Welcome to the new Standard!
First off, yeah, this card’s still good.
By now, I bet a lot of you have piles of crumpled-up booster wrappers in your trash, new cards in your sleeves, and you’re out at your local events
slinging new spells. Whether you’re a brewer like me or you’re after the best new deck in the format showcased by a pro, this is literally the best time of
the year for Standard. Theros’s bogeymen are gone, and we’re in a whole new world with the lands, spells, and creatures of Battle for Zendikar, and everyone is scrambling to find the next big thing.
This past weekend, I attended the Open Series in Indianapolis, and naturally, I wanted to have a deck built from scratch, something that was not only
powerful and consistent, but something I could feel good sleeving for the big day.
By far, this was the most invested and prepared I’d been going into a new format. The moment the spoiler was fully released, I was rifling through my
cards, making proxies, and sleeving up old Theros cards as proxies to play my friends and neighbors. I had four decks picked out that I thought
had potential, so I took the time to print proxies and sleeve them each, testing them over the course of a couple weeks.
One was a Sphinx’s Tutelage deck that dipped into Grixis and even a bit of a green splash for Retreat to Kazandu for the lifegain to keep me afloat over
the long game. That one performed decently, but was pretty slow and non-interactive. Second, I had a really exciting March from the Tomb brew that I’m sure
to bring you at a later date, but it needs some serious tuning and refinement before I’m comfortable presenting it. Needs some more time to ripen. Third, I
tested a Jund aggro deck that was easily the worst of the bunch, with too little pressure to matter and clunky, unexciting removal.
The fourth list, though, was looking promising, and its theme is almost as old as Magic itself: Elves.
With the introduction of new colors, compatible tribal components from Battle for Zendikar, and the newfound flexibility of manabases, I decided
to delve into Elves.
- 3 Elvish Visionary
- 3 Gilt-Leaf Winnower
- 1 Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen
- 4 Dwynen's Elite
- 4 Gnarlroot Trapper
- 4 Shaman of the Pack
- 1 Lantern Scout
- 3 Tajuru Warcaller
- 4 Skyrider Elf
- 4 Beastcaller Savant
With considerable testing and tweaking, I jammed as many games as I could before Saturday. The deck had fun games, and it had games where it struggled,
with lots of games seeing my opponents dip to five or less life before stabilizing. Shaman of the Pack and Beastcaller Savant were all-stars, and the rest
of the elves played great support. Tajuru Warcaller was so much fun to cast, too. I felt the deck was well-positioned thanks to the loss of Bile
Blight, Drown in Sorrow, and Anger of the Gods, which some decks had taken to maindecking to deal with Atarka Red and its Goblin Rabblemaster tokens.
Despite its struggles, I figured I could make the necessary corrections in transit to Indianapolis, as I’d be riding with my friends Josh and Oliver to the
event. One hundred minutes of driving and three good deckbuilder’s heads coming together should be enough to refine this Elf deck for primetime.
As Josh’s Altima sped past the Seymour, Indiana exit, though, that was feeling a lot less likely.
Josh, Oliver and I had discussed the deck a bit, and they’d each shared their lists, too: Josh was playing a Naya Dragons list, and Oliver was on an Abzan
Aristocrats list he’d been working on. Here I was, sitting in the backseat with nothing but a Clif Bar in my stomach and a half-proxied Elf deck in my
hands. I did some goldfish hands and they all seemed awful. Four lands, two mana creatures, and an Abzan Ascendancy. Nope. Another one with two painlands,
a Prairie Stream, and two Tajuru Warcaller. Uh-uh. Maybe this wasn’t the right deck for today, or maybe ever. The explosive hands were unstoppable, but I
felt that the deck might become more frustrating and stressful for every round I played. I’d be just a mulligan or two away from losing a round and my
chance at day 2.
As we pulled into the parking garage near the convention center in downtown Indianapolis, I decided it was time to audible.
