Last week, I described Nahiri, Heir of the Ancients as a role-player.
Nissa of Shadowed Boughs isn’t a role-player. It’s just a good card, and one that I expect to show up across Golgari decks for the next two years of Standard.
What Does Nissa Do?
Nissa’s +1 ability, unlike that of Nissa, Who Shakes the World, is not the reason to play the card. This is not an additive body generating ability. You only ever have one land battling a turn from Nissa, so that mode is the same as casting a four-mana, three-power, evasive creature that can’t block. As you can see from the pictured Akoum Firebird that basically no one remembers, this is not quite Constructed-level.
I’ve seen comments to the effect of “oh, Nissa pressures other planeswalkers well,” but that’s operating off an old paradigm of War of the Spark. Nissa would be great at battling down Teferi, Time Raveler or Narset, Parter of Veils, but that’s not what planeswalkers look like in Zendikar Rising Standard.
There are a lot more planeswalkers like Ashiok, Nightmare Muse or Vivien, Monsters’ Advocate that plus for bodies large enough to double block a 3/3 until Nissa runs out of lands; aggressive planeswalkers like Basri Ket; Garruk, Unleashed; or The Royal Scions where you need to beat them first by handling their creatures; or even Chandra, Heart of Fire or Teferi, Master of Time, where even if they don’t defend themselves they are fine damage-sponging and flipping through cards. A Nissa land is good to mop up Jace, Mirror Mage, but you need to rethink handling planeswalkers this year.
Just because the attacking part of Nissa isn’t good enough by itself to make her playable doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. You want your Nissa deck to be able to utilize the bonus damage to close games. The card does tell you to play creatures, so this isn’t the biggest ask, but ideally your Nissa deck wishes it could play Putrid Leech or Tarmogoyf.
Nissa’s +1 ability does untap a land, and honestly that might be better than attacking with it. Lava Spike. Lotus Petal. One of these is a bit better than the other. Keep an eye out for the natural curve of Nissa into a good six-drop, like one of the planeswalkers I didn’t mention: Garruk, Cursed Huntsman. That card is extremely powerful and no longer facing down Hydroid Krasis and Aether Gust.
Nissa’s big role to play will be the “ultimate.” Nissa is a high-equity reanimation spell, or whatever the “from hand” equivalent is. Since the creature returns with two +1/+1 counters on it, you mostly don’t care what you’re getting back. Basically any Constructed-level creature that costs more than one is going to be solid value and anything above the bare minimum is going to be great.
Even ignoring the land cap on reanimation, the high-cost targets in Standard aren’t great. They put Transmogrify and Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast in the format, so the high-end stuff basically has to be weaker than expected. Just reanimate your average creatures you wanted to cast anyway since you usually won’t be activating that ability before you hit five lands. At most I would consider Waker of Waves, and I think the Elspeth Conquers Death interaction there is way more exciting.
The added value on a reanimation is almost entirely due to the landfall ability. There’s the natural Turn 5 play of Nissa, Fabled Passage, fetch, reanimate and keep Nissa, and from there Nissa trends towards gaining two or more loyalty a turn. Think of how crushing it is when the typical “five loyalty, +1 draw a card, -3 kill a thing” planeswalker uses the minus ability twice, and then realize Nissa’s minus is more impactful and she is capable of rushing to a second minus faster under ideal scenarios.
Since we are talking lands, Golgari doesn’t have untapped ones. You have the Triomes, a Temple, Fabled Passage, and no Pathway. That points to not playing many one-drops, and a land overload to support Nissa’s landfall so you have untapped lands for your curve.
Of the color trios that can support Nissa, Abzan is the most supported with Branchloft Pathway and Brightclimb Pathway. Jund and Sultai each get a single Pathway, but Jund’s lack of a Triome is a big hit. I don’t think Jund is unplayable as a result, but it’s certainly going to be trickier to get off the ground.
The things we absolutely need with Nissa are creatures and a solid amount of lands. What about ways to get things in the graveyard? Do we need mill or discard effects?
Imagine the two scenarios that occur after you cast creatures that attack. Either they kill your creatures and you reanimate them, or they don’t kill your creatures and Nissa as that three-power evasive haste threat is a solid addition. I’m not opposed to playing stuff that puts cards into my graveyard if they are good things I would play anyway, but I wouldn’t go down the Stitcher’s Supplier road.
Finding the Good Shells
Half the puzzle with Nissa is identifying the good Golgari or Golgari-adjacent creature packages in Zendikar Rising. After a peek at every creature in the format, here are a few of the shells that caught my eye.
It would be malpractice to not build the Sultai “good cards” deck with Nissa. She might only have half-synergy with Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, but who cares?
- 1 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Rankle, Master of Pranks
- 1 Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths
- 1 Polukranos, Unchained
- 4 Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath
- 1 Acolyte of Affliction
- 3 Llanowar Visionary
- 3 Jolrael, Mwonvuli Recluse
- 2 Tangled Florahedron
The “off-color” Triomes are clearly better than Temple of Malady with Jolrael in your deck, but that also ticks up your Swamp count to support Castle Locthwain. Keep an eye out for a black or green member of the Emeria’s Call cycle that could change this.
Lifelink and flying make a ton of sense with Nissa, as does a creature that trades off well, but Nighthawk Scavenger is just a rate in your deck of all value creatures. If it turns out to be a phenomenal size for the format it can definitely move up to the maindeck, but for now I assume you want it against aggro as a cheaper version of what Elder Gargaroth is trying to accomplish.
