The Battle for Zendikar has been unleashed on Standard.
The first shots have been fired.
The old paradigms have started to be overturned and we welcome in our new boss (who, by some dimensions, is the same as the old boss...or at least the same as the old-old boss).
Arashin Cleric has question marks for a holy halo...is this the card that will hold back the red legions? Early answer: no. Better answer: never was (maybe).
How about Hangarback Walker? Is it good? How good? Is it great? Probably yes. It certainly is ubiquitous.
When we look at early results, or when we look at how hard we have been hit in any game, our imaginations tend to gravitate towards the big movements. The oohs and ahs of the third turn kill; how impressive it is to overwhelm consecutive blockers on turn three or four; what big spell is best (or in the case of Siege Rhino, still best); and what heretofore unsung hero has become the "it girl" of the emerging format (I'm looking at you, Temur Battle Rage).
But...the big movements are often not what determine the most success long-term. It just looks like they are doing all the work. You look at the opponent's fourth Siege Rhino with disgust, missing the fact that you actually had him on two at some point, missed a trigger, and it should never have gotten there. You look at the big pump spells, assume they are what is responsible for the big wins, when in fact it is the lack of cheap and mana efficient removal (relative to threats) that opens the door to an unblocked attacker and a handful of instants.
This article is dedicated to the unsung victors of the emerging Standard. In some cases you will know when you've lost to one, but in most you'll look at your awesome stack of cards, your tapped mana, and wonder where it all went wrong. Here's to helping out on that front.
My Top 8 red and white cards you just can't sleep on:
I. Dragonmaster Outcast
Starting us off is Battle for Zendikar reprint, Dragonmaster Outcast. While this card is a reprint in fact it is anything but in spirit. The last time Dragonmaster Outcast was legal in Standard it was the master of very little, but one weekend through and it is already making Top 8 appearances. Case in point: Adam Varner's Jeskai Black
What makes Dragonmaster Outcast worth a conversation?
It is both fast and inevitable.
Against basically any deck you can play this on turn one. One-drops never get the credit they are due in Magic, but they do have a special power (actually two special powers). One of them is that they come out early and start attacking. This is awesome because they can get in two to three random damage that can effectively be a Time Walk later in a game. The other is that no one wants to trade down against one.
Well Dragonmaster Outcast will get two to three random damage in, but killing it is not a trade down. In fact, if you don't kill it, it will Threaten to overwhelm you with giant flyers.
There are two things that make Dragonmaster Outcast contextually relevant in this Standard:
1. G/W is a deck. G/W is in fact a popular deck. While it is not true that G/W has no answers to a Dragonmaster Outcast, its Dromoka's Commands are likely to be taxed with all kinds of fights, so they have to pick and choose (or run out). Valorous Stance is no help.2. Ojutai's Command can bring this puppy back at exactly the wrong time. Say the opponent did kill your Dragonmaster Outcast...you can bring it back when you have six lands already in play, untap, and actually trigger it immediately. Value upon value!
II. Fiery Impulse
Andrew Cuneo played this card against me in his U/R Sphinx's Tutelage deck back at Pro Tour Magic Origins and I didn't think much of it. "I guess that is a spell," I thought, as it killed my one-drop or two-drop. All my guys were small, and two or three didn't matter; I respected the one-mana ness (see above) a lot, but the Spell Mastery didn't mean much.
Fast forward to this rotation. Fiery Impulse may have been promoted to the most important removal card in the format. Yes, it is an inflexible Wild Slash. Yes, it is a terrible Lightning Bolt. But when you are under siege from the first turn, the cheaper your defensive plays, the more likely you are to win. Later in the game the advantage of a Fiery Impulse versus a two (or more) mana spell is magnified. You can make a proactive play using, say, three-fourths of your mana, and leave up Fiery Impulse for the odd haste creature in.
Which haste creature?
Mantis Rider of course!
This is a one-mana spell that can kill a Mantis Rider at no loss of card advantage. That is basically everything you could want in a defensive removal card that costs so little.
If you think back to any of the lessons in Abzan Aggro that Andrew Boswell (or I, relating some Andrew Boswell wisdom) has spun recently, you should get this. The flashiest card in Boz's deck was Siege Rhino. The differentiating smackdown was Boon Satyr (okay, Mana Confluence) but the consistent workman was Fleecemane Lion. The opponent could answer a thing a turn for many consecutive turns, but if he was taking three from turn three without mana open to handle that little guy too, Andy would be at the advantage.
When you are trading a seemingly inflexible one mana spell for the opponent's three mana hasty headliner, you might not always win, but you will be #winning.
III. Draconic Roar
You may have seen this Tweet from PT Top 8 competitor and former R&D member (and multiple-time Flores Rewards Friday Celebrity Guest) Zac Hill:
Extremely hype about the latest brew with @fivewithflores— Zac Hill (@zdch) October 3, 2015
I ended up running into Zac at FNM last week, at a store I have never FNM'd at, and we ended up brewing a hot one.
One of the things that got the ball rolling was this interplay between me and Zac.
Me: How many Dragons do you think you need to effectively play Draconic Roar? (I was mentally going over U/B and Esper lists and their takes on Silumgar's Scorn and / or Foul-Tongue Invocation. I wasn't expecting Zac's answer.)
Zac: Zero! Do you know good Lightning Strike is right now?
