Win More Boosters at the Battle for Zendikar Prerelease
Prerelease weekend is one of the best times for Magic players. No matter how many times you’ve played in one, you still get that same festive feeling. This weekend, all over the world, players are cracking their first packs of Battle for Zendikar. It’s all well and good to have the complete spoiler to study, but things get real on Saturday. Nothing matches the thrill of playing with new cards for the first time. Magic: the Gathering was always meant to be a game of exploration and this weekend we’re all going to have a great time getting to know this new, weird set. The point of the weekend is to try out the new cards and try to learn something while having a lot of fun. However, since your local game store is awarding booster pack prizes to players who win, why not embrace the opportunity and win all the packs you can?
To that end, I’m going to try and use my twenty years of sealed deck experience to help you make the most of your opportunity this weekend. I want to help you win more boosters at the Battle for Zendikar prerelease. It starts with the basics. When you receive your six BFZ booster packs you will have thirty minutes to build a forty card deck. That’s not very much time when you’re playing with brand new cards that you’ve never played with before. In order to give yourself the most time to figure out what to play, you should make sure to quickly open your six boosters and sort the cards by color. Card color, by the way, means a little something different in Battle for Zendikar than it has in the past. Every color has spells and creatures with the devoid mechanic. A card with devoid is colorless despite the casting cost of the card. For sorting purposes, you should put the cards in piles by the color of mana needed to play the card, regardless of whether that card has devoid or not. There are a lot of colorless cards in BFZ and they should get their own pile when you are sorting. Colorless cards are like a sixth color in this set.
There are some sealed deck basic concepts that are worth going over, no matter how many times you have played sealed deck. You want your finished deck to be exactly forty cards in order to maximize your ability to draw any particular one of your best cards. Sure, plenty of people play a forty-first card, or even a forty-second, but it’s mathematically incorrect. The difference is very slight, to be sure, between playing forty cards and playing forty-one cards. You know, as in “I ALMOST won that game but I didn’t draw the card I needed…” One way you can keep ‘almost’ out of your sealed deck vocabulary is to play exactly forty cards. Everyone deviates from this rule occasionally. I’m going to do my best not to. I don’t think there is any way to say how many creatures or spells you should play in this sealed deck format, but I bet the right answer is going to be a combination of twenty-three creatures and spells and a combination of seventeen lands, basic and otherwise. These numbers have been proven in limited formats year-in and year-out. Numbers are our friends, use them! There have been sealed deck formats that were slow enough and mana-intensive enough that it was more often correct to play twenty-two spells and eighteen land. This could be the case with Battle for Zendikar because of the large number of expensive spells. You might be surprised to learn that there aren’t as many crazy high casting costs as you may have thought. There are eight colorless spells, mostly Eldrazi creatures, that cost seven mana or more. Among the colored spells, there are only five, one in each color other than blue and one gold card (red and green). However, when you factor in the large number of spells with Awaken and permanents that have abilities that cost five or more mana to activate, it’s possible that eighteen lands could be correct for BFZ sealed. The last sealed deck basic I want to leave with you is the issue of how many colors to play. The answer is usually two colors. If you play green, which has quite a few color-fixing cards, or if you open some dual lands among your rares, it’s possible to play a little bit of a third color. I know it’s fun to play with lots of colors, but if you want to win some packs, it’s a good idea to be conservative with your color choices and stick to two colors. Your deck will be more consistent and you’ll win more of your prerelease matches.
Big or Small? Fast or Slow?
The central challenge that Battle for Zendikar poses for sealed deck players is whether or not to go big. Two kinds of decks will be the most successful this weekend. The first kind are the ones that go big, that play strategies that allow them the time and mana to play these giant Eldrazi monsters. These decks will have the most powerful cards in the set on their side. When these big Eldrazi finally hit the table they will break games wide open. The other successful decks this weekend will go small and fast with efficient creatures with landfall. These decks will have mostly smaller creatures and combat tricks to help them race the larger, slower decks. These decks will have one or two six-casting-cost cards in them, maybe a seven, but will mostly follow a tight casting curve to give them consistent, and consistently fast draws.
