When it comes to Ravnica Allegiance and its early impact on Standard, there is too much going on in the set to be able to break everything down cleanly, and I mean that in a good way. I think the best Standard formats are ones with a lot of power spread across colors and good mana to support being able to play multicolor decks with ease. The best formats don't solve easily, or get solved at all during the tenure of the specific sets that comprise them.
High power, good mana formats are the best because having lots of powerful cards means that there are cards that are strong enough to provide counterplay or match the power level of other cards in the format. If one strategy becomes too powerful, the format can self-correct by allowing other powerful strategies that have natural counterplay rise up to overthrow them. Relying on hate cards alone has proven historically ineffective. A combination of versatile answers and competing powerful threats has been the best countermeasure.
Having good mana means it's possible to build consistent decks that take advantage of these powerful threats and countermeasures across many colors to exploit and self-correct the metagames that arise. Ravnica Allegiance has good mana. It completes the shockland cycle, providing us with a full set of ten shocklands to go with the full set of ten buddy lands from the Ixalan and Dominaria land cycles.
So we have the good mana, but what about power level? I'm not even close to worried about that.
I started playing Ravnica Allegiance on Wednesday before the set dropped, thanks to the early access Streamer Showdown on MTG Arena. Since then, I've played some Standard off and on with Ravnica Allegiance cards in the mix. So while I haven't been religiously grinding the format, I've certainly played a fair share of it.
Over the course of that time, I have changed my mind on what the "best" thing to do in Ravnica Allegiance is so many times, almost comically so. At first, I thought it was Theater of Horrors, then Incubation Druid and Growth-Chamber Guardian, then Hero of Precinct One, then Absorb, then Hydroid Krasis, then Light Up the Stage and Skewer the Critics. Oh wait, but can't forget about Wilderness Reclamation…
I can't make up my mind as to what the best thing to do is, because frankly they are all pretty good. Whenever I think I've figured it out, something else catches my eye and shifts my interest and my evaluation of what the absolute best thing to do is, both from a "fun" perspective and from a competitive "what's the best way to get wins" perspective.
These are powerful cards that draw me in. I've succumbed to the dark side so many times that it's kind of lost its luster anymore, and I'm going to need to do more things to be edgy enough to get the respect of my peers. I'm drawn to the power, I can't make up my mind what the most powerful thing is, and nothing has felt overpowered so far. Oh, and did I mention that there is good mana? Yes, yes I did. These are exactly the Petri dish conditions that will grow to create a thriving and healthy Standard format. Sign me up. Sign me in. Let me begin. Pardon me, but your username or password don't match our records, please try again. House of Pain's 2020 hit. You heard it here first.
I'm not going to tell you what the best thing to do in this format is. I don't think I'm qualified to make those judgments after only a week of the set being playable, and I'm not sure anyone truly is. However, I can tell you cards that have impressed me, strategies and synergies that I like, and decklists that are fun or good. Strap in, it's going to be a turbulent ride.
Sometimes what we need to break the humdrums of the day-to-day slog is a little heroism. Hero of Precinct One along with Glass of the Guildpact were two cards that I thought would be some of the better rares from the set upon early examination, and while Glass of the Guildpact has so far been more like Ass of the Guildpact, Hero of Precinct One has lived up to hype, and in my case, even exceeded it. I like District Nine, but even I'm reluctantly admitting that Precinct One is going to get better reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
This is my minorly updated version of a Mardu Human deck that Yoman5 built. While this is by no means the most optimal version of a Hero of Precinct One strategy, this deck does a lot of things very right. The first is that Hero of Precinct One and cheap multicolor cards, such as hybrid one-mana spells like Integrity or Footlight Fiend can allow for explosive starts that spew tokens onto the board and effectively go wide from a single card.
Naturally, the best level-one way to take advantage of going wide is to utilize the tokens effectively, and the most basic, and often most powerful way to utilize tokens is to give them power. This could be by buffing them, boosting them, giving them evasion, or throwing them at your opponent, but most successful go-wide strategies don't simply spray the board and hope it gets the job done without help.