We made our way in, registered and, after a lengthy wait, I picked up my pre-orders and sat down. It was 9:42, and we’d be required to go to the player
meeting in eighteen minutes. I cracked open a new pack of sleeves my wife had given me for good luck, and I pulled lands and creatures straight from my
pre-order boxes, literally building the deck in my head as I went along. 9:48. The landbase from the Elves deck would likely translate well, so I decided
to simply add another creature land, Lumbering Falls. The creature base would just be big bruisers that matched well against the two decks I feared I’d
fight the most: Jeskai and Abzan. Skyrider Elf seemed pretty good and it matched well against either Mantis Rider or, if you were lucky with your mana,
Thunderbreak Regent. Siege Rhino was a big concern, so Woodland Wanderer could match it pound for pound in combat. Everything else filled a support role,
and by the time 10:00 rolled around, I was roughly halfway done with sleeving and I hadn’t even started on the decklist registration sheet. As they called
for our tables, a neighbor was kind enough to look up my table seating as I gathered my stuff and made my way to table 87.
I hobbled over to my assigned seat and slammed my stuff down clumsily, immediately starting in on the decklist. Yep, four of those. Three here. Wait, did I
actually slot that in? Yeah, looks like I did. I got to the sideboard of the portion of the decklist and realized that the sideboard I had for the Elf deck
would likely not work as is. Shoot! I tried to remember cards I had in the long cardboard box I brought in with me. Duress, maybe? I had a Crux of Fate.
Maybe Display of Dominance is still decent. With eleven cards in the sideboard, I grabbed the first critical card from my memory: Abzan Charm. Four of
those. Here you go, judge! Thanks for helping me even though I was super late and should have gotten a game loss.
- 3 Anafenza, the Foremost
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 3 Gilt-Leaf Winnower
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 1 Lantern Scout
- 1 Tajuru Warcaller
- 4 Skyrider Elf
- 4 Woodland Wanderer
- 4 Beastcaller Savant
There it is; I’d finished sleeving the maindeck, but I made my way to my first match with an unsleeved sideboard, still sitting scattered around in my
extra box. I sat down for game 1, frazzled, but strangely confident the deck could get there.
Round 1 – Jacob (G/W)
I shuffled as fast as possible, not wanting to cut into the round too much as Jacob and I prepared. Jacob mulliganed down to five or six, as I recall, and
never quite off the ground. I curved out into Rhino and big Skyrider Elves in both games as he struggled through land problems. Neither of us really played
Magic; I just played big dudes and got there.
In round 2, I was against Evan.
Round 2 – Evan (B/W)
Evan and I were both feeling good with a win under our belt. Mine happened so fast that I hardly felt responsible (I was not, in fact), but here we go.
In game 1, he assembled a team of Drana’s Emissary, Sorin, Solemn Visitor, and Drana, Liberator of Malakir. That was a lot of flyers, but I still felt like
the game was close. I swung him down to nine, my Wilt-Leaf Winnower being resolved as a threat with no target for its trigger. I realized that, at five and
following the Emissary trigger, I would dip to four, leaving myself open for a lethal swingback when he activated his Shambling Vent. With just a Valorous
Stance in my hand, I hoped he’d simply pump a creature to push it into range, but otherwise, he could just activate and attack. He decided to wait it out.
I untapped, attacked with a Woodland Wanderer, which he gang blocked, dying a turn or two later.
In game 2, he got out quickly while I kept a five-land, Siege Rhino, and Sorin hand. I drew one more spell that game and scooped a few turns later.
Game 3 was a grinder, and although I was able to eke out an advantage, the time was called. I smashed furiously to bring him down, but he stayed alive
through extra turns. After turn 5, I had two Woodland Wanderers smashing against an empty board. On turn 7, he would likely have been dead.
A draw at this point is basically a loss, so I wasn’t thrilled there.
Round 3 – Nick (Abzan)
Nick was a quiet player; I could barely hear his name when he introduced himself. Our games played out pretty well. In game 1, I clinched a close game, but
game 2, he got me back. We started playing game 3 when the player to my left made a comment to me.
“Hey, is that your Flooded Strand on the floor?”
It was, in my sleeve and everything. I picked it up, and Nick and I called a judge. As I had no idea when it had fallen off the top of my deck, the judge
had to assume I presented a 59-card deck, and thus, I was given a game loss.
Okay, this is worse.
