The Battle for Zendikar will soon be upon us, so we need to be ready. In order to prepare ourselves, we first need to know our enemies. After all, how can you build your decks if you don't know what you're trying to beat?
We could simply look back at what we had, subtract what we lost and add what we gained, but it's not that simple. This isn't "Standard minus Theros block and M15 plus Battle for Zendikar;" this is an entirely new format. What worked (and hell, what didn't work) may or may not be viable now.
It's important to keep a fresh perspective rather than hoping to find replacements for what's gone. After all, Elspeth, Sun's Champion may have been good before, but maybe it's not even good enough in this format. Trying to look at the big picture will give you a better grasp of what matters, and trying to figure out the bigger picture is much easier when you're not concerning yourself with gains and losses.
This is, without hyperbole, the most important aspect of the format. You can play whatever cards you want, some even somewhat unreasonable, and still be able to cast them. Additionally, there is very little cost to doing so.
Of course, you definitely want more CD than CC in your casting costs, but slanting toward one color for a specific CC card is doable. For example, Abzan last season slanted toward green and black in order to play Courser of Kruphix and Hero's Downfall, and that was fine. Sometimes they even stretched for End Hostilities, but typically they only had 11-12 white sources in their decks, which I would consider far too low. These days, that's easier to accomplish than it was back then, but it all depends on how much you're relying on your allied color combination.
I recommend reading my article on manabases if you haven't already. The biggest thing to note is that your need to get used to the idea of playing Polluted Delta in your Jeskai deck or Wooded Foothills in your Abzan deck. People seem to have an aversion to that because they end up with a Battle land in their deck that taps for a color of mana they aren't going to use.
No one had an issue last season when U/B Control played Opulent Palace, and I bet if Wooded Foothills fetched basic Swamp or Canopy Vista, people would be all over it. For some reason though, that Smoldering Marsh just doesn't look right...
We have several workable shells to go off of. Abzan is a flexible color combination that plays offense or defense quite well. Because of that, you will rarely play against the same Abzan deck twice, at least during the early stages of the format.
*While Hangarback Walker isn't going to appear on any "standout" lists due to ubiquity, it definitely qualifies for this list and basically all others.
The list of standouts is quite high, so it wouldn't surprise me if Abzan continues to be a fan favorite for at least another three months. A slightly bigger Abzan Aggro was the trend towards the end of last season, plus we don't have any real reason to believe that Abzan Control will be a thing, so let's start with Rakshasa Deathdealer.
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 4 Den Protector
- 4 Rakshasa Deathdealer
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 3 Wingmate Roc
- 4 Anafenza, the Foremost
Wingmate Roc appears to be quite good in the format, and Hangarback Walker is an excellent way to trigger raid without losing anything. Dromoka's Command and Abzan Charm are probably the two best removal spells in the format, but unfortunately, I don't think we can max out on Dromoka's Command. Our early drops aren't exactly primed for fighting things, so we might have to wait until later in order to use it profitably.
The manabase is clean, but it could easily feature the fourth creature-land if we wanted it. I tend to err on the side of stability before trying to see how much extra I can squeeze out of my manabase. The games that I've played have tended to be over rather quickly, so the creature-lands were activated a surprisingly few number of times.
I'm skeptical of the effectiveness of Ruinous Path. There are several haste creatures out there, so sorcery speed removal isn't what I'm looking for. Then again, since there's a lack of removal that kills anything, perhaps I don't have the luxury of being picky. However, with thirteen free sources of red mana, splashing Crackling Doom isn't out of the question. You'd have to scale back on basic Forests, but then you could swap back to four Sandsteppe Citadels and two Shambling Vents. Since we accidentally have a bunch of red sources, Woodland Wanderer might be nice also.
I would love to play a Murderous Cut, but outside of the fetchlands, I don't foresee us trading one-for-one as often as you might be used to in a format with Thoughtseize. Still, it's worth consideration, even if it's a one- or two-mana Doom Blade you can't use until Turn 5.
It's also possible that the correct route to take is to slant white for Stasis Snare (and maybe Knight of the White Orchid and/or Archangel of Tithes), ignoring the possibility of removing planeswalkers cleanly. Utter End still does that just fine, as does attacking it down with your beefy creatures. The evasion from Wingmate Roc and Den Protector also help.
- 3 Hangarback Walker
- 4 Archangel of Tithes
- 2 Den Protector
- 4 Knight of the White Orchid
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 3 Wingmate Roc
- 3 Anafenza, the Foremost
Knight of the White Orchid isn't exactly the two-drop we want, especially since we can't exactly capitalize on the extra two mana we'll have lying around on turn 3, but it likely makes the cut for now. If everyone is jamming the best threats possible, Archangel of Tithes could be a dark horse candidate for "best creature in the format." When everyone is able to play excellent cards on rate, the games will likely devolve into being tempo-based, at which point Archangel of Tithes throws a huge wrench into their plans.
