Zendikar is officially in. Cryptic Command, Bitterblossom, Mistbind Clique, Reflecting Pool, Spectral Procession, Figure of Destiny, and all the rest of Lorwyn/Shadowmoor Block have finally left Standard. While I miss many of those cards, I have to say that I am glad to finally be rid of them. I have enjoyed the Vivid Land free-roll for a long time, but it has been boring from a deck building standpoint, as mana was just far too easy.
It was a little obnoxious how oppressive Cryptic Command was, as I have been pretty firmly in the camp of “no deck without Cryptic Command” being tier 1 this entire year. Yeah, I know people liked Boat Brew for a while, and B/W Tokens gained some popularity. Jund performed even without Cryptic at times, but I have felt all year (and continue to feel looking back) that Cryptic Command was an auto-four-of in whatever the best Standard deck was at any time, whether it was Faeries, Five-Color Control, 5CB, Merfolk, U/W Control, whatever. The card is totally amazing in its own right, but contextually it was just too much.
Obviously Spectral Procession and Bitterblossom warped the format a great deal as well, and as much as I liked how much they warped the format in a way that one could prepare for (unlike Affinity in its prime), I think that it will be fun to play a new type of game, with new rules and new parameters. I have to say that I am still concerned about the format warping around the two “Good Cards,” Bloodbraid Elf and Cruel Ultimatum. Whereas most of the “Good Cards” rotated out, only two remain. It would appear that as good a set as Zendikar is (and it is good), it does not contain any Bloodbraid Elves or Cruel Ultimatums that form the foundation of a format.
I think there are a ton of cards in Zendikar that shake things up, many new archetypes, and a lot of great strategies possible that do not include those two cards, but at the end of the day, nothing in this set is at that level for Standard. This may be a little annoying at first, while we still have those two, but I think that it will probably be okay, especially since there are some great new cards to help other strategies.
Today I am going to discuss some ideas for Standard decks with Zendikar. To start, I am going to look at the new popular archetype that has everyone talking: Vampires.
The Vampires are a cool tribe, no question. Aside from a well executed flavor, people’s natural affinity for Mono-Black, and a nice mix of Vampires, the power level on many of these guys is just a little higher than you would expect.
Many people talk about Vampire Aggro and how fast it is. The list that is to follow is an example of Vampire Aggro, though even this version is nowhere near as full speed as many people’s lists. I think that it is a trap to try to make the deck as all-in as possible. Just consider what the other guy is going to do. If they are aggressive, you will not want a bunch of 1/1s for one. You are going to want to slow it down a step, as you are not going to be a better Soldier deck than the Soldier deck. I don’t want to get sidetracked, but the Soldier deck Cedric Phillips posted here looks strong, and appears as though it is going in a good direction. I had not been able to build a respectable Soldier deck for this format, but when I saw his Brave the Elements, I knew he had made a breakthrough. That card is absolutely awesome in that deck.
Reverent Manta was a format-defining powerhouse in the Rebel era, and Brave the Elements might be better. That card seems absolutely huge, and will certainly be the backbone of any White Aggro strategy I work on in the months to come. It is a one-mana Counterspell, Falter, combat trick, and more.
Anyway, what is your plan? You are going to put out a bunch of cheap aggressive creatures, Crusade them, and play removal spells to clear the way? That is a WW deck. Do you really think you can be a better WW deck than the WW deck? It is possible, but I would personally try to focus on what you have that they don’t, namely a strong discard element.
I think Mind Sludge is one of the best cards in Zendikar, and a lot of the decks that I imagine fall apart once I imagine playing against someone that Mind Sludges me. I think that one of the biggest draws to Vampires is that it might be the best Mind Sludge deck. I see some people replacing 8 Swamps with 8 Black Borderposts, so as to improve their Nocturnus. That is the wrong way to go. First of all, Borderposts entering the battlefield tapped is pretty bad for such an aggressive deck. Second, they obviously don’t work with Mind Sludge, which I think is vital to a deck like this. It lets you beat Day of Judgment, a card that would otherwise crush you.
Finally, what is the upside? You are telling me that when you have Vampire Nocturnus in play, you need to improve the odds of him hitting by 15% (ish), so much so that you would play mana that enters the battlefield tapped? When you are Vampire Nocturnus-ing, you are already winning. Improving his ability 15% is NOT worth it. That is definitely a deck building trap that falls under the Danger of Cool Things. Yes, it is clever that you are taking advantage of the Borderpost’s color attribute. No, that does not make it good.
