With the PTQ season drawing towards a close I want to take a look at what Standard looks like in the absence of Lorwyn Block so that we can begin to prepare for the arrival of Zendikar with whatever wackiness it contains. Some might say this is easy and just point to Shards Block Constructed and its dominance by the Cascade mechanic. However I’m certain that Magic 2010 has a significant impact on that card-pool and wanted to incorporate it into my look at the coming Standard.
I could of course just continue to focus on the PTQ format and wait until Zendikar appeared. Prognostication is always much much easier when it is closer in time and based on more information. Unfortunately time is not something I have in abundance; I have for the past three months been working on a private project putting together a novel to hopefully publish at its conclusion and the project has grown considerably as I now exit the ‘research’ phase and have to actually ‘sit down and write.’ I can continue to chase Magic and write this column or I can actually attempt this project I have chosen to begin. This means that next week’s Magical Hack will be the last of my multi-year run with the series until the book project has either succeeded or failed and thus time (to me) is of the essence.
Working with modern Standard we tend not to realize just how good we have it. We have lived in a golden age of Magic with a vibrant and fluid metagame that has numerous valid options worthy of consideration as Tier 1 strategies. Manabases have been better than we have ever seen before with Extended based on fetchlands and true dual lands and Standard allowing any two-color combination to exist with excellent mana and even a true five-color strategy based around Vivid lands and Reflecting Pool. Because the mana can be made to work for literally anything we want it to all of the building blocks of the format have been at our disposal and thanks to the different flavors of all the various sets we have seen some interesting building blocks indeed. But it’s obvious to all that Lorwyn Block is much more powerful than Shards of Alara Block: the impact of even the most ridiculous of cards in Shards Block (let’s call it Cruel Ultimatum rather than have a debate) pales in comparison to the impact generated by having Cryptic Command or Bitterblossom in Standard. Alara Reborn was a good shot in the arm of Shards Block for card power purposes and right behind it we also have Magic 2010 curving pretty high on the power level comparison. We do have some clear underpinnings for how to build to succeed in the new Standard thanks to Alara Block Constructed; I would like to take a look at that format-to-be and see what we can learn of it before mixing a new standalone in as well.
The first and most drastic change we will notice will be that mana will once again require care and discipline. No longer can we play eleven Vivid lands four Reflecting Pools eight other miscellaneous dual lands and three basic lands and call it a functioning deck even if it does have quadruple green for Cloudthresher followed by triple Black double Blue and double Red for Cruel Ultimatum the next turn. By logical extension our ability to stretch for mana will readily extend only to single double-colored or triple-colored decks and only those triple-color combinations that focus specifically on a color ‘shard.’ Admittedly with a little help an allied pair and their common enemy might be made to work but this would presumably be the exception rather than the rule.
Presume for a moment that we wanted to play Jund. Right now our manabases look something like this:
Black Mana: 15
Red Mana: 13
Green Mana: 15
... And 4 Reflecting Pools to serve as the second color of any of these once the first has been found.
Building Jund to work now however will probably require some delicate care balancing comes-into-play-tapped lands against color requirements. With plenty of functional Jund decks right now starting with double-digit lands that come into play tapped I see no reason to suspect that building a mana-base that starts with eight lands that definitely come into play tapped would be a problem. Those eight lands of course would be Savage Lands... and Terramorphic Expanse serving as an enabler to future Dragonskull Summits and Rootbound Crags. We might expect the following to be our starting point prior to the release of Zendikar and its potential nonbasic land options:
This gives us enough basics to turn on our dual lands especially since one Mountain found via Terramorphic Expanse enables either of them... but we do have to skimp on Mountains as we already have Red as the most plentiful color by far and need to balance this with the other two colors if we are to achieve an even balance of colors. We now have access to the following:
Red Mana: 18 Sources
Green Mana: 16 Sources
Black Mana: 16 Sources
The one greatest complication we face here is the fact that the eight allied-color dual lands simply do not contribute to casting Putrid Leech if you are trying to play them untapped on turn 2. Presumably Putrid Leech will still be well worth casting and to cast it on turn two you will need one of the following combinations:
Modern Jund decks currently survive despite the fact that they possess combinations of lands that simply cannot cast turn 2 Putrid Leech as you’ll see with Fire-Lit Thickets or Graven Cairns in their decklists... or simply can’t cast Putrid Leech turn 2 because they have too many Vivid lands. Assuming then no massive shift to the speed of the format this occasional inability (which can be mastered by playing your opening hand correctly and correctly accommodating for these possibilities in your mulligan decisions) is presumably within the tolerances for an acceptable problem and is the biggest issue with the tri-land / Terramorphic Expanse / double dual land mana-base. It can after all similarly be extended to any allied-colored shard simply by adjusting the names on the lands. In Esper colors the problematic card to cast would instead be Tidehollow Sculler and for the same reasons: M10’s allied-color dual lands do not easily allow for playing enemy-colored cards early in the game so the number of effective combinations that allow that particular turn-two play is reasonably limited.
