We've got full information on Amonkhet, and all we need is one more piece to the puzzle before the real work on Standard can begin. Monday brings updates to the Banned and Restricted list, which could determine the fate of Standard for the next few months, and, if I'm being honest with myself, whether or not I am interested in the format. The “Splinter Twin” combo of Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian has gone on long enough, and we're ready for a change. It was a mistake that they've already admitted, so now let's just fix it and move on. Whether or not Gideon, Ally of Zendikar makes an early exit is still up in the air.
But I'm not here to talk about those cards. Today we're talking about Amonkhet, and the potential it has to impact the Standard format. Without Felidar Guardian or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar running around, the space of playable Standard cards goes through the roof. And if those cards get banned, you can expect a lot of cards from Amonkhet to make a difference. There are many cards that scream “build a deck around me,” and quite a few versatile threats to be tinkered with. On top of that, many of those cards cycle, making for some interesting decision trees in sculpting your hand and how the rest of the game plays out. How long should you hold onto your Censor? Is Curator of Mysteries better as a 4/4 flier or as another random card?
But while the cards in Amonkhet do offer a variety of different play patterns, the fact that they have cycling means they'll be inherently weaker than the cards we already have access to. Factor in that this set was built with a different rotation schedule in mind (Battle for Zendikar block should be gone) and you'll understand why we're in a bit of a pickle. If neither Felidar Guardian nor Gideon, Ally of Zendikar gets banned, which of these cards can compete with either of them?
So What If....
What if they didn't exist? What if we lived in a world where more than two or three decks were viable in Standard? So today, in order to accurately determine the playability of these new cards, we're going to work under the assumption that they will be banned on Monday. If that doesn't happen, then hopefully these cards will still be good enough to create some new archetypes, or even spawn new ones in the face of the overwhelming pressure. I pray for the former, but we'll just have to wait a few more days and see what happens.
Of all the cards from Amonkhet, this one has me the most excited to build around. Not only can it generate a hefty amount of card advantage, but three-mana planeswalkers are often heavily undervalued until people realize their full potential. While this card doesn't easily fit into a deck with removal, I could see it becoming a staple in midrange Temur or Sultai decks. It doesn't seem all that difficult to put extra mana to good use these days, but the upside of being able to hit a creature like Rogue Refiner just seems ludicrous.
The play pattern of this card is also pretty interesting. Assuming you're casting it onto an empty battlefield on the third turn, I think the correct way to use it involves the scry mechanic first, followed by the 0 ability. That almost ensures that you'll be able to get an extra card out of the deal. That also keeps your Nissa, Steward of Elements out of Walking Ballista range. Obviously, the decisions on how to use your Nissa, Steward of Elements change based on the matchup, how you build your deck, and how you're going to sequence your next few turns. If you could really use a ramp effect, putting five mana to good use on the following turn, then gambling a little on the 0 ability is probably worth it.
What I like most about Nissa, Steward of Elements is how versatile it can be. If you're able to pressure your opponent in the early turns, squeaking out damage and putting them to ten life or lower, then her ultimate is insane. And if they're not at ten life or less, the Ultimate still has value if your opponent has a planeswalker or two on the battlefield. The fact that the Elementals she makes have flying is sweet, even if you don't get to keep them around afterwards. While the ultimate is probably the least exciting aspect of Nissa, Steward of Elements, the fact that it is there when you need it is a big deal. Sure, eight mana is a lot to invest into a glorified Giantbaiting, but the fact that you have the option is what makes it so relevant.
No matter how you build your U/G/X deck, I think Nissa, Steward of Elements should have a place. If you can protect her with removal or blockers, it shouldn't be difficult to translate the gained advantages into a win. Extra mana or threats will be tough for most decks to beat. Here is a sample list for Nissa, Steward of Elements in a Temur Energy shell.
In this shell, Nissa, Steward of Elements isn't being used to its fullest with the ramp ability, but you have a lot of creatures that don't mind hitting a few extra land drops. And there, I think, is the key to making it work smoothly. You want creatures that cost around three or less mana that can also benefit greatly from hitting your land drops every turn. Sylvan Advocate and Tireless Tracker both seem fantastic in facilitating this.
My main fear is that we might not be pushing Nissa, Steward of Elements hard enough. Is the energy mechanic the best way to go about this? Perhaps not, but I think we have to work with the tools we have at our disposal. The best three-mana creatures in the format reside in Temur colors and generally revolve around accumulating energy, so why not put them to good use?
