Last updated on May 25, 2021
Adventure Awaits | Illustration by Billy Christian
For the first time in a long time, WotC has given us a draft format that’s elegant in both its drafting and its gameplay. I love Zendikar Rising and its implications for the future of MTG. The intersectionality of archetypes and modal double-faced cards (MDFC) provide an elegant range of decision making and choice. Zendikar is the kind of Magic that gets me out of bed in the morning and away from my bed at night.
I’ve played over a hundred ZNR drafts now and have formulated a very strong opinion of what’s correct in this format. It has a lot of moving parts and it’s been an adventure figuring out how to properly evaluate each element as accurately as possible. Part of the charm also lies in the absurd complexity figuring out how to draft your seat properly. If you often feel lost by pick 5 of pack 1, you’re not alone.
I’ll be imparting my complete wisdom of the format to you to help provide clarity to these complicated aspects. This is my Zendikar Rising manifesto.
Zendikar Rising Mechanics
Attended Healer | Illustration by Wisnu Tan
Get some kind of bonus or discount for each cleric, rogue, warrior, wizard in your control. It only counts for one type of each, max.
A triggered bonus of some sort for playing lands.
Get a bonus when you pay the extra cost.
Modal Double-Faced Cards
You can choose to play one side or the other. In all areas apart from the battlefield, the card is only the front side.
The Bottom Line
The key to the Zendikar Rising draft format is staying open to as many archetypes as possible. While you can simply draft the two most open colors in your seat in the vast majority of formats, that’s simply not good enough here.
Having an abundance of playables means nothing with a convoluted game plan. If your cards don’t synergize to the max, you’ll quickly feel that your opponents are playing a very different game than you. Every card needs to be playing multiple roles. Let’s break these down further.
“Staying Open” in Draft
Farsight Adept | Illustration by Cristi Balanescu
In Zendikar, it’ll often be more important to imagine the colors and cards that work well with what you’ve already picked instead of going into a more open second color. I’ll often fight for a somewhat closed color if it makes sense with my existing cards.
Take a start where you have blue wizards as an example. Naturally, you want to be red as it’s the most natural color to pair along with blue in a wizard tribal deck. If I managed to pick up an early Roost of Drakes, one of the most powerful cards in the format, the natural color pair would be green since the UG color combination has access to the most kicker cards. Think about what your cards are currently doing and it’ll be a lot easier to figure out which colors will work together.
The best way to search for lines is to draft a single, open color and then go from there. Make sure that you don’t tunnel-vision into that color and pick up other color cards when the difference in card quality is too high, though.
For example, if you’re 3rd picking a Farsight Adept to stay on color, you’re probably doing it wrong. Find a better card pick to hedge on. While each color offers cards of differing strategies, you’ll usually find the most synergy in that same color. Think about what those cards are trying to do as you search for that second color. Rather than an open color, find compatible cards to supplement the game plan of your first color. I’m going to lay out the strategies which exist between color combinations a bit further down, so hold onto that.
For a deeper explanation on this philosophy of drafting, check out my video cheekily titled “Drafting the Sleazy Way,” which tries to go against the notion of both drafting the “hard way” and drafting the “easy way:”
A Focus on Game Plan and Synergy
The party mechanic creates an interesting puzzle of balancing your party enablers vs. payoffs and tribal enablers vs. payoffs.
You’ve got Grotag Bug-Catcher which is a warrior, but they don’t really want to be in a warrior deck because they need other party members to maximize the attack power potential. In a similar fashion, Seafloor Stalker and Drana’s Silencer are rogues that don’t want to be in rogue decks. While you’ll sometimes play them in their tribal deck, they won’t perform the way you’d like them to.
Another rogue, Nimana Skitter-Sneak, is the opposite. They’re underwhelming in party decks but they’re a great aggressive threat in the Dimir Rogues deck. Keep in mind when your cards are effective or not.
