The Open Series in Indianapolis is two days away where Battle for Zendikar makes its debut and everyone is going to either be there or watching
intently at home as the action unfolds. What makes this tournament so special is that even though Theros block will finally be rotating out, the
changing of the guard might not have as big of an impact as we would have hoped. It will, however, be changing some of the most intuitive things we have
learned from playing with Khans of Tarkir block for the past year.
I’m not going to sit here and say that I know everything about this format already. In fact, I was hesitant to even write about Standard this week due to
an irrational fear of being widely wrong. Much of my free time has been spent testing this new format, yet I would still have to say I’m in the
experimental stage. Each and every session brings new light and new lessons that have previously been overlooked. Today I will go over those lessons and
hopefully give you a better understanding into what I think this format is going to look like.
To start things off we need to breakdown the spectrum of archetypes available to the format. First up on the list are the hyper-aggressive strategies
trying to win as quickly as possible.
- 4 Monastery Swiftspear
- 2 Goblin Heelcutter
- 4 Lightning Berserker
- 4 Zurgo Bellstriker
- 4 Abbot of Keral Keep
- 4 Dragon Fodder
- 4 Hordeling Outburst
- 1 Become Immense
- 4 Wild Slash
- 4 Atarka's Command
- 4 Exquisite Firecraft
How the mighty have fallen! Atarka Red is easily the most explored deck going into this weekend. It was the easiest to port over from old Standard since
most of the cards in the deck still existed. The only issue was that the best cards – Stoke the Flames, Goblin Rabblemaster, and Lightning Strike – rotated
out. Now we are left with this Frankenstein-like reject that people are calling a deck.
I’m being too harsh. What I’m trying to say is this deck is no longer good enough. The loss of Stoke the Flames, Goblin Rabblemaster, and Lightning Strike
are just too much for the deck to go on looking the way it does. It doesn’t have the ability to curve out like it once did, or even deal with the most
problematic card for the deck.
Red strategies can’t win when people care to beat them. There is a reason why we saw red decks win the past two Pro Tours, yet put up very few results
afterwards. The Pro Tour competitors (including me) let their hubris get the best of them. “Nobody plays Mono-Red at Pro Tours,” has been my team’s joke
ever since I have been quoted saying that for the past two Pro Tours. Magic players are starting to get less egotistical with deck selection and only look
for the best ways to win. They don’t care anymore if it is with something cool or not. We don’t prepare for Mono-Red at Pro Tours and get punished because
This isn’t the case in Open Series events. Mono-Red is treated as a serious threat if you want to have a deep run, which makes playing cards like Arashin
Cleric worth it. Not to mention that it’s much more difficult to deal with now that Lightning Strike is gone. Another reason why people will be playing
Arashin Cleric is that three power creatures are rarer than they have ever been. Rakshasa Deathdealer and Forerunner of Slaughter are the only two early
creatures that can jump over Arashin Cleric, but neither is well positioned thanks to the annoyingly powerful Hangarback Walker. As such, this is a perfect
time to be playing Arashin Cleric in the sideboard of any midrange deck, which makes it a terrible time to play Mono-Red. Yes, there is an ebb and flow
around the value of Arashin Cleric if Mono-Red doesn’t show up, but my guess is both will be in high numbers this weekend, and I would rather have the
answer than the threat in this situation.
- 4 Den Protector
- 4 Deathmist Raptor
- 2 Surrak, the Hunt Caller
- 4 Scythe Leopard
- 4 Makindi Sliderunner
- 4 Snapping Gnarlid
Another way to take aggressive decks is to go a little bigger. This is a list that I haven’t had a ton of time to perfect, but is something I will be
looking into more closely in the final hours before #SCGIndy. The theory is that landfall might be the next big thing for aggressive decks. Anafenza, the
Foremost and Siege Rhino put a ton of pressure on creature decks to either kill them or go through them since going under isn’t an option thanks to Den
Protector and Hangarback Walker. This is the main reason why I think Atarka Red is bad and why something along these lines could be good.
Working on a deck like this isn’t a bad thing, but playing this 75 blind would be. I suggest trying it out before subscribing.
- 4 Bloodsoaked Champion
- 4 Monastery Swiftspear
- 1 Battle Brawler
- 4 Brutal Hordechief
- 2 Mardu Shadowspear
- 3 Zurgo Bellstriker
- 4 Drana, Liberator of Malakir
I’ve been seeing decks like this gain a lot of speed in the last couple days, and I’m not quite sure why. Aggression tends to be the best place to start
when a format is brand-spanking new, but most formats don’t have Hangarback Abzan in them. Drana, Liberator of Malakir is a powerful card if it starts
dealing damage, but that is a rather tall order in a format like this. It’s prone to being killed by Dromoka’s Command or Reave Soul the turn it enters the
battlefield, but also its first trigger allows for Valorous Stance and Abzan Charm to take it out.
Now this deck could have decent curve out draws, but much like Atarka Red, this deck will have a tough time dealing with a turn 2 Arashin Cleric.
