Forced Optimism

In this week’s article, Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Brian Kibler writes about a couple new Born of the Gods cards he thinks might have what it takes to break into Standard.

By now I’ve been back on dry land long enough to read the Born of the Gods spoiler. I’ve even had a chance to peruse the various other articles posted on this site and elsewhere about the new set. Normally around this time of year, I’m feverishly brewing up new decks that I can’t wait to try out and working to figure out just what the big new cards are going to be. This time, though, I’m not doing that. Frankly, I’m not that excited for Born of the Gods at all.

I think part of it is that the next Pro Tour is Modern. It takes a lot for a card to break into more powerful formats like Modern, and it doesn’t seem like Born of the Gods has much that’s cut out for the task. I’ve been far more excited for the banned list announcement coming on Monday than for any of the spoilers even before the entire set was revealed, as I discussed over on my blog earlier this week.

Perhaps a more significant reason that I don’t feel inspired by many of the new cards coming our way is that it feels like most of them don’t matter very much. The major players in Standard right now are pretty hostile to trying to do anything fancy. The current Standard environment is a far cry from the constantly shifting metagame we saw throughout Ravnica’s reign in Standard, where regularly there were new decks and new twists on old decks doing well every week. While the occasional fringe players have popped up here and there, Standard has been largely defined by less than a handful of decks for months.

As Patrick Sullivan’s excellent article from earlier this week discussed, Standard right now suffers from universal reactive cards being too prevalent and too powerful. The duo of Thoughtseize and Hero’s Downfall in Mono-Black Devotion, not to mention Detention Sphere in U/W Control, makes it very hard for me to get excited about any of the cool new cards in Born of the Gods.

Sure, Xenagos, God of Revels looks awesome, but he costs five mana to play and requires you to have a presence on the board already to have an impact the turn he hits the battlefield. Oh, and because he’s a creature while he’s in your hand, he’s vulnerable to both Thoughtseize and Lifebane Zombie before you can even play him. So are the other green and white Gods in the set that you might be looking forward to actually getting to do anything cool with. Hooray!

Also contributing to the stagnation of the format is the nature of devotion and the quality of mana fixing available, not to mention Mutavault. Both the devotion mechanic and Mutavault offer huge rewards for playing a monocolored deck on top of the already enormous benefits that come from not having to worry about colored mana requirements. Monocolored decks are naturally going to have less potential for variation simply because they have fewer options available, so you’re going to keep seeing the same decklists over and over.

The best way to combat Thoughtseize and universal but costly removal is mana efficiency, but that’s not really an option for anything but monocolored decks right now. The multicolored cards from Ravnica block are powerful, but we don’t actually have the tools to use them, at least not the aggressive ones.

Voice of Resurgence might be able to compete with the removal-happy Mono-Black and U/W decks, but with only one set of shock lands alongside Temples or Guildgates that enter the battlefield tapped, it’s hard to effectively play any kind of aggressive deck that wants to cast multicolored spells in the early turns of the game. I should know—I tried to play Lotleth Troll for weeks before giving up. My mana was too bad to play my spells, and my spells were too bad to justify not having access to Mutavault.

The Top 8 decks at Grand Prix Vancouver were three each of U/W Control and Mono-Blue Devotion and a pair of Mono-Black Devotion decks. The SCG Standard Open in Baltimore had a Mono-Black Devotion mirror in the finals. And yet the best cards in Born of the Gods look to be even more removal for Mono-Black in Bile Blight (which provides a reasonable answer to Pack Rat to the deck that plays it amusingly enough) and Drown in Sorrow. What are we really hoping is going to change?

Okay, enough of that for the time being. I’m going to put on my optimist hat and try to look at cards and decks that might actually be able to compete in the new format. I’m not very hopeful, but I’m at least going to pretend that I am for now. New cards! Woo hoo!

One thing that is worth noting is that the existence of Bile Blight is likely to have a significant impact on the removal package used by Mono-Black Devotion decks. Previously, we saw a mix of Pharika’s Cure, Devour Flesh, and Hero’s Downfall in the ten or so slots those decks devote to killing creatures. My guess is that Bile Blight is going to become the go-to two-cost removal spell in order to combat opposing Pack Rats, which means that Pharika’s Cure and Devour Flesh are likely to get shaved in number a bit.

This makes four toughness something of a magic number. There are a few new creatures that conveniently happen to pass that particular threshold, most notably Mr. Cat King himself, Brimaz, King of Oreskos, and Courser of Kruphix.

