The new Standard format featuring Return to Ravnica looks to be shaping up nicely. There seems to be a plethora of playable archetypes thanks to the emphasis on the guilds in the new set. With such good mana fixing with the core set duals, shocklands, and gatelands, you can get away with a lot of two- and three-color decks that just weren't really feasible before. The boost to Izzet alone is pretty awesome, where the only dual land we had access to before was Sulfur Falls. The rest of the set should be known in a matter of days as we gear up for the Prerelease and release events over the next few weeks, and I'm excited to start brewing! We even have a playtest video coming out on Friday featuring some new cards from Return to Ravnica (WARNING: proxies are used)!
If you are a regular viewer of my playtest videos with Brian Braun-Duin, you will enjoy this week's session. We feature U/R/W Delver (me) against B/R/W Tokens (Brian) using some of our favorite new cards from RTR. My favorite card released thus far?
Mizzium Mortars is currently my favorite for "best card in the set" since it is basically a pseudo Bonfire of the Damned that can actually kill relevant creatures in the early parts of the game. While it still has the same problem as most spells when it comes to killing Thragtusk or creatures with undying, the fact that you can kill Restoration Angel, Huntmaster of the Fells, and virtually any creature that costs four or less mana is huge. Later in the game, it is a one-sided Wrath effect that can help push through the last points of damage.
I think that, like Bonfire of the Damned, Mizzium Mortars will change how a lot of games are played. For instance, if you have four or five mana and a Mortars in hand, it is generally incorrect to trade creatures with the opponent. Once you overload your Mizzium Mortars, you want to be able to push through as much damage as possible. Unlike Bonfire of the Damned, Mizzium Mortars doesn't rely on a miracle to make it good. For six mana, you are destroying your opponent's side of the board regardless of whether or not the card is in your hand or on top of your deck. While Bonfire can occasionally do this for five mana and can hit creatures with hexproof (like Geist of Saint Traft), both cards have their advantages and disadvantages.
I don't really see a problem with midrange decks playing both of these spells, giving you access to a plethora of sweeper and spot removal options. However, it is going to be much harder for green-based decks to hit RRR for Mortars without access to Birds of Paradise or Stomping Ground. I expect the early decks of Standard using Mortars will feature Snapcaster Mage since it is actually pretty good to flashback a Mizzium Mortars just to kill another creature. While Mortars seems to work better alongside Birds of Paradise, that is just a luxury that we don't have anymore!
While red decks are getting a few new goodies, I think that Zombies is getting even more of a boost (and one that it doesn't actually need!). This means that Zombies will likely be the aggressive deck of choice in Standard because it has the capacity to overwhelm control decks pretty easily. With access to a ton of creatures with haste, undying, and scavenge, their threats seem to be better positioned than the opposing removal. They even have another Diregraf Ghoul proxy! Check him out:
While Rakdos Cackler seems to be a Zombies' new best friend, I think his application in a Mono Red strategy is important to note. He's very aggressive, as his "can't block" ability is unlikely to be relevant. With access to Mizzium Mortars, Bonfire of the Damned, and even Flames of the Firebrand, I fully expect the Mono Red style of deck to come back in full force, assuming that it gets a few more powerful creatures and/or burn spells. While Mortars can't hit players, this means it needs to function more like Skred, which played a huge part in Michael Jacob winning US Nationals a few years back. This means using red creatures as your main source of damage, while your red spells are generally for removal.
With access to Pillar of Flame alongside the above spells, it shouldn't be hard to get rid of any annoyances thrown in your way. This suite of removal can deal with swarms, creatures with undying, and even this big baddie:
While this guy is going to be very annoying for red decks, I'm not sold that G/W Aggro is going to be a viable archetype just yet. If control decks start utilizing this guy to fight off aggressive strategies, then we might be in trouble. I fully expect Bant and Junk (B/G/W) to be solid archetypes that utilize Loxodon Smiter, and they will cause the most problems for red-based aggro decks. With that said, Arbor Elf just isn't what Birds of Paradise was, meaning aggressive green decks aren't going to have the same explosive starts. If you play Arbor Elf, that also means you will be heavily reliant on green and probably unable to play more than two colors until Gatecrash is released. Once they have access to Stomping Ground and Breeding Pool, three-color green decks will be able stronger since they will have the ability to utilize Arbor Elf.