Fetchlands, on the other hand, are a totally other story. I do not endorse sticking 8 fetchlands in every mono-color deck in Standard, as the deck thinning is overrated (though not zero). Still, one life is a small price to pay if you actually get utility. With Vampire Nocturnus, you do better than increase your chances of hitting, you get to change whether or not he hits at instant speed, and without your opponent (or you) knowing with certainly what the outcome will be. In addition, the card selection is quite useful. Let’s say you have a Mind Sludge on top after a turn 4 Nocturnus. Maybe you don’t fetch yet. Let’s say you have a Vampire Lacerator. Maybe you shuffle during your upkeep.
Here, you are not only improving the Nocturnus’s ability, you are getting a little selection, which is particularly nice in a deck without a ton of draw. The fact that Fetchlands play very well with Mind Sludge is a must to even have discussed them for this purpose. I think the real clincher is Tendrils of Corruption. A lot of Vampires have lifelink-ish abilities, but Tendrils is in a totally different world when it comes to life gain. That card is absolutely amazing, and in a Mono-Black deck these days, you probably want four copies before you ever even get to Doom Blades, Disfigures, or anything else.
Before I go any further, let me list you.
As you can see, my Vampire Aggro is a little heavier than some, but I think the natural trend will be in that direction. Vampire Nocturnus is very strong, and the only reason to be aggro at all. Lacerator is not exciting, Hexmage is meh, Bloodghast is not well used in this build, and the rest of the cards push you towards Control.
I see a lot of people not using Vampire Nighthawk, and I guess I wonder if these people like Baneslayer Angel. I am not saying Vampire Nighthawk is better than Baneslayer; I am just saying that it is a similar type of card, albeit at a different spot on the curve. Sure, Vampire Nighthawk dies, but so do a lot of things… Like Baneslayer. Yes, it gets Lightning Bolted, but something was going to die to that.
Vampire Nighthawk is actually a great collection of abilities on a very nicely selected body. Flying and Lifelink obviously work well, and Deathtouch is surprisingly relevant, often letting the Nighthawk trade up (and with value…). The three toughness is a nice help against Volcanic Fallout and Pyroclasm, plus it helps ensure that he can typically hold off the ground himself, against a lot of opponents.
I am not married to the idea of Nighthawk in Vampires, as he is still a two-power creature for three mana with no inherent card advantage, but he seems sweet. I particularly like how well he works with Duress and Mind Sludge, as he can actually take advantage of them being disrupted.
I like Disfigure more than Doom Blade right now, as I think that the Vampire decks have a lot of mid- and even end-game, but need help early. Their early plays suck, and you are going to need all the tempo you can to make it out of the early turns.
I also think that Vampires will be popular, so Doom Blade is going to lose value there. You have to take into consideration Baneslayer in this format, but 4 Tendrils and 4 Gatekeepers of Malakir is a good start.
I am unsure as of yet what to make of Duress. I would love Thoughtseize, but Duress is obviously less reliable. I am going to try it, but could imagine playing more or less of them, depending on how the format shapes up.
The Bloodwitch is extremely underrated, and is one of the better Vampire cards. Her drain ability is probably going to be more relevant than you might expect (and honestly, you aren’t even paying for it). On top of that, a 4/4 flier that has protection from White seems absurd in this format, contextually. How do people kill it? Oh sure, there will be some Burst Lightnings, some Terminates, some Maelstrom Pulses, and so on, but at least you got a little something for your trouble.
Of course, it is nice that it trumps a Baneslayer Angel (they don’t gain any life) but even more than that, it can hold her off until you can deal with her and start attacking. I could totally see playing more of this, the only conflict being the casting cost. I could totally see playing more copies, but it would put a lot of strain on the Nocturnus aspect of the deck.
Personally, I want to push the deck in a more controlling direction. Here is one such example, in fact going so far as to not really be a Vampire deck at all.
You can see that since I have opted against Nocturnus here, as there is little incentive to value the creature type Vampire. Black Knight is a far superior defensive creature than Vampire Hexmage or Bloodghast. I have also gone with Ob Nixilis instead of Malakir Bloodwitch for a few reasons.
First of all, fewer Vampires hurts here a little, but the main reason I have gone with Ob Nixilis is that I think it might be more powerful, and this deck can support six drops (whereas the aggro deck above doesnâ€˜t want a creature that costs six). That card seems like the real deal to me. It is a rare landfall card that has a Magic Christmas Land scenario that is totally awesome, but still obtainable. In addition, when it’s bad, it pretty good.
