“I have to admit seeing the Return to Ravnica spoiler has me itching to actually build Standard decks and play.” –Brian Kibler
I couldn’t agree more. Return to Ravnica finally hits this weekend, ending one chapter of Magic’s history and beginning another. Innistrad gave birth to one of Magic’s greatest Standard formats of all time in terms of diversity and a dynamic metagame evolving each week. Dark Ascension hit before players ever fully figured out the previous format. It had power in all the right places, pushing the format in new directions and keeping the format fresh and interesting.
Sadly, while Avacyn Restored and M13 have not been short on power, they have not exactly done great things to a format that has pretty clearly gone stale. Return to Ravnica is a gold set with shocklands and the word “Ravnica” in the title, so its success is already assured, not to mention it heralding the rotation of Scars block. Still, it appears that R&D was not content to rest on their laurels. Now that the entire card list is available, it is clear the set is not short on awesome cards that one can’t help but want to put in decks.
I wonder, sometimes, what it would be like if we lived in a world where cards were only Standard legal for eighteen months or so. Obviously, there are practical concerns, but I can’t help but notice how many first set formats are just the most awesome (fresh off a rotation) and how many final set formats are just kind of ‘meh.’
I wonder what it would be like if there were four major releases in a year, and when the third set becomes legal, the first two of the previous year rotate out. Then when the first set of the next year drops, the final two of the previous year rotate out. This would make Standard a 5-6 set format, rather than a 5-8 set one.
This would have a number of ramifications, not all of which are necessarily good, but it would likely lead to more interesting, dynamic formats. Maybe this is the wrong solution, maybe more care should be paid to developing the final set of a block, but I can’t help but think that someone somewhere is going to have a really good idea to make this area of the game better.
Scars Block rotating (along with M12) means no more Titans, Consecrated Sphinx, Wurmcoil Engine, Mana Leak, Ponder, Day of Judgment, Black Sun’s Zenith, Slagstorm, Whipflare, Phantasmal Image, Phyrexian Metamorph, Gut Shot, Dismember, Gitaxian Probe, Vapor Snag, Gideon Jura, Birds of Paradise, Llanowar Elves, Blade Splicer, Sword of War and Peace, Sword of Feast and Famine, Batterskull, Blue Sun’s Zenith, Sphere of the Suns, Rampant Growth, Galvanic Blast, Go for the Throat, Doom Blade, Fume Spitter, Green Sun’s Zenith, Birthing Pod, Elesh Norn, Scars lands, Hero of Bladehold, Inkmoth Nexus, Tempered Steel, and so many more.
Titans, Ponder, Mana Leak, Birthing Pod, and Birds of Paradise are the pretty important pillars of the format to leave, which will force us to reevaluate the format and our assumptions. For instance, what are the decks to beat?
I have to imagine that Jund is one of the most important bad guys on day one. It was the best deck in the previous block, which makes up roughly 60% of the card pool. It gained a ton of great new tools. It is exactly the kind of deck that people like to play and exactly the kind of deck R&D would like to see good. There are so many great new cards to try in Jund as well as directions you could take the archetype, so it is going to take time and testing to flesh them out. Still, this is where I’d start:
There are a number of possible cores for Jund decks in the new format:
There are merits to all four and plenty of overlapping and hybridizing possible. I am most interested in Old-School Jund, at least initially. There are just so many parallels to Jund circa 2009-2010 that it is unlikely to have been purely an accident.
Lotleth Troll and Rakdos’s Return are the cards that make me feel like there had to have been a meeting where some R&D members sat down and discussed what was it about Jund that made it tick. Obviously, the raw power from Bloodbraid Elf was a factor, but lots of people had access to that card. Besides, Huntmaster of the Fells doesn’t do the worst Bloodbraid impression.
Jund had Putrid Leech, which was definitely above the curve on power.
Lotleth Troll is really good. Like, we are talking real good. Have you ever played with Wild Mongrel? Wild Mongrel was an absolute monster in its era. Regeneration is worth way more than a second point of toughness. Trample on a threat like this makes up for the more restrictive cost. The thing is that Wild Mongrel’s pumps were only until end of turn. This guy gets big permanently.
