Shadows over Innistrad will be released next month, when it will sweep away Khans of Tarkir and Fate Reforged and usher in a new era of Standard. These sets will leave a large void in their absence, and the rotation opens up space in the metagame for other decks to grow. Khans of Tarkir provided Standard with a wealth of multi-color cards and easy access to the mana necessary to cast them, but all of it will be gone in April. The Age of Siege Rhino is coming to an end.
It's easy to identify what is leaving Standard, but figuring out how to best work with what we have left is challenging. There are hundreds of cards to pore over, and it's not yet clear what the new set will provide to support them. Initial spoilers shed some light on what Shadows over Innistrad means for Standard, and they provide clues as to what tools might be important in the near future. Combining this information with what we know about Innistrad, we can figure out what cards are going to be an important part of the Standard metagame to come.
Creatures dying and sacrificing creatures are themes woven through Shadows over Innistrad and spoilers like Archangel Avacyn show the potential for huge payoffs. Looking through the Standard card pool with this in mind reveals some excellent tools available. The Rally the Ancestors deck won't survive rotation, but some of its best cards and synergies will. Nantuko Husk remains a powerful sacrifice outlet, and Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim is poised to be an important role-player in Orzhov sacrifice decks. Zulaport Cutthroat is another card that's going to be effective in decks built to abuse creatures dying, even without a card like Rally the Ancestors.
Liliana, Heretical Healer has a lot to gain from Shadows over Innistrad. It has seen success this season in early sacrifice decks and eventually Rally decks, and it's only going to get better in a world where more decks sacrifice more creatures. Lilliana, Defiant Necromancer's ability to return creatures from the graveyard has great potential in self-mill decks. I'm especially excited about its discard ability, which is an ideal outlet for Madness cards like Fiery Temper in Shadows over Innistrad. Liliana, Heretical Healer even produces a Zombie Token, which is an extra benefit in a set where the tribe is making a comeback.
Catacomb Sifter remains an excellent card for Black/Green sacrifice decks, but a card that isn't so obvious is Rot Shambler. I've been on the receiving end of some brutal Rot Shambler beatings in Limited, and it grows quickly in a deck designed around sacrificing creatures. Another card to keep in mind is Blisterpod. The most important card in old "Aristocrats" sacrifice decks was Doomed Traveler as the grease that keeps the gears moving, and if Shadows over Innistrad doesn't offer a replacement then Blisterpod is a fine imitation. Another creature that works well with sacrifice outlets is Shambling Goblin. It's not a reliable way to develop the board, but destroying an opposing creature is just as good. It's a Zombie, so it's especially attractive as an option in Zombie tribal decks. Carrier Thrall is another creature to keep in mind as two creatures for the price of one, but the gold standard in this role is Hangarback Walker.
I have my eye on Murder Investigation, which, combined with a sacrifice outlet, offers a great rate on creature tokens. It's capable of producing a ton of sacrifice fodder for a low investment. It scales up with the power of the creature it enchants, so it's actually abusable with something like Nantuko Husk that can grow in power. The name is also a perfect thematic fit with the Investigate mechanic, so I can't help but think it's meant to be combined with Shadows over Innistrad.
Altar's Reap could make the leap to Standard as a sacrifice outlet and a source of card advantage, and Bone Splinters is powerful and efficient removal. Infernal Scarring might be a stretch, but it's not beyond imagination, and it could be an effective way to help enable delirium. Exploit is a way to sacrifice creatures, and Sidisi, Undead Vizier is particularly attractive because of its powerful tutoring ability and large body.
Smothering Abomination hasn't seen competitive success, but it has great future prospects. Its clause of "Whenever you sacrifice a creature, draw a card" is a card-drawing engine that could easily be abused along with a sacrifice outlet like Nantuko Husk and cheap creatures like Blisterpod. Smothering Abomination has the drawback of sacrificing a creature every turn, but a deck could construe this as an advantage and leverage Smothering Abomination as an additional sacrifice outlet.
One way to fight back against sacrifice decks is Malakir Cullblade. It might be especially useful in a sacrifice mirror, where having Malakir Cullblade acts as an insurance policy for fighting back against an opponent who is sacrificing creatures.
Another theme of Shadows over Innistrad is self-milling, or putting cards from one's own deck into the graveyard for value. Turning the graveyard into a resource provides the potential for additional card selection and value on top of traditional resources, as archetypes like Dredge have proven. Delve is leaving Standard, so players are going to have to work harder and get more creative, but rest assured that there is plenty of game to be had from the graveyard. Shadows over Innistrad spoilers have already shown a glimpse into the importance of self-mill with the delirium mechanic and cards like Mindwrack Demon.
Mindwrack Demon offers a great rate on a threat with evasion, but being held back by costing four life a turn is a huge downside. Fortunately Mindwrack Demon is a graveyard-enabler that works to fulfill its own requirement. It's going to take more to reliably stock the graveyard, but in a dedicated self-mill deck Mindwrack Demon will not cost extra life, and it will be an important enabler for the self-mill strategy.
