Spoiler season is in full swing, and I for one am ready for a change. Oath of the Gatewatch Standard was not very kind to me, or, perhaps more accurately, I was not very good at Oath of the Gatewatch Standard. I probably should have hopped on the Rally the Ancestors train early on and ridden it as long as possible. Many mistakes were made, but it’s time to move on.
To that end, I want to share some of my early brews for Shadows over Innistrad Standard, but each of these decks carries an important lesson behind it. With every new set, the entirety of the Magic community sets about dissecting every card ad nauseam and imagines thousands of possibilities for new strategies, despite the fact that only a small percentage of them will be shuffled and presented to an opponent.
You see, everyone wants to walk into the first week of a new format thinking they have a great deck, a deck that is not only well-positioned for that week but will endure as a pillar of the format for many months or more. Everyone wants to live the dream of having imposed their will on the metagame, and as a result, they go deep trying to find the key new cards and what the best homes for them are.
In this quest it is all too easy to go too deep and end up with a deck that just isn’t good. The strange thing is, everyone acknowledges that the vast majority of brews are bad, so the threat of failure is mitigated by its banality. This reality incentivizes everyone to brew without any direction, and as such they make critical mistakes, often repeatedly.
So each of these decks is not only a potential player in the upcoming Standard format, it is a reminder of the common mistakes we all make when we are inundated with exciting new cards and new ideas.
Lesson 1: Don’t Forget the Aggro Deck
There’s a reason aggressive decks seem to do well early on in new formats. Too many players bring undertested, improperly tuned lists and fail to accurately assess how often their deck will fold in the face of consistent, early pressure.
With players being forced to adapt to a world without fetchlands, figuring out just how far we can stretch the mana in this format will be difficult, and many of us are going to get it wrong. Some decks will have too-stringent mana requirements and will lose to themselves. Others will play it too safe and their decks will be underpowered and thus unable to effectively catch up from behind.
While the default aggro deck in Standard has historically been a red deck, I was struck by Thalia’s Lieutenant when looking at Shadows over Innistrad and I think we have a density of cheap white creatures that supports a traditional white weenie strategy:
- 3 Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit
- 4 Dragon Hunter
- 4 Kytheon, Hero of Akros
- 4 Consul's Lieutenant
- 2 Expedition Envoy
- 4 Topplegeist
- 3 Thraben Inspector
- 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
- 3 Hanweir Militia Captain
- 21 Plains
Glorious Anthem effects and cheap creatures are a classic pairing, and because many cards in Shadows Standard overlap the two, this deck contains 29 creatures (more if you count Gideon) and fifteen cards that pump all or part of your team, all while maintaining a curve that barely rises above two, ensuring that you will be able to deploy multiple cards on turns 2 through 4 and develop a wide battlefield.
Thalia’s Lieutenant is exciting to me since it slots easily at any point in the curve. You can cast it on turn 2, turn your one-drop into a 3/2, and then proceed to make a very large creature over the course of the game or wait on it, deploy most of your hand, and set up a huge, possibly double-Anthem attack. Having the ability to go tall as well as wide is excellent in an aggro deck because it prevents your opponent from being able to focus on one type of disruption and will often leave them unprepared to stop one of your angles of attack.
Another card that facilitates this additional angle is Hanweir Militia Captain. With such a high creature density getting four in play is quite doable, and once it flips you have a large body that expands your battlefield every turn. With Thalia’s Lieutenant or Consul’s Lieutenant, those tokens can end the game very quickly, and without they continue to grow your Westvale Cult Leader.
As with most linear aggro decks, there is little room for removal, but Declaration In Stone fits perfectly here. The tempo gain from using it to remove a four- or five-mana creature and set up an attack will put your opponent behind enough that cashing in the Clue you give them is problematic, and if your opponent tries to go wide with something like Hangarback Walker or Secure the Wastes you can clean up all their work with one card. When you do not have space for much removal, you need the spells you do have to be versatile, and this one certainly is.
The lack of space for removal was also the reason for my inclusion of Topplegeist. It’s not a Human for Thalia’s Lieutenant and a 1/1 flier for one mana can often be anemic on offense, but I envision this card being an unsung hero for the deck. Taking a key early turn off to kill an opposing Sylvan Advocate or Catacomb Sifter just so you can attack will often leave your opponent with enough time to stabilize the battlefield.