The card may say its casting cost is five, but it is a six-drop that happens to have the option of being played for five in a pinch. It is also nice that this six-drop can be played and then you can Duress or Disfigure in the same turn.
See, as a five-drop, Ob Nixilis is vulnerable to stone cold everything, with you suffering a major loss of tempo when they do whatever they want. As a six-drop, however, he is devastating. First of all, he is going to be at least a 6/6 (since you play him on turn 6, then play a land). You also get in at least one three-point life shot. This means that even if they deal with your 6/6 for six (which is a respectable body), you still got in some life loss. If they don’t, he might be attacking for 9 next turn, plus a 3 point drain.
Now that we have seen the modest execution, let’s look at what he can do when things go well. Let’s say your sixth land is a Fetchland. Now you are talking about 6 life lost when he enters the battlefield, plus a 9/9 body. Any land next turn, and we are talking 21 points of damage by himself (a true one-turn clock).
Obviously it sucks when they Lightning Bolt him with the trigger on the stack normally, but with a Fetchland, you can let the trigger resolve, leaving the fetchland available to respond to any Bolts.
This guy seems great to me, possibly the best Landfall creature for Standard, and more than just a Warp World kill card (though it is sweet at that). I am interested to see what all he ends up doing, as there are a lot of potential applications.
Marsh Causalities has not garnered much attention or support, but I think that card is the truth. It seems much better than Infest in a deck full of two toughness creatures, and I think it will probably be necessary for combating the protection from Black creatures. Obviously it doesn’t kill Stag, but it will usually kill the rest of their guys, so that you can Gatekeeper the Stag. It is also nice that it interacts well with Disfigure, allowing you to trade way up. A sweeper of some sort is probably a must for combating Soldiers and Vampires.
I have been mentioning Great Sable Stag a little, and yes I think that card has been asked to have a second day in the sun. Faeries may be gone, and the Pro: Blue is a lot less relevant, but the Pro: Black is better than ever. Stag has been decent against a lot of Jund decks (with his only weakness being Bolt), but now he gets to prey on Mono-Black decks left and right. Sure, they have Gatekeepers, but he is still a solid role-player, he is just not a game-winning hoser like he was against Faeries.
Here is a possible build using Great Sable Stag. This list is okay, but it is just generic Jund, offering no interesting or new developments.
I am sure decks like this will always do well, as they are consistent, full of good cards, have good mana, nice inherent card advantage, and use Bloodbraid Elf. I personally do not love such a deck, but I respect its power and it will help set the pace for the format. This deck should be in every gauntlet.
I look at those Vampire decks, and I can’t help but wonder what they are planning on doing about a Bloodbraid Elf. Bloodbraid Elf seems totally amazing against them, as do all the creatures in this build. Mind Sludge is sweet, no question, but there is a real risk of falling behind on board.
One natural solution to a format warped around Bloodbraid Elf and Cruel Ultimatum is to use both. An obvious starting point for such a deck would be the Block deck that Zac Hill, Michael Jacob, Martin Juza, and I played in Hawaii. Here is a possible starting point for a port into new standard.
Not surprisingly, there are a variety of items to address with this build, but first I have to mention the caveat that this build is not likely to be right for tournament play quite yet. Whereas the Jund deck above is 60/60 ready to play and be a solid contender in any tournament, Five Color is going to take a lot of work and understanding of the format.
If you look back at my first Cruel Ultimatum lists last fall, you can see that the deck had to evolve a lot to get to the point of Nassif winning Kyoto and Shuhei and Gindy winning their Nationals. Five-Color Cascade will be the same way, as you have to properly anticipate the field so as to set yourself up to answer it appropriately.
Maybe the deck needs Baneslayers. Maybe it needs more removal. Maybe it needs a lot more creatures. Maybe more card draw. It is hard to say, but let’s examine the reasoning behind the choices I did make.
To begin, I have obviously selected Sphinx of Jwar Isle over Baneslayer Angel. This is not a knock against Baneslayer, which is still a very powerful card. It is just that I imagine most of my opponent’s will have 8-12 ways to kill a Baneslayer, and I can’t protect it with this deck. It is possible that I could take a page from our Hawaii sideboard plan’s playbook and remove the cheap removal spells so that every Cascade hits a Blightning or Esper Charm (as Blighting), ensuring that our opponents are out of cards by turn 6 or so, making it say for Baneslayer to come out and play. The risk with this strategy is that you might get run over while you are messing around with all the discard spells.
