Brewer’s Guide to Zendikar: Top 8 Build-Arounds for Modern

Brewer’s Guide to Zendikar: Top 8 Build-Arounds for Modern

Zendikar Rising is a refreshing change of pace from recent expansions. Lots of cards are high-ceiling in Modern, thanks to the emphasis on landfall, but very few slot easily into existing Modern decks. Instead, if you want these cards to work for you, you first have to work for them. You know what that means: time to roll up the sleeves and start brewing!

This Top 8 list reflects my personal ranking of the “brewing potential” for the new printings from Zendikar. The higher the ranking, the more likely this card is to make a meaningful impact on the competitive metagame. That said, my personal bias has always been toward cards that present puzzles. Card that offer useful effects but don’t present any particular deckbuilding challenges were not given much consideration for this particular exercise (think Bloodchief’s Thirst, Ruin Crab, Feed the Swarm, Adventure Awaits, or the Pathway cycle).

On to the list!

Honorable Mention: Confounding Conundrum

David was quite high on this card during our initial set review, but I remain a skeptic. The plain use of Conundrum is to tax ramp strategies: both the ever-present threats of Amulet Titan and Field of the Dead, as well as more commonplace fetchland activations and Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath triggers. On your opponents’ turns the bounce will happen before any Valakut or Field triggers resolve, making this a slam dunk against any unfortunate Scapeshift players.

In terms of brewing potential, the hope is that Conundrum can perhaps do even more: anchoring some kind of proactive disruption package in the broad family of Hatebears / Taxes / Stax decks. Field of Ruin in particular interacts beautifully with this, even opening up potential locks with Wrenn and Six or Crucible of Worlds. The same applies to Ghost Quarter, and to a lesser extent Path to Exile and Assassin’s Trophy. Key is that Confounding Conundrum replaces itself, setting its floor much higher than most hate enchantments. It interacts favorably with Yorion, Sky Nomad, and you can even stack multiple copies to double the effect.

So what’s the problem? Well, bouncing a land is not destroying a land. GQ, Path, and Trophy are still card disadvantage even with Conundrum in play; all you are buying is time. And given that you already spent 2 of your early mana on this enchantment, it doesn’t seem likely that your deck is going to kill them any time soon. Where it starts to get really awkward is when the game drags on, and suddenly the bounce trigger could actively hurt you: opposing blue decks will now have as many Mystic Sanctuary triggers as they want, to say nothing of picking up any flip lands they might want to reuse now as spells. Even Amulet could potentially make hay off the “virtual bounce land” effect of Conundrum, turning a land-light draw into an Azusa-fueled bonanza. And if we were mainly interested in stopping fetch lands, they can easily wait to crack the fetch until your turn. Remember, the opponent can always tap their land before the bounce trigger resolves (or return an already-tapped land) if it’s really urgent to get the extra mana right away.

It’s entirely possible that I have drastically underrated this card, as it presents a true puzzle (says so right on the box). I just worry that it will ultimately pose more Conundrums for you than for your opponents.

8. Coveted Prize

During our set review episodes of Faithless Brewing, my colleagues were quick to point out that “party” does not seem to be a constructed-worthy mechanic, and particularly not the cards that reward you for having a “full party.” David went so far as to challenge listeners to check their game logs and see when was the last match in which either player ever had four unique creatures, regardless of creature type, on the battlefield at the same time (his prediction: “Was it never?”). It is certainly true that controlling four unique creatures is not a naturally occurring phenomenon in the eternal formats, where removal is so efficient. The fact that I’m even discussing a party card at all must mean that I consider the payoff to be something truly special.

Lo and behold, Coveted Prize is that card. The best-case scenario is B: tutor for any card you want, then freecast anything CMC 4 or less from your hand (likely the card you tutored for, but not necessarily). I cannot overstate how insane this mode is: forget about paying 3BB with a mail-in rebate for Dark Ritual (sorry, Dark Petition); this is Vampiric Tutor plus Black Lotus (actually, Blacker Lotus) for your troubles. If a deck could regularly get access to this effect it would certainly break the game.

