It’s crazy to consider how long it’s been since my last article, and so much has happened in the Magic world. Given the significance of recent events and their consequences for Magic as a game, it would be impossible to discuss everything that’s occurred across the pro scene and the community in the last year in just one article. To that end, I’m going to focus on the main reason we’re all here in the first place: the cards!
Since my last piece, we have seen a return to Ravnica once again, with our Planeswalker heroes gearing up to face off against Nicol Bolas in a final showdown in the upcoming set, War of the Spark. The long journey to reach this point began as far back as Kaladesh block, and now we find ourselves at the penultimate story moment in Ravnica Allegiance.
Historically, Ravnica has introduced some extremely powerful cards. Original Ravnica block gifted us with the likes of Dark Confidant, Infernal Tutor, Life from the Loam – in fact, the whole Dredge mechanic – and the entire cycle of shock lands. Return to Ravnica followed up its predecessor with the Constructed playable all-stars Abrupt Decay, Supreme Verdict, Sphinx’s Foresight, Deathrite Shaman, and that infamous plague of Commander, Cyclonic Rift. With Guilds of Ravnica block, Wizards of the Coast once again met their excellent benchmark of card quality. Guilds itself gave us excellent Constructed staples in Thief of Sanity, Arclight Phoenix, Doom Whisperer and Assassin’s Trophy, not to mention the powerhouse Izzet guild leader, Niv-Mizzet, Parun.
Let’s not forget, also, that Ravnica-based blocks have provided some of the most versatile manabases in Standard play, particularly when combined with the buddy lands. The combination of the large number of two-colour guild-specific cards in each set, in tandem with manabases that can easily be three colours and manageably four, has led to a wide and diverse era of Standard with dozens of playable strategies. So much so, in fact, that even the community has yet to agree on a de facto ‘best deck’, six weeks into Ravnica Allegiance.
With so much history behind it, and a Standard that, prior to its arrival, was hugely diverse and balanced, Ravnica Allegiance needed enough powerhouse cards to break its way into the format without – well – breaking the format. This is without even mentioning the finished cycle of shocklands and considering the impact they would have on manabases and the potential viability of three- and four-colour decks. Here, I am going to look at the top cards that made their way to becoming Standard or even Modern staples, the old strategies they enhanced and new ones they created, and their impact on the format as a whole.
As is only proper, let’s start with White.
Coming up to the release of Ravnica Allegiance, the traditional ‘white weenie’ strategy was already a dominant force in Standard thanks to the existence of Benalish Marshal and Ajani’s Pridemate. Andrew Elenbogen was hot off the heels of winning his first Pro Tour, in a mono-white finals mirror against Luis Scott-Vargas. As a result, the bar was set very high for cards to be efficient enough to make it into this Pro-Tour winning deck, yet Tithe Taker still managed to squeeze over it.
At first look, a 2/1 for 2 that leaves a 1/1 flyer behind after it dies doesn’t seem too special, but the fact that it taxes your opponent’s mana is a huge upside. White aggro wins by getting in under cumbersome three-mana removal spells, and forcing control decks to cast instants at sorcery speed or restricting counterspell usage has been a huge boon for this deck. It also has a lot of play against the mono-blue strategies that have popped up, due to their reliance on cheap interaction like Dive Down and Merfolk Trickster to blow out combat steps early on.
Tithe Taker has even been seen on the Legacy tables, tried out in the Death and Taxes lists which utilise these sort of effects in combination with land destruction to throttle the opponent’s mana. Its success is as yet undetermined, but we could well see this card appearing more in the future.
The other standout white cards in this set are not intended to fit into white weenie. Hero of Precinct One is a build-around card in and of itself, specifically engineered for a two- or three-colour deck. Many people were incredibly excited upon seeing this card spoiled, myself included, and have brewed up all kinds of tokens lists. The only one which has so far seen significant success at the highest level slots Hero into the existing Selesnya Tokens shell from Guilds Standard, but I believe this will change. Currently, mono-red is a strong contender and the presence of Goblin Chainwhirler puts a damper on the breakaway power of Hero of Precinct One. Discounting any printings of similar blowout effects, I fully believe Goblin Chainwhirler’s rotation in September will allow Hero to come into its own as a card and an archetype.
The last card worth mentioning is Angel of Grace. Though it has yet to see any play at the highest level, it’s a very powerful card which reminded me immediately of the Standard all-star Archangel Avacyn. It can be used to blow out combat steps, to win games out of nowhere and it has a very reasonable 5/4 flying body for five mana. There have been attempts to brew it into a Bant Fog-style deck, but so far they have all been inferior versions of the Bant Nexus archetype. Perhaps we will see this card break more into the format come rotation.
