"It would be a shame if there was nothing in Gatecrash that could compete with Sphinx's Revelation in blue decks."
Be careful what you wish for.
At this point, Sphinx's Revelation's true power is pretty well known. Standard has completely turned over a number of times, and control is not currently at a high point. Nevertheless, from the cards previewed so far, Gatecrash will undoubtedly have a major impact on the format, and we'd be wise to not underestimate the possible directions the format might go. We might be looking at a future dominated by Boros Humans, or U/B Control, or some new Simic Evolve Aggro, or Gruul, or Zoo, or Five-Color Control, or even some completely unknown B/W archetype that hasn't been invented yet.
One highly powered new card that doesn't neatly fit into the existing power structure is Prime Speaker Zegana. The Simic answer to Sphinx's Revelation, Zegana has a lot of power on the surface, but deeper exploration reveals enough ways to abuse her that the format is going to have to change to incorporate her.
What is so special about Prime Speaker Zegana? After all, isn't this just a Commander general waiting to happen? While it's true that this is a general so exciting I am giving serious thought to putting together a Commander deck (an awesome format, but one that I generally only put a deck together for while gunslinging), her impact is going to be much further reaching.
Before getting into the synergies that make this card so over the top, let's start by looking at the raw power.
Six mana Elvish Visionary!
Ok, so we're going to have to combine this with a creature, eh? Well, just how big of a creature do we need to make it all worthwhile? Well, even if we have just a Borderland Ranger, we are talking about drawing three cards and getting a 3/3 (which is generally worth more than a card). Six mana Tidings is not that bad, particularly if that is the fail case. After all, people are considering playing Urban Evolution, right?
Skipping to the other end of the spectrum, what is the default play pattern? It would seem the natural sequence is five mana Thragtusk, six mana Prime Speaker Zegana. It isn't just a natural curve, it's also a six-mana 6/6 that draws you six cards. That is obviously miles beyond fair, and if your deck is well built, you are going to win the vast majority of games that goes down.
As a creature, Prime Speaker is potentially uncounterable with Cavern of Souls, so what can your opponent do to stop this? Zegana enters the battlefield with the counters, so it's not like they can Murder her in response to somehow make you only draw one card. They also can't Searing Spear her before she has counters or any nonsense like that.
This means they are stuck pointing those removal spells at the Thragtusk (which is always fun for the owner of the Thragtusk). This actually has an impact; however, we still get to draw four and have a 4/4 body next to our 3/3. Would I play a six mana 4/4 that drew four cards? I'd play four in a heartbeat!
Ok, there's no question, Prime Time is bonkers good with Thragtusk (which is a relief because that card needed the help...), but what about if we don't draw the Thragtusk or our opponent has removal? Zegana is not just a raw draw spell. She actually is going to have an impact on deck construction. What's really interesting is that she wants you to play with a bunch of big dudes (or at least highly powered ones), but like almost all big card drawers she makes you want to play a lot of spells to capitalize on all those cards once you draw them.
This means, despite the draw trigger requiring creatures, Zegana may actually push us to play fewer creatures in some decks than we may have otherwise. After all, the last thing we want to do is draw six extra cards and still lose to a Supreme Verdict.
Returning to the question of base rate, consider another successful tournament card, Draining Whelk, for a moment.
Draining Whelk had an awful lot of competition for expensive ways to spend mana. I am not sure there are even that many 6+ mana cards in Zegana's league in the current Standard. Sphinx's Revelation, Angel of Serenity, and …?
As good of a rate as Prime Time has, what makes her so exciting is her abusability. Card drawers this strong are few and far between these days, but they are almost never on creatures. Creatures are the card type that can be greatest abused by synergies!
We already mentioned Cavern of Souls, which puts a real clock on any midrange or control strategy that would just be sitting around doing fair things. This is just the tip of the iceberg, though. To really see why Zegana is so threatening to the format, let's just walk through the resolution of one.
Ok, so things are going well, we stuck our Zegana. Maybe she was uncounterable. Now we are drawing four to six cards. Sweet! What's next, though? If we just play out a bunch of dudes, we could lose all those cards to a Supreme Verdict or Mutilate, right?
What if one of the cards we draw is Unsummon?
Ok, everybody out of the format. The format's closed for broken.
It's not like Unsummon is even anything less than a good card these days. You need something to survive the early turns, and there are few better tempo plays than Unsummon. When your deck is full of draw sixes, there's nothing you want more than a little tempo. That you can then turn it into another draw six is just crazy. Once you get going, you never have to stop. Even if you stumble, Unsummon can bounce your own guys to get some kind of effect in the early or midgame.
