If you blinked, you might have missed it. Even between the November Zendikar Rising League Weekend decklist submission on Wednesday and match play this weekend, Zendikar Rising Standard took a hard turn for the better. Gruul Adventures, Dimir Rogues, and Yorion decks remain three of the best options, but several new contenders have arrived and people are figuring out a ton of different angles to take to make the top-tier mirror matches more interesting and intricate.
Here’s what people have found out about the first legitimately good Standard format Wizards of the Coast (WotC) has put on since… who knows when.
Play the Good Cards
In the interest of good journalism, I’m going to start with some coverage of the top deck in the format: Gruul Adventures. Aside from The Akroan War as a mirror breaker that kills all their stuff, there hasn’t been that much new tech discovered.
It seems like the “tech” is the same as always. Look at the Throne of Eldraine cards in your deck, especially rares and mythics, and play more of them.
The same applies to almost every other deck in the format. While there isn’t a clear broken card above the rest like Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath or Omnath, Locus of Creation, there is a clear set of stupidly good cards in the format that take over games when cast. You should be able to clearly point to which of those cards are in your deck.
The MPL Tries to Take Control
Before you ask, yes, it’s the exact two MPL members you would expect to see playing an arbitrary control deck that looks like it was ported from the era when you could play literal Counterspell. Shota Yasooka and Andrew Cuneo have been on this nonsense for twenty years, so why would they stop now?
I’m going to be completely honest: Shota’s deck confuses me. I’ve tried to play it and it remains a mystery. I believe the statement he’s making is “Dream Trawler is a good card in the format,” which is at least kinda true, but only playing two copies if that is the case is weird. I’m writing this before his League Weekend results are in the books, so take a look at his record and use that to judge if you should even consider this deck.
Andrew’s deck on the other hand has been a delight to play, and he also managed a max-win Arena Open run a week before League Weekend to pre-validate his choice.
The clear statement here is that counterspells are good in Zendikar Rising Standard, which has proven true. The good spells aren’t costed in a way that lets you precisely maneuver through answers. Even a couple of weeks ago when I broke down how to play against Dimir Rogues, my advice against their counterspells was more about forcing them to have it and running the right big threat into the right answer rather than trying to double-spell and bait things out.
If you face a pile of counterspells, the idea of playing through them becomes increasingly bad and you have to win with the low-costed, low-power cards people have been cutting from their decks because they’re so bad against Bonecrusher Giant and Lovestruck Beast. Not that Izzet Control can’t beat aggressive draws or decks, but many decks are just ill-equipped to play the kind of game needed to fight a wall of counters and card draw. Because of how good something as simple as Neutralize is right now, this is the only winning deck I’ve seen that gets to ignore the “play stupid cards” rule.
As easy as it would be to call this deck Izzet Clock Control or something to highlight the unique choice of Midnight Clock, the card is more minor leverage than a focal point of the deck. Midnight Clock and Mazemind Tome are your traditional control cards that give you implied inevitability since this deck lacks a clean finisher. As long as you can trade cards for long enough, you will eventually end up ahead by a large amount of cardboard. Midnight Clock is just slightly better than Mazemind Tome since it doesn’t repeatedly cost you mana, but multiple Clocks don’t do a lot together and the lifegain buffer of Tome often swings games. Just be aware the most common Clock play is casting it Turn 4 or Turn 5 to leave up an answer; this is a very reactive deck and you should play it as such.
The other notable interaction in this deck is Shark Typhoon plus Shatterskull Smashing. This is by far the best hardcast Shark Typhoon deck I’ve played, half because the format finally isn’t full of four-cost cards that immediately win the game and half because Shatterskull Smashing lets you easily make giant Sharks. It’s such a deckbuilding hack to be able to hide a high-cost sorcery in your land slots.
The big issue I’ve had so far is everything currently in this deck is bad at killing a five-toughness creature. I’ve died to Yorion as a chunkier Air Elemental quite a few times. You can manage Lovestruck Beast by going after the 1/1s, but you might need a couple of ways to deal with bigger things without having to spend a crucial counterspells on something that just has power and toughness.
Big Red Is Finally Good?