Round 4 – Chris (Abzan)
Another Abzan list, Chris struggled with lands after a sharp mulligan in game 1 where I saw one spell on his side. In game 2, he did better, but despite a
mulligan to four, I managed to hang in there for a while. The game looked to be nearly mine until he cast and activated his Gideon, smashing for a bunch
and sticking a Wingmate Roc. Immediately the game turned around, and I scooped. In game 3, I missed my land drops, and he had removal for every creature.
1-1-2 – Drop
I wasn’t even mad. In fact, if I felt anything at all, I felt relief. This deck, which I’d scrambled together at the last moment, had literally no part of
my heart. I didn’t care whether it lived or died, was good or terrible, because I didn’t build it like I like to build decks. With some more time to tune
it and with a better spell suite (this one was terrible), it could have been something fun and exciting. As it was, though, it was basically a bunch of
efficient French Vanilla creatures and some random spells. It had no soul, no essence. I returned to the table with Josh and Oliver, who’d also dropped out
after some bad beats and immediately desleeved my deck.
Then, something weird happened. We all talked about new decks.
You ever have a tournament that you got crushed so bad that you just wanted to give up Magic completely? Maybe you make a quiet, internal decision that,
“yep, this is the last Open/FNM/Prerelease for me.” Maybe it’s not so quiet and you’ll rant and rave to anyone who has two ears (pro tip: no one wants to hear your bad beats story).
This was the opposite of that. Each of us had been dominated by our opponents. If you can believe it, my 1-1-2 record was the best amongst the three of us,
but we didn’t care. We’d already shelved the decks we brought and were moving onto something else. We packed up our stuff early and made the trip back to
Louisville and discussed the decks we had in mind. Josh wanted to move back to control and the counterspells that came with it. Oliver had a sweet
midrange/control deck idea that I’ll let be his little secret. When we got back to Louisville, we didn’t hang our heads low and do something else to get
our mind off the defeat. We went to our local shop and brewed all night. The deck I came up with I’ll cover next week, but so far, it’s real sick.
So what did I learn this weekend, both about the format and the game in general?
Takeaway #1 – Siege Rhino is still the best card in Standard, but it’s still boring as heck.
Drawing Siege Rhino felt so much better than casting Rhino. You could hear the sigh on the other side of the board, even when their deck contained
Rhinos, too. It’s not a very fun card to play or play against. It’s not terribly dynamic; it’s just an efficient, good creature that people will play until
the moment it rotates and hate every minute. I’m not a sarcastic “oh boy, another Siege Rhino deck” player; if it weren’t Siege Rhino, it’d be something
else. It’s just a card that every deck in Standard will have to be able to beat, play, or ignore over the next few months, and that’s okay. We need
These three cards seem to be at the core of the format; early on in BFZ Standard, we already know where our crosshairs are pointing. If your deck can beat
or ignore these cards, you’re doing it right.
Takeaway #3 – Play whatever you want.
Yeah, I’m repeating myself. The nice thing about this format is you really can play whatever you want. Six unique decks made it into the SCG
Indianapolis Top 8 on Sunday, and this is just week one. The players represented some of the best in the game and the most dedicated of grinders. Each of
those guys that made it to the top have been testing and tuning their decks tirelessly for weeks, while most Open participants tested their deck
for the first time the night before at FNM. There’ll be lots of room to wiggle over the coming months, so play what you care about. I didn’t care about my
list, and it showed. Even if it was worse, I should have played the Elf deck. Then at least it would have been my deck. You have to own
your deck; it doesn’t matter if you made it, but call it yours if you’re registering it. Then your deck will be a teammate, not a tool for you to use.
What do I mean by build whatever you want? Synergies abound, four colors are totally manageable again, and aggro, tempo, control, combo, and midrange are
all well-represented. The format’s power level seems balanced and safer; you don’t have to always play around the Bile Blight or the Lightning Strike
anymore. You can push hard onto the board and win in combat. It’s a drastic change that we’ve all been feeling since Return to Ravnica rotated,
and I can’t wait to see how the format unfolds. I highly doubt that Standard will ever be a format that we “solve” with archetypes like Mono-Black
Devotion, Faeries, Jund Cascade, or Caw-Blade ever again. Standard will look different, but it’s gonna be pretty.
How was your first FNM with Battle for Zendikar? What did you find out about the format, or maybe you also played at the Open on Saturday with
success or, shall we say, a plan to pivot?