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Tribal Update Report: Zendikar Rising

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
And we're back with another Tribal Update Report. We're leaving Ikoria, a wild land in which people must be resourceful in order to deal with an abundance of monsters. Now we're going to Zendikar, a wild land in which people must be resourceful in order to deal with an abundance of monsters. I kid: Zendikar is a fun plane and has had some great sets, and Ikoria has quickly become one of my favorite planes in the multiverse with a fantastic new set to introduce it. But out of all the settings WotC has developed over the years, these two are notably kinda similar to each other, and putting them back-to-back highlights that. For our purposes, the most notable distinction is that the creature types in the two worlds diverge considerably. Ikoria had a lot of humans and monstrous creature types, with no representation for the other races of what would be recognizable as “people.” But Zendikar has the well-established presence of elves, goblins, vampires, merfolk, and kor.

For my two previous reports, I consolidated a mainline standard set with the virtually concurrent release of a major supplemental product: Commander 2020 for Ikoria and Jumpstart for Core Set 2021. While I wouldn’t call this one a “double feature” like those reports, we also don’t get a return to normalcy. Zendikar Rising comes with the concurrent release of Zendikar Rising Commander Decks. Counting Commander decks as a separate release for Ikoria while simply counting them as part of the set for Zendikar Rising seems like a distinction without a difference. So what’s going on? To put it simply, I’m following WotC’s lead with this one. They deliberately titled one release Commander 2020 and marketed the set as being its own product with a loose thematic tie-in to the plane of Ikoria; meanwhile the other Commander release gets the name of a mainline set and comes out one the same day. It also seems like the idea is that these Commander decks take the slot that would normally go to Planeswalker decks, Intro Packs, Theme Decks, or whatever. There are only two of them. But they do include some unique cards, so I’ll factor those into my report.

My initial impression of this set is that it’s a bit underpowered compared to what we’ve been seeing for over a year now, but it does contain some gems. That’s a cursory view based on one prerelease and only having actually seen about half of the spoilers for the set. While creating this report, I’ll examine the rest of the set. There may be important details that I’ve missed.

New tribes
None! Ha, that was easy. I haven’t gotten to say that since last year’s core set.

New additions to existing tribes
Angel: Five new cards. Two of them are strong considerations and the other three employ the lackluster “party” mechanic. The ceiling on the two good ones is potentially very high.

Archon: One new card. While a powerful tool in the right deck, I’m not seeing a niche for it in Archon Tribal.

Bat: One new card. It’s kind of a better version of the same generally bland and deficient stuff we’re used to for this tribe.

Beast: Eleven new cards. While Beast Tribal already stacked with power and probably doesn’t use these, there is some potential for Murasa Rootgrazer in a Landfall-based deck.

Bird: One new card. No impact.

Boar: One new card. Its abilities are unique and it’s hard to evaluate, but the card itself seems strong.

Cat: Five new cards. Nothing revolutionary, but these could be worth some experimentation.

Cleric: Twenty-five new cards. Most don’t warrant consideration, but a few show real promise.

Construct: One new card. It’s clunky.

Crab: Two new cards. They’re weird but I suspect that the tribe benefits from one or both of these.

Crocodile: One new card. It might replace something in Crocodile Tribal to very little effect.

Demon: Two new cards. One of them is extremely awkward and the other fits better in Cleric Tribal.

Dog: One new card. It’s pretty good and I’d run it.

Dragon: One new card. Usually the obligatory red dragon from each new set isn’t worth a footnote, but this one is different. We’ve got a unique big red mana mechanic that could plausibly fit into a Dragon Tribal deck. Amazing with Braid of Fire. I like this card a lot. Probably the best Dragon Tribal deck is five-color and doesn’t touch this thing, but still, it’s good.

Elemental: Thirteen new cards. There are a few bombs in here and I think this tribe just got a serious boost.

Elephant: One new card. Better than average for this tribe.

Elf: Seven new cards. A couple of them are good, but not good enough for Elf Tribal.

Fungus: One new card. It’s a fine option, although I don’t think I’d run it.

Gargoyle: One new card. It’s mediocre.

Giant: Two new cards. One of them is bad, but the three-drop shows some potential.

Goblin: Seven new cards. There are some impressive choices here, and yet I don’t think they make the cut in what has become probably the most broken tribe ever.

Golem: Two new cards. One is a “party” dud, but the other could be good.