Which is better? The answer, as always in sealed deck, is based on what you open. You don’t play big spells just because you want to play big spells any more than you force your sealed deck to be green because green creatures are your favorite. If you want to win you will build the best deck that your card pool will allow you to build, regardless of the strategy or colors. Limited Magic usually boils down to the two things you need in order to win. Creatures and ways to eliminate opposing creatures. Almost every card in your deck needs to either be a creature or else a way to deal with a creature.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the rares and mythics in a new set, but in sealed deck, it’s mostly about the commons and uncommons. I can’t count on opening a sick mythic rare like Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. By studying the card list for the set ahead of time, I can think about what I might do if I open an uncommon Eldrazi like Bane of Bala Ged or Breaker of Armies. It’s much more likely that I will have a certain uncommon in my pool, and more likely still any given common, compared to the long odds of opening a certain rare or mythic rare.
Colorless Cards and Artifacts
Among the colorless cards, sealed deck players should be very excited about Kozilek’s Channeler. This is a common 4/4 Eldrazi for five colorless mana. He’s a fine creature that goes well in decks that are trying to play big spells. He taps to produce two colorless mana. That means that the turn after you play Kozilek’s Channeler you can play a seven-casting-cost card. You can play an eight-casting-cost card if you also play a sixth land. This is one of the best commons for anyone trying to reach the top shelf in order to play Eldrazi creatures.
Bane of Bala Ged is an uncommon 7/5 Eldrazi for seven colorless mana. When he attacks your opponent must exile two of his permanents. This is about as close as this year’s Eldrazi creatures come to the annihilator mechanic from Rise of the Eldrazi in the original Zendikar block. Seven mana is not so difficult to manage even for decks that don’t have any sort of mana ramping. Once on the board, he’s going to take several of your opponent’s cards with him before he dies.
Scour from Existence is a common instant for seven colorless mana that exiles a target permanent. This is an amazingly useful spell in a format where creatures get so large. Of course, it costs seven mana so how many could you realistically play in one deck? If I’m playing a big Eldrazi creature deck I will make room for at least one of these.
If you take the Eldrazi route and have four or more colorless creature cards in your deck, you might be able to use Titan’s Presence. This is an uncommon instant for three colorless mana. As part of its casting cost you reveal a colorless creature card from your hand to exile a target creature with power less than or equal to the colorless creature you reveal. I wouldn’t even try this card without at least four colorless creatures in my deck, but if you do, and those creatures are pretty large (they would almost have to be) Titan’s Presence will function as a good creature removal spell.
Hedron Archive is an uncommon artifact for four colorless mana. You can tap it for two colorless mana, handy in all decks trying to play seven-casting-cost spells and above. Once you get all of the mana-ramping usefulness out of this card, you can pay two mana and tap and sacrifice it to draw two cards. That’s a pretty good deal. If your deck allows for a long game, Hedron Archive can help you ramp up mana early and refill your hand late.
Pilgrim’s Eye is an uncommon 1/1 artifact Thopter creature with flying. When it enters the battlefield you get to search your library for a basic land card, reveal it, and put it into your hand. This card originally appeared in Worldwake. It was good in sealed decks then and it’ll be in this sealed format as well.
Angelic Gift is a common aura enchantment for 1W. It gives the creature it enchants flying and also draws you a card when it enters the battlefield. The kind of removal in this set makes me think you will rarely get two-for-one’d when you play this spell. Getting a replacement card when you play it makes it attractive. Sealed deck battles often come down to who has evasion. Putting flying creatures in your deck is the best plan, but playing a copy of Angelic Gift (don’t get greedy and play three of them) could be the next best thing.
Stasis Snare is an uncommon enchantment for 1WW that exiles a target creature an opponent controls until Stasis Snare leaves the battlefield. This card also has flash so that you can play it anytime you could play an instant, making it one of the best creature removal spells in the set.
