Last week I set the stage for how I felt Standard would change based on the cards that are leaving the format. Now that virtually all of Return to Ravnica has been spoiled this week I'm going to talk about what to do with all of the cool new cards. So if you're the sort who is looking for decklists this is the article for you. Hooray!
I discussed last week that it seems like the Standard format is likely to move toward being much friendlier to midrange strategies and everything that I have seen so far from Return to Ravnica bears that out. Sure there's Dreadbore and Ultimate Price so it's not like Wolfir Silverheart and friends are invulnerable. But it's still a world much more conducive to investing in a creature and expecting it to stick around for a little while unlike the Snapcaster Mage / Vapor Snag era we've been living in that's happily coming to an end.
Lots of people seem to be of the opinion that Zombies will be the default "best deck" in new Standard but I don't really buy it. One big reason Zombies has been so effective in the waning days of the current Standard format is that the deck matches up particularly well against Delver by way of largely invalidating the power of Gut Shot and Vapor Snag two cards Delver leans on heavily against creature decks. Vapor Snag isn't very effective against one casting cost creatures and Gut Shot certainly isn't a great answer to Gravecrawler. But without Delver decks and decks built to beat Delver to prey upon Zombies doesn't seem nearly as well positioned.
I don't see Zombies holding up as a dominant deck in a world where people are actively trying to beat it. Playing removal like Pillar of Flame and creatures that match up well against Diregraf Ghoul and Gravecrawler goes a long way toward cutting into the strengths of the deck. Yeah Blood Artist is sweet but when other people get to actually play real creatures instead of mono-enters the battlefield triggers to fight Vapor Snag it's not always going to be enough to pull you out of tough spots. Many of the best Zombie decks rely heavily on Birthing Pod to give them enough long game to beat decks like Naya and they're not going to have that option anymore. Zombies will certainly be a deck to keep in mind after rotation but it's hardly going to be an oppressive force.
That said Zombie decks actually gain some sweet new tools in Return to Ravnica some of which go a long way toward offering them new ways to play. Lotleth Troll and Dreg Mangler are both strong creatures in their own right that happen to be Zombies and both of them (perhaps in combination!) provide additional long game power to a deck that may be in the market for such given the reduced importance of coming in underneath Mana Leak and friends. Abrupt Decay is quite clearly a powerful card and interestingly may end up being another reason that midrange strategies have a chance to shine. If Abrupt Decay becomes popular I certainly want to be the guy showing up to the party with four casting cost creatures.
There's an argument for playing a B/R version of Zombies for Falkenrath Aristocrat and burn spells but I think G/B wins out for a number of reasons. First is that Lotleth Troll and Dreg Mangler are both excellent creatures that happen to be Zombies allowing you to maximize Cavern of Souls. Secondly playing green gives you access to Rancor which allows your small creatures to fight through the larger men that are certain to show up. Without something like Rancor your team is likely to get completely brick walled by a Loxodon Smiter or something similar and that doesn't seem like a great place to be in.
A post-rotation Zombie deck might look something like this:
This is just a rough sketch mind you to illustrate the general principles the deck is built on. Rakdos Cackler gives Zombies another two-power one-drop which can help maximize the explosive triple one-drop draws that can put so much pressure on and Rancor makes these draws that much faster. I think Blood Artist will generally be abandoned because there are so many other powerful options with Dreg Mangler and Rancor being used alongside Geralf's Messenger to push through the final damage.
So if this is the consensus deck to beat in the early days of the new Standard how do we want to go about attacking it? Well there's one card that caught my attention that hasn't gotten much press so far.
A lot of people have mentioned this card as a potentially attractive general for Commander but have more or less ignored it for serious Constructed play and I can't for the life of me understand why. A 2/5 body for four mana isn't impressive sure but the abilities on Trostani are completely insane.
It's funny because life gain is the sort of effect that gets an incredibly bad rap in Magic but contextually it's incredibly powerful. Look at Baneslayer Angel or Kitchen Finks or Loxodon Hierarch. These were all creatures that had a huge impact on a wide range of formats because they were excellent ways to gain life attached to relevant bodies. I can't tell you the number of times I've been building a deck and thought that I just really needed a way to gain some life so I could get myself out of range of the reach of aggressive decks. Hell at the Players Championship Jon Finkel and I eschewed the "better" Sword of Feast and Famine for Sword of War and Peace simply because we were looking for ways to gain life.
The life gain effect of Trostani may seem marginal at first glance but I assure you (without having played with it at all) that it has the potential to be absolutely game breaking. Envision this scenario. Your opponent is playing an aggressive deck maybe the B/G Zombies deck above or maybe one of the many aggressive red decks that are floating around that are trying to make use of Ash Zealot and Rakdos Cackler. If you play Trostani and they don't kill you or it immediately how are they going to ever kill you again?
Let's say you untap with Trostani—who by the way is an excellent blocker for all of the Rancored 2/2s that are bound to be out there. You then play a Wolfir Silverheart and thanks to some stack tricks gain eight life and now have an enormous Trostani. Now your opponent has to attack through a 6/9 and an 8/8 and if they don't manage to kill you that turn you play Restoration Angel stacking the life gain effect and then the Blink effect to return Wolfir Silverheart and soulbonding to gain another sixteen life. Nice beatdown deck friend!
