It's hard to believe that another Standard rotation is upon us. It feels like we've been playing with fetchlands in Standard forever. I'm really excited to see Khans of Tarkir and Fate Reforged rotate out of the environment and to see how Shadows over Innistrad will shake things up. Today I'm going to be discussing what cards and strategies are likely to survive after the rotation.
The biggest change that will occur when Khans of Tarkir and Fate Reforged exit Standard will be to manabases. We are currently in a format with perfect mana and the strongest decks are four colors. This will no longer be the case when the fetchlands rotate out. Fetchlands are so good because each one can search up four different colors of mana. Most competitive Standard decks played 10-12 fetchlands and a variety of Battle lands, making it easy to find the colors you needed.
With our "quad" lands gone, playing three-color decks will be challenging. Not-yet spoiled Shadows over Innistrad cards notwithstanding, enemy-colored fixing is made up of creature-lands and painlands, and friendly-colored fixing consists of Battle lands and the uncommon lands from Oath of the Gatewatch. Battle lands don't mesh well with pain and creature-lands, because if you are playing all these lands in the same deck it's pretty unlikely that the Battle lands will enter the battlefield untapped. Based on what we know about the current mana fixing, my prediction is that the best decks in Standard will be one or two colors.
One land that does mesh well with Battle lands and also fixes your mana is Evolving Wilds. While Evolving Wilds is a great budget option for Standard, it rarely sees competitive play because it's usually much worse than the rare land cycles in Standard. If a three-color deck will exist in Standard, Evolving Wilds will probably play a part in it. Another thing that Evolving Wilds has going for it is that it finds Wastes and allows you to easily splash powerful colorless cards like Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher in your two-color deck.
Innistrad block had a graveyard theme with its gothic horror flavor — zombies, self-mill, and flashback, so it's likely that Shadows Over Innistrad will have graveyard themes as well. We already know about one graveyard-based mechanic, delirium, thanks to Duel Decks: Blessed vs. Cursed.
We're going to want to play ways to self-mill in order to achieve delirium as soon as possible. The current Standard sets already offer some great self-mill cards, and I expect these cards to be gain value once we know a bit more about delirium. Gather the Pack and Kiora, Master of the Depths are two great ways to fill your graveyard.
Delirium also asks us to play many different kinds of permanents in our deck. Most decks play creatures, lands, instants, and sorceries naturally. Planeswalkers show up a little less and artifacts and enchantments are scarce in competitive decks. Furthermore, not only do you have to be playing these different card types, but you also want them to go to the graveyard. If you're not playing self-mill, you're going to want to play permanents that you can sacrifice right away in order to get that extra card type into your graveyard.
Here are some examples:
As long as we want to put a lot of things in our graveyard, cards like Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector go way up in value. Imagine casting a Gather the Pack, taking a Den Protector, and milling two Deathmist Raptors into your graveyard. Talk about value! Deathmist Raptor has been on a major downswing since the release of Battle for Zendikar but Shadows over Innistrad graveyard themes alone are enough of a reason for these cards to see play again.
From Magic Origins, two cards that get better when everyone is interacting with the graveyard is Despoiler of Souls and Erebos's Titan. Both of these cards have seen zero play during their lifetime in Standard and perhaps now is their time to shine.
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is already powerful, and with Anafenza, the Foremost rotating out, Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is our best graveyard hoser. We're going to want to slow down opposing graveyard decks, and what better way to do that than playing a 3/4 lifelink creature that grows and creates zombies?
Who doesn't remember casting Gravecrawler, Diregraf Ghoul and Geralf's Messenger in Innistrad block? Risen Executioner is a pretty cool zombie lord that seems out of place in a set with so few zombies, but the existence of the card is now making more and more sense.
When Dragons of Tarkir came out, dragons were everywhere. We had Esper Dragons, Red-Green Dragons, Red-Black Dragons, Four-Color Dragons… Standard was all about dragons for three months. When Battle For Zendikar came out, Battle lands did something weird to the format. They had such a strong interaction with fetchlands that suddenly, decks weren't about dragons, but were instead playing all the best cards in one deck. You may have noticed that there aren't very many Dragonlord Atarkas, Silumgars, and Ojutais anymore. There's no reason to play these cards when you can play Crackling Doom, Siege Rhino, and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy in the same deck. Pretty soon this will be a thing of the past and dragons can make their triumphant return.
Dragons were a very strong strategy but were downsized by how good the four-color decks were. If you take away fetchlands from Standard, one of the best things you can do is play a turn two Silumgar's Scorn followed by a Dragonlord Ojutai on turn five. We no longer have to worry about Crackling Doom or any other three-color removal spell. Esper Dragons are sure to make a comeback in Standard. The black removal is excellent right now (remember Languish?), and the deck's poor matchups are rotating out. One of Esper Dragons' biggest weaknesses was Rally the Ancestors, specifically playing around the instant-speed spells Rally the Ancestors and Collected Company. After the rotation, the entire Rally strategy will no longer exist, making Esper Dragons a stronger deck. Its other weak matchup, Atarka Red, will surely exist in some form but it will be much weaker without Monastery Swiftspear, Become Immense, and Temur Battle Rage.
