Kaladesh was a blindingly powerful block.
And it's not like Amonkhet block lacked heavy hitters.
The upcoming Standard rotation is going to be big. It goes without saying that the departure of the Kaladesh and Amonkhet blocks leaves plenty of room for the new Guilds of Ravnica cards to shine, but they aren't the only ones. Plenty of cards from Ixalan block have been overshadowed by their powerful predecessors for their entire time in Standard. I know the cards I have my eyes on:
I know, I know. We've already seen plenty of the Ixalan cycle of enchantments that transform into a land in Standard. Well, we're about to see more. Much more.
We already know these cards are good. Search for Azcanta has been an absolute powerhouse in blue-based Standard control decks since its printing and has even proven good enough to break into Modern and Legacy. Arguel's Blood Fast was a critical part of the Dimir Midrange deck that was my weapon of choice for the last several months. Legion's Landing hasn't been part of the metagame in the recent past but was the best card in multiple fringe decks in months prior. Vance's Blasting Cannon and Growing Rites of Itlimoc have yet to see widespread play, but even they have made it into competitive decklists from time to time.
We know these cards are powerful, but their destined improvement in Guilds of Ravnica Standard isn't quite as simple as the departure of Kaladesh and Amonkhet cards leaving a power vacuum that needs to be filled. Sure, that effect will help these cards, but it will, by definition, help every card in the new Standard environment. What about these cards sets them up to pull ahead of the rest of the pack?
Let's start with their defining characteristic: they transform into a land. Forget that the land they transform into does anything special, right now all that matters is that their transformation allows them to tap for mana.
Since printing, I have believed these cards would be reasonable Magic cards if their land side didn't tap for mana, if their unique activated ability were all they were good for. Fact is, you're rewarded twice for fulfilling these cards' transformation requirements. Once with their powerful activated abilities and once with the simple fact that you're now up a mana source. Being up a mana source is a powerful, if boring, reward, especially in colors that don't normally have access to ramp effects.
I won't bore you with too long of a history lesson, but Deathrite Shaman just got banned in Legacy for largely this reason. The strength of Deathrite Shaman was two-fold: it gave black a mana creature and was a mana source that was good for more than just mana ramp. Versatile ramp effects and ramp effects outside of green are scary, and this cycle delivers on both.
Let's talk a little about mana curves in different formats. On one end of the spectrum you have Legacy, where efficiency is the name of the game. Fair decks have curves that end at two or three, and one-mana spells are the order of the day. On the other end you have Limited, where curves can start on two and end on seven with a less than ideal spread in-between. Mana use in these games is much less efficient as a rule.
Standard falls in between these two extremes, but much closer to the Limited side of things than the Legacy side. Especially small Standard formats like the one we're about to enter. The card pool just isn't large enough to allow for decks with perfect curves, so we make do with what we have. Decks with issues making use of all their mana every turn is the rule, not the exception.
Mana ramp is powerful in these environments, but you can't depend on being able to make the best use of it. Decks just aren't streamlined enough to guarantee that. As such, sources of ramp that aren't just ramp are especially valuable. Pure ramp can be a liability as you can't guarantee hitting a curve that will take advantage of it. But incidental ramp gives you the power of ramp without the liability, and that's part of why this cycle is so good.
This discussion about curves also gets at the heart of the second reason that these cards are poised for success in Guilds of Ravnica Standard: the power of mana sinks in small Standards. Like we talked about, curves will be suboptimal. Using all your mana every turn is a huge advantage, but you can't depend on drawing the perfect curve to do so very often. Enter mana sinks.
Having access to an ability that lets you profitably spend your mana even when your curve isn't lining up perfectly is huge in formats with smaller card pools. Both players will often find themselves with mana to spare every turn, and the player who can turn that spare mana into a beneficial effect will find themselves with a large advantage. This cycle helps you out there, too. Some have mana sinks on their front half and others after they transform, but the fact that they both give you something to do with your mana when you need that and give you extra mana when that's what you're looking for means you're covered no matter how the cards fall.
With these reasons in mind, let's narrow down the cards we're talking about. Growing Rites of Itlimoc is a fine card, but it being green makes it inherently less attractive than the other members of the cycle. Mana ramp is a run-of-the-mill effect in green, making Growing Rites far less exciting. Vance's Blasting Cannons is difficult to transform early and has no mana sink on its front side, unlike Arguel's Blood Fast, meaning that the Blasting Cannons don't routinely benefit from either of the small format effects discussed thus far. Growing Rites of Itlimoc and Vance's Blasting Cannons may see play if the format ends up a certain way, but they aren't predisposed to do so.