Jwar-Jwar has been selected because I don’t want to have to protect my kill card. I wouldn’t mind a Baneslayer without first strike, life link, or protection from Demons and Dragons, if it would just do me a favor and not die instantaneously. While there is a substantial loss of power for this trade, I do think that there is a good chance it is worth it, as the reliability is worth a ton in a deck like this, which is already so high on power (Bloodbraids, Cruels, Esper Charms, Day of Judgment, etc) and much lower on consistency (sketchy manabase, unreliable cascades, shy on victory conditions).
Aside from Shroud, the primary reason we are playing her, we also can take great advantage of the ability to look at the top card of our library at will. Aside from always knowing what we will draw next turn, we have a ton of ways to manipulate that. The fetchlands are used similar to the way we used the Nocturnus, but we have the added value that our opponent’s don’t know what we know. Traumatic Visions has a similar effect. Still, it is the Cascades that really take advantage of this ability.
When you know the top of your library is a particular cheap spell, you can decide whether or not to Cascade into that (such as not flipping Maelstrom Pulse into an empty board). In addition, if you see that the top of your library is a land, you might be more tempted to play your Bloodbraid Elf, whereas if you know that it is a Cruel Ultimatum, maybe you just wait and draw it.
With thirteen shufflers and Cascades, you can actually leverage the information gained from the Sphinx to great effect, allowing you take a game you are a little behind at and turn it around into a winning position, especially if all you are doing is digging for Cruel.
I have opted to keep the Kathari Remnants, but not the Walls of Denial, despite how awesome they were in Hawaii. First of all, the Wall is poor against Gatekeeper, Nighthawk, and Stag. Next of all, I think it is probably a must that we play Day of Judgments in a deck like this. While Wall of Denial is pretty awful with Day of Judgment, Kathari Remnant is actually totally amazing. You can use Kathari Remnant to not only get a good Cascade early, but then to hold off an attacker until you cast Day of Judgment. Then you just regenerate and have a blocker around to protect you from the next attack. Who says that Day of Judgment is weaker than Wrath?
I know that Lightning Bolt has a lot of competition for the removal spot, but it has a few things going for it. First of all, it is a fantastic tempo play. The mana in this deck is pretty clunky, so being able to stop three-mana creatures for just one can go a long way to helping catch up. Next of all, it kills both Black creatures and Stag, which most of the other options do not. This is not a Path to Exile sort of deck, I don’t think.
Aside from eventually Cascading into enough burn to kill, it is also nice to be able to take advantage of the life loss part of Cruel Ultimatum, actually burning some people out entirely (such as people with Thornling).
The mana is this deck is tough, but I gave it the old college effort. I guess you just have to play with it a bit and see what works. It is a bit distressing how many lands enter the battlefield tapped, but what is the alternative?
To begin with, you will notice that I may have lost Cryptic Command and Broken Ambitions, but I am still going to try a permission deck. The mixture of Remove Souls, Negates, Double Negatives, and Traumatic Visions is largely a function of them all sucking.
I have a lot of cheap creature defense, figuring that I can beat aggressive strategies with a lot of cheap removal, some Judgments, and finishing with a Cruel. More mid-range decks will probably be more vulnerable to my permission, especially since permission will be so much rarer than it has traditionally been (at least at first).
I am not sure how effective Planeswalkers will be in the new Standard, but they seem like reasonable ways to draw cards and are worth checking out, though the solution might turn out to be Mind Spring or Courier’s Capsule or any of a number of other options. This is another deck that might want Baneslayers instead of Sphinx, but my natural inclination is to go with the reliable kill, rather than the promise of free wins in exchange for greater vulnerability. With only two creatures in the deck, I do not want to turn on all of my opponent’s removal spells, upgrading them from blanks to efficient answers.
As you can see, I think Sphinx of Jwar-Isle might turn out to be one of the most important cards in the set. As I submitted this article, the price of Sphinx of Jwar-Isle was listed at $1.49. That seems absurd to me. I highly recommend picking up a playset, as this guy is a sleeper hit.
These are far from the only strategies I am thinking about, but I have to focus most of my testing on Extended for a couple more weeks; then it is full speed with Standard. In general, though, it would seem that one would want to identify what the defining elements of the format are, and determine what strategies have inherent strengths against them, as well as what are the best executions of each.
I gotta wrap it up for this week. Nassif, Heezy, and MJ are in town, and we have to get back to breaking Extended with the rest of the Run Good Club, Paul Rietzl, Matt Sperling, David Williams, Brian Kibler, and Ben Rubin. We leave for Austin is less than a week. Hopefully I will see some of you guys in Austin, or at GP: Tampa the week after.
We will always remember you.