Winota, Joiner Of Forces Is The Next Broken Card In Zendikar Rising Standard

What’s next for Zendikar Rising Standard after the Omnath ban? Bryan Gottlieb brews around Winota, Joiner of Forces.

Winota, Joiner of Forces
Winota, Joiner of Forces, illustrated by Magali Villeneuve

Three down. Three to go.

I posted this Tweet just prior to the first banning announcement of this Standard season. This ban would ultimately go on to expel only Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath from the format. You definitely don’t recall my article reacting to that ban. That’s because I didn’t write one. Too despondent with the outcome, I asked for the week off. I just knew I had nothing positive to say, and I didn’t see much of a way forward. It was maybe the lowest I’d ever been in my enthusiasm for Magic. Standard had been doomed to yet more ramping and engines and I had no interest in participating.

Fast forward to Monday’s announcement. Omnath, Locus of Creation; Lucky Clover; and Escape to the Wilds have found themselves the latest members of the ban club, but Embercleave; Lotus Cobra; and Winota, Joiner of Forces are still left to roam free. Compared to my list, these bans represent another half-measure. This article must be the one where I go off and declare this Standard perpetually doomed, right?

I’m happy to report that this isn’t the case and I think these bans are an absolute home run.

Here’s why my stance seems to have softened a bit. My goal in proposing six bans was to create a ban announcement to end all ban announcements. I wanted to eliminate any possibility that there would be a need to return to the issue for the foreseeable future. With that opportunity already lost, the desire to completely reinvent the format has subsided a bit. I do think Standard desperately needs a return to normalcy, but I’m also just starting to think maybe this is the new normal, and Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is comfortable taking shots and using bans to correct. I’m mostly fine with that. I just wish it was stated policy.

As far as the individual cards that remain, I continue to cling to the idea that Lotus Cobra as a focal point of the format can be a net positive, although not with the same surety I once had in that premise. Incentivizing removal is way better than encouraging solitaire-style Magic, where both players just go about assembling their battlecruisers. Lotus Cobra pushes a bit hard on the “must-answer two-drop” axis for my liking. I wish the potential cost of letting one of these style of creatures live was closer to Dark Confidant’s “draw an extra card” than Lotus Cobra’s “potentially win the game on the spot,” but Lotus Cobra doesn’t have to bury a format if the payoffs don’t snowball.

Lotus Cobra Escape to the Wilds

To that point, the Escape to the Wilds ban was absolutely key in maintaining my optimism that Lotus Cobra can be acceptable. I had several truly degenerate Lotus Cobra decks, but they all were built around maximizing Escape. Nahiri’s Lithoforming Combo or Song of Creation Mill are not pleasant things to have in the format, but both of those decks are far more akin to something like Thousand-Year Storm if you take away the consistency Escape to the Wilds provides. They might occasionally do their thing, but inherent inconsistency will make sure they remain a tier below the best decks.

Embercleave had the lowest concern level of any of the cards on my initial list, and I even recognize that its presence is probably the only thing keeping traditional aggro afloat in an extremely powerful era of Magic. In general, I don’t think the play pattern of throwing a bunch of fodder onto the battlefield to fuel an Embercleave is all that fun. Having to squeeze out every point of damage and maximize every card was aggro’s hallmark. Embercleave eliminates a lot of that calculus by being a haymaker that makes prior turns seem like they were just steps to the eventual casting of Embercleave. Again, when Uro and Omnath are around and gaining loads of life, I’m inclined to see Embercleave as the hero we deserve, but long-term I’d just prefer aggro to feel more… honest? This feels a lot like personal preference though, and I’m perfectly willing to take the L on this card.

Embercleave Winota, Joiner of Forces

And then we get to Winota, Joiner of Forces. I was just straight-up wrong about this card. Winota is the rare case where you are better off banning the payoff rather than the enabler. When Winota is lacking cards like Agent of Treachery or Angrath’s Marauders to cheat onto the battlefield, it presents one of the most fun deckbuilding puzzles I’ve worked on in a long time. Beyond that, the actual gameplay is fun too!

