Battle for Zendikar Constructed Review! (Black and Red)

Picking up where I left off last time, I’m making predictions as to the playability and uses of Battle for Zendikar cards, or Zendikards if you will. Let’s get to it!

(just like last time, please follow along this spoiler right here so you can see all the cards I’m talking about, and see which ones aren’t really worth talking about)

Altar’s Reap: This wasn’t really playable last time it was around, and I don’t think it will be this time either. Sacrificing a guy is a high cost to pay even when you’re creature-rich, and it doesn’t even work to draw some gas if you get all your men swept away. Most importantly, I feel like this art looks like Ob Nixilis is transitioning to a Dragonball Z villain, with the horns and purple colour scheme, I approve.


Bloodbond Vampire: This is no Ajani’s Pridemate. This card costs twice as much and while it does have an Ally version of Soul Warden in Kalastria Healer, you don’t get the super-fast growth that threatens to make a 5/5 by turn 3. Without gaining life, a Hill Giant is what you get, and a 4 mana creature in contemporary standard can’t be that underpowered. With lifegain support, you still need to trigger it several times to be better than what other decks are casting on 4, and those cards are good on their own.

Good news though! While I don’t expect this to be tearing up any GPs, I am quite certain you can take a sweet deck with this guy to FNM as a budget/totally awesome fun option.

Bone Splinters: As with Altar’s Reap, the payoff isn’t that high that you’re really looking to build your deck around cards like this. It is possible to see fringe play if a critical mass of things that want to be sacrificed appear, but no one is pumping their fist in the air in triumph when they draw multiples of this in their opening hand. On the plus side, there are few better things to cast to follow up a Threaten effect if you want to get cute.

Carrier Thrall: This guy seems low on the power scale, but this type of card is always better than it looks. Works just fine as an aggressive card that lets you not worry too much about enemy removal spells, is a nice roadblock against opponents that are trying to beat you up, and has synergies with cards that want you to sacrifice things. Doomed Traveler’s main weakness was that it didn’t hit very hard by itself so you could just ignore it most of the time. In comparison, this having twice as much power means it’s harder to just ignore the Thrall if it’s hitting you.

Of course, if you want a 2 drop that makes another creature when it dies, you might think ‘why don’t I just play Hangarback Walker?‘ Well, unfortunately, you can only play 4 of any given card in a deck, so you need more cards to fill up your quota of creatures to sacrifice. Or maybe you have a vampire theme deck, or don’t want to pay the cash for Hangarback right now. Whatever the reason, this guy is respectable, and maybe you’ll use the Scion to put out a surprise early Ob Nixilis or similar.

Complete Disregard: You can’t play too many 3 mana removal spells in your deck or your hand runs the risk of getting clogged up, but I think this is going to be totally fine moving forward. No, you can’t remove Anafenza, but you can remove most cards that cost less than 4 with no concerns about it being colourless or leaving Scions or Thopters behind. It even fuels the processor cards which is obviously very important if you are planning to get value from the Strangler and friends. Between this and Abzan Charm, how are anyone’s Deathmist Raptors ever mean to grind out a game? It’s almost as if Wizards knew there was going to be a multitude of answers to it when they printed it!

Culling Drone: No, no I don’t think so. Even if you’re in dire need of exiling effects, just play some spells instead that won’t be blocked or killed very easily.

Defiant Bloodlord: Save it for Commander.

Drana, Liberator of Malakir: It must have been in the design document for the set to make another 1BB unbeatable-in-limited Vampire. They definitely succeeded in that regard! The Nighthawk even was playable in constructed, letting control decks take over games where people boarded out their removal. This vampire however doesn’t want to work alone, (although it’s not like it’s terrible alone either!) instead getting much better with friends. This does mean that your opponents should be willing and able to remove it most of the time, but if they don’t, it snowballs out of control very quickly. This standard sees this and Managorger Hydra alongside Undergrowth Champion as 3 drops that really, really require killing, so build your decks with this in mind. If you can’t remove any of these creatures in a timely fashion, no matter what your sweet end-game is, it’s likely coming too late.

Long story short, very powerful, play it in your black aggressive decks, don’t be too upset when it dies, because if it doesn’t die you are probably crushing any people that don’t have board sweepers.

Grave Birthing: This is only playable if you can use the Scion productively, can use the exiled card effectively, AND your opponent is trying to do something with cards in their graveyard. If you ever get to counter a reanimation spell you will feel like the King of the World, but otherwise this is too much for too little.