What I love about this deck is that there are two multicolor cards that both create tokens from Hero of Precinct One and also abuse those tokens, and that level of synergy and power is exactly the kind of strategy that has legs to make it in Standard. The first is Heroic Reinforcements, which creates a token from Hero of Precinct One, and then gives that new token +1/+1 and haste, which is no laughing matter. The other is Judith, the Scourge Diva, which also creates a token, and then serves as another anthem effect for the deck, pumping all your creatures and also offering additional reach for when creatures die or trade in combat.
All things told, this deck has (1) a lot of speed, (2) twelve anthem effects in Heroic Reinforcements, Judith, the Scourge Diva, and Benalish Marshal, (3) go-wide synergy from Hero of Precinct One, (4) additional ways to use the tokens from Fireblade Artist, and (5) the ability to grind late thanks to the inherent power in a lot of the cards.
Working in multicolor space to satisfy the requirements for a card like Hero of Precinct One can both breed creativity as well as stifle it. Not every card has to be multicolor, but on the flip side, you want to play multicolor options over not when the two are close in power. I don't have a fleshed-out sideboard for a deck like this, but my mind immediately goes to cards like Mortify, as a good catch-all answer that is multicolor over a comparable card like Conclave Tribunal. I also look to a top-end planeswalker like Angrath, the Flame-Chained or Huatli, Warrior Poet, over alternative options because they are multicolor. However, it's a real concern that I'm taking it too far.
The reality is that I might actually be worsening my deck by choosing those options over potentially stronger choices like Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants or Experimental Frenzy, even though they aren't multicolor cards. There is a real balancing act to be found there. I don't have the answers, nor do I think it is simple to choose between options when other factors are at play that skew their relative values.
While I can't imagine this list is optimal, we've created a high bar to clear for other Hero of Precinct One decks to surpass, especially if their goal is to be aggressive in nature.
However, I don't believe that the only way to take advantage of a card like Hero of Precinct One is to try to pair the tokens with anthem effects like the Mardu deck does.
Another option is to treat the card like Young Pyromancer. Young Pyromancer was a card that you plopped into play early, hoped it didn't die, and then used to eventually overwhelm your opponent while you simply played interactive Magic with them.
With so many removal spells in this format being multicolor, I don't think it would be unreasonable to concoct a deck that played Hero of Precinct One and then played other creatures, removal spells, planeswalkers, and even potentially countermagic like Absorb or Ionize to simply play a normal game of Magic with your opponent with the addendum that you happened to also generate big advantages if you were fortunate enough to play that game while Hero of Precinct One was in play.
Mono-Red Aggro is the best deck in Best of One queues of Magic right now, and might also be a powerful choice for traditional paper tournaments as well. The truth is that Light Up the Stage and Skewer the Critics have improved the power and consistency of the red deck to levels where it actually makes me feel like I'm playing against Modern burn. Games where my opponent plays Runaway Steam-Kin on turn two and then empties their entire hand on turn three certainly feel like the turn-three Modern format, even if I'm not technically at zero life yet.
Light Up the Stage, in particular, is an extraordinarily powerful card. I don't have an optimized decklist for mono-red but this deck has been terrifying to play against and our saving grace might simply be that cards like Wildgrowth Walker, Hydroid Krasis, and all the life-gain control spells or removal spells keep this in check.
Is it time to bring Thragtusk, one of the most glorious creatures of all time, back? I'll order a full set of German copies so its creature type can accurately reflect our relationship.
This one was a miss for me. I underestimated the power of the Krasis...The Hydroid Krasis.
I thought that Hydroid Krasis wouldn't be that good of a card because on the surface the rate of the card isn't particularly great. Six mana is when you hit the best reasonable rate, as being able to play a 4/4 flier for six that draws two cards and gains two life is basically right at the borderline of what is Standard playable.
The easy comparison to draw was with the card to Cloudblazer. Cloudblazer at five mana was basically better than both a Hydroid Krasis at four mana and a Hydroid Krasis at six mana, since generally speaking, costing one less on a card designed to generate card advantage is better than a slightly larger power and toughness. Cloudblazer also allowed shenanigans if you were able to blink it in and out of play and was predominantly played in decks that reduced its converted mana cost, thanks to Oketra's Monument. With that being said, Cloudblazer didn't even see that much play, which didn't bode well for our Hydroid raged buddy.