Working with a less well-allied triad of colors... Planar Chaos’ ‘wedge’ Dragons as opposed to Invasion’s ‘shard’ Dragons... you can see some of the same problems still present and the overall color balance shifts downward as your number of dual lands you get to play decreases. Let us look for options in Doran colors B/G/W in a world without Lorwyn:
This gives us 14 colored mana of each of the three colors a considerable downgrade from the allied-color shard which gave us 18 colored mana of the shard’s focus color and 16 colored mana of the shard’s periphery colors. Some balancing of options is of course possible as we can always add more Shards tri-lands to add enemy-color needs; here we use Savage Lands as a Black/Green dual land and we could just as easily use Arcane Sanctum as a Black/White dual land and trade Plains for Forests. (This decision might be appropriate if for example we want to bias the deck with as many possible ways of casting Putrid Leech on turn 2 as this gives us many Swamps and Forests in our deck and fewer Plains with the Plains never contributing the mana we need for Putrid Leech.)
Sticking to just two colors we’d instead have access to up to eight Shards of Alara tri-lands that serve as true dual lands plus our M10 dual land if we were to stick to allied colors. Enemy color pairs would leave us with just one Shards of Alara tri-land and Terramorphic Expanse as our dual lands and no help from M10 otherwise as it focuses exclusively on allied-color pairs. Stretching to include a fourth color into a tri-color shard... such as Naya / Jund combined together to fit Enlisted Wurm into a Jund Cascade base... requires even more lands that come into play tapped as we add Jungle Shrine alongside Savage Lands and presumably the addition of one basic land of the off color to turn Terramorphic Expanse on. Playing the full-on five colors requires the use of Rupture Spire or Ancient Ziggurat depending on whether we are looking at an aggressive creature-based strategy or a slow controlling one. Some assistance may be possible with basic landsearchers as Zac Hill and others did well playing just that at Pro Tour Honolulu with Traumatic Visions in their starting lineup but from the very beginning it must be understood that this is very difficult to do well and has its own obvious sacrifices.
Constructed options live or die by their mana. Black/White Kithkin would still be an absolute contender for Standard right now if it had the manabase to support the light Black splash for Zealous Persecution but having only four dual lands instead of the previous eight slashed that decision entirely out of existence. Five-Color Control is only even possible because the Vivid lands were perhaps pushed a bit too hard allowing for a manabase that can literally do whatever it wants for spells and creatures without having to pay much more of a cost than a set number of lands entering the battlefield tapped. And what it takes to get your mana operational has some interesting ramifications on the rest of a format as we were so recently reminded by the success of G/W Aggro in Shards Block simply based on how bad and how slow everyone else’s mana was. Magic 2010 includes a ready-made set of aggressive creatures with tribal synergy and while the Soldier tribe is not the equal of the Kithkin tribe it is nonetheless a reasonable starting point for an attack deck that is conscious of its mana-curve. With some indication of the fact that mana will be slowing down and dropping a bit of consistency if we want to play three colors in the same deck a simple attack strategy has some basic merit at least in the start of things.
To have a look at the building blocks of a new Standard then I’m going to poke some of the metrics that matter and see what they say. We’ve already looked at the first big one mana so I want to go down the list of everything else I consider fundamentally important when blocking out a format and see what these things have to say about what the future holds for us.
