Sullivan Library – The Lull Times: Standard Strength Pre-Zendikar

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Thursday, September 17th – While Zendikar is on everyone’s mind, Adrian Sullivan examines at the Standard cards we currently overlook, and shares some of their possible uses in the upcoming Standard metagame. While the fresh cardboard is certainly exciting, it will serve us well to remember those underused gems that we have already…

There are these moments in Magic-dom that are defined by their being “between times.” The next PTQs are for San Diego, months off. The next big event is the Pro Tour in Austin, with a Mixed Extended/Draft format. We don’t have a full Zendikar spoiler. It will be quite awhile before we get Zendikar on MTGO.

And so, right now, we’re all sitting around waiting to figure out what happens, when what we don’t know is still much larger than what we do know. If we don’t count the basic lands, Zendikar has 229 cards. We know (as of this writing) 91 of them, and a great portion of those aren’t completely verified. For those of us who have seen massive card changes (Giant Solifuge comes to mind), if we haven’t seen a picture of it, it might not be real. We’re not even half there. Heck, maybe my initial predictions that we’d see Delve in the new set will come true! (But probably not…)

I think way, way back to Tempest, for example. If we were to only have looked at a slice of the cards, say half, we’d have lost a big picture about what was going to come. Now, one of the things that certainly weights things in this is the reality of spoilering. It is in Wizards advantage to spoil some of the true “hits” that we’re going to be seeing in the set. The Chase Rare makes for good advertising. Certainly, there were tons of people who spent a bit of time box-busting looking for that Baneslayer Angel. Right now, it is absolutely possible that we know about a “Cursed Scroll” and “Living Death”, while having no clue that Zendikar’s “Aluren,” “Sarcomancy,” and “Earthcraft” will soon be spoiled (though we won’t care that we missed “Dracoplasm” and “Vhati il-Dal”).

Goblin Guide

As I look over the spoiler for Zendikar, again and again, I try to find the cards that are going to be stand-outs. I’ve been thinking about a small conversation I had with Craig Wescoe (co-creator of Free Spell Necro, widely considered the best deck out of the Pro Tour in Chicago that Bob Maher won, ten years ago), where he asked me to pull back from my claim that Goblin Guide might be the best aggro one-drop ever. He compared it to Goblin Lackey and Wild Nacatl, as counter-examples, and I had to say that he had something. Lackey was definitely better. But I’m not 100% sure that Nacatl was just “better,” at least in Standard. Haste was just crazy. In Extended, it was easy to give Nacatl the nod, at least now that we know sac-lands are still around.

Still, something about Goblin Guide struck me as just intense. I threw together a crappy Red deck to play against a more traditional Zoo list. Some games:

Me1: Mountain, Guide, attack to 18 (no trigger)
Him1: Sack (17) for Stomping Ground (15), Nacatl
Me2: Bolt Nacatl, Mountain, Guide #2, attack to 11 (miss “twice”)
Him2: Sack (10) for Plains, go
Me3: Mountain, (holding back Ball Lightning for fear of Helix), attack (giving a land), one Guide Helixed, after attack, (11), Suspend Rift Bolt, cast Keldon Marauders (10)
Him3: Tapped Sacred Foundry, Tarmogoyf (currently 3/4)
Me4: Hit him with Rift Bolt (7, Goyf now 4/5), Cast Ball Lightning, and attack with everyone (reveal a Mountain), Goyf blocks Ball Lightning (1).
Him4: Helix Goblin Guide (4), Mountain (lucky break here, for him), tap out, cast Tarmogoyf.

The board at this point is a Keldon Marauders (about to die and put him to 3). I have a Mogg Fanatic in my hand, and I’ll draw a card that will hopefully kill him. As it turns out, it is a Mountain. He untaps, drops a 5th land, kills my Fanatic, and equips a Jitte for the win (I only draw crappy Ball Lightning, Mountain, and Mogg Fanatic after this). One Guide, though, dealt eight before dying.