Jeskai is near and dear to my heart, but things do not bode well for the archetype thus far. So far, it seems like people can kind of play whatever they want. Due to the unpredictable nature of the format, it makes me lean against playing situational cards such as Wild Slash or Roast. Valorous Stance, due to its versatility, makes the cut, but I still wouldn't play them en masse due to the risk of them being dead against a small creature deck.
That translates into me being scared to play Jeskai. We can skew our manabase toward being white heavy for Stasis Snare (and perhaps Knight of the White Orchid and Archangel of Tithes again), but a three-casting cost removal spell that's vulnerable to Dromoka's Command isn't something that would necessarily solve all my problems.
There's been a bunch of complaints about there not being a functional reprint of Lightning Strike or anything similar in Battle for Zendikar, but people seem to forget that Draconic Roar exists. Roast also still exists. Most of the time, your two-mana burn spell is being pointed at a creature anyway, so it's possible you should be looking for other alternatives to Lightning Strike.
Seeing as I don't want to include large amounts of situational cards in my deck, the stock of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy dips slightly. If Jace is worse, that means Ojutai's Command is much worse as a result. Additionally, we don't have much to do if our opponent decides not to play into our Ojutai's Command except for cast Dig Through Time. It's worth noting that Brutal Expulsion is probably great and worth playing alongside Ojutai's Command for that reason.
Anyway, instead of dropping a threat and being reactionary, I think I just want to drop more threats.
- 2 Hangarback Walker
- 4 Icefall Regent
- 4 Mantis Rider
- 4 Soulfire Grand Master
- 4 Thunderbreak Regent
- 2 Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
I'm not willing to stretch the mana for Silumgar's Scorn quite yet. We do have nineteen blue sources, which is very close, but it's not uncommon to fetch a Smoldering Marsh on Turn 1. I'd also prefer to be tapping out for my fatties instead of waiting until I had Silumgar's Scorn backup. Thunderbreak Regent and Icefall Regent punish your opponent for killing them anyway. Plus, if they don't have an answer immediately, they are likely going to lose.
Playing Icefall Regent over Dragonlord Ojutai could definitely be a crazy move, but any creature that generates tempo will likely be good in this format. Dragonlord Ojutai certainly does that in its own way, but I wanted something a little more aggressive. If it doesn't work out, I have no issue trading in my Icefall Regents back for Dragonlord Ojutais.
Hangarback Walker, while one of the best two-drops we have available, isn't as good in this deck because you won't often have that extra mana available to tick it up. It's difficult to be in that situation when you're trying to tap out every turn to drop a Dragon. Still, it fills the curve, provides your deck a mana sink, and generally does all those things that make the card good. You can't really point to any one thing that Hangarback Walker does that is excellent, especially if you don't have any sort of synergies, but it does a ton of small things pretty well, and most decks want that type of card.
Similarly to Abzan, Jeskai has numerous paths you can take. While I don't think Jeskai Dragons will be the most popular version of the archetype, it will likely be the best.
I like this deck a lot. Unfortunately, it suffers from some of the same problems that Jeskai does, in that its cards don't necessarily line up well against its opponents. If Ultimate Price were a playable card, that might be different, but with the ease of playing multiple colors, I fully expect people to either be taking advantage of that by playing powerful gold cards or trying to make some colorless Eldrazi deck work.
Regardless, the deck has a powerful threat base, is one of the best decks to utilize Draconic Roar, and has some of the best removal out there.
With Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury at the top end, I wanted more things that allowed me to go wide. Pia and Kiran Nalaar happens to be one of my favorite cards at the moment and was conveniently perfect for the job!
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 3 Den Protector
- 4 Thunderbreak Regent
- 3 Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury
- 3 Pia and Kiran Nalaar
The manabase is simple and lends itself to splashing quite easily. We could go with blue or green for the splash color. Since this deck is reminiscent of the Abzan style, Den Protector seemed like a natural fit. Plus, it works well with Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury. However, I could make a case for either Silumgar being an excellent fit as well.
Despise is not a great card, but I do think it's underrated, plus it's one of the cheapest forms of interactions we have. We could load up on Foul-Tongue Invocations to beat up on Dragonlord Ojutai, but that plan runs afoul of Hangarback Walker. Instead, I chose some mix of removal, blockers, and discard to combat things like that which could prove problematic.