White leads the way with aggressive creatures but Standard even without Lorwyn Block still has some quite excellent aggressive threats to deploy. White has Elite Vanguard and Green has Wild Nacatl. Combining the two with a reasonable manabase allowing for enough Plains to have the Nacatl attacking as a 2/2 gives you a considerable number of two-power one-drops a critical starting point for a good aggressive curve. At the two-drop Putrid Leech still remains though the difficulty in casting it has already been noted: you can realistically get away with it if you try for a Black/Green deck but in a deck of there or more colors it might be unrealistic to actually think of this as a two-drop due to its enemy-colored status in a world with allied-color dual lands.
Bloodbraid Elf is still an amazing aggressive creature as we have at times in the past paid four mana for a three-power haste creature and tried to keep a straight face about it and stapling free mana and a free spell to it can only be pure upside... we all can recognize Bloodbraid Elf as one of the most aggressively-costed cards in recent memory so recognizing it as good is the kind of obvious thing that rightfully gets you mocked in the Forums. But it is a four-drop which means we are looking at two different styles of aggression: the fast drops that can just take an opponent out quickly such as a G/W base might provide and a more mid-speed deck that relies on quality drops at three and four to overwhelm the opponent. To go alongside that possible option we also see Great Sable Stag which has a solid body for its cost and some highly-relevant abilities even in a world without Bitterblossom and Woolly Thoctar has begun seeing play in Standard with a straight face a fact I would expect to continue without the tribal-heavy Lorwyn block to contain it.
For one-drop creatures we should also probably note that Birds of Paradise Llanowar Elves and Noble Hierarch are all legal at the same time so a deck based around jumping up to the higher mana curves might be quite reasonable to consider and has been the working model for successful Green strategies at various times in the past (see also: My Fires). Green/Blue in particular deserves a good hard look because of the fact that both Birds of Paradise and Noble Hierarch tap for it and thus this is the one easy workaround to the fact that enemy color pairs are going to be unusually hard to make work now that we have a cycle of allied-color dual lands with no enemy-colored lands. Ironically Birds and Elves cannot in this case work together with the mid-game-sized deck that so seems to want their assistance; both are terrible to flip off of Cascade and thus tend to work themselves back out of any deck playing Bloodbraid Elf.
The counter to aggression and an excellent way to help figure out where the ‘high water mark’ stands for Standard as far as toughness is concerned. Volcanic Fallout sets the high-water mark at three as does its cousins Pyroclasm Jund Charm and Infest so there is credible reason to think that creatures below three toughness might run into problems with board sweepers. Lightning Bolt implies that you really want four toughness if you can get it but as that’s still a one-for-one trade (even if it is one at terrible value when your three-drop or four-drop bites it to the one-mana Bolt) it’s less crucial to note.
Other than these we start to run into some pretty thin territory. Wrath of God left us already and Lorwyn rotating will take Austere Command and Hallowed Burial as well. Planar Cleansing is the only true Wrath we’ll have left barring a playable Wrath effect in Zendikar though it should be worth noting that aggressive decks are usually unhappy to play against Maelstrom Pulse since it punishes them for drawing duplicate threat cards. The most versatile sweeper for hitting above the two-damage mark is then Earthquake which has the downside (to a controlling deck at least... Red decks don’t seem to mind!) of dealing damage while it’s killing creatures making it harder to stabilize because you’re putting yourself at lower life. Barring some change to the card-pool however I would figure on Earthquake being the best of the mass-removal spells so long as it could be made to fit within an otherwise-functional shell that can accommodate its downsides... Baneslayer Angel would do very nicely for that.
Countermagic has been getting pretty thin on the ground and with Lorwyn Block out of the mix we will be left with only Negate and
Remove Soul Essence Scatter as two-mana counters. While a lot of people didn’t like Broken Ambitions it was still a functional turn-two counter that didn’t care what type of spell we were talking about and which didn’t turn entirely dead in the later game even if it did drastically reduce in value. Hindering Light is also slightly counterspell-y but really considering it a ‘counterspell’ would probably be a poor idea.
