There are basically two ways to run a kitchen.* The first, which I will title the "French" approach, is to identify a very precise set of measurements for sauces, baked goods, and so on and to cull ingredients down to the most precise portions possible in order to achieve the desired taste. The second, which I will call the "American Foodie" approach, is to imagine the entire world of ingredients and constantly throw things together, knowing that eventually a combination of things randomly will taste good—often unusually so.
The period immediately before and after each set's Prerelease is the American Foodie period of Constructed Magic. We haven't had a lot of time to play with new cards yet, but we do have some principles (probably shouldn't be dipping broccoli in blueberry jam, but who knows—there are already "broccoli and blueberry" smoothies and salads). By applying those principles, we identify rough sketches of decks that might or might not have a place in the metagame to come. Wizards of the Coast usually provides us with a rough roadmap to these concepts as well. Sometimes the map is incredibly large and glued to our faces—as was the case with Affinity—and sometimes it's a little less clear and takes some time to decipher (e.g. Stoneforge Mystic + Batterskull + Jace, the Mind Sculptor).
Prior to rotation, Standard hasn't been a very mechanic-driven format. Instead, it features a variety of multicolored decks, as one would expect on the heels of Return to Ravnica block (though Big Red has made its presence known thanks to the power of Burning Earth). Naya Aggro, which won the most recent StarCityGames.com Open in Atlanta, Georgia, will survive the rotation mostly intact (or with pieces that can be substituted for more recent cards), so it probably will be the go-to aggro deck for those who don't prefer to experiment. Some of the other favorites, like U/W and U/W/R Flash, lose a lot more, so there will be room for innovation. Let's take a look at the conceptual roadmap WotC has given us to see if there are any interesting mechanic-driven decks that we can create.
The "new" card type is probably more nuanced than the devotion theme indicates, but it seems as though one of the initial ways in which we might discover archetypes that optimize these creatures is to hit the set with a monocolored sledgehammer to see what emerges.
Mono-Black Control—or mono-black anything, really—is Magic's perennial bridesmaid, often discussed but rarely featured at the top tables. Its last true heyday in Standard was following the release of Torment. It seems like this is the kind of strategy that we should stop trying to make happen, but then along comes a card like Erebos, God of the Dead and we begin pushing the rock up the hill again.
Initially, I wanted to use Dark Prophecy as a means of fueling Erebos, but if we're going toward the control route, then it doesn't do very much outside of providing us with devotion. There are other means of building our 5/7 indestructible creature, though. Nightveil Specter is one option, although it's basically a Wind Drake in a mono-black deck. If we're attempting to power devotion, then what seems to be a Draft card, Gray Merchant of Asphodel (fun fact: Asphodel is a part of the underworld in Greek myth), might actually be a decent finisher, especially in conjunction with a card that can double-trigger the ability (thinking: Whip of Erebos). If we're looking into that plan, then other comes-into-play abilities on creatures might also be strong (Lifebane Zombie).
Let's see what an initial forced attempt might look like:
This list probably pushes the devotion envelope a little too far, and I doubt that it's optimal because it has a high density of three- and four-cost cards. But it's an interesting starting point for our exploration of the quasi-divine.
The more obvious direction to take monocolored strategy hearkens back to a discussion some of us had a few weeks ago—Big Red may indeed have the tools to be a serious contender. When only a few cards had been spoiled from the set, it was not yet clear whether a Young Pyromancer fueled strategy would be valid, but it seems as though an aggressive devotion-driven red deck may indeed be feasible.
While previous Big Red used Burning Earth to good effect to combat the greedy mana bases sparked by Return to Ravnica, it isn't clear that three- and four-color decks will rule the post-rotation metagame. For now, that strategy appears to be best left in the sideboard. Whether a deck like this one is stronger in a vacuum than a R/G Burning-Tree Emissary deck with various planeswalkers and some larger green creatures remains to be seen. But Boros Reckoner, unlike Nightveil Specter, is an ideal devotion enabler, and Young Pyromancer plays very nicely with Purphoros and Ogre Battledriver.