The challenges, of course, are legion. Anything less than a full party starts to get extremely clunky, as literal Demonic Tutor would not even see widespread Modern play at 1B, much less 2B, 3B, or (heaven forbid) 4B. Then there’s the teensy tiny question of how exactly are we assembling the party without playing embarrassing, non-synergistic creatures far below Modern’s power level (looking at you, Tajuru Paragon). And finally, even when we do the impossible and cast Coveted Prize for just a single B, it’s not immediately clear what 4 CMC or less card would effectively win the game against the field at large. And make no mistake, “win the game” is the bar that a fully-powered Prize must clear. The fail states are just too punishing to accept anything less.

That said, I’m eager for the challenge. Anything is possible if you work for it, even achieving a full, respectable party. Costing only a single B means that even curve as simple as 1 drop, 2 drop, then two more 1-drops plus Coveted Prize could happen on turn 3. And the fact that my virtual “win the game” card is going to cost CMC 4 or less means that I can still cast it even when Prize is not online. Winota, Joiner of Forces comes to mind as a natural curve-topper, but this will require a bit more exploration. All told, a worthy prize for any adventurers willing to brave the wilds of Modern!

7. Valakut Exploration

No, this is not a split card of Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and Exploration. Yes, I briefly hoped that it would be.

What we do have is an intriguing engine that sits squarely in the sweet spot of three mana. It can function as a curve topper or sideboard juke for aggro, or as a value engine for midrange or ramp strategies. The closest comparisons are likely Outpost Siege, Theater of Horrors, or the +1 on Chandra, Torch of Defiance. But the devil is in the details.

Valakut Exploration allows you to play lands, but you have to make landfall to turn it on. This suggests either uncracked fetches or some way to make extra land plays. It resets at the beginning of your end step, meaning that any landfall after that checkpoint will remain in exile throughout the next turn cycle. Unlike Chandra, unspent cards from Valakut Exploration are put back into your graveyard, which has historically been the “profit zone” in Modern: Wrenn and Six and Life from the Loam benefit from this, and if you want to get really frisky, The Gitrog Monster will trigger off unspent lands while also granting you additional land plays.

That said, “normal” uses of Valakut Exploration are plenty interesting enough. Aggressive landfall decks, Wrenn and Six Jund decks, and Temur Uro decks could all potentially benefit from both the card selection and the damage output.

6. Wayward Guide-Beast

Rarely has a card been met with such gleeful derision as Wayward Guide-Beast. Sure, this is not Goblin Guide (as many, many people were eager to point out). That doesn’t mean the card isn’t powerful, it’s just different. And while I won’t deny that in certain situations (notably, on turn 1) attacking with this will lead to disastrous outcomes, a hyper-efficient card that screams “I’m bad” is that much more interesting to brew around.

So what can you do with Not-Goblin-Guide? The answer is not even particularly subtle, since the landfall theme of Zendikar Rising is so pronounced. Guide-Beast gives your low-curve aggressive deck access to more landfall triggers. It let you pick up double faced lands and use them as spells, especially Shatterskull Smashing. And it even has trample, if you are trying to go big with Skyclave Pick-Axe or Become Immense. It offers all of this at the most efficient price possible: just one red mana, for a 2/2 trample haste.

Since I know there will be counter-arguments, here are a few more strategic tidbits:
• There is no penalty if Guide-Beast damages a planeswalker
• If you are stuck on lands (say, you kept a 1 lander or a 2 lander in a red aggro deck) Guide-Beast can actually send you up mana by bouncing a tapped land. It provides a bootleg Quirion Ranger effect, while furthering your attacking plan.
• If it would be truly disastrous to bounce a land, you can always cast Guide-Beast and choose not to attack.
• If drawing multiples is a concern, you can run less than a full playset.

