Sullivan Library – Benchmarks

Read Adrian Sullivan every Tuesday... at StarCityGames.com!
He’s been supplying excellent Feature Articles week in and week out for quite some time now… and today, he debuts his weekly column (in place of the study-bound Prof). Adrian Sullivan is one of the finest deckbuilders and theorists in the game, and this week he takes a look at the coming Standard rotation. With Lorwyn still a foreign country, what preparation can we make for the sad departure of Ravnica?

As a Magic reader (especially a Premium one), you no doubt have your favorite writers. Your go-to authors. The ones that you look forward to. We all do. Right now, I’d say that my current favorite writer is probably Richard Feldman, and I know that I not only looked forward to Thursdays (or 11 p.m. Wednesday night, for me, really) to see how people were responding to my most recent piece, but also with a real hunger to see what he had to say about the game. Craig Jones, like Feldman, was always one of those people that I look forward to seeing every week. If you’re like me, little changes like that always come with at least some degree of melancholy. I’m hoping that any of you Craig fans out there are going to enjoy what I’m offering now that I’m going to be over here on Tuesdays, even if you miss him, as I do.

The last time I saw Craig was at Grand Prix: Columbus. I think that I had a great deck for the event, and I was excitedly waiting for my next round when he happened by and we began to chat. He was waiting to play, with more byes than I had, and even though we don’t really know each other very well, we had a lot of fun talking and sharing little bits here and there about our decks and our strategies. That is definitely one of the things that I enjoy in his writing — a real sense of familiarity on who it is that this “Craig Jones” guy is, even if he isn’t someone you actually get to see face-to-face.

Thinking about change and familiarity had me thinking about Lorwyn, and the real struggles of creating new decks in unfamiliar environments. All of the old benchmarks disappear, and you have to pick up the pieces with largely unknown cards. Evaluating which cards are the ones that matter and which ones are the ones that don’t can be very hard, especially when the entire environment that you’re used to is gone.

Take this simple question: what is the benchmark of a good beatdown creature?

The answer, of course, is it depends on the format. Two States ago, I brought Eminent Domain to the event, and collectively the people playing it had some overwhelming success. The deck had a number of new cards in it: 4 Dimir Signet, 3 Spectral Searchlight, 4 Dream Leash, 4 Remand, 4 Dimir Aqueduct, and 3 Shadow of Doubt. Of these, the Signets were clearly good to everyone, while the Searchlights, Leashes, and Shadows were much narrower cards that made the cut because of what they did in the deck. But the Remand and the Aqueduct were different to these other cards.

Today, people look at Remand and Aqueduct as clearly great cards, with Remand considered probably one of the best cards for Blue over the last two years, but at the time, both were looked at with amused pity. They had to be wrong. Remand doesn’t even really counter the spell!

There were some other people who used the Karoos and Remands that weekend, recognizing the power that they had, but before they became potential benchmarks, they were largely unknowns.

There are huge losses coming to Standard. Ravnica Block represents 622 cards running away (14 are reprinted elsewhere in Standard). Many of these cards are variants on Zephyr Spirit, but others are going to make the most incredible of impacts. Lorwyn will only have 296 new cards for us all to digest, and for much of its early release, we won’t even be aware of what the real benchmarks are supposed to be any longer.

To give you an idea of how this impacts things, take a glance at this year’s Top 8 from U.S. Nationals. An average of 8 lands and 17 spells from Ravnica Block were used in the decks, with Craig Krempels topping it off at 30 spells, and Antonino De Rosa managing with only 10. Clearly things are going to get shaken up. Let’s look at some of the massive trend shifts that we can expect.


While there is indeed a huge amount of options for the enterprising player to take advantage of in a post-Ravnica environment, it remains hard to imagine that the mana will be nearly as good as we’ve gotten used to. Ravnica was billed as the multi-colored revisiting of Invasion Block, and the easy mana certainly made that true.

Losing the new dual lands like Watery Grave and Stomping Ground is going to be hard. The Karoos, like Selesnya Sanctuary and Dimir Aqueduct, are going to be a bit less hard, but they certainly do have a big impact nonetheless. Many decks were able to make great use of the bounce-lands as a means to cheat their mana counts and truly fit some impressive stuff into their deck. The Signets might be an even greater hit yet, providing reliable, in-color mana acceleration for anyone that wanted it.

