Attacking In An Omnath-Uro Zendikar Rising Standard

Omnath, Locus of Creation and Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath lead Zendikar Rising Standard. How can aggro players fight back? Ari Lax has some ideas.

Akoum Hellhound, illustrated by Jason Kang
Akoum Hellhound, illustrated by Jason Kang

Zendikar Rising has inverted the typical rotation question. Instead of starting with Mono-Red Aggro and people figuring out the things that compete with it, we are asking ourselves why we would even bother attacking and if 30 or 40 lands is the right number.

Since everyone else is worrying about the ramp question, I wanted to start on the hard problem. What can we do to battle people’s faces in this format?

Defining The Problem

Attacking into “Landfall: gain four life” is bad. Leaving up mana to answer Omnath, Locus of Creation in response to the draw-a-card trigger is a losing proposition when that removal isn’t priced like Path to Exile, and killing Omnath after it gets a full turn of triggers is dicey.

Omnath, Locus of Creation Lotus Cobra

This is even further complicated by Lotus Cobra. Maybe you can leave up an answer for Omnath if you had time to deploy relevant threats under it, but the aggressive threats have moved up the curve and Lotus Cobra moves Omnath even further down the curve.

You may recognize this as the Growth Spiral into Wilderness Reclamation problem, only Wilderness Reclamation didn’t gain four life a turn by default.

Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath

Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath also remains legal and that’s all I’ll say about that.

Dryad of the Ilysian Grove Radha, Heart of Keld

An underrated aspect of this whole mess is how good the filler cards are at stymieing aggression. People aren’t spinning their wheels to Cultivate these days; they’re just casting relevant cards every turn while accidentally stumbling into extra mana and cards while you try your best to deal 27 damage.

Trying Really Hard to Declare Attackers

The immediate thing I dismissed was relying on any kind of burst damage that involved expending cards. That’s just not happening against this volume of repeatable lifegain that doesn’t even cost cards. At least Lightning Helix costs people resources and doesn’t generate bonus mana.

Extinction Event

The huge shift from last year is that sweepers aren’t nearly as prevalent right now. The ramp decks are currently more interested in putting creatures on the battlefield early, so Storm’s Wrath or Shatter the Sky is just not happening Game 1. Omnath’s cost conveniently excludes the more asymmetric Extinction Event. You might start running into sideboard sweepers if aggro proves itself relevant, but for now it’s all just a mess and you have some wiggle room.

Winota, Joiner of Forces

This all pointed directly towards the other style of aggro where you just produce a dogpile of creatures, and still-legal broken card Winota, Joiner of Forces was the obvious place to look for that.

Branchloft Pathway Cragcrown Pathway Lotus Cobra

My initial passes at Winota lists started as Naya for Lotus Cobra for the Turn 3 Winota nut draw, but as I filled in the space I realized there just aren’t other green cards I wanted to play and I ended up just playing Boros. You get eight free sources, but that’s not enough for two-drops. Are you really messing with your already sketchy mana for Brushfire Elemental or something?

A lot was learned really quickly with this deck. The first and most important thing: This was not how you should be attacking in the format.

I repeat, do not do this at home.

Raise the Alarm Lazotep Reaver

Winota is much worse than it was last year. The math on Winota missing ten to fifteen percent of the time was covered up by the raw number of Winota triggers you could get with double-trigger two-drops that all rotated. The mana also isn’t good enough to reliably curve out one-drop to Winota and ensure a large number of triggers, let alone the math of having all those non-Humans.

The loss of Judith, the Scourge Diva is weirdly rough since there aren’t really other Humans that fall into that nice window of “not bricks in your hand but broadly impactful to hit off a Winota trigger.” I think Taranika, Akroan Veteran might be close, but the immediate damage output and flip to profitable attacks is still missing.

Riverglide Pathway

On the subject of powerful hits, remember to play off-color Pathways if your deck is going to play Kenrith, the Returned King. Lotus Cobra would cover some of this as well. Similarly, all the Pathways and modal double-faced cards (DFCs) replacing basics make Castle Embereth much worse than before rotation.

