Imagine the following scenario…
Opponent: Arid Mesa, sacrifice to get Stomping Ground, Wild Nacatl, 17 life.
You: Plains, Oust Wild Nacatl, opponent goes back to 20 life and will be drawing a one-drop on turn 3 unless he shuffles before then.
Opponent: Temple Garden, 18 life, Tarmogoyf.
You: Plains, Wall of Omens, draw a card.
Opponent: Marsh Flats, sacrifice to get Sacred Foundry, 15, Knight of the Reliquary.
You: Plains, Oust Knight of the Reliquary, opponent goes to 18 life. Sit there with Path to Exile for when they redraw the Knight of the Reliquary in a couple turns.
Opponent: Attack with Tarmogoyf, Bolt Wall of Omens after it blocks, then replay the Wild Nacatl that got Ousted two turns ago.
You: Plains, play another Wall of Omens, draw a card.
Opponent: Attack with both creatures, you block one, go to 17 life. Opponent replays Knight of the Reliquary.
You: Path to Exile Knight of the Reliquary during your end step.
You: Untap, play Plains, cast Gideon Jura and -2 loyalty (to 4 total) to kill Tarmogoyf, still with a Wall of Omens in play to block their Wild Nacatl if they attack with it next turn, up on card advantage by 2 cards, and at a very healthy life total.
Zoo was by far the most played deck this past Extended season (in various incarnations), and the White cards in Standard right now do not seem to have any problem at all defending against this onslaught of under-costed monsters. Just imagine how little difficulty it will have with the creature decks in Standard where 3/3s cost more than one mana. I have not even mentioned cards like Perimeter Captain, Puncturing Light, or Day of Judgment. These cards are narrower in their application and less main deck worthy, but can easily be sideboard to improve creature matchups. I have not even mentioned the most powerful card in Standard: Elspeth, Knight-Errant, which would obviously be an auto-include in such a list. Oh wait, you’re telling me there is a 3/3 for one in Standard and that it is a Mono White one-drop creature that attacks for 3 on turn 2? And with first strike? And with even more bonuses? You must be talking about Student of Warfare, the best one-drop White creature ever printed. Wow, it really must be a very good time to be a White mage right now. Let’s look at a few potential deck lists with which to start our testing.
Mono White Control
The deck could also use Perimeter Captain or Kor Firewalker in the sideboard for red decks, but those matchups seem pretty good already, and besides, the popularity of red will likely decline in the coming months once people realize there are other options for beating Jund. The white Planeswalkers (Elspeth and Gideon) are so insanely game-dominating and hard to deal with that the format will have to significantly adapt to compete with them. I imagine Pithing Needle, Oblivion Ring, and Maelstrom Pulse will rise in popularity as people begin to realize just how powerful these cards are. Student of Warfare is an amazing earlier drop on offense, but even if your plan is to play defense, what better card than a 3/3 first striker will hold off an opposing offense? He can quickly turn into a short clock after only investing a few turns of your earlier mana into him — you know, during the turns where you cannot yet cast your Planeswalkers. I believe that is an acceptable opportunity cost (okay, I said it once, no more economics). Let’s look at a more aggressive version of Mono White.
