Magic: The Gathering--Arena of the Planeswalkers: Battle for Zendikar Expansion
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Release Date (US): March, 2016
MSRP: $19.99
Players: 2 to 4
Ages: 0 and up
Playing Time:  120+ minutes
Product #: B6925
ICv2 Rating: 2.5 Stars out of 5

It’s always exciting to see a new expansion for a game that shows a lot of promise.  It gives designers a chance to enliven the experience in ways that were not possible in a basic set, adding new play elements or improving on existing ones.  When I had an opportunity to review the Magic:  The Gathering-Arena of the Planeswalkers Board Game a few months ago (you can read my thoughts about it here), my conclusion was that this game had great potential-once some expansions came along to make it sing.  So, the question is, does Battle for Zendikar deliver?

Summary:  The Arena of the Planeswalkers takes the familiar elements of the Magic CCG and translates them into a board game.  The players assume the roles of power magic-using planeswalkers, casting spells and summoning creatures to overwhelm their rivals in their ongoing quest for more and more magical power.  The Battle for Zendikar expansion offers more of the same, with two new Planeswalkers, new creatures, and new spells, allowing players to explore more strategies than the basic game allows.

In particular, the expansion introduces a new type of creature, called a “hero”, that is stronger, tougher, and all-around more powerful than the creatures in the basic game.  It also introduces a new type of “neutral” creature that can be used by any kind of planeswalker, the Eldrazi.  Finally, a new “overlord” style scenario is included, in which two or three planeswalkers join forces to confront the Eldrazi threat.

Originality:  Expansions, by their very nature, suffer somewhat in this category.  After all, they rarely introduce revolutionary new concepts or mechanics to an already proven game.  But they can take the game in new and interesting directions.  But in reality, Battle for Zendikar doesn’t.  Yes, it opens up some new playing options, but really these are “more of the same” when compared to the offerings in the basic set.

Presentation:  Wizards draws upon its vast wealth of Magic-related art with the expansion, splashing a dramatic image of the dreaded demon Ob Nixilis across the box cover, which also features cutout windows to reveal the new planeswalker models (which are somewhat improved compared to the models in the basic game).  The back of the box might be a tad misleading, though, as much of the box back is dominated by a picture of the game in play, using primarily components not from the expansion, but from the basic game instead.  A small picture in the corner reveals the new components.

As with the basic game, the models inside the box are okay.  Not great, but not bad.  Acceptable for a board game.  It is worth pointing out one model though:  the Eldrazi Ruiner is quite large and quite dramatic, towering over the lesser models in the game.  Very creepy and well done on that one.

Quality:  The expansion is packaged in a very sturdy, thick-cardboard tuckbox.  I applaud Wizards for being so conscientious about protecting the components of my game, but I have always found tuckboxes to be something of an anathema:  they are difficult to open, and even more difficult to refill after you take everything out.  Also, once you assemble the afore-mentioned Ruiner, you’ll discover that it really doesn’t fit back in the box unless you disassemble it again.  And it won’t fit back into the basic game box either.  Frustrating.

Overall component quality, though, is quite good.  The cards are the same quality as the basic game.  The sculpts on the models are slightly better than the basic game.  The rules pamphlet is nice and glossy with lots of full color illustrations, which I’m a big fan of.

Marketability:  While the basic game stood to benefit from a Magic halo, potentially attracting fans of the card game looking for a new experience, the Battle for Zendikar expansion must stand or fall on the merits of the board game alone.  As such, I suspect that one’s mileage will vary:  in areas where the board game is popular, I would expect the expansion to do equally well.  In areas where it is not, I would expect to see very little demand.  On the plus side, the suggested retail price for the expansion is excellent.  Compared to other miniatures-based games on the market, twenty bucks for 16 models is a pretty good deal.

Overall:  To summarize my review of the basic game, it really needs expansion.  The coolest concept in the game, in my opinion, is the ability to customize your own army of Magic creatures and build your own deck of spells to create a unique strategy.  Unfortunately, the basic game simply did not have enough stuff in it to allow that.  It barely had enough pieces and cards to play with, much less to create a variety of different strategies.  Battle for Zendikar helps this, but only a little.  There still are only just enough models of each color to build an army for that color.  There are a few extra cards that you can use to shift around your deck a little bit, but still not nearly enough to allow for any real variation when it comes to strategy.

I really like the new things in the set.  I like having more variety of creature types, I like the new purple Eldrazi monsters.  I like having more planeswalkers to choose from.  But I am still left hungering for the true customizable experience that Arena of the Planeswalkers promises.  Sadly, even with the new expansion, it still fails to deliver on that promise.  Maybe with the next expansion… or the one after that… Until then, I can only give Battle for Zendikar 2.5 out of 5.

--William Niebling