My deck was a pretty crappy beta attempt at RDW*, but let’s just review my cards played by turn 4:

2 Goblin Guide
Lightning Bolt
Ball Lightning
Keldon Marauders
Rift Bolt


2 Lightning Helix
2 Tarmogoyf

Our respective 9 mana each left him at just shy of dead. If Goblin Guide has been a mystical 3/3 for 1 with no other abilities, the life totals would be like this:

Turn 1
2/2s: one attacks (18)
3/3s: no one attacks (20)

Turn 2
2/2s: two attack (14)
3/3s: one attack (17)

Turn 3
2/2s: two attack (10)
3/3s: two attack (11)

It takes until turn 4 for the imaginary 2 Red Nacatl to catch up to the 2 Guides of the draw I had. In that time, the 40% land deck will have had, on average, 1.52 land drawn. This absolutely can matter, it’s true. But the Goblin Guide strikes me as so deeply powerful, it will probably end up being one of the most impacting cards in the new set. Some of its impacts are so fantastic, I can’t even begin to stop grinning when I think about this situation:

My opponent has out a Dark Confidant and is at a fairly low life total. I attack and give them a land. On their turn, they flip over, instead of that land, a Doran. Take three! On the next turn, I think a bit and attack into the Doran, giving them another land. They flip… not a land! Their Bob plus my burn ends them right then.

While we have many cards like Goblin Guide, Day of Judgment, and Misty Rainforest verified, one thing we need to remember are just the vast numbers of cards that we already have access to that we know. As someone recently wrote, there are only a finite number of cards that are actually going to be played in Standard (or even Extended) with any regular consistency. One of the things we can begin to do, though, is look at the cards in M10, and start imagining which of these are going to be able to keep up with the power creep that seems to be coming into the recent sets. We have to put these in a context, though. Losing Lorwyn Block does change some of the valuations we may have had on cards. What are the real standouts from M10 to add onto what we know from Shards Block for Standard?


Baneslayer Angel

How can we avoid mentioning her? In fact, we have to start with her. The thing about this card is just how insanely it changes the game, and how quickly. With Doom Blade and Terminate and Path to Exile and Lightning Bolt (with help), it isn’t that Baneslayer Angel can’t be answered, it’s that if you fail to answer it, things can fall apart incredibly quickly. This year, Iowa’s Gabriel Stoffa made an aggressive White deck featuring Baneslayer Angels that started veering towards midrange aggro (kind of like an update to Pile of B*tches, for you old fogeys who remember Mike Flores early work). I know he abandoned the deck fairly quickly, but still, there was just something really compelling about throwing a bunch of guys at someone, watching them scramble, and then dropping a Baneslayer. I put it in the sideboard of my Merfolk deck to much the same effect. Baneslayer has become a common choice for Five-Color Control for a different reason, to claim the game back from aggressive decks.

That this card will be played is obvious. Less obvious, though, is how this card’s existence will make playing many cards simply a waste of time.

Ajani Goldmane & Honor of the Pure

While the White aggressive decks might be losing the Kithkin core that they’ve been leaning on for so incredibly long, there is still a real base to work from in Soldiers, starting with Elite Vanguard and moving to a huge selection of other friends. Ajani Goldmane and Honor the Pure can both do a lot to help out this strategy, particularly if we’re no longer going to have to be concerned about Firespout. Captain of the Watch, though, I’m going to predict, is just going to be a little too slow to be of the kind of use we’ll need it to be. Part of the problem is that every card is going to have to pay attention to Baneslayer; competing against her just makes the Captain seem really anemic, even in a Soldier deck.

Honorable Mentions:
Harm’s Way, Open the Vaults, Guardian Seraph, and Planar Cleansing.

These cards will see some play, but are going to be pushed even more to the fringes by Zendikar. Open the Vaults is the closest to really being over the top because of the Time Sieve deck, but the others could also see some serious play if things play out just right.