Tandem Tactics is an excellent common combat trick for 1W. Up to two target creatures get +1/+2 until end of turn and you gain two life. In most cases, this card will change combat from you trading two attackers with two blockers into you killing two blockers without losing your own creatures. Or you could kill a large attacker by blocking with two creatures and then using this spell to ensure that no more than one of yours goes to the graveyard in the trade.
Ghostly Sentinel is a common 3/3 Kor Spirit for 4W that has flying and vigilance. Evasion is always important in sealed deck. While you can’t afford to fill up your deck with five-drops, Ghostly Sentinel is a good addition to your deck because it can attack on your turn and still block on your opponent’s turn.
There are eight common and uncommon Ally creatures in white and one uncommon sorcery that makes Ally tokens. Among these are four creatures with the mechanic rally. On these cards, the rally mechanic indicates that the card triggers and does something whenever an Ally enters the battlefield on your side. It’s hard to calculate how many Ally creatures you would need to have in your deck before the rally effects would start to add up in a meaningful way. None of the common or uncommon Ally creatures are individually impressive, but they represent decent small creatures that can augment any white deck’s low end even if you are not focusing on a specific Ally strategy.
Adverse Conditions is an uncommon instant for 3U that has devoid. You get to tap up to two target creatures and those creatures do not untap during their controller’s next untap step. You also get to put a 1/1 colorless Eldrazi Scion creature token onto the battlefield. You can sacrifice an Eldrazi Scion token at any time to add one colorless to your mana pool. This is a quality combat trick because it moves two different creatures out of the way so you can attack. On defense, you can play this spell and keep two very large creatures from attacking both this turn and the next. The Eldrazi Scion token is just a nice bonus. Even if you are pretty far behind on the board, this card could help get you out of jail by tapping two would-be attackers while creating a 1/1 chump blocker.
Benthic Infiltrator is a common 1/4 Eldrazi Drone for 2U with devoid and ingest and which cannot be blocked. Ingest means that when this creature deals combat damage to an opponent that player exiles the top card of his library. I’m not crazy about the give and take in this set regarding cards that exile opponent’s cards just so that other cards can move those exiled cards into your opponent’s graveyard for some effect. The linked functionality of cards with ingest with cards that need to be able to put a card from your opponent’s exile pile into the graveyard seems like a meaningless hoop players are forced to jump through. At any rate, this is a good common creature because it’s cheap and has a big butt for blocking in the early game. It’s very cool for a common, even one with only one power, to have this kind of evasion.
Clutch of Currents is a common sorcery for one blue mana that returns a target creature to its owner’s hand. This is a cheap bounce effect that, regretfully, you have to play on your own turn. This card’s considerable upside is that it has awaken 3 for a cost of 4U. That means that if you can afford to play 4U to play this card you also get to put three +1/+1 counters on a target land you control and make it an Elemental creature with haste. This is the way all the sorceries and instants with awaken work, you get an effect you can use early in the game when you pay the normal spell cost and an enhanced awaken effect that turns one of your lands into creature with some number of +1/+1 counters on it when you can afford to pay the alternate cost later in the game. The key is to play cards with awaken when they make sense for your deck without the awaken ability. Clutch of Currents is the kind of soft removal a blue player would want in his deck anyway. The awaken ability is a bonus that allows you to gain inevitability in the late game. Imagine having six lands in the late game and drawing this spell. You pay the alternate cost of 4U and bounce one of your opponent’s dudes while turning your untapped land into a 3/3 creature that can attack this turn. Good stuff.
Cryptic Cruiser is an uncommon 3/3 Eldrazi Processor for 3U with devoid. For 2U you can put a card that an opponent owns from their exile pile into their graveyard to tap a target creature. How often you will be able to activate this Processor’s ability is uncertain, tied to your ability to exile your opponent’s cards. Even without the tap ability, Cryptic Cruiser gives you a nice 3/3 body for 3U. Solid enough as just a creature, the tap ability could be very important late in games.
