The Innovator’s Guide To Dark Ascension Standard: Part 1

Patrick Chapin begins his review of Dark Ascension. What updates should you be making to the old strategies of Standard? What cards are people underrating?

“Do not speak of this to the elders. They look unfavorably upon my indulgences.”

Today and Wednesday, I will be taking a look at the Standard format with the addition of Dark Ascension. Part 1 (today) will focus on updating existing strategies. Part 2 will focus on new strategies that are possible (or possibly finally viable) as a result of Dark Ascension. It is not about finding the exact list today that we will be playing in three months. It is also not about suggesting the most likely best choices for every slot. Instead, we are trying to figure out how to use each new card.

How many people gave Doomed Traveler 1 star or rated it as Constructed unplayable? What about Midnight Haunting? Runechanter’s Pike? Delver of Secrets was not exactly a popular card Prerelease weekend. Just imagine if instead of writing these kinds of cards off, we asked ourselves what it would take to make them work?

For instance, during the Innistrad set review four months ago, I sketched out a nearly Mono-Blue Delver deck with Delver of Secrets, Runechanter’s Pike, Vapor Snag, Phantasmal Image, Gitaxian Probe, and more. Was that exact list loose? For sure! Playing all those sweet cards that didn’t become popular until months later was outside-the-box thinking, but not all of the ideas are going to be gems.

For instance, Deranged Assistant, Divination, and Twisted Image didn’t end up making the cut in the real world, and I didn’t have Moorland Haunt. However, had I not experimented with these cards and considered them with an open mind, I would have first heard about how to properly use the above cards from reading someone else’s tournament winning decklist.

The point is it is not about correctly rating Delver of Secrets or Runechanter’s Pike. It is about understanding them. Ratings require context by definition, and in Magic that context changes a lot. As tournament players, our goal should be to understand every new card. There is nothing wrong with discriminating among cards, and some cards are going to be better than others. However, an open mind is vital to having new ideas. Dismissing ideas, cards, people, whatever, is the fastest way to stop gain understanding about them.

So, with an eye towards experimenting with what is possible, let’s consider each of the main Standard archetypes and what they might gain from Dark Ascension!

Previous Tier 1

Wolf Run

Previous Tier 2

Tempered Steel
G/W Tokens
Birthing Pod

Up first, the format’s top dog, Delver. The first card that Delver decks should work with is Thought Scour. “Mental Note you” is not really supposed to be pointed in that direction most of the time. Outside of being another cantrip that activates Delver, it actually has a lot of synergies with the Delver strategy. The most talked about interaction—and with good reason—is with Ponder. We can turn 1 Ponder, keep the good card, then on our upkeep Thought Scour ourselves to get rid of the two cards we don’t want.

Putting our cards into the graveyard is something we want to be doing anyway. It powers up our Moorland Haunt and Runechanter’s Pike (if we play it) and gives us more options for Snapcaster Mage. It is pretty sweet with Snapcaster Mage anyway, since it gives you instant-speed card draw (unlike Ponder and Gitaxian Probe). Thought Scour will likely end up in lots of places, as it synergizes with flashback, graveyard recursion (like Gravecrawler), and more. It is not that Thought Scour is insane on power or anything; it is just the right tool for a lot of sweet synergies.

One move I haven’t seen people discussing is Thought Scour with Delver of Secrets for selection. For instance, you could play Delver on turn 1, then look and miss. Now that you have seen that your top card is a land that you don’t want to draw, Thought Scour yourself on your upkeep before you draw!

Another nice feature of Thought Scour in Delver decks is that it lets you cut more of the “bad cards.” Delver of Secrets, Snapcaster Mage, Mana Leak, Geist of Saint Traft, and Ponder are all really strong. Many of the other cards people play are not nearly as good, but you have to flesh out your 60. Thought Scour lets you draw the good ones more often. Here is a possible update to Todd Anderson SCG Open winning list:

Saving Grasp lets us reset our Snapcaster Mage twice but also protects a Delver from a Galvanic Blast or a Geist of Saint Traft from a Black Sun’s Zenith. It is a super sweet card to mill with Thought Scour and actually incentives us to play more one-ofs, since we will presumably be Snapping more. In fact, we should also consider Feeling of Dread, which can actually be quite a potent combat trick. The main problem with Feeling of Dread is that it can’t tap a creature that has a Sword of War and Peace equipped to it.

Delver of Secrets is definitely the deck to beat, going into the new season. Thought Scour helps it a bit but isn’t going to blow the door off the hinges or anything, like so many Batterskulls. I imagine Delver decks will continue to do quite well and will be one of the defining influences in the format.

