Battle for Zendikar
made its Standard debut at #SCGINDY this weekend. The first week of a post-rotation format is always exciting, and this one did not disappoint.
With Lightning Strike, Searing Blood, and Stoke the Flames all having rotated out, DeMars and company went all-in on Blood Lust + Berserk, so to speak.
Targeting a Monastery Swiftspear with Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage is already eighteen points of trample!
Become Immense is much stronger than it used to be for a couple big reasons. First, the format has shifted away from instant speed removal. Bile Blight and
Hero’s Downfall have been replaced by Reave Soul and Ruinous Path. Lightning Strike and Stoke the Flames have been replaced by everything from Roast to
Dragon Fodder, but basically no instant speed removal.
Additionally, the printing of Battle lands makes it reasonable to play more fetchlands than we used to be able to (reducing the cost because of delve),
while also making it trivially easy to produce enough green mana to support the splash.
DeMars was going to play some many-color control deck until just before the tournament when one of his teammates, Devon Paynter, crushed him with a version
of Atarka Red so soundly, it convinced DeMars to audible. DeMars found the deck so impressive, he actually added two land to just try to increase
consistency (even if it cost a little power). Here’s the list Brian used to take down the first major Battle for Zendikar event:
- 4 Monastery Swiftspear
- 2 Lightning Berserker
- 4 Zurgo Bellstriker
- 2 Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh
- 4 Abbot of Keral Keep
- 1 Makindi Sliderunner
Titan’s Strength, Atarka’s Command, and Become Immense all do “double damage” with Temur Battle Rage, but all the prowess triggers really add up. In
theory, Lightning Berserker could get “double” out of its pumps; however, DeMars said Lightning Berserker wasn’t great for him, and he wants to cut them.
You just don’t have enough mana to activate it as much as you would in some other red decks. Likewise, Makindi Sliderunner was only okay since this build
plays just 21 land, rather than the 24-26 that dedicated landfall decks usually play.
DeMars noted that cutting these could free up sideboard space by letting you move at least a couple Hangarback Walkers to the maindeck. Hangarback Walker
may look strange in a red aggro deck, but you’ve got to remember, this is more of a combo deck. It’s like Affinity playing Ornithopter in an “aggro” deck.
Hangarback Walker is a reliable way to ensure you’ve got something to target with your pump spells. Getting a flier is also nice with Become Immense.
You could just move three Hangarbacks to the maindeck, but DeMars also noted that he’d consider making one of them a Thunderbreak Regent. Flying was great
all day, and the Regent gives a little more Radiant Flame insurance. Personally, I’d want to find room for all four Hangarbacks first. Besides, I think
there might be too many Crackling Dooms next week to want to maindeck the Regent.
While DeMars was the only Red Aggro deck in the top 8, the strategy was actually the second most popular on day 2 (once you merge Mono-Red Aggro, R/B
Aggro, Grixis Aggro, and R/G Aggro, as you should). The most popular strategy was actually Abzan Aggro. However, despite making up a full 25% of day 2, the
archetype failed to put even a single player in the top 8. By the end of the 15 round event, the top tables were basically all bad matchups for Abzan Aggro
since most of the other decks folded to Abzan Aggro somewhere along the line.
Here’s a breakdown of the top 64 metagame at#SCGINDY, weighted by finish:
Despite missing the top 8, Abzan Aggro was still one of the most successful decks, including 9th, 12th, and 13th. However, going from 25% of the day 2
metagame to just 15.9% of the winner’s circle metagame shows how dramatically Abzan Aggro underperformed on day 2 (including a below 50% win percentage as
a whole in day 2 matches).
The third most played archetype on day 2 was Jeskai Black, which mostly resembles traditional Jeskai Aggro decks; however, the printing of Battle lands
means that Khan faction colors can add a fourth color on the cheap.
The creature-lands are really, really strong. It can be easy to underestimate just how absurd they are, since nearly everyone misunderstands opportunity
cost. People grossly underestimated the Temples when they were first printed, and the creature-lands are even stronger. People are anchored in the Worldwake creature-lands (which were also overpowered); but they were all tournament dominating powerhouses.