You need to be able to develop your battlefield on the first three turns of the game and then start dealing with your opponent’s threats. Topplegeist allows you to do so while still getting in those critical early attacks so you do not find yourself four points short on turns 5 and 6. Those early attacks are even more critical when they mean triggering renown on Consul’s Lieutenant, which notably does not attack well into the many 2/3s in Standard but is devastating once renowned.
Thraben Inspector is another new creature that may look out-of-place, but with so many Anthems in the deck, I think the 1/2 body may be more valuable than more 2/1s. A single Anthem and it survives the most potent cards against the deck, Flaying Tendrils and Kozilek’s Return. Being able to naturally develop battlefields that are resistant to cheap sweepers is very important, and the Clue token can help in the mid-game when you are digging for the last removal spell or Anthem to break through a stalled battlefield.
Eerie Interlude is another way you can defeat sweepers, although it is much more effective against more expensive cards like Languish or Planar Outburst. It may seem awkward to blink your team when they have accumulated +1/+1 counters from Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit and Thalia’s Lieutenant, but any other Humans you target with Eerie Interlude will trigger those creatures again when they return to the battlefield, so you can rebuild most if not all of your battlefield. Sometimes you may even gain some counters in the exchange.
The rest of the sideboard is generic with cheap removal and lifegain against opposing aggro decks, some extra removal, and an overlooked card in Vryn Wingmare that should be excellent against attrition decks, often buying you an extra turn or two before your opponent is able to deploy enough of their cards to stabilize.
Is this deck underpowered? Yes.
Can you afford to ignore it when brewing? No.
Lesson 2: Don’t Put Yourself in a Box Too Early
Since Battle for Zendikar we have been spoiled with excellent manabases for three- and four-color decks, which allowed us to play only the most powerful cards for their effect. It is easy to look at the lands available in Shadows Standard and think that three-color decks will be impossible to build without many other sources of fixing. But if you limit yourself to two colors, you severely restrict the card pool you are building with and therefore cap the power level of your deck.
If you can find the right balance of colors and lands, you may be able to make something work where you splash a third color for exactly the cards you need to take a deck from good to great. I mentioned earlier how common it is for players to go too deep in spoiler season, but this is an issue of not going deep enough. As long as you remain realistic in your expectations, you will be surprised by how much you can get out of your lands.
This list initially came from my desire to play with Silverfur Partisan and Dromoka’s Command. But with few other good options to target the Partisan for value unless I moved the deck in a more aggressive direction for pump spells, I ultimately cut the Partisan, since by itself the 2/2 body is fairly anemic and you do not get a replacement Wolf if it gets killed by Dead Weight or Silkwrap. It’s still a card that I’m looking out for, but this deck moved in a different direction once I realized that Gruul has three great planeswalkers with the addition of Arlinn Kord.
Nissa, Voice of Zendikar synergizes well with the Thopter cards from Magic Origins, making the -2 ability incredibly potent while also protecting your many planeswalkers. Having so many army-in-a-can cards also makes the +1 on Arlinn, Embraced by the Moon more threatening. Arlinn Kord gives the deck another source of bodies that flood the battlefield and make opposing removal spells ineffective. All the threats in this deck besides Sylvan Advocate play well in attrition games but can also play defense against aggressive decks, an important trait for midrange strategies.
Where this deck gets interesting is in the removal suite. The red removal available was quite underwhelming, but white gives great options like Dromoka’s Command and Angelic Purge. Command may eventually require playing some bigger creatures, but for killing opposing 2/3s it works very well. Purge is an all-star in this deck that has plenty of spare tokens, Oath of Nissa, and Hangarback Walker that it wants to sacrifice. It’s possible that the deck wants a fourth copy, but I wanted to strictly limit the number of white cards in the deck and Oath of Chandra is interesting since we have so many planeswalkers that can trigger it.
The manabase was challenging to say the least and I am sure it can be improved from where I have it now. The most important lands are Needle Spires, which gives us a creature-land for Sylvan Advocate in addition to helping the white splash, and Evolving Wilds, which is a tri-land that helps our Battle lands enter the battlefield untapped.
As far as the exact splits on the various two-color lands, I knew I wanted Canopy Vista over Fortified Village because the white cards do not need to be cast before turn 3, and in a scenario where you are drawing to a white source, a Battle land is more likely to enter untapped than a Shadow land. Since I want red and green mana the most, I have a full six Gruul lands, favoring the Shadow land in this instance since I want them to enter untapped even on the early turns of the game.