Lotleth Troll is definitely better when you have cards you want to pitch, like Gravecrawler, but his raw power is so high that he doesn’t need to be fully broken in half to take advantage of him. On defense, he can single-handedly lock up the ground (eventually making your Mizzium Mortars better). On offense, he can punish people too reliant on cards like Pillar of Flame and Izzet Charm. One of the big concepts to understand in the new format is what removal spells actually match up well against the Troll. There aren’t going to be that many.
In a world without many great options for proactive two-drops, having access to such a powerful one is going to be very valuable for future Jund decks. Farseek is another fantastic two-drop, finding Blood Crypt or Overgrown Tomb. Removal can work as your second turn play, but having eight proactive two-drops that grant a major advantage is huge.
Rakdos’s Return is a surprisingly pushy Blightning redux. For just one more mana, you can “settle” for a Blightning (nearly). However, the real value comes from its two “kickers.” The first is the Mind Shatter mode. For the same cost as Mind Shatter, you can empty your opponent’s hand completely. It isn’t random, but if you take all their cards, it doesn’t matter. Plus, Rakdos’s Return hits them for a healthy chunk. The damage does add up, but it is particularly awesome to Mind Shatter someone that just tapped out for a planeswalker while killing the walker!
A Farseek or Rakdos Keyrune makes a full-on Mind Shatter often doable around turn 4 or 5. Even against Aggro, the combo of Return on five mana followed by Mizzium Mortars on six mana is incredible. Rakdos’s Return does have the alternate kicker, however. It is an X-spell, capable of blasting people right off the map. They certainly don’t need seven cards in their hand to eat a seven-point Rakdos’s Return off the top…
Rakdos’s Return benefits tremendously from the rotation of Mana Leak. Besides, with more players likely to play midrangey strategies, knocking all the cards out of their hand is looking real good. The card drops in value a ton if everyone plays Zombies and Mono Red, but anything even remotely not fast is going to get punished by the card. Since it doesn’t target, you can’t even Redirect it!
Mizzium Mortars is one of the most important cards to come out of the new set. What really separates it from Bonfire of the Damned is how good it is in your opening hand or in the early turns. A Bonfire for one or two is a reasonable card to be sure, but a Flameslash for two is generally more exciting.
The ability to overload it for six is where you really get paid, however. Most of the real cost of Flame Wave is it sitting in your hand rotting until you make it to the late game. If you can burn your Flame Wave as a good two-mana removal spell, you are talking about an extremely versatile and useful card.
Mizzium Mortars is going to be so good that we should give a real good, hard look to creatures with five toughness. It isn’t that creatures with four or less are unplayable; it is just that a fifth point of toughness is the new standard for a “durable” creature.
It obviously doesn’t matter for this Jund deck, but it is important to note that Snapcaster Mage flashing back Mizzium Mortars does not let you overload it (as it is an alternate cost like Force of Will, not Gitaxian Probe). Still, flashing back two-mana removal spells is a pretty reasonable thing to be doing.
Vraska is an interesting one to be sure. She may be the overpriced planeswalker of the set, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t fantastic. She is five mana, which makes the bar higher, not to mention being gold; however, her ability to 187 something and leave you with a planeswalker is already a big game and will give you a lot of outs to problems.
Then we have to factor in her ability to “protect” herself. This is particularly exciting with instant speed removal since your opponent might throw a couple creatures at her, hoping to trade them all for her. A timely Ultimate Price can let you save her and leave your opponent creature-less.
Why the split on Vraska and Garruk? I’m really not sure which is better and planeswalkers give diminishing returns. I’d much rather draw one of each of them than two of the same one. Neither is likely to be better than Thragtusk (which is almost surely one of the absolute best cards in the entire format), but with enough acceleration, we can probably swing a fair number of five-drops.