It's another Unsummon when you need it, but the Giant Growth side gives us a surprise element that might even make for an Ancestral Recall (imagine we have just Zegana and Simic Charm with no other creatures...). The ability to make our permanents hexproof gives us an opportunity to make some tempo plays that we wouldn't normally be able to with Unsummon. It's not just that we can save our creature from a removal spell without having to recast it. We can actually save any (and all) of our permanents!
Whether it's protection from Detention Sphere or Acidic Slime, Simic Charm's hexproof ability will sometimes resemble Counterspell, sometimes Stifle. It is very possible to play too many bounce spells, but Prime Speaker Zegana makes that number a fair bit higher than it otherwise would be. Once you factor in Snapcaster Mages, it is conceivable that a realistic quantity of Unsummons leads to a never-ending supply of big draw spells.
Yes, Restoration Angel actually works the best possible way with Zegana in every way. To start with, Restoration Angel is another creature we can be happy about playing with a power great enough to let us push Zegana. If the Angel comes second, we actually get to trigger Zegana's ability a second time (which is supposed to be limited by Zegana being a legend). Remember, when Zegana Blinks, she is going to reset her counters to whatever is correct this time around (which should mean at least four cards, assuming the Angel lives).
Once we are looking to abuse Zegana this hard, opponents are going to be greatly incentivized to kill Zegana ASAP. The more ways to protect her, the better. Plus, the sickest part is that even if we don't draw Zegana, there are worse cards to draw in our Thragtusk deck than Restoration Angel...
The Restoration Angel synergy is so powerful that it is not clear that Cloudshift isn't good enough. I mean, seriously, what if we actually just combo off? What if we just keep Blinking our Zegana? There are so many possible ways to take this. It is just wild to think that she is so strong and yet works so well with so many of the good cards. That is a sure sign that this card should be near the top of our dangerous cards list.
To be clear, this is far from a Bant-only card. Her synergy in a Bant deck is undeniable, but there are far more good combos with her than we could possibly have room for. One of the other major selling points to Zegana is that she is a Sphinx's Revelation for people without white mana. This means that Simic, RUG, and BUG all now have access to a major card drawer. This might open the format up a little...
Of course, it may also just make it much harder for people to hose control with Slaughter Games. After all, what if someone plays three Sphinx's Revelations and two or three Zeganas? That alone is going to upset the balance of power. Over the past three months, Slaughter Games has moved from "typical noob trap" to "format staple helping keep control in check." If it is half as effective at its primary job as it used to be, that is going to cause ripples that will have a profound impact on the format.
Ok, let's try putting together some initial sketches of Zegana decks.
Obviously there are tons of potential ways to build a Bant deck with Zegana in it, but I just wanted to highlight a couple synergies we have not yet discussed. To start with, Azorius Charm isn't often pointed at our own guy, but Zegana's enters the battlefield trigger is so good that it is well worth it (when the occasion presents itself).
Angel of Serenity is absolutely fantastic here. To start with, it gives you a very powerful thing to draw into that can take over the board. It also lets you recycle your Zeganas, ensuring that once you get going, you never stop.
Alchemist's Refuge is an absolutely perfect fit with Zegana. It lets you keep mana open, potentially Dissipating, but also just not tipping your hand. Then, on your opponent's end step, you can flash down an uncounterable Braingeyser, untap, and start playing your spells immediately.
It is only tangentially related, but the mana base reveals a technique that most deckbuilders will likely miss until they see tournament winning post-Gatecrash mana bases. There is going to be a temptation to play twelve shocklands, twelve M10s, and maybe a couple action lands. Some of the time, people are going to need or want to trim some duals. They will generally start by cutting M10s. They will generally be wrong. As long as you have a critical mass of the basic types and few one-drops, you are going to want more M10s than shocklands in much the same way that you generally want more fetchlands than shocklands because of how good the shocklands are.
Standard is an aggressive place, and we can't just pay two life over and over for our lands to come into play untapped. Is it really that crazy to cut some Hallowed Fountains for some basics? I mean, you do have fifteen lands that make each of those colors, not counting Cavern of Souls, and the first land you Farseek up is usually going to be Hallowed Fountain. There is such a thing as having "too good of mana." What is too good of mana? When you are paying more life and accepting other drawbacks to make your colors even better when you already have great mana. Mana fixing, like so many other things, has diminishing returns.
What about a non-Bant deck? Well, this next one is definitely wildly speculative, but what about RUG?
- 2 Borderland Ranger
- 1 Huntmaster of the Fells
- 4 Izzet Staticaster
- 4 Nightshade Peddler
- 4 Thragtusk
- 2 Wolfir Avenger
- 1 Wolfir Silverheart
- 3 Prime Speaker Zegana
- 2 Yeva, Nature's Herald
When beginning to brew for a new format, it can be very informative to just try lots of different cards. Are we likely to end up with two Borderland Rangers and two Wolfir Avengers? Unlikely, but trying both is more likely to give us better information.
