One week left of Battle for Zendikar spoilers and all I can think is...
"Where are all the good cards?"
A hearty helping of expensive, colorless, generic Eldrazi coupled with a slew of five-mana Allies (which were traditionally hyper-aggressive) seems to be the common themes of Battle for Zendikar. I get that they want to spoil the big rares first and make us wait a long time to see the real enablers, but where is my Farseek? Where is my Hada Freeblade?
We need more context. At the moment, the only cards I am excited to start playing with are Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and the new Battle lands. Everything else just seems like fluff, including Kiora, Master of the Depths and Ob Nixilis Reignited. I'm not counting either of those cards out just yet, because both have card advantage abilities that could shape how certain archetypes are built. In particular, Kiora seems like it would pair nicely with Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, but the fact that they both cost four mana will be taxing against aggressive strategies.
Ob Nixilis will be one of the go-to planeswalkers for slower black decks, acting as a removal spell that can start pulling you pretty far ahead as the game goes on. His ultimate is also particularly devastating for control strategies, even if they are able to get around it a little with Dig Through Time, Anticipate, and the trigger on Dragonlord Ojutai.
But what about the rest of the set? The rest of the mythic rares? Greenwarden of Murasa is a glorified, giant version of an old uncommon and seems significantly worse than Den Protector in most decks. Undergrowth Champion, as much as I want it to be good, is likely too slow without Elvish Mystic or Birds of Paradise. Oh yeah, and we have another Phoenix that seems mildly playable to go along with the other two or three that usually see no play in Standard.
I'm going out on a limb here and predict that this is going to be one of the worst sets for Standard in a long time. It seems like most of the commons and uncommons have way too much text that ultimately doesn't add up to anything (Ingest, Devoid). The only viable archetype coming out of the works will be some sort of ramp-into-Ulamog deck, while everything else might see some play in existing Khans of Tarkir archetypes.
But then again, maybe I just don't get it.
At least Gideon is bonkers. I mean, aside from the fact that he will be a staple in every Ally deck since he makes 2/2 Allies, he's going to be a formidable foe against basically every deck in the format. Mantis Rider and other fliers might give him a little bit of trouble, but decks like Jeskai Tokens or heavy-removal white decks are going to want a lot of Gideons. Every ability on him is outstanding in a variety of archetypes. His presence on an empty board can't be ignored, and his ability to continually create threats against control or aggressive opponents is unparalleled. He's also great in a control deck since he attacks after a wrath effect to kill planeswalkers (or just goes to the dome for five).
The lands will make for some interesting discussion and have been a major talking point with basically everyone. There isn't much else to talk about, after all. I am very excited to see how people end up sculpting their mana because I have a lot on my mind when it comes to building these manabases.
Building the Groundwork
Talking with the crew from Roanoke has led to some interesting revelations about the way we're going to build manabases once the new Battle lands are in hand. I foresee a lot of fetchlands, a lot of basic lands, and a couple of Battle lands in virtually every deck. The exception here comes from established color combinations/archetypes from Khans of Tarkir such as Abzan, which will likely stick to Sandsteppe Citadel, Windswept Heath, Caves of Koilos, and Llanowar Wastes (with other similar color combinations doing the same).
But what about two-color decks like U/R Sphinx's Tutelage?
Did you notice that Bloodstained Mire can fetch Mountain or Sunken Hollow? Polluted Delta can grab Island or Smoldering Marsh? While it isn't necessary to splash black, you can play eight fetchlands to grab either color in your enemy-colored deck! But with it being so incredibly easy to splash a third color when using the old Shard wedges (Jund, Grixis, etc), I can't imagine this won't create entirely new archetypes where they currently didn't exist. The mana from Battle for Zendikar Standard opens up a whole new dimension for pairing colors together with ease while also making it much easier to play delve spells like Treasure Cruise!
But what can we do with this knowledge? Well, not a lot right now. Without a few more cards spoiled, it will be difficult to see which color pairs are worth putting together. Building new decks without enough information is also a bit awkward since a single spoiler could change the entire makeup of your deck. But at the very least, you can go into building your new deck knowing how to put together a solid manabase. We have a lot of knowledge from the previous Standard format for existing decks, but understanding what color combinations pair well together thanks to the new fetchland/Battle land manabases is important.
Even then, I might only be scratching the surface.
Grixis (U/R) and Esper (B/W)
As we've already mentioned, Polluted Delta and Bloodstained Mire both go well into the archetype because both can fetch a basic land or opposite-colored Battle land. If you want to stick to two colors, one of each of these should suffice, as you don't want to draw too many of them. Adding black is very easy, but you just need to figure out what you're adding that extra color for. In the Grixis builds, I recommend a lot of basic lands since you're likely running eight or more fetchlands and you want your Battle lands to enter the battlefield untapped quite often.