Halimar Tidecaller is an uncommon 2/3 Human Wizard Ally for 2U that gives land creatures you control flying. When this creature enters the battlefield you may return a target card with awaken to your hand from your graveyard. That Clutch of Currents you just played? Return it to your hand with Tidecaller and play it again next turn. This card is good early and late in the game. Early in the game its primary use is getting back an awaken spell, but when it arrives later in a game it might just propel your land creatures over the top to victory.
Want to get aggressive with a blue deck? Ruination Guide is an uncommon 3/2 Eldrazi Drone for 2U that has devoid and ingest. This creature gives other colorless creatures you control +1/+0. There are eleven blue cards in BFZ (cards with blue mana costs) that have devoid and which are therefore colorless and which gain the bonus for Ruination Guide. This card combos particularly well with cheap evasion creatures like the common Eldrazi Skyspawner (2/1 flyer that comes with a “free” Eldrazi Scion token) and the aforementioned Benthic Infiltrator.
Blue seems particularly loaded with sealed deck playables that are good in both streamlined, mana efficient tempo decks as well as the Eldrazi-themed decks playing the long game in order to play their large creatures. There are just two blue Ally creatures, in case you decide to play an Ally creature plan.
Carrier Thrall is an uncommon 2/1 Vampire for 1B. When it dies you get a 1/1 colorless Eldrazi Scion creature token that you can sacrifice whenever you like for one colorless mana. This little guy doesn’t look like much, but he attacks and blocks in the early game. When he dies he essentially returns one of the mana you spent when you played him in the form for an Eldrazi Scion “gift certificate.” You’re welcome.
Dominator Drone is a common 3/2 Eldrazi Drone for 2B with devoid and ingest. When this creature enters the battlefield each opponent loses two life if you control another colorless creature. It’s easy to have another colorless creature in play, even in the early part of the game.
Grip of Desolation is an uncommon instant for 4BB that has devoid. This card exiles a target creature and a target land. While you can’t fill up your deck with six-casting-cost spells, this one is capable of disposing with any creature while simultaneously exiling one of your opponent’s lands, possibly the one that’s also an Elemental creature with +1/+1 counters all over it.
Malakir Familiar is an uncommon 2/1 Bat with flying and deathtouch. Whenever you gain life the Familiar gets +1/+1 until end of turn. This not exactly as good as the uncommon format-defining Vampire Nighthawk from Zendikar, but it’s pretty good. Eventually, you’re going to trade your Familiar with some very large creature in combat. Before that happens, you get to swing in the air a few times for two damage.
Silent Skimmer is a common 0/4 Eldrazi Drone for 3B that has devoid and flying. When you attack with the Skimmer the defending player loses two life. This is an excellent blocker that can hurt your opponent when it attacks even though it doesn’t deal any damage to blocking or blocked creatures.
Akoum Stonewaker is an uncommon 2/1 Human Shaman for 1R with an interesting landfall trigger. When a land enters the battlefield on your side, Stonewaker triggers and you can pay 2R to put a 3/1 red Elemental creature token with trample and haste onto the battlefield. This token is exiled at the beginning of the next end step. The key with this very nice two-drop is not to fall too much in love with his cool landfall ability. Play Akoum Stonewaker on turn two and treat him like any other two-drop. By that, I mean you should probably attack with him on turn three if it will trade with anything larger than an Eldrazi Scion token. However, if Akoum Stonewaker manages to live a little while longer into the game, you can use his landfall trigger to push through damage. Remember, the Elemental tokens have trample.
Belligerent Whiptail is a common 4/2 Wurm for 3R with landfall. When landfall triggers this creature gains first strike until end of turn. Play a land, attack. It’s a good plan.
