The Failures of Battle For Zendikar – Lessons Learned in MTG Design

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A recent article by Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa on Channel Fireball has spawned a lot of discussion about Magic: the Gathering’s latest set, Battle For Zendikar, especially on Reddit. He took his time to vent about the set’s design, how it failed in his eyes, and how Wizards of the Coast will move forward with their work. I’d like to add to the conversation by talking about BFZ’s implications for MTG, whether or not returning to old planes and storylines is a good idea for Magic, and how the set was doomed from the start. I’m going to guess that if you’re reading this, then you probably know a thing or two about Magic, but if you don’t and would still like to understand what’s going on, feel free to learn more about the game at Wizard’s website. With that out of the way, let’s dig in.

First of all, the theme of the set is not very conducive to healthy Magic. Colorless monsters and swarms of little dudes fighting off against each other causes issues in terms of limited deck variety. It seems you can either play giant Eldrazi ramp or Ally wienie decks, without much room in between for exploration. Having a majority of the cards be colorless should have set off Mark Rosewater’s color wheel alarm, but instead it caused Wizards to create the Devoid mechanic to make up for how it would affect the game’s color wheel. You know you’re in trouble when your set’s theme forces you to make mechanics to compensate for it, rather than compliment it. Eldrazi making up a large portion of the cards in BZF also causes issues; they used to be rare, odd creatures that would only pop up once in a while, but now they’re everywhere, which diminishes their importance and their identity. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the Endless One.

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Eldrazi are known as giant, unstoppable alien-like monsters, not creatures without any abilities that could potentially be 1/1’s. We went from Emrakul, the Aeons Torn to a 1/1 rare Eldrazi. What a shame. It seems like Wizards ran out of ideas that fit in the giant monster theme and decided to rely on other creature type’s iconic characteristics. Instead of creating every possible type of Eldrazi under the sun, I think R&D should have stuck to the themes of the old Zendikar block and created only a few Eldrazi, filling the rest of the set with their followers, which don’t follow the same rules or gameplay themes.

For a set all about the story, there seems to be very little going on in each card’s flavor text or artwork. The main heroes of BFZ, Jace, Gideon, Kiora, and Nissa, are in the set in their own ways, but not much of the story comes through beyond the “we’re good, they’re bad!” theme of every other MTG set. This is especially egregious, because BFZ comes after two of the most story-driven sets in Magic, Khans of Tarkir and Theros. Those sets did wonders with integrating story into gameplay, but BFZ seems to have fumbled in this regard, despite having years of built up hype.

As Paulo states in his article, the overall power level of Battle for Zendikar is a good thing, as Wizards needs to be careful about how powerful the cards they print are, especially since BFZ follows two sets full of very powerful cards. The game has ups and downs in terms of power, and I’d much rather have a weaker set once in a while than a snowball effect that leads to a completely broken game. With that said, it is still disappointing to not have any cards peak my interest; there are no great build-around-me cards for non-standard formats, no cards that scream “I’m going to shake up the meta-game!” I have no reasons to be excited for BFZ, and it seems that Wizards has predicted this, because they printed a ton of very valuable lands in the set to get the value heads hyped. A pack of BFZ may be worth a lot of money someday, but it will be because of the Exhibition lands, not the cards from BFZ themselves.

All in all, I think that Battle for Zendikar is much worse than the most recent sets that came before it, but there’s also a good chance that it just isn’t for me. I prefer having a lot of options for deck building and I love finding flavorful cards that explain the game’s story, but don’t care much about how cards affect standard or how limited formats pan out. I’m also very disappointed in the direction of how Eldrazi are designed, as they have lost a lot of the charm that they once had, but like the Magic 2014 slivers, I’m sure that people will quickly warm up to the changes (/sarcasm). If this is any indication of Magic’s future, I hope it foreshadows Wizards laying off of their trend of returning to older planes. Returning to old themes is fine, but should be done very infrequently, with a lot of preparation, rather than to respond to nostalgia. I’d rather explore new exciting worlds, than chance having nostalgic sets soiled by modern design decisions.

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One thought on “The Failures of Battle For Zendikar – Lessons Learned in MTG Design

  1. Pingback: Top 5 Battle for Zendikar Design Successes | Pandamanana's Blog

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