Kargan Intimidator Akoum Hellhound

A Human that was just terrible was Kargan Intimidator. It turns a Human into a Coward to let it trigger Winota, but that is more adorable than good. The format isn’t about investing mana into minor temporary buffs that don’t have a lasting impact, and a two-mana 3/1 just folds to everything.

On the non-Human side, Needleverge Pathway isn’t Arid Mesa. Akoum Hellhound stops short on relevant damage output often enough for it to be annoying mediocre.

Woe Strider Anax, Hardened in the Forge

I tried to supplement the lack of Woe Strider, and more importantly lack of a Rakdos Pathway, with Anax, Hardened in the Forge. It’s not a Human, and double Anax draws spew out non-Human Satyrs. It wasn’t quite there due to how the the relevant creatures line up, but it’s worth keeping in the back of the notebook for future sets.

The part of the deck that was winning games was the white Zendikar Rising cards. Luminarch Aspirant is a wild card. If you missed Autumn Burchett’s great analysis, the thing that should make it obvious that Aspirant is great is realizing it attacks for three damage the turn after you cast it and only gets better from there.

Skyclave Apparition is the answer to the issues of the format. If the problem is your opponent is casting must-answer cards early but punishing you if you take a turn off to kill them, a card that produces power and kills a Lotus Cobra or Omnath is everything you want. Sure, it can die and they get something back, but that is about the same result as if you cast a noncreature removal spell and they had a follow-up play. It’s also a great card in aggressive mirrors, so I don’t know what more you can ask for. The only problem is the double-white cost in a Pathway world, but it really has felt like your aggressive decks want to play a lot of white cards anyway.

Conclave Mentor

The white cards being the good part of the deck pointed me in a different direction: Selesnya Counters. I’m aware people are trying Abzan Counters, but even with reasonable mana, what black card do you want? Grakmaw, Skyclaw Ravager, the perfect card for a grindy format that just doesn’t exist?

Unlike the previous deck, I believe Selesnya Counters is extremely promising.

Oran-Rief Ooze

The thing that makes Selesnya Counters promising is that every turn your mana is expended for a significant amount of power that increases over time and can be set up to linger in the face of a spot removal spell. That’s mainly Luminarch Aspirant and Oran-Rief Ooze operating on their own, but even your smaller Conclave Mentor setups threaten similar power now, more later issues for your opponents.

Along these lines, I think Basri’s Acolyte might be better than Basri’s Lieutenant in these lists since somehow both cards net the same amount of power. More of that power attacking on Turn 4 or lifelink could be better than all of Basri’s Lieutenant’s bonus text.

Basri Ket Felidar Retreat

Don’t put cards like Basri Ket in your deck that don’t immediately produce a relevant amount of power for the sake of “synergy.” Just play cards that kill your opponent and then get more threatening from there. Felidar Retreat falls in a similar range of not being enough power fast enough unless the game is already over.

Selfless Savior Swarm Shambler Stonecoil Serpent

I’m still fiddling with the one-drop slots. Swarm Shambler is shorted since multiples can strain your green mana up the curve and I’m a huge fan of Selfless Savior with so many high-priority threats for your opponent to remove even if it doesn’t have direct synergies.

Fearless Fledgling Fabled Passage

A card that has surprised me has been Fearless Fledgling. There’s some of the same realization as Luminarch Aspirant where if you cast it on Turn 3 prior to your land drop it starts attacking as a three-power threat that grows, and it’s just a convenient place to put a lot of power to kill your opponent.

Part of this is that Fabled Passage is the best land option for aggressive decks past the Pathways. Your land is going to be tapped on Turn 1 regardless so weird one-drop heavy-color-intensive scenarios don’t happen, the Pathways already push you away from mismatched double-color costed cards the Temples would help cast, and the untapped mana on Turn 4 matters way more than I expected. Once you get to that point, the incidental landfall scenarios are just nice freerolls on cards I already wanted to play.