Grip of Desolation: Previous Plague Spores variants have been hindered by targeting restrictions and sorcery speed, in addition to the land death part of the card often not being relevant. Now with utility lands like Shambling Vent and the Blighted cycle making an appearance, this will almost always be a no-questions-asked value 2-for-1. It gets even better if your opponent is planning to awaken some lands, you can occasionally blow your opponent out of the water by removing an Awaken target, countering a spell like Planar Outburst when they least expect it.

(If you didn’t know, a spell is countered on resolution if you remove all targets of that spell. Usually, Planar Outburst or Coastal Discovery don’t have targets, but when they are Awakening something they do. That’s one target, and if it vanishes, the whole spell is countered. This is different from say, Rush of Ice, because even if you remove their land, presumably the target of ‘your creature’ is still around to be targeted, and the spell does as much as it can.)

That said, you can’t play too many 6 mana spells no matter how much sweet instant-speed value you get, so it might well be relegated to sideboard use if cheap decks are too prevalent though. Which would be a shame, I really like the art, and I would feel absolutely radical casting it. :3

Kalastria Healer: A bit underpowered, but I’m sure it’s more annoying than it looks. If people are Rallying some allies in standard, I feel like this might be part of the reason why. It’s like the Ally version of Shaman of the Pack!

Ob Nixilis, Reignited: Ob Nixilis looks like he’s really enjoying being evil, I love it. There really isn’t too much to say about this card that isn’t immediately obvious. Yes, it’s great. It’s not going to win a game where you are light-years behind, no, but everything from ‘slightly behind’ to ‘favourable’ board positions are great for him. The more mid-rangey the format is, the better, and you’re almost always certain to get 2 cards out of the deal even if they answer him immediately.

Playing some kind of Abzan mirror on the draw seems terrifying now, since if you play duelling Rhinos on turn 4, and they blow up yours on turn 5 with this, you’re so far behind and there’s no easy way to reclaim your board position without losing a ton of life or letting them draw a bunch of cards.

I am slightly sad that the game didn’t cross over into Hearthstone territory and give the opponent ‘Fatigue‘ though, since that’s how I read the ultimate.

Painful Truths: This card is fine, but don’t get carried away by the hype train. Ambition’s Cost was rarely playable, and while this is a mana cheaper, it’s still not THAT much better considering it’s essentially a gold card. If you are looking for silver bullets in a match up, Read the Bones is actually better since it digs deeper into your deck. If you’re just looking for a mass of cards to swamp your opponent with, this is slightly better if you can make use of the extra lands late game.

I really like it when Wizards print cards that are similar, but not strictly better than each other, since it gives you more options for deckbuilding. Good job, Wizards.

Retreat to Hagra: I don’t think this card would be playable if it just triggered every turn without landfall, and it seems unlikely that a deck can make great use out of both halves of the card. It does punish people if everyone starts playing 0-power walls though!

Rising Miasma: Too expensive for what it does. If you need to sweep small creatures in a black deck, Languish is in standard. If you have more colours in your deck, then red gives you Radiant Flames for less mana. The Awaken cost is also too much for too little. Drown in Sorrow was great, but this is no Drown.

Ruinous Path: My bet for best Awaken card of the lot. Sorcery speed Hero’s Downfall isn’t overpowered or anything, but there will be a lot of Planeswalkers from Origins running around and other large creatures to kill. The Awaken cost is coming in nicely at the top of a curve and provides midrange decks a way to pre-emptively threaten Ugin, what with making a creature that is immune to both of his removal abilities.

There really aren’t a lot of ways to just deal with Planeswalkers right now without attacking them, so Ruinous Path is a winner by default. There are a few other removal spells at 3 mana right now, and you can’t play too many of them, but I don’t think any black decks will be playing 0 of this moving forward. Even Downfall when it was at the worst it could be, it was still played as a 2-of in Abzan decks. This card IS worse in blue decks due to not being an instant, but you’ve got to answer a resolved Planeswalker somehow, and it’s cheap enough that you can feasibly cast it and leave up a counterspell at some point.

Smothering Abomination: Oh hey, a good sacrifice outlet. This gives you a real reason to play all those drones that die and give you little Scions, and if you can trigger it and draw cards on the turn you play it that’s sweet. The best possible outcome though is that you get to untap, and draw a million cards by making creatures that make Scions that make mana that makes creatures that make Scions that make… you get the idea.