There is a small part of my brain, hidden away by logic and reason, that wants Ember Swallower to be a reasonable card to play in Constructed. With five toughness, it dodges most of the nonblack removal in the format, and if we can trigger the monstrosity ability early in the game, it can be very difficult for the opponent to recover. In some ways, Ember Swallower is reminiscent of Wildfire, except that instead of clearing the board of small creatures it leaves us with a 7/8 creature to act as an Abyss or a threat as needed. Unfortunately, however, we are without access to Cultivate, Rampant Growth, and the like, so we may need to improvise in order to make our monster monstrous.
In the abstract this list feels fairly weak, especially since Gyre Sage really doesn't function as a ramp spell on its own. Zhur-Taa Druid is an adequate replacement (it taps for mana) and still allows us to use monstrous on Ember Swallower on the fifth turn, but it doesn't have as much lasting power.
We also have the ability to remove Scavenging Ooze and Boon Satyr, currently part of the deck as a Plan B and to enable Gyre Sage more consistently. If we were to do this, we would certainly swap in Zhur-Taa Druid because Gyre Sage would frequently be a Squire with so few creatures to power it, and we could add additional threats like Kalonian Hydra.
It may be the case that this just isn't the format for G/R Ramp, but anything (Ember Swallower) that can significantly affect our opponent's ability to use their resources is something that needs to be explored, at least cursorily. However, as long as quick, aggressive decks are more popular than midrange decks, this may not be where we want to be.
The heroic mechanic may be the most deck-driven of the three topics we'll cover in this article. Although monstrous creatures seem simple, there is actually a balance as to when to use those abilities within the context of a game, whereas we actually need to build a deck with the heroic mechanic in mind if it's going to do any good. Phalanx Leader is probably the strongest heroic card because it doesn't put all of our eggs into one basket. Aside from Anax and Cymede, which requires two colors, Phalanx Leader allows us to play into the heroic mechanic while diversifying our threats by spreading out counters.
Much like Mono-Black Control, so-called White Weenie (WW) decks are always just on the cusp of being successful, and a few notable pros have made a living by identifying the strongest possible WW deck in each format and playing it regardless of its relative power level. After rotation, though, there will be a surprisingly large number of powerful and small white creatures from which to choose, and it may be the case that the addition of Phalanx Leader can push the strategy over the top.
Of course, while we've been focusing a lot on monocolored strategies in this article, the rotation of the "friend lands" from M13 doesn't mean that we don't have the ability to control our mana bases to a great degree. By adding green to the deck, we can play a number more powerful creatures while still retaining the ability to use Phalanx Leader's ability.
This version of the deck provides a small amount of inconsistency but also has the ability to play a 4/4 on the second turn and a 5/5 on the third turn (at instant speed). It also gains the reach provided by Brave the Elements (although it doesn't work well with heroic) and the versatility of Selesnya Charm. At the outset, it isn't clear which version of the deck is better—a lot likely depends on the extent to which the metagame adapts to Voice of Resurgence. Further, to the extent that cost is an issue, Mono-White Humans is a fairly cheap deck, even including the Mutavaults, whereas the G/W Aggro deck is a bit more expensive, not only due to the Voices but also due to Fleecemane Lion (currently selling at $8, the cost of a playset of Fabled Heros) and Temple Garden.
As numerous writers have said and will say again, spoiler season, even when it comes four or five times a year, is still the most exciting time for Magic players. The excitement of figuring out how new cards can be utilized reminds us that Magic is still a deckbuilding game even though a lot of the emphasis is on the gameplay itself.
It will be very interesting to see which new strategies really takes hold and have a presence at the upcoming StarCityGames.com Invitational in October, as it is likely that the high level of play there along with Grand Prix Louisville (also in October) will set the tone for the upcoming Standard format.
*I know nothing about food preparation.