Aggro is dead.
Long live aggro.
It's rotation time and it's time to face the music: low to the ground aggro decks don't look so good. Without the shocklands from Ravnica Allegiance, it's hard to have enough untapped lands for Goblin Chainwhirler and company; and the white decks are looking to lean into cards like History of Benalia that encourage winning in the mid-game.
What does this mean? It means that we're going to see a Standard closer to the last couple of Ravnica-era formats. Trumping the opponent's cards, either through power or value, is going to be the name of the game. Looking back to Return to Ravnica/Innistrad Standard, we can see being achieved a few different ways:
- 3 Angel of Serenity
- 2 Arbor Elf
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 2 Centaur Healer
- 2 Craterhoof Behemoth
- 2 Deathrite Shaman
- 3 Restoration Angel
- 4 Thragtusk
Abzan Reanimator used the combination of Thragtusk and Restoration Angel to clog up the battlefield while Angel of Serenity and Craterhoof Behemoth closed the game by virtue of being a colossal flying threat or making all of one's creatures lethal power-slash-lethal toughness creatures.
Jeskai Flash was a fairly boring control deck by today's standards, but had a big thing going for it:
As long as the game progressed forever and the Jeskai pilot continued to hit land drops, Sphinx's Revelation would allow its caster to out-resource anybody.
There were other decks at the time, but the most resilient archetypes of the format tended to revolve around "Stall with Thragtusk until you get around to killing them," and "Trade resources until you can cast enough Sphinx's Revelations that the opponent doesn't have cards to play with."
We can use similar plans while building decks for Guilds of Ravnica Standard. Going over the top isn't exactly hard to do with the tools that Wizards of the Coast has given to us. The key to utilizing the aforementioned tools is finding a cohesive shell for them.
The most straightforward way of going over the top is simply playing bigger spells and casting them as quickly as possible. It isn't coincidental the best midrange creature of all time ended up being a mana accelerant with upside:
The Jeskai-flavored Sphinx's Revelation decks didn't worry about ramping due to the fact that their gameplan revolved around answering everything the opponent did while playing one land at a time. There isn't a colossal difference between playing a land and resolving a Rampant Growth if all of one's spells cost a similar quantity of mana.
That wasn't the case with all variations:
In a deck like this, mana comes at a premium, and just hitting one's land drops every turn isn't quite going to be good enough. When aggro is weaker, it's easier to justify taking a turn off for the sake of putting extra mana onto the table. It becomes an even bigger deal when the decks in question are interested in proactively casting medium to large spells.
Guilds of Ravnica was kind enough to bless us with a new take on Explosive Vegetation, that even allows its caster to get dual lands. This type of ramp effect also being a form of card advantage means it's possible to get away with playing spells that are more mana-intensive, when it otherwise may constrain resources too far to expect to find the requisite quantities of mana, interaction, ramp, and bombs each game.
- 4 Carnage Tyrant
- 4 Rekindling Phoenix
- 4 Thrashing Brontodon
- 3 Wakening Sun's Avatar
- 1 Gishath, Sun's Avatar
- 1 Zacama, Primal Calamity
This is the fairly textbook for a beginning-of-the-format concoction that's just a pile of powerful cards and the removal to get you to them. Tank up with Rekindling Phoenix and removal, finish with creatures that the opponent can't outclass. Easy peasy.
This deck is going to lean pretty hard into its two-mana ramp spells, with Thrashing Brontodon being the only three-drop in the maindeck,its primary purpose being a serviceable early-game play that also fuels Thunderherd Migration.
Another way to build a deck with a similar gameplan would be to lean into Sarkhan, Fireblood, and changing the curve around a bit:
But most important
There's a noted absence of haymaker-level removal spells in this deck when comparing it to the previous Dinosaur deck. Rather than trying to generate some million-mana reptile, this deck is more comfortable settling for "everything kills you."
All these creatures have some sort of value stapled to them, with most of them having something that contributes to putting the opponent closer to death. An ideal curve in this deck is going to look something like:
- Turn 2: interactive spell
- Turn 3: Sarkhan, Fireblood or Dragon's Hoard
- Turn 4: begin casting dragons.
The luxury that both of the ramp spells in this deck have is that they can keep the threats coming. Rather than just leaning into the mana advantage generated from each card, they rely on the fact that each copy of Demanding Dragon and Verix Bladewing is likely going to have a free copy of Lightning Axe or Flame Rift attached to it.
Think of Sarkhan and Dragon's Hoard as miniature Sphinx's Revelations. Sure, whatever value they're generating can be one-for-oned for a while, but the opponent can't keep those exchanges up forever without ending up massively behind over the course of a game.