The man made a good point. In the world with no Lightning Bolt, Lightning Strike looks good; and in the world with no Lightning Strike, Draconic Roar does a good impression a good amount of the time (and is better the rest of the time). Ditto everyone about killing Mantis Rider's cost effectively, from above. Isn't it sick that you don't even need to have Dragons in your deck for this to be a playable card? Think: Bile Blight.
IV. Touch of the Void
Touch of the Void is kind of a weird, gross spell. Not only is it three mana (super overpay compared to both of the last two entries), but it is a sorcery. Barf, right?
(Another Adam Varner inclusion, though, as above).
But there is something important about this card. Yes, it is three-for-three instead of one-for-three or two-for-three (or six). Yes, it is a sorcery (who even plays sorceries?). Surely we would want an uncounterable version for three mana, right?
Touch of the Void exiles!
Red decks have big problems with certain kinds of blockers: Most namely Hangarback Walker and Deathmist Raptor; Touch of the Void messes up both of those cards.
Honorable mention goes to Complete Disregard (which is neither red nor black) and really horrible when compared with in-format sorcery Reave Soul. BUT! Same deal: Exile is a big game against some of these troubling, resilient, threats and / or blockers.
V. Knight of the White Orchid
Knight of the White Orchid doesn't look like much. That's because it isn't that much. 2/2 for two mana with two good abilities; neither one the picture of power or consistency. Not much, though, right?
Kyle Nisswandt's 9th place take on Abzan does a great job of showcasing what is possible with
a little elbow grease applied to Knight of the White Orchid. First off, you get some free percentage when going second (which is awesome considering how awful going second can be), and second, it gives a white deck the key two → five boost.
Here, Knight of the White Orchid is a reasonable attacker, a potentially tempo-positive defender going second, and an enabler straight to Wingmate Roc.
Speaking of which...
VI. Wingmate Roc
Wingmate Roc isn't the kind of card that needs a whole lot of fanfare; after all, it was one of the key Mythic Rare threats of last year's Standard, good in Abzan Aggro, and good in its natural home Mardu as well. Wingmate Roc fell off the planet at least somewhat at some points, either losing deck space to the mighty Whisperwood Elemental, or cut purely for cost, as in the Boz's take on Abzan Aggro.
Wingmate Roc had a one-bird (okay two-bird) renaissance as a sideboard card in Abzan Control though as a great attacker against opposing Elspeths.
Why mention this now? This is not a card that wins games in a not-obvious way. This is a card that thumps you, right? You really feel it when you take six, and you really don't like marking down the opponent's life increase, even if it is just a point or two at a time.
I think Wingmate Roc is more of a contextual answer these days than a frontline attacker. That might seem odd, but if it weren't for Mantis Rider, I think that many decks would just opt for Whisperwood Elemental. Like, look at Michael Major's G/W deck:
Are you really telling me the deck with ten megamorphs would rather have one extra body on five than...actually zero extra bodies (on a relative basis)? Whisperwood is almost always stronger on materiel, and contextually it's awesome due to all the megamorph setups.
Roc is deft sidestep in this format, not a hammer blow to the noggin; you want this card to race Mantis Rider more than purely as a threat.
VII. Abzan Falconer
Most of you probably have very little familiarity with this Khans of Tarkir uncommon. It's not even heavily played in the decks where it is good!
But in those decks Abzan Falconer is like a Wonder (if you get the reference). Wonder was the worst way to lose. Basically you could do everything right, but if the opponent's guys all flew, he would kill you to death and the games were super non-interactive.
This card is "fine" on turn three, but I think one of the places it will really excel (and hasn't been positioned yet) is with Collected Company. You can flip it onto the battlefield when the opponent isn't set up and really profit on your own turn.
Imagine cross-breeding this deck:
With, say, our own Craig Wescoe's deck from Grand Prix Toronto.
The disappearance of the plane of Theros and the space vacated by Brimaz, King of Oreskos and Courser of Kruphix at the three makes plenty of room.
VIII. Gideon Emblem
No, not Gideon, Ally of Zendikar! That is too obvious. Everyone knows what a beast he is.
...just his emblem.
Why does this matter in a distinct way?
It makes your best card better.
Hangarback Walker is unique in Standard. It's seemingly everywhere: control, beatdown, midrange, swarming, getting big, enabling colorless- or artifacts-matter strategies; defending the poor, punishing the wicked.
...but it can't cash in on every interaction.
What about the above-proposed marriage of Co-Co and Hardened Scales? If you flip Hangarback Walker, it will come into play 0/0.
How about Ojutai's Command? Same deal: Legal target...but no free lunch.
But a Gideon emblem can put your Hangarback Walker on a zero level that just starts it not-dead. After that, you can grow (and move to dominate) per usual.
There are lots of great cards in Standard. Winning with them can be obvious. But if there is one thing that this week's fantasy sports scandal has taught us, you don't gain anything extra by choosing the obvious best players or teams. You get your value by finding the tools that will perform at a different level of efficiency than your opponents can expect, especially when they line up against their obviously-great cards or decks. I mean really...how is your G/W deck going to outlast Dragonmaster Outcast (especially with Ojutai's Command)? It's tough to live through the next two turns when your Hangarback Walker dies -- with no possibility of return -- right before two or three little red men enter the (here appropriately named) Red Zone.
Don't sleep on any of these.