Enablers are critical for any sort of self-milling deck, so Screeching Skaab could very well make it to Standard. A more reliable bet is Gather the Pack, which digs for action while stocking the graveyard with fuel, the perfect card for a dedicated self-mill deck. The potential for card advantage makes Gather the Pack especially appealing, and it's likely to be the single most important enabler for green self-mill decks.
A card like Revenant could be very powerful in a self-mill deck, potentially an enormous threat that most opponents would have a hard time dealing with. A more efficient option is Graveblade Marauder, which hits just as hard but at a lower rate. Graveblade Marauder scales upwards and would be an enormous threat in self-mill decks.
Undead Servant could generate a lot of value in a self-mill deck, especially one able to repeatedly sacrifice it to be replayed from the graveyard. It jumps out at me because of its potential with the new Relentless Dead, which could help to set up a chain of value from the graveyard that proves impossible for the opponent to exhaust.
Self-mill decks need a way to generate value from the graveyard. It's easy with flashback, but that mechanic isn't coming back, and decks will have to try harder. One of the most important self-mill cards in Eternal decks is Ichorid, and Despoiler of Souls does a fine impression in Standard. It's a threat that can be found by self-mill, and the milling finds the fuel to sustain it. Despoiler of Souls helps keep the graveyard clear of creatures, which opens up the possibility of Risen Executioner being cast from the graveyard. This package could be exactly what a self-mill deck needs to compete in Shadows over Innistrad Standard.
Possessed Skaab isn't Den Protector, but it's something to keep in mind in any Blue/Black self-mill deck. Another card to consider is Disciple of the Ring, which would be right at home in a spell-centric self-mill deck.
Fighting back against graveyard decks could prove important, so don't be left without a tool to stop them. One of the best I've found is Learn from the Past, which cleanly removes their graveyard when they least expect it, and provides a card back for the trouble.
I'm interested in Investigate and the Clue tokens it creates. These tokens are artifacts, so they can be amassed and taken advantage of by cards that rely on artifact synergy. The first thing that came to mind was Ghirapur Aether Grid, which can turn Clue tokens into a source of damage. Upping the ante further is Reclusive Artificer, which could deal a ton of damage in one shot. Thopter Spy Network's artifact requirement is fulfilled by a Clue token. These possible synergies are something to pay close attention to as more cards are revealed.
On the topic of Clue tokens, Bygone Bishop is an incredibly efficient way to generate them. Combined with cheap creatures like Thraben Inspector it will produce much value, so it could be useful for making the most of Clue tokens.
Shadows over Innistrad is hinting at equipment being an important part of the set's mechanics. If this focus makes its way into Standard, then Relic Seeker jumps out as a potential way to find it. It's not Stoneforge Mystic, but its ability to both tutor through the deck and to produce value make it nearly as threatening. A powerful new equipment would bring Relic Seeker to the next level, but there are some fine options available already. I have been impressed playing against Stoneforge Masterwork, so it's an equipment to keep in mind. Captain's Claws has the potential to get out of hand, so it's another card I'd consider in a Relic Seeker package.
With fetchlands rotating out of Standard, figuring out manabases is going to be the hardest part of making any new deck. Mana will be the factor constraining any new deck, and understanding the realities of the new environment is the best way to thrive.
Enemy color combinations are blessed with both a painland and a creature land, so they offer not only excellent mana, but also extra value from their lands. Shambling Vent, Lumbering Falls, Hissing Quagmire, Wandering Fumarole, and Needle Spires are likely the five most important cards in determining the direction of the format, and decks need a good reason not to be including one of these options. Friendly-colored combinations have access to the Battle for Zendikar dual lands, which work best in decks full of basic lands. These combinations also gain access to a new cycle of tapped lands they can use if necessary.
Evolving Wilds finds Wastes, so it's especially important in decks that want to splash Eldrazi cards as a color in itself to splash cards like Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher. Evolving Wilds also supports Ruin in Their Wake, which becomes more appealing with both Rattleclaw Mystic and Whisperer of the Wilds leaving Standard.
Khans of Tarkir Standard has been one of the most diverse and dynamic formats ever, and while spending as much time shuffling between fetchlands as time spent playing a game was frustrating, the games will be missed. It's not often that a set has so much impact, and in departing it leaves a tremendous hole in the metagame. There is an incredible opportunity for new decks to rise to the top, and for the innovative and creative among us to make the most out of what we have available. Shadows over Innistrad will be integral to the future of Standard, but it's just one set of five, so the vast majority of the cardpool is already known, and there is plenty of work that can be done towards solving the format.
What are your picks for the top decks that survive rotation? Where do you see the metagame headed? What other cards will be improved by Shadows over Innistrad? Share your ideas in the comments, and I'll answer any questions!