The only downside is that this is the only card of this power level available to that kind of deck so far, leaving your deck of a thousand cuts looking a bit anaemic when the Abomination doesn’t show up.

I guess Smothering is not going to become a keyword any time soon. :3

Transgress the Mind: This makes people think about Appetite for Brains, and that’s going to make this seem very bad. I don’t think it’s terrible, despite how weak the Appetite was. The problem with that card is that it existed in a format with Delver of Secrets. That card being great meant nearly all the decks had to keep their mana costs really low to the ground, so you would miss with that card way, way too often.

So Transgress lives in a different standard, where there are lots of Dragons and Rhinos all over the place, but most importantly this hits 3 mana cards, so even the red decks will have their burn spells or whatever available to snatch out of their hand instead of hitting nothing.

I wouldn’t jam 4 of them in every deck or anything, it’s no Thoughtseize, just saying that if you want to play a couple of discard spells, this hits almost everything you’d want to take except Den Protector, and if you really want to make sure Captain Strangles is fully operational on turn 3, this is the best way to do it.

Vampiric Rites: Tempting, but 2 mana and a guy per card is a slightly steep cost, and this doesn’t do anything in multiples. Provides something reasonable to do in your Smothering Abomination deck if the Abomination itself isn’t around, and much like Evolutionary Leap you can board it in for value in a non-sacrifice themed deck just to make enemy removal spells much less effective.

Wasteland Strangler: Well, this is it, this is the reward for processor enablers. Are you impressed yet? No? Didn’t you want a weird slightly discounted slightly worse Skinrender? Well, that’s what we’ve got. Frankly I’m not sure it’s worth the effort to go out of your way to exile a bunch of cards to enable this, since you wouldn’t want to play this without the ability and quite often this just won’t kill anything. IF small creatures are everywhere, then yes, this is a fantastic value card. If your opponents are sticking to casting giant monsters then you are feeling pretty bad.

~An aside on this weird UB Ingest deck they seem to have set up~

It’s weird, in the other card sections I’d quote [Strangler] as a pay-off for exiling things, and now that I’m here, I’m down on the card, what gives? Well, if you make your deck contort itself to do some neat trick, you’d better hope that neat trick is good against most of the metagame, preferably being pro-actively powerful. Unfortunately this is narrowly powerful, so you don’t want to base your deck around it, in case your opponent doesn’t cooperate and give you nice targets to kill.

I will get to this one later, but Ulamog’s Nullifier is one that is basically never going to be a dead card, but it’s not incredibly powerful either, just a strong tool. If, in future sets, they print additional powerful processors, then Strangler gets way better as simply a powerful part of a deck, rather than a centrepiece.

Would a UB control deck randomly play some of these if they are exiling cards anyway? Sure, but those decks tend not to want to play that many creatures, so as to make enemy removal spells useless.

With the current available tools, playing a UB tempo-ish Ingest/Processor deck is just too underpowered for standard, but that might change, like how in base Lorwyn the Faeries deck was decent, but had to play a lot of underpowered cards to activate the good ones. Then they printed Bitterblossom, and everything fit together much better.

(not that I’m implying this deck is anywhere close to that, they still need to print a processing instant Time Walk or two first)

Now where was I?

Zulaport Cutthroat: This is way, way worse than Blood Artist was in many kinds of match ups due to it only counting your own creatures. In games where both players had a lot of creatures, Blood Artist let your opponent do much of the work for you. This card is still neat and synergistic and all that, but now you need to do all the heavy lifting in providing enough creatures to be actually important. On the plus side, against a creatureless opponent this guy can smash in for one, which totally matters when you’re trying to drain them out, and he triggers other Ally creatures. So yeah, synergy cards all up in here!

Akoum Firebird: When I first saw this card, I didn’t see that you needed to pay 6 mana to return it to play. At that point, I was thinking it would be pretty excellent, mostly as a really brutal Vengevine type creature. Then someone told me it cost RR to return, and I thought ‘oh, well, at least it might be fringe-playable as a resilient threat’ since nowadays a 3/3 flying haste creature isn’t impressing anyone, especially with all these exile effects running around.

Then I discovered it was 4RR to return, and all hope was lost. There have been a lot of failed Phoenixes around over the years at the 4 drop slot, and only Ashcloud Phoenix has seen a lot of play, and even now it’s struggling to compete with various Dragons for space. And part of that card’s success has been because it can block for days! This card can’t even do that.