On the other hand, we can add a card to the cycle. Treasure Map isn't an enchantment, but in all other ways fits in perfectly with the Search for Azcanta cycle. It has a mana sink on the front half and taps for mana on the back. Sure, the activated ability of Treasure Map isn't itself a mana sink, but that's okay. So then, four cards poised for success in Guilds of Ravnica Standard: Search for Azcanta, Arguel's Blood Fast, Legion's Landing, Treasure Map.
We've actually already seen the power of these cards in small Standard. When Ixalan released, the Battle for Zendikar and Shadows Over Innistrad blocks rotated out, leaving a five-set Standard format. The four cards I'm highlighting saw a good deal of play in that time, despite the sky-high power level of the Kaladesh cards that they were competing with. Legion's Landing and Treasure Map, in particular, were happiest here, seeing plenty of play before additional set releases and the pressures of a larger Standard pushed them into the background.
Now we once again have a small Standard, and this time the power level of the competition is somewhat dialed back. It's time to see just how good these four cards can look.
Let's just start with the good stuff and dive right in to the member of the cycle I'm most excited about for this upcoming Standard.
Legion's Landing was played in a few different Standard decks before falling to the wayside, but the decks that played it alongside Anointed Procession were the ones that used it to its fullest potential. Unlike the aggressive decks that played Legion's Landing, the Anointed Procession decks could really make full use of the extra mana provided by a swiftly transformed Legion's Landing. Throw in the fact that Anointed Procession made the activated ability on Adanto, The First Fort much scarier and you had a fearsome one-two punch.
In my book, the version of that combination that is legal in Guilds of Ravnica Standard is even scarier. Spending four mana to make a 1/1 is one thing, spending four mana to make a 4/4 with flying is another thing altogether. If you manage to transform Legion's Landing and then land Divine Visitation, it's pretty easy to imagine you winning without ever casting another spell. Standard decks often have a problem dealing with a never-ending stream of 4/4s.
Yes, this combination is powerful. Divine Visitation is a powerful card, and Legion's Landing is the perfect complement to it. This interaction really highlights the small Standard strength of Legion's Landing. A turn 4 Divine Visitation with token generation ready for the next turn is unbelievably powerful, but playing dedicated ramp spells would dilute the synergy. Legion's Landing is a ramp spell plus synergy, allowing you to get free wins off early Divine Visitations but still playing well in games where things don't line up so neatly. Perfect for small Standard.
Let's take a look at a potential list highlighting this interaction:
This is the most single-minded way to push the Legion's Landing / Divine Visitation interaction. The deck only does one thing, but it does that one thing reasonably well. Being mono-white, there's no way to find Divine Visitation to guarantee you see it every game, but the deck is aggressive enough to be able to win without it.
One of the cool things about Legion's Landing that this list highlights is that we can get away with playing four five-drops with only 23 lands. Legion's Landing is the only member of the legendary enchantment cycle that you can feel good about playing four copies of, as additional copies still provide you with a 1/1 token at a fair rate. You aren't excited about drawing the second copy of Legion's Landing, but neither are you horrifically upset about it, and the first is important enough that playing four is a slam dunk decision. Thus our 23-land deck gets to feel a lot like a 27-land deck without the flood risk, and that's quite powerful.
My guess would be this version won't be the one that ends up as a player in this upcoming Standard. Adding green into the mix gives too much for too low a cost for me to think the mono-white version is correct. March of the Multitudes, in particular, plays beautifully with both this strategy, in general, and Legion's Landing, specifically.
Of the four cards we're looking at today, these are the two that are probably the most familiar.
We've come to appreciate Search for Azcanta's role in control strategies. I expect that Search will still be exceptionally good in that role, but I'm not interested in discussing it today. It's already well-explored, and there's not a lot I can add to the conversation. I'm going to look at other roles for Search but understand that its familiar role as a control card is still going to be its most common and likely best use.
So, if we're not trying to use Search for Azcanta in a control deck, what are we looking to do with it? Well, it's clearly out of place in an aggressive strategy, so midrange it is. Search is interesting in midrange decks because they can generally make great use of the mana generation part of Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin. Even better, since midrange decks can afford to be more proactive than control decks, they tend to be able to transform Search faster than control decks and start benefiting from the extra mana sooner. Because of this, midrange decks are better at capitalizing on the things that make Search good in small Standard.
If an early transformation is what we're looking for, it's clear that we should be looking to Dimir and the surveil mechanic. Surveil is a great, reliable way to fill the graveyard enough to transform Search for Azcanta while also finding plenty of gas with which to make use of our extra mana. And while we're doing all this surveilling, maybe we can get paid off in another way as well.
If surveilling is something you're actively looking to do, Blood Operative is excellent. And if we're playing with a three-mana 3/1 creature with lifelink, I have an idea.
