Zendikar Rising Spoiler Analysis Part One: The Three Planeswalkers
Hello Planeswalkers from across the globe! It’s finally that time of the year again: new set, new abilities, new cards, and a brand new Standard format to explore, shaken up by rotation! This last year has been an absolute rollercoaster for constructed, with cards being banned, unbanned, and suspended all over the place. Overpowered mythics, enchantments that cheated on mana in ways we never thought would see, and even one mana Cryptic Commands! Wizards of the Coast has intentionally raised the power level of the game and allowed the existence of strong new tools, and with that a much more unstable environment has emerged, which constantly coexists with the risk of losing balance and breaking apart.
But it’s that increase in strength that has everyone absolutely focused on what is coming. We are returning to Zendikar once again, with pre-existing mechanics coming back, and brand new ones making their debut. My plan for this series of articles will be to analyze what we think are the most important spoiled cards as they are revealed, and begin to get a sense of what the new Standard format might be about. Without further ado, let’s begin today with the trio of new Planeswalkers.
Jace, Mirror Mage
What an incredible way of starting this new spoiler season. Wizards keeps coming up with ways to redesign their Planeswalkers, whether that’s downgrading their rarity, removing their ultimates, or even adding passive abilities. This new iteration of the classic blue mage has a lot going on, and needs to be broken down step by step.
This Jace is the very first planeswalker with an “Enter the Battlefield” trigger, which makes him already pretty unique. The “Kicker” mechanic returns with him, one we haven’t seen in a while, originally introduced in “Invasion” in 2000 and last seen in “Dominaria” in 2018. This keyword allows you to pay extra mana into a spell to get an additional effect, giving it sort of like an alternative mana cost that comes with a bonus. This means we have a card that should be analyzed from two angles: as a three mana spell, as well as five.
As a three drop, “Jace, Mirror Mage” is a decent value engine. Being mono-colored means it can be played in almost any blue deck, and a starting loyalty of 4 means it could stick around for a while. Its plus ability is valuable at any point of the game, and there are instances where Scry 2 might be as good as drawing an extra card. Of course, the first ability also synergizes well with the second, and it’s the latter that really decides how playable Jace will be.
Having your planeswalker automatically die to its card draw ability is the worst case scenario (this means, drawing a card that costs 4 or more), but how likely it is to happen? How many 4+ mana cards do decks play? We will have to see the rest of the set and which decks pop up, but if we take a look at some of the already existing archetypes in Standard, a typical “Sultai Control” list plays between 7 and 10 expensive spells, whereas an Izzet Tempo list has only 4 copies of “Stormwing Entity”. The point here is that, yes, this Jace requires some specific deck-building restrictions for its card draw ability to be a safe thing to use, but even in a non-optimal deck, the chances of him instantly dying are low enough. Considering the facts that lands have zero converted mana cost, that Jace has a scry ability himself that can organize the top of our library, and that there are other scry effects in Standard as well, I think we can assume that he is a legit card advantage engine that will function the way you want him to.
Now, his kicker ability lets you play Jace as a five drop, creating a non-legendary copy of him that enters the battlefield with one loyalty counter. This means you will get to use two activations, and that you can distribute how you use them depending on the circumstances e.g. maybe you want to make sure you get two cards out of it. Maybe you scry 2 first and then draw a specific card with the original. Maybe you need a specific expensive spell and plus the original, making sure it stays at a safe 5 loyalty, and sacrifice the copy afterwards. Consider now how having two Jaces come into play together might affect the other side of the board: when we are faced with an opposing planeswalker, its not always easy to apply enough pressure to remove it automatically, sometimes because of how fast it was played, other times because we couldn’t establish enough board presence, or our opponent was able to protect it. Try applying this same scenarios facing TWO planeswalkers! Yes, they are “only” scrying and drawing cards, but that’s often still enough to represent a threat that has to be removed. Attacking two different walkers is way harder than one, and using a removal spell on one half (that might already have drawn a card!) seems like a nightmare.