Other cards to consider include: Bone to Ash, Faith’s Shield, Gather the Townsfolk, Ray of Revelation, Lingering Souls, Sorin, Lord of Innistrad, and Evolving Wilds.

Do Delver decks even want to consider slowing themselves down with a third color? How much overlap is there between Delver and Tokens? Is it possible that a return to Illusions is warranted? What about burn, now that we have Evolving Wilds? Ray of Revelation, in particular, seems important, as it is just going to be brutal against Tokens and Humans, destroying Honor of the Pure, Intangible Virtue, and Oblivion Ring. Humans and Tokens are two of the strategies that appear to have gained the most, so getting extra percentage against them is going to be important.

Speaking of Humans:

Gather the Townsfolk is a huge new addition, giving Humans a lot more nut draws. Because the tokens are Humans, it double buffs Champion of the Parish, forming a Delver of our own. If we follow with an Honor of the Pure on turn three, we are already swinging for eight and threatening lethal on turn four with any Human!

Loyal Cathar is discussed at length in this preview article . It is a Human on the way in but also provides much needed staying power against Day of Judgment. Doomed Traveler was a sleeper that most people missed, so fewer people are likely to miss Loyal Cather this time around. He is solid but not breaking any power level records, so Grand Abolisher is also a very reasonable option if control gains popularity. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben has received a lot of hype (and rightfully so) for powered formats but is also a consideration for Standard. Being a legend greatly limits how many we can play, but the real questions are going to be:

1) How many creatures will opponents play compared to spells? If Standard is a creature-dominated format, Thalia’s ability means little, but if everyone is casting library manipulation or token makers every turn, she could get great fast.

2) How much are people hosing one-toughness? A 2/1 first strike body for 1W is respectable, but if there are still Gut Shots and Curses of Death’s Hold, we may want to slow our roll.

As for Mana Leak, that is really just going to be a question of context. Maybe there should be more blue, with Geist of Saint Traft and Negate. Maybe there shouldn’t be any blue at all! If we cut blue, we could easily add Lingering Souls and Sorin, Lord of Innistrad. (Noticing a theme…?)

If everyone continues to aim at Delver, Humans could be the aggro deck of choice. It gains lots of great options and could go in a number of exciting directions. For instance, Mayor of Avabruck and Gavony Township are more appealing than ever, due to Gather the Townsfolk and even Increasing Devotion. Where is the line between Humans and Tokens? Does there need to be one? As a note, added green would give us access to Ray of Revelation and a sure fire edge in the mirror.

As a final note, Thraben Heretic has mostly flown under the radar but is an important Human to keep in mind if graveyard decks spike due to Faithless Looting and the like.

While most eyes will start on the various blue and white aggro decks that currently dominate the format, if we are not careful, Hawaii is going to be a repeat of Worlds. That was another tournament where everyone had their sights on the blue and white aggro decks of the era. With everyone gunning for Delver, Human, and Tokens, Iyanaga revolutionized Wolf Run and preyed on the low toughness creatures that were so popular.

Dark Ascension doesn’t offer a ton for Wolf Run, but it does have a few options to consider, plus the rest of the cards may change the context to make Wolf Run a better or worse call. Huntmaster of the Fells is the first card that jumps off the page.

This guy is a freak of nature! Wolf Run is not going to be the best home for him, so we will be discussing him at greater length Wednesday. Suffice to say, this guy is awesome and will get even better once he finds a real home that makes good use of him. In traditional Wolf Run, he may be merely a sweet Green Sun’s Zenith target. He is part Obstinate Baloth, part Kitchen Finks, part Daybreak Ranger, all awesome.

Strangleroot Geist is another card not properly utilized in Wolf Run but may make an appearance. He is a fine Green Sun’s Zenith target and is especially strong in a Dungrove Elder build or an R/G Aggro deck like the one Kibler played at GP Orlando. Strangleroot Geist is also going to make Birthing Pod very attractive, possibly in a build related to Reid Duke Wolf Run Pod list. The best home for Strangleroot Geist is probably going to be an archetype not yet mainstream, such as Mono-Green, (fast) R/G Aggro, or dedicated Pod, meaning we will cover him at greater length Wednesday.

As far as positioning goes, Conley Woods‘ take on Wolf Run may prove the best positioned. Ratchet Bomb and Curse of Death’s Hold are powerful weapons against the tokens to come, and Glissa is looking better and better. There aren’t a lot of great options from Dark Ascension, though Tragic Slip is a very powerful card that should be kept in mind, depending on the format.

