Today's Standard is a format of rare dynamism.
We've had Standard formats before that stagnated to the point of single-deck-dom, and others that created divides between haves, have-nots, and the odd successful anti-deck.
But this Standard? This Standard is one of amazing changeability.
Consider...its initial salvo set the pace: Brian DeMars won the opening Open with Atarka Red featuring a heavier count of Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage. This would prove more than just a passing fad. A traditional red aggro deck gained the ability to combo kill on the third turn with some consistency, and continued to put up such kills.
Come the Pro Tour Jeskai ascended to powerhouse level; both traditional Jeskai - blue/red/white - and the so-called "Dark" Jeskai (or Jeskai Black) decks splashing for Crackling Doom and even Tasigur, the Golden Fang performed.
...but once again, echoing the opening shots of Standard a year earlier, it was Siege Rhino that reigned supreme.
Today's Standard is a format of rare dynamism, as we've said. While some elements remain - the combo kills around Temur Battle Rage, the persistent strength of Siege Rhino - it is a format with enough room for all-new (or at least rediscovered) strategies.
Consider the Top 8 from the most recent Grand Prix in Brussels, Belgium:
Esper Dragons: 11Four-Color Aristocrats: 111Abzan Variants: 11Atarka Red: 1
Lukas Blohon won Grand Prix Brussels with Esper Dragons. Esper Dragons was one of the most popular decks in Standard last spring, but waned in dominance after a few months...and has not had its name in many lights in Battle for Zendikar Standard prior to this event (though the Esper Control decks of Reid Duke and Patrick Chapin have established some blue/black/white precedent).
Esper Dragons differs from other Esper Control in that it is more reliant on Dragons, and can take advantage of Dragon-synergies. For example, Blohon's deck not only wins (primarily) with Dragonlord Ojutai, it has Dragonlord Silumgar as a supplemental Dragon, and can therefore easily "turn on" the additional text on Foul-Tongue Invocation and Silumgar's Scorn. It can even create asymmetrical board states with Crux of Fate!
Esper Dragons is usually slower than the deck across the table. It plays reactively, countering the opponent's cards with Clash of Wills, Scatter to the Wind, or the aforementioned Silumgar's Scorn; or it answers the opponent's creatures with its copious removal after they resolve.
The primary route to victory is Dragonlord Ojutai; Ojutai conveniently protects itself the turn you play it (provided your opponent isn't packing Foul-Tongue Invocation or Crackling Doom); then it can continue to protect itself by putting permission in your hand! It doesn't have to do so for very long, though.
A similar deck was played by Ondrej Straski:
Straski's deck plays on a similar paradigm to the Champion's. It is still a defensive deck, with a hearty stripe of permission (though no Clash of Wills) and removal (up-to-and-including Utter End). The main difference, though, is the presence of the fourth copy of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy in my opinion. Jace is a threat that, once he is online, Threatens to take over the game all by itself. How, pray, can a G/W deck easily (and reliably) answer Jace?
One note about Blohon's version (with only three copies of Jace) is the presence of Ojutai's Command. Ojutai's Command gives you a great way to Recycle a dead Jace, and also to gain massive life with a sideboarded Arashin Cleric.
The most popular deck in the Brussels Top 8 was Four-Color Aristocrats with Rally the Ancestors. Finalist Simon Nielsen's deck is quite emblematic of the archetype:
Once again we see a deck that relies on Jace, Vryn's Prodigy as one of its core, baseline cards. In this deck, Jace is there to not only improve your hand (as is his usual "looter" mode) but to put creatures into your graveyard!
With Rally the Ancestors, you can get them back anyway!
The value creatures:
● Catacomb Sifter● Elvish Visionary
These creatures help you build an advantage when you play them. No, the amount of card drawing on an Elvish Visionary isn't overpowered, but it does give you a material advantage; especially when you are playing first, Elvish Visionary can stunt the offense of a deck that relies on x/1 creatures early. Catacomb Sifter has two jobs: Not only does it offer an extra body (making it on-par with Hordeling Outburst) but Catacomb Sifters's Eldrazi Token can play your Rally the Ancestors for one more mana. Further, with all the sacrificing the deck is capable of, Catacomb Sifter just gets that much more text.