While the vast majority of decks in Zendikar will care about party payoffs to some extent, a few archetypes can do without it. Some of the powerful cards in the format are solid MTG cards but aren’t qualified enough to have a real job. Most of the landfall creatures like Prowling Felidar and Canopy Baloth are high quality creatures but fail to hit a relevant creature type.
This creates an interesting dynamic in when to play these cards and when a random creature who can contribute to the party will do better work in the given deck slot. You’ll need to focus while drafting to understand what your current cards are doing and where those cards want to go.
Nimana Skitter-Sneak | Illustration by Campbell White
Cards Should be Playing Multiple Roles
Think critically about what a card does for your deck. A “bad” card can be good if it makes sense in a deck and fills multiple roles. Let’s use the concept of a mediocre equipment, Scavenged Blade, to rationalize how we can look at intersectionality or overlap between cards.
Although it’s a D-rated card on my tier list, it provides multiple advantages in our deck where another Boros deck likely wouldn’t even consider it as part of the 40. Our Fireblade Chargers like having ways to buff up their attack. Not only is it a warrior for Kargan Warleader, but Scavenged Blade goes the extra mile by improving the efficacy of the one-drop. Oh, and we have Kor Blademaster with the potential to make any warrior with an equipment nasty by giving them double strike.
While each of these things on their own are fine, our Blade becomes truly powerful once you have multiple reasons to give it a valuable spot in your deck.
You’ll often run into cases where very powerful cards like Ruin Crab, seemingly an auto-include card in most blue decks, or the flexible party enabler Stonework Packbeast simply aren’t good enough because they don’t fill enough roles in your deck. It isn’t good enough for a card to do just one thing and it doesn’t make sense with the rest of your deck.
In this day and age, cards need to be doing multiple things. Sometimes a bad card can be good in a deck that can capitalize on it, and sometimes a good card shouldn’t make the final cut. The more often you keep this concept in mind, the easier it’ll be to recognize easy cuts.
Conceptualizing Modal Double-Faced Cards
Pyroclastic Hellion | Illustration by Simon Dominic
It took me a long time to get a feeling on how to approach the new lands in this format. There are 30 of these special MDFCs in Zendikar, with 20 being uncommon rarity, 5 being rare, and 5 at mythic. These are generally premium cards which will mitigate the biggest frustration in Magic for new players and experienced professionals alike: getting mana flooded and mana screwed.
The issue that we face immediately is how many lands to include in the final 40. Having lands that double as spells (or spells that double as lands) can make your head hurt when it comes to figuring out the right number to run. There are some simple rules to approach how many lands you should be playing in your deck. I’ll go over the first two popular approaches and summarize with my personal approach to land counts in Zendikar.
1. As a basic rule, players often think that you can simply make a proportionate ratio of cutting one land for every two MDFCs you have. This is the most common approach that I would not recommend, simply because it fails to acknowledge the quality of the cards as well as the number of lands the deck wants to run as a whole. Don’t do this.
2. A few pros including Ben Stark approach the issue by trying to conceptualize the quality of the card first when deciding land counts. This approach considers whether the MDFC is a card that you’ll want to play more frequently as either a spell or as a land. As an extreme example, something like Hagra Mauling would be counted as a spell while Vastwood Fortification wants to be played more frequently as a land.
I think this approach is closer to the truth than the first method, but it has some implicit flaws. It fails to take a comprehensive look at the deck as a whole and ultimately doesn’t account for the fact that your draws won’t necessarily understand that you want to play specific MDFCs as lands and others as spells.
In most cases, you’ll be playing almost every MDFC about equally as both a spell and a land, so it’s unnecessary to think about them as either a spell or land.
3. The Deathsie approach tries to solve the above issues by having a more holistic understanding of the implications of MDFCs by stepping back and looking at the deck as a whole. Ultimately, having access to MDFCs means that you can play more lands since you’re not only able to hit your land drops, but you have ways to mitigate flood later on by using lands as spells. With this in mind, it’s important to think about how well your deck can use mana along with the MDFC.