All three of these decks seem to be good on paper, but I just don’t see them going far in the Abzan world we live in. So what does this Abzan world look
This has been the list of Abzan Control that has been giving me the best results. It plays out very well against the bulk of the format. For the most part,
it’s winning enough of the matches that I would feel confident playing it in an event. There is only one problem – the deck is not beating Hangarback Abzan
shells that play Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.
- 4 Knight of the White Orchid
- 3 Anafenza, the Foremost
- 3 Wingmate Roc
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 3 Den Protector
- 4 Hangarback Walker
The matchup is so bad that I don’t even know if there are cards to make it better. Despise has helped, but I don’t know if it is enough to confidently
register in an event even though I’m emotionally attached to the archetype. They just consistently attack on so many different fronts, and it never seems
like control has a superior board presence. This is not how the matchup used to play out. Hangarback Abzan was a great choice in an open field, but Abzan
Control would tend to crush it. So what changed?
Do you miss me already?
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion was the lynchpin that held Abzan Control together. This was the one card that trumped all other versions of Abzan. Wingmate Roc
used to be that card, but Languish changed that game. No matter what you tried to do, the Abzan Control deck would always have the advantage. Now without
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, it seems like being more aggressive is correct.
It’s pretty easy to realize this once you go through the trial by combat. On paper, Abzan Control looks to be favored, but the archetype gravitates towards
the most powerful planeswalker, and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is currently that card. With Gideon being such an aggressive planeswalker, it makes it
difficult to play control the way Abzan Control used to with Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. They’re just two very different cards that change the way games are
This was a rather interesting discovery during testing. I thought this format was going to be more of a brewers paradise, but then I found out that one
version of Abzan was strictly better than the other. No matter how the Hangarback Abzan deck was constructed, it was beating Abzan Control as long as it
had Gideon. I tried putting the planeswalker in a more controlling shell, but it didn’t seem good enough since reacting wasn’t the business Gideon was
I’m not saying this format isn’t going to have innovation. Bring to Light is one of those cards that looks amazing and could produce some great decks even
as soon as this coming weekend. What I’m getting at is some cards are better than others, and we have to be realistic when it comes to what we put in our
decks and how we build them. Right now, Gideon has been the most powerful card in testing and has resulted in far more wins than anything else from Battle for Zendikar. That is the direction I want to be going in.
Here is a list of Jeskai that pushes a Gideon format to the max. This list tries its best to not only play the powerful planeswalker but also attack it as
well. So many of the cards are designed to keep the board under wraps in the early turns to help set up a safe turn to cast the four-drop, but it also has
enough ways to make sure that an opposing Gideon doesn’t get out of control.
The only problem with Jeskai is playing it in an undefined format. We have no idea what people are going to do which makes it difficult to know what
answers we are supposed to play. It’s obvious that removal spells that kill Siege Rhino and Anafenza, the Foremost will be good, but we have no idea what
the rest of the field will look like. You can jump off the cliff holding onto the faith that people won’t be able to break it this quickly, but you always
have to remember this.
- 2 Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
- 2 Kiora, the Crashing Wave
- 1 Garruk, Apex Predator
- 2 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
This deck was built for the first weekend after Fate Reforged was released. No one had this deck on their radar except for Gerard, and he just so
happened to be the person holding the trophy at the end of the weekend. There’s no way Jeskai players were prepared for this deck that weekend!
I do think that Jeskai is poised for a great weekend since people seem to be working on so many clunky 4-5 color decks. I just know that I’m not the person
to put all the pieces together correctly and haven’t invested the time into the deck necessary for a solid 75 that I can pilot correctly.
Last up on the list is blue-based control. I know people are going to play it, and I know it’s going to lose. I know me saying control is bad is similar to
the little boy crying wolf, but I have yet to see a single control strategy do well in this format. They just don’t have enough good cards to get to the
lategame in a favorable position. It always seems like they are close to turning the corner, but they still lose the topdeck war against midrange decks. I
will say that Silumgar, the Drifting Death is phenomenal right now, but I have yet to find a shell worthy of actually putting this card in sleeves.
I have no clue what I will eventually register for this weekend once I get to Indianapolis. Odds are I will be listening to Michael Majors or Brian
Braun-Duin, or possibly going off the deep end with one of Gerry Thompson’s brews. I haven’t personally built a deck I have felt good about, but I do think
I have been learning a decent amount to eventually feel comfortable once the Pro Tour rolls around. I will say though that midrange is the way to go.
Resiliency is the word of this format, and making sure your deck can withstand the storm of Den Protectors and Abzan Charms while also dealing with Gideon
is extremely important. Sadly, that leaves you playing a deck slanted slightly more aggressive than normal while also playing all of these cards. Hopefully
I’m wrong, but I would not be shocked to be playing all of these cards this weekend. I just don’t know what else I should play in the deck.
Probably Siege Rhinos…
I do want to leave you with a couple lists before I go. It’s difficult to articulate all of my ideas in a single article so I will try to express them all
before the weekend is over. One list is filled with the cards that I think are good and should be played, and the other is filled with the cards that got
significantly worse and shouldn’t see play right now. Let’s see if you agree with me before the results come in this weekend in Indianapolis!
Cards to Play
Cards to Not Play
See you in Indy!