Akoum Hellkite: Hey guys, I thought of this really neat combo with this. First, you cast this. Then you play Scapeshift! Dragon + Scapeshift on the same turn means you have 10 lands, which is the exact amount of mountains you need to find to kill your opponent!

I am sure that there is no way to improve on this combo.

Akoum Stonewaker: A 2/1 for 2 in red isn’t very impressive these days, but I think this has a chance. It’s pretty weak in multiples, but it lets you play around things against control pretty well. You can just convert land drops into 3 damage repeatedly and not play into board sweepers, and if they do sweep you, then you can at least get them again right away for 5 mana. Red sideboards are usually grasping for playables anyway, so I think this has a chance.

Boiling Earth: Well, if you need to kill a bunch of 1/1’s in order to attack your opponent, this card is serviceable. Unlike most Awaken cards, you’re unlikely to have a deck that can realistically play both modes. If you’re playing an aggro-red deck, 7 mana is too much. If you’re playing a deck with red mana that can reasonably reach 7 mana, then you can just play the Radiant Converge spell in your sideboard instead since it’s more flexible.

(watch as I immediately get nailed in my next standard event on turn 8 by a super cheap red deck Awakening this against me)

Chasm Guide: Hardly spectacular value for mana when you cast him, but haste is one of the best abilities you can give to a bunch of creatures, that may or may not be Rallying or Marching back into play. They were quite careful with this card to cost it quite highly to cut down on shenanigans, but if any of the ‘resurrection spell + Ally squad’ decks are viable, I think this is one of the best cards in the deck.

The presence of the mass resurrection cards means this will most likely be exiled on sight, lest he just come back later with the squad, so don’t be afraid to play the full 4 of this if you need the effect.

Crumble to Dust: Take that, Sowing Salt! Easier to cast and doesn’t get Flashfrozen (if anyone played that card) this can slot into Modern as a strict upgrade to the Salt. It’s never quite as good against Tron decks as you might think it is, but it does what it does fairly well.

As for standard, as I mentioned last time you can combine this with Oblivion Sower to ensure a bunch of lands, ramping you straight from 6 to the Danger Zone. In an Eldrazi ramp mirror match, you can almost always hit something, because if they are playing more than one colour, they have dual lands of some type. If they are not, then they have Shrines. Worst case scenario, you are simply casting a slightly expensive Stone Rain, and that’s not the end of the world as long as you take advantage of that before they just play more lands.

Against other decks, well, it’s probably not worth the mana, but if your opponent is Awakening up some nonbasics, it’s not totally dead!

Dragonmaster Outcast: Hey, ya, I’ve already seen as much as I want to of this guy in sealed deck, thankfully I don’t think we’ll see that much of him in constructed. Or will we? It is a really nice card to return with Ojutai’s Command so it might feature as a 1 or 2 of in Jeskai style decks.

It’s the kind of cheap card that slides underneath counterspells in a matchup where creatures don’t usually exist, if opponents have taken out removal. Since cards like Nissa and Jace exist, we’re unlikely to get matchups where people will board out ALL their removal, since even the controlling decks have creatures now.

Where this card might actually shine is, again, in ramp mirror matches. (wow, I hope you guys all go out there and build the many varieties of ramp deck after this) If both players are just racing to put lands into play, this can be played cheaply at some point without disrupting your ramp spells, and single-handedly put someone away before they actually get to cast their biggest spells.

The Outcast does get totally dominated by Ugin, but might actually work because while those decks likely maindeck Ugin, they probably don’t have them post-sideboard, (Ugin is not actually very good at fighting Eldrazi, despite what the lore might imply) and green ramp isn’t well known for it’s 1/1 killing abilities.

Goblin War Paint: What if you need your tiny Goblins to smash through 0/3 walls? And it makes 2/2 creatures survive Radiant Flames! This effect has been very occasionally good before, don’t count it out.

Kozilek’s Sentinel: It’s like a Frostburn Weird, if Frostburn Weird could never smash them for 4. It seems mostly terrible, but if they make enough cards where being colourless and aggressive matters, you might want to keep these handy for begrudgingly filling up your curve with them. We’re not there yet though.

On the other hand, if you’re playing a sort of big red deck, a 1/4 blocker might be what you need, especially since you can follow it up by dealing 3 to everything after they deploy additional forces.