Ultimately, the natural home for Guide-Beast is a low-curve landfall deck. These decks desperately want to make landfall every turn (even more so now with Akoum Hellhound and Brushfire Elemental in the mix) but also don’t want to play expensive spells. With access now to Wrenn and Six and spell-lands, playing a lower land count is much more feasible. A few Wayward Guide-Beast could be just the thing to round out the landfall suite. But I would urge you to be more expansive in your thinking, and give this card a try (in small doses) in a variety of fast aggro decks—the results may surprise you.

5. Scourge of the Skyclaves

Perhaps the trickiest design in the set, Scourge of the Skyclaves takes the basic premise of Death’s Shadow but doubles the complexity by also tracking the opponent’s life total. Shadow has taught us that it is trivial to lower your own life total, but doing so while also pressuring your opponent’s life is a different story entirely. It means that Scourge is going to be less at home in traditional Grixis Shadow, and more at home in aggressive shells like red prowess or even the long-obsolete Death’s Shadow Zoo strategies.

Before working too hard to build a home for Scourge, a reality check is in order: at 1B, Scourge costs double the mana of Shadow, meaning that it’s punching in the weight class of Tarmogoyf rather than Shadow or Gurmag Angler. “Large dopey 2-drop with no evasion” is a tough ask in Modern, especially in the era of Fatal Push. When you consider that Scourge might not even be castable on turn 2, or that you might have to expose it as a 1/1 or 2/2 if you want to land it early, it’s fair to wonder whether the juice is going to be worth the squeeze.

The question for brewers, then, is what can Scourge offer as upside that other creatures can’t provide. Building toward Scourge’s unique skillset is the most efficient way to vet this card’s potential; if the best-case scenario is worse than Tarmogoyf, we can safely set this aside. Briefly, the upsides are as follows:

Compared to Shadow, Scourge requires a lot less work to get started. A 3/3 Shadow is only possible after losing 10 life, which in turn is only possible with a very specific set of support cards. A 3/3 Scourge only requires both players to have shock-fetched once. It also gets bigger than Shadow, although it’s worth remembering that any power/toughness greater than 10/10 is functionally “overkill”: yes, you could grow your Scourge to 14/14, but only if they are already at 6 life, and in that case a 6/6 would have been just as good.

Compared to Tarmogoyf, Scourge gives black access to its own 2 drop beater, without asking for a support package that fills graveyards. Thoughtseize into a 4/5 Tarmogoyf is a great start for midrange; Monastery Swiftspear into a 1/2 Tarmogoyf is less exciting.

It’s also worth noting the unique interaction between Scourge and double strike: if you have an unblocked 5/5 Scourge and you cast Temur Battle Rage or Embercleave, the first hit will knock your opponent to 10 (assuming they were at 15 and your life total was also 10 or less) and now the Scourge will immediately grow to 10/10, making the second hit lethal.

Throw in some corner cases like Scourge being a cheap Demon for Kaalia, Zenith Seeker, or Scourge being an eligible target for Coralhelm Chronicler in a “kicker matters” deck, and there’s just enough going on here to throw out the old playbook for Death’s Shadow and figure out a new set of rules. Scourge of the Skyclaves might end up spawning a deck all its own.

4. Skyclave Apparation

I was too harsh on this card in my initial review, comparing it unfavorably to Flametongue Kavu. The truth is that, much as it pains a paper boomer like me to admit it, FTK’s 4 damage trigger is not particularly useful against the threats of today’s Modern. 4 damage is not going to kill an Uro, or a Tarmogoyf, or a Death’s Shadow, much less a Teferi, Time Raveler or a Wrenn and Six.

And this is where the supreme versatility of Apparition really shines. For the reasonable price of 1WW, any opposing threat up to 4 CMC is just gone forever, no questions asked. Ensnaring Bridge, Amulet of Vigor, Aether Vial, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Karn, the Great Creator, Blood Moon, this little Kor Spirit doesn’t care. As in Tinder, so also in Magic: just ghost them and your problems suddenly go away.

