Laying Down The Gauntlet: Aggro And Midrange

Although the complete Return to Ravnica spoiler isn’t out yet, Ari decided to go ahead and start building a Standard gauntlet with the decks that will change the least and test new decks the most: aggro and midrange.

Normally I would say that it’s a bad idea to build a gauntlet without a complete spoiler. Testing without the full set revealed leads to a lot of skewed notions on what actually is happening with the format.

The issue is that there are just so many decks to build and play with Return to Ravnica. Not only are all the cards great, but there are tons of color configurations. There is the choice of which you are playing, and then there is the choice of how they are balanced. For example, I have three completely different Jund color decks in this article and another one or more lined up for next week.

I decided to start building a gauntlet with the decks that will change the least and test new decks the most: aggro and midrange. Each section will be based on a single card I wanted to build around that resulted in the decks below it.

Geralf’s Messenger

Let’s start off with the obvious one that everyone knows about and should be focusing on.

This list was constructed with a complete focus on having functional mana. I don’t want any red spells as I can’t justify more than six M10/Innistrad Duals when there are eight Jackal Pups in my deck. While Flames of the Firebrand and Brimstone Volley are very powerful and give the deck the reach it wants, curving out is more important and you need the full twelve green sources for Lotleth Troll.

Rakdos Cackler is there to enable the triple one-drop draws that were near unbeatable pre-rotation. I’m not sure how many is the right number, but it could be anywhere from zero (if the card just doesn’t do enough) to four (if you want to push real hard or move to a red list with burn spells).

Three Falkenrath Aristocrat may be pushing the curve too high, but it felt odd to splash for two copies of a card. Disciple of Bolas is the other reasonable four-drop, but without burn to draw into it doesn’t do as much as I would like it to.

Rancor was a card I wasn’t hot on when I first saw it in other people’s lists, but the more I look at it the more it makes sense. Here is a list of important things it does in the format:

  1. Breaks through Lingering Souls.
  2. Lets our one drops trade attack into Loxodon Smiter and Restoration Angel.
  3. Lets us attack with Blood Artist.

I’m only on three copies of the card because I can’t imagine reliably casting multiple copies in the same turn. Flooding on noncreatures is also a legitimate concern.

There is reasoning behind the removal split as well. Murder would be my top choice as it kills all of the four- and five-drops I’m concerned about. Olivia Voldaren, Wolfir Silverheart, Huntmaster of the Fells, and Restoration Angel come to mind, and Ultimate Price and Victim of Night have issues with each of them. Unfortunately, we can’t just play all three-drop removal. Tragic Slip does a decent job of doing the same thing for less mana. Notably, Abrupt Decay kills none of these cards and costs off-color mana. I’m not even sure I want to be sideboarding that card.

Those Tormod’s Crypts in the board are for a good reason. Angel of Glory’s Rise reads “Exile all Zombies.” I do not want to get Plague Winded by Unburial Rites. Grafdigger’s Cage is not an option with Gravecrawler and Geralf’s Messenger.

Skirsdag High Priest probably deserves a board slot for creature matchups. It isn’t good against Garruk Relentless, but one activation puts you so far ahead.

Interestingly, another out to Olivia and Silverheart was found after building the deck. Splashing your own Olivia for this purpose might actually be perfectly reasonable and definitely should be considered out of the sideboard. Also, Restoration Angel plus Messenger is way too good to ignore.

Basic Mountain

I mentioned this last week, and this is what I came up with to follow through.

Rakdos Cackler is exactly what this deck needed. I originally had Reckless Waif, but that was really just a placeholder for an actual one-drop. Just give me a 2/2 for R with minimal drawback, that’s all I ask. Wait—actually, if I remember correctly, this card was referenced as being too good to print in a Wizards article when I started playing. In that case, carry on.

Stonewright seems awesome. It’s a “smart” red card, which means it lets you optimize mana usage and milk maximum damage out of your cards. The reason I like it so much is that you have eight haste two-drops to Fireball with it and four of those have first strike. Four may be excessive, but again I’m still waiting for my Jackal Pup.

Wild Guess and Hellion Crucible are the other ways that you try to balance out the flood-screw scale. Crucible should be obvious to everyone who has ever seen a Keldon Megaliths or Teetering Peaks in a list, but Wild Guess is a completely new ability added to the red deck arsenal.

Cards that are missing include Devil’s Play and Vexing Devil. Devil’s Play was awesome before you were binning extra lands to Wild Guess and Hellion Crucible. Not so much anymore. As for Vexing Devil, I’m just not sure it’s what this deck wants. You want your turn 1 play to stick and be worth more than four damage, and after that Devil starts looking like just another one-drop that fails to do anything past turn 1. I would rather have the reliable burn of Thunderbolt that also happens to shoot down a Restoration Angel or Pillar of Flame for their Geralf’s Messenger.

I am also not a huge fan of Nivmagus Elemental as it doesn’t seem like it gives you good card for card value, but it might work in a more all-in list as mentioned above.