While Loxodon Smiter is one of the more ridiculous cards from Return to Ravnica, it is just a guy. It is a very powerful guy, but it dies to nearly every removal spell that people are playing and is an especially juicy target for Mizzium Mortars! I'm pretty happy that this guy exists in his current form and doesn't have any sort of ability that makes it even more devastating to the aggro decks. It would be rather silly to want more from this type of card, and I'm glad they didn't power creep it too much. The current casting cost is a minor hindrance; I wouldn't expect it to come down on turn 2 that often. With Sunpetal Grove as one of the dual lands and the fact that these kind of decks will have to play a reasonable number of Plains, Loxodon Smiter will actually be a reasonable card in this format since it will likely hit play on turn 3 instead of turn 2!
They've also spoiled a card that makes me actually excited about the populate mechanic! This card should see a lot of play in Standard:
While Call of the Conclave is just Watchwolf in token form, it allows for your populate cards to become actual cards instead of just being some combat trick that creates a 1/1 Spirit or Soldier. While Watchwolf was never backbreaking for a control deck, it was definitely a strong card in its own right. It even found homes in various Extended decks back when Extended wasn't dominated by combo. While Tarmogoyf eventually overtook the two-drop slot and the rest of the deck filled out with one-drop creatures, Watchwolf was always fine companion.
Although Call of the Conclave is vulnerable to removal spells like Vapor Snag... Oh wait, it won't have to worry about that card! Some people will want to keep the Delver dream alive and will play cards like Unsummon, but those people will still be trading one-for-one with you and you won't be investing that much mana! If you are relying on Call of the Conclave for populate, I would just make sure that your populate spells are being played for their other abilities and just have populate as a fortunate upside. Relying too heavily on this mechanic could be dangerous, as it leads to overextending to the board while leaving yourself vulnerable to some forms of spot removal if you only have one token creature in play!
While Call of the Conclave can't dominate a game by itself, it does give the G/W decks something to do on the second turn. Without access to a ton of powerful mana dorks, I expect that the two-drop slot will become the place where the deck needs the most improvement. Strangleroot Geist and Call of the Conclave are great cards to start with, but you will likely need something backbreaking against Zombies. I recommend Knight of Glory!
Speaking of Zombies, I know we've already touched on it lightly, but I fully expect Zombies to be an overwhelming favorite in the early goings of Standard. While they do have certain drawbacks, such as coming into play tapped or their inability to block, this doesn't really matter much when you're never blocking. Ever.
I use the terms "never" and "ever" rather loosely, but hopefully you see my point. When you are the aggressor, you don't want to be blocking. You want to be putting the pressure on your opponent, making them react to you. You want them to be trading their creatures with yours on defense. This means that your creatures have virtually no drawback. With some new meanies being added to the arsenal, I fully expect B/G Aggro (as it has a lot of non-Zombies) to be the deck of choice. I think that the creatures in B/G are so good that Blood Artist might not be good enough! Without access to Falkenrath Aristocrat, it might not even be necessary.
With these three new baddies added to the line-up, you can put a substantial clock on your opponent as early as turn 3:
You can come out of the gates swinging and never look back! While Rakdos Shred-Freak doesn't look that amazing on paper, I can assure you that he is no slouch! Just check out this Brad vs. Gerry from earlier this week. My apologies if you don't have Premium, but this matchup really showed how powerful some of the newer creatures can be. I'm excited to try them out myself, but a lot of Gerry's newer additions to the deck seem sweet. I think that B/G Zombies is definitely stronger than B/R since you just want to slam down as many cheap threats as possible. When you back this up with a few removal spells, closing the game shouldn't be very difficult.
I know my analysis of Lotleth Troll from two weeks ago was off significantly since I had read the ability as "discard a card" and not "discard a creature card," but I still think he is a strong threat. His ability to regenerate as well as discard Gravecrawlers (or other creatures) to generate tempo and pressure should put him above the curve as far as threats are concerned. I'm not sure if he is stronger than Rakdos Shred-Freak since haste is an undervalued ability at the moment, but I think both will be awesome.
A "newer" addition to Zombies from GerryT which I really like is Rancor. With so many cheap dudes, giving them the ability to trade with Restoration Angel and Thragtusk is really powerful. The argument against Rancor in the past was "the mana base," but we now have twelve possible duals that can cast Rancor, assuming you're willing to play with more than a few copies of Golgari Guildgate. While I'm not quite sure how many is the right number, I'm confident that playing a few is fine. You want to be able to cast your spells, but finding the balance so that all your creatures come into play at the right time is important.
