Starting Points For Shadows Standard

New set, new format, new fun! So where to begin? Standard lover Brad Nelson has a few ideas on how you can get started on your quest for Shadows over Innistrad Standard dominance!

Shadows over Innistrad Prerelease March 26-27!

The talk of the town, well, world, has been about new cards ever since Shadows over Innistrad started getting spoiled. While that’s exciting, something that hasn’t been discussed much is the fact that Khans of Tarkir was one of the most powerful sets to be printed in the past couple of years. So powerful, in fact, that many cards from the other still-legal sets were completely overshadowed by the sheer dominance of the set. Emrakul, the Aeons Torn might be the biggest creature in all the Multiverse, but Siege Rhino definitely cast a bigger shadow.

Today I’ll go through Dragons of Tarkir, Magic Origins, Battle for Zendikar, and Oath of the Gatewatch to try to figure out just what could be Standard-playable but haven’t yet been thanks to that damn dirty rhino. That, and of course Rally of the Ancestors. Standard’s really been unfair as of late…

The first thing we have to do, before understanding what could be good, is figure out why it was bad. Siege Rhino and Four-Color Rally put Standard in the purest form of a rock and a hard place. One deck was filled with must-answer threats, while the other ground out the game with incremental advantage, using highly efficient creatures and spells to keep them on the battlefield. This made it very difficult for the rest of the format to find the correct removal suite, since too much of it would lose to Four-Color Rally but not enough would cause a stampede all over your face.

Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy; Reflector Mage; and Collected Company decks also made it difficult to play a creature that was expensive and didn’t have an enters-the-battlefield ability. Now this is par for the course when it comes to most Standard environments, and it still could ring true in this next one, but it was amplified by the fact that most of the creatures also had to be able to rumble with Anafenza, the Foremost and Siege Rhino.

It wasn’t too difficult to figure out why the best decks were the best once you put all the pieces together from the last Standard jigsaw puzzle. Four-Color Rally, Abzan Aggro, and Jeskai Black ran the streets. There were other decks in the format, but they were just worse versions of these three decks, in my honest opinion. Maybe from week-to-week one of them was possibly a better choice, but Jeskai Black was the only deck that constantly fit the requirements to beat both of the other powerhouse decks.

I could go on and on about the actual spells being cast, but the biggest culprits from last Standard were the fetchlands. Sure, it was annoying to constantly be shuffling your deck, then your opponent’s, then yours again, and finally your opponent’s deck for the umpteenth time, but their biggest crime deserving condemnation was how they forced our hand in deck construction.

When it’s easy, and probably correct, to play three or four colors, the pool of playable cards goes down. That’s due to the fact that more decks get to play the premium spells that usually are only allotted to the piece of the color pie able to cast them.

Crackling Doom is a prime example of this. A card of this power level is usually only played in Mardu-colored decks, but it became Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy’s best friend thanks to the manabases. Since Jace is such a powerful card and could play alongside Mardu’s best spells, there was no need to just play Mardu. That made it unnecessary to fill out a Mardu deck with playable cards in the format since it was just a worse version of Jeskai Black. Enough similar situations came up thanks to manabases that a large portion of potentially playable cards were forced to be obsolete, not because they were bad, but because they either weren’t the best or didn’t fit four-color manabases.

Mana is going to be quite different in this upcoming Standard, and for the first time we might be seeing only one- and two-color decks at the top tables of competitive events. Three-color decks will be a possibility, but they won’t be as “free” as they have been for the past eighteen months. This will open Standard back up to being forced to play with a larger quantity of the card pool and make cards once “unplayable” in the eyes of competitive players into potential all-stars.

The format will also warm back up to cards that cost multiple of the same color. It was difficult to play cards like Knight of the White Orchid or Harbinger of the Tides since most manabases couldn’t support cards of this nature. Going back to one- and two-color decks will greatly increase a deck’s capability to play these once more.

We kick things off today with the Dragonlord cycle from Dragons of Tarkir.

All five of these cards are extremely powerful but didn’t see that much play. Esper Dragons was obviously a great deck, but these mythic rares shouldn’t just get pigeonholed into a single deck given how absurdly powerful they can be. Esper Dragons was simply a great metagame control deck that used Dragonlord Ojutai as a finisher. This five-mana mythic, flying, hexproof, and card advantageous Dragon is far too powerful to just be one deck’s finisher, but it just didn’t have a good body to compete with the format’s other creatures to become a centerpiece in a different deck. I think that’s about to change, given how good Always Watching has a chance to be.

This is basically a white weenie deck that has a subtle splash for two of blue’s most powerful cards. Thalia’s Lieutenant is a powerful creature that fits perfectly into a deck full of Humans with good stats to benefit from additional power and toughness. Archangel of Tithes alongside Dragonlord Ojutai is the late-game a deck like this dreams of having when Always Watching is on the battlefield.

Archangel of Tithes is a card that I have on my shortlist as making a big splash in the coming months. Its stats just line up nicely against cards like Roast; Chandra, Flamecaller; Olivia, Mobilized for War; Archangel Avacyn; and so on and so forth. The main reason for this card not seeing much play prior to now is the whole “mana is too good” issue. Playing a base-white deck just wasn’t better than playing three to four colors, making the mana requirements for cards with multiples of the same color casting cost not worth it. Now things will change and cards like Archangel of Tithes; Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh; and Liliana, Heretical Healer all get potentially better. I would pick up sets of these now before they have their first breakout performance post-Shadows over Innistrad.

Dragonlord Silumgar was also a card that saw most of its play in Esper Dragons. On a few occasions this card saw the light of day in sideboards of decks like Esper Tokens in an attempt to gain planeswalker advantage. Now we don’t know for sure if planeswalkers are going to define Standard for the next couple of months, but if they do, Dragonlord Silumgar and Silumgar’s Command will be poised for a comeback since they are both very good at dealing with planeswalkers on the other side of the table.

