The Innovator’s Guide To Dark Ascension Standard: Part 2

Dark Ascension is broadening Standard, making more strategies viable. Patrick covers some of the new decks with real potential: Werewolves, Mono-Green, Zombies, and Dredge to start. Try something new at SCG Open: Richmond!

“The murdered inhabitants of the Hollowhenge impart to the living the terror they felt in death.”

The time for Dark Ascension is upon us, like turning the lights off and playing games with Brian Kibler. This is one of the most aptly named Magic sets in quite some time, from a Standard perspective. It wasn’t long ago that black was the laughing stock of the format. Now, the transition that began with the printing of Lashwrithe, Phyrexian Obliterator, Phyrexian Crusader, Despise, Geth’s Verdict, Entomber Exarch, and more in New Phyrexia and that continued with Liliana and company in Innistrad is ready to kick into high gear. We have been seeing a deluge of white aggro decks for quite some time, but the tides are turning.

Monday , we discussed Dark Ascension cards likely to make an immediate impact on existing archetypes. Interestingly, while Dark Ascension offers a few tweaks and new features to existing strategies, it seems to have the lion’s share of its power in places that require new decks to be built around them. Lingering Souls and Sorin, Lord of Innistrad demand a B/W deck. Gravecrawler and Geralf’s Messenger demand non-infect black aggro. Huntmaster of the Fells and Strangleroot Geist suggest R/G Aggro or midrange (though both could go a number of places).

Today’s focus will be on exploring new strategies that might be possible with Dark Ascension. During my Innistrad set review, I discussed a number of theoretical lists, including U/B Control with maindeck Curse, G/W Tokens, W/u Humans with Moorland Haunt, Volt Charge Red, nearly Mono-U Delver with Runechanter’s Pike, and more. Many of these ideas seemed crazy by the standards of the day but held glimpses of future possibilities. Of course many of the other ideas did not work out so well, such as Burning Vengeance, RUG with Mayor, and Heartless Architect. The point is, when we are afraid of coming up with ideas that don’t end up working out, we come up with far fewer ideas total (since the vast majority of truly “new” ideas don’t work out, in deckbuilding).

Want to come up with more ideas? I am not just talking Magic decks, now. Anyone who wants to can increase the number of ideas they come up with tremendously, and as it turns out, our planet greatly values that. This is an interesting predicament, since our society is also set up to beat down kids everywhere into mindless conformity (which has the opposite effect). The result is a culture that breeds conformity but tremendously rewards divergent thinking (when properly utilized), since our society still wants the “new ideas,” and there are fewer people keeping their minds open.

Supply and demand, baby!

Anyone who wants to can come up with more and better ideas by remembering that there are lots of possible answers to a question and by having the courage to have stupid ideas. Want to increase your creativity and have more ideas? Read these articles:

(…but then hurry back!)


“Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have values. Divergent thinking is not the same thing as creativity; however it is an essential capacity for creativity. It is the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of possible ways of interpreting a question, to think laterally, not just linear or convergent thought.” -Sir Ken Robinson

Be Stupid

“Brilliant ideas are stupid ideas that worked.”

Dark Ascension is certainly not the deepest set in recent years; however it is high impact. The first example that comes to mind is Morningtide, a set that really didn’t have nearly as many Constructed tournament cards as others; however the ones it had made a huge impact. It would be easy to say “Herf, derf, Delver is going to be the best, derfity-herf-derf.” Remember, though, Delver was one of the stupid ideas last time. Instead of worry about whether our ideas sound stupid, let’s just have some fun and imagine ideas that might be possible…

…for instance, how about a dedicated Werewolf deck?

Immerwolf adds to Major of Avabruck, Full Moon’s Rise, and Moonmist for tribal synergies. Immerwolf locking creatures in Werewolf form is adorable and could help Werewolves perform well against opponents light on removal.

Huntmaster of the Fells gives us much needed raw power (as well as additional creature removal). He is the new Werewolf most likely to end up a lot of other places, and with good reason. Multiple bodies makes him good against removal. He starts as four power for four but transforms into better than eight. Getting used to playing with and against the Huntmaster will take some practice, as he is rather complex. The biggest factors holding him back, at the moment, are people not yet understanding him or where to put him. Still, you don’t need a Magic 8-Ball to predict that people are starting to realize how good he is, as he has already gone up from $14.99 to $17.49 to $19.99 over the past 48 hours.