Aggressive decks will typically still want to run less lands. Decks that can’t use mana very well, even with MDFCs factored into the equation, will want to run a relatively lower number of lands. Decks which can use their mana well thanks to mana sinks in kicker cards plus MDFCs should be running more lands. Think less closely about the nature of the specific cards but rather the deck as a whole.
I’ve got a rough guide to help think about how many lands are generally right for best-of-one ranked mode on MTG Arena. These are the five most common criteria for how I decide my mana counts:
Brushfire Elemental | Illustration by Campbell White
Hyper-aggressive decks which don’t use its mana well in the late game and have a low curve with a low amount of MDFCs.
Aggressive decks that are compact but not hyper-aggressive. Still don’t use their mana very well in general.
This is the most common land count in the format. You’ll have up to five MDFCs and a relatively normal curve. Don’t be too focused on the number of MDFCs. Again, think about how well your deck can use its mana.
Above average curve. Uses mana decently well but the deck doesn’t have the best card quality. At some point in your games you won’t be able to use your mana effectively anymore and land drops still eventually have diminishing returns.
You’ve got a lot of MDFCs and the only way you can lose is by not hitting land drops. Uses mana exceptionally well and also has high card quality. Mitigates variance with powerful cards and MDFCs as ways to use mana if you have too many lands.
The Controversial Value of Double-Faced Cards
Part of the amazing thing about Zendikar Rising is that opinions differ greatly on how good MDFCs are. Contrary to my personal belief that MDFCs are one of the greatest additions to MTG, professionals like Raphel Levy and Javier Domínguez don’t seem to like them at all. You get an interesting fundamental disagreement which almost never happens in Magic philosophy.
Remember that there’s intrinsic value to simply having MDFCs lying dormant on the board. Thanks to the existence of cards like Kazandu Stomper, Pyroclastic Hellion, and Tazeem Raptor at common rarity, an unsuspecting tapped MDFC in the early game means potential card draw in the late game. These three creatures which allow you to bounce lands aren’t only effective in retrieving these powerful cards once you’ve hit your mana curve; they’re also threatening creatures on their own.
This is the beautiful way that double-faced cards improve the quality of Magic games. Not only do they inherently reduce mana flood and screw, but they also provide value later on when you need more spells to cast. An elegant solution to 27 years of Magic players flipping tables because of land variance.
The moral of the story here is to not be scared of playing tap lands. Overall, the flexibility and variance reduction that MDFCs provide vastly outweighs the downside of them coming into play tapped.
Being on the Play vs. Being on the Draw
Ardent Electromancer | Illustration by Lie Setiawan
The tension between being on the play versus being on the draw in this format is incredibly important. For a BO1 gamer like me, many of the powerful cards become less appealing as a mainboard option. Extreme examples include cards like Brushfire Elemental and Blood Price, which are good on the play but potentially worthless on the draw. Even in best-of-three, try to leave them out of the starting 40 unless the card is an extremely crucial element of your game plan.
The same rules apply to Zendikar Rising as all formats: there are no cards that are inherently better because the format is BO1 or BO3. Leave your sideboard cards like Disenchant and Broken Wings in the sideboard where they belong. The absolute rule in Zendikar is to maximize the synergy of your deck and focus on being proactive by any means possible. Sideboard cards are sideboard cards because they often don’t contribute to the focused strategy that limited decks in the current day and age need to have. As a life lesson, worry about yourself first before you worry about others.
The Format’s Speed
ZNR is a draft format that has a good balance of aggro and non-aggro. Aggro decks want to find ways to capitalize being on the play curving out while finding ways to cheat mana through Ardent Electromancer and party discounts like Shatterskull Minotaur. Hyper-control decks don’t quite exist in this format because of relatively poor removal, the importance of strong tempo plays, and the creature-centric nature of the format. Control-ish midrange decks are still abundant, though.
Creatures are simply too important in this format because having party types will not only discount powerful cards like Spoils of Adventure but they’ll also buff your payoff cards like Acquisitions Expert and Practiced Tactics. If you don’t respect the early game plays and find ways to compete on the board, you’ll usually find yourself dead with a handful of cards.
