One of the first questions about the Magic: the Gathering limited format’s metagame is always “fast or slow?” Players want to know where play will fall on a scale of original Zendikar (blazing fast) to Rise of the Eldrazi (battlecruiser). We further tend to assume that if a format is fast, it is aggressive – lots of attacking and little blocking results in shorter games – but it is an error to assume that holds in reverse.
Zendikar Rising [“ZNR”] turns out to be a very aggressive format, but it isn’t necessarily fast. You want to be attacking almost every chance you get, and yet you might not actually be getting damage through the first few times. So what are we actually dealing with, and what does it teach us about Magic in a broader sense?
First of all, let me reiterate that ZNR is aggressive. Landfall encourages players to attack on their turns rather than hang back and block. Relatively plentiful removal (spells that will damage or outright destroy a creature) means that holding back a creature to block might just mean that it gets chucked in the graveyard on your opponent’s turn. But it’s not just mindlessly sending your creatures into battle, hoping that enough of them connect. MDFCs (Modal Dual-Faced Cards) that can act as either a land or a spell create tension in the early game. Perhaps you need the fixing, but the land entering tapped slows you down for a turn. Perhaps the spell is so useful/strong that you’re willing to risk not hitting a certain land drop because the benefits in the late game outweigh a stumble. Either way, you might not be playing your creatures on curve and on time, despite the fact that, as stated above, you probably want to be swinging with them. Kicker creates a similar tension – play a small effect now, or hang onto the card for a larger one later?
What this means, ultimately, is that you have to plan to attack, estimate multiple turns in advance how you’re going to attack, and accept multiple turns in advance that certain of your creatures are going to die. Zendikar Rising limited is a game of managing resources while spending them. That two-drop creature is not going to survive whatever your opponent can do on turn four or five, so know that you will lose that creature and plan how to best make use of it while it’s still on the board.
Take Akoum Hellhound, for example. Let’s say you play one on turn one. It sits there as an 0/1, probably not drawing any removal from your opponent on the first turn. On your second turn, you play a land, boosting it to a 2/3, and swing in. Regardless of what else is in your hand, it is time to acknowledge that you are attacking with that Hellhound every turn on which you play a land. Why? It’s no good on defense as an 0/1, which is what it will be 99% of the time on your opponent’s turn. If you play a land, that’s the only time you have an obvious attack. Let’s say your opponent has a 4/4 on their side of the battlefield after a few turns. You play your land. You have no combat tricks. Do you still attack your 2/3 into their 4/4? Of course you do. The Hellhound is useless at doing anything other than attacking, so you may as well bluff the possibility of a combat trick. If your opponent doesn’t block, you sneak through for 2 damage. If they do block, you lose your creature – but your creature couldn’t have done anything anyway.
This is what I mean by the acceptance of loss. We become attached to our permanents in some sets. “Protect the planeswalker.” “Protect the bomb.” But while it can be useful to protect a particularly powerful creature you have, it is more important in this format to represent damage, to get 1 to 2 to 3 life points off your opponent when you can, and, perhaps even more importantly than all these, to manage the board state. If you attack with that Akoum Hellhound and it dies, it dies when you choose for it to die. That’s not just an issue of morale. In a more complicated board state, maybe your bomb is (as mine was) Taborax, Hope’s Demise. By attacking with a Malakir Blood-Priest that I know can’t win a combat, I either get through for two damage, or I get to add a +1/+1 counter to Taborax and draw a card. I need to be ok with that creature dying, which then allows me to benefit from its death.
This is not a sum total of the ZNR experience, and you will find decks that need to delay for a turn or two or three. But the overall force of the format leans towards aggression and a lot of casualties. Embrace it, plan for it, and you’ll gain edges over your opponent in what often feels less like a race and more like a fencing match.
JeFF Stumpo is a poet, author, husband, dad, and Magic: the Gathering Cubist. He lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania and loves limited formats, board games, and creative projects. You can reach him at email@example.com.