Zendikar Rising Set Review - Black
(Nullpriest of Oblivion | Art by Yongjae Choi)
Back in Black
Hello everyone! It’s your friendly neighborhood Jesguy here, and welcome to the Zendikar Rising Black Set Review!
I'll be honest, when I heard we were going back to the plane of Zendikar last year, I wasn't terribly excited. I started playing around Innistrad, and my first real introduction to the Zendikar plane was the Battle for Zendikar block, which was... not a great first impression. That being said, as more and more cards from this set were revealed, my opinion shifted quite a bit, and I found myself incredibly interested to see what this set had in store for our format.
We've got a lot of ground to cover, so let's make our way through the treacherous terrain and discover what treasures Zendikar Rising has for black!
Modal Double-Faced Cards
Let's talk about the elephant in the room first: Zendikar's modal double-faced cards (Modal DFCs).
There has been hearty discussion about Zendikar Rising's Modal DFCs and how to incorporate them into preexisting decks. One side of the discussion thinks lands can be cut to make room, while the other thinks that spells would be the ones to go. Honestly, I think that both sides have some merit.
These Modal DFCs are better than they seem, and they already seem really good They are Magic's answer to mana flood and mana screw, something the game has been searching for since its first expansion.
There is no hard or fast rule to building with these cards, but this is my current thought process without having them:
- If you swap out lands for these cards, be prepared to play them as lands more often than not
- If you swap out spells for these cards, be prepared to play them as spells more often than not
Just be safe with them, and don't screw over your spell or mana base by trying to fit these in. There is a nice, happy medium between the two.
- Agadeem's Awakening is exactly what I want out of a modal card. It can supplement mana early game as a land, or it can be utilized as a game-winning spell. Yes, if you want to reanimate a bevy of critters, it'll cost a hefty sum of mana, but black has that covered: Cabal Coffers, Crypt Ghast, Nirkana Revenant... black has plenty of ways to go big and go over the top with mana, and that mana production gets even better if it's paired up with green!
- Hagra Mauling is excellent. You often won't get the cost reduction, but I'm always interested in a Murder that doubles as a land. I'd readily swap out Hero's Downfall or Vraska's Contempt for this, even if it can't hit a 'walker. Being able to choose between removal and mana is too good to pass up.
- Malakir Rebirth is perfect for Gonti, Lord of Luxury and other black commanders with enter-the-battlefield effects. It provides the option to hit a land drop, protect a key creature, or re-trigger a commander's abilities when someone tries to kill it. This card is an A+. I think this is the best of the bunch.
- Blackbloom Rogue doesn't have much going for it except that it's great in Rogue Tribal decks. Throw it in the new Anowon, the Ruin Thief decks and be confident that you have both a creature of your tribe and a land at your disposal.
- Pelakka Predation is begrudgingly passable. Targeted discard is often quite bad in Commander, but Predation at least has the ability to hit an opponent's expensive spells. My inclination is to pass on it, but it can potentially be fine in decks like Nath of the Gilt Leaf.
- Zof Consumption is the last of our Modal DFCs, and it's also the worst of the bunch. Six mana for a bad Gray Merchant of Asphodel is not a card that we want to include in any deck, even if it can be a land. It's not worth it.
Drana, the Last Bloodchief
Drana is one of the mono-black legends from this set, and she is... fine. Drana has decent stats, flying, and the ability to reanimate cards from the graveyard bigger and better than before. What's the catch, though? Well... the opponent chooses what we get back.
This isn't the end of the world, but it can put Drana's pilot in some strange situations, especially if there's something like a Razaketh, the Foulblooded and a Pawn of Ulamog in our graveyard. Of course our opponent is always going to choose the card that will hurt them the least, meaning cards like Razaketh will always stay there... so what can be done about that?
Curating cards in the graveyard or shuffling creatures around between zones reminded me of both Tasigur the Golden Fang and Syr Konrad, the Grim decks. These commanders utilize cards like Murderous Cut, Perpetual Timepiece, Tortured Existence, Gravepurge, and Aphemia, the Cacophony to help manage the graveyard in varying ways. If we were to apply these cards to Drana then we can easily make it so that we can reanimate the creature that we want as opposed to the creature that our opponent wants.