Dragonlord Atarka was a great curve-topper in the R/G Dragons deck from a few months ago. Just like with Esper Dragons, this deck died when battle lands were released. Again, why play two colors when you can play four with no downside? The four-color midrange decks like Jeskai Black and Mardu Green made this Red-Green Dragon deck completely obsolete. When fetches rotate, we are still going to be left with Dragonlord Atarka, Thunderbreak Regent, and ramp spells, giving us a great R/G midrange shell. Chandra, Flamecaller also seems amazing in this type of deck.
After the rotation, the Eldrazi Ramp decks stay intact. The key ramp spells, Nissa's Pilgrimage and Explosive Vegetation, aren't going anywhere. Sweepers like Kozilek's Return and Radiant Flames survive the rotation, and all of the win conditions are Eldrazi.
One thing that the deck does lose is Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. Ugin is a pretty important card as it's a great sweeper that can remove noncreature permanents and can also win the game on its own. It seems like Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is a tough one to find a replacement for. Or is it?
Chandra, Flamecaller is my vote for the best Ugin, the Spirit Dragon replacement. Chandra, Flamecaller doesn't do everything that Ugin, the Spirit Dragon does, but both cards have similar effects. Chandra, Flamecaller is a board clearer. Chandra, Flamecaller can destroy Planeswalkers by attacking with hasty Elemental Tokens, and she can even act as a win condition by taking chunks out of the opponent's life every turn. While Chandra, Flamecaller can't gain a ton of card advantage, she can give you a hand of new cards, which gives her great synergy with Shadows over Innistrad's delirium mechanic. She is certainly not a replacement for Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, but she's also two mana cheaper, so it kind of evens out.
Another board sweeper that fits nicely into a ramp shell is Dragonlord Atarka. Dragonlord Atarka is no Eldrazi, but an 8/8 flyer that kills stuff isn't nothing either. Between Dragonlord Atarka, Thought-Knot Seer, Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, and Kozilek, the Great Distortion, the ramp deck gains tons of value off of its creatures. As one of the only existing Standard decks that isn't losing its key cards, I expect ramp to be the go-to deck for most players after the rotation.
With Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch being the middle block in the new Standard format, rest assured that Eldrazi are here to stay. I expect Eldrazi control and midrange decks to be the go-to decks to build for any player that isn't interested in playing ramp.
I don't think that the Eldrazi decks will be particularly aggressive. Eldrazi is losing a key piece for the aggro version: Ghostfire Blade. In all of the Eldrazi decks I've tested, the aggressive version needed Ghostfire Blade to work. Instead, the Eldrazi decks will be more midrange with curve-toppers like Reality Smasher and Oblivion Sower.
One cool thing about the colorless matters theme in Zendikar block is that there are so many nonbasic lands you can play that add colorless mana. It's certainly possible to play a deck consisting on only colorless-producing nonbasic lands. Take this list for example:
This deck is 100% composed of BFZ and OGW cards with the exception of Hangarback Walker and some of the lands. It's usually unlikely that a Standard deck can exist using cards strictly from one block, but believe me when I tell you that this deck is for real. In fact, it's even capable of doing this:
Just played this game of Standard. Eldrazi really are taking over! #Eldrazi #MTG pic.twitter.com/8SxAngsFwk— Melissa DeTora (@MelissaDeTora) March 3, 2016
Another pretty cool thing about the flexibility of colorless mana is that it's really easy to splash an actual color into the deck. Each color has eight Magic Origins painlands that you can add to the mana base. For example, if you were to splash red in your deck, you get access to Battlefield Forge and Shivan Reef. Corrupted Crossroads is an additional mana fixer if the spells you're splashing also have devoid. In this red example, adding these lands to your mana base allows you to play cards like Eldrazi Obligator and Vile Aggregate, and maybe even Kozilek's Return! Another option you have for splashing is to play a few Evolving Wilds, a Wastes and Mountains. I'd be weary of adding too many Wastes to your deck because Wastes is strictly worse than the nonbasic lands that are available, like Sea Gate Wreckage and Mirrorpool.
This Standard rotation will have the biggest change we've seen in a long time. Khans of Tarkir Block plays a much bigger role in Standard than Battle for Zendikar block currently does, and Standard will be hit hard when cards like fetchlands, Siege Rhino, Crackling Doom, and Mantis Rider leave the format. Khans of Tarkir block is so prominent that most of the themes from Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch still haven't been fully explored. There is going to be lots of brewing to do when Shadows over Innistrad is released!
This weekend I'll be at Grand Prix Washington DC, so come say hi if you're there! Thanks for reading!
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