Zendikar, as seen at first, was the "Dungeons and Dragons" world of many players' dreams. Adventurers, traps, quests, treasure...there was even a Steve Argyle winking nod with a twenty-sided crystal "die" as the prize on Arrow Volley Trap.
Worldwake , the second set of the original Zendikar block, gave only an oblique hint of the hard swerve to come: the Rise of the Eldrazi, a trio of tentacled Lovecraftian monstrosities imprisoned long ago by three old-school planeswalkers.
How'd they even meet? It's like a joke setup: "So a kor, a vampire, and a dragon walk into a blood tea shop..."
Now the oldest of those old-school planeswalkers and a handful of whippersnappers stand between Zendikar and its total destruction at the hands of the Eldrazi titan Ulamog and its marauding family. And...action!
The Story Cards
Unlike in Khans of Tarkir block, where a handful of plot-relevant events were scattered on rares and mythics, and Magic Origins, which was overstuffed with the disparate story strands of five separate planeswalkers, Battle for Zendikar expresses its story through a specific subset of cards at several different rarities while giving the rest of the set plenty of opportunity to build up the world. All in all, it's a "happy medium" approach, though not entirely successful.
Here are the "story cards" of Battle for Zendikar that reflect the main plot, in order as I best can put them with my limited knowledge:
Gideon's Reproach - An Eldrazi encounter almost ends in disaster, but Gideon saves the day.
Ugin's Insight - Jace visits Ugin, who gives a cheerful warning that there are two other main Eldrazi lurking about in addition to Ulamog.
Hedron Archive - Ugin explains how to use the hedrons, though Jace, who'll be lucky to live a century, insists on belittling a plan that worked for millennia.
I await evidence that Jace is being the slightest bit reasonable here.
Dispel - Jace doesn't agree with Ugin's plan and (presumably) reports it to the rest of the planeswalker crew -- who seemingly are more enthusiastic.
Aligned Hedron Network - The plan happens anyway, and it works...though for how long remains to be seen.
Inspired Charge - With Ulamog on lockdown, the business of retaking Sea Gate can begin.
Outnumber - The plan to retake Sea Gate actually works. Somehow.
My mother's favorite Magic card.
There are also subplots involving Zendikari native Kiora and the plane's other longtime prisoner, Ob Nixilis. While Gideon fights on land, Kiora battles at sea, as seen on Cryptic Cruiser and Tightening Coils (more on that card later). Meanwhile, the spark-challenged Ob Nixilis, who's been plotting his reignition and revenge, suddenly has a ticking clock with the emergence of the Eldrazi. As seen on cards such as Altar's Reap and Demon's Grasp, Ob Nixilis puts his plans into motion, ending with Ob Nixilis Reignited and the delightfully villainous quote on Void Winnower that puts into mind his origin story, " The First World Is the Hardest."
That's a decent chunk of story on cards, albeit in a large set and not nearly to the extent used in the Weatherlight story arc. What I'm interested in for the coming weeks is how Uncharted Realms plays out. Note how the first few cards I outlined above have parallels in the Uncharted Realms stories, Gruesome Slaughter / "Slaughter at the Refuge" and so on.
Based on later cards, we already know the main plot points that will follow, including the trapping of Ulamog and the reclaiming of what's left of Sea Gate. While only a fool would complain about spoilers before attending a Shakespeare play, much of the pleasure of a story, especially when told serially as Uncharted Realms is, lies in the sequence of events and how they unfold.
If the plot still holds some surprises for us and the writing works, there'll still be plenty of enjoyment to be had in Uncharted Realms over the next couple of months. If we know everything and the prose falls short, though, Vorthos collectively just got Sixth Sensed.
The New Artists
As usual, Battle for Zendikar introduces some new artistic blood to the game. This time I count three new artists.
Jama Jurabaev was born in Tajikistan (then still part of the Soviet Union) and is now based in London, according to Jama's official site. The former engineer's three illustrations in Battle for Zendikar are Kalastria Nightwatch, Processor Assault, and Plated Crusher. While I didn't find any of these illustrations instantly memorable, Kalastria Nightwatch in particular is solid, and I'd like to see more of Jama's work.