Effectiveness of Combat Tricks
Surprisingly enough, combat tricks are relatively weak in Zendikar Rising despite the format being so creature-heavy and board-centric. Each color seemingly has its own dedicated combat trick which keeps things simple when thinking about ways your opponent can manipulate combat.
The main thing to keep in mind is that the more combat tricks you run, the less frequently you’ll be able to get on the board with creature spells to threaten attacks and make blocks. While combat tricks aren’t terrible, I would put it at the bottom of the list of importance when considering cards in a deck. There are a lot more important things to prioritize in this format, like building up your party count.
Common Combat Tricks
Zendikar is a good example of a format where removal is generally overrated by newer players. Your Deadly Alliance isn’t as overpowered as you remembered your Murder to be back in 2012. In reality, Murder probably wasn’t as good as you thought it was back then, either.
In general, you want to be proactive and setting up for your own party payoffs as opposed to trying to kill every single thing that moves on your opponent’s side of the board. While some removal spells clearly stand out over the others, think Roil Eruption, Into the Roil, Bubble Snare, and Feed the Swarm, keep in mind that a removal spell is generally only excellent when it’s cheap enough to allow you to continue developing alongside it.
Prioritize not only creatures over removal spells where it makes sense but also focus on cards that can provide you 2-for-1s. Kicker cards like Tazeem Roilmage and Cunning Geysermage can provide party early, trade off with opposing attackers, push damage, and can also provide extra value in the late game. Cards that can return MDFCs later in the game like Pyroclastic Hellion and Kazandu Stomper while also developing a large body to trade or attack is generally a more effective play than trying to remove your opponent’s creatures.
Even creature cards in this format like Thundering Sparkmage and Drana’s Silencer are able to kill threats while developing bodies. Creatures with good stats that replace themselves like Joraga Visionary and Expedition Diviner are also forms of removal (they trade off well), and they provide card advantage.
When you compare the options above to removal spells like Synchronized Spellcraft or Nahiri’s Binding, who really cares about a dweeby removal spell? Zendikar isn’t really about that. You’ll want some amount of removal to deal with pesky threats at times racing you in the sky, but in general, I’ve seen the focus on unexciting removal to be completely overstated in Magic.
You don’t really need it. The narrative that removal is king is lost in an age where 1-for-1s don’t go as far as they once did and creatures often provide more value than a one-dimensional removal spell.
Relative Power Level
Into the Roil | Illustration by Campbell White
In order to understand the power level of Zendikar Rising, I’ll attempt to relate it to draft formats of recent times. Not too long ago, we had War of the Spark, which seemed to be the format with the highest density of playable cards all the way down to its worst commons. It had a huge amount of playables, and good playables at that. In this sense, let’s give WAR an arbitrary 5/5 in terms of power level.
Theros: Beyond Death, on the other hand, was similar in the sense that it had a lot of playables, but the power level was very “flat.” In this case, flat means that the discrepancy between the good commons and the bad meant they weren’t too far apart in power level. The majority of the power in your deck either came from a synergy coefficient or from getting lucky obtaining key on-color uncommons and rares. Let’s give THB a 3/5 rating.
Dominaria, while having the same issue of being dominated by the uncommons and rares, had a pretty underwhelming assortment of commons available. Often, by pick 4 or 5, there would be no good picks or powerful cards left in the packs. Albeit highly controversial, I’ll be assigning DOM a 1/5 in terms of power level.
Following the criteria above, I’d put Zendikar Rising at roughly a 3/5 power level. It faces a similar issue where the vast majority of the card power is “flat” like Theros, but the tension between party and tribal archetypes leads us to find power level through synergy.
A good example of this is a card like Veteran Adventurer. It’s a decent uncommon-rarity bomb in a good green party deck but is vastly underwhelming in a green landfall deck. The card’s power variety is essentially decided by how well you can maximize its potential.