Blighted Fen makes an appearance, and I don't make that decision lightly. We need a certain amount of basic lands in order for our Battle lands to enter the battlefield untapped, and that's priority number one. With eighteen virtual basic lands, this deck can afford some utility lands, and I decided that Blighted Fen was the best of the bunch, at least for how the deck is designed currently. Kolaghan's Command is nice with Den Protector, so we're rarely running out of threats. Because of that, Haven of the Spirit Dragon didn't seem necessary, and an edict effect seemed more powerful than a Shock effect.
At this point, it's pretty common for someone to say, "Every time you underestimate a red deck, it wins the next Pro Tour..."
This shell is easy to find and this deck is very, very cheap.
- 4 Abbot of Keral Keep
- 2 Goblin Heelcutter
- 4 Lightning Berserker
- 4 Monastery Swiftspear
- 4 Zurgo Bellstriker
If you look at the playable hyper aggressive red cards, it's not crazy to think that you may have come up with the exact 60 as I've presented here. That said, I have not been pleased by this deck. Dragon Fodder is not a powerful Magic card, and cards like Lightning Berserker don't do enough when you can't clear the way. Beating something as simple as a Turn 3 Savage Knuckleblade can be a daunting task at times.
I do believe Atarka's Command is one of the best cards in the format, but the best Atarka's Command deck is likely not here. Even if you want to play the same style of red deck, I'd look into cutting some of the weaker creatures and trying to play something like Makindi Sliderunner. With some Windswept Heaths, I bet you could have a 4/3 trampler attacking your opponent a bunch of times. It certainly seems like that's the type of creature we want in this format instead of a 1/1 firebreather.
Once we go down the route of being a bigger red deck, Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh and maybe even Pia and Kiran Nalaar start looking attractive. Hangarback Walker and Pia and Kiran Nalaar are pretty good with Atarka's Command...
Overall, I'd say this is the archetype that everyone is the most unclear on. Is it good? How do we build it?
Yup, not many standouts here, which leads me to believe that we should be looking for alternative options. The two mana accelerants aren't worth writing home about, and the payoffs aside from Dragonlord Atarka aren't anything special either. There are many boardstates in which casting Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger does not win you the game, especially if you're focused on ramping instead of dealing with their stuff outright.
- 4 Rattleclaw Mystic
- 4 Whisperer of the Wilds
- 4 Dragonlord Atarka
- 2 Dragonlord Dromoka
- 2 Nissa, Vastwood Seer
- 4 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
I've tried to concoct a deck that ramps hard into big things and hopes it's good enough. Rather than trying to interact with their early creatures, I'm assuming that Nissa's Revelation and Nissa's Renewal are enough to keep your head above water. That didn't seem to be the case, so Dragonlord Dromoka also made an appearance.
Something like Radiant Flames would be a good fit here, but unfortunately our two mana ramp spells are creatures. What I wouldn't give to have Font of Fertility back. There is no All is Dust, and while Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is excellent, there are too many colorless cards running around right now to truly bank on it being your saving grace.
From Beyond is an excellent card, but it doesn't ramp as hard as the deck wants. Explosive Vegetation seems like the right card for the job, although you have to watch out because you may run out of basic lands to fetch. It might not seem like an issue, but it did come up when I had fewer basic lands in the deck, and it was very relevant trying to flip a Nissa, Vastwood Seer in the lategame or when trying to cast two big things in one turn in order to get around a counterwall.
Isn't it crazy how many great utility lands we have available to us? Both Shrine of the Forsaken Gods and Blighted Woodland are excellent here, but I wouldn't mind having access to Spawning Bed, Mage-Ring Network, or Haven of the Spirit Dragon either.
Dragonlord Ojutai and company look like solid players in Battle for Zendikar Standard. Silumgar's Scorn is still very close to Counterspell, and Dig Through Time is still the best way to get yourself out of tough spots. To top it off, the mana is great.
This deck would prefer to be operating off instant speed, especially since Horribly Awry and Ojutai's Command are both excellent counterspells. Ruinous Path leaves much to be desired, so I went looking for other options. As is the trend, I started looking at Stasis Snare and Draconic Roar.
After some brewing, we ended up with this hot mess:
Again, the issue of conditional removal came up. Stasis Snare was excellent, but Draconic Roar and Radiant Flames were both targeting the same types of creatures. If our opponents didn't have any, those cards were likely dead. I can't imagine the control mirror being a good matchup for this deck, but it has its merits against decks with small creatures.
However, with the ability to play Dragonlord Ojutai, Silumgar's Scorn, and Dig Through Time, I imagine there is an excellent Dragon control deck out there. As is always the case, brewing a control deck for week 1 of a format is difficult when you don't know what types of reactive spells you need to be playing.
This gauntlet is by no means all encompassing, but it's a start. Go from here, find some things that are promising, and brew some ways to tackle the giants. That's what I'll be spending my time on this week.
What's in your gauntlet right now?