Ahoy planeswalkers! Welcome back for part two of the Scry Five Gatewatch Retrospective! Last week I took a look at Origins as something of an appetizer. Now it’s time to move on to the first main course: the block that saw the founding of the Gatewatch, Battle for Zendikar!

The Cards

Right off the bat, I don’t think it’s controversial to note that the story-focused cards in Battle for Zendikar weren’t as clean as Origins. Let’s start with a look at Gruesome Slaughter, Nissa’s Renewal, Ugin’s Insight, Outnumber, and Network" data-card-name="Aligned Hedron
Network">Aligned Hedron

To me, they have a bit of a feeling of these being tabbed as story cards somewhat late in the process. Gruesome Slaughter and Outnumber rely a little too heavily for my taste on flavor text to make the connection; the art and the card names feel a bit too generalized to capture the weight of the fall or retaking of Sea Gate. Nissa’s Renewal also gives a bit of a sense that they hadn’t figured out that Nissa and Ob Nixilis were going to duel yet. Aligned Hedron Network, however, really stands out, setting a good standard for how the fifth story spotlight has typically worked since: it sets up the concluding beat, but there’s also a little twist that’s left out (in this case, that Ob Nixilis shorts out the hedron network, releasing Ulamog and using its energy to reignite his planeswalker spark).

I do want to take a moment to talk about a card that we’ve seen a lot of the last couple years: Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. The storytelling on this planeswalker card through the rules text is exquisite. It captures Gideon’s character arc through the block, learning how not to be a hero and how instead to be a general. Being a hero and doing things on his own feels good, and that’s what he defaults to (so it gives him more loyalty). It’s often not the most effective choice, however, which Gideon learns the hard way in one of the stories.

Outside of the story and planeswalker cards, though, we don’t see a lot of our main characters. Gideon gets Gideon’s Reproach and Inspired Charge, Ob Nixilis has a really nice shadowy appearance in Demon’s Grasp, Jace gets a fresh Dispel, and a pretty small Kiora stands in the foreground of Tightening Coils. Not a terrible haul, perhaps, but the planebound legendary creatures don’t fare nearly so well: Drana, Liberator of Malakir, Noyan Dar, Roil Shaper, Ambush Leader" data-card-name="Munda,
Ambush Leader">Munda,
Ambush Leader
, and Zada, Hedron Grinder all only appear on their own cards, and even Ulamog only shows up on one other card, Titan’s Presence. I think there was a missed opportunity here to give these characters more weight by showing them in action, giving a little more of a change-up to the scores of nameless Eldrazi and Zendikari that populate most of the set’s cards.

The execution of the story spotlight cards for Oath of the Gatewatch was cleaner: Kozilek rises (Kozilek’s Return), Ob Nixilis captures and tortures Gideon, Jace, and Nissa (Remorseless Punishment), The Gatewatch forms (Call the Gatewatch), the Gatewatch kill Ulamog and Kozilek (Bonds of Mortality/Fall of the Titans), and Zendikar begins to heal (Zendikar Resurgent). The beats are nice and clean, the art often has a wonderfully iconic feel (I really like team panoramas of Call the Gatewatch and Zendikar Resurgent), and while I was a bit disappointed to see the Eldrazi simply killed off, the Gatewatch has plenty to keep their hands full, and in a lot of ways their decisive first victory over Ulamog and Kozilek might be seen as fueling the hubris that got then in over their heads with Emrakul and Nicol Bolas in later blocks.

The design of the Oath cycle is a thing of beauty: it gives each Gatewatch member a clear moment of importance as they take the oath. The formula for the art and the flavor text both gives an iconic style and room for characters’ different personalities to shine through, and the flavor of the rules text both interacting with planeswalkers and referencing the power sets of the oath-taking planeswalker is quite nice. Gideon, Nissa, Jace, and Chandra all also get a couple of cards showing them off beyond the story and oath cards, ensuring they feel nice and central to the set, and legendary creatures show up more frequently outside of their own cards too. With the clear story spotlight cards and the better attention to both planeswalkers and legendary creatures outside of the official story cards, Oath of the Gatewatch feels like a real step forward in terms of how the cards tell the story and help us follow the plane’s key characters.

The Story

The beginning of the story for Battle of Zendikar was quite effective. As something of a prologue, it mimicked the structure of the Origins stories, continuing around the color wheel once more, visiting each character once as a lead-in to the events on Zendikar, as we saw each character make their choices about whether or not they would join this mission. The version of Gideon we got especially feels like a logical extension from where we left him at the end of his origin story: he got his friends killed, so now he does everything himself, trusting in only his own indestructibility (and running himself into the ground with his efforts).

