Hidden behind Dominaria's impressive legendaries and nostalgic flavor is one of the best card cycles in Standard, and it isn't receiving the attention it deserves. No, not the sagas, although I do expect we'll see some of them break out in Constructed eventually. I'm talking about the cycle of creatures that cost three of one color of mana: Benalish Marshal, Tempest Djinn, Dread Shade, Goblin Chainwhirler and Steel Leaf Champion. Each of these creatures is quite strong, but their stringent color requirements makes them difficult to approach. All five are seeing play in Standard online, and there already some decklists available, so today I'm going to run down these creatures and how to best unlock their powers.
The easiest card of the cycle to incorporate into Standard is Goblin Chainwhirler, as it slots right into the Mono-Red Aggro deck that is already top-tier.
Goblin Chainwhirler is a welcome addition to the strategy because its ability offers a ton of value. It's fantastic for clearing out Standard's most important small creatures like Bomat Courier, Earthshaker Khenra, Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, and Champion of Wits, and it's also a great answer to what might be the most important Standard card in Dominaria, Llanowar Elves. It's also a deathknell to token decks, which had a brief reprieve after the banning of Rampaging Ferodicon but will be even worse off against Goblin Chainwhirler.
Along with the extra value of pinging the opponent and their planeswalkers and its solid, first-striking body, Goblin Chainwhirler is just a very strong card and helps cement Mono-Red's position in the metagame. The only real deckbuilding cost of Goblin Chainwhirler is that its triple-red cost makes colorless lands a liability, so the time of Sunscorched Desert is behind us, and we'll see less Scavenger Grounds.
Another home for Goblin Chainwhirler is this mono-red God-Pharaoh's Gift deck that 5-0ed a league.
Skirk Prospector and Siege-Gang Commander are both fantastic new cards for God-Pharaoh's Gift decks, and possibly good enough for the blue-red version, but this deck gives up blue entirely for the consistency of being on color and the ability to play Goblin Chainwhirler, which is a nice eternalize target in its own right. This deck also shows off how Goblin Chainwhirler has nice synergy with Fantastical Firebrand and Walking Ballista, since it can soften 2/2 creatures for them to finish off. My favorite part of the deck is how well it uses Rowdy Crew, theoretically one of the stronger cards in Ixalan but one that hasn't found a suitable home.
Another creature in the cycle slated for constructed stardom is Benalish Marshal, which is a Glorious Anthem attached to a body. Aggressive creature decks are always hungry for lords, and Benalish Marshal is like a tribal lord that doesn't discriminate between tribes. Given that we're living in a tribal Standard, there's a good possibility that Benalish Marshal's best use will actually be in a tribal deck as a pseudo-tribal lord, whether it's in its own tribe, Knights, or the tribe that had the most success in Standard before Dominaria, Vampires, or even a deck that plays both tribes in one.
Vampires and Knights hybridize together well, because many cards have both creature types and Benalish Marshal doesn't care about creature type. The big incentive to combine the two is to take extra advantage of History of Benalia, which is the best white card in the set and one that goes hand-in-hand with Benalish Marshal. As a token generator it's a beneficiary of Benalish Marshal's ability, and as a Knight Benalish Marshal benefits from History of Benalia's anthem effect.
Black-white also gains Isolated Chapel, so Vampires as a strategy has become more solid and consistent – it now may be ready for a true breakout.
Benalish Marshal also has a lot of potential in token strategies, and might be the perfect card to play for free with Sram's Expertise. Here's a deck that uses it in a Tokens-Vehicles hybrid where it takes advantage of its ability to crew Heart of Kiran.
Benalish Marshal also works pretty well for pumping the Construct Tokens from Karn, Scion of Urza.
There's also the simple approach of using Benalish Marshal alongside the best white creatures available to create the most efficient, aggressive, and consistent deck possible.
Dauntless Escort is a great addition to this strategy, because it's an aggressive one-drop that maintains value later in the as a Selfless Spirit for one creature, and is useful for protecting Benalish Marshal.
Steel Leaf Champion has the benefit of being supported by Llanowar Elves, and the two cards can be seen together as the basis of a brand new Mono-Green Stompy deck, which has gained the critical mass of cards it needs.
Steel Leaf Champion is really just a huge body at a cheap cost, which at the end of the day is what Magic is often about. It's an all-around strong card and a welcome addition to an aggressive green deck, but it does add some synergies. One, it's an easy way to turn on Rhonas, the Indomitable, and two, its large size makes it a mana-efficient way to ramp towards Ghalta, Primal Hunger. Steel Leaf Champion's ability is also relevant, as it shuts down the small chump blockers that can be a problem for large creatures and prevents it from being ganged up on by 2/2 blockers. I've run into this deck playing Standard online and it's quite impressive, so I expect it will become a fixture of the metagame.
Dread Shade brings back fond memories of Nantuko Shade, and the new version is bigger and badder, offering twice the raw stats for one extra mana. Mono-Black Aggro has been on the fringes of competitive play for months, putting up occasional results but never quite breaking through. Dread Shade provides a robust threat for the top of their low curve, and acts a mana sink that can overpower opponents in the late game. It could be exactly what the strategy needs to break through to the next level. It hasn't put up any posted league results yet, but I can imagine how the deck might look.
Mono-Black also gains Cast Down, which is one of the better cards in Dominaria and a nice addition to the removal package.
Another new tool for the deck is Memorial to Folly, which will provide value late in the game to help the deck grind against removal. Dread Shade is a solid target, but it's particularly great with value creatures, so I could also see cards like Gonti, Lord of Luxury and Ravenous Chupacabra joining Dread Shade in a midrange deck fueled by Memorial to Folly. A powerful new card for such a strategy is Demonlord Bezlenlok, which is a huge body combined with card advantage.
Such a deck may seem like a good candidate Cabal Stronghold, which is useful for supercharging Dread Shade in the late game, but it has poor synergy with Memorial to Folly and Ifnir Deadlands, and is a colorless land so it's poor with Dread Shade, so it's not a good fit.
The most restrictive card in the cycle is Tempest Djinn, which requires basic Islands for its ability, so it can't really be used in a two-color deck or with any non-basic land. It also has the most raw power of the cycle, since it gets better as the game goes on and will eventually be a huge threat. There's incentive to make the card work, and there are multiple ways to approach it.
One of the most surprising decks to post a league 5-0 since Dominaria is a mono-blue aggro deck built to abuse Throne of the God-Pharaoh, and while it doesn't use Tempest Djinn, I can't help but think it would be a strong addition.
Here's how I'd build it with Tempest Djinn:
With its many artifacts, this deck is also a candidate for supporting Zahid, Djinn of the Lamp, which is a massive threat for the cost.
Another possibility is to combine Tempest Djinn with Favorable Winds and other fliers. Siren Stormtamer can be used to protect it, and Warkite Marauder can push it through any blockers.
I'm also curious if Tempest Djinn could work in a more midrange and controlling blue deck. I've been extremely impressed by Baral, Chief of Compliance in Brawl, and I wonder if a Standard draw-go deck with four of them and a ton of counters and card drawing would work. Tempest Djinn would be an asset to the deck, giving it the ability to get aggressive and close out games. Here's what I'm thinking:
That deck definitely needs some testing tuning, but the concept is sound.
What's your favorite creature in the new cycle? What deck are you playing it in? Share your ideas in the comments, and I'll answer any questions.