All of the cards that let us smooth out the maindeck mana also let us play giant trumps in the sideboard. We have enough lands to get to them in a semi-reasonable time frame, and with Wild Guess to filter them away or find more lands it shouldn’t be an issue. We do have other dead cards to pitch, such as turn 5 Stromkirk Nobles.

Zealous Conscripts should be an obvious inclusion, and Pithing Needle helps against the same variety of planeswalker decks. Thundermaw Hellkite is to help with Lingering Souls and for when you just want a Rorix (i.e., red mirrors, big green decks).

Traitorous Blood is mostly for the random green monsters people will inevitably play, with the trample allowing you to break through a chump blocking mana dork where Mark of Mutiny wouldn’t help. Geistflame and Flames of the Firebrand also clear out the same early creatures.

Keep in mind that everyone will be choosing between starting at sixteen to eighteen life or down a turn for their mana, and red can take full advantage of this. There are actual reasons to play this deck; I’m not just trying to make fetch happen.

Champion of the Parish

I really wanted to stay mono-white splash red, but none of the lists worked out. You don’t have enough one-drops and your cards are all average White Weenie two-drops. They all have first strike or protection from Zombies or both, so it’s not like the deck isn’t good at fighting aggro mirrors, but it didn’t look like any of the lists could beat a Supreme Judgment. Expect more along these lines once Sacred Foundry makes the mana work out for a real Boros deck.

Adding green helps a bit, but I’m not quite sure things mesh the way they need to. You end up with a pretty decent all-in Rancor deck, but that’s not really my kind of thing. To be fair, you are also one of the decks that get to play Sigarda, which may or may not be amazing.

Precinct Captain plus Selesnya Charm and Rancor? Combo! Precinct Captain plus Silverblade Paladin? Combo! Precinct Captain plus Ajani, Caller of the Pride? Double combo!

Also, Intrepid Hero. Just a reminder that one exists. Same with Slayer of the Wicked.

It’s possible this deck could also splash for Zealous Conscripts, but I honestly have no desire to pursue it further. If this is your cup of tea, this style of deck is definitely reasonable enough that you can make it all work out.

Selesnya also feels one good card away from being amazing. It is also possible that Humans is the wrong direction and that Loxodon Smiter and Ajani, Caller of the Pride is the combo you are looking for.

Geist of Saint Traft


It is also very possible you want to go a bit bigger with no Delvers and use Cackling Counterpart along with more Augur of Bolas and Lyev Skyknight. The shift from Vapor Snag to Unsummon promotes this by making some of the juiciest targets your own Snapcaster Mages and Augur of Bolas. That list definitely wants a Rootborn Defenses, as well as another land. You also definitely want Slayer of the Wicked out of the board there to kill all of the Zombies.

Runechanter’s Pike is also perfectly playable. Same with Talrand (potentially).

The sideboard is just a pile of options. Sleep bricks the Green decks, Flames of the Firebrand kills Lingering Souls, Jace is just a better version of the “transform into a walker and kill them,” counterspells beat opposing spell decks, and the rest is random cool things. Clone might also belong if you want more ways to kill Geist of Saint Traft and Sigarda, and Slayer of the Wicked is also fine if you need more against Zombies and want a four-drop. I also like the looks of Izzet Staticaster. Cunning Sparkmage was a fine man, and this is even better against Lingering Souls.

Delver took a big hit with the rotation, but honestly all the cards it gains are so good it will still probably be the best deck. Have fun.

On a more uplifting note, what about this Legacy/Block classic for those of you who play for maximum tilt value?

Knight of Glory helps a ton against Zombies and has more synergy with the hexproof creatures than Strangleroot Geist could ever hope to have. Lyev Skyknight is just a three-mana Dungeon Geists. Rancor and Ajani pick up where Increasing Savagery might have been a bit clunky, and the Charms are just awesome.

There are a million other options here I’m likely neglecting. Do you even want to be green anymore? Strangleroot Geist is no longer the only real two-drop, the mana is good enough that Abundant Growth isn’t needed, and Silverheart might be too expensive. Why not just splash some Rancors and Charms? Feeling of Dread also seems sweet, and something like Rootborn Defenses might be nice against Supreme Verdict.

This deck will likely be very good immediately after rotation with everyone playing random midrange, will get worse as aggro focuses the format, and then will get much better as a trump to all the control decks that arise. Timing is everything here.

Lingering Souls

Just a reminder, these aren’t the only Lingering Souls decks by any means. There are probably a lot more that just play the card because it is so darn good. These are just the decks that started by me saying, “I want four Lingering Souls. Now what?”

Inspired by Mike Flores‘ two-for-one aggro deck from last week, only I’ve taken to the next level. The only guys that aren’t 100% value are Avacyn’s Pilgrim and Arbor Elf, which are necessary for the deck’s mana and curve. Also, this is the reason for only playing six of this effect. You aren’t Doran hell bent on hitting a three-drop on turn 2. You just need the jump on occasion.

Rancor here serves a similar purpose to a Sword last year—it breaks through random blockers and levels up random bodies. It may not actually be something you want, but bringing the card up in this context seems worth it.