Griffin: One new card. Arguably a consideration in Griffin Tribal, but I hope that the tribe can do better.

Hellion: One new card. It’s mediocre.

Horror: Three new cards. They’re fine, but not really what Horror Tribal needs.

Hydra: One new card. I’ve been skeptical about bringing black into Hydra Tribal, but this card is making me reconsider that position.

Human: Twenty-nine new cards. This is a surprisingly bad set for the tribe, in part thanks to the low power level of the “party” mechanic, which is prominent here.

Insect: Four new cards. Two of them show the potential for explosive synergies in the right deck, albeit not with each other.

Kor: Thirteen new cards. Some decent cards here, but no relevant tribal synergies or cohesive themes.

Leviathan: One new card. The gimmicky record-breaking 17 toughness could probably be exploited somehow.

Lizard: Two new cards. Neither really has much to offer Lizard Tribal.

Merfolk: Thirteen new cards. Most aren’t of interest here, but there are a couple that would be worth experimentation.

Minotaur: Three new cards. They’re not what the tribe needs.

Mouse: One new card. This constitutes the first actual member of the tribe, but I didn’t put it in as a new tribe because last year we got a token-generator that made tokens of this type.

Ooze: One new card. An excellent inclusion for this tribe, although the tribe was already weighted toward three-drops.

Ox: One new card. Ox Tribal is so bad that this thing kind of looks like a powerhouse. But it’s not. Not really.

Plant: Two new cards. One of them has an impressive built-in graveyard recursion ability and seems like a promising option.

Rogue: Twenty-eight new cards. Considerable tribal synergy here. Rogue Tribal is featured heavily in this set and it pays off.

Serpent: One new card. Its unique ability is based around augmenting the effects of the “kicker” mechanic. Probably not worth it. I mean, you could kick Vodalian Serpent and get an extra copy of it, but that’s not actually good.

Shade: One new card. I like it, but the tribe itself has severe problems and this new inclusion can’t block, which makes it awkward.

Shapeshifter: One new card. It’s very good.

Skeleton: One new card. It’s also a plant, and Plant Tribal suits it better.

Snake: One new card. Menace can be strong, but I don’t think that this snake is quite worth it.

Sphinx: Two new cards. Probably no impact.

Spirit: Two new cards. They don’t make the cut.

Squid: One new card. Squid Tribal only recently climbed out of Tier 7 by default, and I had it tentatively placed in Tier 5. The new card is mediocre, but it’s the only two-drop in a meager tribe, so it would totally see play.

Troll: One new card. It’s vanilla.

Vampire: Thirteen new cards. As usual, the world of Zendikar is a great place to look for Vampire Tribal options.

Wall: One new card. Doesn’t really help Wall Tribal.

Warrior: Twenty-nine new cards. As usual, I have no idea how to evaluate Warrior Tribal, but there are tribal synergies here and you could use them if you wanted to.

Wizard: Twenty-four new cards. A few of them are potentially good, but I don’t think they make it into Wizard Tribal.

Wurm: One new card. It’s mediocre.

Zombie: One new card. No impact.

New tribal synergy cards to look out for
Nahiri, Heir of the Ancients: Mostly themed around equipment, this planeswalker also has Warrior Tribal synergies. As a situational four-drop in white/red, running Nahiri might be questionable, but if your deck is based around both warriors and equipment, then this is a real possibility.

Phylath, World Sculptor: Despite being an elemental, the synergy here is for Plant Tribal. An interesting option if Plant Tribal chooses to splash red.

Relic Amulet: The Wizard Tribal synergy is relevant with regard to how this card functions, although it seems altogether too weak to bother with in a Wizard Tribal deck.

Relic Axe: This one seems pretty solid. All of the equipment cards in this set have the triggered ability to attach themselves to a creature on entering the battlefield, which is nice for tempo. This one is cheap and gets a boost if equipped to a warrior. Attaching to a creature right away makes this just efficient enough to merit a strong “maybe” for Warrior Tribal.

Relic Vial: The first ability isn’t great, but the Cleric Tribal synergy here could be excellent in a Rotlung Reanimator deck.