Finally, Wolfbitten Captive gives us a much-needed second one-drop. He isn’t amazing or anything, but his abilities do work right for an actual full-on Werewolf deck. You play him turn one, then pump on two (so that you don’t play a spell). Now you can still bash for two on three and drop another Werewolf. If it is Immerwolf, no problem, but even if it is Daybreak Ranger (or any of the others), you can easily take the fourth turn off and pump this Wolfbitten non-kitten.

The flaw with such a strategy? Well, it isn’t going to work very well against an opponent with a ton of one-cost cantrips—that is for sure. Instants like Vapor Snag may also be problematic. So as long as no one plays a deck like that, it should be smooth sailing…

Okay, so Delver is going to be a problem. I get that. At least we have Daybreak Ranger! Most likely, if a tournament-caliber Werewolf deck emerges, it is going to end up slightly less all-in, with more removal. The problem is, of course, that red removal is not nearly as good this week as it was last week. Lingering Souls, Gravecrawler, Geralf’s Messenger, Faithless Looting / Unburial Rites, Gather the Townsfolk, Geist of Saint Traft, and more spell out hostility quite clearly. Add to that Tragic Slip helping push black over the top for removal, and we are looking at a major paradigm shift in Standard. Black is the best removal color by far, even in aggressive decks. Black also has significantly better weenies than red, at this point. It is almost as if the Darkness is *ahem* Ascending.

Ratchet Bomb’s rise is an unfortunate turn of events for Werewolf decks, as Bombs meant for tokens are all too likely to end up killing a few innocent Werewolves as collateral damage. Magic doesn’t exactly have a TSA to keep us safe from the mean people that hate us for our freedom, does it؟ A transformed Werewolf’s casting cost is, of course, zero. In addition to getting blown out by what may be one of the most popular cards in the format, Werewolves cannot effectively utilize it against token swarms. All is not lost, however. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Is it possible that Corrosive Gale could make an appearance? Instant speed works well with Werewolves, but the Phyrexian mana cost makes it a surprise splash out of anyone.

While Huntmaster of Fells is likely to find his greatest success alongside Daybreak Ranger, it is—more likely than not—not so dedicated to the tribe. Seeing Strangleroot Geist and Huntmaster in need of homes has me immediately drawn to Kibler-style R/G. If you are a person who walks around wanting to play R/G aggro in the old format, how in the world are you going to be able to get away from it now that you have two awesome new weapons?

Here is a first attempt:

The world probably won’t know the right build of this deck until it sees Kibler’s deck tech in Honolulu, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a serious deck in there somewhere.

Strangleroot Geist is just loony. Seriously. You can tell he is going to be awesome on rate alone. A 2/1 haste for two… sure. But you also get a 3/2 body for free? That guy is really, really good. He doesn’t just beat down the old-fashioned way. No, he is also well versed in swordsmanship. The turn after you play a Sword, you can play the Geist, equip, and attack. That is a surprisingly powerful and effective maneuver. Even if they Gut Shot him in response, he comes back and can attack for three immediately. If you had the mana lying around, you’d be able to equip him again! He is awesome against black removal, awesome against cheap creatures, awesome against sweepers, and awesome on his own. Who could play a double green spell on turn two? The better question is who needed to? We didn’t have access to Strangleroot Geist before. Now that we do, our mana is going to look different.

Predator Ooze is an interesting new card that will likely be dismissed all too quickly by the untrained eye. After all, if double green for Strangleroot Geist scares people away, what are they going to say about triple green? Predator Ooze actually has several things going for it. First, and foremost, it is a fantastic Green Sun’s Zenith target. Spending GGG on a Predator Ooze is actually a reasonable deal anyway, in terms of mana efficiency. It can be tough to evaluate these things because Magic doesn’t have a ton of good indestructible creatures. However, the biggest reason for this is that indestructible creatures are rarely printed on bodies so cheap.

Green Sun’s Zenith has improved tremendously anyway because of Strangleroot Geist and Huntmaster of the Fells, so it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see Predator Ooze show up as an occasional bullet for such decks. He gets weaker the more black removal people play (Tragic Slip, Fume Spitter, Geth’s Verdict, Liliana of the Veil), but against those people, you just search up Strangleroot Geist.