Yes, including Lavaclaw Reaches. Simon Gortzen won the first Pro Tour Lavaclaw Reaches was legal in with it. Yes, Raging Ravine was better in his deck, and
yes, Lavaclaw Reaches was the weakest of the five. Despite this, it was still a very successful tournament card, and it would have been even bigger if it
wasn’t outclassed by the four even more overpowered cards in that cycle.
There is a funny asymmetry caused by there being just two creature-lands in Battle for Zendikar. Lumbering Falls gave Temur and Sultai a
creature-land. Abzan and Mardu gained Shambling Vent. Jeskai, however, is the one faction to be left out. It’s not that you need to splash to gain a
creature-land. The creature-land making only two-colors actually puts pressure on the fourth color because those could be tri-lands or fetchlands.
In fact, that’s actually sort of the point. If Abzan plays a fourth color, it taxes your use of special lands like Shambling Vent, Mortuary Mire, and
Blighted Fen. Jeskai, on the other hand, didn’t have anything in that area anyway, so you might as well as the fourth color.
Four copies of Jace?
Look, this is going to make some people angry, but just to keep it real with you, you should probably get used to it. It’s super annoying to have an $80
card be an auto-four-of in all decks of a color, but I’m just calling ’em like I see ’em. Jace was really strong before, but the rotation of Thoughtseize,
Bile Blight, Lightning Strike, Searing Blood, Last Breath, and the nerfing of Ultimate Price have made Jace an absolutely devastating two-drop with very
few good answers in the format that cost two or less.
In many ways, it’s like when Jace, the Mind Sculptor was first printed, Bloodbraid Elf helped balance things (though Jace was still the best). However,
once Bloodbraid rotated out, it wasn’t long before the format became a total joke (leading to Jace being one half of the only Standard banning of the past
Now, I am fairly sure this Jace isn’t getting banned, but it is going to warp the format (and already has). While I would play four Jaces in most blue
decks, at the moment, I do think Jace is going to dip in price again. Magic Origins is still in print.
There are just too many high demand powerhouses in Magic Origins. People are going to just keep opening boxes of Magic Origins until the
demand is satisfied. Right now, if you just bust boxes of Magic Origins looking for cards like these, you’re expected to get almost $60 worth of
them per box (ie, about 3-4 of them). Once you add in the other 32 or so rares and mythics in the box, not to mention foils, it’s not hard to see why
people are busting packs of Magic Origins like crazy at the moment.
Ojutai’s Command is already extremely powerful with Jace, but most of the time, it’s nice to have at least six possible targets. Soulfire Grand Master has
been a popular choice, but Adam uses Dragonmaster Outcast, since an end step Ojutai’s Command when you have six or more lands usually means you’re getting
at least one Dragon. It’s also nice that you loot Dragonmaster away with Jace if you draw one early.
Hangarback Walker and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar are both really powerful cards in their own right, but together, are a mondo-combo. Gideon’s +1/+1 emblem
works great with an army of Thopters of course, but amusingly, it also makes Hangarback Walker a reasonable Ojutai’s Command target. Ojutai’s Command
brings the Walker back as a 0/0 (since X will be zero), but Gideon’s emblem means it lives as a 1/1. Untap and start adding counters!
A fun card to use alongside Hangarback Walker, to be sure, but Gideon is also a reliable source of food. It’s also nice that Butcher hits so hard, you can
usually drop it and kill your opponent’s Gideon that turn.
Dispel is great against basically everyone right now, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see even more in the future.
VS Red Aggro:
VS Abzan Aggro:
VS Esper Dragons:
Touch of the Void is an underrated option that gains value from how few three damage options people play at the moment. It’s particularly nice against
Hangarback Walker and Deathmist Raptor, since it exiles, but sometimes you just want more answers to Drana or Mantis Rider. It’s even a sorcery, so it
Here’s another take on Jeskai Black, also finishing top 8:
- 4 Mantis Rider
- 3 Soulfire Grand Master
- 1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
- 2 Dragonlord Ojutai
- 4 Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
- 3 Abbot of Keral Keep
Instead of Hangarback Walker and Dragonmaster Outcast, Clay has Soulfire Grand Master and Abbot of Keral Keep. The Soulfire Grand Master can really take
over a game once you start buying back your Crackling Doom. Abbot of Keral Keep is great for attrition matches, as you are usually going to get to draw an
extra card with it, and prowess means it hits hard enough that your opponent has to deal with it.
