The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Out With The Old

The biggest change to Standard is not the entrance of Innistrad, but the leaving of Zendikar block and M11. PT winner and Hall of Famer Brian Kibler talks about the impact of these format-defining blocks.

I have to admit, I’m as excited as anyone out there at the prospect of playing with the brand new Innistrad cards we’ll all be getting our hands on this weekend. The full spoiler went live as I was traveling back from GP Montreal, and I spent nearly every moment that I actually had internet access poring over all of our wonderful new toys. I really think Wizards knocked it out of the park with this one—the set looks to have an incredible mix of fun and powerful cards to go along with amazing top-down designs all over the place.

But this week, I’m not going to talk about Innistrad. There’s going to be time enough to talk about all the new cards in the coming weeks once they become legal in Standard. What I’m going to talk about this week is what is perhaps more important—the cards that will no longer be legal in Standard once those shiny new Vampires and Werewolves make their way into decks. The departure of those workhorses from Zendikar block and M11 will change Standard far more than any of the new cards will.

Let’s start with the core of Zendikar block—the lands. When Steve Sadin asked his quick question at GP—what card that was rotating out would players miss the most?—most of the responses were central cards to current popular strategies like Squadron Hawk and Preordain. Mine was Tectonic Edge. Tectonic Edge served as a tool for non-blue decks to fight against big, opposing threats—specifically, Titans.

When I built Blade Breaker, I knew that it would be particularly vulnerable to opposing Titans since it was straight R/G and couldn’t remove a six-toughness creature. My solution was to add a land destruction element to the deck. The most crucial part of the LD package was Tectonic Edge, simply because Goblin Ruinblaster and Acidic Slime could be countered while Tectonic Edge could not.

Granted, it wasn’t actually Tectonic Edge that kept most Titans in check, but Mana Leak. In fact, I argued way back during the first “Ban Jace” crusade after GP Dallas that the fear of Titans led to Mana Leak and Mana Leak led to Jace, but that’s neither here nor there at this point. With Edge gone and Titans in the mix, I’m actually somewhat worried what the new Standard world will look like. It may be a sea of Mana Leaks all over again, though I would not be entirely surprised to see players looking in other directions for mana denial—Beast Within, perhaps? The other supposed answers like Despise just don’t cut it because they do absolutely nothing against an opponent with a second Titan in hand. 

Tectonic Edge did quite a bit more than keep opponents off of six mana, though. It killed some other pretty important nonbasic lands from Zendikar block as well. The loss of the Worldwake manlands will have a huge impact on the way we build decks, not to mention the way games play out, and on the evaluation of many future cards—most notably planeswalkers. It was pretty hard to justify paying five mana for Garruk, Primal Hunter when your opponent could just fire up a Celestial Colonnade and kill him immediately. The departure of Colonnade, Tar Pit, and friends also bodes well for Garruk’s newest incarnation, and Liliana as well, both of which offer board control elements that don’t match up terribly well against manlands. Decks will have to play *gasp* real creatures if they want to fight against planeswalkers in the new world or rely on cards like Oblivion Ring that at least let the walkers trade at an advantage.

Another major departure from the format that bodes well for the power of planeswalkers is Spell Pierce. I’ve gone on record arguing that Spell Pierce was a major source of Caw-Blade’s power because of the mana advantages it generated whether your opponent played around it or not, and I stand by that. The loss of Spell Pierce means that midrange non-creature spells are much more likely to resolve, which is good news for the likes of Tezzeret, who was not only vulnerable to Spell Pierce himself but tended to hang out with non-creature artifact types that also hated to get Pierced. I’m certainly looking forward to playing more with cards like Karn, Koth, and Elspeth, not to mention Volition Reins or Spine of Ish Sah. So many cards benched by the threat of Spell Pierce!