Overall, I don't think that Drana adds anything particularly new or interesting to black's deep pool of commanders, but she has the potential to be fun, which is always welcome. If you're interested in Drana leading a deck of yours, I'd suggest taking a peek at both Tasigur's Page and Syr Konrad's Page and building your list out from there.
Scourge of the Skyclaves
Death's Shadow, this is not, but Scourge of the Skyclaves is pretty neat for our format, regardless. Most often, Scourge will be used as a seven-mana "each player loses half their life" sorcery. In a format where everyone starts at 40 life, making sure that the highest life total is under 20 may be a hard ask for some metas. Along with that, because the effect is a Kicker ability, there's no easy way to reuse it without jumping through some hoops.
More often than not, Dire Fleet Ravager or Torgaar, Famine Incarnate will work better and more efficiently if you're looking to chunk life totals. Yes, Scourge comes with the ability to have an absurd amount of power and toughness, but there is a reason why Tarmogoyf isn't a staple in our format: vanilla bodies can't often cut on their own. I think Scourge is a pass unless you plan on spending seven mana on it consistently.
Despite how down I am on Scourge for Commander, Nethroi, Apex of Death pilots will be clamoring to add this Demon to their decks thanks to an interesting rules interaction that lets you get a whopping 30 power from Nethroi’s ability instead of the usual 10 if Scourge is one of your reanimation targets! If you're a Nethroi player and would like to learn more about it, check out Magic's Rules Manager Matt Tabak's tweet here.
Taborax, Hope's Demise
Did you hear that? It was as if millions of Shadowborn Apostles cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced....
Taborax, as you might be able to gather, is perfect at the head of a Shadowborn Apostle deck. He is a great way to refill your hand, your life total, and apply pressure to opponents all in one card! That sounds pretty good, right? What's the catch?
The issue with Taborax is that, by using him as your commander, you miss out on all of the goodies that white gives you for a Shadowborn Apostles deck. The two most popular commanders for the Apostles are Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker with 90 decks, and Athreos, God of Passage, with a whopping 640! Why the huge disparity?
Despite all the flack that white gets in Commander, it provides a huge amount of support to this strategy, with cards like Edgewalker, Immortal Servitude, Remeberance, and Angel of Glory's Rise. White is an incredible asset to this style of play, and I'm not sure if mono-black has the power to keep up with Orzhov.
Even discounting Shadowborn Apostle, there are only 72 available Clerics in mono-black compared to the 367 available in Orzhov colors, so even simply a Cleric-centric build is dubious at best.
Then, if we aren't caring about Clerics and only care about creatures dying in order to grow Taborax, he falls short of other mono-black Voltron commanders like Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon or The Haunt of Hightower. So what are the options for this Demon Cleric?
I think there are two:
- You fully embrace Shadowborn Apostles, and come to terms with throwing white away
- You slot Taborax into a preexisting deck, whether it's Shadowborn Apostles, Cleric Tribal, Demon Tribal, etc.
Taborax can be a great linchpin in the decks that want him, and can be a potential commander, albeit one of an already niche and linear strategy. If he had white in his color identity, I would have a very different opinion on him. I know that people really like him, but as it stands now, unless you care about Clerics and Shadowborn Apostles, I don't think Taborax is better than any option already available.
A five-mana tutor? What could this do for me that Diabolic Tutor couldn't?
Coveted Prize is an amalgamation of Demonic Tutor and Dark Petition that fails at doing either of those effects well. To make it better than Diabolic Tutor, you need to reduce the cost by two, which is a big ask for most decks.
Don't even look at the second ability, since only decks like Tazri, Beacon of Unity will be able to get a full party that often. My opinion is to just stick with Dark Petition if you want a five-mana tutor, or with Grim Tutor or Demonic Tutor if you have the cash. Diabolic Tutor is also always available if you need a tutor on a budget, and will be better than Coveted Prize most of the time, anyway.
Inscription of Ruin
Despite being a huge fan of modal spells, Inscription of Ruin does not impress me. Targeted discard, reanimating small creatures, and killing small creatures isn't something that the vast majority of decks want in EDH. The strength of modal cards is the varying strength of effects that are stapled to a single card, and Inscription fails at having even two modes that I am remotely interested in. There is no good fail-case with this like there is with the Modal DFCs.