We haven't even gotten to the part where you get to use Trostani's activated ability! While most opinions I've seen have dismissed it as a tool for a dedicated token deck it doesn't have to be that at all. There are enough inherently powerful token generating cards that we can incidentally get value from the populate ability without biasing our deck in such a way that it's incredibly vulnerable to cards like Detention Sphere.
Consider this deck:
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 2 Armada Wurm
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 3 Borderland Ranger
- 4 Loxodon Smiter
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 3 Thragtusk
- 3 Wolfir Silverheart
- 3 Trostani, Selesnya's Voice
This deck is again incredibly raw but hopefully it illustrates some of the ideas I'm talking about. Call of the Conclave Armada Wurm and Garruk Relentless are all individually high quality cards that happen to work effectively with Trostani's populate ability. This deck is probably a bit top heavy and might want some tools like Sigarda or something instead of some of the creatures there but the basic principles are there. This deck follows the general adage that you want to go just a bit bigger than your opponent to win the creature war.
I'm curious to see if Trostani actually provides enough staying power to play something like this—a completely removal-free deck that relies on life gain and raw creature power to overcome aggressive decks. The idea of playing an Armada Wurm with Trostani in play against a beatdown deck makes me giggle a little bit but I'm somewhat concerned that I might be dead in the water to someone playing Olivia or something of the sort. Oblivion Ring is an option and may be necessary but I'm somewhat hesitant to rely on O-Ring in a world that's likely to have quite a few copies of Abrupt Decay.
Speaking of Olivia I think she may be one of the big winners from the rotation. She was one of the most underrated cards in Innistrad Block Constructed since she could absolutely dominate a game if she wasn't removed immediately. In new Standard there won't be very many good ways to get her off the board for most decks. Ultimate Price and Abrupt Decay don't do it and Tragic Slip needs morbid which you can frequently play around. Jund was far and away the best deck in Innistrad Block Constructed and with a vastly improved mana base it's certain to be a player in new Standard.
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 4 Borderland Ranger
- 2 Disciple of Bolas
- 4 Huntmaster of the Fells
- 2 Thragtusk
- 4 Wolfir Silverheart
- 2 Olivia Voldaren
Usual disclaimer: totally raw decklist could be terrible etc. This particular list is geared toward beating aggressive decks with the full four Pillar of Flame and Tragic Slip alongside Bonfire of the Damned to really wipe out small creatures. This is mostly built on the shell of the Innistrad Block Jund decks where Wolfir Silverheart was a dominant force. That may be a mistake in the new world but we've got to start somewhere.
Perhaps the biggest upgrade for Jund in the port from Block to Standard is the mana and in particular Farseek. Farseek doubles as ramp and mana fixing both of which the Block version of the deck needed desperately. The fact that a single Farseek fetching Blood Crypt can solve virtually all of your mana woes makes life a lot easier and vastly outclasses Abundant Growth as the fixer of choice. On top of that actually accelerating you to be able to play your fours and fives is a huge deal. It's possible that the previous deck also wants Farseek over some of its creature-based acceleration if for no other reason than to reduce its vulnerability to Bonfire of the Damned—though it could probably also profit from some kind of splash which Farseek and dual lands make quite easy.
Another bonus here is Disciple of Bolas. Jund in Block could frequently run out of gas if the opponent could handle the initial Silverheart/Aristocrat assault and Disciple can help reload in those situations when the game stalls out. I'm not certain that it's the direction you want to go in since it's a pretty substantial commitment to deploy a large creature and then sacrifice it to the Disciple even if that creature is a Thragtusk. Ten life and five cards is pretty sweet but you're paying nine mana to get them and you might not be able to afford that kind of time.
It's mostly included here as a thought exercise about what options are available. Underworld Connections is another possibility one that is particularly cute with Arbor Elf but I'm not sure a deck with so many expensive cards wants to pay three upfront and then one a turn for an extra card especially against aggressive decks where time is of the essence. It's worth keeping on the radar though.
One thing worth noting is that this list has abandoned the Falkenrath Aristocrats that were the incentive for me to build the Block Jund deck in the first place. Aristocrat actually fell out of favor by the end of the Block season abandoned in favor of Restoration Angel because the presence of so many Tragic Slips made its one toughness a major liability.
With the format looking to be quite aggressive at least initially Aristocrat doesn't have the same kind of appeal it had in the midrange-dominated format that was the post-PT Avacyn Restored Block format especially when many of those aggressive decks are likely to be Zombies with Tragic Slip. If the format shifts to a more controlling one or the -1/-1 instant falls out of favor I can certainly see Falkenrath Aristocrat rising to prominence but it doesn't seem like a card I'd want to have in my deck for the first few weeks of the new Standard season.
That's the kind of interesting question that new formats always create. Like how popular will Bonfire of the Damned be? Bonfire really isn't very effective against Zombies (especially with Lotleth Troll) and if Zombies is the premiere aggro deck it seems bad to play a bunch of Bonfires in a deck. Does that mean Lingering Souls becomes more viable? Might we see an Intangible Virtue/populate deck or are dedicated token strategies no longer viable without Honor of the Pure? It was oppressive enough that Lingering Souls and Virtue were banned in Block but they never really made a huge mark on Standard before. Is now the time?
I have no idea but I'm certainly excited to find out. That's the beauty of an all-new format! I'm kind of bummed that I won't have a chance to play Standard competitively for a while but I can't wait to see what the format looks like at the first few SCG Open Series after the set releases. What do you think the new world order will look like?
Until next time