From there, I think the Story Team did a great job creating an effective narrative, with a good sequence of successes and setbacks and a few good surprises along the way. It also was an excellent showcase for the way the Gatewatch’s characters and their relationships could carry the story: Gideon learning how to be a general, Gideon and Jace’s burgeoning bromance, Jace and Nissa slowly opening up to each other in their telepathic communications, Chandra’s struggles with her own lack of self-confidence. Less perennial characters had nice parts too: Nik Davidson’s stories from Ob Nixilis’s perspective are always a delight, Kiora got a quite nice arc throughout the story too, and some of the planebound legends like Noyan Dar, Drana, and Tazri got excellent stand-alone stories.

I do think it took a while to find a version of Nissa that works; while I enjoyed her showdown with Ob Nixilis, the Professor’s criticism that her first couple stories pretty much involved her working through the same conflict holds up. The story beat with the Gatewatch defeating Ob Nixilis and becoming the Gatewatch also sits a little oddly. Ob Nixilis spiriting Jace, Gideon, and Nissa away to torture them did feel a little weird—couldn’t Chandra have come to the rescue as Ob Nixilis was taking them down?—and the actual creation of the Gatewatch oath, while a fantastic formula for the cards, felt odd to me with Gideon seemingly taking the first oath spontaneously out of nowhere.

All in all, though, I thought Battle for Zendikar was a strong first showing for the Gatewatch era: I thought the stories were generally strong individually, and I found the overall narrative satisfying.

Beck’s Top Five Stories of the Battle for Zendikar Block

5) Retaliation of Ob Nixilis by Kimberly J. Kreines and Nik Davidson

Kreines writes well, and the rise of Kozilek from Nissa’s point of view is nicely executed. What really puts this story over the top for me, however, is Davidson’s writing of Ob Nixilis taking down Jace and Gideon. Davidson has created a voice for Ob Nixilis that captures the character’s tactical brilliance, arrogance, and irreverent sense of humor. Ob’s banter with Gideon and the clever conclusion (Ob letting Gideon break his bones and then drowning Gideon into unconsciousness in a puddle in order to capture him) cannot be missed.

4) Zendikar’s Last Stand by Doug Beyer

Kiora throws the Halimar Sea at Nissa’s face. What more do you need to know? I may have been disappointed that Wizards chose to kill off Ulamog and Kozilek, but gosh darn it, Beyer delivered one heck of a spell-slinging battle, and I thought this was a really fun story to read. I found Kiora’s betrayal (echoing Nissa’s own plan in releasing the Eldrazi titans originally) compelling, and I thought it also captured the battle’s aftermath really nicely through Kiora’s eyes.

3) Shaping an Army by Ken Troop

Noyan Dar (my second ever prerelease promo!) had some great flavor text in the first Zendikar, and his appearance as a full-fledged character does not disappoint. The sort of insanity that Dar has embraced—devoting himself to agonizingly discordant chants in order to aggravate the roil instead of soothing it—has given him an offbeat worldview that is a hoot to read, and it’s a lot of fun meeting Gideon for the first time through his eyes and watching the new general of the Zendikari slowly earn his respect.

2) Zendikar Resurgent by the Magic Story Team

What can I say? I think the story team stuck the landing. The Gatewatch gets some flack for their, shall we say, ambivalent relationship to Ugin’s advice, but I think Jace raises valid points. Meanwhile, Tazri and Gideon’s banter as they go for a morning jog puts a nice cap on their bumpy
relationship. Chandra and Nissa’s scene together, in addition to being quite touching and a great use of the “red as emotional” aspect of Chandra (giving her an interesting wisdom that, alas, seems to have been scaled back a bit in more recent sets), planted the seed for the Gatewatch’s most interesting interpersonal relationship.

1) The Blight We Were Born For by Ken Troop

Ken Troop is Wizards of the Coast’s go-to writer for stories in which the fabric of reality bends and twists, so it’s not surprising to find him in his element amidst the rise of Kozilek. At the same time, however, the story is a psychological portrait of General Tazri, stretching deep into her past and centuries into an imagined future. Her back story is rich, her vision of solipsistic demigodhood at Kozilek’s side makes sense as something she would find seductive, and her ultimate redemption and ascension as the true leader of the allies delivers really nicely on her character arc.

In summary, Battle for Zendikar might not have immediately delivered on the full promise of Origins, but I certainly think it was a good start. It had good, clear beats that made sense, and it did a nice job of setting the Gatewatch up as a strong team, which clearly was Wizards’s intention. What do you think? What were your favorite (or least favorite) parts of the Battle for Zendikar story? I’m on twitter (@beholdMTG), and I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Beck Holden is a Ph.D. student in theater who lives in the greater Boston area. He enjoys drafting, brewing for standard, and playing 8-Rack in modern. He also writes intermittently about actually playing Magic at beholdplaneswalker.wordpress.com.

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