Winota in its initial form in both Standard and Historic was an Aetherworks Marvel analogue where you spun the wheel for a chance to win on the spot. When the best you can do is cheat a Basri’s Lieutenant onto the battlefield, the question of “What attacks are actually profitable?” becomes far more interesting to answer. Sure, sometimes the card still highrolls, but it rarely feels like it is doing anything unbeatable these days. It’s just a good, solid Magic card that asks for a lot of deckbuilding concessions.

To date, Winota in Zendikar Rising Standard has gone underexplored since it did not line up well against either Omnath or a Lucky Clover copying a Stomp. Luckily for you, I stubbornly gave up on playing Omnath weeks ago, and resigned myself to building Winota decks despite their obvious trouble with the format’s four-armed boogeyman. My folly is now your gain.

Because Winota is no longer just an “I win” button, all of our decks need to have some secondary synergies. Here’s one of the more obvious ones, leveraging Winota’s own creature type and using Kargan Warleader to pump up the Warrior tribe.

When I first saw Nahiri, Heir of the Ancients during preview season, I assumed it would quickly become a staple in Winota decks by functioning as additional copies of our namesake creature and grabbing Embercleaves. In practice, the card quickly proved underwhelming and was cut from most of my lists. However, coming back to the Warrior tribe does a lot to make this card exciting again. It never misses and the tokens are no longer fodder with Kargan Warleader in the mix.

To my surprise, the Equipment I turned to in many of my Winota lists is Maul of the Skyclaves, not Embercleave. Most of these decks no longer do a great job of getting wide, and instead have to rely on getting off a couple of attacks with Winota on the battlefield or just winning with some chip shots. Maul of the Skyclaves is better at creating those situations than Embercleave. Also, a Seasoned Hallowblade picking up a Maul on Turn 3 just straight-up beats a lot of people. In these decks, Embercleave often functions as a win-more while Maul of the Skyclaves is integral to your strategy.

Maul of the Skyclaves Kargan Intimidator

Remember that Kargan Intimidator can turn your own creatures into Cowards to pick up additional Winota triggers, making it one of your best Winota hits and enablers. Haktos the Unscarred is our biggest hit here, but that’s not really what we are about. We’re a beatdown deck that gets powered up a bit by Winota. Don’t expect huge payoffs on your Winota swings.

Bonecrusher Giant is going to be a staple of these lists and should remain that way until the format authoritatively proves it has insulated itself from the card. Maybe this isn’t even possible, given how good the fail state of a 4/3 for three mana is. Aggro will be chomping at the bit for the chance to come back in the absence of Omnath. Don’t give them free wins by skimping on Bonecrusher Giant.

I really like what the DFCs have done for Winota as an archetype. You desperately want to hit your first four land drops, but as an aggro deck you risk flooding out if you draw too many lands. We cheat our way to 27 lands here, despite only having 21 actual lands in our deck. It won’t be the last time you see this trick in my Winota lists.

Look, I had to get my three remaining Banned List candidates into the same deck. Lotus Cobra has a unique synergy with Winota in that it allows you to produce an extra mana on Turn 3 without tapping itself. Starts of Swarm Shambler, Lotus Cobra, Winota are about the most broken openings a Winota deck can find. Unfortunately, our hits in this version aren’t the most meaningful, and they’re also low in numbers. For this reason, I’m more inclined to recommend the following take on Winota plus counters.

This list comes mostly from @AlthMtg on Twitter, who was originally inspired by a list from me. Isn’t collaboration a beautiful thing? AlthMtg wisely moved away from Lotus Cobra and instead shored up the curve and better maximized the counters synergies present here. We’re still low on Winota hits, but it doesn’t feel quite as bad given just how pushed the cards in this deck are when a Basri’s Lieutenant is on the battlefield. Again, the name of the game isn’t a single Winota attack; it’s multiple indefensible attacks that leave your opponents with no good options. If that plan doesn’t come together, beat them down with Oran-Rief Ooze — just be sure to play around Bonecrusher Giant!