I think the potential of the card lies in its flexibility. One of the inherent problems of many cards in Magic is that they are good in specific points in the game, and disappointing in others: your 2 mana ramp spell looks amazing on Turn 2 and probably isn’t as exciting in the late game; your big payoff card might be great on turn 7 but will be stuck in your hand until that moment. “Kicker” as a mechanic allows cards to become relevant in different points during the game, adjusting their impact and power level to the circumstances. Jace, Mirror Mage can be a good Turn 3 play for many archetypes, and a good Turn 5 play at the same time. Time will tell if he becomes a key piece of the new Standard format, but I honestly wouldn’t be shocked. Let’s not dive in the fact that you can bounce him back to your hand to replay him and create extra Jace tokens…
Nahiri, Heir of the Ancients
Nahiri has always had strong affinity with attacking mechanics and weapons. Her last iteration had the exact same converted mana cost, but was designed to be a more flexible card, with abilities that most decks can take advantage of, like exiling opposing creatures, artifacts or enchantments, and discarding/drawing cards. This is the first time we get a planeswalker that is completely centered around weapon synergies, a card type that is not always popular, and does not usually get many playable options for constructed play. What stands out the most from the Boros planeswalker is the fact that we have three different abilities, that we can activate as soon as the cards comes into play, one increasing loyalty and two decreasing. This is especially important for a planeswalker, meaning she has more chance of being able to do exactly what we need in more scenarios.
Her +1 ability creates 1/1 tokens and lets us attach one equipment to it for free. Assuming our deck is built to take full advantage of this, we should have something useful on the board, that will transform these not so relevant creatures into a decent-sized unit. Since this increases her loyalty and protects her, (getting up to 5 as soon as she comes into play) makes it quite reasonable, letting you create board presence to attack or defend the planeswalker. Her -2 will look at the top six cards and pick an Equipment or Warrior from among them. Again, assuming our deck is built with Nahiri in mind and trying to make her abilities work as often as possible, this represent a very efficient card draw engine, letting you pick a specific creature when you board needs it, or an equipment when you already have established board presence. Her -3 ability deals damage to a creature or planeswalker equal to twice the number of equipments we control, which we can assume that will be no more than 2 or 4 points of damage under regular circumstances.
Is this all enough to declare her as a playable card for constructed? Not every four mana card has so many options to choose from. She creates creatures, draws cards, and deals damage. We can argue that none of those abilities are executed in the most efficient way possible, but having a card with these many possibilities and flexibility might mean it’s worth the effort of building around her. But building around her you have to: she specifically requires a huge amount of equipment in your deck (with at least some Warriors thrown in the mix as well), and she won’t work at all if that requirement isn’t filled.
Right now in Standard, we do not have enough playable Equipment support to justify Nahiri, but of course we can assume that her existence means we will get new tools to tinker with her, either in the upcoming set or a future one.
Nissa of Shadowed Boughs
Nissa may not be shaking the world anymore, but she is still going to make the land tell tales of her power, and you can bet that the story will be a dramatic one. “Nissa of Shadowed Boughs” is the legend in charge of carrying the flag of the returned “Landfall” keyword, first introduced in the original “Zendikar” in 2009, and last seen in “Battle for Zendikar” in 2015. It’s essentially an ability that produces benefits every time a land enters the battlefield under your control. This is, in my opinion, one of the smartest mechanics designed for Magic: lands, that card type you need to cast your spells but that might not have a real purpose once you have enough mana sources, will still present value in the form of this ability triggering. Yes, other things to sink your mana have been a major focus in recent years (like the recent castles, or the cycling trilands), but “Landfall” works much more cleanly than any of those, giving the ability to have even basics be impactful at any point of the game.
Starting at four loyalty, we have a planeswalker that can animate lands into 3/3s, similar to what the last Nissa did, with the big difference that the effect lasts until end of turn; this means it will only serve as an attacking ability, and of course ramping, since untapping still happens. Menace is a nice bonus, meaning it will be hard for the opponent to block, especially considering how fast this Nissa can come into play. However, even if she will still serve a purpose as a ramp spell when you need her to be, the real selling point of this card lies in its reanimation potential.
Bringing back any creature with casting cost equal or less than the amount of lands you control, with an added bonus of 2 +1+1 counters, is a pretty powerful ability; let’s try to think the potential lines of play this text enables. If we manage to discard/mill ourselves a big six or seven drop, we can cast Nissa on curve and plus her up to five. Next turn, we hit our land drop and ramp with something like “Cultivate”, increasing Nissa’s loyalty while filling the requirements for her to reanimate that big monster, basically letting us increase our mana sources while getting into play that big payoff. Let’s say you couldn’t get that big thing into your graveyard and it’s stuck in your hand, well, she can still help! Of course, putting a creature directly from your hand into play means you could end up down a card, but it’s the tempo advantage you might gain that is important here, and we can easily assume that whatever you cheat into play will be able to defend the planeswalker.
If you happen to reanimate two giant threats in one game with her, that has to be enough to win the game. The fact that she can help you get your win conditions on the board in so many different ways (accelerating, reanimating, “sneaking it”) makes this mythic a must try for any golgari enthusiasts (and probably for everyone else too). Being two colors won’t be much of a drawback in constructed, as you can easily cast her. She might not double your forests, but we’ve had enough of that, don’t you think?