Essence Scatter and Negate

These cards are simply as good as it gets these days with our replacements for good ol’ Counterspell. It ain’t going to get any better than this, I’m thinking, for a long time. Cancel is going to be the new baseline, with specialized cards making a small appearance now and again. Soul Manipulation might push out Essence Scatter for some Blue/Black decks, but we can expect these to be our baseline.

Jace Beleren and Mind Spring

Card drawing is always going to be important for Blue-based decks. With the disappearance of Mulldrifter and the worsening of mana, we’re going to be seeing these cards far more often, particularly with the disappearance of Bitterblossom (a pain for Planeswalkers of all stripes) and Cryptic Command, whose painful presence has been holding back everything expensive for some time — it’s one thing to have your expensive spell countered, but when Cryptic Command also gets to happily be Dismiss, it’s a real problem for those expensive spells. Expect Mind Spring to commonly be a card that makes the cut for those decks not running the colors to support Cruel Ultimatum.

Polymorph and Time Warp (and Ponder)

A certain kind of player is always going to enjoy doing things that have an element of the ridiculous to them. Polymorphing out a Progenitus or Iona, Shield of Emeria is one of those things that some people are going to cackle at. Casting Time Warp repeatedly is another. Given enough support cards to hold up these strategies (token production/man-lands for Polymorph, and, typically, symmetry exploitation for Time Warp), these cards are going to be a part of our new canon of expected combo-ish cards for Standard. Ponder is one of those cards that can support these kinds of cards. It will also find a home in newer control decks, and potentially Blue-based decks with a one-drop hole, but its most important home will certainly be for those decks trying to build what little combo potential might exist in the new format.

Honorable Mentions:
Clone, Djinn of Wishes, Merfolk Looter, Merfolk Sovereign, Wall of Frost

For many of these cards, their marginality is contingent. Looter and Sovereign could become very central, indeed, if more Merfolk worth our time are to be found in Zendikar. Djinn of Wishes, might just be the perfect sleeper card for control-control wars, and Clone might end up being ridiculous with some card we have yet to see. Wall of Frost might be good enough for decks that can’t also cast Wall of Denial. As for now, though, a pile of “mights” and “coulds” don’t make me see them making an impact that really could be attributed to a powerhouse.


Duress, Liliana Vess, Mind Shatter, and Hypnotic Specter

Disrupting the opponent’s cards in hand is a time-tested way to gain value in a match. While it could be that Duress will simply be too weak in a format that keeps pushing creatures to the edge, it remains a great option. Each of the other three cards will have different value for different decks, and a different set of weaknesses, but all of them benefit from the departure of Faeries, whose existence was deeply antagonistic to strategies that did little to the board. “Addition by subtraction” has been a commonly repeated phrase with this most recent rotation, and I think it is simply because of the way that Faeries carved out a certain space that simply disallowed a huge number of strategies.

Doom Blade and Tendrils of Corruption

Both of these cards will be seen quite commonly in the new Standard. The big question is how much Tendrils will actually be seen. Tendrils, of course, can really only be played in a deck that minimizes its non-Swamps to the tiniest of degrees. That said, anyone who has played Sisters Grimm or Time Spiral Block Teachings knows that if you cast a Tendrils successfully, you tend to hugely blunt so much work that an aggressive deck has done that you’re often completely out of the woods — at least if you have a deck that is doing something. Doom Blade is one of those “somethings,” a card that can be solidly played in any deck choosing to run Black elimination.

Haunting Echoes

In long, exhaustive games, this card is just insane. If you’ve built a deck that is designed to grind an opponent down, a late game Haunting Echoes will generally leave them entirely crippled. Having resolved this card more than a few times in my day, I can unequivocally say that this card is the real deal, and can be every bit as devastating as Cruel Ultimatum. It is held back, of course, by a major limitation: casting this on turn 5 is nearly useless. That said, I expect this to see a fair degree of play.

