At the time of me writing this article, around 25% of Battle for Zendikar has been spoiled. That's not quite enough to create brand new archetypes based around the set's mechanics and themes, like Allies or Eldrazi Ramp, but it's still enough to fill in the holes left in existing archetypes upon the exit of Theros block and M15.
Today I'll be talking about a few archetypes that have been on my mind as potential players even before the rotation and are a few of the decks that I'll most likely work on first when Battle for Zendikar becomes Standard legal.
Jeskai Tokens has always been a favorite of mine ever since Yuuya Watanabe showcased it at the World Championships in 2014. The strategy largely nullifies anyone trying to suppress creatures on a one-for-one basis and can have some really explosive turns with Jeskai Ascendancy and Treasure Cruise.
With the loss of Goblin Rabblemaster, the three-drop slot is a lot less cluttered, which is why I like Hordeling Outburst along with three Jeskai Charms. I think Jeskai Charm is better now than it's ever been. Resetting Hangarback Walker is a big game, and having another way to win the token war by giving +1/+1 is really nice. The two-drops have been upgraded as well from Seeker of the Way, so the loss of lifelink has been shored up with the Charms. Lastly, a direct four damage is no joke, and its true power will soon surface when people face more and more Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.
Gideon is straight busted and is a huge reason to be playing white right now. You can check out Patrick Chapin's article dedicated to the card for a more in-depth evaluation of it, but from my experience thus far through proxy testing, I've found that every mode feels great. It feels akin to Jace, the Mind Sculptor in terms of having every single ability matter immediately.
I think you either want Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or Ojutai's Command on four, but not really both. With the loss of Raise the Alarm, you don't really have much to do on your opponent's turn. Instants like Dig Through Time and Ojutai's Command play well off of each other to keep your opponents guessing, but I think a tap out approach is a little better here.
Hangarback Walker is the face of new Standard, and it's no surprise that the Thopter army-in-a-can makes its way into this deck. Versions of Jeskai Tokens with Hangarback Walker have been tried in current Standard with little success, and I think the reason was the lack of sacrifice outlet to actually convert your Hangarback Walker into Thopter tokens. This is where the Collateral Damage and the Pia and Kiran Nalaar come in; they're reasonable spells on their own within the theme of the deck, but they get extra powerful in conjunction with Hangarback Walker.
Dragon Fodder has gotten worse for two reasons. Firstly, there are more great two-drops now, not just so-so filler lifegain guys like Seeker of the Way or Soulfire Grand Master--Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and Hangarback Walker. The other reason is that without Stoke the Flames, there's not a pressing need for red creatures anymore. With that said, Hordeling Outburst is still a great rate and is still amazing in the deck.
We're playing the full eight painlands because we're more limited on non-basic lands after the Temples rotate out and also because of how much Hangarback Walker alleviates the need for colored mana over the course of the game. Once the new creature-lands for U/R and W/R are released, I'm sure at least a few will find their way into the deck, and the overall land count will go up by one or two as well.
Originated by Andrew Cuneo and piloted to perfection by Michael Majors, this is the U/R Sphinx's Tutelage deck that forgoes dealing damage to focus on getting the opponent's library to zero cards as fast as possible. The deck packs just enough creatures, removal, and "crowd control" like Send to Sleep to get the job done, usually when the opponent is presenting lethal damage the upcoming turn.
Anger of the Gods is the biggest loss, and this version attempts to patch up the loss with Battle for Zendikar newcomer Radiant Flames. It doesn't exile, which is bad in a Hangarback Walker and Deathmist Raptor world, and it requires a third color for maximum value; however, as we'll see from the manabase, the third color is something that might even be played anyways to bridge together enemy colors like U/R with fetchlands plus Battle lands.
There is an upside to Radiant Flames in that you can control the amount of damage you want to deal sometimes. This comes up against opposing 1/1s when you have a Jace, Vryn's Prodigy that you don't want to die. Sadly, copying Radiant Flames with Pyromancer's Goggles isn't nearly as good as copying Anger of the Gods once was. When a copy is placed on the stack no colored mana was spent creating it, so the copied Radiant Flames does zero damage.
As far as the manabase goes, Bloodstained Mire can get Mountain or Sunken Hollow for blue mana, or even the Smoldering Marsh when you want red and have time to get the black mana for future Radiant Flames. The opposite logic goes for Polluted Delta. Ten sources for the off-color is more than enough, and the fetchlands are great at enabling quick Jace flips and Treasure Cruises. Earlier versions had a couple fetchlands just for purposes of filling the graveyard. Now, they all also fix our mana.
I think the painlands like Shivan Reef will become as outclassed as they currently are in Modern where the shocklands + fetchland manabase is the norm, especially now with the Battle lands wanting real basic lands in play. So-so non-basics like Shivan Reef are simply unnecessary now.