In their place, we certainly still have access to Mind Stone and Prismatic Lens, but each of these certainly has a degree of limitation to it. The Lens can slow you down if you’re trying to fix your mana, the Mind Stone can’t even fix your mana. In the land department, the old Ice Age and Invasion pain lands are joined by the new Time Spiral Block faux duals. That ought to help quite a bit, but unless Lorwyn is full of color fixing, expect to see the massively multi-color days you’ve grown used to fade down into mono- and double-colored decks, primarily.


First Kird Ape and Savannah Lions, and now, with them, go a whole slew of guys. It’s not just Craig Jones’s little friend, Bathe in Light, which is going. The Rusalkas (Black and Red, at least), Scab-Clan Mauler, Watchwolf, Giant Solifuge, Bob (!!), and even Vinelasher Kudzu (hey, I think he rocks) are all going the way of the dodo. This leaves just the lone Tarmogoyf to hold the fort for cheap, overly powerful beatdown.

Even the poor little Tarmogoyf takes a hit, though! Adios Seal of Fire and Moldervine Cloak. One of my personal favorite Tarmogoyf-saving tricks, Gather Courage, is also gone. (I like to call Gather Courage Daze.) Tarmogoyf is going to keep on rocking it large like before, but he’ll be a little harder to really pump up. Even the rest of the burn is hobbled, with the loss of Char, Lightning Helix, and to a lesser extent, Demonfire.

Look to the Time Spiral for the new beatdown cards. This means you can see large men from the Serra Avengers, pumped Kavu Predators, and Call of the Herd.

Hardest hit of the old decks has to be our poor friends, the Rakdos. No Bob, no Solifuge, no Guildmage, no Char, no Demonfire, no Hit/Run. Geez! What’s a deck to do? Answer: die. I’m sure that another aggressive Black/Red deck can be built in a new format, but it’s likely to be an entirely new monster.

Looking at the creatures in the format really reminds me a lot of the time that Tempest was released. There are a lot of teeny, tiny utility creatures, and then a lot of powerful midrange guys. My expectation is that we can expect a world where the benchmarks for what makes a good beatdown creature is going to be set at how powerful the little guy is or how powerful the midrange guy is, rather than how fast it is.


If you didn’t weep for the beatdown decks, maybe you’ll weep for the poor control player. Just in Blue, look at these crazy losses: Compulsive Research, Remand, Repeal, and Spell Snare. Maybe losing Spell Snare won’t be so terribly awful with the loss of all of the potent two-drops, right? Well, there still is that nasty guy Tarmogoyf to think about, and I don’t think he’s going to just go away just because Deathmark is available in two nifty varieties.

Obviously, there are still counterspells. Rune Snag is going to probably see a much larger amount of play, and control decks will probably be spending a lot more time casting Careful Consideration, Foresee, or Finkel, depending on their preferences. These losses, though, are just the tip of the iceberg.

For a long time now, many control decks have been doing a lot with many of the multi-faceted life gain out there. Loxodon Hierarch, Faith’s Fetters, and Lightning Helix in the rare Red/White/Blue deck out there, all could negate threats and pull you out of the danger zone. Other similar cards, like Skeletal Vampire, Grand Arbiter Augustin IV, and Electrolyze might not gain you life, but they could often slow down the offense enough for you to take the game to the next level.

Tendrils of Corruption is likely going to take the place of these strategies for a lot of decks, though it packs some rough weaknesses. A reliance on Swamps can be rather problematic in a format in which Rain of Tears, Icefall, and Creeping Mold are very reasonable spells that can be played in addition to Vesuva, Mwonvuli Acid-Moss, and Avalanche Riders. In addition, Tendrils of Corruption has the problem of not having a secondary purpose like a Hierarch or Fetters.

Control, I expect, is going to need to see something new happen to it in Lorwyn, or else it will essentially be various builds of the Time Spiral Block Teachings decks.

The Middle

Midrange decks lost a ton of versatile weapons. For the people that like cards that remind them of PT Junk, like me, Putrefy, Mortify, and Crime/Punishment’s departures are going to be quite sad. Dimir House Guard is another unwelcome departure, providing a truly fantastic tutor for the magic number for many a deck.

Thankfully, Midrange cards seem to be aplenty in 10th and Time Spiral, as well as spoiled Lorwyn cards like Wren’s Run Packmaster. Hunted Wumpus, Mortivore, Nekrataal, Sengir, Serra, Verdant Force, and Siege-Gang Commander all provide very reasonable monsters to join forces with Time Spiral Cards like Korlash — all providing a potent, potentially game-shifting presence to the board.