Instead of Gideon or Butcher of the Horde, Clay has some legends that can quickly take over the game. This just goes to show the range of approaches
possible now that decks can just play whatever colors they want.
Felidar Cub is effective against From Beyond, Frontier Siege, Silkwrap, and Quarantine Field. Not only do you get to play a proactive card that can beat
down if the enchantment removal isn’t needed, but you can also buy it back with Ojutai’s Command.
Yes, that is Draconic Roar with just two Dragons. Sometimes you just want a removal spell that does three damage to a creature for two mana!
While Jeskai Black was third most popular deck on day two, it did overperform, moving up from 9.4% to 14.3% of the top 64 metagame. However, it was not
alone. Hilariously, Esper Dragons was also 9.4% of day 2, and 14.3% of the top 64 metagame!
This was the highest finishing Esper Dragons list, piloted by Jeff Kruchkow:
Jeff has very much build his deck with those two format-warping two-drops in mind. Foul-Tongue Invocation is one of the best payoffs for playing Dragons,
but Hangarback Walker can really mess that plan up. However, if you make them discard the Walker, or counter it with Horribly Awry, or exile it with
Complete Disregard, they aren’t getting any extra Thopters at all.
Silumgar’s Scorn and Horribly Awry give us a lot of permission on turn 2, but it sucks to be on the draw and have them sneak a Hangarback past us. Despise
really goes a long way there. Jeff even uses Utter Ends instead of Ruinous Paths to get even more anti-Hangarback tech into his list. Horribly Awry,
Complete Disregard, and Utter End all exiling also means that Ojutai’s Command is going to be a lot less effective against Jeff than it would be against
most Esper Control players.
Blighted Fen is a great option for black decks, in general, but it’s especially appreciated in Esper Dragons. Silumgar’s Scorn costing double blue means we
can’t really play tapped lands that don’t make blue (at least not without paying a steep price). This means we need to take advantage of lands like
Blighted Fen and Haven of the Spirit Dragon to try to get action out of our lands to make up for it.
Of course, not everyone agrees on skipping Shambling Vent. The seventh place finisher, Patrick Cowe played three copies in his build:
The sacrifice he made (aside from no Blighted Fen) was playing Shambling Vent on turn 3 or 4 sometimes, despite it being in his opening hand. There are
also going to be some games where you don’t have Silumgar’s Scorn in hand, lead with Shambling Vent, but then draw the Scorn and can’t cast it that turn.
We’ve already seen Chandra and Jace today, but there was a third flip planeswalker to top 8 the event:
- 3 Wingmate Roc
- 4 Warden of the First Tree
- 2 Hidden Dragonslayer
- 4 Den Protector
- 4 Deathmist Raptor
- 3 Nissa, Vastwood Seer
- 4 Hangarback Walker
Michael Majors’s update to G/W Megamorph gets a huge boost from Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. There’s also some addition by subtraction going on, since the
deck’s single greatest weakness, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, rotated out.
Nowadays, Abzan Control no longer gets the free wins against G/W Megamorph it used to, when it could just drop Elspeth on turn 6. That said, Abzan Control
is still a real threat. While it was just 3.1% of the day 2 field, it did manage to be the highest finishing style of Abzan deck.
Once again, we see Gideon, Ally of Zendikar as a four-of despite the planeswalker-uniqueness rule since you can usually use one to get an emblem, making
the second one better, assuming they don’t just kill Gideon first chance they get.
It’s hard to imagine a deck that wants creature-lands as much as Abzan Control. Four Shambling Vents is basically a must.
Now that Thoughtseize is gone, there’s an interesting puzzle for black mages to solve with regards to what discard spells to play. Bradley has maindecked
Despise because of the popularity of Jace and Hangarback, though remember that it also hits planeswalkers like Gideon and Ugin. He leans Transgress the
Mind out of the sideboard, more than Duress, for added defense against Dragonlords and Eldrazi.