Firemantle Mage is an uncommon 2/2 Human Shaman Ally for 2R with rally. Whenever this or another Ally enters the battlefield on your side creatures you control gain menace until end of turn. This is one of the better offensive rally abilities for the Ally creatures. It’s difficult for your opponent to block your creatures when each of them suddenly has menace and must be blocked by at least two creatures.
Kozilek’s Sentinel is a common 1/4 Eldrazi Drone for 1R with devoid. Whenever you cast a colorless spell Kozilek’s Sentinel gets +1/+0 until end of turn. What really counts about this creature is that he’s a big 1/4 for just two mana. This card is perfectly suited to help big Eldrazi decks survive the early turns so they can live long enough to make their beautiful Eldrazi plans come together on turn eight, nine or ten.
Outnumber is a common instant for one red mana that deals damage to a target creature equal to the number of creatures you control. Let me explain creature removal in Battle for Zendikar, it’s a precious commodity. The designers don’t want there to be a lot of easy removal because they want players to have the chance to play these expensive and interesting Eldrazi creatures. Outnumber is a powerful card in a deck with fifteen or sixteen creatures. In aggressive decks, Outnumber will let you keep annoying blockers out of the way while you continue to steamroll through with fast, small creatures. In big decks, Outnumber will be a good combat trick that protects your fat Eldrazi creature in a situation where three or more creatures are blocking it in hopes of killing it.
Turn Against is an uncommon instant for 4R with devoid. Take control of a target creature until end of turn, untap that creature, it gains haste until end of turn. Is this is super expensive Act of Treason. It could be, if you like, but it’s better than that. Better yet, maybe your opponent attacks with two 10/10 Eldrazi creatures. You play Turn Against targeting one of the massive Eldrazi creatures and use it to block the other one. It’s only once in a while that Wizards gives us the ability to steal a creature for a turn at instant speed. It’s a very powerful combat trick that you will occasionally play on your own turn but mostly on your opponent’s turn.
Valakut Predator is a common 2/2 Elemental for 2R with landfall. When a land enters the battlefield on your side the Predator gets +2/+2 until end of turn. It’s easy to see the scenario where you play this guy on turn three and then play a land on turn four and smash your opponent for four damage.
Red is somewhat well-suited for Ally strategies, there are six red Ally creatures.
Earthen Arms is a common sorcery for 1G that puts two +1/+1 counters on a target permanent. You can buff up a creature or add counters to a land that you have previously turned into a creature, or maybe one that is about to become a creature… This card has awaken 4 when you pay the alternate casting cost of 6G. That means on turn seven you could play this spell and put two +1/+1 counters on a target land and then also put four more counters on it with the awaken ability while turning that land into an Elemental creature with haste. Remember, decks need more than anything else creatures and ways to kill creatures. You can’t play a bunch of cards like Earthen Arms but the effect of the spell can be powerful without a doubt.
Lifespring Druid is a common 2/1 Elf Druid for 2G that taps to give you one of any color mana. This card helps you ramp up for more expensive spells while simultaneously fixing any colored mana problems you may have.
Natural Connection is a common instant for 2G that allows you to search your library for a basic land and put it onto the battlefield tapped. This card goes both ways. In a fast red/green landfall deck it gives you a combat trick that throws another land onto the battlefield to trigger landfall abilities while ramping up your mana. In big Eldrazi decks, you simply want to get more land onto the battlefield. In either case, this card also helps make sure you get the colored mana your deck needs.
Plated Crusher is an uncommon 7/6 Beast for 4GGG with trample and hexproof. All of the big-mana attention in this set is on the colorless Eldrazi creatures, and rightly so. Still, Plated Crusher has the rare combination of trample and hexproof insuring that if your opponent wants it dead he will have to pay with many blockers.
Swell of Growth is a common instant for 1G that gives a target creature +2/+2 until end of turn. You also may put a land card from your hand onto the battlefield. This is another quality trick for landfall decks, but it has early game applications for big creature decks as well. It doesn’t generate card advantage, because the land you get to play is already in your hand, but Swell of Growth can help you develop your board more quickly while hopefully helping you win in combat as well.