Deck Death

Aside from the death of a deck like Rakdos, there are more than a few other casualties. Take Project X — it isn’t that much of a Project without Crypt Champion. The most notable of these decks is Dredge.

As if it wasn’t bad enough before, with Mogg Fanatic largely snuffing out many varieties of the Dredge deck, now, well, the deck is kinda snuffed out. I expect it will be highly unlikely to find anything even beginning to approximate Golgari Grave-Troll, Stinkweed Imp, and the rest of the Dredge crew. To my mind, good riddance.

Life from the Loam is another casualty. At this point, the Seismic Assault/Life from the Loam decks out there are the only decks other than Dredge that I’ve noticed making a lot of use out of the card, but that’s already too much for me, anyway. Life from the Loam, I love ya when I’m the one casting you, but you let too many other people cast you too, and it just hurts me to watch that happen. I’ll miss you, but I won’t miss you.

Another deck that pretty much rolls over and dies is the Aethermage’s Touch deck. It’s not just the Touch that goes, but also many of the cheaty ways it uses these touched cards, like Angel of Despair. This deck lives on in its “Blink-Riders” incarnation, true, but without the Touch or Angel becomes a mostly Block deck without any real pizzazz.

One of my favorite departing cards that always end up with a deck build around it has to be Chord of Calling. Luis Scott-Vargas took Chord of Calling to the Championship of U.S. Nats this year, and my friend Sam Black won the 2006 Midwest Regionals with a saucy little Chord deck that ran only one Birds of Paradise and no Llanowar Elves (a move I actually think is correct). Chord was one of those decks I never managed to get to do anything, but I always just loved it on its face value.

Looking to 10th and the PTQs

Certainly there are a ton of other losses that we could recount one by one (Helldozer! Why, why?!) One of the things that you can start doing if you want to get a jump start on the new Standard after Lorwyn is take a look at 10th and try to find cards that fit into the best PTQ decks.

Sure, there are tons of opinions on what exactly the best decks in TSP are, but whatever you believe them to be can form a great starting place for deckbuilding for the future. Clearly, the shells of decks that we make from these Lorwyn-free builds are going to have massive flaws, but knowledge of card interactions can easily make you more prepared to fit in the newer cards into “existing” decks.

Here is a short brainstorm session on those very cards:

Pain Lands: The Ice Age and Invasion reprints are going to be easy inclusions into all of the Time Spiral decks. Perhaps the biggest winners could be Pickles, which can suddenly include Damnation splashes; and Red splashing Green (generally for Tarmogoyf and other support cards), which get even easier access to their splash color.

“Man”-lands: Expect to see a ton of play from Faerie Conclave and Treetop Village. Both of these can easily fit into any of the Blue or Green decks, and seeing as those might be the most popular colors (largely because of Tarmogoyf and Mystical Teachings) that means a lot of decks. Ghitu Encampment and Spawning Pool will see a bit less play, if only because they don’t clearly as easily fit into their potential homes, while Forbidding Watchtower will mostly be overlooked (and rightly so).

Ancestor’s Chosen: For a control deck running cards like Careful Consideration and the like, a late, late game Ancestor’s Chosen can often represent a life change of 10 or more life. For the non-Black control decks out there, this could be their version of a Tendrils of Corruption. First strike doesn’t hurt, either, nor does his interaction with Momentary Blink.

Arcanis the Omnipotent: While not a great Vesuvan Shapeshifter target, Pickles and other heavy Blue decks can get an absolutely insane card advantage engine going with Arcanis. If the format slows down any amount from regular Standard, this guy is likely to find a home.

Beacon of Destruction: An absolute wow for mono-Red or near mono-Red decks. Beacon packs a hell of a lot of damage, and seems like an incredibly scary addition to the Red burn-based decks that are out there. Note that it also works well with a Red-based build of Teachings.

Beacon of Immortality: Again, look to the Teachings decks to be able to make a mess with this card. Even siding in one copy into a Teachings decks can have monumental consequences for an aggressive opponent.

Condemn: The fight over creature wars in White/Green, and even in Teachings decks, often made its way over to a somewhat clunky little White enchantment. Condemn is cheaper and less easily foiled than Temporal Isolation, and deals with Tarmogoyf, Mystic Enforcer, or any other big guy just as well.

Creeping Mold: Does this join Mwonvuli Acid-Moss in the various Big Mana Green/Red decks? Maybe.