The other factor going for Predator Ooze is that he is not alone. Strangleroot Geist will already incentivize people to experiment more with heavy green, and Predator Ooze harkens back to our Dungrove Elder roots. For instance, maybe we could do something like:

Vorapede is another new possibility that isn’t exactly “breath-taking,” but only costing five is a nice start (dodging the ridiculous competition at six). He does fight removal well, and trample actually looks particularly relevant in the new format. Add to this how well vigilance works with undying, and you are starting to get somewhere. It is still real tough to be a fatty in the world of Titans, but at least Vorapede brings some new gimmicks to the party.

As you can see, I am a fan of Sword of War and Peace right now. Lingering Souls is just amazing, and both Moorland Haunt and Humans were already no slouches. It is an effective way to turn every random bird, every Strangleroot Geist, every Predator Ooze into a lethal threat (plus it is just so good with Geist!). This particular Blade isn’t going to work well against that ascending darkness we discussed, but Sword of Feast and Famine out of the sideboard will!

I don’t know what the right home is for it yet, but I can’t help but think about the synergy between undying and proliferate. That is a lot of incidental +1/+1 counters lying around.

Another possible direction for green aggro is to be base green, but splash other colors. For instance:

Young Wolf, particularly, is a card that I suspect we do not yet come close to fully understanding. It is thing of wonder that so many people can dismiss it so quickly, despite having dismissed Doomed Traveler the same way and having been proven wrong. What is even more wondrous is that children seem to be able to figure this type of thing out better than adults (who are generally so much more rigid in their thinking).

Could Young Wolf end up homeless? Absolutely. His rate is not so great that he can avoid the risk. That said, I would hate to be a black or red aggro deck that faces one of these…

Speaking of black aggro, let’s take a look at some possible black aggro builds. We first discussed black’s two new powerhouses, Gravecrawler and Geralf’s Messenger, here . Geralf’s Messenger is currently a $5 card. For fun, let’s imagine that we have invested ten million dollars in Geralf’s Messengers and see where we are next month. I wonder if we should be reading anything into Gravecrawler recently moving up to $8 from $6?

Let’s take a look at an extreme, as in taking the Zombie tribe to the extreme:

It would be easy to disregard the Zombie tribe, if only because of how awful their two-drops are. Of course that would also be hasty and wrong (and not the good kind of haste).

Two-power creatures for one in a color with good, cheap removal is a recipe for success. This is the red deck of the format. Tragic Slip is far, far better than Galvanic Blast. Geth’s Verdict is the removal spell red wishes it had. Fume Spitter is a Mogg Fanatic that is actually good. Geralf’s Messenger puts Chandra’s Phoenix to shame.

Obviously the Unbreathing Horde, Cemetery Reaper, Walking Corpse, Highborn Ghoul aspect of this deck is the loosest, but that just means there is room to improve it. I definitely think this is already an FNM-worthy starting point that is going to continue to improve as the format evolves. The Zombie tribe has such better cards than, say, the Vampire tribe. For reference:

This is not where you want to be (unless you just absolutely love a challenge and are the type of person who could make Treefolk tribal work during Lorwyn). What is more appealing is the thought of using red removal with actually good creatures (aka Zombies). It is probably the wrong way, but here is a possible build that treats the Zombies like a Mono-R deck:

Man, it would be so nice to get Diregraf Ghoul, Gravecrawler, and Stromkirk Noble in the same deck, but that manabase sounds ambitious. It also sounds unlikely for fitting in Geralf’s Messenger, which isn’t just tragic on power level, but it also makes Gravecrawler frown (and why would you want that?).

Moving on, Lingering Souls and Sorin, Lord of Innistrad are the other two powerhouses that demand a deck built around them. We discussed them already here  and then on Monday here . Long story short, Lingering Souls is my pick for best card in the set. It is a card so good, it is worth considering without the “cantrip” ability, and the card you draw from the cantrip is way better than a random card anyway. The card is very literally twice as good as a card is supposed to be, in the styling of Cryptic Command and Bloodbraid Elf. I have it below those two, but that is a pretty impressive class to be in.

I do think people have to be careful when building B/W Tokens, as it is an easy deck to build wrong. It isn’t just about following a script. It is about writing a script that matches up well against the format you anticipate. For instance, being stone dead to a Sword of War and Peace or a Ratchet Bomb is crazy. Is Stony Silence really out of the question?

Birthing Pod is a very powerful card that we should have our eye on how to abuse, especially with undying working so well with it. There are so many possible combinations of colors and creatures, we probably want to first start with a little theory (rather than just building at random). Since undying is the biggest addition, what does this tell us about Pod decks? Maybe they want to be more aggressive to take advantage of creatures like Strangleroot Geist? Young Wolf into Strangleroot Geist into Blade Splicer into Huntmaster of the Fells is a lot more token-esque of an approach.