Let’s start with the Courser since, well, it’s a green creature, which is right in my wheelhouse. Courser is hardly much of a beatdown artist, only providing two power for three mana, but what it lacks in aggressive oomph it makes up for with sturdiness and long-game value potential. One of the biggest issues that decks using mana creatures to ramp into larger threats face is the danger of flooding out. You can only shave so many actual lands for mana creatures, so your deck just has a higher density of mana sources than your opponents’. You can end up losing games when your opponent is able to deal with the threats you accelerate into simply because you draw too many low-impact cards.

This makes things like scry lands particularly valuable for decks with mana creatures since the ability to bypass a largely useless land helps significantly improve the quality of your draws over time. Courser of Kruphix provides this effect every single turn, which can make a big difference even if it doesn’t stick around all that long. Digging past just a couple of lands into action spells is the equivalent of drawing multiple extra cards at no mana cost past your initial investment into the creature. That’s a huge effect!

On top of that, Courser has excellent synergy with one of my favorite cards of all time: Domri Rade. With Courser in play, you have knowledge of the top card of your deck at all times, which means you can make your Domri activation decisions with perfect information. Playing G/R in the current format, you frequently end up in situations in which you have a scry land in your hand and a Domri in play and you pretty much have to guess what order in which to use them to maximize effectiveness.

With Courser, you can automatically bypass the need to scry away a land on top because you can simply play it from your deck and you’ll know whether you have a spell you want to put on the bottom before you have to decide whether to scry or +1 Domri first. Win-win situation! Courser also works very well with Chandra, who I’m generally much less hot on than Domri but which might gain a reasonable amount of value alongside our new 2/4 friend.

Here’s a potential list:

This is basically the G/R Monsters deck I recommended a ways back with Courser instead of Boon Satyr and Xenagos making an appearance to give the deck a little more late-game oomph. Courser’s ability means that you can afford a little more high end since you’ll be getting free lands here and there. It also makes your creatures with monstrosity a bit more powerful, which is worth keeping in mind when building decks.

You could also try a more devotion-centered Courser/Xenagos deck. The double green in Courser’s mana cost connected to a sturdy body helps power Nykthos and the like pretty well:

This deck is clearly capable of some pretty explosive draws thanks to Nykthos. Courser helps not only to fuel Nykthos when it’s in play but can also help you dig to a copy of the powerful legendary land one turn faster. The mana creatures and Burning-Tree Emissarys in this deck can turn on Xenagos extremely quickly—you can play and attack with him (thanks to his ability to give himself haste) as early as the third turn. Unfortunately, Bile Blight can be quite crippling to this deck’s best draws since it can wipe out an entire army of Burning-Tree Emissarys, but hey, we’re being optimistic here, remember?

Speaking of optimism, people seem really sure that Brimaz is something special. While I can certainly respect his numbers—a 3/4 vigilance creature for three mana that generates value and protects himself from edict effects if he gets to attack is a great deal—I’m much less convinced he’s a real game-changing creature, and he’s certainly not one that I want to spend $30 to pick up while he’s so overhyped. That said, his four toughness is certainly attractive, as is his ability to generate meaningful board presence from a single card.

I haven’t really been a fan of most of the white aggro decks I’ve seen people playing in the course of this Standard format, mostly because I think they play far too many copies of Brave the Elements. Brave is certainly a powerful card in a lot of situations, but it’s also a card that can very easily rot in your hand while you lack creatures to effectively use it with. It’s certainly important to break past things like Master of Waves and Blood Baron of Vizkopa, however, so you certainly can’t cut it entirely.

This is where I’d start with a Brimaz deck:

This is pretty bare bones, but I think it’s a reasonable place to start. While many aggressive white decks recently have maxed out on Ajani over Spear of Heliod in the style of Ben Lundquist, Brimaz makes Spear much more attractive by offering an additional source of token creation. The split between Spear and Ajani—along with the WW cost of Brimaz—makes Heliod a more reasonable inclusion, giving the deck a significant number of threats that can stick around post Supreme Verdict.

The four copies of Eidolon of Countless Battles in the sideboard may seem strange, but they’re for exactly the same reason—they offer the ability to continue to develop your board presence against control decks without opening yourself up to a sweeper effect. The combination of Eidolon and Mutavault along with Ajani and Spear means that you can almost laugh off Supreme Verdict and just keep attacking for significant amounts of damage the turn after your opponent sweeps your board. Combine that with Spirit of the Labyrinth shutting down Divination and Sphinx’s Revelation and this is a deck that can put a serious hurting on control. I’m not sure I can say the same for Mono-Black Devotion since you have no real way to combat Pack Rat, but hey, remember we’re being optimistic here!

What do you think? What cards in Born of the Gods stand out to you? Do you think anything new will have what it takes to break the stranglehold devotion and control decks have on Standard?