Crucible of Worlds: Combining this card with Careful Consideration, Terramorphic Expanse, Desert, or simply Urborg/Vesuva wars could make this a very potent card advantage engine for the Teachings decks.

Cruel Edict/Deathmark: Both of these cards serve the same basic purpose for any of the Black decks that might end up cropping up: they can kill a Tarmogoyf or other likely early creature very quickly and efficiently. While Deathmark is likely to see a lot of sideboard play, Cruel Edict is probably a bit less likely than Slaughter Pact to see play, but it will still have a home in some Black/(x) decks.

Distress/Graveborn Muse: Would a Distress help those Black beatdown decks that I’ve seen running around from time to time? I’m sure that it might be just the thing to stop annoying Mystic Enforcers and Damnations from coming online in time. The Muse, on the other hand, could provide just such a deck an extra bit of punch for a longer game, though it might not be powerful enough to make the cut.

Howling Mine: That Walk of Aeons deck that has been running around probably wouldn’t mind another set of Howling Mines

Hurricane: Do you remember how I said that Green/White decks would always get smacked around by Teachings in Block? Hurricane is much better at causing a problem for these Teachings decks than its Time Spiral cousin, if only because of the one less G in its casting cost. This makes it also a reasonable card against all of the Angels and other fliers that can pop up in other decks. Definitely worth keeping an eye on…

Hypnotic Specter: Again, that Black Beatdown deck keeps looking better and better.

Incinerate: One of the best burn spells ever printed can surely make the cut in that Block Red deck you were working on. Great at killing Finkel too!

Loxodon Warhammer: For every deck that finds itself in a losing creature race, this is the card. This is especially good for those decks that have really solid elimination. A Red or Black deck is going to be better at exploiting this than a deck without those colors. Those Donkey Pong decks can run it too, of course, but I expect that in a war of Warhammers, they’ll fall behind their more elimination-happy cousins.

Mind Stone: This doesn’t replace a Coalition Relic or Prismatic Lens, but for the Teachings deck that doesn’t need as many colors, it can be a superior choice.

Mogg Fanatic: I’m pretty sure that this is an auto-include in any Red beatdown deck, but I could be wrong.

Paladin en-Vec: This card, by itself, could signal a resurgence for White Weenie, making your creature immune to Tendrils and any Red burn that might get tossed at its face.

Rain of Tears: Again, a weapon for that Black beatdown deck I’ve seen online in TSP games…

Reviving Dose: A great… oh, never mind.

Seismic Assault: This isn’t as powerful, in some ways, as Stormbind. But it is free, and that can matter a lot.

Siege-Gang Commander: Many of those Red decks are running Mogg War Marshal anyway, right? Well, send some more guys into the fray. SGC also works as an excellent way to foil Tendrils and chump-shoot Tarmogoyf.

Spitting Earth: Long ago, Zvi said “no loss” when this rotated out of Standard. I was weeping. Spitting Earth can take out nearly any creature that doesn’t have special powers. And for cheap, too!

Tidings: Is Tidings the new card draw spell of choice? Five mana is a lot, but so is four cards. Time will have to tell with this one.

Troll Ascetic: God, is this guy hard to handle. Any of the aggressive Green decks will probably find themselves packing this.

Unsummon: And here we have a great, cheap tutor target for Mystical Teachings, as well as a potentially backbreaking spell for Donkey Pong-style decks. Whether maindeck or board, I expect that this will definitely see some play.

Obviously, there are a ton of great cards besides these in 10th, but for many of these, there isn’t a simple, obvious home for the card in an existing Time Spiral Block deck. Take Wrath of God, one of the most powerful staples in the game. What deck does it go into from Time Spiral Block? White Weenie could board it, I suppose? Maybe?

I’m sure many of you will build yourself some Ravnica-free pre-Lorwyn decks with Wrath of God, and you could probably learn quite a few lessons there. You’ll be breaking a lot of new ground, of course, and you’ll be re-breaking that same ground with Lorwyn, when it comes out. One of the nice little advantages of trying to build decks in the lull of the format comes in having a lot of the work already done for you.

When you play these decks against non-hobbled decks, you can actually learn a lot. Expect that when your opponent plays a Ravnica Block staple against you that you could face a similarly powerful card that maybe you overlooked from Lorwyn, a new benchmark. The goal here isn’t to make the deck that will win States, but rather to learn about how the cards interact, so that when States comes around you’ll know more than your opponents, and have a head start in the deckbuilding process.

See you next week!

Adrian Sullivan