Scavenging Ooze is a clutch maindeck pickup here. It’s probably the best possible card against the rapidly proliferating Rakdos Midrange decks. Swarm Shambler is another card I really like against the removal-heavy opponents. Despite being a creature-centric beatdown deck, you really are good at wearing down opposing removal and eventually making a meaningful Winota.

The same issue came up when building all my Winota decks. How do you benefit from activating the card when there is no obvious payoff? The answers to that question are becoming progressively weirder as we move through this exploration, but Tazri, Beacon of Unity has impressed in the role, provided you are already interested in maximizing party synergies. I activated the card far more than I expected to, and it plays into this decks niche of being the grindiest possible version of Winota.

Between Agadeem’s Awakening, Nullpriest of Oblivion, and Lurrus of the Dream-Den, our recursive options here are really strong and that makes me feel okay about using Winota chiefly to bring some underpowered options onto the battlefield. While this is a more midrange take on Winota, we aren’t completely lacking for a clock either. Archfiend’s Vessel reanimation ends games in a hurry provided you put up adequate speed bumps for your opponent’s strategy. For this reason we see our first maindeck Skyclave Apparition. Obviously, our mana gets a little dicey with that card in the mix and that’s one of our biggest weaknesses here.

Using Acquisitions Expert as one of my main Winota hits is an idea that has appealed to me since preview season, and casting that card a bunch of times over the course of a game finally feels like a viable road to victory with Escape to the Wilds gone. Maybe we can look to go even harder on that idea.

This deck is strange in that its identity is not super-clear, but I also think it has the highest card quality of all of our options. Sometimes in present-day Magic, that’s a better approach than having a linear plan. We’re basically just splashing for Winota and a single Kenrith, the Returned King here, since we really don’t want to have to put more than one white-producing land onto the battlefield. Tymaret Calls the Dead does a nice job of enabling Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger and creating multiple Winota triggers. Maybe Woe Strider deserves a slot for the same reason? I could see it being a better starting point than the maindeck Heartless Acts.

We’ve added Syr Konrad, the Grim as a Winota hit, and somehow, that won’t be the craziest “Syr” I propose for Constructed play in this article. The card seems underpowered, but when you think about how well its activated and triggered abilities line up with our gameplans, it certainly strikes me as worth a shot. An attack that puts a Syr Konrad onto the battlefield is going to leave your opponents with some very tough choices, and they may just be dead to triggers come a Kroxa or Tymaret Calls the Dead cast on the next turn anyway.

Pretty typical Syr Gwyn, Hero of Ashvale deck, nothing to really see here…

Syr Gwyn, Hero of Ashvale

Yes, that’s a real Magic card. No, I didn’t know about it either until it popped up in my search for Humans. One of the big flaws with all of the current Winota decks is that they just whiff far too often for my liking. You could bear the cost of a miss when a hit won you the game on the spot, but now I just find myself pining for more consistency. This deck goes to nineteen Humans, which is tied for the highest number of any list proposed here with Winota Party. Unlike Winota Party though, this deck is putting some hammers onto the battlefield. Acclaimed Contender keeps the gas flowing, and Inspiring Veteran can make a combat lethal out of nowhere.

And then we get to Syr Gwyn. Syr Gwyn is the beefiest beater available in the human race, and it doubles as a source of persistent card advantage if it remains on the battlefield. Once it picks up a Maul of the Skyclaves for free, it’s just impossible to block. The card is shockingly good in a way I really did not expect. Of course, we still have the usual Knights beatdown plan, focused on Stormfist Crusader and other assorted small creatures. Maybe the balance here is swinging a little too far towards Humans. Don’t be afraid to tweak those numbers to your liking.

I’m honestly thrilled with these bans. I wasn’t sure I’d be touching Standard until at least the next set, and maybe longer than that. Now, I’m itching to hop back on to the ladder. Obviously, broader concerns about the state of Magic remain. I don’t think this level of bans is sustainable. But that’s an issue for another time. For now, I’m just happy I have a reason to play Magic again.