Crucible of Words – Brewing Standard For Battle For Zendikar by Cyrus Bales
I’m back. Yes, it has been a long time since my last MTG article for various uninteresting reasons. To be honest, I’ve not been playing an awful lot of Magic since the introduction of PPTQ’s. However, with Theros block about to rotate out and the Standard format returning to the plane of Zendikar, my interest has returned. Those of you know me or used to read my articles will remember I have somewhat of a reputation as a brewer, so this week I’d like to discuss the building blocks of brewing in this new format and the key information you should be aware of when deck-building with some general musings about the format.
Just because you want to do fun things in the new format and play with the new toys, it does not mean that everyone else will do the same. The cornerstone of a good brew is understanding what you are up against, and as much as it may frustrate you, any new brew must still pass the Siege Rhino test. The obvious deck you will be facing week-in week-out is Abzan, so make sure you have a plan for it. If your brew folds to Abzan, it better be incredible against everything else or you are going to have a bad time.
Removal & Planeswalkers
The removal in this new format is going to be quite different, which opens and closes various doors to brewing. Banishing Light and Hero’s Downfall rotating out is a big deal, and whilst Ruinous Path is going to take up some of that slack, the sorcery speed of it is a big downgrade. So what does that mean for the format? Planeswalkers. Planeswalkers gain a sizable boost from this change as they become slightly more difficult to answer effectively, forcing sorcery speed answers and opening up bigger windows for followup plays. Thoughtseize rotating out is also good news for walkers, as narrower discard spells are going to have high opportunity costs for people wanting to play them, slimming out the field of cost effective answers to planeswalkers that see play, especially in people’s main decks.
In terms of creature removal, White looks to be in a positive spot with Valorous Stance, Silkwrap and Stasis Snare. The result of this is that creatures with converted mana cost of 4 or greater with only a toughness of 3 are going to be a bit more durable than before. With Lightning Strike leaving, 3 toughness is much less of a liability, opening the door for threats like Sidisi, Brood Tyrant who can still give you decent value in the face of a sorcery speed removal spell whilst being in the sweet spot versus a lot of white removal.
The other big news removal wise is that White has access to more Wrath of God effects, with both End Hostilities and Planar Outburst, the latter being more flexible and of less concern in terms of chewing up a slot. Languish is still very much here to stay. Along with a new BW manland in Shambling Vent, it becomes very easy to construct a deck that basically can’t lose to midrange strategies and can just keep the board clear, with Ob Nixilis Reignited and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar teaming up for powerful win conditions in such a strategy. The loss of Dissolve and the sorcery speed of Ruinous Path slides Control decks towards more of a “tap-out” style with large hay-makers and fewer counter spells, resetting the board when needed and generally winning via card quality instead of a full suppression of the opponent’s spells.
Of course, there is a whole host of other removal spells. Abzan Charm is already a huge staple, but I suspect we will see some of the other charms bubbling up into people’s decks more frequently, backed upped by the ubiquitous Murderous Cut. There will still be lots of spells flying into the faces of your creatures, and even though some creatures are in a better spot in the format, they are far from being untouchable.
This is a pretty obvious one: the “lands matter” set brings us toys for our manabases. Fixing with fetches and the dual lands is incredibly easy, allowing two-colour decks to enjoy free splashes, and with the converge mechanic adding in a single source of an off-colour mana to power up your spells is going to happen. It reminds me a little of Engineered Explosives, where players can happily increase the power of the effect without much in the way of consequences thanks to fetch-dual synergy. There isn’t a realistic threat to manabases either, so you can pretty much have your cake and eat it by doing all the things you want. It’s isn’t quite Quick’n’Toast level of fixing where you could literally cast anything you wanted each turn, but dipping into colours hasn’t been this easy for some time.
So we’ve looked at the more general elements within the new format, I’m now going to talk through the obvious decks you can expect to see and roughly how they will be built and why (aside from Abzan).
It wouldn’t be Zendikar without a big mana Ramp deck, and the current pool of cards seems to facilitate that. The biggest elephant in the room for ramp decks this time around is that there are no 2-mana spells that ramp like Explore or Rampant Growth. This forces Ramp players to use two mana creatures to achieve this effect early, as that is the only option. Rattleclaw Mystic and Whisperer of the Wilds being the primary candidates, this instantly opens up a weakness for this kind of strategy as the ability to disrupt their mana production is much easier. To make up for this, we have two very powerful ramp effects in the four slot: Explosive Vegetation and Hedron Archive. Explosive Vegetation is pretty simple to assess, fixes you nicely, guarantees all new duals enter the battlefield untapped, and can dig up splashes.
