Spoiler season is upon us, and everyone is looking to predict which cards from Battle for Zendikar will be hits and which ones will be misses. However, BFZ is only one of five sets that will be a part of the new Standard format, a fact that often gets lost in the excitement over new cards.
Every year there are plenty of good or even great cards that fail to see play during their first year in Standard but go on to be a significant player in their second year. Cards like Nightveil Specter and Doomwake Giant spring to mind. Of course both of those cards were keys in their respective block formats, which used to be a preview of sorts for the post-rotation Standard format--now that Block Constructed is no more, we are on our own.
Context is everything in Magic, and sometimes good cards can be suppressed by other powerful strategies, waiting for rotation to take their natural predators away. Sometimes the new set brings powerful synergies for the card that did not exist before. Maybe a deck the card shines in was only missing one piece.
In order to properly evaluate the new cards, we need to look at them in the context of the format they will be played in, not in the context of the format we are playing now. There will probably be a deck with Siege Rhino and Abzan Charm, but it won't be exactly like the decks we see now. The group of threats it has to prepare for will change dramatically.
So before I fully sink my teeth into the new cards, I want to look back at some cards that failed to make a significant impact this year that are poised to break out once Battle for Zendikar is released.
I'm grouping these together because their issues in this format are very similar. Quite frankly, Khans/Theros Standard has been very hostile to small creatures. Courser of Kruphix, Sylvan Caryatid, Bile Blight, Anger of the Gods, and Drown in Sorrow are all incredibly punishing for those of us that like nothing more than attacking with a Savannah Lions on turn 2.
With all of those cards rotating, I expect these cards to do some good work. We are getting Radiant Flames as another cheap sweeper, and Hangarback Walker is still a card that is great at blocking one toughness creatures, but the amount of hate for these decks is going to drop significantly.
Also, these one-drops in particular provide built-in resilience to sweepers with Kytheon becoming indestructible and Bloodsoaked Champion coming back from the graveyard. Moreover, the threat of Kytheon flipping into a planeswalker is great enough that your opponent will be unable to hold their sweeper for too long or will have to use spot removal on the early turns, thus limiting how effective their sweeper can be.
Bloosoaked Champion coming back means you can sometimes grind through a Hangarback Walker, and Kytheon decks will undoubtedly use Stasis Snare as a clean answer for the annoying artifact. Hangarback Walker is an issue, but not nearly the issue that Drown in Sorrow and Courser of Kruphix were. If you put the work in to figuring out how to beat down, the reward will be there.
Over the last year, we have grown accustomed to dismissing small creatures because those decks simply could not thrive in the format. Expect that to change and be prepared.
Speaking of getting aggressive, remember this one? Everyone wanted to go crazy with this card, but it never quite worked. One issue was the ubiquity of Lightning Strike and later Draconic Roar. Having a cheap instant speed way of killing this guy really blunted his effectiveness. But with the rotation of Lightning Strike and Stormbreath Dragon, a key enabler of Draconic Roar, he should live for a turn or two more often than not, which is more than enough to get a huge life swing.
Ultimate Price is another cheap answer, and unfortunately, it is sticking around for the next year. However, the Devoid mechanic in Battle for Zendikar should make it much less effective, especially when the most powerful cards from Khans block are multicolored.
The other issue was playing cheap creatures to enable the ability. They weren't good, so Brutal Hordechief became a good card without a home. Well, as I just explained about Kytheon and Bloodsoaked Champion, I'm expecting a resurgence of small aggro decks and the hordes need a chief to lead them into battle.
Hordechief can go into B/W Warriors, giving you access to both premiere one-drops and Chief of the Edge. It can slot into B/R where you have Dragon Fodder and Hordeling Outburst if you want to go as wide as possible or the new Forerunner of Slaughter in a more traditional aggro deck.
The full Mardu is also possible if you want Butcher of the Horde as another powerful way to take advantage of tokens (Mardu Ascendancy, anyone?) and Bloodsoaked Champion. You can play a higher curve and take advantage of the Eldrazi Scion token makers in Battle for Zendikar too. There are plenty of options, and I would be surprised if none of them make a significant impact on the format.
I was very high on card when it was spoiled, and played it for a while in Sultai Reanimator since it played well with Whip of Erebos and Sidisi, Brood Tyrant. Now it plays very well with Eldrazi Scion tokens. Cards like Blight Herder and Brood Butcher give you some powerful synergies, and Smothering Abomination, along with Sidisi, Undead Vizier, make sure you always have plenty of creatures around to feed the engine.
Note that all these cards are in Sultai so you can still use Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, which much like Brutal Hordechief, should benefit from the rotation of Lightning Strike and the emergence of small creature decks, the latter because the Zombie tokens now make a larger impact on the board.
One thing you may worry about with this shell is having enough early plays to set up the engine. There needs to be a cheap creature that can hold the fort while you set up and provide value when sacrificed...
That'll do, pig. That'll do.
One last note on Sidisi, Undead Vizier: Ari Lax noted in his article on Tuesday that the interplay between Ingest and Processors requires you to play both parts in order to maximize their effectiveness. The tutoring aspect of Sidisi will allow you to more reliably balance your draws between the Ingest enablers and Processor payoffs, ensuring that your engine keeps running smoothly.
