The verdict is in: 2016 wasn't a great year for Standard. Collected Company and Emrakul, the Promised End took turns dominating the format, with some brief interludes from Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Smuggler's Copter.
The lack of diversity relative to previous Standard formats has been a letdown, but if there's one constant in Magic: The Gathering, it's change.
2017 is a new year and preview season for Aether Revolt has started. Preview season is a time of great excitement and anticipation since, let's face it, we like new stuff.
But that excitement is often misguided. We all want to tear into preview cards right at the beginning and start brewing new decks with thoughts of breaking the format. But effective brewing requires more of the set to be revealed before you can properly assess the new format in its entirety, search out all the important role-players, and be confident that the work you put into your new brew won't be destroyed by a key card revealed later on in the process.
So it's important to hold back a little from the outright brewing, keeping those ideas in mind, especially for what potential holes that the rest of the set can fill. Realistically, this task is impossible without some sort of distraction. Brewing is just too fun and you need some payoff from frantically refreshing your browser at 10:59 AM ET every day.
For me, that distraction is looking back on previous decks that could see a revival based on the new cards being printed. These decks are mostly fleshed out already and most of their role-players already exist. The holes left to be filled are smaller, so a new card or two can make all the difference.
The full-on brewing can wait. For now let's take a look at some old players that have been lying dormant and are ready to take on the titans of the format. Note that I'll be foregoing sideboards with these initial concepts, since the expected metagame is still undefined.
For a while, G/W Tokens was one of the few decks that broke through to the top tiers during the Collected Company era, although the emergence of Spell Queller as a huge tempo swing against the deck and Emrakul, the Promised End to trump the late-game qualities of the deck forced it back to the fringe.
The deck has since lost a key piece in Hangarback Walker while Sylvan Advocate's standing in Standard has plummeted, so there are going to be some significant changes to it, but the combination of Nissa, Voice of Zendikar and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is still very powerful. Here's a first pass:
As the previous iterations of G/W Tokens evolved, they became less aggressive and more controlling, using Hangarback Walker and Evolutionary Leap alongside the planeswalkers to gain tons of card advantage. With the loss of those cards, the deck has to change, and that means becoming more aggressive.
The first layer of that aggression comes with the Vehicles. Smuggler's Copter is obviously excellent, and this deck spews so many small bodies onto the battlefield that finding a suitable pilot is incredibly easy. Importantly, Smuggler's Copter's looting ability helps this deck with its occasionally shaky manabase. Being more streamlined means a couple of the Oath of Nissas have been cut, so helping to ensure you can curve your GG planeswalker into your WW one is an important role to fill that is easy to overlook.
But enough about what is undoubtedly one of the best cards in the format. You're all here to read about sweet new cards and the second Vehicle in the deck fits the bill. Heart of Kiran is a card I've written about before and is powerful enough to fit into many strategies.
We have eleven planeswalkers in this deck, so crewing Heart of Kiran without a creature will be easy, and that's exactly what we want to do here. Somewhat paradoxically, using the planeswalkers' loyalty is going to keep them alive. A 4/4 flying, vigilance body plays great defense against aggressive decks, essentially acting as a Forcefield of sorts.
But this Forcefield also kills the attacking creature. Magic 101: killing your opponent's stuff is good. So when you curve Heart of Kiran into Nissa, Voice of Zendikar creating a 0/1 Plant token, your opponent isn't killing your Nissa in combat.
And unlike some other defensive measures, this curve also applies plenty of pressure against control decks. Follow it up with a Gideon, Ally of Zenikar and the game can end as quickly as turn 5. Observe:
Turn 2: Heart of Kiran
Turn 3: Nissa, Voice of Zendikar | create a Plant | crew and attack for four
Turn 4: Gideon, Ally of Zendikar | create a Plant and a Knight Ally " crew and attack for four
Turn 5: Crew | 0 Gideon | -2 Nissa | attack for sixteen (two 1/2 Plants, 3/3 Knight, 6/6 Gideon, 5/5 Vehicle)
The simultaneous offense provided by Heart of Kiran is very important for a deck that prides itself on versatility. You can get aggressive or sit back and grind your opponent into dust with a pile of planeswalkers. And trying to stop both plans simultaneously is a nightmare for the opponent. Most creature removal is laughably bad and all your creatures are gigantic.
Yes, Spell Queller still exists to tag your expensive sorceries, but the Vehicles ensure that the 2/3 body is ineffective, turning the card into another Cancel, but one that can be undone by a removal spell.
And yes, Emrakul, the Promised End still exists. So it would be nice to have a card that can go wide enough that Emrakul is insufficient to answer. That card would be Sram's Expertise.
I'll repeat. Wow.
This is a Magic card. Well, most of the time it's two Magic cards, but you know what I meant. Casting spells for free is at the heart of all the most broken mechanics in Magic's history. Storm, cascade, Phyrexian mana, Frantic Search et al., the list is long and littered with cautionary tales. Needing to invest the four mana for the first half and have a suitable second card as well certainly mitigates the danger, but this cycle of cards is still very powerful. Just consider some of the absurd starts that are possible with it:
Turn 1: Thraben Inspector
Turn 2: Servant of the Conduit
Turn 3: Sram's Expertise | Nissa, Voice of Zendikar | create a Plant
Turn 4: Gideon, Ally of Zendikar | create a Knight Ally | -2 Nissa.