While I wrote about this card last week, I don't think her praises can be said enough. While five mana is a lot to invest in a card that might not have a huge impact on the game, the potential upside of generating small advantages every turn while killing your opponent's creatures is huge. While Nissa, Steward of Elements isn't in the “right” colors to play removal, Liliana, Death's Majesty pushes us toward the color with the most obvious gift for killing creatures. The color(s) of a planeswalker could matter just as much as the text on it.
While we don't have something like Griselbrand to bring back from the dead with the minus ability, Standard offers quite a few big baddies that we can take advantage of. And if you really want to take advantage of Liliana, Death's Majesty's most powerful effect, it might not be a bad idea to put some discard-themed spells into your deck. Cycling is an obvious combo here, but you shouldn't discount the fact that Oath of Jace and a number of other cheap loot effects are currently available. I don't want to step on Michael Majors's toes, so I'll just leave it at this:
Liliana, Death's Majesty is likely the best card in Amonkhet, but it might take some time and a lot of work to figure out just how busted it is.
I don't know how many of you ever got to cast Time Stop, but I can assure you that the feeling is pretty insane. Not only can you just use it as a Time Walk, but you have the option of waiting until your opponent attacks (so that their creatures are tapped) or for them to cast a spell (spells on the stack get exiled when the turn ends). The downside?
Well, it's pretty hefty. Final Fortune didn't see much play when it was in Standard, but unlike Final Fortune, you can use an additional copy to save yourself for a turn. Ending the turn goes both ways.
While I fully expect the majority of this card's life-span to involve weird combo decks in Modern, I do think it could have a place as a one- or two-of in some hyper-aggressive decks in Standard. Some games are won or lost by the smallest of margins, and taking an extra turn at just the right time could steal the game on the spot. When you combine Glorious End with haste creatures, or effects that can give creatures haste, it acts a lot like a Relentless Assault effect that untaps your lands. Of course, that also means your opponent will get to untap, but that's the beauty of a Time Stop-eque card. You choose when you cast it, and you choose when (or how) the turn ends.
Glorious End is a dangerous card to play with, but this effect is so rare that it definitely deserves a second look.
No, this card isn't Sphinx's Revelation, but it doesn't need to be in order to see play. While it is competing pretty hard with Glimmer of Genius, I don't see why the two can't work together in a dedicated control strategy. Obviously it doesn't play well with Torrential Gearhulk, but these control decks have been lacking a big card-drawing spell after trading one-for-one throughout the early turns of the game.
My biggest pet peeve with control as of late is that the threats are far outweighing the answers. I talked about this briefly last week, but the short answer is that control decks can't sit on their hands with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Saheeli Combo running around. With them out of the picture, control could make a comeback.
But control has a hard time winning at the moment for a number of other reasons. Once you trade your counterspells and removal for their threats, you're left with a glorified Inspiration to do all the heavy lifting. It needs a big swing in card advantage to make up for time lost trading resources. While it does take quite a bit of mana to make Pull from Tomorrow a worthwhile effect, I wouldn't discount the ability to “loot” away a card. In actuality, when you're drawing four cards or more, discarding an extra land is almost irrelevant.
In control decks long ago, Mind Spring was a big deal. Now we have it at instant speed. And since we aren't in the business of tapping out on our own turn thanks to Torrential Gearhulk, Pull from Tomorrow could help put control back on the map. Last week I spoke of control needing to change, to become more aggressive. While I still think that might be the case, Pull from Tomorrow could change the game. If Felidar Guardian and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar are no longer an issue, building a control deck becomes much easier. That vacuum is going to create a lot of open space for other decks to get into the fray. And if those decks are vulnerable to removal and/or counterspells, that's all upside for any blue-based control deck.
Honestly, without Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in the format, cards like Horribly Awry and Essence Scatter gain a lot of value. I'm a big fan of the former, as I expect quite a few graveyard-related creatures to see play. That's also the reason I'm playing Void Shatter over Disallow. Even though it is rare to snag a Scrapheap Scrounger with either, the times you do really makes it all worth it. And with Embalm being one of the marquee abilities from Amonkhet, I'd bet on some of those creatures making their way into Constructed.