The amount of agency you get in the drafting portion of Zendikar is phenomenal, since your objective is to navigate all the potential ways to bring the best out of the cards. That said, there are quite a few rare power level cards in ZNR that are extremely difficult to beat because of their relatively low effectiveness of common removal spells in the format. If your opponent plays Drana, the Last Bloodchief, good luck killing it unless you have Deadly Alliance or Thundering Rebuke on hand.
Archetypes in Zendikar Rising
Thundering Sparkmage | Illustration by Billy Christian
The amazing thing about this format is that there’s a lot of crossovers in terms of archetypes. I’ve outlined the most common archetypes between color combinations in Zendikar below, but keep in mind that you can sometimes have elements of multiple archetypes within a single deck. This balancing act requires a strong mental fortitude during the drafting and deck-building portion. Try to think outside of the box and find creative paths to what a successful deck could look like.
- Gruul Party
- Rakdos Party
- Simic Kicker
- Izzet Wizards
Tier 2 Archetypes
- Orzhov Clerics
- Gruul Lands
- Dimir Rogues
- Azorius Party
- Golgari Counters
- Gruul Landfall
- Boros Warriors
Niche Build-Around Archetypes
- Dimir Party
- Simic Wizards
- Gruul Wizards
Signpost card: Brushfire Elemental
Green/red is a color combination that offers many different playable archetypes. Gruul is also my most played color combo because of the insane amount of flexibility of styles it provides as well as my strong bias towards red in the format.
My most common Gruul deck is surprisingly a Gruul Party deck leveraging some of the powerful uncommons, including Veteran Adventurer and Shatterskull Minotaur. Even though every red deck can make use of Grotag Bug-Catcher, Gruul Party really likes to be aggressive and smash your opponent in the face, making it the most valuable here.
Joraga Visionary is, in my opinion, the best green common in the set. While it’s simply a value 4-drop in most decks, it contributes to forming a party and will discount future cards like Sea Gate Colossus in Gruul Party. Ardent Electromancer will be one of the key cards to explosive aggressive draws as any red deck and incentivizes you to pick up red 2-drops, which you can play off of her bonus mana.
Even though the deck really cares about having party types, don’t be afraid to run copies of Pyroclastic Hellion and Kazandu Stomper for their raw power level and late-game potential. Stay away from the trap party card, Strength of Solidarity, as this effect is only good once you’ve established some board presence and generally isn’t worth a card slot.
My second most common Gruul deck is what I like to call Gruul Lands. The concept of the deck is to abuse the two most powerful land-returning creatures in the format, Pyroclastic Hellion and Kazandu Stomper, along with a high density of MDFCs in order to grind your opponent out with late-game value.
The rest of the deck can essentially be built any way possible, but make sure to focus on defense as the first priority. Tajuru Blightblade, Joraga Visionary, and other creatures with good stats will help you stay alive and trade off creatures 1-for-1 with your opponents. You’ll almost always outvalue your opponents in combat with your giant land-returning creatures and then also with the value from the MDFCs you return to your hand.
The third most common Gruul deck is the one you’ve probably been questioning after seeing Brushfire Elemental as the gold signpost card: Gruul Landfall. This is a strategy that leverages the naturally aggressive nature of the red and green landfall cards.
The design of this archetype seemingly wanted players to draft landfall creatures like Akoum Hellhound, Canopy Baloth, Territorial Scythecat, Skyclave Geopede, Skyclave Pick-Axe, and Brushfire Elemental in conjunction with Cleansing Wildfire, Vastwood Surge, and Roiling Regrowth to make multiple land drops in a turn and maximize landfall triggers.
In my experience, this deck is potent on the play but falls extremely flat on the draw since none of the creatures block particularly well. Zendikar Rising is a format where balance (being able to both block and attack) is key. The only time I’ve really seen this archetype be outstanding is from my friend Ryan Saxe’s trophy run on Magic Online:
Last but not least, the most uncommon Gruul archetype is Gruul Wizards, which is really only possible if you manage to pick up a Relic Amulet or two. Without any real wizard payoffs outside of blue, Relic Amulet is the only incentive for this archetype. That said, both red and green offer a wide assortment of powerful wizards if you’re lucky enough to weasel your way into drafting this incredibly fun combination.