Baneslayer Angel Elder Gargaroth Dream Trawler

The one issue with Skyclave Apparition is that it is cost-limited and doesn’t cover every anti-aggro angle in the format. The five-drop stabilizing threats are a huge issue for these decks and that has dictated a lot of my sideboard. Not only am I heavy on removal I otherwise would avoid like Banishing Light or Giant Killer, I’m loaded up on my own Baneslayer Angels for mirrors.

Kabira Takedown Emeria's Call

I started on more Kabira Takedowns and am slowly dropping the count. It’s good against exactly Lotus Cobra and aggro mirrors, but you already have a ton of tapped lands. Kabira Takedown replacing lands also doesn’t solve the mana flood problem against the control matchups where you care the most about it.

Without a way to churn up cards, I expect most games to be done by the time I hit seven mana for Emeria’s Call or Turntimber Symbiosis. I would rather just play lands that don’t cost life.

Other People’s Successes

While I was working on white-centric strategies, other people were playing events and seeing some success with red-centric ones. I’ve been able to put some reps into them after seeing the lists, and as with the white lists there are some promising aspects.

Bonecrusher Giant Embercleave

The most important card in all these decks is Bonecrusher Giant. It’s trying to play a similar role to Skyclave Apparition, with a better body but an inability to kill Omnath.

All the things I said before about the red cards that were bad in Winota have held true here. Honestly, this is the same red deck full of trash cards and Throne of Eldraine rares it was before rotation; it just doesn’t run Embercleave right into Aether Gust. This specific list has felt short a land and I would just play an extra copy of Spikefield Hazard or Shatterskull Smashing over the Rimrock Knight.

Roiling Vortex

Roiling Vortex is not a good card. The same leaving-up-mana issues of removal apply, only more so since you already invested in a low-impact threat. The only cool part of the card is Torbran, Thane of Red Fell boosting it. It might cover you against exactly Baneslayer Angel, but I’m super skeptical you’re gaining the ground you need against early Uro or Omanth triggers with it.

Gruul Adventures so far has felt like a much better version of the red shell. You cut the bad cards and you play the good cards. Easy.

Temple of Abandon

The turns you cast both halves of your Adventure cards have pseudo-double color requirements, so the Temple of Abandons are worth a mix with Fabled Passages here.

Kazandu Mammoth also plays into this, and while I have stated my love for the card, the 1GG cost has been oddly prohibitive. Your mana often has to be built accounting for it as a green source, which means it feels closer to triple green since you’re sacrificing the use of Kazandu Valley for green mana.

Rimrock Knight Robber of the Rich Scavenging Ooze

I don’t love most of the two-drops here. Boulder Rush feels like a liability against removal too often and Rimrock Knight is only good if you control Edgewall Innkeeper. Scavenging Ooze feels way worse with Cragcrown Pathway over Stomping Ground and with Uro relegated to a secondary threat. Robber of the Rich has been the only one I’ve felt actively happy about.

Primal Might

Primal Might is probably the aggressive angle that has me asking the most questions about what else is possible. Partly a one-mana answer, partly a Searing Blaze, it’s the same everything you want from a removal spell that Skyclave Apparition offers. I would shave on Embercleave to start more copies of the card.

Rankle, Master of Pranks Lurrus of the Dream-Den

Where else can you explore for aggressive strategies? I would look at Rankle, Master of Pranks. The sacrifice ability provides the Shriekmaw-style coverage I’m looking for in the format, and the discard can keep Omnath decks off their very late-game. The problem there is all the black one-drops are trash, black is limited on Pathway mana options, and Rogues or Clerics ain’t it.

If you wanted to try to break ground, start with seeing if Rankle can pair with some of the actively good white cards I’ve talked about today. I’ll leave you with this preliminary list and the hope that maybe we are getting somewhere in our quest for doing something other than making Omanth mana every turn for the rest of our lives.