I had the opportunity last weekend to play Abzan Control one last time before rotation in a tournament that mattered: a local PPTQ. Siege Rhinos and assorted Temples were enough to get me the win, securing my RPTQ berth early this season. Don't worry, I am more than aware that no one wants to hear about how my tournament in a now defunct Standard where I played a stock list of the de facto best deck went. I bring it up for two reasons: playing that event meant I was in a room full of Magic players all day, and I happened to be in that room while piloting Siege Rhinos to success.
The thing about Magic players is they like to talk. It's a pretty good quality, if sometimes a tad annoying. On the eve of a new set release there's nothing they like to talk about more than their opinions of the new cards. Well, that's not completely true -- there is one thing that was a more popular conversation topic: just how oppressive Siege Rhino is. Since I had elected to play with the rhino face of Magic Oppression, I was entered into more than my fair share of talks about how insanely good Siege Rhino is. Even in mirror matches, people would talk about how much they hate Siege Rhino as a card and the fact that they feel like they have to play him despite their deep hatred. I happen to like Siege Rhino, but while surrounded by endless Hostility I chose to keep quiet and not debate how Siege Rhino does in fact promote interesting gameplay and was probably not the biggest mistake WotC has ever made.
The other thing about Magic players is that they err in favor of negativity. Wanna guess what the most common merger of new set discussions and the room's prevailing hatred of Siege Rhino was? In true pessimistic fashion, it was that Battle for Zendikar contained nothing that would displace Siege Rhino and the next six months of Standard were doomed to be an extension of Rhino dominance. That honestly wouldn't bother me, but other people seem to place intrinsic value on variety and change. For all of you, today I am going to discuss all the things I am excited to do in Battle for Zendikar that don't involve casting Siege Rhino and all the reasons why Siege Rhino stock might be falling soon (even if I am a large stockholder).
The Eldrazi are back and weirder than ever in Battle for Zendikar. And I mean weird! They are exiling opponent's cards, using their opponent's exile zone as fuel for their abilities and even not letting us even. These cards are not easy to evaluate. I said it before when trying to evaluate the Magic Origins flip planeswalkers and I will say it again now: as a community, we are terrible at evaluating new cards that are novel. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but we need to be aware of it. Every tool we use to evaluate new cards is based on comparing them to cards that have come before. We are capable of adjusting for different costs, different contexts, etc., but when it comes to evaluating cards that are too novel to have clean comparisons we tend to miss the mark by a wide margin.
The default way to evaluate these Eldrazi is a simple comparison to previous hugely expensive creatures that were unplayable, but I'm not convinced. Here's six cards/mechanics that give me pause when evaluating the Eldrazi: Blighted Fen, Blighted Cataract, Hedron Archive, Oblivion Sower, Eldrazi Scion tokens, awaken. The first three cards in that list together tell a story of a style of ramp that is less a bursty all-in push and more a slow, inexorable push to domination. Very Eldrazi. Lands that ramp or get you cards and dedicated ramp spells that can get you resources later is a far cry from what I'm used to seeing. The awaken mechanic plays into this too -- for once, the payoff of ramping isn't just tempo, it is future cards as well. Oblivion Sower and Eldrazi Scion tokens are something else -- incidental ramp. Just like incidental life gain, I suspect incidental ramp tears apart our previous evaluation paradigms and plays amazingly well. Time will tell.
So I'm not going to tell you that I have evaluated these cards and came to the conclusion that they will be a real force in Battle for Zendikar Standard, because I haven't. But I am certainly excited to find out, and my instinct says that WotC design intended for them to be real Standard players. And if an Eldrazi deck is good, that could be a real problem for our old friend Siege Rhino. The classic Abzan problem this last Standard was decks that went over the top of what Abzan could do. Constellation decks in particular were very good at this, as were Devotion based strategies. If it weren't for the wrath effects in Standard, Siege Rhino would not have been able to compete with those decks -- rhinos just can't jump all that high. But wraths aren't going to help against the Eldrazi.
Further, Siege Rhino is losing his favorite endgame gal pal with the rotation of Elspeth, Sun's Champion. With Elspeth at his side, Siege Rhino had the confidence to stand strong and proud, ready to go toe to toe with all comers, no matter how large. Appropriately enough for this metaphor about how Elspeth let Abzan decks beat strategies trying to go over the top, he sometimes even flew. But Elspeth's gone now, and I don't see an easy way for Rhino to recover from her loss. Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is the 'natural' go-to end game power for a Siege Rhino deck, but if the opposition is Eldrazi based Ugin will not be a powerful ally. In the battle between Eldrazi and Siege Rhino, I believe the Eldrazi are favored. They break armies, sow oblivion and eat until there's no tomorrow (literally); what's a rhino or four to these monstrosities? This entire argument is, of course, predicated on the idea that the Eldrazi deck will be competitively viable and not play Siege Rhino themselves. That's the real nightmare scenario for the anti-Siege Rhino coalition: that rhinos and Eldrazi turn out to be natural allies. I don't expect this to happen, as the spells that look the most pushed to support the Eldrazi do not seem to be Abzan colored.
