A First Step Into Nyx

Hall of Famer Brian Kibler takes his first look at Journey into Nyx, talking about two cards that he thinks have potential in Standard. What spoiled cards jump out at you so far?

My experience in Phoenix last weekend was something of a roller coaster. I played a G/R Monsters deck very similar to the one I posted in my article last week. I felt like the two-color version offered a more consistent mana base, and I thought it was stronger against the aggressive decks that I expected to be popular thanks to playing so many painless basic lands. After my three byes, I won my first match convincingly, even coming back from a mulligan to four (!!!) in the second game to win.

I was feeling pretty great after that, but that feeling didn’t last long. I managed to scrape together two more wins, but that was with three losses at the hands of quite a few more mulligans and quite a few too many lands. I actually even lost a game—to knock me out of day 2 contention no less—in which I had a Stormbreath Dragon and Ghor-Clan Rampager in play with a Domri Rade emblem and eighteen life to my opponent’s one. I felt like I really blew all my luck that day winning from that mulligan to four.

That’s kind of how I’ve felt over the last couple spoiler seasons—not that I got unlucky, but that I have this rollercoaster-like wave of excitement that all comes crashing down when reality sets in. There’s a lot of cool-looking new stuff out there, but Standard these days isn’t really a place where cool new stuff has a lot of luck. As a matter of fact, the two decks that met in the finals of Grand Prix Phoenix were the same ones that defined the format just a few weeks after the release of Theros. Even more telling is that between the two of them they only played a total of three cards from Born of the Gods—the three copies of Bile Blight in Robert Berni’s winning Mono-Black Devotion deck. Nathan Holiday’s Mono-Blue Devotion deck played zero.

I’ve shared my thoughts on what I think the primary culprit is. It was about seven months ago that I wrote "if the best deck is one with Thoughtseize, there’s nothing you can really do to improve your matchup against them because they can always just Thoughtseize it out of your hand." For the past six months, Mono-Black Devotion has been a dominant force in Standard, winning well over half of the Standard Grand Prix since Theros was released despite the introduction of Born of the Gods in the interim.

How exciting can any new card be if it is just going to get Thoughtseized away? How cool is any new creature or planeswalker if it just gets killed by Hero’s Downfall or exiled by Detention Sphere? Standard right now has so many different cards that are virtually universal answers to anything that it’s hard for new cards to have a major impact.

But let’s take a look anyway, shall we?

The card that’s most prominently on many people’s minds these days is the new Ajani:

This is the sort of card that’s firmly in my wheelhouse. Green? Check. Cares about creatures? Check. Gains 100 life? Okay, well maybe not every part of it is quite my cup of tea, but I did play with Armadillo Cloak back in the day.

Despite an ultimate that will rarely see use, Ajani has a very powerful combination of abilities. His first +1 ability is much more powerful than it appears on the surface. I’ve long been a huge proponent of exalted creatures because they provide the ability to break through stalemates where your creatures are otherwise evenly matched. Ajani’s counter-distributing ability is far more potent, allowing you to permanently grow your team with every activation on either offense or defense and ensuring that the appropriate creatures are able to attack through or block whatever it is your opponent has in play. Facing down a Blood Baron? Power up your green creatures so they win in a fight! Opponent has a Frostburn Weird? Turn all of your 3/3s into 4/4s so they can attack right through!

Keep in mind that these are permanent +1/+1 counters, which means synergy with any number of cards in Standard. Load up an Experiment One or two so they can regenerate through your opponent’s Supreme Verdict. Pile on a Gyre Sage so it can tap for huge amounts of mana. Spread the love so when your Kalonian Hydra attacks your entire team gets huge. And let’s not even talk about what happens if you activate Ajani with Corpsejack Menace in play.