Dark Ascension has quite a few other build-around-me’s of its own for us to explore. For instance, Faithless Looting demands to be experimented with. Here is a crude try:

Faithless Looting is an exceptional enabler for the “graveyard” creatures and flashback, but the card that really excites me in here is Mulch. Other than Thought Scour, no matter what you hit, you are going to be happy. If anything, this might be an indicator that Thought Scour is out of place (and should perhaps be Screeching Skaab or Jace’s Archivist). If you reveal lands, they go to your hand. Reveal creatures, and your Boneyard Wurms, Splinterfrights, and Ghoultrees are turned out. Reveal spells, and you can flash them back! Lands in your hand are great to make sure you can cast your spells, but they are also fantastic cards to discard to Faithless Looting or Merfolk Looter.

We are short of interaction here, but Gnaw to the Bone is just crazy. So many problems can be solved with a simple “Gain 26 life. Okay, flash it back, gain 32 more.” We can dredge most of our library very quickly, which ensures that we will likely hit one early enough to buy us time to hit the other and do whatever else we had in mind (such as flooding the board with 10/10s). Wild Hunger gives us a solution to some token-making jerk chump-blocking our DIs every turn. It is possible that we want Kessig Wolf Run instead. It is nice that we can dredge into Wild Hunger, but Mulch does help us find a Wolf Run fast.

Shattered Perception is another exciting enabler to keep in mind, but I was finding that the Dredgevine-style build ran out of cards in hand too fast. It is a sweet combo with Mulch, of course, but where it really shines is in conjunction with Unburial Rites. Everyone knows that Faithless Looting is an excellent way to set up Unburial Rites + fatty of your choice; however Shattered Perception provides much needed redundancy. The turn-three Shattered Perception, turn-four Unburial is awesome if you get it, and if you don’t, you have a fresh new hand to look for it with. 

Altar of the Lost and Secrets of the Dead are two more possible build-around-me’s; however they aren’t exactly breaking any power-level records. It is nice that Altar of the Lost does something you need (make more mana faster and fix your colors); however Secrets is just more of what we already have too much of. If I were going to work with this shell, I would try to keep it very burn oriented. Snapcaster Mage and Delver of Secrets are both options, though we may want to use too many sweepers to want them. If we have lots of cheap burn spells, we can buy ourselves time to get ahead with our card draw and enchantments. Additionally, it lets us play a more proactive game against controlling decks. I am concerned that we are looking at a lot of potential splash damage from Gravecrawler, Lingering Souls, and Faithless Looting/Unburial Rites.

In addition to possible tournament applications, there are a lot of sweet puzzles to be unlocked in this set. For instance, what are we supposed to do with Drogskol Captain? There are so few cheap Spirits, a dedicated Spirit deck isn’t ready yet. That said, he might work extremely well in a U/W aggro deck with Phantasmal Image and/or Phyrexian Metamorph. Copy him and you already have two hexproof flying lords that are out of Whipflare range. Additionally, Moorland Haunt couldn’t be happier, to say nothing of Lingering Souls and Midnight Haunting.

Fateful hour is another one that sits in the back of one’s mind, taunting it. How do we abuse this? Hex Parasite into Gather the Townsfolk into Thraben Doomsayer or Rally the Peasants (ideally with a Gut Shot in hand) is a Magical Christmasland scenario, but is there something more realistic we can evolve it towards?

Overall, Dark Ascension’s 25th best card isn’t going to revolutionize the industry, but its most important cards are positioned brilliantly. We have reached a point in Standard where U/W aggro decks are dominating, with only Wolf Run Ramp and Control giving them a good fight. Black Aggro, R/G Aggro (or midrange), B/W Tokens, and Dredge/Reanimator/Vengeance all want a shot at the title.

We get our first taste of Dark Ascension Standard this weekend in Richmond, at the SCG Open. Then, just days later, Pro Tour Dark Ascension in Honolulu will launch the format into a new season. One of the things I love most about Pro Tours held immediately after a set release (before the set is available on Magic Online) is how everyone is forced to actually come up with a deck. This is the epitome of a good opportunity to brew.

Last year Caw-Blade, Tezzeret, Quest, and Boros were the big winners. The year before that U/W with Jace, Boss Naya, Mythic, and Jund. What will dominate Standard’s 2012 premiere…?

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”