Hour of Devastation is here with the preview season over, the full set revealed, and the Prerelease coming this weekend. This will be the first set entering Standard in quite some time without the specter of a dominant deck looming over it, acting as a gatekeeper to the metagame that greatly limited what the new set could add to the format. As a result, this season should be much friendlier to brewers, with a well-defined but not overpowered metagame to attack.
Notably, the current metagame is filled with creatures. Control decks have taken a back seat to Temur Energy, Zombies, G/B, and Mardu variants, unable to efficiently answer the wide array of threats those decks present. The emergence of W/U Monument late in the format only strengthens this trend in the metagame, making the battlefield even more important to fight over than is typical.
- 4 Bygone Bishop
- 4 Cloudblazer
- 4 Hanweir Militia Captain
- 4 Selfless Spirit
- 4 Spell Queller
- 4 Thraben Inspector
Keeping this in mind, one card from Hour of Devastation that has jumped out to me is the powerful sweeper, Bontu's Last Reckoning. Fumigate and Descend upon the Sinful have both started seeing more play since Aetherworks Marvel was banned, and having an unconditional sweeper that only costs three is an incredible tool for midrange and control decks to wield.
After all, unconditional sweepers that cost four mana were recently deemed too strong to exist frequently in Standard.
So naturally, we'd expect a three-mana version to come with a significant drawback, and this one certainly does. Not being able to untap your lands on the following turn gives your opponent two turns to rebuild their position, frequently putting you behind all over again, which is what the sweeper was trying to remedy in the first place. We're going to have to put in some real work to make this card work at maximum efficiency, but I think the payoff is there if we're successful in doing so.
Bontu's Last Reckoning is effectively denying you a turn, so we need to find ways to affect the battlefield on that turn without having access to our lands. The first way to do so is with planeswalkers. Their abilities are something we can activate without mana, either to kill our opponent's follow-up creatures, create some creatures of our own, or draw some extra cards while our opponent recovers.
Planeswalkers also play naturally with sweepers. The sweeper protects your planeswalkers and your planeswalkers encourage your opponents to extend more creatures to answer them quickly, so this is a perfect match.
The other way to have more resources on our no-land turn is to be able to generate mana from other sources. Planeswalkers like Chandra, Torch of Defiance are great here, but past that, most of the options to produce mana come from creatures, which obviously won't work here. But there are two compelling noncreature options: Cultivator's Caravan and Corrupted Grafstone.
Cultivator's Caravan has a Standard pedigree already, so it may stand out more, but it has some problems. Manalith by itself is not a Standard-level card, so we'll want to be able to crew it with some consistency. Unfortunately, that means playing a significant number of creatures, which can get awkward with four sweepers in our deck and planeswalkers occupying a significant portion of the threat base.
But Corrupted Grafstone, that's an intriguing one. Ramping on turn 2 is a lot more powerful than on turn 3, but again we're going to have to put in some work for that to happen by putting a colored card in our graveyard on turn 1.
Fortunately for me, my recently WotC-bound colleague Michael Majors put in that work, pairing Corrupted Grafstone with one-mana cycling cards in a R/B Midrange list that Brad Nelson played in a VS. Video here. Hour of Devastation gives us access to even more one-mana cyclers, depending on what a specific list wants; combined with cheap removal like Magma Spray and Fatal Push, we should have enough ways to power up Corrupted Grafstone on-curve.
Here was my initial pass at a B/R list, which you'll find later this week in a VS. Video:
- 3 Chandra, Torch of Defiance
- 1 Liliana, Death's Majesty
- 2 Liliana, the Last Hope
- 1 Ob Nixilis Reignited
Chandra, Torch of Defiance having a mana-generating ability made it very attractive to pair with Bontu's Last Reckoning. It also curves nicely with Corrupted Grafstone, giving you a powerful proactive start against less aggressive decks. The presence of Chandra, Torch of Defiance has a huge impact on the removal suite in the deck, since I wanted as many of the removal spells as possible to be castable off the double red mana provided by Chandra, Torch of Defiance.
Consequently, Cut // Ribbons and Oath of Chandra were easy inclusions, and Magma Spray got the nod over Fatal Push as the cheap removal spell of choice. The two exceptions, Never // Return and Oath of Liliana, both serve specific functions, the former answering planeswalkers that will be naturally good against Bontu's Last Reckoning and the latter providing excellent synergy with the high planeswalker count.
The two Liliana planeswalkers do more to connect the two themes of the deck by playing well with the various cycling creatures. Liliana, the Last Hope can now effectively -2 to draw a card, while Liliana, Death's Majesty can recur some big creatures to turn the corner after a sweeper or recur Archfiend of Ifnir to set up a one-sided sweeper with other cycling effects in hand.
But overall, I was unimpressed by the creatures in the deck, especially Archfiend of Ifnir. The planeswalkers were doing the heavy lifting, and because you need to cycle early to find land drops and enable Corrupted Grafstone, it was difficult to capitalize on the Demon's ability.
I was impressed by the copies of Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet in the sideboard. Casting Bontu's Last Reckoning with Kalitas on the battlefield leaves you with several Zombies, forcing your opponent to play catch-up, so the lost mana on your next turn isn't as significant.