For reference, here is the Zombies list I would play tomorrow given the current spoiler (inspired heavily by Gerry Thompson's list, obviously):
- 4 Diregraf Ghoul
- 3 Dreg Mangler
- 4 Geralf's Messenger
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 4 Lotleth Troll
- 4 Rakdos Cackler
- 3 Rakdos Shred-Freak
Abrupt Decay is a card that I'm waffling on. It kills smaller creatures, but it really helps you with annoyances like Oblivion Ring and Detention Sphere. Honestly, I'm not sure if it is better than Murder, but I think that the ability to deal with permanents that would otherwise be devastating more than makes up for the fact that it can't kill Restoration Angel (or the big half of Thragtusk). My biggest fear is that Abrupt Decay (and Rancor) will get stuck in my hand. I want to play more Golgari Guildgates, but having them come into play tapped seems awful. The more of them you draw, along with Woodland Cemetery, will cause you to be a turn behind for the entire game!
The removal spells we have access to are situational, obviously, but we don't really have much else to work with other than Murder. I'm not a huge fan of Murder for a few reasons, but mostly because it costs three mana. Sure, it gets the job done, but I can't remember a time when a three-mana removal spell was the "best we could do." It has been a long time since we didn't have Terror at the very least. We could play LSV's overhyped spoiler, Ultimate Price, but I don't think that card is very good. If you just look at the spoiler for Return to Ravnica, you will see approximately a jillion creatures that are multicolored and strong.
Of course, we don't even know what the Golgari Charm does yet (as of this writing). I'm hopeful that it is a removal spell that also has at least one other relevant ability. If this is the case, then B/G Zombies will be far and away "the deck to beat" in new Standard, at least until people begin figuring everything out. I mean, look how long it took us to evolve Illusions into something really powerful. Most versions didn't even play Geist of Saint Traft until after it had been out for months!
The maindeck of B/G Zombies is full of awesome creatures, but the sideboard gives us another angle of attack against control. We get to take out all of our mediocre removal in favor of Underworld Connections, Duress, and planeswalkers! I think that Vraska the Unseen will be a strong contender for best planeswalker in Standard, but mostly because she can come down and kill anything that ails you. Her "+" ability seems virtually irrelevant, but I think she'll end up being much stronger than she appears on paper.
Liliana and Duress can obviously do some major work against slower decks. We can afford to discard excess lands, mediocre creatures, and even Gravecrawlers for additional card advantage. With an Underworld Connections active against control, I think it will be very hard to lose. With the extra cards and lack of awful removal spells left in our deck, we will be able to apply a ton of pressure to the board with little effort. Old-school control decks had a really tough time beating Phyrexian Arena, and now they don't even have Mana Leak to help them out! While they could still play Negate or Dissipate, those spells seem pretty mediocre against a 26+ creature deck!
I feel like Rancor is being severely underused in current Standard, and hopefully this deck will push it over the top. While I don't know if the deck can afford the full set of them, having access to it will push your smaller creatures though board stalls. It combines well with Geralf's Messenger and Gravecrawler to deliver continuous beats even after the creature dies! With so many resilient threats and creatures you don't mind running into brick walls, Rancor looks like it will end up being a major player in Zombies of the B/G variety.
I think it is important to remember the decks from Innistrad Block Constructed, as they will most likely be the new-age shells for Standard. Green-based decks will probably focus on Avacyn's Pilgrim, Abundant Growth, and Borderland Ranger to keep their mana smooth. They will probably make decent use of Arbor Elf, but it definitely isn't even in the same realm as Birds of Paradise in making your deck fast and consistent.
It is also important not to forget cards that dominate current Standard! Thragtusk is a huge beating and something that decks like Mono Red and Zombies will have to deal with if they expect to be able to win. While the green decks will likely be less consistent and slower, they will still have Huntmaster of the Fells, Restoration Angel, and Bonfire of the Damned. The creatures that fill out the rest of their deck are powerful, so you need to have answers to them. This is one of the reasons why I'm not a huge fan of Abrupt Decay, but time will tell us what threats we need to focus on killing.
Going forward, Brian and I will be testing out new decks each week in our playtesting videos. So if you're looking for something new to play once Return to Ravnica is released, check out our videos! You can find them on SCG every Friday! As I said earlier, this week we are featuring B/R/W Tokens vs. U/R/W Delver, and we will provide commentary on top of the videos!
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