While Horribly Awry doesn't answer larger creatures like Verdurous Gearhulk or Glorybringer, I'll just admit that the Horribly Awry spot is currently my flex answer slot. If I expect creatures with a higher converted mana cost, I'll make the switch. I was always a big fan of Remove Soul and Essence Scatter, so I'll admit that it might actually be better than Horribly Awry.
The rest of the deck looks pretty basic, aside from the “missing” Dynavolt Towers. But here's the thing: Dynavolt Tower isn't all that good if you can't realistically cast two or more spells per turn. It also has diminishing returns in a deck that doesn't ever want to tap out. It's a powerful tool in the Temur versions, since they have a lot more cards that generate energy, but I never liked Dynavolt Tower outside of the more velocity-driven builds featuring Tormenting Voice and the like. If I can reliably spin my wheels every turn, then having access to cards like Dynavolt Tower or Thing in the Ice helps alleviate the pressure you put on yourself by not adding to the battlefield.
That's also one of the major reasons I'm in love with this card:
It has been a very long time since we've seen anything like Lightning Rift or Astral Slide in Standard. Of course, the cost of playing Drake Haven is the same as any other build-around engine in the format. You have to take an entire turn off to cast it, and you need to be able to survive long enough to make it worthwhile. Drake Haven's costs, on both initial investment and continually making Drakes, aren't cheap. On paper, it doesn't look difficult to get this thing going, but the truth is that aggressive decks like Mardu Vehicles (even without Gideon, Ally of Zendikar) will put you under a lot of pressure in the early turns of the game. If you aren't equipped to handle that pressure, you could die before firing off a single Drake.
While Drake Haven isn't an investment to be brushed off, the upside is rather impressive. The ability to make an army of 2/2 flying creatures is a solid route to victory, but it also allows you to fill your deck with versatile cards. Cycling allows for a lot of options, and having the ability to cycle cards that lose their effectiveness as the game progresses gives you a lot more options in the later turns of the game. Just look at Censor.
This card is much better than I initially thought. Not only does it give you some protection in the early game, but you get to cash it in later once it has lost its potency. Cards like Censor are hard to come by. Even though Force Spike isn't an overly powerful effect, the fact that you can just get rid of it later at a minimal cost is ridiculous.
While Censor seems like it will be played in reasonable numbers, I'm under the impression that it should be a four-of in most blue-heavy decks. How can it not be? And if your deck is operating mostly at instant-speed, it seems like a no-brainer. In the early stages of this new Standard format, cards like Censor are often underrated but are ultimately more powerful than they should be. People just aren't used to playing around it. As the format progresses, it is possible that playing fewer copies is correct, because it eventually loses its effectiveness. But even then, as people become aware of it, the sheer threat of it becomes almost as valuable as the card itself.
And if you add to that the fact that it combos nicely with Drake Haven...
If you really stop to think about it, doesn't Censor seem like a much better effect for this deck instead of Curator of Mysteries? I mean, once we have a graveyard engine card going, I don't want another generic flying creature. Sure, Curator of Mysteries is cool, but I think having access to Censor is much more important. Not only do you keep people honest, but once they know it is in your deck, their entire play pattern will change (assuming you have open mana).
Cutting Fevered Visions might ultimately be a bad idea, as it allowed you to activate one of your graveyard-based creatures every turn (and dealt some damage), but I think Drake Haven helps you attack from a different angle. If your opponent is able to stifle your graveyard interactions, just having an active Drake Haven alongside Tormenting Voice or Cathartic Reunion seems dope. And if your deck is running at full steam, every activation from your graveyard-based creatures nets you two more Drakes.
Obviously, I could be suffering from a case of the “win-mores,” but I always thought that the biggest downside to this deck was your inability to close games because your cards didn't quite do enough. While Drake Haven might not completely solve that problem, it opens up a new direction for the archetype that I'm very happy to try out.
Back to Reality
Ah, yes, the cold, harsh reality where it is more likely that nothing changes. What do we do then? Well, the above decklists aren't exactly geared towards beating the big two, but what's been able to do that over the last two months?
If there are no shake-ups on Monday's Banned and Restricted Announcement, this groundhog is going back to sleep. I don't like complaining. I really don't. But I am sick of this Standard format, and it would be delightful to have something, really just literally anything change come Monday. Unban Emrakul, the Promised End if you want. No one cares. Just give us the ability to play with something different. That's all I ask.