From the moment the Early Access Streamer Event for Core Set 2021 went live, I was jamming as many games as I could possibly fit in, trying to learn as much as possible about this new set and its role in Standard. Here are all my early impressions of the set after several hours of playing with and against these new cards.
First things first: I should talk about the card I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. When I wrote that article, Stormwing Entity seemed like a promising, exciting design, but I wasn’t sure if the power level was quite there; having seen the card in action, I can say it absolutely is. I tried it in multiple shells throughout the event where it consistently costed two mana whenever I wanted it to, and the body and scrys were as solid as I’d hoped, but I really underestimated how powerful prowess is on Stormwing Entity. It will often be attacking with five evasive power, and in combination with Spite Dragon, you can quite easily cast a flurry of spells and kill your opponent out of nowhere.
In addition to the Izzet Phoenix list that I made for my previous article, which performed solidly in practice, I played a lot of this Izzet Prowess deck which was very impressive. It will take a bit of tuning, as there are a ton of different options that we’re not playing here that might be worth considering like Riddleform and Crash Through, but the core of what the deck is trying to do leads to some powerful sequences. See the Truth threatens to draw three cards when cast with Dreadhorde Arcanist or found by Light Up the Stage, and you can enable flashing it back with Arcanist with any of Infuriate, Samut’s Sprint, and Sea-Dasher Octopus.
On top of the plethora of card advantage the deck offers, it can also kill terrifyingly swiftly. Infuriate will often represent five damage with a pair of prowess creatures on your side of the battlefield, and Samut’s Sprint can represent even more than that when you give haste to a Dreadhorde Arcanist, allowing you to immediately cast that Sprint again in combat for another buff, all the while triggering all your prowess creatures twice in the process. This sort of deck simply can’t exist without Stormwing Entity’s prowess ability, and having played with the card I absolutely expect it to find a home somewhere. As additional upside, Eliminate looked quite strong, I expect it to see a lot of play, and that card can’t touch a Stormwing Entity, even though the Entity enters the battlefield early in the game when Eliminate is expected to answer everything.
Back when Ugin, the Spirit Dragon was last in Standard, there was a time when all decks needed to have a plan for the card. Maybe that plan was “get your opponent dead before they can cast it,” maybe it was “have a counterspell at the ready,” and maybe it was “have a lot of morphs on the battlefield so that you’d have some creatures survive its sweeper effect.” Whatever it was, you had to be ready in case your opponent had this Elder Dragon planeswalker by their side.
Ugin is just as obnoxious as I remember, with a resolved copy embarrassing entire archetypes; having seen it in practice, it’s hard to imagine that the card won’t be a format staple. It will define what can and can’t be played. Slow decks looking to create engines on the battlefield and grind with them will struggle in a world of Ugin; don’t even think of putting Shrines in your deck. That said, I found the card a lot more impressive as the top-end of the Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath midrange and control decks we’ve seen so much of rather than as a dedicated ramp finisher.
This is already a lesson we’ve largely learnt, right? Uro works best in interactive decks that play long games and naturally fill up their graveyard, which in turn makes the ramp decks much less enticing than just using Uro and Growth Spiral to help enable interactive decks. That’s not to say that Ugin won’t see some play in dedicated ramp decks, but I expect them to be less impressive than just putting Ugin into Sultai or Bant Control. Amusingly, this almost makes Ugin better, or at least much harder to fight, as cards like Teferi, Time Raveler and Thought Erasure defend Ugin in a way that makes having effective counterplay to him much more challenging.
If you’re looking to fight Ugin, getting aggressive is one way to do it. I am skeptical that Mono-White Aggro is how you do this, but Selfless Savior is a huge upgrade for decks in that realm. It feels much more powerful than something like Dauntless Bodyguard; sure, Selfless Savior doesn’t attack for as much, but it gets to protect any creature you want and its ability will still function even when you cast the card on Turn 1. Alseid of Life’s Bounty has already seen a lot of play and Selfless Savior is in a very similar space; however, not having to hold open a mana to protect your creature is huge. I can only imagine how frustrating Selfless Savior will be to face when it is paired with cards like Lurrus of the Dream-Den or Feather, the Redeemed.
Sadly, the rest of the Mono-White Aggro cards did not impress me as much as I was hoping. Basri Ket in particular felt like he was often either win-more or blank cardboard. The situations where he leads to a few extra 1/1s dashing across the battlefield at your opponent are typically games you’re already doing well in, as you have a developed battlefield and are able to make reasonable attacks, whereas he ends up doing fairly little in the games where your opponent has sturdy blockers or has just cast a sweeper.