It’s been a shame that Dragonlord Dromoka hasn’t seen much play outside of a Brian Kibler deck due to its raw power. This behemoth of a creature is the best way to describe the philosophy that just because a creature is good doesn’t mean it’s playable due to the “it dies to Doom Blade” argument. Not only that, but this won’t save the day when playing against Reflector Mage. I have no idea if Dragonlord Dromoka will be good or not, but it trumps most of the fliers in the format and will be a natural trump to decks trying to exploit the sheer power of Archangel Avacyn.

Dragonlord Atarka will find a more solidified home in G/R Eldrazi Ramp. The loss of Ugin, the Spirit Dragon has left a hole in the deck’s ability to deal with planeswalkers, which is what Dragonlord Atarka shines at. Not only that, but any go-wide strategy will fall victim to this deck’s efficiency at dealing with tiny creatures, thanks to Kozilek’s Return and this hungry hungry Dragon.

The numbers in this deck are almost assuredly off, but minimal testing will get this deck into perfect form. This is a tried and tested archetype that will be good right out of the gates thanks to our already-deep understanding of it. Who knows if this deck will stand the test of time, but it should be taken very seriously in our preparation for #SCGBAL and the #SCGINVI.

Last, we have Dragonlord Kolaghan. Last season its younger self was a much leaner card for the format. Now that Kolaghan, the Storm’s Fury is no longer with us, the only chance to attack with hasty dragons is with Dragonlord Kolaghan. Good thing this card fits a decent curve for a B/R midrange deck that showcases Goblin Dark-Dwellers as the premium five-drop in the deck.

After some testing, I’ve found the madness theme alongside vampires like Olivia, Mobilized for War is too gimmicky to be good. Instead of wasting slots in a deck on weak creatures to add synergy, I would rather just play the best cards and discard when it’s most advantageous. Curving Olivia, Mobilized for War into Thunderbreak Regent or Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet allows us to discard a spell for an upcoming Goblin Dark-Dwellers. This is the card advantage and tempo we should be looking for.

Next up on my list is Surrak, the Hunt Caller. This “little guy” hasn’t seen much play after Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, but I can say I was a proud pilot of a deck with him. Our Abzan Aggro list played three of this card knowing full well that we would be mostly sideboarding it out. That’s because the card was king in the most non-interactive games but would get significantly worse once all of the removal lined up. I took this strategy all the way to the Top 16, which was my best finish at a Pro Tour since my last Top 8. Sadly, I have yet to play the card again, which I hope to remedy as quickly as possible.

Surrak, the Hunt Caller hasn’t had any other success in Standard thanks to being overshadowed by Polukranos, World Eater and Siege Rhino. Now that both of them are gone, I think it might be time for this aggressive four-drop to shine, especially since it gives a green and red deck more haste redundancy alongside Arlinn Kord. That said, this might never become a reality, since green still has a mythic to be spoiled. It’s actually kind of random that we are still missing a mythic and that it’s green. A part of me is just hoping Wizards has a grand unveiling of future-shifted all-star Tarmogoyf! Wouldn’t that be great?

I’m not going to lie; this decklist is a complete mess. I built it as a starting point to begin answering a multitude of questions I have about this format. The first place I want to explore is what Surrak, the Hunt Caller and Arlinn Kord can do together. Obviously ramping into Dragonlord Atarka can be powerful when you can give it haste, but it also makes sense that the natural progression of Arlinn Kord can be perfect for the mythic Dragonlord. I see Arlinn Kord making a Wolf, dealing something three damage, and then perfectly timing a Dragonlord Atarka to clean up any mess while also dealing ten damage to an opponent and defending in the process.

The addition of black is to add more redundancy to the strategy, since black has some very nice ways to accelerate in the format. Shaman of Forgotten Ways is one of my pet cards, but that’s because I understand its potential. The card is absolutely absurd if you get to untap with it and the best six-drop to cast when that happens is Woodland Bellower. The manabase is laughably off, but that’s why we need to practice to figure it all out. I will be working on something like this in the next couple of weeks and hopefully will have something along these lines for you to play at #SCGBAL.

Next up on my list are Icefall Regent and Harbinger of the Tides. Both of these cards have proven in sporadic testing to be extremely powerful but have never really had a home for their potential to be found. Both can have a huge tempo boost on a game, which is something blue-based decks are always looking for. White might be the most natural color to put alongside these cards, thanks to the tempo advantage of Reflector Mage and great removal, but green can also do that with Bounding Krasis and Collected Company. I don’t have any lists for these cards, since it’s tough to understand a tempo-based deck before all the cards have been spoiled, but I am keeping an eye on them.

Last up on my list are the forgotten red spells that defined a Pro Tour and then vanished.

Red-based decks haven’t really had it that great as of late. Abzan Aggro, Collected Company-based decks, and Jeskai Black make it very difficult for red to function all that well, and two and four damage just weren’t the magic numbers before. To add insult to injury, it was just too difficult to actually use reach spells efficiently against a sea of Siege Rhinos and Reflector Mages preventing early forms of damage.

Things will change since Siege Rhino is no longer with us, which could make this powerful Exquisite Firecraft once more playable. Again, we have to wait for the rest of the set to get spoiled, since red decks live or die on the back of their common and uncommon threats, but both of these cards are great and there are many decent red cards already spoiled in this set that could be playable.

Now, there’s no way that I found every hidden gem from these four sets. What do you think is going to get an opportunity to sing their redemption song with the end of Khans of Tarkir‘s dominance?

Shadows over Innistrad Prerelease March 26-27!