● Nantuko Husk● Zulaport Cutthroat
Nantuko Husk is really the key card to this strategy. It is not just the major sacrifice outlet on which the deck relies to get Grim Haruspex cruising, Nantuko Husk is a killer in and of himself, you know, the old fashioned way (combat) but is doubly dangerous with Zulaport Cutthroat.
Now imagine you are a lucky duck who set his deck up with Jace, Vryn's Prodigy or whatever else...Collected Company, say.
You pop a large Rally the Ancestors. You can get tons of creatures onto the battlefield...but what does that mean?
If you can start sacrificing some of those creatures to Nantuko Husk, Zulaport Cutthroat can potentially reduce them to zero life.
And of course you can combine moves, nugging for a ton with Zulaport Cutthroats, and eventually just getting in for the win with a now-huge Nantuko Husk.
The thing that makes this deck go, though, has to be the mana base. This deck only has about nine lands that actually tap for mana. The balance of its lands are there to get lands of the correct color.
Evolving Wilds can get any of the basic lands, Polluted Delta can get Sunken Hollow, Windswept Heath can get Canopy Vista, etc. The mana base capabilities are important! This is a deck that can start the conversation with a turn one Duress, move to a turn two Planeswalker-to-be, follow that with its key staple, and hit Collected Company the turn after.
Getting the mana right on a deck with these many drops is essential for navigating the many, tight decisions (that generally come up when you are under pressure somehow).
If you haven't been paying attention to Siege Rhino and company for the past year, I really don't know where to start.
Abzan is a deck largely of card quality. Its big pitch is that most of its cards are just better than most of everyone else's cards. Warden of the First Tree, Anafenza, the Foremost, and Siege Rhino all fit that description. The van Etten deck is an Abzan aggro list. It is designed to attack and put pressure on the opponent rather than just rely on advantageous card-for-card exchanges; that is why we see cards like Heir of the Wilds: an oddball at least on the topic of pure card strength.
Kowalski's Abzan Blue features a couple of differences from the main line Abzan strategy...
First of all this deck has Rattleclaw Mystic. Rattleclaw Mystic, all other things held equal, makes everything better. Third-turn Siege Rhino, third-turn Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, so forth and so on. The blue splash - Rattleclaw Mystic or no - gives Abzan Blue the opportunity to cast Exert Influence or any of a slew of sideboard cards.
The incentive to Abzan Blue versus just regular Abzan is once again in the mana base; van Etten played a Sunken Hollow out of course (his Flooded Strand can make black); Kowalski chooses to actually do something with the blue mana Abzan decks might be splashing already.
We round out this Top 8 with the deck that largely "started it all" for this Standard: Atarka Red.
This is a deck of efficient drops. It starts on Zurgo Bellstriker and doesn't look back. Lightning Berserker and Monastery Swiftspear make for quite a few one-drops that can attack the turn they enter the battlefield. Such haste is very useful in this deck because if it can get the opponent to tap out (say for a Radiant Flames or Languish) any hasty creature can immediately win the game with Become Immense + Temur Battle Rage!
Become Immense gives a creature +6/+6, so a lowly Monastery Swiftspear will become 8/9. Temur Battle Rage will put it to 9/10...good for 18 damage.
Don't tap out.
Dragon Fodder and Hordeling Outburst are deceptively synergistic with this deck's strategy. Not only do they provide bodies - multiple bodies - to potentially kill opponents with, but they put cards into the graveyard. Normal creatures put cards into play which is fine, but sorceries that actually hit the bin while making creatures can help pay down the delve cost on Become Immense!
All this deck needs to win is any creature plus some opportunity; so cards that put multiple creatures onto the battlefield make it that much more resilient to the removal that cuts off half of that "I can probably win" equation.
You may have noticed we've flipped the format this week to one of my longtime, older ones. The goal now (or I suppose, once again) is to keep readers abreast of the goings-on in Standard, and to create an ongoing, living record of the trending of the format.
I hope you enjoyed this first installment.