Overall set analysis
I honestly think that this is the weakest new set we’ve seen in the past few years. It does have some strong cards, but the average here is disappointing. Perhaps this is a kind of damage control reaction to the deluge of overpowered stuff we’d been seeing with the “Philosophy of F.I.R.E.” Or maybe it’s because this is the third time WotC has brought the game to the plane of Zendikar and they’ve gained experience curbing the more explosive stuff along the themes that this setting represents. Either way, there are some gems and this set does make a difference for certain tribes.

It’s impossible to analyze Zendikar Rising without talking about the “Party” mechanic. Zendikar has been billed as the “adventure” plane, and mechanics like “Quest” and “Level Up” were used to fit this theme in the past. With the dramatically increased campaign by WotC to tie Magic to Dungeons & Dragons, one of the signature mechanics in this set is “Party.” It’s based around clerics, rogues, warriors, and wizards. Each of those creature types can serve as one member of a party. Having all four makes a full party. For Tribal deckbuilding, the good news is that this set is chock-full of clerics, rogues, warriors, and wizards. The bad news is that the party mechanic is somewhat awkwardly incompatible with Tribal interests. The other bad news is that the mechanic is a garbage fire.

As a D&D player, I think that the party mechanic is thematically a cool concept on paper. As a Commander player, I’m excited to find stupid combinations of clerics, rogues, warriors, and wizards to complete my parties in various bad decks I’ll build. It’s not that I’m disappointed in “Party” for my own sake. I’ll enjoy it. But it’s inescapable that this mechanic is just very, very bad. It will not be seriously competitive in any format and actually seeing these cards used outside of Limited formats will be a rarity. In that sense, the party mechanic is a waste of design space. I mean, I’ll use it in Commander, but I’ll also use “Bands with other” in Commander, so that should not be the standard. Setting aside the issue of the rock-bottom power level inherent in this mechanic in Constructed formats, it’s somewhat antithetical to Tribal gameplay anyway.

Winners and losers for this set? Tier adjustments
Despite the extent to which I think the party mechanic falls on its face, the four tribes chosen to work with the mechanic all benefit as a side effect. Those represent the most numerically substantial potential improvements. But some other tribes just get really good cards. I’d say that winners are…
  • Angels
  • Clerics
  • Elementals
  • Hydras
  • Insects
  • Oozes
  • Rogues
  • Vampires
  • Warriors
  • Wizards
The most notable loser here would definitely be Allies. The original Zendikar set introduced the tribe and the plane of Zendikar has always been the default home for Ally Tribal. Presumably because it occupied the same niche as the party mechanic, it didn’t make it into this set. Even the character Tazri, an iconic ally, was put in this set without getting the ally creature type. The new Tazri even synergizes with allies in the rules text of its ability, but that really just adds insult to injury: the ability is not viable for Ally Tribal and is the only nod to the tribe’s existence in the entire set.

I’m alternately tempted to list Kor as a winner and as a loser for this set. Here’s why. Zendikar is the default home plane for the tribe and has been responsible for most of their development. But Kor have slowly been getting good cards in other sets, like Modern Horizons and Commander 2019. Those minor additions add up and give the tribe some depth of potential for Tribal gameplay, but a new Zendikar set was a big opportunity for them. We did see new Kor here, but in my estimation, none of them make the cut in a Kor Tribal deck. In that sense, they lost this time around. On the other hand, this could be a sign that the tribe is finally deep enough that the contributions in a new set look bland compared to what’s already available. After all, we don’t say that Elf Tribal “lost” when none of the elves in a new set are likely to make it into a good Elf Tribal deck, because that’s to be expected: the tribe is already solid. Perhaps this is a sign that Kor have arrived. I think that they’re an interesting creature type with room for growth, but this is not the set for them.

And now for tier adjustment suggestions. I have two, one procedural and one based on my evaluation. Mouse Tribal automatically moves up into Tier 7, because the first non-token mouse has been printed. Ooze Tribal was originally placed in Tier 4, and I think it’s overdue for a promotion. Ooze Tribal has what it takes to compete with stuff like elephants, minotaurs, orcs, etc. I advocate for the promotion of Ooze Tribal to Tier 3.

Ban list update recommendations
None at this time.

Conclusion

Wow, that party mechanic sure is a dud. This set also heavily features the kicker mechanic, which isn’t bad but tends toward a lower power level. Tribal synergies aren’t especially prominent. With the notable exceptions of the four creature types that got featured for the party mechanic, this is a rather low-impact set for Tribal formats. If you see something you like, note that and add it to your repertoire. But lately, most other sets have been much more impressive.
 
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