Speaking of acceleration, Rakdos Keyrune might surprise some readers. Obviously, a few months from now everyone is going to remember always liking the Keyrunes much the same way everyone retroactively always liked the manlands from Worldwake. An awful lot of people didn’t play four Raging Ravine when it first came out, let alone Lavaclaw Reaches.
Oh, that’s right. Jund always had awesome manlands to let it play tons of mana without getting just totally mana flooded.
The Keyrunes are not at the power level of the Worldwake manlands to be sure, but they are quite good. With no more Swords or Inkmoth Nexus in the format, there is much less reason to play artifact removal. We still have to be wary of cards that interact with them, but this just means we have to exercise a little moderation.
For instance, if we start to see too many Keyrunes, Ancient Grudge will make a big comeback. If we see too many Detention Spheres, we may want to cut the third Rakdos Keyrune for a Golgari one. I’d start with the Rakdos one, however, as the third point of power is a massive upgrade. Additionally, first strike will probably be a better ability for us than deathtouch (picture threatening to block with the Keyrune), and the ability to cast the Keyrune on turn 3 then tap it immediately to Pillar of Flame something is an incredible tempo play.
All these Rakdos Keyrunes make the five-drop Garruk more dubious, but he is still worth trying. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if Vraska wins in the end. After all, that meeting surely involved discussion about Maelstrom Pulse letting Jund destroy any permanent.
Jund looks absolutely incredible and is an early contender for deck to beat. We can theory craft all day, but what we really need to do is play some games and see what we learn from our results. What’s working? What isn’t?
In the meantime, here are a few other concepts taking advantage of some of the new tools available to us.
First, G/W Populate:
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 4 Thragtusk
- 1 Trostani, Selesnya's Voice
- 3 Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage
- 4 Armada Wurm
Populate is impressively well supported in Return to Ravnica, despite being a mechanic that on the surface looks like it might not get there. The key is that there are enough good ways to make big tokens that you can actually plan on getting reasonable value out of your populate cards.
I definitely do not think you need to be dedicated populate to take advantage of the mechanic, but I do wonder how far you can take the extreme. The above list features no shortage of powerhouse token makers (Armada Wurm, Grove of the Guardian, and plenty of ways to make 3/3s). How many times do you need to populate with big tokens to get really ahead on board?
Growing Ranks and more Trostani, maybe even Wayfaring Temple could easily be a better way to go, letting you populate every turn. I just wonder how often you actually need to when the tokens are that big.
Rootborn Defenses is particularly exciting, as it provides a crucial anti-sweeper element while still being useful proactively. Even when not sweeping the board, you can use it to counter a removal spell or just win combat. This card seems like it is likely to be one of the most important role-players in the deck and is most likely to be the populate card that crosses over to non-populate decks (with Trostani and Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage being the other primary candidates).
Druid’s Deliverance isn’t exactly what we are looking for, but its rate is pretty remarkable. Getting to populate for just two mana can be a pretty big effect when we are talking about big tokens, but the real beauty is that by the time you actually want to populate (maybe turn 5 or later), a Fog starts to sound pretty good for racing. We aren’t likely to want much removal in a dedicated populate deck, so having a way to interact (even if it is just racing) is pretty exciting. The real cost to Fog is usually the card that it costs you. Druid’s Deliverance replaces the card with a populate token (which is generally going to be worth at least a card).
Grove of the Guardian is a card that is likely to trick a lot of people over and over. To begin with, the card is quite powerful, letting you turn an extra land into what amounts to a six mana 8/8 vigilance creature as long as you have two creatures to tap to help cast it. That is a very aggressive cost considering the opportunity cost. It is also so powerful that we should really be taking a second look at Unsummon. Unsummon isn’t nearly as sexy as Vapor Snag, but now that the cat is out of the bag about how strong tempo plays are these days, I expect Unsummon’s popularity to climb.
Part of the trick of Grove of the Guardian is that it is a colorless land. Do we really have to cut Forests and Plains for it? What if we cut spells and just play lots of land? What if it is a six-drop that gives us a mana each turn before we cast it? I gotta tell you, I am really looking forward to what Zvi Mowshowitz does with Grove of the Guardian. He is the master of making his mana work the hardest.