Mono White Aggro
This deck showcases what White can do on the offensive end. During my San Diego testing, I searched hard for a worthwhile one-drop. Steppe Lynx was great, but I wanted 6-8 creatures to cast on the first turn, and none of the alternatives were up to par. Elite Vanguard was just too small and too generic, unable to attack past anything. Kor Duelist was okay, but he required an equipment on him to be worth anything, and a lot of times I needed the equipment on a different guy, making him too unreliable. Enter Student of Warfare… Not only is he reliable on his own but he gets way better with equipment! First strike much wearing a Basilisk Collar? Double Strike much wearing a Trusty Machete? Wow, this guy is insane! The downside is that you cannot play your two-drop on the second turn if your plan is to attack for 3 on turn 2 (which most often will be the plan). This means you can get blown out by a Lightning Bolt, Smother, or Terminate (but not by a Path to Exile because getting your one-drop Path’d means you get to cast your Planeswalkers a turn earlier). The flipside of this means you can afford to play less two-drops, i.e. less pro bears that are getting colded by 3/3 Green creatures in the Jund matchup and that you didn’t want in your deck anyway now that Wall of Omens is in the format. He also makes Ranger of Eos much more interesting, being able to fetch actual game dominators, not just Blightning fodder. Transcendent Master is still not the Paladin en-Vec or Spectral Procession I was looking for in the deck’s original incarnation, but unlike these other two cards, he can play the role of a quick finisher, which makes him definitely worth considering. I never liked Baneslayer Angel in the deck because getting to five mana was so much work, and then just to have your investment Terminated was devastating. Gideon Jura can still get Maelstrom Pulsed, but this deck is certainly not short on juicy targets for Maelstrom Pulse. And if he survives for a turn? Yeah, you pretty much just win the game. The opponent has to alpha strike Gideon, lose half their team to good blocks, and then get attacked back with the team + a 6/6. I’m pretty sure most decks cannot live through that. He still costs five, but he certainly fills the Zvi Mowshowitz slogan of “Your five drop has to just win you the game.”
So is Mono White not your flavor? No problem. White still has plenty to add to a multicolor strategy, and the following is something I am very excited to try. It seems to have great options against Jund and is very high on raw power.
The deck only runs 2 Stoneforge Mystics because there are enough mid-to-late game cards in the deck that it doesn’t have to rely so much on the equipment plan. Green is the natural compliment to White in a Stoneforge type deck since you gain access to Behemoth Sledge. The card that really puts me over the top with the transition from White to White/Green is… Student of Warfare. Huh? Yeah, actually it makes sense. With Mono White you still need your own man lands in order to put yourself on par with the power level of the other decks in the format that use man lands (and almost all of them use man lands). So you have to resort to Dread Statuary, who is great, but makes casting things like Devout Lightcaster more difficult. Now that Student of Warfare is in the format (and in the deck, of course), there is extra incentive to play more lands that produce White mana and less that do not. Moreover, the deck has more ways to compete against mid-range strategies. So having a land come into play tapped is not as devastating a tempo loss as it was for the pre-ROE Mono White builds. By playing Stirring Wildwood over Dread Statuary, you maintain the power level afforded by man lands while being able to more reliably pump Student of Warfare and cast Devout Lightcaster. You also gain access to Knight of the Reliquary, which makes running 1 Sejiri Steppe worthwhile. But that’s not all, there is another card I added to the deck: Vengevine! At first glance this card might not seem to fit in the deck, but upon closer inspection you see that it has high synergy with the rest of the deck and fills an important role in the Jund matchup. Imagine the following scenario that illustrates both points…
You: Plains, Student of Warfare.
Opponent: Savage Lands.
You: Plains, Level up twice, attack for 3, 17 life.
Opponent: Verdant Catacombs, sacrifice for Swamp, Terminate (to play around Brave the Elements), 16 life.
You: Sunpetal Grove, Knight of the Reliquary.
Opponent: Raging Ravine, Terminate.
You: Plains, Elspeth, Knight-Errant (+1 to 5 loyalty), make a soldier token.
Opponent: Verdant Catacombs, sacrifice for Forest, 15 life, Bloodbraid Elf into Blightning.
You: Discard two Vengevines, Elspeth goes to 2 loyalty.
You: Play Kor Skyfisher, return itself, replay itself, return itself, get both Vengevines back. Jump one of the Vengevines with Elspeth’s ability (+1 to 3 loyalty), attack for 7 in the air and 4 on the ground.
Opponent: block one with Bloodbraid Elf, take 7 down to 8 life.