Sign in Blood

While it certainly makes more demands of its user than Night’s Whisper did, it also is incredibly more versatile. Card advantage appears to be going at a premium in the upcoming Standard. Every little bit, especially when it is as cheap as this, is going to definitely matter.

Honorable Mentions:
Diabolic Tutor, Vampires, Xathrid Demon

If Vampires get pushed enough in Zendikar, they could easily get to that place where you could play them as a tribe. We’ll have to wait to see. Diabolic Tutor is a bit expensive, but if good long-term mana is put out there, a tutor will always be a good thing. Xathrid Demon just seems like it is on the verge of being really incredible. Give this card the right nudge, and it will make the cut.


Ball Lightning, Lightning Bolt, and Siege-Gang Commander

Of these, Lightning Bolt is the universal card that is going to find inclusion in any number of decks, far from the reach of merely the mono-Red crowds. Ball Lightning and Siege-Gang Commander represent two different angles from which the Red decks could go — the deeply aggressive at all costs card to the card that can be overwhelming at establishing a board presence. Bolt is the card you’d be likely to see in a deck that packed either of these other cards. Make no mistake, the realms that a Red deck can be built are excitingly varied, but they’ll generally live in this range.

Earthquake, Pyroclasm, and Chandra Nalaar

Here we have those cards that are going to often be employed for their ability to wipe up the messes that other decks often leave on the table. Chandra Nalaar is a card that I found deeply promising in Johnny Walker Red for Worlds two years ago. It is surprisingly good at handling any number of quite large creatures, and is very quick to go nuclear, particularly if helped out by other burn spells to hold the table. Earthquake and Pyroclasm are going to be standard go-to-sweep for the new Standard.

Goblin Chieftain

At this point, I’m confident that there is a Goblin deck for Standard, and that it will be good. Even after it loses the (largely Black) cards from Lorwyn, there are just so many really reasonable Goblins to contemplate. Goblin Outlander, Goblin Razerunners, Jund Hackblade, and Siege-Gang Commander are all worth thinking about, but when you add onto it the cards that we know exist (Goblin Guide, Goblin Ruinblaster, and Warren Instigator), I think we’re probably there. Even a smidge of a push could easily put us into a deck that won’t even need another color.

Honorable Mentions:
Bogardan Hellkite, Magma Phoenix, Warp World

These cards each have their home (in a more controlling multi-color deck, as a card advantage engine for a slow board control deck, and as the centerpiece for one of the most popular deck archetypes in casual plays history of crossing over into the competitive). Whether or not any of the decks that these cards could live in will be good enough is a fair question, but they’ll be worth paying attention to, regardless.


Garruk Wildspeaker

I am a classic hater of this card, but I still recognize its inherent value. I’ve largely felt that this card has been long overrated, but that’s because I think it works best when it is employed for its untap ability, and many people seem to be excited about it for its beast ability (*yawn*). Garruk loses Fertile Ground, but it also loses Bitterblossom, and all told, I think that puts it on the upper end of the equation.

Birds of Paradise, Llanowar Elves, and Rampant Growth (and Borderland Ranger)

Some things never go out of style. Good mana is one of them. Particularly if we picture the Green/White decks that the Japanese brought to Pro Tour: Honolulu, there is a clear home for solid acceleration. Rampant Growth still is there to help pump out a fast Garruk, and even if Borderland Ranger isn’t an Elf, it continues to be the kind of card that does a simple job and does it well. I remember that Civic Wayfinder was one of the surprise cornerstones of my Ravnica Block Stompy deck, and its creature type played no part in why that deck was good. The mana selection (and card advantage) were what mattered.

Elvish Archdruid (and Overrun)

This card really is pretty insane. It doesn’t take many Elves at all to make the mana production capacity of an Elvish Archdruid go into the land of “unfair.” What to do with that mana is certainly a question. Once we lose Regal Force and Primal Command, we might be doing far less exciting work with the deck, but there are still impressive things that can be done with an unfair amount of mana. Simply easily casting Overrun can be enough. If you’re not playing Archdruid, that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of a card that Jamie Wakefield championed long ago. Trample is a potent thing when it is attached to a fair amount of power. Overrun can guarantee that your army can go lethal far before they usually ought, and through a huge degree of resistance.