Another Wolf Run possibility that is probably going to be overlooked by a lot of people is Young Wolf. You would think that after Doomed Traveler, people would learn, but so far it looks like most people are bashing on this guy all the same. Are you kidding? Really? You really think a 1/1 flier is better than a 2/2 ground creature? Yeah, of course Doomed Traveler is in a better color; it is in the color that has Doomed Traveler! Green has gained Young Wolf, Strangleroot Geist, Huntmaster of the Fells, and much more. The balance of power is changing! Young Wolf is much more exciting for a Mono-Green Aggro deck but should be kept in mind in any Green Sun’s Zenith deck, as it is just fantastic against creature swarms by land.

Brewing Control decks day one is always tricky. What are you even trying to beat? Narrowing ourselves to just U/B or just U/W, Grixis or Esper, or even 5-color is prone to making us lose sight of all that we could be doing. Instead, let’s take a look at some of the exciting options to keep in mind for building new control decks.

The seemingly innocuous Evolving Wilds is one of the most important cards in the set. I can’t tell you how many decks Michael Jacob and I have built over the past four months and said to ourselves, “If only Evolving Wilds were legal…” We both played Shimmering Grotto! How do you think we are going to react to getting a five-color land that isn’t stone-terrible?

Evolving Wilds doesn’t just open up four-color and five-color manabases, it makes three-color builds far more reliable. Take my Grixis list, for instance. Evolving Wilds would have been a nice addition for smoothing out the colors plus would make my M10/Innistrad duals untap more often. On top of that, it combos with Ponder to provide even better selection (to say nothing of the minor deck-thinning).

Evolving Wilds actually has quite a number of other synergies in the format. For instance, it works well with Sun Titan, if you are building a five-color deck similar to MJ’s recent brew. You can use it to shuffle your library after a Delver shows you something you don’t want. Finally, more than anything, it provides a second dual land for enemy-colored decks! Black/White Tokens, Blue/Red Delver (or Burning Vengeance), Blue/Green Architect, Green/Black Ramp (or Aggro), and White/Red Aggro (Tempered Steel with Rally and Galvanic Blast?) are possibilities now.

Bone to Ash is another option to consider for control. Yes, it is obviously significantly worse than Exclude, but we do live in different times. It is card advantage and a great answer to Titans, Consecrated Sphinx, and Wurmcoil Engine. Is that what the new format is going to be about? It is hard to tell, but this is a potent option, if it comes to that. Some compare it to Summoner’s Bane, but in decks that want to play this sort of thing, I think drawing a card is going to be more relevant than a 2/2. Additionally, Zendikar was a faster world. Of course, all of this said, four-mana spells are pretty awesome these days, so a mediocre two-for-one could easily be the wrong way. This isn’t exactly Cryptic Command

Ray of Revelation is an extremely exciting new addition that has me looking at going all five colors. Honor of the Pure is by far the biggest problem for Grixis out of Humans. Oblivion Ring is also effective, and Angelic Destiny can occasionally lead to blowouts. Ray of Revelation is so good against these cards, it is sickening. I am literally sick to my stomach thinking about the brutality. I am not sure I can even go on writing this article.

And yet I must.

Ray of Revelation in a deck with Curse of Death’s Hold is just going to maul tokens, and the threat of plays like these will likely force Token decks to choose slightly more modest builds, or the blowout-centric new brews will lose.

Tragic Slip is an obvious upgrade to Virulent Wound or Wring Flesh but is nowhere near as good in U/B Control as it is in a black aggro deck. On the topic of U/B Control, it should be noted that Ratchet Bomb’s stock has risen to historic highs. Sweeping tokens, hitting enchantments, hitting flip cards, outs to Sorin, there are more reasons than ever to use Bombs.

Another note on U/B, Curse of Death’s Hold is going to be more important than ever. Outside of the obvious token decks and Delver everywhere, new threats demand it. Gravecrawler is potentially a nightmare for U/B. We have Dissipate, but that is a tough fight to win. Much better to lock them all out with a Curse. Additionally, I’d like to note that Gravecrawler could even go into a U/B Control deck, possibly with blades. He doesn’t block, true, but he works really well with Forbidden Alchemy, throws his hand on a blade for ya, and even combos with Grave Titan (in addition to Diregraf Ghoul, Geralf’s Messenger, and the like).