Of course, this is Zendikar and we are getting some pretty excellent lands. The fetchland plus battle land combination that will be shaping Standard mana bases for the next six months is a potent one that is very accommodating of splashes. That being said, I don't believe this Standard will reach the point of nearly every deck splashing for Siege Rhino as some Doomsday prophets have argued. This is Zendikar, after all, and we are not just getting the Battle lands in the set's land slots. In fact, we are not even only getting lands that solely produce mana. Here on Zendikar, lands are more than mere mana.
I am very excited for the Blighted lands. Spell lands with influential sacrifice effects are exactly what we need to limit reckless color splashing. Sure, you can stretch your mana base to play Siege Rhino if you really want to -- but in order to do so you will have to cut way back on these strong colorless lands. Having colorless lands that we actively want to play in the format limits how greedy we can be with our colored mana. It remains to be seen exactly how powerful this effect will be: will we see a plethora of two color decks in a Standard with close to the absolute best color fixing we've ever had, or will Khans clan colors be the normal way to go? Either way, I am not overly worried about the prospect of seeing Siege Rhino in every deck.
In Zendikar the lands fight back, and not just against the Eldrazi: these lands are poised and ready to strike down the Siege Rhino menace. Even the Blighted lands have yet more to give us in this war. Lands that give tangible value in the endgame fight the core philosophy behind Khans of Tarkir block era Standard Abzan decks. Exceedingly similar to Jund style decks in Modern, Abzan often sought to one-for one their opponent down to nothing with efficient removal and targeted discard spells and then won by having the better singleton threat when the dust settled. Lands that give value are intrinsically good against this game plan, and the Blighted lands give plenty of value. The blue and black ones in particular seem especially well suited against the style of Abzan decks we have come to know and love (to hate). The blue one, because an insurance plan against running out of resources is fantastic in a grindy game, and the black one, because the Abzan decks are so value-centered that they don't have any bad creatures to sacrifice (aside from Hangarback Walker builds). In fact, a decent percentage of the time they will even have to sacrifice Siege Rhino himself. Justice.
Theme Deck World
Battle for Zendikar has some really cool themes that seem like potential Standard players. Allies, Eldrazi and sacrifice matters all seem pushed enough to make it big in this bold new Standard and others, like processors, could potentially get their day in the sun. Theme decks being good means that we have to stop evaluating cards on the basis of general power level and look at them through the much narrower evaluation lenses of the specific themes. This is not good for Siege Rhino.
I think the theme deck I'm most excited for is the sacrifice deck. I really hope it's good. I loved the Junk Aristocrats deck during Innistrad / Return to Ravnica Standard, and a lot of the cards appearing in Battle for Zendikar look like analogs to the best cards in that deck. Specifically, I am excited about Zulaport Cutthroat and Blisterpod, which function as Blood Artist and Doomed Traveler replacements (although both are worse than the originals). Magic Origins' own Hangarback Walker slots nicely into the theme of this deck, and the Battle for Zendikar rare Smothering Abomination is one I have high hopes for. I don't have a great handle on the details yet, but I don't expect the final form of this deck to play Siege Rhino.
If Standard shifts from being largely value based to largely theme based, all-purpose power house cards like Siege Rhino will see much less play. Cards like Siege Rhino have a sky high power level, but theme decks care very little about raw power. If Siege Rhino can further the specific plan the theme is trying to accomplish, great! But if not, such a deck will not go out of its way to accommodate the Rhino. I would absolutely expect Rhino play to go way down in a theme deck centric Standard.
What would cause the format to turn to theme decks being better? The existence of strong themes is an important part of the picture, but not the only part. The lack of strong all-purpose value cards, or a hole in the value cards that do exist, is the other part. We had theme decks in Khans / Theros Standard, like Heroic and Dragons, and they were certainly decks, but they did not dominate the format. Efficient removal like Hero's Downfall, Bile Blight, and Lightning Strike helped the value-based decks have varied play against and answers to theme decks, and strong value finishers like Elspeth, Sun's Champion meant that the reward for playing a theme deck was diminished. All of the cards I just mentioned are rotating, and their replacements either don't exist or strongly reward themes. If the format shifts more towards theme decks, I won't be terribly surprised.
The culmination of everything in this article is that I expect Siege Rhino will stop seeing play across multiple archetypes in Battle for Zendikar Standard. I think his days as a midrangey bridge to the late game in control decks are over, mostly because the late game he supports just isn't there anymore. Instead, I expect him near the top of the curve in aggro-midrange decks and pretty much nowhere else. Abzan Aggro, despite a lot of its key pieces rotating, will likely still be a player in Battle for Zendikar Standard. Siege Rhino is far too strong to ever see zero play while he's in Standard, but I strongly suspect his days of dominating the format are over.
But predicting Standard is hard, and on predictions this bold I'm wrong much more often than I'm right. But hey, if I'm wrong, at least there's only six months until Siege Rhino rotates out too -- the new block structure is fantastic!
Thanks for reading,