The basic split comes from my desire to maximize green mana, since it’s the most important color in the deck, but I want my Evolving Wilds to be able to cast Pia and Kiran Nalaar, so two Mountains are necessary. With thirteen cards that help Battle lands enter untapped (basics plus Evolving Wilds) and thirteen cards that help the Shadow lands enter untapped (basics plus Battle lands), this deck should be able to develop its mana smoothly in most games.
The sideboard should be mostly unsurprising, although I should stress how good Evolutionary Leap functions with all the spare bodies lying around in this deck. Each token can be turned into two or more bodies when you hit Thopter Engineer, Pia and Kiran Nalaar, or Hangarback Walker. I could see pairing the enchantment with some bigger creatures as well, to make it even more impactful.
The real surprises in the sideboard are Act of Treason and Goldnight Castigator. These cards are my plan against ramp decks, which are structurally favored against midrange decks like this. We need a way to apply more pressure, which Castigator is excellent for, especially because, unlike Pia and Kiran Nalaar, it survives a potential Kozilek’s Return. Act of Treason is way for us to steal games once our opponent stabilizes with a big threat like World Breaker, Dragonlord Atarka, or Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger.
I am excited about how this deck blends the different sets in Standard together into a cohesive whole, and by being disciplined with the splash, I think the mana is good and the deck has a significantly higher power level than it would have otherwise.
Lesson 3: Don’t Ignore Forgotten Cards
A new set is always exciting because it means new toys. New cards to think about and new archetypes to tune. But often the early days of a post-roatation format are about figuring out which old cards are vastly improved in their new context. These are powerful cards that for whatever reason failed to make a large impact upon their release, and as a result, too many players have written them off as unplayable.
One such card I think could break out is Woodland Bellower. Without being able to find Nissa, Vastwood Seer and with better options for the green devotion decks that existed at the time, Woodland Bellower never saw the play it deserved. With the cards we have available now, I think it could be poised to break out. Sylvan Advocate has proved to be a format staple. Importantly, Advocate will enter play as a 4/5 off of Bellower, meaning you are paying six mana for ten power and ten toughness spread across two bodies.
Past Sylvan Advocate, I think Tireless Tracker has a lot of potential as a target for Bellower. Midrange decks need ways to use their mana going long and Tracker does that very well while also becoming a large threat in its own right. With that in mind, I present the following list:
- 4 Den Protector
- 4 Deathmist Raptor
- 3 Nissa, Vastwood Seer
- 4 Woodland Bellower
- 2 Catacomb Sifter
- 4 Sylvan Advocate
- 3 Tireless Tracker
Much like the Naya deck above, this deck is filled with threats that provide inherent card advantage, except instead of doing so by producing multiple bodies, this deck generates raw card advantage. We should be able to out-grind most decks going long, especially with the Den Protector – Deathmist Raptor engine. In fact, I should probably have more hard removal spells in the main to facilitate this plan, but in the early stages I want to test out as many creatures as possible for Bellower. A card that can cleanly answer Hangarback Walker, like Complete Disregard, would be welcome, as well as another forgotten card in Gilt-Leaf Winnower.
This list is one card over the minimum, so finding space will be difficult. I would love to play Catacomb Sifter in a deck like this, but not being able to be found by Woodland Bellower (it’s colorless because of Devoid) is a significant downside for any potential three-drop. I could also see Transgress the Mind underperforming in a metagame devoid of ramp decks, but as is, the deck needs a way to pre-empt particularly powerful threats like World Breaker and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger.
The sideboard is geared toward letting us continue the attrition game plan when our opponent is prepared for specific angles. Duress and Read the Bones are a powerful package against counterspell-heavy control decks that can stop a Woodland Bellower or Den Protector while on the stack. Duress pulls double-duty against ramp, where we have to abandon the attrition plan somewhat to focus on aggression and disruption.
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet and Flaying Tendrils are a powerful combination against aggressive decks, as we lower our curve while still generating card advantage with nearly every card in the deck. Virulent Plague is a great option for a deck like this which could struggle against the long-term value of cards like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar; Nissa, Voice of Zendikar; and Secure the Wastes. We want to make our opponents fight our cards one-for-one and then pull ahead on raw count, so stopping cards that can function as more than one, like token generators, is important.
Spoiler season is the best time to be a Magic player, and it’s particularly interesting when there is an impending rotation. As such, I encourage all of you to explore the new Standard space as much as possible, but if you plan on competing in the early weeks of the format, keep these lessons in mind for your own decks.