Many cards from Khans of Tarkir have had a ton of potential but were being held back in one way or another. Sometimes there is too similar of a card that serves the same purpose but does it better. Other times it's a threat that doesn't succeed through the format's removal, or it's a removal spell that doesn't work against the format's threats.
With the Standard format rotation, Theros block is leaving and Battle for Zendikar is taking its place. It's been a long time since the release of Khans of Tarkir, so long that it feels like we've had to deal with Siege Rhino years now. Once cards are deemed unplayable in Constructed based on harsh metagame truths, it's easy to dismiss them forever. Today's article is a reminder of a few red cards that I feel get stronger after the set rotation.
The new Berserk incarnate has had some Standard success in Jeskai Heroic piloted by Joe Lossett. Temur Battle Rage is great on large creatures without any evasion, which often times would often be a huge Hero of Iroas or the like. While Joe stuck to his guns, myself and many other die-hard Heroic fans switched to Bant Heroic for Dromoka's Command and for its versatility at the cost of explosiveness.
With the implementation of fetchland plus Battle land manabases, it's easier than ever to run twelve or more fetchlands in your deck to suicidally achieve a large graveyard quickly for delve. The common pairing is with Become Immense to create a two-card combination that usually kills them when it happens uncontested.
Temur Battle Rage acts as "reach" when your deck otherwise wouldn't have it. People won't be getting burned out as much now that Lightning Strike, Stoke the Flames, and the incremental damage from Eidolon of the Great Revel and Searing Blood are gone. A huge one-shot nug with Temur Battle Rage on a large creature, with or without the help of Titan's Strength or Become Immense, seems like a route to finishing off the opponent that was once overshadowed by good direct damage.
I used Impact Tremors to some success in a Standard Super League episode a few months back. It was useful when Esper Dragons and its one-for-one removal was popular. Impact Tremors into Hordeling Outburst is an extremely strong start that puts the opponent on the backfoot very quickly. It was also useful at hitting planeswalkers every now and then. There will be a lot of planeswalkers in Standard now that every deck has either Jace, Vryn's Prodigy or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in it. And, of course, it's another way to put the tokens generated from Hangarback Walker to use.
Impact Tremors competed with Obelisk of Urd and Hall of Triumph as spells that worked very synergistically with the tokens. There's only so much room for these non-creature effects, and Impact Tremors was found to be the weaker option. With the competition rotating out, I see Impact Tremors finding its way into non-G/R decks as green versions have Atarka's Command for a generally better effect.
Five mana is a lot, but so is six damage and instant speed. With the loss of Hero's Downfall, there's not much in terms of unconditional instant-speed removal anymore. Burn Away is meant in a control shell, possibly one with the new Eldrazi. With everyone running fetchlands, Burn Away is bound to get a few of them at least, which enables Blight Herder and Oblivion Sower. Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, Den Protector, Deathmist Raptor, and slowing down various delve spells are all upsides to exiling someone's graveyard.
Sadly, this won't stop Hangarback Walker from making Thopters though.
Twin Bolt has been benched for a while now for the preferred burn spell for two, Lightning Strike. Mantis Rider does still exist, but Fleecemane Lion is gone at least. People will quickly find that a deck absolutely needs a ways to kill Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, either on turn 2 or when it becomes a planeswalker with something like Ruinous Path.
You want something in the two-drop removal slot that removes things that costs approximately the same mana. Ultimate Price, Valorous Stance, and Dromoka's Command are all great removal spells, but they aren't reliable on turn 2.
Tokens like Hangarback Walker Thopters and Eldrazi Scions are due to be popping up in high frequency, making the usefulness of Twin Bolt still relevant past the early turns as well. Twin Bolt can make bad attacks into good ones by hitting one or two creatures for their last point of toughness, sometimes pointing a remaining point at the opponent or their planeswalker.
Humble Defector was once the lynchpin of shenanigans that involved getting rid of the Humble Defector before the "draw two cards" ability resolves. Collateral Damage was first, followed by trying to untap it with Jeskai Ascendancy or maybe Refocus. As the format developed, it was discovered that the combo-ish nature of the card wasn't good enough to compete.
Now there may be enough pieces to the puzzle that he's potentially good. Recently we've gotten some nice sacrifice outlets in Magic Origins with Evolutionary Leap and Nantuko Husk. Butcher of the Horde has gotten better as well and Humble Defector works nicely with that thing too.
