We are nearly through spoiler season for Battle for Zendikar, with the full set due to be released early next week. As such, I will refrain from publishing full lists until we have complete information, and instead, I'll focus on the cards that have stood out most to me.
I will say first that Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is my pick for best card in the set, but since Patrick Chapin explored that card in such depth in his article last week, I will look at cards that have received less press either because they are newer or under the radar. The focus here is on what kind of decks these cards fit in and how they play with and against the other powerful cards, so we can start to examine what the texture of the post-rotation format will look like.
So let's look at some spoilers, shall we?
The last time we saw Drana, she was dominating every Rise of Eldrazi draft in sight. This new iteration, while certainly still very strong in Limited, is priced much more competitively for Constructed, and I would be surprised if it was not a staple at some point in her Standard life.
The first test for me is that she survives Wild Slash, which I expect to be among the most commonly played removal spells this fall. Moreover, she often times will survive Fiery Impulse, unlike say Undergrowth Champion. However, like Undergrowth Champion, Drana quickly snowballs if left unchecked. That she puts counters on every attacking creature means that even a later hard removal spell will leave behind some impressive value, and likely will not stabilize the board after one or two triggers.
The other important facet to Drana's ability is that when combined with first strike, the rest of your creatures will be granted the bonus before their combat damage is dealt, making blocking very challenging for your opponent. Without blockers, the ability makes Drana equivalent to a three or four power flier in terms of damage output. Since the ability is cumulative, it only gets worse for them with time.
A curve of Bloodsoaked Champion into Despoiler of Souls into Drana is an enormous amount of pressure but can be quickly rebuilt in the face of a Languish or similar sweeper. Since Drana is strong enough to stand on her own, I expect her to appear frequently outside of Ally decks, even though she certainly makes a fine addition there, as she plays very nicely with Collected Company. After the disappointing showing by Mono-Black Aggro over the last year, Drana could be the card that brings it back to prominence.
The primary concern for me with Drana is how she matches up against Mantis Rider, but with the quality of black removal, I do not expect this issue to keep Drana from seeing significant play. Note that once you connect once Mantis Rider is no longer a threat, so all it takes is the first removal spell, making the Mantis Rider defense a tenuous proposition for your opponent.
I will handle these cards separately, but I have listed them together because they are such a natural pairing. Both are aggressively-costed creatures, and the Forerunner helps keep Dust Stalker on the battlefield if you want it to. I find it hard to imagine a world where one of these sees significant play while the other does not.
Upon seeing Forerunner of Slaughter, I was immediately reminded of Flinthoof Boar. Once Stomping Ground was printed in Gatecrash and it could consistently be turned into a 3/3, Flinthoof Boar was quickly adopted as a format staple, despite being an unassuming card. The thing is, having a split card of Watchwolf and Boggart Ram-Gang--both solid cards in their own right, is deceptively powerful.
Aggressive decks are built to establish a quick clock and gain an early advantage by using their mana well on the first few turns of the game. Flinthoof Boar and Forerunner of Slaughter ensure that you have great plays on turns 2 and 3 regardless of the other spells you draw.
If you happen to draw a strong two-drop, you can wait to deploy your Forerunner until turn 3 and not lose any tempo, and the same is true if you draw it with a strong three-drop. This level of flexibility adds consistency to your earlygame, which is a key component for aggressive decks to thrive.
Forerunner of Slaughter even trumps Flinthoof Boar on later turns since its ability can grant haste to any colorless creature, not just itself. With Dust Stalker that is irrelevant, but when paired with cards like Wasteland Strangler or Smothering Abomination you can fill out your curve on turns 4 through 6 with unexpected haste threats. Importantly, Forerunner of Slaughter can give haste to morph creatures, so cards like Ire Shaman and Silumgar Assassin become more attractive in these decks.
Every time you activate Forerunner, you gain 2-5 damage from the added attack, making Forerunner part of some very quick kills. The curve of Transgress the Mind-Forerunner of Slaughter-Wasteland Strangler-Dust Stalker kills on turn 5 with two pieces of disruption, and that is without having a one-drop. The one downside I see to Forerunner is that it dies to Wild Slash and Fiery Impulse, but the upside is worth losing a mana or two in these exchanges, especially if you can force these cards to trade for other threats, say Bloodsoaked Champion and Despoiler of Souls.
As I noted above, the obvious pairings with Dust Stalker are other colorless creatures, whether they be devoid cards from Battle for Zendikar, various morph creatures from Khans of Tarkir block, or even artifact creatures like Hangarback Walker. However, it is important to realize when the drawback on Dust Stalker is actually a benefit.
We have already seen the impressive showing by the dash mechanic, with cards like Zurgo Bellstriker and Goblin Heelcutter becoming staples of red aggro decks. Dash lets you extend your board on key turns to keep applying pressure without the threat of losing everything to a sweeper, and Dust Stalker is no different. At the top end of the curve, Dust Stalker could make your opponent's Languish literally languish in their hand because they cannot cast it and survive another five point attack.
Note that I say as the top part of your curve, since as with dash, Dust Stalker is ideally the last card you play since its ability inherently gives you something to do with your mana for every successive turn. It is when you want to play it in the middle of your curve that you will want to make sure you can reliably keep it on the battlefield.
This type of deck will strongly resemble the B/R "Zombie" decks that were popular in the early days of Return to Ravnica Standard, using Gravecrawler and Geralf's Messenger to force the opponent to interact early and pave the way for powerful threats in Falkenrath Aristocrat and Thundermaw Hellkite.