Drana’s Emissary is an uncommon 2/2 Vampire Cleric Ally for 1WB with flying. At the beginning of your upkeep each opponent loses one life and you gain one life. This is a nice flyer for three mana. There are lots of black creatures that trigger when you gain life. You don’t want to play cards that gain you life without doing something else valuable. This card is the right kind of life gain effect for sealed deck.
Grove Rumbler is an uncommon 3/3 Elemental for 2RG with trample and landfall. When landfall triggers this creature gains +2/+2 until end of turn. Very attractive for red/green landfall decks.
Herald of Kozilek is an uncommon 2/4 Eldrazi Drone for 1UR with devoid. Colorless spells you cast cost one less to cast. Wow! This card can be the keystone for blue/red Eldrazi decks. There are plenty of devoid creatures and spells in red and blue as well. You also get an early game creature with a big four points of toughness. This card is devastating on turn three.
Roil Spout is an uncommon sorcery for 1WU that puts a target creature on top of its owner’s library. This card has awaken 4 for an alternate cost of 4WU. This spell will be very useful both early and late in games. I think the blue cards are a lot more suitable for a control deck in this format than the white ones, but blue/white is a color combination that can let you play the long game where turning your lands into powerful Elemental creatures with awaken can really pay off.
If you stick to two colors in your deck you should easily be able to take advantage of the various non-basic lands in Battle for Zendikar including the ones that tap for colorless mana but which can be activated and sacrificed later in the game for value. Among those I like Blighted Cataract the best because it can reload your hand with two new cards at the end of your opponent’s turn late in the game. Blighted Fen makes your opponent sacrifice a creature but late in the game you may be unsatisfied with the choice your opponent makes. Blighted Gorge is good because you can target a creature or player with two points of damage when you sacrifice it.
There are also rare dual lands that can help you fix your colored mana issues and a cycle of common lands that enter the battlefield tapped but produce colored mana and provide some useful effect when they enter the battlefield. I like Looming Spires for landfall decks. It gives a target creature +1/+1 and first strike when it enters the battlefield. Imagine the fun if you drop this land by playing the green instant Swell of Growth.
And yes, it’s even possible that your sealed pool will be so fortunate as to include one of the ultra-rare Zendikar Expeditions lands. In the unlikely event that you find one of these cards in your pool (they are said to occur no more often than one in every 200 or so boosters) you will be able to play with it in sealed deck even though the card may not actually be a part of Battle for Zendikar. All twenty-five of the lands included in this subset are said to be very valuable. If you open one you will probably be a big winner before you even play your matches.
Skyrider Elf is an uncommon Elf Warrior Ally for XGW with flying. This creature enters the battlefield with a +1/+1 counter for each color of mana spent to play it. This card is extremely elegant and is unique in the history of Magic. What is this card’s converted mana cost? Two. Most of the time, this is a 2/2 flyer for GU. However, when you can afford to pay a third or fourth or fifth mana, preferably of a different colors, you can get a larger creature. It’s unique that this card has X in its casting cost yet does not reference X anywhere in the text box because the value of X has no meaning for his card. Astounding, but not impressive in sealed deck unless you’re the mad genius that gets a five color green deck to work.
All you or I have to do is open our cards and use our thirty minutes to find the very best possible deck mysteriously locked in our six boosters of Battle for Zendikar. Try not to play too many colors and play to your card pool’s strength. If your large creatures are very powerful, you probably want to play a slower deck that builds up to those big bombs. If your card pool is bomb free you may need to get more creative and build a faster deck that can take advantage of a good curve. The more I think about it, the more I’m leaning towards twenty-two creatures and spells and eighteen land. The big decks need a lot of land to make their Eldrazi dreams come true. Faster decks may also want the eighteenth land in order to include more of the non-basic lands as well as to possibly feed landfall.
Good luck this weekend. Thanks for reading.
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