Ajani’s second ability is the much more straightforwardly powerful one. It’s like a Domri Rade activation on steroids since you’re almost guaranteed to hit something of value every time you use it, and everyone knows how much I love Domri. Expanding the range of hits to Auras and planeswalkers in addition to creatures is interesting since it means you can use it to dig for Elspeth, Sun’s Champion (flavor success!) or something like Chained to the Rocks in a Naya deck. In fact, both of Ajani’s first two abilities are downright perfect fits for the Naya Hexproof decks floating around out there, although those are generally in the market to end the game long before a five-mana planeswalker offering incremental value is likely to make an impact.

I’ve seen some criticism from people saying that Ajani is weak because he doesn’t defend himself on an empty board, but this isn’t a card you’re going to put in your deck if you’re planning on having an empty board very often. Domri doesn’t defend himself, and the same is true of Chandra, Pyromaster—both of them have proven to be powerful tools in the right decks.

Ajani fits best in creature-heavy decks that are likely to have a board presence when you play him against other creature decks, where the distribution of counters has an immediate impact on the board and improves your position. In the matchups where your opponent is wiping your board, Ajani probably isn’t in nearly as much danger of getting attacked, and you can often safely use his ability to dig for more action to help you recover from said board wipe.

Let’s take a look at some Ajani-fueled lists.

With all of that in mind, I’d like to say that I think Ajani will be a powerful tool for G/W decks to become a force in Standard, but the truth is that I don’t. I think Ajani will be a trap that will get me and many others to spend a lot of time trying to make G/W decks that can compete but that ultimately fall prey to Lifebane Zombie, Doom Blade, Hero’s Downfall, Tidebinder Mage, and friends.

Or maybe not? After all, Ajani isn’t the only new tool in the green mage’s arsenal. One of the biggest challenges that has come with playing green in current Standard is the color’s notorious inability to actually deal with opposing creatures. This has been particularly troublesome due to the devotion mechanic and how difficult it is to fight past the likes of Thassa, God of the Sea and Master of Waves with most creature-centric decks.

I remember thinking several months ago that I wished Prey Upon were legal because that at least would provide a tool for green decks to dispatch Master of Waves once it hits the board. There is Polukranos, World Eater of course, but he’s expensive and telegraphed so your opponent can be ready with Rapid Hybridization to ruin your deck. There is Pit Fight, but despite being castable with just green mana, it’s technically also a red spell, so it can’t target Master.

Thankfully, now there’s Setessan Tactics.

Tactics isn’t quite as clean as Prey Upon since it costs two mana upfront and requires that you tap the creature to actually fight, but it more than makes up for that with the stat bonus and strive ability. Remember what I was talking about before when it came to cards that can help you break through stalemates? Well, this is a hell of a powerful one. If you and your opponent have creatures of roughly equivalent size, you can pretty much kill one of their creatures for every green mana you spend on this!

In current Standard if you’re playing an aggressive green deck—say like the one that Mason Lange played to a Top 8 finish at the SCG Standard Open in Milwaukee—and facing Mono-Blue Devotion, your game plan is pretty much just to run them over as quickly as possible and hope they don’t get Thassa or Master of Waves online. Their Tidebinder Mages are basically just two-mana Nekrataals since you don’t have any way to actually remove one of their creatures from play unless they block with it. You could have an army of huge Reverent Hunters, but they can all be easily locked down by Tidebinders or chump blocked by Elemental tokens with nothing you can do about it.

If you have Setessan Tactics in your deck, however, they’re as good as dead. You can spit out a bunch of creatures on the table, and once they actually establish any kind of board presence you can play Tactics and Strive it on to a bunch of your creatures and wipe out their entire team. What green creatures lack in subtlety and finesse they tend to make up for in stats, and that’s what matters when you’re getting into a fight.

It might not be a maindeck card, at least not in big numbers, but it’s certainly a stone-cold killer out of the sideboard. And maybe it’s even worth playing a copy or two in the starting sixty given that it can always serve as a pump spell that can hit an additional creature for each mana you sink into it.

I could see something like this:

What do you think? What spoiled cards jump out at you so far? Do you think any of them have what it takes to break the stranglehold that Thoughtseize and friends have on Standard?