Opponent: Play Raging Ravine, Bloodbraid Elf into Lightning Bolt, redirecting to Elspeth to kill her.
You: Kor Skyfisher, return itself, replay it, return itself, get Vengevine back, attack with both Vengevines and the Soldier token.
Opponent: block a Vengevine with Bloodbraid Elf, take 5 down to 3 life.
Opponent: Siege-Gang Commander.
You: Stoneforge Mystic getting Behemoth Sledge, Kor Skyfisher returning itself, get Vengevine back, attack with both Vengevines.
Opponent: chump block with 2 tokens, and basically drawing dead.
One of the things people still don’t fully grasp is that a 4/3 haste creature is not that bad a deal. Part of what makes Bloodbraid Elf and Goblin Ruinblaster good is that they have a relevant haste body in addition to their other ability. Vengevine is the same way, except his body is larger, albeit his ability requires more difficult conditions to be fulfilled. But when his conditions are fulfilled, i.e. when you have 2 more creatures in hand or a Kor Skyfisher, he becomes absolutely ridiculous, especially in multiples. Just having one in the graveyard is enough of a threat to foil combat math and keep the opponent saying go even when you’re just holding lands and getting mana flooded. He has to assume you are holding creatures for Vengevine! And when you have multiples? Wow! This card definitely seems like a 0 or 4-of, depending on whether you want the ability. The obvious comparison is Wilt-Leaf Liege in that it makes casting Blightning against you potentially losing proposition. But unlike the Liege, when he dies in combat or gets Terminated or whatever, he keeps coming back! This makes him more like Kitchen Finks, except he never gets withered. Another comparison might be Bloodghast, except Vengevine can block. The ironic twist is that, unlike with Bloodghast, you almost never want to block with your Vengevine, so having that option is sort of humorous. All things considered, this card is its own card, and it’s very good. I can see it in multiple archetypes, sometimes as a combo engine (with Intuition or with Kor Skyfisher, or possibly in a dredge strategy of some kind), and other times as a metagame role-player (i.e. anti-Blightning, anti-Wrath card). I’m definitely excited about a card that yields recurring card advantage, combats two of the most prevalent strategies in the format (jund and u/w control), and smashes the opponent in the face for four mana. The ONLY thing that might keep this card from exploding in popularity is the amount of enticing four-drops available.
I would talk about Blue/White Control, but Sam Black already did that earlier in the week here, and I’d imagine Patrick Chapin and/or Brian Kibler will discuss this deck at length. So I’ll just say Blue/White has certainly improved with Wall of Omens and Oust, and possibly Puncturing Light out of the sideboard. Instead of discussing that deck at length, I’ll finish by discussing a few directions some of the non-White archetypes my take going forward.
Vampires as a tribe still lacks the synergy that Elves, Faeries, and Goblins had, and so there is not much incentive to play Vampire creatures… except that many of the best Black cards in Standard happen to be Vampire creatures. I believe things like Kalastria Highborn (does anyone else think of a Colostomy bag when they hear this name?) and Vampire Nocturnus will be artifacts of the past after Rise of the Eldrazi is released. It’s possible that Nocturnus is still better than Abyssal Persecutor, but I doubt this will (or at least should) be the case, for a few reasons. Gatekeeper of Malakir has always been the best card in Vampires. A 2-for-1 Cruel Edict is just insane against so many creature strategies, whether offensive, defensive, or even shrouded. Now Black has the ability to follow up a Gatekeeper with another 2-for-1 Edict effect in the form of Consuming Vapors. On average, this card will gain you a comparable amount of life to a Tendrils of Corruption (except against Red decks), and sometimes more (against shroud creatures or decks with larger creatures). Vampire Nighthawk and Malakir Bloodwitch may have to do double time against Red decks (but who is actually going to play Red decks any more now that non-Red decks can beat Jund?), but against almost anything else Vapors are vastly superior. What I believe will put the Persecutor above Nocturnus is his synergy with Consuming Vapors. You now have more reliable ways to get rid of your Abyssal Persecutor when the time is right (i.e. when the opponent is at or approaching 0). Underworld Dreams is a Black version of Luminarch Ascension for the Jace control decks since with it in play this deck can play the role of a control deck with inevitability, forcing the opponent to sacrifice his creatures and to deal with yours, all while not drawing too many extra cards. I believe non-tribal vampires will be a contender, largely because White gains so much and Malakir Bloodwitch is the best card in the format against a dedicated White deck (although unlike Baneslayer Angel, Gideon Jura sure seems awesome against Bloodwitch).