I can easily see a Keyrune deserving space in this deck, but I’m not sure where it fits. I would lean towards the Golgari one just based on the power level of the body it creates, but depending on how you want your fixing to work out it could go the other way.

Back when Lingering Souls was around in Innistrad Block Constructed, something close to this was the best deck. My current build is a bit more aggressive than I liked then as you are no longer the biggest deck on the block, but the idea remains the same. Generate insurmountable board advantage while being resilient to sweepers. Your primary Anthems are Gavony Township and Intangible Virtue, and all of your other cards are token makers or a couple answers.

Increasing Devotion makes more guys than Geist-Honored Monk and the flashback is within reason with 26 lands. Cathars’ Crusade versus Collective Blessing is up in the air, but double green seems hard to swing. I’m not sold on Doomed Traveler and feel as if Selesnya Charm might be splashable, and the Angel of Jubilation / Cathars’ Crusade split could shift away from the three / three. Champion of the Parish was in the original list, but I wanted to have better mana take up my one-drop slot. The deck in its current form is also very resilient to spot removal, and I don’t want to change that for a card that doesn’t grind well or beat Zombies.

I’m torn between Rest in Peace and Tormod’s Crypt here. Rest in Peace hurts the decks it is good against a lot more, but at the same time it shuts off your Lingering Souls which is possibly relevant trying to fight the fair half of the Angel of Glory’s Rise decks.

I likely have too few Sundering Growth in the sideboard of both of these decks. Killing a mana artifact and populating is really good. Same with an Oblivion Ring and slightly less so a Curse of Death’s Hold (though the card does still die).

Bonfire of the Damned

I’m going to be 100% honest here: I have no idea how to build these decks. They are all G/R/x, but beyond that everything becomes very fuzzy. There are way too many options for the mid-curve slots, and which is correct is extremely metagame dependent. In Jund do you want Falkenrath Aristocrat, Olivia Voldaren, or Huntmaster of the Fells? What about Disciple of Bolas? Do you want Lingering Souls in your Jund deck, especially given that so many were splashing Restoration Angel in Innistrad Block Constructed? What about Thragtusk versus Wolfir Silverheart versus Thundermaw Hellkite versus Zealous Conscripts? How deep are we going with planeswalkers? Are we a Farseek deck (probably)?

As for Naya, is it even good? The big draw was Fiend Hunter being an actual answer in Block, which isn’t necessary with all the new removal. I’m just not even going to start here, as my last two attempts turned into the Lingering Souls and G/W Humans decks above.

Just for kicks, here are two Jund lists. One is closer to a Big Red deck, and the other is more of a Rock two-for-one style deck.

And the more value-based alternative (thanks Michael J!):

If you want the white version, look at the Junk Value list I posted and make Bonfires fit in there. Maybe some Huntmasters too while you are at it.

Also worth noting, these mana bases need a bunch more tuning from here. Jund will likely be a strong contender moving forward; it’s just a matter of finding the right configuration (or configurations).

Aggressive and Midrange Cards I Wish I Could Have in a Decklist

Hellrider: See the issues with Boros mana. The same applies to Gruul. This card will have a time to shine, but it is not now. On the subject of Godless Shrine and Sacred Foundry, see Rally the Peasants plus Lingering Souls.

Mizzium Mortars: I’m unsure if the G/R lists can support triple red, but if they can this may be a better Bonfire if you don’t have one-drop accelerants.

Korozda Guildmage and Nivix Guildmage: Sometimes, I just want value. The issue is that the black aggro deck wants Zombie two-drops and that Geist of Saint Traft is syphoning off the U/R tempo decks into white. Both of these are strong enough to build around.

Dryad Militant: I really want Savannah Lions to be good—I just don’t think it is with all the green bodies and Lingering Souls in the way. Admittedly, this card does do some work against Souls, but not quite enough.

Serra Avenger: Flying is less relevant with Lingering Souls everywhere, but it’s still a 3/3 for two. See the Loxodon Smiter / Ajani / Rancor deck.

Divine Deflection: This card was just generally awesome in Block. White wants a Fireball, especially while it still can’t access Devil’s Play easily.

Cloudshift: Working on it.

Fettergeist: I played against an awesome-looking counter-burn style deck at Pro Tour Avacyn Restored featuring this card and Dungeon Geists. Not true aggro, but close enough for me to mention. See also Void Stalker.

Disciple of Bolas: This card seems like it does a lot of good things with Strangleroot Geist and Geralf’s Messenger. I’m just not sure how the mana works out there.

Silklash Spider: A real man’s answer to Lingering Souls and Delver of Secrets.

NOT Wolfir Avenger: This guy is Trained Armodon. This guy is Gnarled Mass. Neither of these is exciting against Messenger and Lingering Souls.

Sigarda, Host of Herons: All my lists are short on this card, and I may just be undervaluing it. To be fair and foreshadow next week, let’s just say it isn’t as good as advertised against what control will be. It also isn’t amazing against Lingering Souls.

Coming next week: control and “combo.”

Ari Lax

@armlx on Twitter