As people try to figure out post rotation Standard decks, the natural thing to do is to update the old decks and try to figure out what's still good. That's an extremely useful way to establish a solid baseline and find early successful decks, but it's never something I've personally put much time into. My passion for Magic is fueled by creativity and curiosity, and when I see a new set, I want to try to build decks around the new cards. The idea of "brewing up" post-rotation Esper Dragons or Atarka Red sounds about as interesting as doing taxes, so I generally let other people handle that. So today, as with most sets, I'm not going to try to tell you the best decks in the new Standard, I'm going to try to show you what kinds of strategies the new cards make possible. While I think Battle for Zendikar might be a relatively low power set, there are definitely still some things going on here, and new sets do have a history of being underrated before they're fully understood.
First of all, yes, we finally have enough tools that I think looking at "Aristocrats" style decks is reasonable. Before, we've had a few cards but never enough incentive to really push it. People ask me if I'm excited about the return of Blood Artist. It's really hard for me to get excited about weak versions of pet cards--if I liked a card, but it wasn't a format staple, it's likely that it was just barely good enough to play. This means there's a good chance that a weaker version won't be good enough to play. Yes, sometimes there were times when Blood Artist was relying entirely on your own creatures for triggers, but those were usually the matches where I'd side out Blood Artist. On the other hand, there's a massive difference between zero power and one power, and there's enough support for Zulaport Cutthroat that it's good enough to be worth trying.
Before I get into a list, I want to be clear about some things I think are going to be really important to optimize for in this format.
First of all, the mana that's possible in this format is great, which means that if your deck has bad mana, you'll be at a substantial disadvantage. While the mana is great, it can definitely be tricky to get it right, as the hoops involved in having the right fetchlands and the right Battle lands to get the mana you need aren't simple, and neither is balancing your basic/nonbasic lands to make the Battle lands you do play untapped when you need them to be.
Second, almost every deck in almost every color combination has a glut of options at three mana specifically. A huge portion of the best cards in the format cost three mana. It's really easy to build a list that has sixteen+ three drops. When you do that, it becomes really hard for you to spend all of your mana each turn or to cast two spells in a turn, which makes it really easy for your opponent to spend more mana than you over the course of the game if they have a smoother curve, which is a pretty good predictor of who will win the game. You also don't have lands that let you scry that you can play when you don't have other things to spend mana on to make up some lost value. Building a good curve is very important and will require going somewhat out of your way early on.
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 4 Bloodsoaked Champion
- 4 Butcher of the Horde
- 4 Sultai Emissary
- 4 Zulaport Cutthroat
- 2 Drana, Liberator of Malakir
- 4 Liliana, Heretical Healer
This deck is a good example of how I always build my decks at the beginning of a format--I push my theme and synergies as far as possible in the maindeck, and then fill the sideboard with all the good interactive spells I'm not playing maindeck. As a format develops I move a little closer to reality and maindeck a few more removal spells, once I know which ones I want most often, but I still try to keep my deck focused on executing its plan in game 1, and let it become more interactive after sideboarding.
This deck is four colors, which can make mana relatively awkward in this format, but I'm solidly based in black (every card in the maindeck except Gideon, Ally of Zendikar requires black mana, and all of my cards that cost less than three only require black mana). I'm playing Mountain and Abzan Ascendancy, but none of my cards that cost less than four need red, so I can play my other colors first to cast Abzan Ascendancy on time, and then the Mountain is there so that I can fetch it on turn 4 to cast Butcher of the Horde.
I expect the mana in this deck to play out really smoothly, but if you're wondering, the deck has nineteen black sources, fifteen red sources, fourteen white sources, and twelve green sources. I cut the fourth Shambling Vent for the first Sandsteppe Citadel because twelve green felt a lot safer than eleven. I'd like to turn a red source into a white source, but that's not easy to do.
I'd generally prefer a second one-drop that I can play on turn 1 to go with Bloodsoaked Champion, but I think Shambling Vent goes a long way to fixing that, and Bone Splinters slots in easily later to let me use an extra mana. I'd obviously love to play Blisterpod in this deck, but it requires pushing your mana really far to consistently have untapped mana of two enemy colors on turn 1, and I didn't think it was worth it when I want to play four colors, and even if I dropped red, it would still be really hard to consistently cast Blisterpod on turn 1; Liliana, Heretical Healer on turn 3; and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar on turn 4. Something had to give and Blisterpod, while great, definitely isn't high impact enough to be a huge sacrifice.
In the past, I've been underwhelmed by Butcher of the Horde, but the card is outstanding on paper, so I think it deserves another chance now. Having a free sacrifice outlet is absolutely huge with Liliana, Heretical Healer, Hangarback Walker, Abzan Ascendancy, and Zulaport Cutthroat. Stoke the Flames is no longer in the format and neither is Hero's Downfall, which means haste is a lot better, and having a great four-mana creature is more valuable with Liliana, Defiant Necromancer in the deck.
I think Sultai Emissary is pretty clearly better than Carrier Thrall, especially with Abzan Ascendancy, where making a second creature that's a card rather than a token is a lot more valuable, and in a deck with this many creatures, meaning that manifests are likely to be great. Even without those, I think a 2/2 is a bigger step up from a 1/1 Eldrazi Scion than a 2/1 is from a 1/1 on the front half.
Shadows of the Past could easily be terrible, but it's been so much better than I expected in Magic Origins Limited that I figured I should try one in a Constructed deck that can make good use of it.