Next up, let’s look at some of the blue cards.
The all-star standout of the mono-blue additions is, of course, Scary Pterry. It has been slotted into numerous existing archetypes in Standard including the Izzet Phoenix and Drakes lists, as well as becoming a prime threat in Mono-Blue Tempo and helping recent Mythic Championship winner Autumn Burchett to grasp the trophy. It’s also seeing widespread play in Modern and Legacy as another Delver of Secrets-style cheap flying threat with the capacity to win all on its own.
Pteramander’s effect hearkens back to the days of the Delve cards, Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise. It’s good enough for Standard, even if graveyards aren’t always full, because it slots admirably into spells-matter archetypes and tempo decks as a potent turn one threat. It’s great in Modern, where cards like Faithless Looting and Thought Scour already play into numerous strategies that allow for it to be Adapted as quickly as turn two or three with a perfect 7. It’s excellent in Legacy, where Delver of Secrets is already an archetype-defining card, and combined with the ability to easily fill graveyards by turn two and exceedingly powerful mana denial, it’s a game winner. Without question, we will be seeing a lot more of Pterry.
The other two cards here are less flashy, but still play an important part in the archetypes they’ve come to represent. Mono-Blue Tempo is incredibly strong, but its weakness is falling behind on the board. The inclusion of Essence Capture in the 75 allows the blue player to prevent their opponent gaining any board presence and gives more time to beat down before they are overwhelmed. It is by no means the most flashy or efficient spell of its kind, but going forward it will certainly play an important role in Standard.
The second card, Precognitive Perception, is very expensive but also provides an exceptional Addendum effect. Its main competitor is its Guilds cousin, Chemister’s Insight, which in most cases is more flexible, but the capability of scrying three on a turn when you are safe to tap out means that having one or two Perceptions in a control or Nexus list smooths out draws and keep the engine running.
Onto the black!
The main mono-black card which has captured peoples’ imagination in Ravnica Allegiance is Priest of Forgotten Gods. Although from the outset this card does not appear to be too strong, when partnered with its buddy Gutterbones and efficient Afterlife cards, it can very quickly become a very powerful card advantage engine. Gutterbones is featured here because of its auto-inclusion in the Priest decks, where the two effects work so well together. Although there have so far been no outstanding performances with Aristocrats, the deck archetype has all the tools it needs, and this card combination is incredibly powerful, so I believe that sooner or later there will come a time when Priest is able to shine in Standard.
Interestingly, the only other mono black card which has really seen Standard play is Cry of the Carnarium, with its strange exile templating that beats Afterlife creatures (even if sacrificed prior to Cry), giving it the edge over its predecessor, Golden Demise. This has been dotted about in control and midrange lists – particularly in Best of One ladder on MTG Arena – to try and beat out aggro decks.
Red gained some very juicy new cards in Allegiance.
Mono-red was already incredibly potent before the release of Ravnica Allegiance, due to Goblin Chainwhirler and Wizard’s Lightning from Dominaria, and the bomb cards Experimental Frenzy, Runaway Steam-kin and Risk Factor from Guilds. Two new additions, though, turned mono-red from a great deck into an outstanding one. Light Up the Stage almost always translates into a one-mana effect that draws two cards, and Skewer the Critics is another variation on the ‘Lightning Bolt with downside’ theme that Wizards of the Coast have been playing with, leading to the affectionate nickname for the deck, ‘12-Bolt’.
The raw power of these two cards has led to two different archetypes of mono-red: those playing the Steam-kin/Frenzy package and those running Light Up and the Wizard package. Both are equally fast and powerful, and with so much burn available, mono-red has become a very frightening archetype to face on the MTG Arena ladder, especially in Best of One. This is before we come to their impact in Modern, where Skewer has been happily adopted by the burn decks to round out their arsenal of Lightning Bolts, and Light Up the Stage has been incorporated into the Arclight Phoenix decks that have sprung up in the format since the release of Guilds. Skewer has even made it into the occasional Legacy deck – which is quite the feat for a Sorcery-speed spell – and it has also become an instant Pauper all-star.
Electrodominance was incredibly hyped-up when it was spoiled, with many people considering the many ways it could be broken in half for Modern. Surprisingly, it has seen almost no Standard play, but it has found a home in the Living End archetype. Traditionally, Living End is cast via Cascade spells, but Electrodominance has provided a very palatable alternative, which has been adopted into some winning strategies.