Signpost card: Ravager’s Mace
Red/black is a color combination that’s most commonly played as Rakdos Party. Following Gruul Party, this is my second most drafted go-to archetype in Zendikar. This deck leverages the powerful, aggressive red creatures and relies on black for card advantage and value.
Keep an eye out for Thwart the Grave, which is the absolute most powerful card for the archetype. It allows you to add an additional dimension to your deck abusing the powerful ETB effects of cards like Malakir Blood-Priest, Drana’s Silencer, Thundering Sparkmage, and even Pyroclastic Hellion multiple times over the course of a game.
A nice budget option to replace Thwart the Grave is Blood Beckoning. It can provide the card advantage necessary to close out most games. This deck ideally still wants to cheat on mana to get on the board as quickly as possible with the help of Ardent Electromancer and red 2-drops.
Focus on the board at all costs. Although Ravager’s Mace is the signpost card for Rakdos and it’s true that Rakdos is all about that party life, the Mace doesn’t affect the board in a meaningful way. Don’t worry too much about finding ways to push damage Instead, attempt to trade off creatures and find ways to bring them back.
Keep in mind the party types you have because cards like Sea Gate Colossus and the ETB effects above all care about your party count. With ways to bring your creatures back, opt to be more aggressive than not when possible to open up future attacks.
Signpost card: Soaring Thought-Thief
The most common black/blue deck in this format is Dimir Rogues. This is a deck which you should generally not go for unless you can pick up an early Soaring Thought-Thief or Zareth San, the Trickster.
The deck has a very linear, one-dimensional concept which focuses on playing a critical mass of rogue-type creatures to benefit from Soaring Thought-Thief. While aggressively getting on the board, you’re also trying to slowly mill your opponent to eight cards in their graveyard to activate the passive ability of cards like Nimana Skitter-Sneak and Relic Golem.
Stay away from Mind Carver even though it seems to fit perfectly in a rogues deck, as the goal is to win eventually rather than winning quickly. Ruin Crab is a fine card in the archetype since it helps mill your opponent and becomes a secondary win condition, especially with ways to recur it like Blood Beckoning and Thwart the Grave.
In this deck, the inconspicuous common Mind Drain becomes a powerhouse that’ll greatly upset your opponents. Not only does it help fill the graveyard to activate your passive rogue abilities, but every single resource, even low-value, basic lands, are valuable due to the high relevance of landfall triggers.
The second most common Dimir deck I’ve drafted is, strangely, Dimir Party. This deck focuses on Malakir Blood-Priest and Seafloor Stalker to deal bits of chip damage over time in conjunction with ways to bring them back as aforementioned.
It’s a really weird deck that can essentially be Frankenstein-ed with whatever else you can get your hands on. Focus on having a diverse spread of party creatures. Even a random Highborn Vampire as a warrior will do if you need to up that party count for your synergies.
Signpost card: Lullmage’s Familiar
The most common blue/green deck is, you’ve guessed it, Simic Kicker! Being one of the premier archetypes in the format, it provides smooth gameplay in the sense that the cards can often be used flexibly. You can play cards wastefully and defensively or hold onto them for late game kicker value.
Take Tazeem Roilmage for example. It can be played on turn 2 to trade off with an aggressive Boros deck, or it can be held onto to kick for a spell or to activate kicker payoff cards like Risen Riptide or Merfolk Falconer.
Roost of Drakes isn’t the best card in the set, but it’ll often be the best card in your deck. To me, there aren’t really any essential key cards in the archetype, but ultimately that’s the strength of this color combination. It’s hard to go wrong with blue and green kicker cards smashed in a deck together.
In a perfect world, you’ll also be picking up Relic Amulet over the course of the draft. This archetype can optimize this powerful artifact, capitalizing second to only the Izzet Wizards deck. You’ll often find that you can have a kicker sub-theme as many of the wizard cards naturally have kicker. This is one of my favorite decks to draft in the format and showcases the crossover potential of archetypes in Zendikar Rising.