I think Inscription of Ruin is awful and I would be hard-pressed to find a deck in my collection that would want it. Hard pass.
What do you get when you upgrade one of the most efficient uncommons of all time? Well, you get one of the most efficient rares in the set! There isn't much to say except that I'm happy to see Vampire Nighthawk have a glow-up. Just as powerful as ever, we get flying, deathtouch, and lifelink for three mana, plus the ability to increase its power as the game drags on. This lets Scavenger play both offense and defense considerably well.
If you look at Vampire Nighthawk's usage stats, there are a number of different decks where Scavenger can be utilized: Vampire Tribal, Lifegain strategies, Deathtouch Tribal, even decks like Kathril, Aspect Warper and Rayami, First of the Fallen will want Scavenger, which isn't surprising considering how powerful and efficient it is. Nighthawk Scavenger gets two big thumbs up from me.
Nullpriest of Oblivion
Here it is, my favorite black rare from the set. Make way for Nullpriest of Oblivion!
Call me a sucker for cheap modal cards, but this little Cleric is great. A 2/1 Vampire with lifelink and menace is already great enough to find a home in every Vampire Tribal deck on EDHREC, and that's simply its baseline! For an extra four mana, we can pay Nullpreist's Kicker ability and Reanimate any creature in our graveyard, too! Fantastic!
Edgar Markov, Olivia Voldaren, Chainer, Nightmare Adept, Yarok, the Desecrated, Meren of Clan Nel Toth, Karador, Ghost Chieftain... all of these commanders' ears perked up when they heard this card's name. Even decks like Karlov of the Ghost Council and other lifegain decks could have potential interest in Nullpriest thanks to her abilities and versatility.
If you have a black deck in any fashion, I'd take a second and evaluate if your deck would be made better by the inclusion of Nullpriest of Oblivion. I know I will be.
A new version of Consume the Meek that trades being an instant for the ability to exile creatures on the battlefield and in the graveyard? Hmm....
While this card does a lot of things I like, I'm not entirely sold on it. The ability to reach into the graveyard is a nice touch, but the CMC restriction on what it can hit hurts it a lot. I did a bit of digging, and found that 41 of the Top 100 Creatures on EDHREC over the past 2 years have CMC 3 or less, which is pretty good! The issue is, a lot of these creatures have ETB effects or other abilities that makes killing them worth less than the average creature. If you cast Shadow's Verdict and wipe up an Eternal Witness and/or a Dockside Extortionist, it won't matter much since they've already served their purpose. Sadly, that is the case with a lot of these top creatures.
If your meta has a lot of small creatures running around the field or in the graveyard, I'd consider Verdict as a potential inclusion, but otherwise I wouldn't think about it too hard. More often than not, Crux of Fate and Bojuka Bog will be worth the inclusion, instead.
Skyclave Shade is the latest in a long line of small, recursive black creatures, but how does it measure up to its brethren? While not as efficient as Bloodghast or Nether Traitor, I like Skyclave Shade quite a bit. It's on the same power level as Gutterbones and Bloodsoaked Champion since you will only ever be able to recur the Shade during your turn at sorcery speed, and I think that that's a perfectly fine baseline.
That being said, while it may not be the most efficient in terms of dancing in and out of the graveyard when compared to the likes of Nether Traitor, it is the only one of these little lads that can come out of the graveyard with a fairly sizable body and be a potential threat late game. It has the potential to return to play as a 5/3 if you play its Kicker cost, which aren't stats to sneeze at. While nice to have, this flexibility may be enticing to some, but negligible to others.
Overall, I think Skyclave Shade is solid, but not groundbreaking. It can slot into a handful of different strategies that already run any of these four other creatures, like Yawgmoth, Thran Physician, Kels, Fight Fixer or Sek'Kuar, Deathkeeper.
Oh, hey! Crackling Doom is back, and it shaved off two colors to boot!
While it might not deal two damage to each opponent, Soul Shatter adds the ability to force opponents to potentially sacrifice a planeswalker. I think that this is a great trade-off, and it makes Soul Shatter a viable option for decks like Mazirek, Kraul Death Priest or Toshiro Umezawa.