The cost of all this versatility is underwhelming base stats and a very minor drawback when Skyclave Apparition leaves the battlefield: your opponent gets a small blue creature token (no larger than 4/4). No one has ever died to the Dinosaur token from Baffling End, despite what Jurassic Park would have you believe. Skyclave even points you in the right direction by slotting into Spirit tribal, which shrugs off non-fliers in general.

The whole package is quite enticing for white decks of all stripes, and that’s before we even consider the shenanigans that can be done with the old school wording of the “leaves the battlefield” trigger: Ephemerate in response, Vial in Flickerwisp in response, Soulherder repeatedly and then clean up the Illusions with Deputy of Detention: if you can blink it, Skyclave Apparition can exile it. This card is a huge boon for white, and the rare design that solves problems neatly in Modern without breaking the younger formats.

3. Cleansing Wildfire

If the Modern format had a safety advisory stating the “Minimum Number of Basic Lands You Must Play,” that number just crept up by a notch. Cleansing Wildfire does great work against Tron lands, being effective even on the draw where Field of Ruin might be too slow. It also taxes the opponent’s basic land count, if used in conjunction with Field, Ghost Quarter, or Path to Exile.

However, if all this card did was disrupt Tron lands, it would just be a glorified Spreading Seas. What’s really exciting is targeting your own lands: namely Flagstones of Trokair, Darksteel Citadel, or Cascading Cataracts. These turn Cleansing Wildfire into both mana ramp and card advantage, two rarely seen effects for red (or red-white). The same is true if Wildfire is paired with Leonin Arbiter or Aven Mindcensor.

The sum of these parts is an exciting tool that takes red land disruption into new spaces. It doesn’t pair well with Blood Moon (don’t want to give them basics), and doesn’t even necessarily have a home in Ponza (where 3 CMC hard disruption is better), so if Cleansing Wildfire finds a foothold in Modern it will likely be in its own unique strategy.

2. Mythic “Bolt” Lands: Turntimber Symbiosis, Shatterskull Smashing, Agadeem’s Awakening, Emeria’s Call, Sea Gate Restoration

It is a bit of a cop-out to treat these as a group, but let me state my case. By now most players understand that modality is powerful, and the “Bolt” lands each come with three options: spell, untapped land, or tapped land. Almost every existing Modern deck should at least consider whether they can make room for a couple of these. Turntimber Symbiosis could fit in Amulet Titan, Devoted Druid, or  Elves; Emeria’s Call makes sense as a UWx control finisher or in white-based Nykthos decks; Shatterskull Smashing is a useful effect for red aggro of all stripes; and Agadeem’s Awakening can rebuy Death’s Shadows and Tarmogoyfs, among other things. These are all powerful applications, and I expect them to make a meaningful impact on the Modern metagame.

But where things get really exciting is when we start utilizing the bizarre properties of these cards — they are lands, but the game treats them as spells in other zones — to open up new deckbuilding spaces. The most extreme versions of this are the “no lands” decks sometimes seen in Legacy, which can now be considered also for Modern. Goblin Charbelcher and Undercity Informer strategies are each likely to vault up by two tiers (say, from Tier 5 to Tier 3) and with clever deckbuilding could rise as high as Tier 2. With the assistance of other flip spell-lands, these decks can now simply make their land drops and play interactive spells in the early turns, instead of scraping the barrel for what passes for rituals in the Modern card pool.

The happy medium is likely somewhere in between: what if we could build a deck that still played lands, but had a much higher spell density than normal thanks to the Bolt lands? Force of Negation and other “pitch” spells benefit massively (think Disrupting Shoal, Snapback, Sickening Shoal), while cards like Augur of Bolas and Pieces of the Puzzle start to look a lot more attractive. We could even consider stuff like Combustible Gearhulk that tracks raw converted mana cost. These may seem like long shots, and they are, but they point toward a brand new set of deckbuilding questions for brewers to answer. What if my land density was very, very low? What if half my lands could be re-used as spells if I found a way to return them to my hand? What if I could lose 3 life whenever I wanted without having to rely on shocks + fetches?