The last of my cards that benefit from sacrifice effects, this is the one that is most under the radar. Shaun McLaren mentioned it as a sleeper but only briefly talked about it, noting its synergies with Hangarback Walker (this card is going to be everywhere, isn't it?) and Nantuko Husk.
I could see taking it even further with a full-on Aristocrats style deck. Nantuko Husk and Smothering Abomination are great sacrifice outlets, while Hangarback Walker and Secure the Wastes provide great fuel.
It's possible that this kind of deck is better suited for Mardu, where you have Dragon Fodder and Hordeling Outburst along with Mardu Ascendancy and Butcher of the Horde, but I am more attracted to the raw pumping power of Abzan Ascendancy. You can also take advantage of Rally the Ancestors for some combo potential if the pieces are there.
Also of note is the new Gideon, Ally of Zendikar which provides a constant stream of tokens or a powerful anthem when you have already built a sizable board as well. Liliana, Heretical Healer is also excellent in this shell.
Many of the other cards I have talked about are cards that help you go wide or synergize with cards that go wide and few do this better than Abzan Ascendancy. It should not be that difficult to get three or more counters on the front end of this card and three or more Spirit tokens out of the back end whenever your nontoken creatures die.
I could even see this card being played in a low curve aggro deck with Warden of the First Tree, Kytheon, and/or Bloodsoaked Champion, depending on how you choose to bias your mana. Being able to further your board while being somewhat insulated against Languish will be great for those decks.
Of all the cards I'm writing about, Abzan Ascendancy will definitely be the trickiest one to figure out since there are just so many options. But the pieces are there, and this card is very powerful so I am excited to explore it.
Like Sidisi, Undead Vizier, this card saw fringe play in Sultai Reanimator but nothing really beyond that. But I think this could change for several reasons.
First, Torrent Elemental really punishes people who are trying to Ingest. Unless they are able to use a Processor to get your Torrent Elemental in the graveyard quickly, you have drawn an extra card with no effort. And drawing a Torrent Elemental is significantly better than drawing a random card.
Second, as I noted last week, I expect the number of fetchlands in decks to increase dramatically after rotation. This should naturally encourage players to use more delve cards, which of course, play nicely with Torrent Elemental.
I noted earlier that I expect a lot of decks to go wide and generate large boards, either with small creatures, Hangarback Walkers, or Eldrazi Scion tokens. This should naturally create a lot of clogged boards where combat is difficult and games stall. Torrent Elemental is excellent in these situations, clearing a path for your creatures and doing so in a way that is fairly inevitable if you are able to exile it from your graveyard. This inevitability should be very important and makes Torrent Elemental a valuable weapon in the new format.
Lastly, Torrent Elemental is a great card for pressuring planeswalkers, and Battle for Zendikar is bringing three very good planeswalkers to the format in Gideon, Ally of Zendikar; Ob Nixilis Reignited; and Kiora, Master of the Depths. All of these planeswalkers protect themselves, so being able to break through and kill them before they provide an insurmountable advantage is critical.
None of these interactions is incredibly powerful when considered in isolation, but when taken together I see a card that will always be relevant no matter the matchup or gamestate. These sorts of role players are very important, and I expect Torrent Elemental to be one of the best.
Call this one more of a hunch. This card is way too powerful to go two years without seeing significant play. It does everything--makes mana, draws cards, makes Dragons. What more could you want?
Thinking a little deeper, there are tons of ways to make mana in this format: Rattleclaw Mystic, Nissa's Pilgrimage, Shaman of the Forgotten Ways, Frontier Siege, Explosive Vegetation, Hedron Archive, Eldrazi Scion tokens, etc. Of these, Rattleclaw Mystic is the most important, because it only costs two, so any ramp deck is going to be encouraged to stay within the Temur colors. With all the mana fixing available from your ramp spells, it only makes sense to play all three so you have access to the largest pool of cards.
Sarkhan Unbroken is great in a ramp deck. It is a nice midrange threat that continues to ramp if necessary, prevents you from flooding by providing serious card advantage, and will usually win a game if left unchecked. You can even untap with it, play a land, and have access to seven mana for Dragonlord Atarka or Omnath, Locus of Rage.
Seriously, it does everything.
You can certainly play this in a midrange strategy near the top of your curve as well. Its first ability pairs nicely with Wild Slash and Rending Volley to kill a creature immediately as a means of protection, so be sure to build accordingly. It even plays nicely with itself since you can -2 it twice and play a second copy on the next turn, now with two Dragons on the battlefield to protect it.
Yeah, this one just has to be good.
As more of Battle for Zendikar is spoiled and the picture of post-rotation Standard becomes clearer, I'm sure my evaluations of these cards will change. It is unlikely that they will all emerge as format staples, but that is the nature of brewing. You have to fail the first 99 times in order to succeed on the hundredth.
I will be excitedly refreshing my browser each day looking for more pieces that fit with these cards in order to bring you some more specific ideas in the coming weeks. For now, I encourage all of you to look over Khans of Tarkir, Fate Reforged, Dragons of Tarkir, and Magic Origins for cards you think have underperformed given their power level and give them a second chance.