Preview season for Core Set 2020 has been strange for two reasons. First, it has come incredibly quickly because of how close this set’s release is to that of Modern Horizons. Given the uniqueness of the latter, it’s understandable for that set to have taken center stage, but I’ve never seen a Standard-legal set be released with such little build-up. The preview season was abbreviated so each day it felt like we were inundated with cards while at the same time trying to digest everything that had been thrown into Modern.
It was an overload to be sure, and I hope we see Wizards of the Coast refrain from having two sets with new cards released so closely to each other in the future. But that’s a topic for another day, and with the Open Weekend in Pittsburgh come and gone, it’s time to take a step away from Modern Horizons and focus on the future of Standard, at least for the rest of the summer.
Second, the summer preview season is always different from the others because it comes so close to rotation. Standard has been forming for over half a year by the time the summer set is released, and there are only a couple of months for it to make an impact before the landscape of the format is fundamentally changed by the fall rotation.
The implication of this reality is that Standard is going to be at its largest, and the barrier to entry for cards is thus at its highest. This is the most powerful Standard gets, and it’s going to take a lot to compete against well-tuned Esper, Izzet Phoenix, and Simic Nexus decks.
But that impediment doesn’t mean we should ignore the new cards and continue jamming our old decks. It just means we need to adjust our approach.
When it comes to the summer release, I’m not looking for individually powerful cards unless they’re on the level of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. There are plenty of cards that will have to wait a few months for their turn in the limelight while the current top cards rule the format.
Decks that rely on assembling synergies are often at a disadvantage in Standard because the small size of the format means you’re either unlikely to have the correct tools, or at least a high enough density of tools to take advantage of a given build-around card.
As the format expands, the likelihood of assembling the necessary pieces to make build-around cards work is more likely, and often these decks can appear out of nowhere, since without that last piece they weren’t playable. Today I want to highlight three cards from Core Set 2020 that can be that final piece.
The first is Gods Willing. This isn’t a new card, and its prior Standard pedigree is quite strong, having been one of the key cards in the various Heroic decks that made waves in Theros-era Standard, even carrying yours truly to an Open Victory.
Yes. Yes it was. Now quiet, brain!
The point is that Gods Willing is a proven player in Standard when protecting threats that can run away with the game, and we have several of those in the Boros Feather archetype that has lived on the fringes of the metagame for months now. Feather, the Redeemed is an exceedingly powerful card, but untapping with it in the face of the dreaded Teferi twins has proven difficult. Gods Willing’s versatility is perfect for closing that axis of interaction.
Emma Handy did a great job of breaking down just how much Gods Willing does for that deck, especially in comparison to the current protection spell, Sheltering Light, so suffice it to say that I think Emma’s analysis of the card is spot on and this deck is poised to break into the top tier of the metagame. Heroic was a notoriously difficult deck to play against in the days of Theros, so get your practice reps in now.
Adeliz, the Cinder Wind
The last two decks I want to highlight are both built around cards that I’ve wanted to break out in Standard since they were printed, but have yet to make the leap. First up is Adeliz, the Cinder Wind, a great aggressive creature that has heretofore been outshone by Arclight Phoenix.
At this point I don’t think anyone will be surprised when I say I’m a fan of aggressive decks that make use of cheap cantrips. When you add in the ability to play a pseudo-Lightning Bolt in Wizard’s Lightning, things get even more exciting.
But Adeliz had some unique deckbuilding requirements. You want enough other Wizards to consistently turn the legend into more than a glorified prowess creature, but also enough spells to consistently trigger it. That necessarily means a low curve so you can cut lands to make room for everything. That’s easy enough, but you also need enough good creatures and spells to fill out the list.
The spells are there, with the quality of burn in Standard as well as a bevy of one-mana cantrips between Opt, Crash Through, and Warlord’s Fury. There’s even Finale of Promise to rebuy our spells and trigger Adeliz three times from one card.
The creatures, however, have been lacking. To maximize Adeliz, you want creatures with haste and/or evasion. Letting our opponents chump block our largest Wizards on the big turn will lead to the deck petering out too often as you run out of resources in the late-game, and you also have to be able to establish a battlefield of Wizards after our early creatures are removed. The games where we curve into Adeliz and untap with a handful of cantrips are easy, but having some haste creatures to follow up a lone Adeliz lets you create huge life swings out of nowhere, and that explosive potential is important for keeping our opponents scared.
Core Set 2020 has a creature that checks both boxes in Lightning Stormkin. Its stats are borderline for Constructed on its own, and the fit in an Adeliz deck is perfect. As a follow-up to the legendary creature, a six- or eight-point attack is easy, and if our opponent doesn’t have removal, a kill won’t take more than another turn or two.