At three mana you have Cancel Double Negative Soul Manipulation and Lapse of Certainty. Stretching up to four mana gets us Asha’s Offering and Punish Ignorance while the five-mana mark gives us the aforementioned Traumatic Visions which is part land and part countermagic (and neither part very efficient but it’s still efficient enough). Double Negative has the same enemy-color problem that Putrid Leech does but if Blue and Red are the color combination of choice by themselves for countermagic plus Earthquake it may see some reasonable use thanks to its effectiveness against the Cascade mechanic. Asha’s Offering is the kind of counterspell I laugh at and in fact have done so in the tail end of a long Constructed tournament recently but most of my laughing at it has been based on the fact that it was being played when there were more effective and frankly better options to be considered: the opponent who was casting Asha’s Offering against me had it instead of Cryptic Command. Absent of Cryptic Command being in the format it might actually be a realistic contender for a few slots though the jaded tournament mage in me doesn’t think we’ll ever see it as a four-of in any deck worth noticing.
Barring a cheap counter in Zendikar the standard options for countermagic are going to come down to Cancel and Essence Scatter. Despite being legal since Time Spiral Cancel has seen next to no tournament play; it was played in Block Constructed Teachings decks but wasn’t even considered right then. However there is realistic reason to think that we may actually be seeing a "cheap counter" in Zendikar that might stand up to Cancel as a realistic option: Zendikar has a theme involving alternate mana costs on its cards and so far we’ve seen four cards: one with kicker (mana cost ticks up = more options) and one with an alternate reduced mana cost (meet condition X = pay a bargain price). Some theories have suggested Delve will be appearing in Zendikar and thus that Logic Knot may actually be making an appearance in Standard again to be the possible counterspell of choice. In this world of Logic Knotting it would be critical to have a card in one’s graveyard at the end of the first turn... so keep that in mind anyone who disbelieved the idea of Terramorphic Expanse as a realistic option in the above examples and all ye naysayers of Ponder.
Barring another reasonable counterspell entering Standard Cancel will become the new gold standard of countermagic... or perhaps more accurately counterspell-based control strategies will begin to decrease from popularity based on the fact that it is becoming an unwieldy method of answering spells. Keeping up Cancel when Elite Vanguard and Veteran Armorsmith have already slipped beneath the counterwall is an exercise in futility.
Some things just get easier with a little mana acceleration thrown in. Tap-out Control decks like something to let them start tapping out... and controlling... just that much earlier which is why Mind Stone will be missed and it will probably be a long time before we see the Signets again. We will still have some mana acceleration options available to us but they will be downright scarce outside of Green. Green gets Rampant Growth and Trace of Abundance plus Birds / Elves / Hierarch and possibly more Elves if it wants to use Elvish Archdruid. Outside of the color Green however you only currently get to try leaning on Knight of the White Orchid which also has Borderposts as a factor it relies on which comes with even more design constraints built into it that you might not want. Green can accelerate which is great... it’s when Blue gets to accelerate that we really start to notice.
Card Advantage / Discard
Discard is like card advantage so it will get put in the same column. While Mind Rot is not going to make it into decklists anytime soon Blightning is clearly Constructed-playable and might just be pretty high on the list of things that are good in Constructed right now. For card draw we have the following options:
Realistic – Jace Beleren Esper Charm Courier’s Capsule Sign in Blood maybe Divination
Unrealistic – Mind Spring Covenant of Minds Dragon Appeasement Drastic Revelation Drumhunter Kiss of the Amesha Mask of Riddles Scepter of Insight Skullmulcher Soul’s Majesty Vedalken Heretic
Incidental To Winning The Game – Cruel Ultimatum
Combo Decks Only: Howling Mine Font of Mythos
Remembering the fact that polychromatic decks are getting harder to play Esper Charm will presumably reduce some in presence as I’d expect more people to want the end-game power of Cruel Ultimatum than require the card-draw spell be specifically Esper Charm. My opinion of Jace Beleren is very high indeed and I expect that we will see control decks designed to contain the board and work Jace as more of the norm. Sign in Blood is also something I’d expect to see picking up and I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a Cascade-based deck that made use of both Sign in Blood and Blightning to keep the card count running in its favor appear as Bloodbraid Elf into Blightning was one of the best strategies for Alara Block Constructed and could only be improved by adding some dedicated card-draw to the mix.