This raises the point that Celestial Purge’s stock has risen. Hitting Sorin, Gravecrawler, Geralf’s Messenger, and more means this is a sideboard card we will be seeing a lot more of, especially when combined with Snapcaster Mage. Delver and Human decks are surely going to remain too popular to maindeck it, sadly.

Altar of the Lost isn’t strictly a “control card” but is an important option to consider. It does lead us down a road towards cards like Secrets of the Dead and Burning Vengeance, but it isn’t clear that it is vital to actually go that far. Altar of the Lost does what those decks actually need and pays us to play cards like Ravings, Alchemy, Devil’s Play, Grudge, and Ray of Revelation (aka cards we want to play anyway). In particular, it is adorable that Alter lets blue/red decks splash-back Alchemy, Grudge, Ray of Revelation, Lingering Souls, Unburial Rites, and more. Maybe we use four Evolving Wilds and one each of the other basics, but we even have access to Faithless Looting to discard those cards so that we can cast them off the Altars.

Thought Scour is a minor tweak but is certainly worth considering, especially in a flashback heavy deck with Ponders. Still, we must be careful to not become “all air.”

Tempered Steel doesn’t gain much from Dark Ascension, but it does gain Ray of Revelation (as I expect G/W Wrapter-style to be the new standard for Tempered Steel). Notice how many decks are not gaining a ton from Dark Ascension, yet there are a lot of really powerful cards, as we will be discussing Wednesday. This is a clear indicator that this set is going to shake things up a ton. Lingering Souls, Sorin, Geralf’s Messenger, Gravecrawler, Huntmaster of the Fells, Strangleroot Geist, Ray of Revelation… It is almost as if WotC anticipated what the best strategies were going to be and designed this set to completely refresh the metagame…

The biggest addition to G/W Tokens is probably Ray of Revelation, but Young Wolf deserves a second look. Sleep on him if you want to…

More importantly, Dark Ascension offers enough support to launch B/W Tokens into the top tier. Lingering Souls is on the short list for best card in the set, and Sorin is no slouch. An in-depth discussion of B/W Tokens can be found here . Here is an alternative list, experimenting with some of the other new cards:

Remember, just because we are B/W Tokens, that doesn’t mean we can’t take pages out of other decks’ playlists, such as Champion of the Parish. Champion with Gather is obviously exciting, but Increasing Devotion is potentially silly. This is definitely starting to get into new deck territory, but if G/W Tokens has a future, I wonder if it means adding black and playing all three colors? Gavony Township is still more exciting than Vault of the Archangel, and Mayor Avabruck has new applications.

Mono-Black Infect didn’t really gain a lot from Dark Ascension, save maybe a Tragic Slip. Perhaps B/G Infect has greater chances now, however. Increasing Savagery is exciting on any infect creature, and Woodland Cemetery and Evolving Wilds make the manabase more realistic than before. As for Mono-Black, well, Mono-Black was one of the biggest gainers of them all, as discussed here . More on Mono-Black to come!

Mono Red’s main new weapon, Hellrider, is not really that different from Hero of Oxid Ridge. Now, keep in mind, Hero of Oxid Ridge is super sweet, so this is not for nothing. It is just that Hellrider doesn’t really offer a new dimension. Hellrider may not have Hero’s “can’t block” ability, but it does deal just as much damage, while having a bigger toughness (which is important in the world of Whipflare, Galvanic Blast, and Snapcaster Mage). Verdict: Hellrider is probably the four-drop of choice for red decks, though I am not so sure that is where you want to be, at the moment.

Finally, Birthing Pod decks are definitely going to need to be redesigned from the ground up. What colors will they even be in the future? Strangleroot Geist is an obvious card to start with but also one that suggests a more aggressive direction. Huntmaster of the Fells is an awesome option, if you can support it. Honestly, I think Young Wolf is among the most exciting Pod creatures. He is an aggressive body that leads to scary openings into Strangleroot Geist.

Alright, join me on Wednesday for the first major brew session with Dark Ascension. This is one of those sets that focuses the majority of its power into creating new archetypes, making me particularly excited to see its impact on Standard. What decks do you want to see Wednesday? What are the top 3 cards that deserve to have decks built around them or decks including them?

Top 10 Standard cards from Dark Ascension:

10. Thought Scour

9. Ray of Revelation

8. Strangleroot Geist

7. Gravecrawler

6. Evolving Wilds

5. Huntmaster of the Fells

4. Faithless Looting

3. Geralf’s Messenger

2. Sorin, Lord of Innistrad

1. Lingering Souls

(Honorable Mention: Young Wolf, for underrated value)

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”