There are plenty of reasonable four-drops to include, so I just started with one of each. I’m most excited for Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths and Rankle, Master of Pranks. Both incidentally bin things to recur with Nissa and are phenomenal to recur with the extra counters. Haste and evasion are probably the best things to add extra power to. Rankle is also adorable with Jolrael as a draw outlet, since the extra Cats are perfect throwaway bodies.
I don’t think Acolyte of Affliction is a great card, but it does create a late-game loop with Nissa. Cast Nissa, landfall it, return Acolyte of Affliction and Nissa dies, Acolyte recurs Nissa, and you keep going. It’s not quite Uro, but what if we aren’t allowed to put Uro in our deck for some unknown reason?
Like a companion restriction. That’s a good reason to not play Uro, right?
All of the copy effects like Spark Double that lined up with Gyruda previously are rotating, but Nissa is an even-costed ramp spell that does good work with Gyruda’s mill. This is probably also the best deck I can imagine for Tangled Florahedron.
- 3 Solemn Simulacrum
- 4 Lotus Cobra
- 4 Charming Prince
- 2 Luminous Broodmoth
- 3 Gyruda, Doom of Depths
- 3 Skull Prophet
- 4 Tangled Florahedron
- 3 Yasharn, Implacable Earth
Yorion, Sky Nomad also plays great with Nissa by letting you reset a lingering one-loyalty Nissa, or even better reanimating a Yorion to start that chain. I would start that deck off in the same Abzan shell.
- 3 Solemn Simulacrum
- 4 Charming Prince
- 3 Yorion, Sky Nomad
- 4 Llanowar Visionary
- 4 Acquisitions Expert
- 3 Skyclave Apparition
- 3 Yasharn, Implacable Earth
Somehow neither deck plays Fiend Artisan. That could be wrong, but if you make that adjustment, just remember the prime rule of Fiend Artisan: the best thing to find with Fiend Artisan is often Fiend Artisan, and the majority of your dreamed-up tutor targets are going to be useless.
Nissa also makes a ton of sense in an Abzan Aggro deck, which is really well supported by the double Pathway manabase. Nissa as a threat that completely ignores Extinction Event has to be worth a ton given what we have seen of aggro trying to beat that card in current Standard, and you can just ignore Nissa not directly protecting itself if you’re good at killing them with the menace land.
My only issue has been figuring out whether you want to lean into the party mechanic or not, but it seems like a fine place to start brewing. Like I said in Fact or Fiction last week, I’m skeptical of the party mechanic at large, but Archpriest of Iona and Tajuru Paragon are good cards.
- 2 Scavenging Ooze
- 2 Rankle, Master of Pranks
- 1 Lurrus of the Dream-Den
- 4 Lavabrink Venturer
- 4 Seasoned Hallowblade
- 4 Acquisitions Expert
- 4 Tajuru Paragon
- 3 Skyclave Apparition
- 4 Archpriest of Iona
Yet again Nighthawk Scavenger somehow doesn’t make the cut, this time because I don’t like how it lines up with your early Pathway choices to produce double black on Turn 3. It is a Rogue and you could use more of those, but I think it’s a big stretch to add this one.
Lavabrink Venturer has been secretly great in Standard for a while, and it seems absurd with Nissa. It’s comically hard to kill the first time; what makes you think it is beatable the second time around as a 5/5?
If you choose not to join the party, I think the most exciting option is moving towards the green threats that are left in the wash of Mono-Green Aggro losing Pelt Collector and Barkhide Troll. The manabase probably adds a couple of copies of Temple of Malady, and all these lists are waiting on the potential Golgari mythic untapped spell-lands, but this brings the deck really closely in line with the original Khans of Tarkir-era Abzan Aggro on per card quality. You might even stumble into playing Garruk, Cursed Huntsman the way that deck played Elspeth, Sun’s Champion.
This deck could also be just Golgari, but the white mana is so free off Pathways and the mono-green two-drops are so sketchy that I don’t see it.
Nissa Outside of Standard
After exploring most of the Nissa shells in Zendikar Rising Standard, the question immediately becomes, is it good enough for formats outside of it?
I would expect Modern Jund decks to at least try Nissa as a sideboard card. It’s a mana cheaper than the typical mirror-breaker planeswalkers and pairs well with current Jund staples Wrenn and Six and Seasoned Pyromancer. I wouldn’t expect this slot to stick as long as Uro remains the dominant midrange strategy as opposed to Overgrown Tomb mirrors, but if that changes Nissa might see fringe play.
Nissa seems perfect for Five Color Niv-Mizzet, especially since Niv-Mizzet Reborn triggers on a reanimation. The biggest issue for Nissa might be that the other Golgari cards are so good and it might be competing for real space despite the often-singleton nature of Niv-Mizzet Reborn decks.
Nissa is an arbitrarily fine card in the Pioneer Sultai Midrange decks, but it doesn’t solve the core issue those decks have. They are just outsized by every other midrange deck: Jeskai Lukka, Mono-Green Devotion, Temur Reclamation, and Five-Color Niv-Mizzet. If you start turning your deck aggressive to go under those decks, why are you playing Nissa and not Mono-Black Aggro?
Nissa seems perfect for Historic Sacrifice strategies. The math is the same as Solemn Simulacrum or Llanowar Visionary in the Standard deck: a ramp spell that pushes towards Bolas’s Citadel and provides good value sacrifice fodder. In this case you get to turn lands into Priest of Forgotten Gods fuel, which seems like a good use of resources.
Nissa of Shadowed Boughs isn’t a format-warping 2019 planeswalker, but it will see widespread play. It hits right in the middle of good rate, good immediate options, and rapidly threatening game-ending value going longer. What more can you ask for?