The Hedron Archive however is the really exciting bit. Like the other four drop, it allows you to jump two mana ahead. More importantly, it gives you a mana sink later on that can help you find a threat to cast with all your mana, which can often be the downfall of a ramp deck. Deck-building around this artifact really increases the opportunity cost of running large Eldrazi, as you may be ditching two of your mana in order to dig for a threat, but the necessity of trying to curve into a ten drop is not really there when the seven drops are game-ending enough as it is.
Due to the lack of one-mana accellerants like Elvish Mystic or Birds of Paradise, the curve of ramp spells goes “2-drop into 4-drop into 7-drop”, provided you hit land drops. This curve is essential as the principle threats you want to be casting are seven drops: Dragonlord Atarka, Omnath, Locus of Rage and Gaea’s Revenge out of the sideboard. These threats are quick to end the game, and with the ramp available can come down quickly to outclass any midrange threat. Of course, getting one of these threats to stick is the hard part, but that is why you have Hedron Archive to reliably see more of your deck and provide that follow-up threat if needed.
In these decks Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is probably going to be a singleton rather than the principle threat, and with the ability to splash for free, there are a lot of options to bring to the deck in terms of the sideboard and filling out the last few slots.
I alluded to this earlier. Much like when Gideon Jura had its time in the sun, the conditions are similar: powerful sorcery speed threats and answers than can dominate a game. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy curving into Planeswalkers or if needed, sweepers in Languish or End Hostilities/Planar Outburst. Dragonlord Ojutai can present a more traditional threat that clocks quickly and keeps the fuel coming. The power of the new Planeswalkers will be the backbone of this deck, and despite its lofty price tag, people will be rocking up to events with this sort of deck right out the gates.
Whilst the mana in the format is really good, it’s not completely free to run a five-colour deck: you need a strong payoff. And that payoff is Bring to Light. This card is probably one of the most powerful we’ve seen in Standard for some. In a fully five-colour deck you get access to the most ridiculous of tutor options. Not only do you get to find your silver bullets and always access the perfect tool for the situation, but you get it right there and then with no buffer between tutoring and cast. If you need a specific effect, it’s right there and then, and it improves the quality of your sideboard massively. However, if you don’t need to find something reactive, you can just chain Siege Rhinos turn after turn, which is often going to be sufficient to put away games. The amount of options and power this deck can have are astronomical. I’d expect to see Bring to Light-centered decks being a staple of Standard for its entire duration. This card is the real deal, and as the fixing gets better in the next set, the ease at which you get to play this deck increases.
Zulaport Cutthroat is bringing back memories of Blood Artist and people will undoubtedly be trying to recreate its success. There are plenty of things to throw together with this: Smothering Abomination being an engine and win condition all rolled into one to grease the wheels. The Rally the Ancestors deck might well be using these engines to propel itself into being a force to be reckoned with, but people will be offering sacrifices in one way or the other. And it will be glorious.
This deck, a very reminiscent of RB Zombies from Innistrad days is glaringly obvious, and early days in a new format are rife with aggressive strategies. Forerunner of Slaughter is a lot like Flinthoof Boar, it pairs well with morphs or other devoid creatures. Dust Stalker is a hard-hitting threat that naturally works in this strategy, much like Falkenrath Aristocrat did. Wasteland Strangler is another very high-payoff card that impacts the board in a big way. Transgress the Mind can fuel it and provide a little disruption to keep the deck ticking, leading to turn 5 kills with hand disruption and removal along the way. The core of the deck is certainly strong, it’s just a case of seeing how the rest of the list fills in. Ghostfire Blade could be a serious contender, since its power level with colourless creatures is very high, especially with at least 8 haste creature cards in the deck.
The support around Dragon cards still exists. I suspect Jeskai will be the colour combination of choice, but Esper is also viable. These decks don’t really change much to be honest, Jeskai tempo still has its whole shell complete, Esper has pretty much the same access to spells and effects as before. You could probably construct a list that was a straight like-for-like replacement for any of these decks and hit the ground running. Early on in the format people will be plodding along with these lists for sure.
Savage Knuckleblade, will it finally have its time in the sun? Temur can certainly get the most out of the new planewalker, Kiora, Master of the Depths, and there are plenty of powerful spells in that colour combination to curve into each other. The RG Landfall Aggro deck, that seems to be working its way through the grapevine, could find itself in this tri-colour combination instead. As there has been for the last year, there are still a lot of options for Temur – finding the right one might take a little bit of doing, but curving the three- and four-drops together as mentioned earlier is pretty promising.
That’s it for me today. I hope I’ve given you a brief outline of the format to come and either things to brew with, or the knowledge of your potential enemies to find holes in the format. I’ve already got a folder full of decklists and brews that perhaps I’ll share with you all at a later date.
Community Question: What card from Battle for Zendikar are you the most eager to try out?
Thanks for reading,