Adding Green to U/R isn't exactly appealing, as Temur hasn't been a Standard force since it was introduced last year. Green is pretty weak at being a support color, while both blue and red are diverse in being either dominant or support. While you could potentially go Temur, I think Jeskai or Grixis are much better choices. Jeskai is pretty easy to build around since there is already a solid foundation for what you want to be doing. Mantis Rider should be particularly strong in the early parts of the season, as people figure out what removal is best. The loss of Hero's Downfall with a replacement that comes at sorcery speed (Ruinous Path) should also allow you to regularly get in three extra damage.
But Jeskai doesn't pair the new Battle lands together all that well. The five-color combinations from Khans of Tarkir are much harder to string together since you generally only get four of your on-color fetchland. The upside is the Khans tri-land, though you want to make sure you don't have too many lands entering the battlefield tapped.
Esper is another animal entirely. With Dragonlord Ojutai and Dragonlord Silumgar being besties over the last few months, I'm not entirely sure we need all that much help in building this deck. Having access to eight fetchlands for Dig Through Time is pretty busted, and especially so when all of those fetchlands have the ability to grab Battle lands out of your deck.
After playing a bit with an updated Esper Dragons deck, I can safely say that it is still very good. The VS Video should be up on Monday, but the same players all came to the table, and they all performed very well. Silumgar's Scorn will be one of the best cards in Standard for some time to come as long as there is a reason to play Dragonlord Ojutai.
Naya (R/W) and Bant (U/G)
Naya is particularly appealing here because you get access to both Windswept Heath and Wooded Foothills. I'm assuming that green will be one of the primary colors, but it doesn't have to be. Both Wooded Foothills and Windswept Heath act the same way that Delta and Mire work in U/R shells, fetching out the basic of your choice or a corresponding Battle land.
If green offers up a lot of powerful stuff from Battle for Zendikar, I could see Naya as a real archetype. Any old Shard combination is going to get a huge boost from the existence of fetchlands and Battle lands being in the same format. But the manabase by itself isn't swaying me too hard in the direction of Naya, to be honest. Without a bit of help from Battle for Zendikar, I see little reason to play Naya instead of Jeskai or even Mardu.
Bant Heroic was a deck that was near and dear to my heart. I am sad to see it go, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Bant pick up a lot of steam in the new Standard. Dromoka's Command is a powerful spell, and eight fetchlands with Treasure Cruise seems like a dream. It makes me giddy to think about how good the Battle lands would have been in Bant Heroic. Oh well...
If Bant or Naya is going to thrive in Standard, I think Managorger Hydra will be the way. Without a lot of great ways to protect it from removal, it might ultimately be too slow without Elvish Mystic. But it does get really big really fast, and it tramples over Hangarback Walker and all its tokens. Losing all the cards from Theros that made Bant Heroic good means that this style of deck might not be viable for a long time, but some of the pieces remain. Feat of Resistance and possibly Enshrouding Mist could act as a way for you to play battleship Magic with Managorger Hydra.
Of all the potential archetypes, Jund scares me the most. I don't know if there are enough cards for Jund to become a real thing, but saying the word out loud gives me the willies. Jund will also be able to make good use out of delve, making the eight fetchland manabase more interesting. Tasigur, the Golden Fang is a great threat, especially so when coupled with discard and removal.
Another possible option is moving more towards Liliana, Heretical Healer and Fleshbag Marauder. We've seen this combination prove powerful with Rally the Ancestors, but I wonder if it could be good without it. If Hangarback Walker continues to see as much play as it does in the current Standard, chances are that this combination will not be all that powerful. Without a decent number of ways to exile Hangarback Walker, it might just end up in every single deck.
While green is taking a big hit from the previous rotation, losing Elvish Mystic, Sylvan Caryatid, and Courser of Kruphix, there are already a few decent B/G cards from Battle for Zendikar that could make the cut. Ob Nixilis Reignited or even Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker give you a few options for what you want your top end to be, and your removal suite (or heavy color) can be whatever fits the bill. Red gives you Draconic Roar, pushing the deck towards Thunderbreak Regent, while black offers Murderous Cut and/or Ruinous Path. It might even be possible to play both without a lot of trouble.
But the kicker here, and what I'm thinking about when I'm building most of my new decks, is that four-color strategies could be insane. Basic land-heavy decks featuring 1-2 of every possible Battle land, eight or more fetchlands, and possibly even some copies of Evolving Wilds, will make for a pretty solid manabase. Splashing Crackling Doom shouldn't be too hard in this shell, and I think it will definitely be worth it if Dragonlord Ojutai is as popular as I think it will be.
