Innovations In Zendikar Rising Standard From SCG Tour Online $5K Kaldheim Championship Qualifier #4

Zendikar Rising Standard is evolving weekly, and Bryan Gottlieb has the details on the format’s most recent innovations!

Hypnotic Sprite, illustrated by Irina Nordsol

Welcome back, friends. We’ve been doing this column for a while now, and I feel like we are settling into the comfortable part of our relationship. We trust each other. We know what we’re here for. Maybe we’ve even reached the ultimate testing ground in every coupling — the first fart.

At this stage, we get to drop some of the pretense. Usually, I’d find some way to connect this week’s Zendikar Rising Standard decks to whatever topic had really been weighing on my mind in the world of Magic and ramble on for a few paragraphs before getting into the meat and potatoes. But I don’t really know how to connect my chosen preamble for this week to these Standard decks. So instead, I’m going to bank on our trust and hope that if I just release my brain gas, you’ve come to appreciate this column enough that you’re willing to stick around anyway. Love you snookums.

Autumn Burchett is really good at Magic. Like really, really good.

I’ve always been very frank about my own capabilities as a Magic player. My technical play is nowhere near world class. Instead, my meager successes have been built around a good sense for long-term game planning. This translates over to my work on Magic commentary. Even if there’s a spot where I may not have reached a top-tier, complicated line myself, when a player starts to play to a certain set of outs or do some counter-intuitive sequencing, I’ll usually piece together what their goals are quickly. In a huge number of Autumn’s matches, they do something that leaves me scrambling to understand the objective. And the decision proves to be spot on a ludicrous percentage of the time.

I don’t know if Autumn is the best in the game right now, or even one of the primary contenders to that throne. These distinctions tend to be pretty arbitrary and not all that useful anyway, so I’m not super interested in coming up with a definitive ranking. I do know that when I watch Autumn play, I am more often convinced that I would have lost the game if I were sitting in their seat than I am with any other player.

Maybe that’s more of a measure of creativity than actual raw skill, but again, I don’t really care. Watching Autumn play Magic makes me appreciate the game more, and reminds me how rare predetermined outcomes actually are. If you’re feeling frustrated about the game, or maybe feel like some of your enjoyment for Magic as a spectator has waned lately, go watch an Autumn Burchett match and I promise it will all come rushing back to you.

And now, on to the decklists.

In reviewing this week’s decklists and the results from the Zendikar Rising Championship, it is clear that last week’s top finishers were not able to hold on to the crown long. Dimir Control and Temur Adventures were both fine decks this week, but you certainly couldn’t call them top dogs. Instead, that award would have to go back to some of the foundational decks from this Standard format, Esper Doom Foretold and Gruul Adventures.

With everything moving back to square one, the arms race begins anew, and core strategies are moving themselves to various points along the aggro/control spectrum. Here, we see an effort to make the stock Gruul Adventures approach a little bigger, and a little more resilient. Kiri seems to be a bit of an aficionado of this archetype, as they used it for both their satellite qualification and for a nice little finish in Sunday’s main event.

In the past, I’ve questioned some similar looking lists to this, noting that they felt like worse versions of the more streamlined Gruul lists. But at this exact moment, I actually like what Kiri is doing. It’s not hard to spot the key inclusions against the two big players in the format. Giant Killer is offing Gruul’s big threats and adding another Adventure creature for Edgewall Innkeeper fueled grinding. Vivien, Monsters’ Advocate and Elspeth Conquers Death are opening up the option to go long. Thrashing Brontodon is ready to check both Embercleave and Doom Foretold. And Yasharn, Implacable Earth is finally finding a good target in Standard with the rise of Mono-Green Food.

It all feels a little clunky, but every decision tracks, and I think Kiri faced exactly the metagame that they built their deck for. It looks like there’s room for both adaptation and tuning in this list, and while abstractly this is not an approach I love, I can buy Naya Midrange being extremely well positioned right now.

Verdict: Short-term Contender

Calling this list Jund Sacrifice might be a little misleading, as it’s much closer to Rakdos Midrange splashing Korvold, Fae-Cursed King. Rakdos Midrange’s main purpose was always beating up on Dimir Rogues, and while that deck has fallen off pretty dramatically at SCG Tour Online events, it’s coming off a very solid performance at the Zendikar Rising Championship. Part of Dimir Rogues’ success should be credited to the high caliber of players participating in the Zendikar Rising Championship. It’s an extremely punishing deck to play, and it demands a lot from its pilots. However, Dimir Rogues is also benefitting from the same churn that has revived so many other lapsed decks in this format. Nobody is really paying attention to these tricksy knaves right now.

And so, if Dimir Rogues is on its way back, it certainly makes sense that Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger is close behind. The question here is whether bringing it back with the addition of Korvold adds a new dimension to the deck. I think it does.

Things like Mono-Green Food have the capacity to outclass traditional Rakdos lists on the battlefield these days, and the Esper Doom Foretold decks certainly have the tools to out-grind Rakdos. Korvold is getting out in front of both of these problems by potentially flying over cluttered battlefields and also generating the card advantage that’s so crucial to overcoming Esper Doom Foretold’s nonsense. The increased inconsistency is going to cost some points against Gruul Adventures, so I would heavily hedge against that deck in sideboarding until its efficient predators make up more of the metagame.