Mankindi Sliderunner: It’s… serviceable I suppose. It’s nowhere near Plated Geopede obviously, but you can’t have everything. At least this hits harder when you fail to hit your land for the turn!

Molten Nursery: In standard, I think making this a ‘cast’ trigger rather than ‘enter the battlefield’ kills this card. If you could’ve machine gunned down things with spawns, we would be talking some real potential to dominate enemy tokens. As is, I think this is basically mostly worse than a Honden would be, and even that wouldn’t be great. Of course, maybe you play multiples of this, and THEN you are in business? Well, no, not really, because you just spent turns 3 and 4 doing next to nothing, and your opponents have either beaten you up already, or established a late game that won’t care about these anyways.

In modern, it might’ve had niche applications if it hadn’t just been shown up by the mighty Grid. This card is like turning up at an inventor’s conference to unveil your invention of the penny-farthing bicycle, when the person just before you demonstrated a modern day mountain bike with all the neat accessories.

Nettle Drone: As much as I loved Lobber Crew, the effect isn’t that strong, and a 3/1 for 3 isn’t too exciting either. If the colourless-red deck comes together, maybe, but unlikely. Leave it in your draft decks.

Processor Assault: Can’t even hit players? Oh dear. I guess if you have red in your exiling-control deck for some reason, it might be passable.

Radiant Flames: Likely to be the best cheap sweeper for a long time, since they probably won’t reprint Pyroclasm again any time soon. You really want to be at least 3 colours to use it, but then again those decks are probably the ones that need this the most. Being variable lets you set up one-sided board clearing if you have guys of reasonable toughness, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Slightly too narrow to play 4 in your maindecks I would imagine, but if you’re playing Elves or something, be expecting a lot of these out of sideboards. Even in decks where you might not expect it, since all the fetchlands and dual lands make it trivially easy to play.

Touch of the Void: Did they reprint Kor Firewalker or Silver Knight? No? Well then, you probably don’t want to play this.

And this is coming from someone that once took Yamabushi’s Flame to a Worlds qualification. This cost-to-damage ratio is just so low in a world where creatures are all just generally larger than they used to be, and it’s not even an instant. 😥

Valakut Predator: Well, this is about as cheap as you get for +2/+2 on landfall now, so it’s not that far away for being a 4/4 or 6/6 for 3. I don’t think there’s enough payoff at the moment to be playing a bunch of lands in your aggro decks yet, since there are so many cheap efficient cards you could be playing instead, and flooding out is bad if this gets killed off because the other landfall guys are mostly just giving +1/+1 or one damage or similar.

Vile Aggregate: Hmm, another red creature with a lot of junk in the trunk, so to speak. Except this one actually hits really hard! Like the processor cards, I think this is a powerful card in need of support. I don’t think a mono-red aggressive deck has enough good cards that you’d want in your deck to enable this. But where this might be nice is in a sort of bigger red/green deck, where you make spawns to threaten giant monsters, while also harassing their defences with this guy.

This card even survives Languish, so you can keep up pressure even through resistance, especially if combined with something like the card’s best friend, From Beyond.

Zada, Hedron Grinder: I have never missed Reckless Charge more than right now. Which is quite a lot, since I miss Reckless Charge every day.

Oh crazy-on-fire-goggle-wearing-horned-helmet-and-spiked-shoulder-pads-guy, why won’t they reprint you?

Well, you know this card is sweet, and going to be a staple at FNMs until it rotates. I don’t think it’s going to set the world on fire. Why? Well, it’s another Hill Giant by itself. If you are playing your Hill Giant, and you have multiple creatures in play, then you are able to cast something sweet on it, and your opponent is letting this all happen, then great. But sadly in reality, this will most likely get killed right away. Or your other creatures will be dead. And then we have the problem that you maybe don’t have any removal yourself, since your deck is filled with creatures and sweet spells to play on Zada, thus making your deck pretty defenceless when your opponent takes the initiative.

So, go ahead, play your Zada decks, play some cool pump spells, I can’t stop you, but it will never be a top tier plan. Not until the reprint of Reckless Charge next set. Then we enter the dark ages of Zada dominance.

Holy cow, this was a lot of words for these two colours. Especially considering how generally unexciting most of them are. I suppose it takes more to explain when a marginal card might be good, than a card that’s just obviously stupendous.

See you next time!

2 thoughts on “Battle for Zendikar Constructed Review! (Black and Red)

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