I struggle to remember a time where Big Red was actually a good deck in Standard and didn’t peak out at questionably playable. But I think we have finally a version of the deck that hits that high mark, and obviously the answer was some broken Throne of Eldraine card.
Irencrag Feat is one of the cards I called out as broken on Throne of Eldraine‘s release that has just been looking for a home. A single card netting three mana is really unheard of. Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is great right now, but true Ramp strategies are too easy to defeat with Lovestruck Beast beats. Irencrag Feat lets you net the same fast Ugin advantage as investing in ramp would without spending turns or cards on generating that mana. Big Red just plays good back-and-forth Magic with its cards, but sometimes gets to jam a Turn 5 Ugin and crush.
Yet again we see Mazemind Tome putting in the work. The combination of Tome and good two-mana removal is going to be a key shell for the rest of rotation, and I’m going to start calling it the colorless Sphinx’s Revelation.
This deck is a bit of a reaction to Gruul Adventures, specifically the fact that Gruul Adventures doesn’t have a clean answer for Ugin. Dimir Rogues has also drifted away from Bloodchief’s Thirst due to that card’s notable weakness to Gruul Adventures’s three-drops, and Selesnya Blink isn’t starting the full set of Elspeth Conquers Death. Ugin this time around has proven beatable if you can kill it, so if people start actually doing the second part, Big Red may need to adapt a bit.
On the subject of cards people can’t kill, there are a lot of decks like Selesnya Blink that can’t directly stop a Crawling Barrens. If your deck can’t, you need to be able to face down an eventual The Abyss and overpower it or win before it matters.
This is also a Mono-Red deck with a surprisingly great spread of removal. Ugin handles enchantments, but Soul Sear kills so many things red decks would have previously struggled with, like an uncontested Vivien, a Wicked Wolf, or a Lovestruck Beast. Getting to six-toughness threats pushes threats way up the curve to the point they’re coming up against Ugin, and even just a couple of copies of Soul Sear can really help bridge the gap.
Maybe the Izzet Control decks that can’t kill a 4/5 should take note.
Bronzehide Lion Is Due for Something
- 4 Gilded Goose
- 4 Wicked Wolf
- 4 Bronzehide Lion
- 4 Yorion, Sky Nomad
- 4 Llanowar Visionary
- 4 Skyclave Apparition
I don’t think Zendikar Rising Standard is in the friendliest place for generic beaters. Attacking into Lovestruck Beast is tough and most midrange mirrors are dominated by fairly fast out of the gates engines like The Great Henge and Edgewall Innkeeper.
But the exact card Bronzehide Lion deserves a highlight. Very early in the format, Bronzehide Lion got some attention for being one of the few two-drops that lined up well against Stomp and that remains true. It also lines up against Elspeth’s Nightmare and can scale at least decently into the later game. An indestructible 3/3 doesn’t break things open, but it hangs with the next tier of threats. What are you asking your two-drop to do? Beat Embercleave? Actually, Lion isn’t the worst there as it’s just toughness that repeatedly gets in the way, but you get a lot for the curve investment.
The thing that has me looking at it again is this exact application of using it as additional pressure in Selesnya Blink. The known issue with the Selesnya Blink deck is beating decks trying to go a bit bigger than it, like other Yorion, Sky Nomad decks or the new blue control decks. A random two-drop goes a long way in those matchups. Bronzehide Lion also plays well against Doom Foretold, coming back as a nontoken permanent after a first death to make the key enchantment a worse early play.
Village Rites Is Back in Rakdos
- 2 Rankle, Master of Pranks
- 4 Bonecrusher Giant
- 4 Woe Strider
- 1 Ox of Agonas
- 4 Mire Triton
- 4 Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger
In Game 1, Rakdos Midrange was a significant favorite against Gruul Adventures. Most games came down to Rakdos being able to kill all the relevant creatures from Gruul and Gruul being unable to handle a Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger.
Then you would play games where the Gruul player had up to three Klothys in their deck. Rakdos couldn’t race, couldn’t stall, couldn’t Kroxa, and just died if the Gruul God showed up. It needed a different angle of attack that worked against the Gruul deck without using the graveyard.