Signpost card: Murasa Rootgrazer
Green/white is the one and only true landfall deck in Zendikar Rising. While it looks like Gruul is supposed to be the one trying to focus on gaining value from land drops, in reality, Selesnya Landfall is much better at stalling out the board and gaining that incremental value from landfall triggers with beefy and defensive options.
Focus on finding balanced landfall creatures like Prowling Felidar, Fearless Fledgling, and Territorial Scythecat as proactive payoffs for maximizing your land drops. These games will often go very long, so keep ways to maximize board tension and card quality in mind.
While I think this color combination is completely playable, I would try to stay away from it if possible because the typical power level of a Selesnya deck is relatively low compared to others. Notably, Selesnya is also the only color combination in this format in which I have not drafted a party-based deck. I could see it if you had access to a few copies of Veteran Adventurer, but there’s almost no party incentive in Selesnya otherwise.
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve noticed players drafting Zendikar making is that, outside of green, they too frequently try to play three colors in their decks. In most limited formats, you should be playing a 2-color deck. Zendikar Rising is no exception to this rule.
Green decks get a bit of special treatment because of Reclaim the Wastes at common rarity. Interestingly, only Selesnya ever feels like it really wants to be splashing a third or fourth color, though. I think this is the trend in green/white as opposed to other green decks because of the slow and board stall-y nature of the color combination.
There’s also the element of less powerful non-party card quality in white which provides a lucrative proposition to up that power level with cards of other colors. Try to stay away from decks beyond two colors, but if you must, green decks can sometimes support 3- to 5-color decks.
Signpost card: Cleric of Life’s Bond
Black/white is one of the most uninteresting color combinations in this format for me. The only real deck that exists is Orzhov Clerics. It’s a deck that focuses on incremental lifegain and clerics to play a strange attrition-aggro game.
The deck heavily relies on having at least some number of the following uncommons: Relic Vial, Attended Healer, and Cleric of Life’s Bond. If you don’t already have one of these, I’d strongly recommend staying away from Orzhov Clerics.
The key commons to this archetype are Kor Celebrant and Shepherd of Heroes, which are flexible creatures that’ll provide the healing to trigger your lifegain payoffs. Sometimes you can draft a deck revolving around only commons as a strategy, but unless you have lots of copies of Marauding Blight-Priest and Kor Celebrant, it’ll be very hard to win playing fair Magic.
Signpost card: Umara Mystic
I absolutely love red and blue together in Zendikar. The only real red/blue deck is Izzet Wizards, which leverages aggressive value creatures like Expedition Diviner with great tempo removal options like Into the Roil and Roil Eruption.
This is the best home for the build-around wizard card, Relic Amulet, which is often an unbeatable source of recurring removal. The general strategy is to use the hard-hitting evasive flying wizards with the value-based wizards in a flexible game plan that can be adapted based on what your opponent is doing.
Cards like Rockslide Sorcerer provide powerful yet non-vital options in the drafting phase. Izzet Wizards will often also have a natural kicker sub-theme as is a nod to the wide flexibility of blue in Zendikar.
Signpost card: Moss-Pit Skeleton
Black/green in Zendikar has essentially only one archetype: Golgari Counters. It’s a very linear, non-party archetype that focuses on having things with +1/+1 counters and cards that benefit from said counters.
Some of the key commons include Gnarlid Colony, Hagra Constrictor, Dauntless Survivor, and Ghastly Gloomhunter. The strategy for this deck is nothing special. You just play out your cards on curve and your Hagra Constrictor will give things menace while Gnarlid Colony gives things trample.
Although this might sound powerful in concept, the deck is clunky and you’re constantly overpaying for your creatures. The key uncommons for the archetype are Skyclave Shadowcat and Iridescent Hornbeetle. Honestly, though, your deck still probably won’t be great even if you have them. Moss-Pit Skeleton is a good uncommon as well, but even the absolute best form of the deck is lackluster when compared to the other color combinations overall.