Borderland Ranger is nice because we really do need to make sure to go all the way up to six and we aren't playing anything like Think Twice or Desperate Ravings to smooth our draws. Wolfir Avenger is fun, as he lets us follow up our opponent's sweeper by playing an end step Avenger then untapping and drawing four. Additionally, a surprise flash deathtouch regenerator is a potent defensive tool.
On the topic of Wolfirs, Wolfir Silverheart is kind of a speculative experiment. It could easily be too "win more," but people said the same thing about Sphinx's Revelation and Cruel Ultimatum. Most of the time, win mores really are just too much and inefficient. However, sometimes they aren't really win mores, they are "actually wins."
The prospect of drawing nine cards off of the Silverheart is obviously super sexy, but we do have to be careful. To start with, if the Silverheart is not currently soulbonded with a creature, it won't bond with Zegana before her power and toughness are locked in.
Yeva is pretty exciting with Zegana for a couple reasons. To start with, you can do the whole flash down Yeva, untap Zegana combo and get a sick surprise draw five. Additionally, the prospect of being able to play Zegana at instant speed is quite appealing.
I'm not sure the whole Nightshade Peddler + Izzet Staticaster combo belongs here, and if it does, there is a good chance it is unforgiveable to cut the Huntmasters. It seems like there is a good chance the combo will improve in value given the nature of the Gatecrash creatures previewed so far. Being able to deal one is already going to be valuable, so getting a combo that lets us lock out bigger creatures is pretty appealing. Remember, you don't have to lead with the Peddling. You can just end step a Staticaster on turn 3, untap, and play the Peddler (against an opponent likely to have removal like Pillar of Flame).
While this list doesn't abuse Zegana as much as some, it does make very good use of Bonfire of the Damned and Mizzium Mortars. Having access to a number of Plague Winds makes our Zeganas much better despite not having as high a spell count as many Zegana decks will have. In general, after you just drew four to six extra cards, what you want most is a way to take over the board. Because we will be drawing so many cards at once, Bonfire loses a little utility (due to missed miracle opportunities), so it's well worth experimenting with a mixture.
What about straight Simic?
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 1 Dawntreader Elk
- 4 Experiment One
- 4 Strangleroot Geist
- 4 Thragtusk
- 2 Ulvenwald Tracker
- 1 Wolfir Avenger
- 1 Wolfir Silverheart
- 4 Prime Speaker Zegana
- 1 Yeva, Nature's Herald
There are a number of major costs to going straight Simic with a Prime Speaker deck. One of the greatest is the loss of powerful board-impacting spells that ensure our draw six will actually lead to the game being under control. However, I wonder if drawing enough Unsummons and Rancors might actually be enough. Maybe we don't need big sweeping effects. Maybe just giving a creature or two trample then punching through with bounce is enough to finish the job.
Rancor is an interesting puzzle with Zegana. The two cards obviously work well together from a tactical standpoint. Zegana lets you draw two extra cards, and Rancor gives you a way to capitalize on the extra cards to end the game. However, from a strategic perspective, it is not common that a deck with six-mana draw spells also plays one-mana auras that give trample. This is definitely new ground we're blazing here.
This combination is a little goofy, but I think it may actually be strong enough to get there (perhaps more likely in a three-color deck, possibly with two or three Rancors). Rancor is powerful enough that you can just throw a couple in random decks and it's at least decent. The prospect of drawing multiple extra cards as a payoff has to be tried at the very least.
Mystic Genesis is another big question mark.
We already discussed Draining Whelk, and Mystic Genesis is basically a one smaller Draining Whelk without flying for one less mana. Normally, I'd say that's a good deal, but there is no question we would really love to be able to abuse it with Unsummon and Simic Charm (instead of getting semi-wrecked when our opponents bounce our token). Besides, not getting to make Mystic Genesis uncounterable with Cavern of Souls is a real downside. On the other hand, Mystic Genesis being an instant means we can Augur or Snapcaster it if we so desire, so at least there is that.
Comparing Mystic Genesis to Mystic Snake makes it seem like a solid deal, as Genesis will often be a five mana 4/4 as opposed to a four mana 2/2. However, there are a couple key points to note. First, Mystic Snake isn't actually that powerful. A card stacking up to it doesn't mean it is going to dominate. Second of all, there is a lot of competition at the five spot. Thragtusk is obvious, but even Wolfir Silverheart and Vorapede are powerful options that would have to be cut to make room for Mystic Genesis.