And did I mention that you get to play Siege Rhino and Crackling Doom in the same deck without batting an eye? I don't even think you'll need Sandsteppe Citadel or Nomad Outpost! It all just depends on what spells you want to play and what colors you want to focus on. If most of your early spells can be cast with Forest and Swamp, then getting Smoldering Marsh and Canopy Vista shouldn't be too difficult. At that point, all you need is a Swamp and you can cast both Siege Rhino and Crackling Doom. If your first land is a Plains or Forest, your two dual lands even enter the battlefield untapped.
If you build your manabase to correctly correspond to your spells, it should be easy to start most games with the two colors you need most, then use your fetchlands in later turns to fix your colors. Ideally, you'd want all of your basic lands to cast your spells (think Forest and Crackling Doom mixing poorly). But at this rate, you could just splash Siege Rhino in your Mardu deck.
After playing with Abzan Aggro today, I discovered that I actually liked Wooded Foothills more than Windswept Heath in the early turns. Being able to find Smoldering Marsh, Forest, or Canopy Vista felt incredibly powerful, and I can only imagine that will be enhanced by actually having red spells in the deck.
Be warned that this new idea of how you build manabases doesn't work when you start adding in painlands from Magic Origins, or even tri-lands from Khans of Tarkir. Here, I'm envisioning up to twelve fetchlands, six or so Battle lands, maybe some Evolving Wilds, and a lot of basics. In practice, this might not work how I want it to. And in actuality, this type of manabase will significantly restrict your ability to play the cards you want. It will take a lot of time to truly understand the magnitude at which these new lands affect how we build decks, but I will definitely not be surprised if nearly every deck at the Pro Tour ends up being built around these principles. We've seen it a lot in Modern and Legacy, and porting that knowledge to Standard seems like the next logical step.
It might not end up being worth it to splash a third or even fourth color. Who knows? Ultimately, that just depends on how you want to build your deck. But the fact that four-color manabases are legitimately viable says a lot about how powerful these lands are going to be.
Credit Where It's Due
Moving on from Battle for Zendikar, it's time to take a look at one of my love-hate relationships: Magic Online. For the last year and change, it seems like most of the decisions they've made have negatively impacted me. I know I am just one person, but I am part of a demographic that continually pumped money through their system by buying cards, playing tournaments, and writing a lot of content about Magic for this fine website.
But last week, there was a major change that took place that actually made me want to play Magic Online again: Leagues.
For those of you who played the "old" Leagues on Magic Online, these are nothing like that. If you've ever played Hearthstone, the new Leagues are very similar to the Arena mode where you play matches at your own pace against players with a similar record. Once you reach five wins or five losses, you get prizes based on your record, and you can join the League again.
Seems pretty simple, but also elegantly brilliant. This model of tournament is perfect for streaming and for online games, in general. You are no longer bound by the three-to-four hour blocks that were needed to complete an 8-Player or Daily Event tournament. Those still exist, for now, but I hope that the eventual focus will shift from outdated tournament structures to the one that Leagues are using. Aside from bigger tournaments like PTQs or the Magic Online Championship Qualifiers, I hope that every event for every format ends up being similar to the one used for the current Magic Online League.
Right now, they are only offering this League for Standard. In time, I am hoping that Modern, Legacy, and maybe even Vintage will get some love. With Modern being at an all-time high in popularity, I don't think it will take too long to get that thing started. And when it does, I don't know how often I'm going to leave my house anymore. Being able to play three or four matches per hour seems absurd, making Magic Online better for players and viewers alike. And if you don't have time to finish your last round or two, no worries. You can put it on pause and just finish those rounds whenever you get the free time.
This change for Magic Online is one that I've been hoping for over the last two years. Mirroring other successful games while still maintaining your own personality is exactly what I want Magic Online to do in the future. This change heralds great things for Magic Online, and it might be just what the doctor ordered to breathe new life into a program that I thought was destined for failure.
I love Magic. I love Magic Online. It is a part of my job, but it also used to be what I liked to do for fun. If Leagues continue to improve, formats expand, and payouts increase (or become less flat), I might even start streaming again. One of the biggest reasons I quit streaming Magic Online was because there was so much downtime between rounds. At this rate, I might have to be the one taking breaks.
So there it is. Me, Todd Anderson, not bashing Magic Online for once. I give credit when it is due, and this time my hat is off to the Magic Online team. Thanks for listening to us and giving us what we want. With this type of on-demand event firing over and over, I can imagine it would spike their overall revenue from the program, giving them more money to invest into the program, which will in turn make it better for everyone.
I did the same thing when the Magic Online Championship Qualifiers were announced, as well as online PTQs. These types of changes are what the player base for your program wants, and we will reward you greatly when you deliver it to us. Thanks for giving us a reason to play again.