Here’s how that deck might look:
- 2 Siren Stormtamer
- 4 Adeliz, the Cinder Wind
- 4 Ghitu Lavarunner
- 4 Dreadhorde Arcanist
- 4 Lightning Stormkin
Ghitu Lavarunner is a staple at this point, and though it lacks evasion, the haste is valuable, as is having cheap creatures to build a wide battlefield for Adeliz. Siren Stormtamer checks the evasion box while being an easy way to protect our key creatures from removal. In a deck with this much reach, a single big turn will often be enough to put our opponent into burn range, so that protection is quite valuable, even if our opponent untaps with more removal.
Beyond Adeliz, you’ll want to protect Dreadhorde Arcanist, which essentially draws a card or kills a creature every time it attacks. The synergy with Wizard’s Lightning isn’t ideal, but if you can pump it with an Adeliz trigger or two, then you can live the dream of flashing back Lightning Bolt in Standard.
The spell suite is straightforward except for Lava Coil, which I included as a sorcery-speed removal spell for Finale, as well as an answer to sticky blockers like Rekindling Phoenix and Arclight Phoenix. It’s possible you just want as much burn as possible, but this deck is also capable of generating significant card advantage, and I’d like to see how much staying power it has when equipped with more versatile removal before resigning myself to a more linear configuration.
The major worry here is the manabase. Two-color aggressive decks, especially those with low land counts, can run into color issues, and the cantrips here will only do so much. The low land count also makes enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands a huge liability, so I’ve eschewed Temple of Epiphany entirely while moving the last copy of Sulfur Falls to the sideboard. The mana issues could still do this archetype in, but the spells certainly won’t.
Last, we have a card that was received with much fanfare when it was revealed during Dominaria preview season, but hasn’t found a home that wasn’t riddled with underpowered cards: Mox Amber.
There are plenty of legendary permanents and planeswalkers in Standard, but many of them are quite expensive, and the power of a Mox goes down significantly as the game progresses. What we need is another cheap legend, and perhaps another payoff for putting so many other legendary cards in a deck.
Enter Core Set 2020 with another clean two-for-one:
A 3/4 body for three mana is a solid rate, as evidenced by Thrashing Brontodon and Feather, the Redeemed. Even more importantly, it dodges Lightning Strike, which has become much more common in Standard relative to Lava Coil since the proliferation of planeswalkers following War of the Spark.
But the big selling point is how Kethis pays us off for playing the requisite density of legends to enable Mox Amber in the first place. Playing so many powerful cards can lead to a high curve and the cost reduction certainly helps there, even leading to some early double-spell turns. Then, once we move to the late-game, you can throw away some dead legends to rebuy one or two others for a second go-round. Kethis’s combination of a potential tempo advantage early and card advantage late is potent, because it will almost always be relevant.
We’re going to be restricted to the Abzan colors, but there are plenty of quality legends to fill out the curve, and we end up with something like this:
- 3 Emmara, Soul of the Accord
- 3 Trostani Discordant
- 4 Hero of Precinct One
- 1 Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves
- 4 Kethis, the Hidden Hand
The overlap with Hero of Precinct One is tricky, but most of the legends are multicolored and we have Emmara, Soul of the Accord and Trostani Discordant to continue a token theme so the synergy is there, and Flower // Flourish allows us to cheat on lands enough to find room for the requisite number of legends and multicolored spells.
Those extra two-drops are important for both pressuring planeswalkers and holding off Mono-Red Aggro, since this deck doesn’t really want to play something like Cast Down in the maindeck. To take advantage of Kethis and Mox Amber we want to be more proactive, so most of our removal is tied to permanents. Between Vraska, Golgari Queen; Oath of Kaya; and Ugin, the Ineffable, we have plenty of ways to answer permanents while leaving impactful permanents of our own on the battlefield, and the rest of the removal either covers our bases against unique threats (Assassin’s Trophy, Despark) or is powerful enough to win a game on its own (Yawgmoth’s Vile Offering, Casualties of War).
I’m especially excited about Yawgmoth’s Vile Offering, since I’ve pined over the cycle of legendary sorceries from Dominaria almost as much as Mox Amber. I’m dreaming of curving Kethis into Offering, returning a planeswalker that my opponent took with Thought Erasure for a huge tempo swing on Turn 4.
Adding more cheap creatures also allows us to take advantage of Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord, which if unanswered can set up a rebuy on Kethis without committing any mana, leaving us free to immediately use its activated ability to recast the powerful legendary spells in our graveyard. The recursion may not come in one flashy shot like with Command the Dreadhorde, but this deck is set up to keep its engine going well into the late-game, even against the likes of Narset, Parter of Veils and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria.
Standard is only this large for a couple of months out of the year, and it’s always interesting to see what people do with so many tools at their disposal. I’m just hoping we can break out of the Esper monotony with something other than the bland Mono-Red Aggro or the obnoxious Simic Nexus.