It was time to loop back to the previous bane of green creatures — take them with Claim the Firstborn and sacrifice them with Village Rites. Village Rites is also added protection from the uptick in red exile removal that can otherwise hit Kroxa on a from-hand cast and exile it before it has a chance to live as a 6/6. The Akroan War is yet another already playable way to steal something to sacrifice and it still kills all of Gruul’s creatures even outside of mirrors. There’s a nice little package here to exploit the exact cards Gruul Adventures is trying to play that isn’t too shabby against the rest of the field.
Turning back to the original topic of good cards, Crokeyz has found a way to get one more back in the format. Korvold, Fae-Cursed King is messed up on many levels and I’m really impressed with his decision to integrate it into the Rakdos shell. If the original concern is finding game-dominating plays that avoid the graveyard, I struggle to think of a better one in that archetype than Korvold.
Disenchant’s Finest Hour
It comes as a total system shock to look at the planeswalkers in Standard after eighteen months of War of the Spark in Standard. They just aren’t good. Vivien, Monsters’ Advocate is probably the best of the bunch and it feels fragile. Maybe we will come around to Ashiok, Nightmare Muse or Garruk, Cursed Huntsman as being dominant, but right now there just aren’t shells in those colors that want to support them.
To go along with this, the answers to creatures are also at a real high point. Part of the problem through the last cycle of bans was that Uro and Omnath were so good against removal and needed to die, and everything else didn’t have the cantrip-plus-dominance edge to even keep up with that.
So people put their trust in artifacts and enchantments to win grindy games and there are certainly a ton of great options to do that.
The latest shift has been adding cards that answer these engines. Literal Disenchant might not be showing up, but there are many instances of artifact or enchantment removal stapled onto cards that do other great things.
For some reason, my personal favorite is Kogla, the Titan Ape. I don’t have any good reasons; I just think it’s neat.
Zareth San Tricks Us All
I was wrong, but so was Paulo, so I don’t feel too bad. The combination of Shark Typhoon; Zareth San, the Trickster; and Brazen Borrower has started pushing Lurrus of the Dream-Den out of Dimir Rogues.
Lurrus is certainly a better card than any of those, but it requires your opponent to be playing a game of exchanges. That is certainly true in the Dimir Rogues mirror, but as that falls out of favor the other decks in the format aren’t operating in that domain. Higher-impact threats and a wider spread of threats are just better as more fringe options creep in, especially since everyone knows about Ox of Agonas and your base plan is going to get thrown into disarray after sideboarding.
The important “tech” here, which I believe was started by Ivan Floch last League Weekend, is just not playing the really bad cards from the early Dimir Rogues list and playing good ones instead. Nighthawk Scavenger remains unplayable and gets worse every time I see it cast, much like Kargan Intimidator, so they just stopped playing it. Gadwick, the Wizened was one of the ten best cards in the format that lacked a good home, one where it could be used as a runaway finish to a one-for-one game and where you had cheap blue spells to trigger the tap ability. That literally describes Dimir Rogues, so they just started playing it.
Outside of the core decks of the format, a few hot card choices have floated around. As people figure out the right answers for the top decks and the format opens up a bit, here are a few that I could easily see ending up in the spotlight.
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Gilded Goose
- 4 Lovestruck Beast
- 4 Wicked Wolf
- 3 Feasting Troll King
- 2 Kogla, the Titan Ape
- 4 Tangled Florahedron
- 4 Kazandu Mammoth
Without Teferi, Time Raveler, it’s really hard to have something in the graveyard for Elspeth Conquers Death unless your opponent puts it there. A couple of Waker of Waves in the Yorion decks can go a long way towards fixing that.
There isn’t a single place to highlight Extinction Event because it remains great across the format: Esper Doom Foretold, Dimir Rogues, and there’s even a version of Big Red splashing the card. There’s a huge glut of three-drops in Gruul Adventures it can exploit and it takes Edgewall Innkeeper with them.
WotC Made Standard Great Again
One of the signs of a great Standard format is seeing it abruptly evolve and flourish just when you think it’s hitting a dead end. We are seeing that right now and there appears to be a hierarchy of threat positioning and roles developing as well. After a long string of formats ranging from problematic to horrific, I’m certainly going to enjoy every twist and turn of this one while it lasts.