Some decks are interested in leveraging mana advantages by circumventing the rules of Magic. If the opponent never casts a spell again, does it really matter how big your spells are?
The running joke I had with friends was something to the effect of "If WotC prints something that is a pseudo-replacement for Haze of Pollen, it'll be laughable how far ahead of everything else Bant Nexus is, relative to everything else in the format."
Then, it happened.
The two hardest to replace cards that were on their way out found themselves reprinted and replaced in Core Set 2019 and Guilds of Ravnica.
All kidding aside, with some tuning, this deck is likely very good. The other cards that rotated opened up a bit of space to experiment in the deck, and I'm currently trying out the Treasure package.
Despite seeming unassuming at first, with Sailor of Means looking particularly underwhelming at a glance, both of these cards synergize spectacularly with cards that the deck is already playing in order to accomplish its primary gameplan.
It isn't really a secret that Bant Nexus is actually a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria deck, not a Nexus of Fate deck. Nexus of Fate is simply the tool that it uses to push Teferi to his limits. Sailor of Means performs the same ramp-into-Teferi duties that Gift of Paradise does, but instead of making the lands that Teferi untaps better, it serves to protect the Planeswalker.
Treasure Map works both pre- and post-Teferi, serving as a source of card filtering to do some of the work that Glimmer of Genius was doing previously, while also being one of the best lands to untap possible after it transforms. Teferi's +1 to draw a card, then sac treasure to draw a card, then untap it to do it again? Yes. Please. That's ignoring the fact that one of the downsides associated with Treasure Map is that it usually requires an untap step to cast in the first piece of Treasure for a card, and Teferi circumvents that draw back entirely.
Rather than being the obligatory kill condition of the previous Bant Nexus deck, the density of incidental artifacts makes the Constructs produced by Karn become even better, which means more than one would assume- and that's operating under the assumption that people know how good free power and toughness is.
Casting a third-turn Sailor of Means into fourth-turn Karn makes it unbelievably difficult for the opponent to get Karn off the battlefield before his controller gets another activation out of him, whether he's rolled up or down the turn that he's put onto the battlefield.
On the other side of things, flipping a Treasure Map on schedule is turn 5, leaving four mana to use on anything one could want. Like a Planeswalker. Or a 4/4 Construct machine. Or both.
A benefit Karn and his Constructs have, as well as Sailor of Means, is that there's a real benefit to playing cards that get better with creatures in the deck. Chart a Course is a good card when it isn't providing card advantage and is unreal when it is. Pause for Reflection creates a sick play pattern in which turn 3 Sailor of Means into turn 4 Karn-plus-Construct makes it possible to have zero-mana Fog effects.
Another big draw to Treasure Map that Jadine Klomparens brought up in her article this week is the fact that the back side of it is a mana-producing land. It scrying to filter draws as well as producing up to four mana after it's transformed means that we can cheat a little bit on the mana. On top of that, it's another source of ramp that does something else in the deck other than simply cramming twists on Rampant Growth into the deck.
Okay, I know what you're thinking.
Sinking a bunch of mana into a single threat is a bad idea when there are two-mana Vindicates running around. I've even felt my own skepticism creeping up at times while writing this article. There are two pretty simply points to consider that make this less scary than it has to be:
- Assassin's Trophy is only good against anything, not everything.
- Assassin's Trophy has a drawback that's exploitable by virtue of it fueling the very cards that it is good against.
Both points are fairly easy to unpack and addressed in all of the above lists.
Assassin's Trophy is going to thrive against decks that only have a couple of cards worth targeting. Synergy decks that lean on a single payoff card are going to suffer, and playing a bunch of little enablers is going to look kind of silly if they don't function independently or make finding more payoff cards easier. Decks that play a pile of good cards are going to have the odds be a bit more in their favor against Trophy, as the opponent can't have a pile of Assassin's Trophy in their deck, only a playset.
Decks that play powerful must-answer cards up the curve are going to benefit from the ramp that Assassin's Trophy provides. That's to be expected. Decks that ramp tend to be built with specific curves in mind, frequently sporting specific holes in order to compensate for the jumps in mana that their ramp spells and mana rocks create. Assassin's Trophy plays right into this plan, and these styles of decks are going to have a much easier time combating the card than decks that aren't utilizing the mana provided by the removal spell.
All of this completely ignores the fact that there will be decks that don't include Assassin's Trophy, and beating those decks will be worth the same number of match points as the ones containing Assassin's Trophy. The power level of cards in Guilds of Ravnica is staggering, and being successful in the upcoming era of Standard is going to require leveraging as much of that power as you can.