The result is you have fifteen power spread across seven bodies alongside two planeswalkers. Oh, and a Clue token for good measure. How do you even fit all of that on a playmat? Invest in dice now, because they may become scarce in the months to come.
The Thraben Inspector in that curve isn't even necessary. I'm just very greedy. Maybe you have a Canopy Vista you need to play on turn 1 to curve properly. That's fine. I guess you'll have to settle for attacking for 25 on turn 5; you'll live. Your opponent, on the other hand...
Having a card that makes three bodies is always going to get out of hand with so many Anthems available. Even Oath of Ajani, a card that I was not excited by, plays well enough with Sram's Expertise that I wanted to include a single copy. Being able to immediately get your creatures to 2/2s helps insulate them from Liliana, the Last Hope, and the other ability sets you up to double-spell on the following turn, say, with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Declaration in Stone for a key creature.
The tempo swings that are possible with this card are simply absurd, making a card as expensive as Emrakul, the Promised End a pipe dream. Yes, there are various sweeper options available for your opponents to clean up these tokens, but those sweepers are never going to remove your various planeswalkers and Vehicles, so the deck is naturally insulated against them. Sram's Expertise is the only card that's vulnerable to sweepers, but it's so powerful that they may need to have access to them anyway, which is about as perfectly positioned as you can be.
The planeswalkers at the top of the curve give the deck some added power it misses from Archangel Avacyn, and Nissa, Vital Force is a great aggressive curve-topper as well as a potential source of card advantage, depending on what you need at the time. But if more aggression and battlefield presence is what we end up wanting, then Verdurous Gearhulk is a great option in that spot. The list would look like this:
No frills, just get 'em dead without being vulnerable to common forms of interaction. Verdurous Gearhulk provides even more insulation against small sweepers, putting your opponent in the awkward position of deciding between using one of their best cards to mop up some largely unimportant tokens or holding it for more value later, only to watch all your creatures jump out of its range. The beauty about this “choice” is that if your draw cooperates, they always lose.
One card that is potentially troublesome is Archangel Avacyn. It can generate huge swings in combat and with its transform trigger, while the body is great at pressuring your planeswalkers. I could see shifting the removal suite to have more copies of Stasis Snare or Skywhaler's Shot, but if Sram's Expertise shows up, then those Declaration in Stones are going to be necessary, so that's a judgment call that will need to be made in the coming weeks. For now I err toward the cheaper card so double-spell turns happen as frequently as possible.
With all the excitement from Sram's Expertise, I couldn't stop at one deck. Let's hop in the time machine and go back to the Pro Tour. Torrential Gearhulk was the talk of the town, so maybe you don't remember this gem:
There were many flavors of R/W aggressive decks and this one failed to catch on after the Pro Tour, but it has some powerful starts. Three bodies on one card, even for four mana, could be a valuable addition to this deck, even though the dream scenario of casting Reckless Bushwhacker off Sram's Expertise doesn't go quite as planned.
You see, Rekcless Bushwhacker only triggers if you paid the surge cost, not if you satisfied the condition for surge, so casting it via another method will never get your creatures the bonus. The five minutes where I thought it worked that way were great, though. I wouldn't trade them for anything. But some things just aren't meant to be.
With such a low curve to maintain and Gideon already in the deck, it likely doesn't want the full four copies of Sram's Expertise, but the card is going to be great at setting up huge turns recovering quickly from sweepers or if the battlefield bogs down. Here's how I would alter the deck:
With this maindeck, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar would be your primary sideboard plan against decks with sweepers, letting you shift gears from the more streamlined maindeck plan. To replace the Anthem ability of Gideon, Collective Effort comes in, offering great synergy with Sram's Expertise.
Now you can go wider than any other deck in Standard with startling consistency, and the added Anthem ensures that you can attack into Ishkanah, Grafwidow and her Spiders without devastating your position. That is, if your opponent even gets to turn 5. Sram's Expertise looks as though it will create such a huge swing that the game ends the turn after you cast it.
I Can't Help Myself
I wouldn't exactly call this deck a revival, since it was never a competitive deck to begin with, but I really couldn't resist.
Sram, Senior Edificer is a sweet card that can likely see play in various Vehicles builds because of the incidental value it provides, but I want to dream big, so naturally I looked to the incredibly powerful Bone Saw and Cathar's Shield.
The additional card draw that Sram provides certainly helps this deck in terms of both explosiveness and consistency, but I'd be surprised if it were enough, especially in a format where people will come prepared with Disenchant effects. Hopefully more pieces for this deck will be revealed, because I'd like nothing more than to fire a giant energy cannon at my opponents.
As more cards are revealed, these decks may gain even more tools, but as we get more of the set, I'll be focusing on new potential strategies that Aether Revolt unlocks.