Greg Opalinski is based in New York City. His three works in Battle for Zendikar grace Kor Castigator, Tajuru Beastmaster, and Grove Rumbler. While the latter two works were similar in brief and thus similar in result, it's Kor Castigator that really shows off Greg's versatility with its clean lines and otherworldly yet precise rendering of the Kor. Bring on more Opalinski, I say!
Tianhua X , also known as Tianhua Xu in other contexts, is a concept artist and art director living in Beijing. Mr. X created a cycle of five basic lands forBattle for Zendikar, and if you haven't seen his work in a larger format, you owe it to yourself to take a look. Mr. X really nailed the atmosphere of "relative quiet" in Zendikar, and I hope he doesn't pull a Craig Mullins, doing a set of five basic lands ( Mullins worked on Time Spiral) and then nothing else ever again.
The Flavor All-Stars
Every set has its flavorful highs and lows. Here are a few of the cards that caught my attention for their virtues.
Eldrazi Devastator - While filling all lines available for flavor text seldom works out well, it did in this case. The verbosity of a vampire aristocrat turned thrall of the Eldrazi is aimed at crushing souls, and while it may not work on the rest of Zendikar, it's effective flavor text nonetheless.
Lithomancer's Focus - Another great meeting of art and flavor text, this time with a cool yet cryptic illustration by Cynthia Sheppard and the millennia-old disdain of the spirit dragon Ugin.
Oracle of Dust - If you thought the mindless Eldrazi were scary, how about meditating Eldrazi?
Part the Waterveil - Does it really look like a sorcery? Not so much. Is it so gorgeous I don't care? Yep.
Kalastria Healer - "No, seriously, I'm here to help!" I feel for this guy. It'd get really annoying after a while if all your patients ran away screaming...
Reckless Cohort - Gosh dang, do I want to give these dudes a hug. When I read the flavor text, I remembered a voice I heard only once, the affectless baritone of a man crushed by life.
Vestige of Emrakul - With the Eldrazi visuals overwhelmed by Ulamog's lineage with just a couple of Kozilek's for variety, this glimpse of an Emrakul brood Eldrazi is welcome.
Swell of Growth - Magali Villeneuve is becoming one of my favorite Magic artists, and illustrations like this are the reason why. It's lush, it's dramatic, it's gorgeous.
March from the Tomb - Similarly, I'm a Lake Hurwitz fan. The wide shot is used to great effect here, and the line of fighters like a reverse funeral procession is seemingly small and vast at once.
Evolving Wilds - The first glimpse of Battle for Zendikar many players had, this staple's illustration remains a high point of the set.
Throwback Full-Art Basics - With no more core sets for reprinting opportunities, this was one of the few opportunities to reprint the original Zendikar set's full-art basics, and I'm glad Wizards took the chance.
The Flavor Frowns
Not everything is sugar and rainbows in Battle for Zendikar Flavorville. Here's what didn't work for me.
The Sameness of the Eldrazi - With only Ulamog's brood as a plainly visible presence, the Eldrazi feel way too similar this time around.
Inspired Charge - The only thing Gideon's war speech inspires in me is this dismissal.
Brilliant Spectrum - The flavor text suffers from Sounds Pretty, Means Nothing Syndrome.
Zulaport Cutthroat - There's value in a counter-voice to the dominant narrative, but it has to make sense. Anyone who's heard of the Eldrazi won't take this line.
Lavastep Raider - I like the idea behind this one, but it needs refinement to reflect how a goblin would think, rather than how a human would write up those thoughts.
Jaddi Offshoot - Dear flavor text: You know where else this happens? Earth.
Seek the Wilds - As gorgeous as the illustration is, I can't forgive flavor text that uses such an immersion-breaking word as "downtime" even once, much less twice.
Drana's Emissary - Not surprising, flavor text, seeing as blood tastes metallic and salty instead of sweet.
Kiora, Master of the Depths - While Ob Nixilis Reignited's art has come in for some Internet criticism, I like Kiora, Master of the Depths even less. The tentacle doesn't give me the needed sense of depth and neither does the background, giving Kiora an odd "floating" vibe.
No John Avon full-art basic lands reprinted. Five different cards, only a few choices each, and John Avon doesn't make even one cut? Something's odd there.
All in all, Battle for Zendikar looks to be an interesting set. The Uncharted Realms stories worry me in the short term, but in the long term I'll be excited to see how Battle for Zendikar takes its place among the sets of yore.
Good luck at the Prerelease this weekend!