.

The common equivalent of Drowner of Hope - Skyspawner is amazing in draft where it puts an efficient 2 flying power and 2 bodies on the board for three mana, as well as ramping you ahead for a turn if needed. But Modern is a viciously efficient format that doesn’t let us play Seller of Songbirds or Ghirapur Gearcrafter, and moving a point of power to the air shouldn’t make any difference in this equation. Once again though we see the distorting effects of Eldrazi Temple. When you look at Skyspawner as a Mistral Charger with a free Wild Cantor attached, the Modern level efficiency is a lot easier to see.

The first non-eldrazi card on the list, the blue retreat has versatile and efficient effects - but if Jeskai Ascendancy has taught me anything it's that we don’t play three mana value enchantments in Modern unless we can combo-kill with them. Retreat to Coralhelm passes this test via Knight of the Reliquary in the “Knightfall” deck. If you haven't seen it, every Knight activation puts a land into play, triggering Retreat and untapping the Knight, allowing you to repeat the process and effectively put all your lands into your graveyard while floating mana and tapping down blockers along the way.

The deck actually has pretty good synergy - Noble Hierarch can let you combo off on turn three and can be untapped itself by Retreat triggers for extra mana. Collected Company gets out ahead of curve with the mana dorks while threatening instant speed Knights that you can untap with and combo off in a fair impersonation of Deceiver Exarch/Splinter Twin. The combo is solid and the deck is good, although it seems to only put up results sporadically.

A brewer’s dream, the five mana converge spell lets you run single copies of silver bullets and then tutor the one that is most relevant to the matchup or board state. It found a pretty legitimate competitive home in Scapeshift, where Sakura-Tribe Elder and Search for Tomorrow build your Converge count, and BTL can buy a crucial turn or two by tutoring Anger of the Gods or Obstinate Baloth, or just end the game by tutoring Scapeshift when the time comes. It is hard to imagine a better deck for the card, but that doesn’t stop some people (me) from using it to cast things like Voices from the Void and Chromanticore.

It was probably unrealistic to expect the enemy manlands to be on par with the original cycle, so it should be no surprise that they lack the power of Celestial Colonnade, Creeping Tar Pit, or Raging Ravine. Shambling Vent technically comes close at a four point life swing for four mana, but having half of that as lifegain and being vulnerable to Lightning Bolt are some considerable drawbacks. The card is still a boon for Orzhov and Mardu decks, and pretty definitively the best of the new cycle. Lumbering Falls has recently seen use in a successful Sultai Midrange deck, but this is the first time I have seen it in a long time and one top result does not make a trend, so I have not included it on the list.

Modern players have always had access to this effect via Sowing Salt, but the double red mana cost limited the original version to decks with a lot of red mana sources. With the removal of one red symbol in the cost the effect has become available to more three and four colour decks. My personal favourite is seeing Esper Control run one Steam Vents in the maindeck and two or three Crumble to Dust in the sideboard as a way to conceivably win the dreaded Tron matchup.

As the “processor” Eldrazi were spoiled Modern players were looking to cards like Relic of Progenitus and Path to Exile as enablers, and cards like Tidehollow Sculler and Flickerwisp as value engines. Wasteland Strangler has proven to be the best of these Eldrazi, finding a fairly consistent home in Death and Taxes builds that leverage Eldrazi Temple. The card is usually good and sometimes backbreaking, and the archetype itself is a consistent tier two mainstay.

I’m pretty sure this card would never have seen play without the Eye of Ugin ban, but with Eye gone, Sanctum stepped in seamlessly to provide Tron with a land to fetch off of an Expedition Map or Sylvan Scrying that could then turn into a late game threat. This change also contributed to Ulamog replacing Emrakul, as having a curve that stops at ten mana makes it easier to sacrifice lands for additional threats.

The new fetchable dual lands were pretty much dead on arrival in Modern with their requirement to have two untapped basic lands. There are simply too many powerful non-basic lands in Modern to run a high basic land count, not to mention that the 2 life lost to an untapped Ravnica shockland is a small price to pay for the flexibility. Despite this massive limitation, several of the "battle lands" have still found their way into competitive Modern play. Cinder Glade is used in Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle decks while the Esper coloured lands see some limited play in Control builds that can wait to fetch the land once they have two basics.

Three mana for three cards is a very efficient rate, and Painful Truths went through a phase where BGx players were using it instead of Dark Confidant for generating card advantage. That trend seems to have waned, although with the rise of Death’s Shadow players may start turning back to this card as a way to grow Shadow and draw more copies (see also the recent spike on Pain's Reward). Basically any three colour black deck from Mardu Midrange to Grixis Delver can and has leveraged the card, although Esper usually takes a pass since it can just use Esper Charm for a similar but more versatile effect at instant speed.

The last card of note coming out of Battle for Zendikar for Modern players is the scourge of Standard - Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. I wish this was due to Gideon turning Allies into a legitimate tier two Modern deck, but the tokens could just be Knights and I don’t think anyone would notice. I have mostly seen Gideon in midrange sideboards for grindy matchups, and in BW tokens as an extra anthem effect that can also generate tokens itself. It's still fringe play, and the biggest impact of Gideon may be ensuring that we never see Elspeth, Knight-Errant make a Modern resurgence.

And there you have it, the twelve cards from Battle for Zendikar that have helped shape Modern over the past year. Mostly these cards added flavour to existing archetypes, with Knightfall as the only breakout deck that did not exist in any significant competitive form previously. Even the Eldrazi menace only really received support cards in this set - the real breaking of Eldrazi Temple and Eye of Ugin came with Oath of the Gatewatch.

Until next time, here’s hoping Amonkhet puts some more brew tier decks into the competitive ring!