While this is the best style of edict effect, at the end of the day, it is still an edict effect. A few decks may be able to use it more synergistically than others, but more often than not, a board wipe will be a better place to put your mana.
The last rare on this list is a Zendikar Rising - Commander exclusive: Whispersteel Dagger! I don't talk about it a lot, but some of my favorite strategies in EDH are Theft decks, like Gonti, Lord of Luxury and The Scarab God, which initially made me like the Dagger quite a bit. The more I looked at it, though, the more issues I saw with it, the main one being how expensive it is to play and Equip.
The Dagger basically adds a three-mana tax onto any creature that we want to cast out of our opponents' yards, since we need to ensure that we can equip it first. The issue comes when the equipped creature dies and you have to do this multiple times. More often than not, it will always add a three-mana tax to the creature that you want to cast since you will probably need to Equip it to different creatures quite often thanks to removal.
Dagger is good, and I like it, but there is a large cost associated with this card that can't be overlooked. If you get lucky, or if you're playing against decks that don't have a way to answer Whispersteel Dagger, it can easily run away with the game. This Dagger is swingy (no pun intended) and leans more towards "fun" than "efficient", so keep that in mind when including it in your deck.
Uncommons and Commons
To avoid dragging this on much longer, let's breeze through the last few uncommons and commons!
- Demon's Disciple is the fifth Fleshbag Marauder iteration and is just as good. If you like Fleshbag and friends, you will like Disciple, so don't be afraid to add it to your Sacrifice decks.
- Hagra Constrictor is an adorable little +1/+1 counter lord akin to Pridemalkin or Abzan Battle Priest. These cards are usually great, and Constrictor coming in with counters of its own is amazing. It's another solid card for Marchesa, the Black Rose and Mazirek, Kraul Death Priest decks.
- Lithoform Blight is a black version of Spreading Seas that can hamper lands like Maze of Ith or Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. I'd rather run Ghost Quarter and the like, but Blight replaces itself, so I won't be too hard on anyone who plays it.
- Skyclave Shadowcat is a neat little friend that's right at home in Mazirek, Kraul Death Priest and other +1/+1 counter decks in Golgari colors. It is a bit expensive mana-wise, but it is a fun inclusion and can generate a good amount of value.
- Thwart the Grave is a second copy of Ever After if you can hit two creatures with it, which is pretty solid. If you can bring back two creatures and reduce its cost by even a single mana, it's a double Rise from the Grave, too! This means decks like Inalla, Archmage Ritualist, and the new Orah, Skyclave Hierophant are more than happy to add this reanimation spell to their roster if they're looking for one.
Our final common definitely deserves a spot of its own:
I don't know how exactly it makes sense flavor-wise, but I won't complain: black finally has a way to properly kill enchantments! Prior to Feed the Swarm, the options to hit enchantments were relegated to cards like Unstable Obelisk, Karn Liberated, and Scour from Existence. Well, no longer! WotC has determined that black needs the ability to remove more card types, and, thanks to that, we get this amazing little common!
If you're playing a black deck, you should take a second to consider adding Feed the Swarm. This is less of a talking point in Golgari and Orzhov decks, since they already have ways to deal with enchantments, but in mono-black, Dimir, Rakdos, and Grixis, this card is worth looking at. Sure, the life loss isn't optimal, but don't forget, we're in black. This is par for the course. Remember: "Greatness, at any cost,"
Early to Bed and Early to Rise Makes Vampires Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise
That's another review in the books, folks! Make sure you let me know down below which black cards are your favorites from this set, or what cards are going into your already pre-established decks!
My three are without a doubt Nullpriest of Oblivion, Malakir Rebirth, and Feed the Swarm. Hey, don't look at me that way, I said earlier that I was a sucker for modal cards, right?
If you’d like to reach me, I’m active on Twitter (@thejesguy), where you can always hit me up for Magic- or Jeskai-related shenanigans 24/7. Do you have any comments, questions, or concerns? Please don’t hesitate to leave them below or get in touch! Stay safe, wear your mask, and keep fighting the good fight. I support you. No justice, no peace.