Verdict: Rising Contender

We talked last week about how important it is for the format to have an Ugin, the Spirit Dragon deck. It seemed like Dimir Control was ready to step squarely into the role, but results didn’t quite confirm that hunch. It’s not that Dimir Control did poorly, it just isn’t setting the world on fire. I’m fine with continuing to go back to the drawing board to find the most efficient way to make Ugin happen, but I am skeptical that Rakdos is the answer. Irencrag Feat is opening up a tremendous vulnerability to the countermagic in the format, and the removal here does not line up well with the threats I’m expecting.

I do like the addition of Yidaro, Wandering Monster as a potential finisher for the archetype, but it also just seems like a worse version of Dimir Control’s Shark Typhoons, and they aren’t even playing that card in Game 1. In fact, that sums up a lot of my opinions on the Rakdos approach to Ugin. It just does almost every aspect of its game plan worse than the Dimir deck.

Verdict: Pretender

This deck suffers from the classic ham sandwich problem. For those not familiar, that describes a situation where the deck’s pilot is so good at Magic that they could win a match with a ham sandwich. Aaron Barich doesn’t need a great Mono-Red deck to outplay opponents into the ground… any combination of burn spells, creatures, and Mountains will probably do.

There’s a lot of nonsense and stretched manabases in the format, and that should lead to some vulnerability to the purest of aggressive strategies, but the red cards are just so bad right now. One-drops are barely acceptable, there are no card advantage engines like Experimental Frenzy left in the color, and there isn’t even a true burn spell in the deck.

If Aaron is including Sure Strike in the sideboard, I am confident it’s a card that is necessary for the deck to find success. But even if it’s the objectively correct card, it’s still saying a lot about where the power level of Red is at this moment. I’m going to wait on this archetype for a few sets.

Verdict: Pretender

Every week I feature a deck in this column that I know can’t possibly be good enough, and I also love and I’m going to play anyway. Here’s this week’s entrant.

Last week we talked about how Adventures remain under appreciated, but Fabio is doing their best to bring one of my favorite Adventure creatures its first moments in the spotlight. Hypnotic Sprite is a good Magic card. You just can’t convince me otherwise. I buy that conditions for the card have never really been right, and they probably still aren’t. But using it as a way to unlock Lofty Denial is very cool.

I think 80% of the gameplan here makes sense. There’s just enough soft disruption to keep an opponent off balance, and the past few weeks have seen a lot of expensive spells rise to prominence. The problem is that I don’t buy the clock. The deck is really missing something like Tempest Djinn to pull the aggressive draws together. If we end up with a blue creature that can slam the door quickly in a future set, I’ll come back and look at this archetype again.

Verdict: Pretender

Do y’all remember Keruga, the Macrosage? This was the companion that shot out of the gates after the release of Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, dominating the metagame with the help of Fires of Invention. Then a string of bans and nerfs made it seem unlikely we’d ever see a Keruga in the wild again. But Vladimir Smirinov clearly has a deep love for the card advantage Dinosaur Hippo and part of me believes this just might work. Punishment on the early turns only really comes from Gruul Adventures and Dimir Rogues, so there is some space to durdle for a bit.

The problem I have is that I don’t believe Keruga is accomplishing anything that Yorion can’t, and in many cases it does far less. If you were super reliant on drawing a specific four-of, then I could understand why you’d shy away from 80 cards but look at the numbers here. With all the ones, twos, and threes, you’re not hanging your hat on consistency anyway. I think the cost of Keruga is simply too high, but this serves as a good reminder that Yorion is out there, and, like every other deck in the format, itching to come back.

Verdict: Pretender

Izzet Control began to appear a few weeks ago, and I liked its chances to carve out some metagame space. Ultimately though, a horrendous matchup against green creatures might have doomed the archetype. When the aggro decks have better card advantage engines than you do, you’ve got a problem as a control deck. So Michael Cicorek went and found some engines.

Combining the “draw two bonuses” of Improbable Alliance and Irencrag Pyromancer means that your deck realistically reaches an end game that can keep up with the production of Edgewall Innkeeper and The Great Henge. I don’t think you’ve solved the matchup or anything, but at least you’ve got a plan.

Unfortunately, this plan has forced the deck onto the battlefield, and I don’t love that in a world of Doom Foretold. We’re just too countermagic light to effectively challenge Doom Foretold on the stack too. I think this deck can be built to be good against a very specific portion of the metagame, but its hard for it to be good against everyone. If you can make a really precise metagame call or if things move to a solved state, I like a lot of the theory here. It’s hard for me to believe this will be a strong choice anytime soon though.

Verdict: Pretender

It does feel like after a few weeks of undeniable creativity, the pace slowed a bit this go around. I didn’t see anything that really pointed to a breakout performance or long-term potential. And I think that’s fine. This Standard format has already revealed so much more depth than I expected. This week, the SCG Tour Online turns back to Historic, and the question on my mind is whether there’s any legitimate reason to play a deck that doesn’t contain Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath. Data suggests that it is the last outlier in the format, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this weekend is among the last few times the card gets cast on Magic Arena. But I would be very happy if one of you can prove me wrong.