While I think Mystic Genesis is nowhere near the Prime Speaker's power level, there are a few contextual factors that give it better chances than it might otherwise have. First of all, the card is really nice against Sphinx's Revelation. Also, if you are playing lots of bounce cards (because of the Prime Speaker), you are much more likely to be able to catch a nice, fat, juicy target like Thundermaw Hellkite or Falkenrath Aristocrat. Besides, if the Prime Speaker gains widespread popularity, Mystic Genesis definitely crushes the head-to-head. There is always a risk of Cavern making most of the best Genesis targets uncounterable, but even an uncounterable Hellrider can be targeted by Mystic Genesis, giving you a 4/4 Ooze (even if the Hellrider resolves).
This is not the sort of deck that is actually going to want this many one-ofs, but trying them all will give us a better idea of which ones to turn into twos and which to turn into zeros. What we need to make sure we maintain is a proactive game plan that will win games whenever we are allowed to execute it. From there, we want to identify what kinds of things others are doing in the format and figure out how to be one step ahead of them. For instance, if there are a lot of people playing troublesome permanents, it is unlikely we can get away with a midrange deck that has zero removal spells aside from bounce. On the other hand, if everyone is playing turbo aggression or hyper-control, such a strategy could actually work.
One thing is certain: I think the Brian Kibler school of deckbuilding is going to be an important one to watch over the next 30 days. Brian Kibler is well known for his love of G/W decks, but more than that, he loves thinking about and building green creature decks that function like spell decks. He also likes to build midrange decks that focus on "winning" rather than "taking control." Many Zegana decks are going to end up in this space.
Such a skill set is sure to prove invaluable in cracking the code for how best to utilize the new Simic cards, which seem to put a lot of pressure on us to experiment with weird Standard decks that fly in the face of the current metagame. We would all do well to remember to wear our "midrange green" hats from time-to-time in our brewing.
Ok, so Kibler has been on this Ooze tip recently? What if we just jammed some Zeganas in there? I'm not totally sure how to make the mana work yet, but at least Arbor Elf can untap a Breeding Pool to actually cast Zegana. If we played Farseek, we could play nine shocklands (a single Watery Grave) and eight Innistrad duals and probably be ok on colors (maybe adding a Golgari Guildgate or two). I'm not sure this is the deck you want to take a turn off to ramp, though. As originally built, we really want to be playing a two-drop on two and a three-drop on three. The printing of Experiment One only exacerbates this.
How can we pull off the mana without Farseek? Playing lots of Watery Graves or basics is not so good with the Ooze. We could play eight shocklands, eight Innistrad duals, and eight Guildgates, but that is a lot of tapped lands and not quite enough Forests for Arbor Elf. I'd probably want to cut at least a couple Simic Guildgates for Forests. Still, it's not clear we even want that many lands total.
Is the black even worth it? I'm not sure, but having at least four creature kill spells (along with some bounce) would go a long way towards giving us the time we need to try to take over the board with our guys before closing the game out with Zegana. Ulvenwald Tracker and Garruk are valuable options to consider for added removal while keeping our threat density high. We do need to figure out how much Zegana changes things, though, as we don't need nearly as high a threat density once we can close the game out with her.
Lotleth Troll and Dreg Mangler are an interesting duo with Zegana. Lotleth Troll is exactly the type of creature that ends up with a big power and actually stays in play long enough for Zegana to draw cards with him. Additionally, once we decide to actually "go for it," we can actually pitch any extra creatures to the Troll, drawing a card for each one. This isn't hyper-efficient or anything, as it will flood us a little, but it does leave us with a big body and lets us dig deeper to give us better chances of finding an Unsummon or whatever.
Dreg Mangler is big enough to power some respectable Zeganas on his own. Additionally, he is at exactly the right spot on the curve to come down, rumble, get killed, then scavenge onto another creature (maybe an Ooze) just in time to set up a nice Zegana next turn.
It is almost surely not right for a Kibler style deck, but in the vein of black creatures to complement Zegana, we may want to consider Disciple of Bolas. Disciple of Bolas is like a smaller, riskier Zegana, but he requires the same input as Zegana, meaning we could actually build a more dedicate Zegana deck designed to go all-in on super big draws.
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 3 Disciple of Bolas
- 4 Gyre Sage
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 4 Thragtusk
- 2 Wolfir Silverheart
- 4 Prime Speaker Zegana
This version probably has a bit too much mana and doesn't have enough good tempo plays to capitalize on the massive card draw, but it starts to point at some kind of almost Elves-like soft combo deck that goes off in a very midrangey sort of way. Remember, Disciple of Bolas is a great way to sacrifice your Zegana to get around the legend rule!
It is difficult to predict what the best or even three best Zegana decks are going to look like, but she is going to change the game.
I'm about to set sail for the fifth annual Magic Cruise, but I'll be back next week with a full Gatecrash set review. What are the three cards you are most excited about from Gatecrash? What are the strongest and weakest guilds? This Prerelease is going to be a total blast. See you Monday!