Armada Wurm is a really exciting new card that has numbers in all the right places. First of all, 10/10 worth of tramplers for six with no drawback is already epic. Next, there is the fact that it is split across two perfect-sized bodies. After all, Mizzium Mortars not being able to hit Armada Wurm is a real selling point.
- If Broodmate Dragon was legal, it would not be as good as Armada Wurm because of Mizzium Mortars.
- Broodmate Dragon was one of the best creatures of its era, an era with a lot of really good creatures.
Armada Wurm’s casting cost is subtly more challenging than Broodmate Dragon’s, but he is going to be a powerful finisher in a variety of decks. It is particularly interesting to note that with no Titans, there is a lot less competition at the six-spot these days.
Call of the Conclave has garnered relatively little buzz despite being better than Watchwolf in some ways. The vast majority of the time you are just getting a Watchwolf exactly, unless people bounce him. However, he is a fine choice for populate, not to mention being a spell (which lets him trigger things like Guttersnipe).
Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage is certainly slow, but he is exactly the type of card that will surprise people with how good he is when he is good. The opportunity cost to using him is fairly low, and the upside can totally take over games against creature decks.
Does G/W Populate have a place in the metagame? I am really not sure. After all, it is hard to know if one can even get away with no removal. It does do enough powerful things that it is worth trying. Even if one has to tone down the populate theme, its core game plan is inherently powerful.
A card that does seem to have people talking is Ash Zealot, aka the red deck’s savior:
Now, I am no Rainmaker, but I gotta imagine that Ash Zealot will help rekindle interest in the Mono Red archetype. It has a good rate, to be sure, and its ability is going to be helpful against Snapcaster Mage. However, what really makes Ash Zealot a possibility is that it is actually getting some help.
Rakdos Cackler is a fantastic one-drop (and will be fantastic in Zombies, where it will serve as their much-needed third one-drop). Hitting for two is so good that it is worth considering Guttersnipe if you can actually play enough sorceries and instants. I lean against it initially since there are so many more good creatures than spells that I am not confident in being able to trigger him often. That said, he will find some homes, particularly in some aggressive Delver decks.
Rakdos Shred-Freak is certainly not the only option for new two-drops to complement Ash Zealot. I am always a sucker for haste, but Gore-House Chainwalker, Mogg Flunkies, and Lightning Mauler all deserve an audition.
Hellion Crucible is likely to be an important element of new Mono Red decks, giving them much needed staying power going long. It would be nice if we had a better selection of burn, but really I just want another Shock. All these new tools do not ensure that red will dominate, but it is coming back and this time without Timely Reinforcements…
Ok, one last brew for the day…
Jace and Tamiyo form a dynamic duo that is at the heart of all the new control decks I want to build. Niv-Mizzet is a great new finisher that can totally take over a game if you untap with him, but he can also give you immediate card advantage if you wait and just cast him as an eight- or ten-drop when the game goes long.
It might just be that Snapcaster Mage is too good not to force into here, but I really like Augur of Bolas in decks with sweepers plus he combos well with Jace’s +1 ability, letting you hold off larger creatures than you normally would be able to.
Sphinx’s Revelation is obviously fairly slow and can’t be used as a kill card the same way Blue Sun’s Zenith could, but it is still very effective at taking over games, serving as our poor man’s Cruel Ultimatum. It isn’t clear that we don’t want more, but with Jace, Ravings, Augur, and Tamiyolo, we are not exactly short on card draw.
Izzet Keyrune is a not the best body we could ask for on our man-stone, but it does produce red mana with haste, which is super valuable with Pillar of Flame. When I make Grixis decks, I imagine I am starting with the Rakdos Keyrune.
What are going to be the defining decks of the new format besides Jund?
Next stop: Denver Prerelease. See you next week!
The first rule of Dimir Guild is you do not talk about Dimir Guild.
The second rule of Dimir Guild is you do NOT talk about Dimir Guild.
My official response? Izzet and proud…