The options are dizzying and it’s far too early to anticipate all the places where these lands (and the other tapped MDFCs) will find homes. Just don’t be surprised to see some truly bizarre mana bases thrown at you in the coming weeks.

1. Omnath, Locus of Creation

And here we have it, my pick for best Modern card in the set. Omnath, Locus of Creation gives off serious Niv-Mizzet Reborn vibes. The similarity is less mechanical than aesthetic: both cards pack a serious punch in competitive play, but conceal their 1v1 power beneath a rainbow mana cost and a wall of flashy text seemingly meant to razzle-dazzle the Commander crowd.

Now that Omnath has added a fourth color, it naturally has four abilities. But as usual, the blue one is the most important: ETB draw a card. Although it is almost trinket text compared to the landfall abilities, the fact that Omnath cantrips makes it possible to have a serious conversation about a 4 mana card without getting mired in the “dies to removal” argument. If Omnath gets hit with Path or Push, we come out ahead on the exchange, and there is even incentive to blink or reanimate Omnath for value: find it early, find it often, and profit.

But enough about cantrips. On to the really exciting stuff. Omnath, Locus of Creation is already being discussed as one of the most impactful new cards Standard, but thanks to the godlike power of fetchlands, this card is exponentially more powerful in Modern. Filling your deck with fetches—which we were going to be doing anyway—now grants the following bonuses:

Your first landfall each turn gives you four life. A single fetch is now worth 4 life on your turn and 4 more life on your opponent’s turn, if you wait to crack it. Having incidental access to this much raw lifegain adds huge percentage points against red aggro, before even considering sideboard cards. If you want to go really deep and build around lifegain triggers, Omnath also happens to be the most efficient way to bulk up quickly. But more likely, you’re going to want to crack your fetch right away to unlock that second landfall bonus…

Your second landfall trigger in a turn produces four free mana. Let that sink in for a second. Four free mana just for playing a land is insane: it’s like multiple Lotus Cobras just materialized out of nowhere. If it’s turn 5 and you cast Omnath followed by a fetch land, you immediately get back all the mana you spent, making Omnath effectively “free” (in the truest sense, since you also drew a replacement card). This is a tempo swing on par with Fires of Invention or Wilderness Reclamation, except those cards didn’t replace themselves while also adding a 4/4 to the battlefield. To get really greedy, if you begin the turn with Omnath already in play, you can now ramp up to 9 mana on turn 5 just by playing a fetch, and from there cast basically any card you want. But there’s no need to get fancy with uncastable payoffs. In a normal deck full of hard-working, low-CMC Modern cards, Omnath will do just fine.

Finally, the third landfall trigger deals damage to opponents and planeswalkers. This ability is mostly icing, but it does cover two additional angles. First, it gives Omnath “haste” for the purposes of fighting back against pesky walkers like Teferi or Jace, who might otherwise just bounce your threats and leave you far behind on tempo. With Omnath, you can now pressure these walkers without even using the combat step (also circumventing Cryptic Command taps). The ability also hits players, which means that if necessary Omnath can be a self-contained win condition: make your land drops, find Omnath, and eventually the opponent will die just from the third ability alone. I don’t expect to use this often, but it does open up new deckbuilding space, similar to how Teferi, Hero of Dominaria allowed UWx control to eschew other win conditions.

There’s a lot more to dig into here, before even naming any specific synergies or possible archetypes that Omnath might spawn. Yes, it is four drop, yes, it is vulnerable to Mystical Dispute and Aether Gust, but Niv-Mizzet overcame worse odds and became the anchor of powerhouse strategy in both Modern and Pioneer. I expect the same trajectory for Omnath, even if it will take a good deal of experimentation. That’s exactly the kind of card that is the most exciting to brew!

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