Glorious Anthem and Seasoned Hallowblade both fell short also when contrasted against previous versions of these effects. Glorious Anthem lacking Benalish Marshal’s body might make it more resilient but really hurts your goldfish rate and leads to games where you sometimes simply don’t have enough creatures, whilst Seasoned Hallowblade is excellent against sweepers but so much worse at attacking through blockers than Adanto Vanguard was. I think there are some good aggressive tools in this new set, but having played with Mono-White Aggro a bunch now I am sceptical that having a huge pile of three-mana spells, with both Basri Ket and Glorious Anthem in your deck, is the way to take things.
Indeed I suspect, based on what I’ve seen, that the way to be aggressive isn’t with Basri Ket, but instead with Conclave Mentor. Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa wrote extensively about this card, and I was impressed whenever I saw it played against me. In particular I love the look of Ashlizzlle’s build:
- 3 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Pelt Collector
- 3 Huatli's Raptor
- 2 Barkhide Troll
- 3 Voracious Hydra
- 4 Stonecoil Serpent
- 2 Yorvo, Lord of Garenbrig
- 2 Gemrazer
- 4 Conclave Mentor
- 3 Wildwood Scourge
Mono-Green Aggro was already the best aggressive deck in Standard before Core Set 2021, and the tools that are being offered to it are all huge. So many of the cards in the deck already incidentally involved +1/+1 counters and so Conclave Mentor fits in perfectly; Primal Might is a great upgrade to Ram Through, being either hyper-efficient or a synergistic late-game effect depending on what you need; and Invigorating Surge threatens to just trample people to death out of nowhere in combination with Stonecoil Serpent.
On top of this Scavenging Ooze is fantastic in this deck, being a fine two-drop early in the game whilst synergising with the +1/+1 counters theme and effectively fighting Cauldron Familiar and Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, cards that have historically been oppressive towards aggressive decks. I’m excited about something in vein, and whilst the exact details will take some refining, I could see these additions making Selesnya Aggro a real contender.
It’s possible that this combo is too cute, but I ran into it a few times whilst playing and it was very scary to play against. When you cast Revenge with Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose on your side of the battlefield, it is very hard for your opponent to not just instantly die; their life total needs to be over double yours to survive. This might sound ridiculous, except Revival is just a completely reasonable card which can even return a dead copy of Vito to the battlefield for you too. The trick then, is more in making Vito a good card when you don’t draw Revival // Revenge. None of the decks I played against quite seemed convincing as they were built, including Orzhov Sacrifice, Abzan Sacrifice, and Orzhov Control decks, but I was scared whenever my opponent put a Vito onto the battlefield in the late-game, and that sense of fear is a sign that there might be something to the card.
Let’s all be very thankful Agent of Treachery is banned. Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast took over the format as a version of the effect seen on Transmogrify, so there’s already a precedent for an effect like this being good in Standard, and you can even play both of these cards if you’re interested in redundancy. The Boros Tokens builds I played against were occasionally terrifying and could do some disgusting stuff, though the card quality seemed quite low when you weren’t throwing an End-Raze Forerunners onto the battlefield far ahead of schedule.
Transmogrify looked very powerful, but finding a shell for it that can stand on its own when you don’t draw Transmogrify or Lukka will take some work. Maybe the trick is just to put it into a Jeskai Control deck, like the Yorion Jeskai Lukka decks we saw before, as paying four mana for a Dream Trawler is just an excellent rate. This is one of the first decks I most want to mess with over the coming days.
Sam Black Sultai Control deck was one of the decks that most surprised me. Rain of Revelation being able to discard copies of Frantic Inventory or Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath is huge, as is filtering through interactive spells that are dead in the matchup, and Frantic Inventory was very impressive in this shell too for reasons addressed in his article.
The card that I wasn’t expecting to like this much was Rewind. Getting to counter your opponent’s big play and then immediately resolve a Rain of Revelation or Nightpack Ambusher is just such a huge swing. Having seen Rewind in practice, it’s not hard to imagine using this card in a more proactive flash deck too, not only setting up Nightpack Ambushers but also allowing you to counter a spell and then still use your mana to draw a card off Spectral Sailor.
That said, with all these exciting cards entering the format, it is worth remembering that the more things change, the more they stay the same, as the previous best decks got some great new tools too: