Standard is seemingly healthier than it has ever been. Each week, new cards and decks seem to be emerging that previously were written off or that had underperformed. While this is certainly great news, with Ixalan right around the corner and a rotation accompanying it, one must wonder whether the great diversity and balance of the format will remain.
While we cannot definitively know the answer to that question, we can examine the graduating class of cards that are leaving us as well as some of the previewed cards from Ixalan to come up with a guess as to what to expect.
Along the way, I would also like to explore some of the brews stirring around in the back of my mind that utilize some of the new cards that have been previewed. With so little of the set known, it is hard to differentiate between those new strategies that will become staples of the metagame and the more rogue or fringe strategies. We can count on a few of the current best decks to carry over into the new world, though, so I would definitely be counting on them as safe bets early on. Still, even the most linear of decks from this past season might pick up some new toys in this world of Pirates and Dinosaurs, so it's worth taking a look at anything and everything right now. First, let's look into one of the biggest losses of the coming rotation and see if anything can fill the void that is to come.
Of all of the categories of cards leaving the format, I believe that the biggest change to the metagame is the Eldrazi leaving us.
The implications here stretch far beyond just some mechanic or planeswalker leaving. When Eldrazi go, they take with them the colorless cards, the emerge cards, and the expensive Eldrazi that have been the go-to end-game for countless strategies. Ulamog, Elder Deep-Fiend, and Emrakul have shown their ugly alien heads in Standard over and over again as they simply dominate the top of the curve. What other cards can you even ramp into that compete with giant cast triggers and just as giant bodies attached?
Hour of Promise is great, but what are we casting with this newfound mana now that World Breaker and Ulamog leave? Surely there will be a card here or there, but nothing like the options and versatility that Eldrazi provide, right? Generally speaking, I would assume this to be the case, but in Ixalan, we meet up with a prehistoric group of lizards that all seem to be a little larger, and more expensive, than your average Magic tribe.
Notably, I want to take a look at Wakening Sun's Avatar, Drover of the Mighty, and Gishath, Sun's Avatar.
Gishath actually is the sketchiest of the preview cards for our purposes here, as it is a little heavier on the tribal than ramp tends to want and it explicitly does not work with Wakening Sun's Avatar (which is pretty sad, if you ask me), but as it's a 7/6 with a whole host of keywords and abilities, I could still see skewing one's deck to make this work. Meanwhile, Wakening Sun's Avatar and Drover of the Mighty are both excellent.
Drover of the Mighty does a great job of being a mana accelerator that continues to matter as the game goes on. This is not going to necessarily receive the praise, but will likely be one of the more important components to making Dinosaurs work, considering their expensive nature. Wakening Sun's Avatar will often feel like a Plague Wind attached to a 7/7 body. This is not as universally great as the double exile trigger on Ulamog, but it is backbreaking in enough matchups that I can't imagine ramp strategies not entertaining the idea.
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 2 Carnage Tyrant
- 3 Channeler Initiate
- 4 Drover of the Mighty
- 4 Ripjaw Raptor
- 3 Wakening Sun's Avatar
While we have gotten plenty of strong Dinosaur previews across Naya colors, for the most part, none of the red offerings are really worth ramping into specifically. I assume that, by the time the full set is revealed, we will have all sorts of options across the three colors, but I wanted to limit this build to G/W for now, as I think it still looks solid and could be a real contender in the months to come.
Of particular coolness here, we get to use the combo of Walking Ballista and Ripjaw Raptor without making the deck particularly about either card. They provide us with some mid- or early-game interaction, present as threats in the late-game, and turn into a massive amount of card advantage when drawn together. This deck is extremely likely to receive more support as Ixalan reveals, but I like the look of this as an anti-aggro machine already.
Once we start looking at red, Star of Extinction is possibly my favorite card from Ixalan and ramping to it sounds like an absolute dream. I think we need a bigger payoff than just a sweeper to really commit to red, particularly a finisher, but this is a promising piece of land death if ever I did see one. #LandDeath
Gideon, Ally of Vehicles?
One of the most impactful single cards to rotate will be Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. The card has been an absolute staple of the metagame and has headlined some all-star casts, such as Mardu Vehicles and U/W Flash. I think it is safe to say that Gideon will not be replaced by anything too similar, so we are likely to see a bit of a changing of the guard.
I say this because one of the tricks a design team has at their disposal to shake up formats is to move power around. Maybe one Standard season contains a ton of power for control decks with cards like Sphinx's Revelation, whereas the very next season might see aggro decks make a resurgence as cheap burn spells and indestructible Gods enter the mix.
This allows new seasons of Standard to feel fresh without just leaning on power creep and making all the cards better all the time. If one area is a bit inflated for a while, you can usually count on a drop-off in that same area soon following, just because it is not very healthy to sustain such high power across the whole game. This ebb and flow allows different strategies and different cards to shine as Standard plays itself out.
With Gideon gone, though, and no likely replacement, what happens to the Vehicles decks that have recently made a push yet again? Heart of Kiran is still around, but it is quite lacking without a planeswalker accompanying it. One could point to Huatli, Warrior Poet as a stand-in here, and you would be correct that it shares some characteristics with Gideon, but costing a full mana more really softens the panic that a turn 2 Heart of Kiran currently places on you. Huatli might be able to shoulder some of the load, but I think we will need some other planeswalker to cover the cheap, aggressive curve that Mardu Vehicles can always surprise you with.
This could be as simple as turning to Gideon of the Trials. While the card does not take over games like its four-cost brother, it does curve off a Heart of Kiran quite nicely, and with both its +1 ability and the Heart of Kiran as protection, it is very likely to survive the turn and start beating in for four.
It will be almost as difficult to make up for the lack of Thraben Inspector, but I have hopes that the Treasure mechanic will bring about enough incidental artifacts to fill those very large shoes. For example, while I don't think the card is spectacular on its own, Captain Lannery Storm does provide a reasonable three-drop body that produces artifacts for our other synergies. Its inability to turn on Heart of Kiran and Toolcraft Exemplar the first turn it hits the battlefield is a bit sad, but there is something here at least.
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 1 Angel of Invention
- 2 Inventor's Apprentice
- 4 Toolcraft Exemplar
- 4 Veteran Motorist
- 2 Captain Lannery Storm
- 2 Pia Nalaar
Obviously this list can be built as a Mardu deck by including Scrapheap Scrounger and Unlicensed Disintegration, just as it currently is, but I do worry about stretching the mana now that we've lost multiple sets of multicolor lands for the deck. Dragonskull Summit does help, and if we get enough solid Treasure makers, we can leverage the Lotus Petals for more access to black mana. Still, for now I want to propose a more aggressive R/W shell just because it feels like the more complete deck with the partially revealed Ixalan thus far.
I could also see Rowdy Crew having some place in this list, as we did lose a little of our card advantage, seeing as how Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Thraben Inspector were often all we had in that department. The loss of Avacyn is also significant, but I think it's not so essential to this list that we can't find a replacement and keep on moving forward with the concept.
In some ways, I almost feel like Scrapheap Scrounger is necessary for the Vehicles deck just because the number of playable artifacts has dropped so much. As I mentioned before, I am hoping to see some more aggressive Treasure makers to find a workaround for this, but it is possible that, even in the R/W list above, we should be working in more Spire of Industry and Scrapheap Scrounger.
If there is one mechanic where it is safe to place your bets going into the new world, energy is it. Temur Energy and the many variants thereof have been performing quite well recently, and the core of those decks remains almost entirely intact. A few new one-ofs and removal choices are likely to change, but the deck still has all of its energy synergies, as well as the powerful late-game cards like Glorybringer and The Scarab God to round things out.
Temur Energy has proven to have a very capable manabase and can likely adapt many different cards from Ixalan into its shell, should it want to. Of the previewed cards thus far, Carnage Tyrant seems like it might make for a good partner alongside Bristling Hydra. I could see playing Regisaur Alpha in this spot as well, although Temur Energy tends to be a little less aggressive and has no tribal synergies to maximize the Dino-lord.
Here is the third-place list from Grand Prix Turin updated to include what we know from Ixalan thus far, and I gotta say, this deck looks like it might just be the best deck early on until people figure out how to use the new cards.
- 4 Bristling Hydra
- 2 Carnage Tyrant
- 3 Glorybringer
- 4 Longtusk Cub
- 4 Rogue Refiner
- 4 Servant of the Conduit
- 3 Whirler Virtuoso
- 1 Rhonas the Indomitable
This list also seems like a reasonable spot to try out Jace, Cunning Castaway. The list produces enough creatures that you will usually be able to enable his +1 ability on the turn you cast him, and the evasive damage he supplies works pretty well with Whirler Virtuoso and even Rhonas the Indomitable.
Temur Energy has so many strong options against control and other grindy decks now that it might be worth looking at Sweltering Suns in the maindeck or sideboard simply to ensure good game against all of the fast aggro decks out there. When you have access to Carnage Tyrant and Bristling Hydra, most decks are going to struggle against you going long, so ensuring you get to that point might be a step worth taking. Traditionally the deck has avoided playing sweepers because it runs so many creatures of its own and has reasonable spot removal, but now might be a good time to start.
Once More for the People in the Back! #LandDeath
While I think we likely need some three-drop way to interact with lands in a meaningful way or another card with the power level of Star of Extinction before a mana-denial strategy is actually competitive, I did want to at least throw out an exploratory list for the idea based on what we know of Ixalan. Star of Extinction is strong in that it covers the giant weakness of land death strategies of not being able to protect your life total while you attack your opponent's resources. For seven mana, you clear the battlefield not only of annoying creatures but also any of the planeswalkers that might traditionally give you even a harder time. Also, because most of the land destruction in the format also takes out artifacts, we can lower our removal a bit and play cards like Magma Spray over Abrade to give us a little more time in the early-game.
That's it for me for this week! Ixalan has me pretty excited and we should know a lot more about the set come this time next week, so I will be sure to update you on any of the ideas above based on what we find out. In the meantime, Standard is great right now and I highly recommend Hour of Promise decks, five of which I wrote about last week, so check them out if you haven't yet!