More recently, it hasn’t just been Spell Pierce keeping expensive spells in check. The Splinter Twin/Deceiver Exarch combo has been perhaps even more oppressive, making it remarkably difficult to justify playing any expensive spell, since if you tap out, you could simply die on the spot to INFINITY FAERIES (or, more accurately, infinite Clerics, but that doesn’t sound nearly as funny). It has been more Splinter Twin than anything else keeping the Titans in check, as it takes far too many Mountains for Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle to match the damage put out by INFINITY FAERIES!

Valakut, too, is gone, and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. While Valakut hasn’t been a major player in Standard for a while now, it served to keep any kind of midrange creature deck squashed beneath Primeval Titan’s sizeable thumb for the entire time the two of them were in Standard.

With it goes Vengevine, which after a strong showing after its release was destined for mediocrity for the duration of the Titans’ stay in Standard. It was the power of Vengevine that WotC thought would keep Jace and company in check, but they did not anticipate the oppressive power of Valakut keeping midrange green decks from ever really showing up in force.

It was not Vengevine decks that carried the mantle of the format’s aggressive decks, but rather Goblin Guide decks. Goblin Guide, which arrived in Standard amidst much controversy as to whether it was even good, leaves having proven itself the best pure aggressive one-drop in the game’s history. Goblin Guide even manages to make its way into Legacy Zoo lists, alongside such vaunted companions as Wild Nacatl. Every time someone declared red decks “dead” in Standard, a deck headlined by Goblin Guide came along and reminded people that reports of its death were greatly exaggerated, and yes, you really do need four Obstinate Baloths in your sideboard—who is now also on its way out, just in time for Timely Reinforcements to take its place and for cards like Liliana of the Veil and Smallpox to have their chance to shine.

Along with Goblin Guide goes Lightning Bolt, which saw remarkably little play in its waning days given that it’s one of the most efficient cards in Magic’s long history. That absence was a sign of just how warped the Standard format had become around Deceiver Exarch in particular—even control decks with red tended to play Dismember to kill the four-toughness combo piece at instant speed, and that’s in a format with Goblin Guide decks to punish them!

Even if Bolt wasn’t seeing much play in the end of its time in Standard, it doesn’t mean its departure won’t have meaningful consequences. Sure, it means that red decks will have to work that much harder to assemble twenty damage to the face (though the loss of Goblin Guide matters more there), but perhaps more importantly it makes it hard for any kind of controlling deck to run a damage-based removal spell. Lightning Bolt was so powerful both because it killed creatures for a single mana and because it often killed planeswalkers for a single mana. A world without Bolt is a world in which planeswalkers are dramatically more likely to live through the turn because, once again, decks will have to rely on real creatures to fight against them.

Those creatures are a lot more likely to live long enough to attack, as well. Perhaps more important than the departure of Lightning Bolt is the loss of Pyroclasm. Pyroclasm has been a Standard staple for quite some time now, and it’s finally on the way out. Creature decks have had to constantly live in fear of getting their board swept by Pyroclasm, and many have been hard pressed to compete with it. I would not be surprised to see green decks packing the classic Llanowar Elf plus Birds of Paradise package much more often than we did before, since fear of Pyroclasm played a big role in scaring off decks reliant on mana creatures. I expect we’ll see more aggressive swarm decks as well, although there is still Slagstorm to keep them from getting to out of hand.

One mana creature we won’t be seeing any more is Lotus Cobra. Cobra had a strange entrance to Standard. It was one of the most hyped creatures of all time, with people talking about how it could enable early Violent Ultimatums and similar shenanigans, but it quietly fell into obscurity when such dreams of Magical Christmasland proved to be just that—dreams. It wasn’t until Zvi showed the world how to use Lotus Cobra in PT San Diego with his Mythic deck that the little fellow started to get the respect and attention he deserved. Far from accelerating out Ultimatums, Cobra became a key component at jumping the curve just slightly and enabling faster Jaces, Titans, or even just Acidic Slimes. The loss of Cobra comes at a really inopportune time, since the Standard format is finally ripe for some big-mana cards. Perhaps it’s for the best, since a world without Spell Pierce that still has Cobra may have one too many Garruk, Primal Hunters showing up on turn three.