Last, I noticed myself flooding quite often with 23 lands, since Corrupted Grafstone is another mana source and the many cyclers let you see more of your deck. With these things in mind, I built the following list, splashing blue for the marquee planeswalker in Hour of Devastation:
- 3 Chandra, Torch of Defiance
- 1 Liliana, Death's Majesty
- 2 Liliana, the Last Hope
- 1 Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh
- 1 Ob Nixilis Reignited
With an ideal draw, this deck can cast Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh on turn 4 by accelerating with a Corrupted Grafstone and Chandra, Torch of Defiance. Without an immediate answer, no one is beating that.
The other important addition is Razaketh's Rite, one of the potential one-mana cyclers for a deck like this, it's also a great topdeck later in the game, whereas the dopey creatures, which remain in smaller numbers, are often going to be cycled even when you have the mana to cast them. You'll have access to two, three, even four copies of your best cards with relative ease, and it's really difficult for creature decks to play through that many sweepers.
The disappointing Archfiend of Ifnir makes its way to the sideboard as a bullet against Oketra's Monument rather than a key piece of the deck, while Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet works its way into the maindeck.
Magma Spray, while good against Scrapheap Scrounger and the recurring Zombies that can give a deck like this fits, is weak outside of those cards, so I went to Fatal Push in the one-mana slot and replaced Oath of Chandra with Incendiary Flow, since the planeswalker trigger on the Oath was rarely relevant. Most of the removal is still castable with Chandra, Torch of Defiance, so the list is moving in the right direction.
The next two lists eschew red in order to gain access to some better one mana cycling cards. The best of them, in my opinion, is Cast Out, especially because it answers noncreature permanents that Bontu's Last Reckoning misses. That diminishes the need for Never in the removal suite, giving you more freedom in deckbuilding.
White also gives you access to some powerful planeswalkers and the other interesting part of the Bontu's Last Reckoning cycle, Oketra's Last Mercy. It's perfect as a tutor target for Razaketh's Rite to stabilize against aggressive decks. Here's my current list for B/W:
I know, I know. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar isn't in the maindeck, despite the fact that you can cast it on turn 3 with a Corrupted Grafstone. But there are a couple reasons I like Gideon of Trials more in the maindeck.
First, this deck doesn't protect Gideon, Ally of Zendikar very well. You don't have any early blockers and you can't curve Bontu's Last Reckoning into it on a relatively clear battlefield. Gideon of the Trials protects itself well and its +1 can help keep you safe while you wait for your lands to untap following a sweeper.
Also, with the low creature count in the deck, Liliana, the Last Hope is much weaker, so getting a replacement three-mana planeswalker helps the curve. Getting a planeswalker down as quickly as possible will let you extract the most value from your sweepers, especially one that is rather difficult to kill, like Gideon of the Trials.
With four copies of Cast Out and a Gideon to activate post-sweepers, this list is going to be much better at attacking opposing planeswalkers, although it's worse than the red lists at recovering from the turn off, since it doesn't make as much mana without lands. I'm not sure which factor is going to end up being more significant, but it's nice to have the option to go in either direction depending on what we see from the early metagame.
The last list I have is the most controlling, and the most cycling-heavy. Blue has plenty of good cycling cards and payoffs for loading up on them. Censor and Hieroglyphic Illumination have already made a mark on Standard, but Curator of Mysteries has been largely silent. That it can function as both an early cycler and a later payoff for other cyclers is a nice dual threat to have, and the body can come down on turn 3 to pressure opposing planeswalkers.
The other payoff for cycling is Drake Haven. It's counterintuitive to create a bunch of tokens before casting a sweeper, but you can use the Drakes to force your opponent to extend into the sweeper, much like a planeswalker. Also, with a Corrupted Grafstone, you can have access to two mana following a Bontu's Last Reckoning turn, enough to cycle and make a Drake so you don't fall too far behind.
Consider the following list:
It's the least planeswalker-heavy of the lists I've featured, since blue has few good options, but it has the best collection of cycling cards, and enough of them that I'm trying a single copy of Abandoned Sarcophagus, which is a nice late-game tutor target that effectively draws three or more spells for three mana.
With few counterspells, this is a tap-out control deck, playing an attrition game early before turning the corner with an army of flying Drakes. The low land count, enabled by the high number of cyclers, helps you play the attrition game without flooding, and the late-game power of Curator of Mysteries and Drake Haven ensures that you'll rarely run out of gas.
It Won't Be the Last
Having to skip an untap step is a steep cost, and it's often true that the best cards are the ones that are powerful without requiring too much from you in deckbuilding and gameplay. But that doesn't mean that cards that do require significant effort to make them work aren't worth that effort.
There are two common reactions to new cards. One is to imagine how they work when everything goes right, and the other to imagine how they fail when certain things go wrong. But the best question to ask about a card is something else entirely: What do I have to do to make this work?
Once you answer that question, you can decide whether or not that cost is worthwhile and move on to another deck or push forward with tuning. Bontu's Last Reckoning requires significant effort, but mana rocks, planeswalkers, and cheap removal are already good by themselves. The major concession I'm making in these lists is playing some subpar cards for their cycling, which seems like a small cost to pay for access to a three-mana Wrath of God.