Alright, so things have moved kind of fast and come full circle. Maybe this looks like a shoehorned way to play Search for Azcanta and Arguel's Blood Fast in the same deck, but I don't think so. Unlike Legion's Landing, it's very difficult to play the full playset of either Search or Arguel's since copies past the first provide little value. Playing with two members of the cycle then lets us benefit from their early Standard power as much as the Legion's Landing decks.
First, let's talk numbers. Two copies of Arguel's Blood Fast is more or less the standard number. The third copy of Search for Azcanta might be ambitious, but this deck transforms Search fast enough that I think it can get away with it. After all, getting a second copy onto the battlefield once the first has transformed is completely fine, and drawing the first copy is worth a lot.
Because we're a Search for Azcanta deck, we want to play a relatively low number of creatures to make sure our spell count is appropriately high. The Blood Operatives are worthwhile, but after that we need creatures that can end the game. Doom Whisperer and Dream Eater are where I went, powerful creatures that can easily win a game on their own. After that, I felt the creature count could go a little higher, so I was happy to include a pair of Lazav. For more on Lazav, check out my article from last week.
After the creature base, the next thing to think about is what spells we're looking to find with Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin. Ideally, some of these spells will double as win conditions to support our creatures. The Eldest Reborn and Concoct are my frontrunners for that role. I went with Concoct here for the additional surveil synergy and the built-in flexibility of Connive, but it's possible that The Eldest Reborn is just enough better that it should have gotten the nod.
Discovery is another card I'm playing mostly due to Search for Azcanta. Discovery isn't bad and adds in to the surveil synergy of the deck, but Dispersal is a reasonably powerful card that's quite nice to have access to in your Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin deck.
Both Search for Azcanta and Arguel's Blood Fast look quite good in this deck, and the chance to play both is certainly exciting. This deck really cashes in on the ways these cards are good in small Standard. It's looking to get a ton of use out of both of their mana sink abilities and can pull ahead of its opponents with the mana ramp off Search. Thanks to Blood Operative and Doom Whisperer, you have a lot of control over your life total and can transform Arguel's Blood Fast at a time of your choosing for best effect. Once transformed, there's plenty for the Temple of Aclazotz to do, including sacrificing big creatures to be rebought with Concoct.
We'll close things out with a brief discussion of Treasure Map in the upcoming Standard format, but bad news: I don't have much concrete guidance to give on this one. By virtue of being colorless, there's a lot of paths you can go down with Treasure Map, and I don't quite have the hubris to think that I know the best one before the format even begins.
Of course, that doesn't mean I have nothing to say.
Karn, Scion of Urza has been the traditional partner-in-crime of Treasure Map since he was printed in Dominaria, but Karn's stock has fallen with the rotation of Kaladesh. It's going to be a lot harder to get good mileage out of Karn's Construct tokens without all the very good artifacts we took for granted from Kaladesh. This doesn't mean that you can't play with Karn in your Treasure Map deck, but you can't do so indiscriminately.
If you want to play Karn, you probably want the full playset of Treasure Map. There's fewer good artifacts floating around, but that doesn't mean you can't max out on the ones you do have. If you don't think your deck is interested in all the Treasure Maps, consider that Karn may not be what you're looking for.
You're also going to want to be somewhat defensively-oriented and have a plan for how you're going to use your extra mana. Your Karns are not great at making Constructs, so that's not going to be the common use case. You want to be able to keep Karn on the battlefield for multiple turns and be able to turn the extra lands you end up with in to an actual advantage. Treasure Map isn't enough of a mana sink to do the whole job itself, although you should be hesitant to use Treasures for mana and not cards off Treasure Cove.
A defensively oriented deck is no problem, as that's where Treasure Map shines. You don't have to be full-on control, but you're certainly not trying to play Treasure Map in your aggro deck. Midrange is where Treasure Map really shines, which brings me to my next point: splashing.
You can cast Treasure Map no matter what colors you're playing, and Treasure Map will help you cast any cards you might be splashing. Until Ravnica Allegiance arrives with the rest of the shocklands, mana for some color combinations is going to be a little rough. This means otherwise powerful multicolored cards may see less play then they otherwise would, but Treasure Map can unlock the power of these cards in your deck.
Playing Treasure Map in part to enable a splash also really emphasizes the small Standard strength of the card. I'm envisioning a three-color deck with a slightly unstable manabase that often has trouble casting its spells in the early game. Treasure Map works as a mana sink in this stage of the game, giving you something to do while your manabase comes together. Better, it's something to do that actively helps you find the cards you need.
In the mid to lategame, decks like this are looking to slam powerful card after powerful card. There, the mana acceleration of Treasure Cove really comes into play, especially when combined with the Treasures put onto the battlefield by the transformation. The dual mana sink and mana accelerant nature of Treasure Map really shines in haymaker style multi-colored midrange decks.