Combining all of these things together I would expect a controlling deck to be light on countermagic heavy on board control and reliant on Jace Beleren for card advantage (... and Baneslayer Angel for board presence advantage because this girl is nuts... ). Stretching the mana might be worthwhile to gain access to Baneslayer Jace and Earthquake; season the rest of the deck to taste. Because countermagic is weak but there are also realistic options for card draw besides Blue cards non-Blue control decks will be quite reasonable to consider meaning that unless we see a change in Zendikar this will be a Standard format that Mike Flores will love as it will let him play mid-range Borderland Ranger decks with a Banefire kill all while keeping a straight face.
Aggressive creatures are a valid option or at least they will be with a little bit of assistance from Zendikar block to give a few more worthwhile cheap drops along the way. Because of Ancient Ziggurat aggressive creature decks can actually get away with stretching their mana harder than the control decks can so that theoretical Woolly Thoctar deck may be quite good indeed if that is how things play out. The power curve for creatures has grown pretty steadily recently and the tri-colored creatures from Shards Block are right there with that giving us powerful bombs like Rafiq of the Many or just a 5/4 for 3. Board-dominating single creatures are also very much present in the format with Uril the Miststalker Thornling Broodmate Dragon and Baneslayer Angel all worthy of consideration in the role of ‘finisher’... and possibly in a variety of decks as I wouldn’t be surprised to see Baneslayer Angel where White decks currently have Cloudgoat Ranger and one of my more recent experiments did have four copies of Thornling in a beatdown-deck shell.
Onslaught Block was touted at the time as a world of light countermagic and big spells. Post-Lorwyn Standard is looking to me to be a similar place... one where the beatdown decks aren’t too strong but also aren’t ridiculously outclassed by the removal spells and where big potent threats might just be the order of the day. There’s just two problems with that as far as my comparison goes: Path to Exile and Cascade. Path to Exile answers literally every problem creature save for Uril the Miststalker for one mana at instant speed and with minimal downside (as hopefully we’ve come to realize over the past few months). Big spells are only worthwhile when they aren’t readily outclassed by the answer cards which is part of why Onslaught Block’s focus on big spells started by taking countermagic out of the equation first and foremost. But Onslaught Block didn’t have a ready answer to Silvos / Visara / Rorix in a one-mana package which will have an impact as we design decks that work in a more mid-range capacity.
Onslaught Block also didn’t have Cascade. Cascade is probably the best thing you could want to do in this upcoming format just like it was the best thing to want to do in Shards Block Constructed. Jace Beleren was the best pure card-draw card in the format... but Cascade as a mechanic is both card draw and free mana which is why chaining multiple Cascade cards together feels like the sickest thing ever. These things are pretty aggressively costed and are all pretty much great when you’re paying retail on just one extra card out of the deal instead of casting Enlisted Ultimatum. Cascade is another solid reason I suspect that the coming year will not be the Year of the Blue Deck as the power of the Cascade mechanic is not to be denied and the "randomness" of the Cascade mechanic is nowhere near as random as was originally claimed. My hope is that when it comes time for Regionals next year we don’t just point to all the Zendikar Block cards that couldn’t make a dent in a Cascade-driven environment and say "this is why we can’t have anything nice" but even the ‘inbred’ Shards Block Constructed metagame proved more resilient than expected to the Cascade menace.
The mana won’t be as good. The format might not have a Blue deck as the de-facto best deck in the format. Patrick Chapin will probably have to work a little harder to cast Cruel Ultimatum and probably can’t play it in the same deck as Putrid Leech anymore. Zendikar seems as if it will have some promise to it even from just the previews we’ve seen so far four unimpressive cards: the theme it seems to be playing with is the variability of mana costs which is bound to interact positively with the Cascade mechanic... and besides who doesn’t like getting a bargain sometimes?
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