There are a lot of other ways to build this deck. Evolutionary Leap and Vampiric Rites offer reliable ways to sacrifice creatures to grind value, though I generally go pretty far out of my way to avoid things that require mana to fuel a sacrifice and recommend that you do the same. Rally the Ancestors is a potentially outstanding payoff, and Gather the Pack still exists as a good enabler for it along with Den Protector. Grim Haruspex and Smothering Abomination are two different ways to add a lot of resilience to the deck--I avoided both because I think that, with a deck based on weak cards and explosive synergies, I'd rather take my payoff in the form of material on the board rather than cards in hand so that I can end the game faster, as I don't really think the card advantage will let me beat something like sweepers and Dig Through Time or ramping into Eldrazi going late. Catacomb Sifter seems like a good card and a good fit, but, but as I mentioned earlier, there's just so much competition at three mana, and it seemed worse than my other options. Nantuko Husk is in a similar position. There's definitely another approach that goes deep on Eldrazi Scions, but that's not the Abzan Ascendancy/Liliana Heretical Healer deck, because they don't trigger either.
This set doesn't have a ton of new build around space I'm very excited about. The sacrifice stuff definitely appeals, but there doesn't seem to be enough support yet to take Allies seriously, for example. One other thing that does interest me is trying to figure out what kinds of things the Eldrazi are capable of.
The play that I'm really excited about with this deck is Crumble to Dust into Oblivion Sower. Ideally, this will happen targeting a creature-land. Unfortunately, not all decks will have four copies of any nonbasic lands because it's often right to just play a lot of fetchlands and a couple of each Battle land, so most of this package has to reside in the sideboard. Still, I think it gives you a massive edge against other midrange or control decks that play tri-lands or creature-lands.
I'm pretty optimistic about Grave Birthing as a card that offers just enough value to punish someone for passing when you have mana up to counter something, especially when you were counting on using that counter to exile a card to set up Blight Herder. I'd like to play more of them, but I'm not sure how to make room, particularly because I need to keep the top end heavy to power Titan's Presence.
I wanted to try a more tapout version of this deck with Herald of Kozilek, but I couldn't figure out how to make room for that while having enough enablers for Blight Herder, assuming I usually want to cast it before I cast Oblivion Sower.
Another thing I'm really not sure of is the mix of lands. Playing Blighted lands with Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger seems like it's very likely to be wrong, but at the same time, not playing Blighted lands with four Oblivion Sowers also seems wrong, so I figured I'd just start with a mix of colorless lands and see which worked best.
This set also looks to support an aggressive take on Eldrazi, which I think Vile Aggregate wants to be a key piece of.
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 4 Blisterpod
- 4 Catacomb Sifter
- 4 Forerunner of Slaughter
- 4 Kozilek's Sentinel
- 4 Vile Aggregate
- 2 Pia and Kiran Nalaar
The maindeck here is designed to go wide and aggressive, and the sideboard lets you grind with Den Protector and Kolaghan's Command, and has Molten Nursery to tear apart small creatures. Dust Stalker is there to punish decks with few blockers, especially decks with sweepers.
I like how the high toughness of the "red" Eldrazi make this deck resilient against red removal, which I expect to be prevalent.
I'm not sure how I feel about the Retreats in general. At first, I ignored them, but I think they might be great, and with thirteen fetchlands in this deck, I think Retreat to Valakut should be good for a lot of damage.
Another aggressive take focuses on landfall instead of Eldrazi, like this G/R Landfall deck:
Every creature in this deck has either prowess or landfall, which means you're getting a good rate on all the creatures as attackers. Between their natural growth on your turn, pump spells, and Retreat to Valakut, blocking against this deck should be extremely difficult. Your plan in game 1 is incredibly straightforward, play cheap creatures that are good at attacking, rarely mulligan or miss a land drop with 26 lands, and kill your opponent before they can do whatever their deck does.
After sideboarding, you can take advantage of your deck's high land count to go bigger, adding Akoum Firebird against decks that overload on removal, and Retreat to Kazandu and Undergrowth Champion allow you to go bigger and defensive against other aggressive decks, along with Wild Slash to slow them down.
My final list will go in a different direction, more midrange.
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 2 Archangel of Tithes
- 1 Deathmist Raptor
- 3 Den Protector
- 4 Knight of the White Orchid
- 1 Soulfire Grand Master
- 3 Dragonlord Ojutai
- 2 Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
- 1 Nissa, Vastwood Seer
There are a lot of options here, and the focus is a little less synergy-based than I'm used to working with this early on. I think there's something here--you'll note that this deck has very few threes despite what I said about the format having a lot of good three-mana plays. That's very much by design. My biggest takeaway from playing Mono-White Devotion is that Knight of the White Orchid decks want to have a lot of cards they can play with two mana and relatively few threes.
The maindeck here prioritizes creatures and planeswalkers because creatures are versatile cards that can function as threats or as blockers for my planeswalkers. My sideboard is entirely spells, which allows me to become more of a spell-based control deck that uses counters or removal to defend my planeswalkers, depending on how my opponents are trying to attack them. This also makes me much better at using Jace, Vryn's Prodigy after sideboarding.
This is a very rough list, and it's harder to list all the options for this kind of deck than for the other more synergistic decks. I think there's likely something good here though.
While far from exhaustive, I think this is a reasonable first step at looking at some of what this set has going on. While the cards aren't as flashy as the gold cards from the previous block were, I think the way that mana pushes decks away from the clans might mean that we see people working to play more cards from Battle for Zendikar than it might seem at first, once we figure out which ones are really good and how to use them.