Overall, I like the unique axis that U/R Tutelage attacks on. It blanks the dedicated creature removal in people's decks in the games that Jace, Vryn's Prodigy isn't in the picture and has a strong game 1 advantage before they're ready to fight you with (more) enchantment removal.
The sideboard is a transformational idea to circumvent the opponent's enchantment removal and/or disrespect your deck's lack of ability to kill with damage by going hard with Oblivion Sowers, which will ramp you into Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, and ultimately big daddy Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. I think the package is super strong, but this may not be the optimal spot for it. I have no doubt, however, that these monsters will be Standard staples in the time to come.
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 4 Abzan Falconer
- 3 Avatar of the Resolute
- 4 Den Protector
- 4 Scythe Leopard
- 4 Servant of the Scale
- 4 Undergrowth Champion
This is what I expect a lot of two-color manabases to look like soon, especially in decks that have any delve or landfall cards. Before a comparable manabase would have four Temple of Plenty, four Blossoming Sands, four Mana Confluence, and four Windswept Heath with the single Plains. That's eight pure "enters the battlefield tapped" lands and four always painful lands. The current look of mana seems streamlined and also synergistic in terms of fueling delve and landfall. With the new scry rule for people that mulligan to six or less, I don't think we'll miss the Temples all that much.
The theme here is a bit split between landfall and +1/+1 counters. There's some natural crossover between the two with Undergrowth Champion and Retreat to Kazandu, and strong cards like Dromoka's Command and Hangarback Walker just so happen to be using counters as well. Servant of the Scale, Hardened Scales, Avatar of the Resolute, and Abzan Falconer all embrace the counters theme to make sure the synergies within provide more than just the sum of their parts.
Scythe Leopard isn't Wild Nacatl nor is it Steppe Lynx, but it seems to be efficient enough to give a try. The threat of the pump is nearly as good as the actual thing in combat, and you'll often be able to save fetchlands uncracked until you can have a big turn with them with multiple triggers from Scythe Leopards, Undergrowth Champions, and Retreat to Kazandu.
Den Protector feels like a huge threat here with the ability to grow large with Retreat to Kazandu or Become Immense while simply being a great source of card advantage. Abzan Falconer is a really big payoff card for the dedication to the +1/+1 counters theme. It will threaten to end the game on the spot or within the next couple turns. Even outlasting it grows out of control quickly alongside a Hardened Scales.
The sideboard is meant to go longer and grind out against midrange or control decks. Cards like Scythe Leopard and Servant of the Scale quickly lose value when quick answers come in. Mastery of the Unseen, Whisperwood Elemental, and Nissa, Vastwood Seer all provide inherent card advantage and resiliency to sweepers like Languish and the new Planar Outburst.
- 4 Abbot of Keral Keep
- 3 Lightning Berserker
- 4 Monastery Swiftspear
- 2 Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh
- 1 Pia and Kiran Nalaar
- 3 Zurgo Bellstriker
One thing that's been true throughout every Standard rotation in recent times is that Mono-Red or something very close to it will be at the very least a viable deck. Mono-Red is there to give the slowest of the slow decks a big fat reality check. Everyone likes when rounds end on time, right?
This is my take on the new Mono-Red-style deck. The stronger cards cost more mana now, like Exquisite Firecraft. The curve needs to be adjusted a bit higher accordingly. With Lightning Strike and Stoke the Flames gone and the requisite amount of burn spells needed coming from somewhere, and with a three mana spell as the best option, the rest of the build simply has to follow suit. This is in contrast to what I usually like for my Mono-Red decks, which is seventeen lands and a huge swath of one-drops.
We have plenty of token-makers in Dragon Fodder and Hordeling Outburst. We even go up the curve to a Pia and Kiran Nalaar. Abbot of Keral Keep often makes two creatures as well. Green mana is plentiful with fetchlands plus Cinder Glade, which makes Atarka's Command's more reliable. Become Immense is even better than before, so much that playing two isn't out of the question now.
The sideboard allows the deck to play a nice package of four Hangarback Walker plus two Collateral Damage, and honestly, they probably should just be in the maindeck in the first place. People have been all about using Shrapnel Blast to kill off their own Hangarback Walker for value, but Collateral Damage does most of the same effect without the need for an artifact and for a mana cheaper.
I, for one, will have my eyes glued to the spoiler lists over the next couple of weeks, mouth watering for tasty updates to current lists. I can't wait to see what the Eldrazi Ramp deck will look like or how insane the new Gideon will be with all the Allies spoiled, or how effective the Eldrazi and their "from exile" mechanic really punishes our trusty delve cards like Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Dig Through Time, and Treasure Cruise. Will Battle for Zendikar have an efficient means to deal with Hangarback Walker with the loss of Anger of the Gods, Magma Spray, Revoke Existence, and Unravel the Aether?
Time will tell, and I know I'll be refreshing the spoilers periodically to know as soon as possible!