Prepare yourselves, rotation is coming.
Rotation is an exciting time for us Standard players. It allows you to play with new cards and old favorites that never saw the Light of Day under Thoughtseize, Elspeth, Sun's Champion, Polukranos, the World Eater, and Stormbreath Dragon. Brewing new and exciting decks is one thing that brings Magic players of all levels together, and the time after a Standard rotation highlights that better than any other. Some people have their preferred strategies that they want to follow, others are open to anything, as long as it's the most powerful thing you can be doing. I like control decks, and I'm always on the lookout for shiny new toys that are going to be staples of the archetype moving forward.
On the surface, this rotation seems to be hostile towards my preferred type of deck. While aggressive red decks have been a staple of the previous Standard format, the existence of Courser of Kruphix and Fleecemane Lion have demanded those strategies to be honest and have plans for early blockers that are at least twice their size. Being able to curve Lion into Courser then Rhino is something that quickly puts aggressive strategies in a rough spot. Pair these cards with a Stabilizer like Elspeth, Sun's Champion and it's tough to ever really get ahead of them. But when we slow the de facto best deck in previous Standard down, you start seeing a lot of red...
It's no secret that aggressive strategies are the place to start with a new format. Presenting threats and being the one asking questions in a new format is an easy way to punish those trying to get their specific answers to line up. For example, attacking with a Fleecemane Lion against an opponent holding a Magma Spray and a Valorous Stance feels great. While I mentioned monored aggressive strategies early, generally all flavors of aggression are well-poised in new formats. Red is magnified because of the reach available to the color, only relying on their creatures to get in 50-75% of the damage necessary, as compared to a monowhite deck. Regardless, there are some of us who will always try and grind out incremental advantages with powerful cards and hope we are smart enough to not only figure out the questions, but also the correct answers. So what do some of new tools look like? Well, Esper has sure gotten some new tools.
10. Transgress the Mind
Trangress the Mind is an interesting card to me. While it's easy to call this a pseudo replacement for Thoughtseize, the cards play very different roles in decks looking to go long. Thoughtseize is a powerful tool that allows you to interact with cards that you are currently unable to interact with, while also granting information on the order in which answers should be deployed. Transgress the Mind gives you the information, but does not offer any help against those pesky low-to-the-ground creature decks that we should be expecting early in the format.
While the card is very powerful against the midrange matchup and control mirrors (as long as they don't have a two cmc Counterspell to hold under it), it seems better suited in aggressive decks that are looking to further punish clunky draws. The rate is not as attractive as Thoughtseize was for those archetypes, but adding an exile clause can prove to be relevant against certain cards, Deathmist Raptor is one that comes to mind.
9. Blighted Cataract
Card advantage is what I want to maximize in my decks, and there are few ways to do that more than allowing your lands to have spells attached to them. Creature lands are returning to this block, which offer this ability as well, but cards like Nephalia Drownyard are exactly what slow control decks are looking for. Encouraging you to play more lands and granting you a benefit when you are hitting your land drops is something that cannot be overlooked in the long run. I don't believe this card to be played nearly as much as Drownyard, since it can't actually win you the game, but I do expect this to be competing for the "colorless land spot" in the control decks over the next year and a half.
8. Quarantine Field
When I first read this card, I immediately dismissed it. I assumed it was overcosted and was not something that I would be interested in. While it is possible that proves to be the case, it is also possible that Banishing Light that costs four mana, with upside, is something that UW Control decks will be looking for.
The first obviously rhetorical question that you have to ask yourself is, "Would you play Banishing Light if you could pay an extra three mana to hit a second non-land permanent?" While the answer to that is going to be yes, I'm not so sure the extra mana investment in the first copy of Banishing Light is worth the upside. At six mana you've essentially drawn a card and at eight, you've drawn two. A card like this offers upside against decks like Abzan Midrange (as long as they don't have Dromoka's Command, of course) as you are looking to one-for-one or two-for-one and gain card advantage going long, but what about those pesky aggressive decks?
Banishing Light is a fine card against decks looking to attack with one-drops, but I'm not excited about having to pay an extra mana for it in those situations. I don't Anticipate this card being popular at the start of the format, at least in maindecks, but I can't imagine it does not see play going long, as the effect is powerful.
7. Horribly Awry
Well, we wanted something for those pesky aggressive matchups! I have to admit, the first time I read Horribly Awry, I missed that "creature" word, and I almost attempt to do a backflip at my desk. While adding the conditional clause obviously decreases the power level of the card, it is still something that fills a very specific spot in blue based control decks. While there are other options at a two mana Counterspell, none of them are locks across the board.
Silumgar's Scorn is an incredibly powerful Counterspell, but requires you to fill your deck with dragons that you might not want to be playing. In addition, the double blue mana requirement is something that is not to be glossed over, especially if we want to support colorless lands and non-blue creature lands.
