Battle For Zendikar Brings Hope

What is a dedicated control mage to do with the new Battle for Zendikar spoilers? Rejoice, that’s what, as control aficionados are about to enter a realm of great mana for their control decks!

New lands are here!

When the first Open Series event rolled into town after the release of Khans of Tarkir, I sleeved up an Esper Control deck that utilized the power of Elspeth, Sun’s Champion and Sorin, Solemn Visitor. The one-two punch of these planeswalkers was too much for the earliest decks in the format to handle, giving me a great deal of success early on. A similar strategy arose from Dragons of Tarkir, where I combined the power of the Esper-colored Dragons with the powerful and synergistic Foul-Tongue Invocation and Silumgar’s Scorn. But the one thing these two decks lacked was the mana necessary to effectively cast these powerful spells. There is no Esper tri-land, nor any real Esper manafixing other than playing the maximum amount of Temples. Playing twelve Temples cost me multiple matches and ultimately caused me to put the deck down as the format sped up. Sultai Control offered the advantage of green fixers like Satyr Wayfinder, Opulent Palace, and the fuel to push Dig Through Time to the early turns. Sultai Control is great and I love the cards I had the pleasure of playing, but rotation is right around the corner and it’s time to look ahead. Brace yourself for a ton of speculation, which may help you all prepare yourself for a world in which the mana of Esper Control will reign supreme.

Esper’s Future Manabase

Prairie Stream and Sunken Hollow are sights for sore eyes and they excite this Esper Professor to no end. Format after format the lands we have had to settle for either dealt us a ton of damage or entered the battlefield tapped. Now, finally, we have a manabase the rest of the world can envy. Not only do we have these eight dual lands in our deck, we also have eight fetches to drag them onto the battlefield with. The early turns will still be dominated by lands that enter the battlefield tapped, but that has not historically weakened control. Control is truly at its weakest point when that fourth or fifth land that must enter the battlefield untapped but doesn’t, leaving us unable to cleanse the monster-ridden board. Prairie Stream and Sunken Hollow give us an almost-guaranteed series of untapped lands after the second turn with a speculative manabase that could look like this:

4 Polluted Delta
4 Flooded Strand
4 Sunken Hollow
4 Prairie Stream
2 Island
5 Swamp
3 Plains

This is a tentative manabase for a basic Esper Control deck after Battle for Zendikar is released. There could be sweet lands that haven’t been spoiled yet, a need for Haven of the Spirit Dragon, a necessary super-light splash of white, or many other factors that will change the suggested manabase’s exact basic land count, but we’ll cross those roads when we get to them. In the meantime, the mana seems great and I’m stoked to see how it plays out when filled in with the powerful spells left after rotation and a few Battle for Zendikar gems. Let’s examine a few other benefits of the upcoming Esper revolution from the printing of Prairie Stream and Sunken Hollow.

We get eight fetchlands! Can you believe it? A manabase that is fully fetchable from Polluted Delta and Flooded Strand! What this means for us is the easiest double-color retrieval we’ve seen in quite some time in Standard:

Need two blue for Dissolve? No problem!

Languish the next turn? Coming right up!

The manabase I provided gives us eighteen blue, seventeen black, and fifteen white sources. If that isn’t enough of each source for our combination of spells after rotation, we can easily add a couple tri-lands to balance the scales. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface on the benefits provided by an eight-fetchland manabase. Dig Through Time’s power increases here tenfold. The amount of Delve possible in a deck like this is off the charts. I will definitely include at least two copies of Treasure Cruise in my initial Esper Control list to further take advantage of the large graveyard created. Cards like Murderous Cut or Tasigur, the Golden Fang may also see some play depending on the amount of cheap spells we include in our list. That said, the biggest winners from all these lands are definitely Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time. I tend to have a strong desire to play cards that are banned in Eternal formats, so I expect to Delve a lot next month.

Not just Esper Control but all future control decks will benefit from this new land cycle. Splashing another color has never been so easy in Standard! If you are feeling saucy and want to brew yourself a control deck that is on the allied colors spectrum, feel free to get to work! Grixis, Esper, and Bant all have manabases that are easy to accommodate in the new Standard at this point. You all know which shard I’ll try out first, but there are some of you that might enjoy a little red or green in your control deck. The same rules apply with whichever shard you chose, having the full eight dual/eight fetch combination will be glorious. The manabase will never be as good as those in Modern or Legacy, but for Standard this is definitely a move in the right direction. Who knows? There may be a green or red control card that I can’t resist. For that reason I’m not exactly sure what the meat of a post-rotation control deck will be, but speculation is definitely fun. At this point there is only one card that excites me outside of the lands, and I think you already know exactly who I’m talking about.

He’s Back

My heart always beats a bit faster when the name Gideon pops up. I’m still holding out for a Gideon Jura reprint, but I doubt that’ll ever happen. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is a huge improvement from his previous incarnations. Gideon, Champion of Justice is an embarrassment to planeswalkers everywhere and Kytheon, Hero of Akros is more powerful as a 2/1 for one than in his flipped form. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar has the middle ability all control players crave: creature production. Unlike most other recent planeswalkers, this guy doesn’t increase loyalty when making his 2/2 allies. That is a huge negative that I wish didn’t exist, however I still think he has a place in white control decks after rotation. Creating an army of creatures while casting powerful spells is the trademark of a good white planeswalker, and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar does just that. I’m very pleased that they printed him with four loyalty instead of three so that he can survive some punishment before falling into the graveyard. The first and third abilities are definitely relevant, but will be the modes least-used by control mages out there. There will be some situations where a 5/5 that cannot die from lethal damage picks up lifelink from Sorin, Solemn Visitor and stretches the life total up to a safe number. Some games will boil down to an emblem produced by the new planeswalker to pump the remaining Vampire and Ally tokens to a lethal size. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar fits right into a planeswalker control strategy that survives rotation. The biggest losses are clearly Elspeth, Sun’s Champion and Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver, as they transition into the void of Modern. I hope that Gideon, Ally of Zendikar can help stabilize the planeswalker strategy with a little Sorin, Solemn Visitor help, but we’ll find out in a few weeks for sure.

Ruinous PathHero’s Downfall

Sometimes I sound like a genius when I guarantee they’ll print a black answer to planeswalkers a month before they announce it, and sometimes I sound like a fool when I condemn Preordain as a bad card. This is one of those good days! Ruinous Path is going to be a staple in black control decks, but don’t be fooled. Hero’s Downfall leaving will hurt and hurt bad. Expect to take a hit from Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker before removing it and getting pummeled by Dash creatures at a much more frequent pace. Instant-speed removal is what we are truly in the market for, and I hope there’s some waiting for us in Battle for Zendikar. If not, we’ll rely on the power of Ultimate Price, Gideon’s Reproach, Foul-Tongue Invocation, Celestial Flare, and Murderous Cut to stem the tide of evil. With the popularity of Hangarback Walker, I’d suggest not getting your hopes up too much with cards like Foul-Tongue Invocation. One of the biggest flaws in the Esper Dragon strategy was its dependency on Foul-Tongue Invocation… and now, with creatures like Hangarback Walker and Den Protector + Deathmist Raptor, it’s even harder to win with it. The shells that make those decks successful may be weakened enough to give Esper Dragons the push it needs to be successful, but it’s hard to imagine those cards being played less.

The true silver lining is that nearly every card in Esper Dragons is surviving rotation, so let’s see if we can get a little lucky. There may be two, three, or even more staples waiting for us in Battle for Zendikar, but if not… at least we have our lands and Gideon to help us!