Painful Truths is a slightly stronger card than Read the Bones, but its strengths are multiplied after sideboarding. We’re often bringing it in against
decks that don’t attack our life total very hard, so the extra life doesn’t bother us as much.
Bradley has chosen to sideboard the card advantage fatty, trying to keep his curve down against the 57% aggro field on day 2. However, when he actually
does face a grindy midrange or control deck, Greenwarden of Murasa (alongside Den Protector) is very good at slogging through any amount of removal.
Gilt-Leaf Winnower has gained a lot of popularity recently. It loves killing Siege Rhino, but once in a while, it even kills Abbot of Keral Keep, Jace,
Vryn’s Prodigy, Den Protector, or even Butcher of the Horde! Besides, a 4/3 menace is not an insignificant body.
Abzan Control wasn’t the only list to play Gilt-Leaf Winnower alongside Siege Rhino. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone able to access Gilt-Leaf
Winnower and Siege Rhino as often as Gerry Thompson, armed with his Five-Color Bring to Light deck:
- 1 Clever Impersonator
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 1 Silumgar, the Drifting Death
- 4 Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
- 2 Nissa, Vastwood Seer
- 1 Gilt-Leaf Winnower
Five-Color Bring to Light was the talk of the tournament, without question. There were just three pilots with the deck on day 2; however, all three made
top 16, including Gerry’s fifth place finish!
Gerry will surely be discussing his list at length later this week, and how it should be tuned moving forward, but let’s take a first look at the strategy,
which is basically just Abzan Blue, but uses Bring to light as Siege Rhinos 5-8.
Yes, it costs a mana more, but you usually wasted a mana on the fifth turn if you play a second Rhino anyway. Besides, it has a very potent toolbox
available, whatever the boardstate.
Ugin’s Insight is a great way to convert your Bring to Light into card advantage against removal-heavy decks. However, sometimes, it’s just great to dig
super deep into your deck by following up a Siege Rhino with it.
Utter End is relatively universally adopted in Bring to Light, but Clever Impersonator is pretty sweet tech. If your opponent has a really powerful
permanent, sometimes, the best thing you can do is copy it. However, the main use of Clever Impersonator is to give us Siege Rhino #9! Once you’ve got a
playset of Rhinos and a playset of Bring to Light, you can really start to count on getting a Rhino to copy. It’s also nice to have a fifth “actual” Rhino
in the deck since playing the fourth Rhino means none of the other Bring to Lights are Rhinos anymore.
Nissa is pretty sweet with Bring to Light since you can find her the exact perfect turn for her to flip. It’s also just great to be able to cheat the
system and find a planeswalker since normally you can only find creatures, sorceries, and instants.
Yes, there are two copies of Ob Nixilis in the sideboard, but that’s just because he’s a great card. Likewise, Radiant Flames makes an appearancedespite
not working with Bring to Light. Not every single card in your deck needs to be part of the toolbox. You can only find one card at a time!
The gauntlet has been established!
– Atarka Red is the defining fast aggro deck of the format.
– Abzan Aggro is a bit more durable, and extremely popular. Even though it will likely evolve a lot over the next several weeks, it would be good to test
against, particularly now that everyone is going to be slanting their decks against red.
– Jeskai Black can be kind of aggressive, but is going to play a bit of an aggro-control game. It’s popular and strong, so definitely include in your
– Esper Dragons is the default control deck at the moment. It’s not clear how big of an impact Crackling Doom’s rising popularity will have on the success
of Dragonlord Ojutai and Silumgar, the Drifting Death, but maybe that just makes cards like Duress and Transgress the Mind more attractive. There are a
very diverse mix of control decks seeing play, so we might as well start with the most popular one.
– Five-Color Bring to Light should only be included if you’ve got room for a fifth deck to test against, but it is the hot new thing and might just be a
better way to build Abzan Control. Maybe it will prove a fad, but there’s no question everyone else is going to be trying it this week, and it’s good to
know if you can compete with nine Siege Rhinos.
The Battle for Zendikar is well under way. Red Aggro has scored first blood, but both Midrange and Control are eyeing the throne. Who will come
out on top this weekend in Atlanta?
And will we see a rise of the Eldrazi…?