Skarrgan Hellkite is another card that has been played less than I expected. It has seen some daylight in the Jund Chainwhirler and Gruul Midrange decks, but given how powerful and ubiquitous Glorybringer was, I find it hard to believe that this Mythic dragon has yet seen its heyday. Keep an eye on this card as the meta evolves, for I’ve no doubt that with the right home it will be an absolute powerhouse.
Finally, we move onto green.
Incubation Druid has, for me, been the surprise card of the set. Initially it didn’t seem exciting, but after actually playing with it I was very impressed. It’s excellent when combined with other fast ramp cards so you can slam your bombs early; it’s a useful late-game blocker with 5 toughness; it’s a mana fix; and in token strategies, having one of these for that extra bit of mana when casting a game-ending March of the Multitudes can make all the difference.
Incubation Druid also combines well with another card here, Growth-Chamber Guardian. A 2/2 for 2 doesn’t seem all that exciting, but it becomes a much more interesting prospect when it adapts to be a 4/4 for 2 which brings a friend along. Card advantage is hard to come by in green, and this Elf Crab Warrior brings it in spades early game – it reminds me of Squadron Hawk, but with a lot more utility. As a class two-drop which slots into most green decks with ease, I expect to see a lot more of these as the meta adapts throughout its lifetime in Standard.
Biogenic Ooze reminds me very much of the Rivals of Ixalan bomb, Tendershoot Dryad. It’s an absolute powerhouse in Limited – if you control it for more than a turn, you probably win – but it also has a home in Constructed. It’s not yet become a breakout all-powerful mythic card, but it has the potential. This is another card to keep an eye on; much like Skarrgan Hellkite, in the right shell it could be an all-star.
Now for the big one. Wilderness Reclamation, what, oh what have you done to our Standard?
Of all the card designs in the set, this is the one that screams to me of a mistake. Normally, powerful effects like this are on rares or mythics, or have a story spotlight to go along with them. This, though, seems to have been merely a power level oversight. The fact that it’s an uncommon with no real story and pretty run-of-the-mill artwork suggests to me that Wizards of the Coast had very little idea of what they had unleashed.
Prior to Allegiance, Bant Nexus relied on Karn and Teferi to generate enough card advantage to find and loop Nexus of Fate and deliver win conditions, while Root Snare bought time. It was by no means a standout deck. Enter Wilderness Reclamation and the ability to float mana on your end step, and all of a sudden Nexus of Fate is castable on turn five with mana to spare; if the Nexus player untaps with a Wilderness Reclamation and a transformed Azcanta, it is very likely that you should concede on the spot, as you will almost certainly not be getting another turn.
At its prime in Best of One games, this card pushed the archetype to become ubiquitous at the top of the queue in MTG Arena, so much so that Wizards of the Coast had to take action and remove Nexus of Fate from the format entirely. Of course, this pushed all the Nexus players into the Traditional Best of Three queue, and now the deck has been refined with a proper sideboard technique. It’s nowhere near on the same power level in traditional or tabletop format, but Reclamation still makes for a must-kill target immediately, and the deck has seen pretty good results. It remains to be seen whether further action will need to be taken, but for now, Wilderness Reclamation is definitely on everyone’s watchlist.
And now for the Gold Standard gold cards.
There have been plenty of gold cards that have seen Standard play, so many that it’s difficult to mention and discuss them all. Mono-white decks splashed blue to run Deputy of Detention. Aristocrats and Hero archetypes sprung up around Judith, Scourge Diva. Domri, along with Rhythm of the Wild and Gruul Spellbreaker, has smashed his way into the midrange meta, while Dovin, Kaya and Ral have all seen play across the board. Seraph of the Scales has become a sticky flying threat in Aristocrats, Bedevil and Theater of Horrors have rounded out the red-black sideboards and Prime Speaker Vannifar has popped her head up in Modern and become an instant Commander favourite.
So, instead of discussing all these cards, I’ll focus on one established archetype which has gained the most from Allegiance Gold cards, and one new one which has been created by them.
Firstly, let’s take a look at our established deck, Esper Control.
Prior to Allegiance, Esper was a fairly solid archetype which, along with straight blue-black, was the main representative for control decks. Cards like Cast Down, Sinister Sabotage, Cleansing Nova and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria allowed for a clean and well-executed control game plan with an eventual win condition, with Thief of Sanity and Doom Whisperer as useful alternatives. These three cards, though, changed Esper from one of the options to the best option without question.
