School’s In Session: Dissecting The Deans Of Strixhaven

The Deans of Strixhaven have Michael Majors in a brewing mood. Where will the five modal DFCs fit into Strixhaven Standard?

Imbraham, Dean of Theory, illustrated by Ryan Pancoast
Imbraham, Dean of Theory, illustrated by Ryan Pancoast

Welcome to Strixhaven preview season!  For the first time in a long while, I feel like we’re in a similar boat.  Despite still being official #WotCStaff during the majority of Strixhaven development, all of my effort was being put towards Modern Horizons 2.  So, with just a few file passes, draft playtests, and some smaller contributions, I feel like I’m not too far removed from the outside world in terms of familiarity and, as a result, eagerness to get my hands on the set.

Strixhaven is our game’s take on the fantastical “magical school” tropes — something dear to my heart not only through the lens of some beloved pop culture, but the intersections of classic fantasy and “coming of age” themes. 

In a somewhat different vein from, say, Hogwarts Houses, Strixhaven’s factionality manifests as school departments — two-color pairs representing Math, History, Science, Drama, and Art.  Each separate college has a founder (Elder Dragons soon to come) and a Dean pair, alongside various other cycles.  Today we’ll largely be talking about the Deans.

Each Dean is a DFC with a single colored side representing the two halves of their respective college.  Let’s jump right in.

Plargg, Dean of Chaos Augusta, Dean of Order

The leaders of the History Department are no slouches.  The most appealing aspect on their face is that if you’re playing Boros colors or more, then a single card can represent having a play on two consecutive points on the curve.  Compared to something like Valki, God of Lies and Tibalt, Cosmic Impostor, there can be substantial deckbuilding implications in the gap between a card that represents an early play and late-game mana sink and a card that can do heavy lifting in terms of how to build a deck that can proactively provide to the battlefield consistently. 

Are the History deans enough raw rate to represent a deck building shift?  Not necessarily, but it’s always something we should be considering in a cycle where the gap between mana costs in DFC creatures is low. 

That all being said, there are a satisfyingly large number of useful abilities between these two cards.  Plargg is a respectable rate that can smooth out your draw or act as a card-advantage-based mana sink.  Augusta isn’t breaking any power records when related to cards like Benalish Marshal, but its ease of use and flexibility is massive.  At a quick glance, the History Department looks the best-equipped to slot into existing decks in Standard without the full context of Strixhaven’s release. 

Augusta is naturally a big fan of Clarion Spirit, and despite not having as much raw power as Felidar Retreat or Toski, Bearer of Secrets, it is both cheaper and more flexible.  Plargg also naturally compounds the amount of late-game power you have with Showdown of the Skalds — it isn’t exactly ideal to be spending five mana on the activated ability when your deck has such a tight range of low-cost creatures, but additional sinks in decks like these are welcome!

The second question I have to ask for all of the Deans is, how much flexibility am I granted by “splashing” alternate sides in our decks just by virtue of playing more Pathways than normal?  Pathways are uniquely suited to enabling several of this set of cards. For example:

Is Augusta simply strong enough to play in Mono-White Aggro❄?  Probably.  From there the question is how many copies, and should we have any Pathways to support Plargg?  The small minutiae of it all will be the difficult aspect for the metagame to answer, but I have faith in the hivemind. I’d guess that the above’s very modest splits are reasonable beginning points. 

Augusta, in particular, is a Dean that I’m excited about contributing to a wide swath of strategies, creating interesting play patterns, but never being dominant.

Uvilda, Dean of Perfection Nassari, Dean of Expression

I admit, despite Nassari, Dean of Expression looking like a total blast in Commander, I’m not too optimistic for the leaders of the art school to show up in high level Standard.  The most natural card to pair with Nassari is Alrund’s Epiphany.

Modeled after previous Izzet Midrange❄ decks that were making waves at the beginning of Kaldheim Standard season, this deck has a lot to like if it’s strong enough.  The Dean of Perfection getting Stomped is certainly a large strike against it, but queuing up Alrund’s Epiphany, Boon of the Wish-Giver, or Shatterskull Smashing is a pretty big game that can represent massive snowballimg swings in the game — in particular when Alrund’s extra turn can set up additional hone counters coming off “suspend.” 

Torrent Sculptor is another exciting option for decks like these that are always trying to manage the balancing act of “having enough interaction” and “ways to close out the game.”  It works particularly well with Boon of the Wish-Giver granting additional redundancy.

Beyond a shell similar to this, I don’t see a ton of additional applications in Standard unfortunately.  Most of the large spells in the environment have a myriad of colored pips, but looking for ways to circumvent the strict cost reduction with things like X-spells is a great place to start exploring.

We’re going to cover the next two Deans simultaneously.

Valentin, Dean of the Vein Lisette, Dean of the Root

Shaile, Dean of Radiance Embrose, Dean of Shadow

While Valentin and Lisette don’t immediately jump off the page as clearly having an existing home in Standard, they’re extremely exciting.  Valentin can function as one of the most efficient hate cards we’ve seen in a long time — critically his ability to exile opposing creatures isn’t predicated on spending the mana, as that’s just to get the Pest bonus.  A one-mana 1/1 menace, lifelink creature isn’t that far off, so stacking on a hate ability that’s a mana sink and an entire additional card on the back is a ton of rate.

Lisette also looks excellent, as she’s a must-kill threat that quickly threatens to take over and end the game simultaneously.  Shaile, Dean of Radiance and Embrose, Dean of Shadow are in somewhat similar space, not naturally benefiting from a currently existing Standard strategy but asking you to build around them.  The rates here are also exciting; Shaile, in particular, looks poised to create some explosive battlefields in a hurry.  I’ve combined these two Deans into a first-crack effort (oh, and they both are Lurrus-legal).

I like this deck!  It has that perfect Lurrus mix of an extremely low curve, some “cheaty” mana sinks, and the potential for some explosive synergistic starts.  There’s something here worth exploring.

Last, and uh, likely least are:

Kianne, Dean of Substance Imbraham, Dean of Theory

Kianne, Dean of Substance will play a lot like Uvilda — except you can’t really build around it and your reward for untapping is being up a card instead of substantially working towards ending the game.  That’s just not very exciting frankly.  Imbraham, Dean of Theory is a lot closer — a Phantom Monster with the ability to get you up some cards over the course of a long contest isn’t embarrassing by any means, but if Kianne isn’t contributing significantly enough to the total package, then the bar for including Imbraham is likely to be too high. 

That naysaying aside, this is still a package of card advantage creatures that can eventually win the game, so they’ll have some places in matchups, but largely functioning as sideboard cards for existing strategies rather than being central pieces of new decks.  Maybe I’m wrong, but I think at this stage, I’m least excited for Kianna and Imbraham of the set of Deans.

This is just the beginning of Strixhaven preview season, but hopefully the wide range of abilities of these cards on top of Strixhaven being a multicolor set with some sick tropes is plenty to get you excited for the weeks to come!