Lastly, for those dedicated Red mages that would sooner quit playing Magic than put down their Mountains, Eldrazi Clause and his bag of gifts has not forgotten about you either. Consider the following as a direction for Mono Red:
Although I am of the opinion that Mono Red is not the optimal strategy going forward, there are some enticing reasons to play Red. Much like Figure of Destiny returned for White in the form of Student of Warfare, it also returned for Red in the form of Kargan Dragonlord. He comes down at a different part of the curve, but has more promise of taking over the game. You still cast Goblin Guide on the first turn, but now you can follow it up with Kargan Dragonlord. Optimally you will wait until turn 3 or 4 for the Dragonlord, just as you would something like Lightning Dragon, Rathi Dragon or even Balduvian Horde (yes, these creatures were each gold standard curve-toppers in Mono Red in times past). Fortunately, even if you don’t have another two-drop, Kargan is a fine play on the second turn. Another card I am pretty excited about is Staggershock — Red’s version of Consuming Vapors. This card is about on par with Flame Javelin, though it works a bit differently. When you are facing a single creature with 2 toughness, Staggershock is far superior to Flame Javelin since you can remove the blocker, attack, and then next turn Shock them for value or remove whatever two-toughness creature they played on the turn after you attacked them (which is even more value). Moreover in conjunction with other burn spells, say Searing Blaze, Lightning Bolt, or Burst Lightning, you can still kill off large creatures without really losing too much value (since you still get a free Shock out of the Staggershock next turn regardless). My favorite use for the card is being able to cast it during the opponent’s end step, either on their creature or at their dome. This way if you want it to be 4 damage to the opponent, it does 2 during the end step and 2 more right after you untap, which is essentially the same thing. And if you want it to kill a creature and deal two to the opponent, it can do that too. And if you want to blowout the opponent in dramatic fashion, hit their creature during their end step, hit their other creature when you untap, and then still have mana to unearth Hell’s Thunder and attack them for lethal. The viability of instant speed burn and instant speed removal in general, combined with the amount of sheer card advantage generated by so many cards in the format makes me really not want to play a card like Ball Lightning anymore. I mean, sure, it is a lot of damage, but a one-toughness creature that has to just get there the first time on his own seems worse than the other options available. I could be wrong on this point though, depending on how the actual metagame shifts.
All things considered, however, Red still has little more than a prayer at beating White decks, and since White seems to gain more than any other color from Rise of the Eldrazi, I doubt the amount of White cards in the format will diminish. And as I said earlier, the tools now seem to exist for many strategies to compete favorably against Jund. Jace has Wall of Omens as a shield and Oust as an easy and efficient way of managing the board. Green decks and Green/x decks have a great answer to Blightning and to Jund’s 1-for-1 destroy effects in the form of Vengevine. A little birdie also told me there is a sweet new Eldrazi ramp deck that can likewise compete with Jund while exiling the entire board of creatures and Planeswalkers consistently. With all these viable anti-Jund strategies available, amidst the rise in popularity of White cards, and still in the presence of Kor Firewalker, it will take a really dedicated Red mage to sleeve up his Mountains — but it could work! …maybe.
Have fun at the pre-release and check back next week, once all the cards are known, for a more comprehensive analysis of Rise of the Eldrazi!