It feels like a core set deck trying to compete in a powerful draft format. Stay away from this archetype unless you can open some decent bomb rares like Nissa of Shadowed Boughs or Grakmaw, Skyclave Ravager.
Signpost card: Spoils of Adventure
The blue/white color combination, like Rakdos, is an actual dedicated party deck! Azorius Party is a strange deck that’s a hodgepodge of completely random party creatures that tries to win games seemingly by accident.
Really the main reason to go into Azorius is if you manage to pick up a copy or two of Spoils of Adventure early on. It’s a Sphinx’s Revelation at uncommon rarity which allows you to make up for the low card quality by simply playing more weak cards.
One of the main strengths of Azorius Party is its ability to use Practiced Tactics to the fullest potential since it doesn’t care about pushing damage as much as a Boros deck, for example. You focus on trying to either out-card them or win with evasive threats like Shepherd of Heroes and Seafloor Stalker activations. Just like with Selesnya, expect grindy games with stalled out board states most of the time.
Signpost card: Kargan Warleader
The red/white deck in Zendikar is an aggressive, warrior tribal deck. Boros Warriors is a weird archetype for multiple reasons.
First, the only real warrior payoff card at common is Expedition Champion. While a 3 mana 4/3 is pretty decent, that alone doesn’t carry a whole archetype. You really want to pick up Kargan Warleader before you consider diving into Boros Warriors at all.
Second, the way the cards were designed (as signposted by Akiri, Fearless Voyager) makes it feel like warriors is supposed to be some kind of equipment-based archetype. The way it plays out, though, makes it painfully clear that (apart from Relic Axe) the equipment options are filler cards at best. Even in the warrior deck. Unless you have a few copies of Fireblade Charger and a Kor Blademaster, you really don’t want to be running bad equipment cards as a way to push through attacks and damage.
And finally, the best aggressive warrior card, Grotag Bug-Catcher, wants other party types and doesn’t play well with other warriors. All in all, you’ll need to pick up Kargan Warleader or high roll Nahiri, Heir of the Ancients before you even consider Boros Warriors.
Marauding Blight-Priest | Illustration by Caio Monteiro
Zendikar Rising is possibly the most controversial set I’ve ever seen in my Magic career. While I and many respectable players dub this format one of the greatest of all time, others believe it to be an unexciting draft that belongs in the same category as M21, a unanimously terrible limited set.
The different ways to play Zendikar along with the many options in terms of land counts with the modal double-faced cards leads to players arriving at different results in evaluation. To me, the drama created by opposing opinions is the most exciting aspect as a Magic lover and academic. It provides a rich environment of discussion to create content which helps keep players engaged in MTG beyond the honeymoon period of a limited format. It makes me really happy that people are still arguing about what’s right over a month into a format!
The main charm of Zendikar’s format is the relative lack of non-games resulting in mana flood and screw thanks to the existence of MDFCs. Although lands are often seen as the fundamental flaw of Magic as a game, there are many ways to mitigate flood and screw with card design.
We’ve seen adventure, cycling, and escape as ways to provide multiple modes for cards. One mode being able to be used when you don’t have a lot of mana and one which allows you to use more mana once you have it. I strongly believe that lands doubling as spells should be an aspect of every limited format forever. Adding more elements of mana mitigation creates great gameplay.
The dilemma between trying to balance party and tribal payoffs within a draft deck is a masterfully crafted concept. While the cards themselves are boring in a standalone setting, you can bring out the true potential of a card when they work together in a party. Anyone who watches my streams knows I generally despise tribal formats like Ixalan and one-dimensional gold formats like Guilds of Ravnica because it feels like I’m being told how to play.
This time, however, R&D created an ingenious take on the traditional, boring, tribal “please hold my hand” type of format and offered an interesting puzzle that has kept every Zendikar Rising draft interesting and me on my toes. To me, each card in Zendikar is like single words in the English language; while meaningless on their own, a beautiful story can be told when they’re well put-together.