Clash of Wills has the ability to be played in the greatest amount of decks, but really caters to the dedicated draw-go strategies as it rewards a large amount of mana going unused on your turn. While this strategy has been doable in the past, and has even recently gotten a slight boost from Yuuki Ichikawa, it usually takes the backseat to more tap out versions of control decks, playing just a few cheap Counterspells.
Horribly Awry allows you to hold up a minimal investment, which could easily be spent on a removal spell if unused, and is still one of the better "conditional" Counterspells we have seen. Control decks generally don't lose to expensive creatures, as they have become established in their game plan at that point, but do have the issue of being overwhelmed early. Acting as a "Doom Blade" against Mantis Rider, Goblin Glory-Chaser, and Den Protector, while also stopping any enters the battlefield triggers or abilities, is a big boost for only two mana...but man, does it make me miss Remove Soul. Although, again, we see an exile clause added on for safe measure, Deathmist Raptor, we hardly knew ya.
6. Scatter to the Winds
The other Counterspell of my list. While I think it was safe to assume there was going to be an awaken Counterspell, even the numbers seemed obvious to most people I talked to, it's still nice to see the card on paper. This is our first, but I promise not last, card on the list that has the new ability, awaken. The ability to play a card early for a seemingly normal mana cost while offering late game boosts is perfect for our strategy. Similar to kicker, and the more recently used multikicker, awaken is the most mana hungry version of these mechanics. Cancel is a reasonably playable Magic card, even if it does feel a lot worse than Dissolve, but Dissolve has never made a 3/3 upon resolution.
I am excited for the opportunity to counter a spell pre-combat and "awaken" a blocker. This will create situations comparable to how players had to play around Cryptic Command years ago. Do not take that as me comparing these cards, as this is obviously not as powerful, but casting spells before attacking was a very Risky Move against 1UUU when the words "counter, tap" flowed off the tongue so smoothly.
The 3/3 being left behind is not the most exciting sized creature, but it's an interesting thing to consider moving forward.
5. Ruinous Path
The first truly Black card on our list, Ruinous Path is our Hero's Downfall reincarnate! Being downgraded to a sorcery is a real issue for the purpose of blue-based control decks, but the upside of having a two-for-one built in at seven mana seems attractive. Also, a 4/4 body is a lot bigger than a 3/3, plus it plays better with Jace, Vryn's Prodigy than Scatter to the Winds.
4. Hedron Archive
Now we are getting into the cards that I'm really excited about. I want to quickly say that I love me some Mind Stone action, so it's clear that I'm going to love the old two-in-one Mind Stone. Hedron Archive is an interesting card as it appears to reward ramp strategies more than anything, as flooding on mana sources is a real issue for dedicated big mana decks. It kind of reminds me of Solemn Simulacrum in ramp decks, as it helps with both ramp and flood mitigation, but encourages a 2-4-7 curve, instead of the 2-4-6 that was previously played. If only the ramp decks had something at seven to ramp into....
For the control decks, Archive offers an easy way to take advantage of all of these big mana spells that are being brought to play in Battle for Zendikar, while also letting us cash in for more cards once our lands catch up to our high mana demands.
3. Sire of Stagnation
Consecrated Sphinx, is that you? Well, not quite, but it's doing a nice "fixed" impression. A multi-colored/colorless card is doing a really good job at dodging Ultimate Price, while also having a nice big number in that toughness slot to be able to survive most damage-based removal, and more importantly, combat. This card screams value, but the fact that your opponent gets to decide when and if it reaches full potential does make me worry, but if they don't have an answer for this in hand, it makes it mighty hard for them to continue a normal game plan.
2. Planar Outburst
I love it. Remember earlier when we asked if we would play Banishing Light 2.0 if the initial investment was also three mana? Well, End Hostilities still costs five and it will never make you a 4/4 that just so happens to survive future copies of End Hostilities. If awaken becomes a widely played mechanic, this will get slightly awkward, but otherwise this is one of my favorite cards from the new set...and again, flashing this back with Jace, Telepath Unbound seems like an easy way to turn a game around.
1. Prairie Stream / Sunken Ruins / Shambling Vent
Ahh, the glue that holds this fort together. While I'm not going to get into the math or potential mana bases that the new manlands and dual lands support, I will make the point that the old shards, like Esper, benefit from these lands more than the wedges that we have seen recently.
Shambling Vent is not the most exciting creature land for a control deck (RIP Celestial Colonnade), but it does let us buy back a little life after stabilizing against those pesky creature decks. I hate how poorly it matches up against Lumbering Falls, i.e. it doesn't, but you play with the tools you have.
One last thing to note with the lands, having both dual lands be blue-based is very good news for those of you that want to cast Silumgar's Scorn, just something to think about.
To say that I'm excited for rotation would be an understatement. It's a great time that unleashes the inner brewer in all of us, even if some of us are trying to attack with our End Hostilities. We'll get the full spoiler today and then it starts the real brewing and searching for that one card that is going to hold the format together over the next 18 months, hopefully more ways to deal with the aggressive decks.
Thanks for Reading!