Mortify is a versatile and efficient removal option which deals with troublesome enchantments like Search for Azcanta and Wilderness Reclamation out of the mainboard while also unconditionally removing large or powerful creatures. Absorb is a reprint in a similar vein to Opt, an old pre-Modern card making a comeback. In this meta, it replaced Sinister Sabotage as the staple counterspell – which has given a huge edge to Esper in aggro matchups – thanks to its incidental life gain. Kaya’s Wrath joined Cleansing Nova in the pantheon of boardwipes, and sitting at four mana while also potentially gaining some life in the process is a very big deal for the slow and grindy deck, allowing it to regain board control earlier and stabilise. Thanks to these cards (and Godless Shrine fixing for Kaya’s Wrath), Esper has now become the premier control archetype.
Finally, let’s take a look at the singular card which has affected Standard the most.
It’s a gold card which has formed an entire archetype around it and which has seen play in every single list that can possibly afford to run it (and even some that can’t – see for reference Kenji Egashira’s mono-black Chromatic Lantern deck!)
It’s been a long time since a midrange creature has provided this much value. The fact that the card draw and lifegain trigger on cast makes it monumentally better. Against control, card advantage is everything and they can’t counter that effect, and against aggro you don’t mind too much if they kill it, because the life is what matters. If it resolves, you’re happy because you have a big trampling flyer, if it doesn’t then it doesn’t matter because it’s already replaced itself or better. Not to mention, when combined with effects like Find // Finality which can bring it back and cast it over and over again, you find yourself drowning in card advantage and forcing your opponent onto the back foot. This card is the real deal.
It’s castable at any stage of the game you need it from turn four up to turn sixty, it’s a scaleable threat, it’s difficult to kill without direct removal and even then you can buy it back with Memorial to Folly or Find, and it’s effective as an attacker or blocker with evasion. This card is exactly what midrange needed to push into the meta, and Sultai has now become the premier example of this type of deck. Before Krasis, Golgari was fairly good due to the Exploration creatures package and Ravenous Chupacabra, but now blue is a necessity because not running this card is unthinkable. I believe that this will continue to be the case right up until its rotation.
It would be remiss of me to write an article about a Ravnica set without at least brushing on the impact of the lands in the set. Prior to Allegiance, manabases were skewed in favour of the enemy guilds, but the addition of Godless Shrine, Stomping Ground, Hallowed Fountain, Breeding Pool and Blood Crypt has evened the playing field and allowed all three-colour combinations to splash optimally.
Naturally, this has led to more options for colour diversity. The last time the check (buddy) lands were in Standard alongside the shocks were the days of Innistrad and Return to Ravnica block’s Omnidoor Thragfire and four-colour Restoration Angel brews. This time around, we have seen the two-colour decks expand to accommodate a third main colour and allow for more powerful bombs. For a prime example, consider how the staple Golgari midrange deck of Guilds Standard adopted Hydroid Krasis (and a third colour) without any trouble at all. Esper, too, has evolved with the help of the Azorius and Orzhov lands, excluding the previous Dimir control deck from the format in favour of including the powerful slew of Allegiance black-white cards.
Adding more shock lands to the format, though, has interestingly also increased the power of the mono-coloured decks. When you are running against an aggressive strategy like mono-red or mono-blue, having to pay 10% of your starting life total to play your untapped lands on curve is a serious consideration, and one which can sometimes make an entire card’s worth of difference to a burn deck. Therefore, one of the side effects of having the three-colour decks is the emergence of more streamlined strategies which play into the opponent having shock lands.
In addition to the shock lands, of course, Ravnica Allegiance also brought us the five remaining Guildgates. While Guildgates don’t generally see much Constructed play, there are enough powerful Gates-matter cards in Allegiance to have actually seen a deck come to light. It’s certainly more at home in the Best of One ladder, but is actually seeing some tabletop play as well. Base green, and with the mana fixing offered by Open the Gates, these decks normally splash four colours and utilize cards such as Gates Ablaze, Gate Colossus and Gatebreaker Ram as victory conditions.
The advantage of this hilarious brew is, naturally, having access to all five colours at minimal risk of screw. However, the fact that almost all the lands in the deck come in tapped means that as you are constantly playing a turn behind and relying on your haymakers to resolve and pull their weight, falling behind can be disastrous. More Gate support from War of the Spark could make this deck shine, à la Maze’s End from Dragon’s Maze, but on that front, we will simply have to wait and see.
Well, there you have it. A summary of how Ravnica Allegiance cards have impacted Standard, the top deck archetypes and the cards that can slot into them. I hope you have a fun time brewing around your favourites, or utilising and mastering the lists from Mythic Championship Cleveland on the MTG Arena ladder or out at FNM with your friends.
Thanks for reading; I’m very glad to be back.