When your opponent is forced to use their early removal dealing with Bloodsoaked Champion and Drana, you will more easily open windows to resolve Dust Stalker and get an attack in, at which point they are still on the back foot, making your next threat backbreaking, or they are in range of your burn spells. Forerunner of Slaughter fits perfectly into this kind of deck, as the flexibility is important when your curve is spread across a wider range. Once the full spoiler is out, this is the first deck I will be working on.
This card has been spoiled for a while, and I have yet to hear much about it. To me, this is one of the premier payoff cards for the Ingest-Processor engine, along with the obviously powerful Wasteland Strangler. Mystic Snake is an incredibly powerful effect, and this one plays well with one of the early Ingest creatures, Fathom Feeder, since the Feeder gives you something to do with your mana if they do not play a spell you wish to counter with the Nullifier.
It is easy to look at cards like Blight Herder and think of the Ingest deck as some sort of ramp deck, but in order to fuel the Processors, you need to have some earlygame cards that interact, so I see the engine fitting more into an Aggro Control shell where you are constantly looking to gain small advantages that eventually snowball into an insurmountable position. This means using cards like Transgress the Mind and Horribly Awry to set up the engine and gain the necessary information to formulate a gameplan, then gaining advantage with Wasteland Strangler and Ulamog's Nullifier while using Blight Herder as more of a lategame bomb than critical component.
These sorts of decks are usually underpowered and have too many moving parts to consistently execute their gameplan, but Nullifier seems to me to be good enough. We have seen Ojutai's Command play the same type of gameplan, and a 2/3 flier is generally better than drawing a card, although worse than putting a Jace onto the battlefield.
Speaking of Jace, it should play well in this kind of deck as another early play that lets you find all the necessary pieces to establish your engine, and in particular, it is good at flashing back Transgress the Mind. Given how high I am on Jace, any cards that play well with it are immediate targets for testing.
Between Nissa's Pilgrimage, Rattelclaw Mystic, Frontier Siege, Explosive Vegetation, From Beyond and others, there are plenty of ways to make a lot of mana in this format, but Hedron Archive is the one I am most excited by because it mitigates an enduring problem inherent with all ramp decks-flood.
When your deck has 30+ mana sources, it is common to have draws with one or two threats. If one of these threats sticks, you are likely to win the game, but if your opponent is able to deal with it, you are left drawing off the top. Lands and ramp spells are abound, but you are unable to find another threat to take over the game before your opponent establishes control. But when your ramp spell turns into a Divination, suddenly finding that last threat is much easier.
This is the primary issue that any ramp deck must solve, and part of why monstrous threats like Polukranos, World Eater and Stormbreath Dragon were so effective with mana acceleration. None of the other ramp spells offer anything close to this ability, so I expect Hedron Archive to be a staple of ramp decks in Battle for Zendikar Standard.
Because of this and the existence of other four mana, double ramp cards (Frontier Siege, Explosive Vegetation), I expect the natural ramp curve to progress 2-4-7, which means premier seven-mana threats are what we want to cast. Fortunately, we have two great options in Dragonlord Atarka and Omnath, Locus of Rage.
While Omnath plays best with Explosive Vegetation and Dragonlord Atarka with Frontier Siege, I expect either path to max out on Hedron Archives. That you will often want to cash in the Archive for two cards, which means that waiting around to cast more expensive threats is less palatable, so while I could see a deck trying to ramp all the way to Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, I think these seven-drops will be sufficient to take over a game; we would rather have the more consistent and slightly less powerful option.
Kiora has not received the same amount of press as the other planeswalkers in the set, and initially I had it has the worst of the three. But as I have considered it more, I think this one will be more played than Ob Nixilis Reignited, and I do think Ob Nixilis is a very good card.
Kiora's +1 ability is a bit misleading because it seems to suggest Kiora as a ramp card where its -2 can dig to another threat if necessary. However, as I noted above, I think the ramp decks will want to go straight from four to seven, which Kiora does not allow unless you also have a Rattleclaw Mystic on the battlefield. Perhaps that is good enough because Kiora is such a powerful card by itself, but I expect it to more naturally slot into midrange decks where its +1 can enable double spell turns as early as turn 5 and its -2 provides some necessary card advantage.
In particular, I think Kiora plays well in a Sultai shell for two reasons. The first is delve. The -2 ability naturally fuels delve cards like Tasigur, Murderous Cut, and Treasure Cruise. Also, given that these cards can all ideally be cast for a single mana, the +1 represents the ability to cast another whole spell, enabling double or even devastating triple spell turns. In this way, Kiora is a mana engine, but one that is spread out over the course of several turns, allowing you to both interact and develop your board with enough speed to bury your opponent.
The second reason is Sidisi, Brood Tyrant. The -2 ability puts the cards directly from your library to your graveyard, triggering Sidisi's ability to put a 2/2 Zombie onto the battlefield. Since both cards encourage you to play a deck full of creatures, they are a natural fit together. The ideal of drawing two cards while putting a 2/2 onto the battlefield, even if one of those cards is a land, is an incredible amount of card advantage, especially if that land happens to be a Lumbering Falls or a Mortuary Mire.
With these synergies, I think Kiora compares favorably to Jace, Architect of Thought, which was a staple for almost a year. But this time it comes with more octopi and more octopi is always better.
Much like the rest of you, I will be eagerly awaiting the full spoiler so I can finalize my early brews and begin earnest testing with the new cards. Come back next week when I share some of these brews and my first returns on testing the new Standard format.