Honorable Mention:
Acidic Slime, Ant Queen, Great Sable Stag, Master of the Wild Hunt

Each of these cards might just be in need of a home, of sorts. Great Sable Stag seems so much less exciting with a Faerie-less world, and so much less powerful when Mindbreak Trap can effectively “counter” it. Each of the other creatures seems powerful in their own right, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll do anything useful. Acidic Slime might end up being a great card in a world full of Quests, but we’ll have to wait and see if it is sufficiently good at doing its job that an oversized Creeping Mold is worth the bother. Five mana is a big deal, and you’d better be getting your money’s worth.

The Colorless

The New Duals (and Terramorphic Expanse)

Each of these, particularly when combined with Terramorphic Expanse and the plethora of other multi-colored options out there, make it fairly trivial to make a large number of two-colored decks completely easy to build. No surprise here.

Howling Mine

This is one of those cards that crops up from time to time to do silly things to a format. Whether it is Turbo-Stasis, Florida Orb, Owling Mine, or any other number of decks that have abused Howling Mine, it generally is a card that takes advantage of an opponent’s ability to not make use of the stream of cards that they’re getting until it is too late, and the game is all but wrapped up. In some, more rare cases, it employs them to set up a stream of Time Walks. With Time Sieve apparently a real deck, it is worth remembering to keep our eyes on this card. When it’s good, it tends to be very good. If Maelstrom Pulse or other things in the metagame keeps these kind of decks in check, that’s fine, but forgetting about the card as a tool is usually a mistake.

Platinum Angel

Platinum Angel is not Baneslayer Angel. But it still can make for a degenerate game, particularly when someone is working hard to protect it. Every expensive creature has to justify itself in a world full of Baneslayer and Broodmate and friends, but Platinum Angel makes the cut simply because it can completely snatch victory from an opponent who doesn’t have an answer, no matter how dire the situation had been a moment earlier.

Honorable Mentions:
Coat of Arms, Pithing Needle, Gargoyle Castle

These cards might not have enough strength to really push things through, but they very well could make something happen. Elves could easily lean on Coat of Arms, as could Goblins, potentially. Pithing Needle can be a great answer to any Quest that someone could throw down, but at the same time could just rot in your hand. Gargoyle Castle could be an interesting finisher to include in a land-heavy control deck, but it could easily get in the way of the mana you’d like to be able to access.


It’s all fine and dandy to be excited about Zendikar right now. I know that I am. We can’t lose sight of the things that are already in front of our nose. M10 has been out for a while, but it is inevitable that the card valuations that we’ve grown accustomed to could wildly change, if only because of the loss of Lorwyn. Other cards will increase in value or decrease in value as we see Zendikar being revealed. There are only so many cards that can be played at a tournament (typically about 75 times the number of players), and when we get right down to counting them all out, if we’re too focused on all of the new, maybe we’ll miss that Ant Queen would have made our new killer deck perfect.

I can’t help it. A ton of my decks have been focused almost entirely on Red cards right now, but I’m waiting for other things too. Maybe something will be printed that will make Magma Phoenix as insane as I want it to be, or Warp World. Maybe Nightmare will be a powerhouse. Maybe Guardian Seraph will. I know I intend to continue to keep my eyes on them even if they aren’t as new and shiny.

Adrian Sullivan

* Beta Red Deck Wins — Adrian Sullivan

4 Goblin Guide
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Keldon Marauders
4 Ball Lightning
4 Goblin Ruinblaster
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Incinerate
4 Rift Bolt
4 Molten Rain
22 Mountain
2 Teetering Peaks

This is just a beta list for Austin, and I’m sure it could be improved. It still had a lot going on in it that was exciting to me.