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Magic: The Gathering – Goodbye Standard: Zendikar Rising

With Dominaria United looming on the horizon, everything about Magic: The Gathering is about to change. Standard rotation, the culmination of a major story, characters dropping left and right, and god knows what else to be revealed during the 30th anniversary mean this is one of the last times we’ll have a good chance to look back at the past few years.

Zendikar Rising, launched in September 2020, was one of the first sets to launch after I got back into Magic over lockdown. It was the first product launch I really paid attention to, and everything seemed new and shiny to me. Landfall? Neat! Party? Total gamechanger. Double-faced cards? Confusing, but let’s work with it. Of course, with two more years of experience behind me now, Zendikar Rising feels like a weird set that laid the foundation for those after it to execute upon ideas in an overall more cohesive way.

It was the first time we’d returned to the adventure world of Zendikar since it was devastated by the Eldrazi in the Battle for Zendikar block almost five years earlier. With the last remaining Eldrazi firmly locked up in Innistrad’s moon, and Nicol Bolas no longer wrecking the multiverse, it was the first of a series of sets that put general vibes over any ongoing story.

Wrapped up in there somewhere was Nissa and Nahiri going to war over how to fix Zendikar’s neverending natural disaster, the Roil, but honestly the consequences of that battle have been completely absent in the years since. Instead, Zendikar Rising returned to the general feel that made people love the setting so much in its debut. Free from eldritch beings mucking up the place, it was also to focus on raiding tombs, climbing up through floating ruins, and avoiding traps – the full Indiana Jones treatment.

The big question looming over Zendikar is whether that theme was strong enough to carry across three separate visits. “Adventure world” isn’t as strong a concept for a world as the gothic horror of Innistrad or the apocalyptic wastelands of Amonkhet, and it feels like it’s firmly plundered the depths of how far we can take Zendikar now. We have settings like Ixalan doing the lost jungle tropes, which leaves Zendikar with very little room for growth.

Mechanically, Zendikar Rising was a new chapter for Magic. It marked its own set rotation that saw Dominaria, Guilds of Ravnica, Ravnica Allegiance, and War of the Spark rotate out, which meant it had a lot of design space to fill. It did this with landfall, a popular returning mechanic from the original Zendikar, party, and the introduction of ‘modal double-faced cards’.

Firstly, landfall is one of Magic’s best mechanics. Getting value just from playing lands has given birth to so many deck archetypes, and Zendikar Rising did it justice with plenty of fantastic cards. While Scute Swarm and its exponentially growing, Arena-breaking horde of bugs is generally the most popular of the bunch, others like Lotus Cobra, Felidar Retreat, Brushfire Elemental, and the infamous Omnath, Locus of Creation all had a big impact on lands-matter decks.

Party was a bit less of a hit. It tried to bring tribal-like design to Zendikar by batching together Wizards, Clerics, Warriors, and Rogues as your “party” and giving you effects the more of those creature types you have out in play. While it gave some support to the four classes – Clerics is still one of the most fun creature types to play in Standard, thanks to Zendikar Rising – party itself just required too many hoops to jump through.

You needed to have at least four creatures on the battlefield to get the most out of it, and even then, the effects weren’t all that special. It also doesn’t help that Wizards clearly had no faith in the mechanic, as it included multiple creatures that counted as all four creature types, and then followed it up with numerous changelings in Kaldheim.

The real winner of Zendikar Rising was the introduction of Modal Double-faced Cards, or MDFCs. Unlike the transforming cards introduced in Innistrad, each side of these cards was something you could play from your hand, but had no way to flip once on the battlefield. We’d see a lot of MDFCs as we went through Kaldheim and Strixhaven, but Zendikar Rising’s were among the best.

Having spells on one side and lands on the other gave us a level of flexibility we rarely see. Drawing a Bala Ged Sanctuary when you’re short of lands is great, but so is drawing it when you have too many and need to play its other side, Bala Ged Recovery. Meanwhile, the two-land Pathways have become some of the best lands in all of Standard, thanks to entering untapped and giving you colour fixing capabilities we don’t often see outside of something like a shock land.

MDFCs weren’t intended for Zendikar Rising – they were first designed for Strixhaven, and then expanded back into Kaldheim and Zendikar in order to give that year of the game a single, cohesive mechanic to define it. That ‘unified design’ concept appears to have fallen by the wayside in more recent sets, with the closest thing to it maybe being the use of vehicles in Crimson Vow, Kamigawa, and New Capenna. It’d be nice to see a return of this more cohesive design strategy, or at least make it as blatant as those funky new two-sided cards were, to give us a sense of connection in how a year is going to play.

Despite all this, the biggest impact Zendikar Rising has had on Magic likely isn’t even in the set itself. This was the set where tie-in Commander decks became a regular fixture, replacing the Brawl and Planeswalker decks that came before. These were notably cheaper than the annual releases that came alongside Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, but featured fewer exclusives and lower-power reprints to accommodate it.

And yet they were a smash hit. Offering fully playable and good decks for just £20 each, these didn’t include the huge number of brand-new cards later, more expensive decks did, but they still gave us stuff like Anowon, the Ruin Thief and Obuun, Mul Daya Ancestor. The reprints weren’t anything to sniff at, either, with things like Sol Ring, Zulaport Cutthroat, Fact or Fiction, Sun Titan, Abundance, and Command Tower all being easily available.

Zendikar Rising wasn’t an amazing set, but it paved the way for the years that followed. Whether it be double-faced cards and an improved land base in Standard, or the prevalence of Commander decks we’re seeing today, this is the set that helped reboot Magic following the War of the Spark more than any set before it.

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