Battle for Zendikar brings enough of a sacrifice theme along with it that a suicide-happy little fella like Humble Defector should be given a second glance. Sadly, you can't stack it well with Bone Splinters, but I wouldn't be surprised to see both in a list, as all the surrounding cards will synergize together.
This three-drop has been flying in the shadow of Goblin Rabblemaster for the better part of a year now. Again, now that there are enough tools that reward the sacrificing of creatures, I can see this little bird finding a home now. I like how sacrificing this to Nantuko Husk enables ferocious on its own and how well it works with Butcher of the Horde on both sides. It also rebuys nicely on a "creatureless" board that includes Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker to be animated.
Flamewake Phoenix matches up pretty well against Hangarback Walker, either to fly over it initially or to present a threat that doesn't really get chump blocked or double blocked very well. Abzan Charm is the primary means of exiling problem creatures, and Flamewake Phoenix gets right under that. I think Flamewake Phoenix is a decent card at face value as a three-drop in aggressive decks and could very well find itself in a deck that appreciates it for its ability to come back over and over again.
This mid-sized flyer has recently been a two-of at most when extra copies of Thunderbreak Regent-type cards were wanted, like in Chris VanMeter's winning G/R Dragons deck he won with at #SCGWOR earlier this year. Ashcloud Phoenix matched up poorly against Magma Spray and Anger of the Gods then and with them leaving, could reign the skies. There's still the problem with trading down against Abzan Charm, but it trades favorably against most other removal. If red wanted to go to the skies before, it had Stormbreath Dragon to go with Thunderbreak Regent, and even though Ashcloud Phoenix has the same casting cost as Thunderbreak Regent, it could be the additional flyer of choice for people wanting to go with that angle of attack.
Now that the new focus will be to kill Jace and that there's a severe lack of early plays that kill three-toughness creatures, I think that Dragonlord's Servant might be a reliable means of landing a Dragon earlier than normal. Elvish Mystic and Sylvan Caryatid are gone and now the options are rather weak. Rattleclaw Mystic is still fine, but after that, you have to play Beastcaller Savant in a creature-dense deck or play Whisperer of the Wilds, which has a rather embarrassing body. No matter what you choose, the mana accelerant will have a fragile body and you could end up keeping a hand that might not function smoothly if it dies. I know that I've been enjoying having Shaman of Forgotten Ways on the battlefield because it doesn't get hit by small removal, Abzan Charm, or Valorous Stance. The loss of Stormbreath Dragon hurts a red-centric Dragons build, but I think the Battle land + fetchland manabases are good enough to support whatever you want (within reason).
This one has been in the shadow of Stormbreath Dragon this whole time. Are we sensing a theme here? Stormbreath Dragon had significant advantages, as it couldn't be attacked like a planeswalker can, and Stormbreath couldn't get hit by Abzan Charm. While Sarkhan still dies to the Charm, I think you'll want to cast him more reactively than proactively. He's going to be especially nice as a way to smack down a freshly made Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. It's also a creature that doesn't get hit by Ojutai's Command on the turn that they're obviously leaving it up.
Note that when Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker becomes a 4/4 Dragon that it's no longer a planeswalker; it allows a second copy to be cast and exist at the same time as the first (until end of turn). This is not true with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, as he's worded to remain as a planeswalker so you can't +1 him into a 5/5 then cast another to -4 the second. That would be sweet if it worked though, as if Gideon needed another reason to be good.
Stoke the Flames, Hero's Downfall, and Stormbreath Dragon have been holding this one back. With a higher demand and usefulness from a sacrifice outlet, I can see this poised for a comeback. It hits hard and fast and the lifelink aspect presents a tough race for the opponent. Manabases are easier now for the Butcher, and I can see him fitting in anywhere from three- to five-color decks.
Here's a sample deck using some of the mentioned cards from the Khans of Tarkir block. Admittedly, it's forcing the above cards a bit, and the list is rough, but I still believe the archetype to be a powerful one, and one that's not really limited to Mardu while still using Butcher of the Horde as a central piece.
This is only one color, and I'm sure there are more red cards that from Khans of Tarkir block that have been waiting for their time to shine that I've overlooked. I analyzed red because it's the color I've been the most familiar with in recent Standard. With four more colors, artifacts, and lands to rummage through, that means that Battle for Zendikar hitting the shelves isn't just a time for fresh new cards and ultra-rare expeditions.
It's time to find buried treasure.