Perhaps the most quietly impactful card to be leaving in all of Standard is Preordain. While Jace and Stoneforge Mystic pulled all the heat, Preordain was as ubiquitous as those two and even since the bannings remains omnipresent. The Brazilian Nationals this past weekend featured a full 32 copies of Preordain in the Top 8. The selection and deck velocity provided by Preordain are easy to overlook (as Shaheen Soorani and Kyle Sanchez infamously argued against them early in M11’s time in Standard), but there’s a reason the card was just banned in Extended and Modern. It dramatically improves the ability for a controlling deck to find the right answers at the right time. It’s easy to look at a deck like U/B Control or Birthing Pod and claim that its major components are intact after the rotation, but one cannot overstate how important Preordain is to a deck that relies on finding the right removal spell at the right time, or the right creatures to curve out, or any specific card.

Similarly hurting the flexibility of a deck like U/B Control is the loss of Inquisition of Kozilek. I personally first found Inquisition in testing for PT San Juan and was incredibly impressed by how powerful it was against Mono Red in particular. It let me trade my early turns to disrupt theirs and let me know when it was safe to tap out with impunity without risk of dying. Inquisition proved to be a key card not only against aggressive decks, but in control mirrors as well, where the information gained by Inquisition was nearly as valuable as its ability to strip opponents of Mana Leak. The loss of Inquisition will strengthen aggressive strategies, since it’s much more difficult for control decks to play the full four copies of Despise, and even if they do they can’t take a Tempered Steel with it when they need to.

One of Inquisition’s favorite targets is one of the most important cards leaving Standard that has gotten little to no mention. Big Jace may have been banned, but Jace Beleren has stepped into his shoes quite impressively ever since. The only three-cost planeswalker prior to the new Liliana, Jace gave control decks a powerful tool to repeatedly gain card advantage while keeping their mana open. Perhaps as importantly, it gave opponents innumerable opportunities to make mistakes playing against him, attacking him when they shouldn’t and ignoring him when he needed to die. I keep seeing “Caw-Blade” decklists floating around with various creatures replacing the “Caw” component, but cards like Jace and Preordain were similarly important to the deck’s ability to play a control role, and replacing them with Invisible Stalkers just isn’t going to cut it.

I suppose I can’t talk about the cards leaving Standard without mentioning Squadron Hawks. It’s kind of funny—prior to PT Paris I played Squadron Hawks in nearly every tournament in which they were legal, and sometimes even got mocked for it, and then all of a sudden it became clear to the rest of the world that Hawks were perhaps the best creatures in Standard. One big impact of Squadron Hawk leaving the format is that creature removal is suddenly viable again in a meaningful way. One of the big reasons Squadron Hawks were so powerful with Swords is that they overcame the classic weakness of equipment decks, which was that your opponent could overload your creatures with removal and leave you with dead cards. Well, anyone who wanted to try to trade one for one with Squadron Hawks was fighting an incredibly uphill battle and one that could get even worse at any moment if you managed to sneak even a single hit in with a Sword of Feast and Famine.

So where does that leave us? I think planeswalkers are the big winners from the rotation, since many of the best cards against them are gone—I wouldn’t be shocked to see any of Tezzeret, Koth, Garruk, or Elspeth showing up dramatically more often than they did prior to the rotation. A move toward lots of planeswalkers makes playing aggressive creatures that much more important, especially now that those creatures no longer have to worry about many of the best removal spells that were keeping them down before. Lots of people will try to port control decks over from their pre-Innistrad shells, but they will quickly find that they need to make major changes to them to compete in the new environment when their decks don’t have the flexibility, consistency, and card flow that they’re used to.   

Or maybe I’m just looking to justify my desire to play some kind of sweet Werewolf deck! We’ll just have to wait and see…

Until next time,