The problem with comparisons like this, and why it didn't function for Hydroid Krasis, is that cards simply do not exist in a vacuum. Card power is a product of environment. Brainstorm isn't that good of a card in Standard because you can't reset your deck at will, but yet it is the best card in Legacy because of fetchlands, to provide an example.
Hydroid Krasis exists in a format with Llanowar Elves and Incubation Druid as great creature ramp, which means that the top-end scenarios of casting it at eight or ten mana are going to happen more often, as is simply being able to cast it at X=4 with six mana, which is going to be what you're aiming for in most natural games of Magic.
Hydroid Krasis also has a number of generally less relevant abilities that push it over the edge. One such ability takes advantage of control's popularity in the format. The Krasis can draw cards through countermagic, since that part of the card is an on-cast trigger that happens simply by casting the card, regardless of whether it resolves. The other is trample, which in a format with Afterlife and a number of relevant flying Angel creatures is not irrelevant, even though it is probably the least impactful line of text on the card.
The other hidden ability on Hydroid Krasis is that in a lot of decks, its significant increase on the power and toughness of the comparable Cloudblazer is a huge appeal to the card. In a more mana-ramp oriented strategy, drawing five cards off of a 10/10 Hydroid Krasis can sometimes not be very good as you will draw a lot of chaff in those five cards. However, putting a 10/10 flying trample creature into play while buffering your life total is game-breaking, since it will end the game in short order while helping you survive in the meantime.
When you boil it all down, I've been extremely impressed by Hydroid Krasis in practice, and I believe that this is the top-end card that midrange strategies are looking for in the new Standard format. Midrange decks have traditionally been based around the Wildgrowth Walker into Jadelight Ranger and Merfolk Branchwalker package, and this card is the perfect top-end finisher to that base explore package, as it finds you more of those cards to build upon their natural synergies and those cards provide you with the consistency and life buffer to generally escape the early game enough to get to where you can cast a Hydroid Krasis at X=4 for six mana.
Here is an example of a Temur midrange/ramp deck I have really enjoyed playing that relies heavily on Wildgrowth Walker to survive the early turns so that Nikya of the Old Ways can fuel massive Hydroid Krasises to take over and dominate the game.
I have seen a lot of seemingly hyperbolic claims that Wilderness Reclamation will break Standard. This is not a card I have tested with, but cards like Expansion // Explosion and Nexus of Fate with Wilderness Reclamation are extremely disgusting interactions that could prove to be too much to overcome once people have the time and experience to figure out the code for how to best build around it.
Until that happens, I'm going to happily continue enjoying the format as I have been and not worry about it.
Last Ravnica format we saw the card Sphinx's Revelation that both defined strategies and played a dominant role in Standard for the entirety of its duration in the format. Sphinx's Revelation would not have been a good card without the life gain tacked onto it, because that part of the card allowed control decks to take turns off to cast it and ensure that they wouldn't simply die the turn they needed to refuel.
Once again, life gain is proving to be a dominant and important part of control decks. While Sphinx's Revelation is, thankfully, not back, there are a number of other cards that have life gain tacked onto them that all contribute together to produce a world where control decks can once again reliably gain that kind of life, even if it involves combining various spells to do so.
This is an example of an extremely fun and even moderately competitive Esper Control strategy that I built based on a similar decklist sent to me by an active member of my stream community. Now, this deck is built for Best of One play, and in traditional Best of Three matches, cards like Unmoored Ego would not be in my maindeck, but rather possibly part of a sideboard package that included Negate and Thief of Sanity and possibly even Absorb. However, sometimes desperate Turbo-Fog times call for desperate measures.
This deck really pushes the envelope on life gain, combining a payoff card like Dawn of Hope along with an enabler engine in Dovin's Acuity paired with Revitalize, Moment of Craving, and Vraska's Contempt. Pairing life gain with a card draw engine and a sweeper in Kaya's Wrath makes this deck a difficult one for aggressive strategies to overcome, however the lack of countermagic makes it fall prey pretty easily to other control decks or non-interactive decks like Nexus of Fate strategies.
Were I not mostly playing Best of One games, I think this deck would actually be even better, as being able to adjust for bad matchups after sideboard (like a true midrange deck) would be a massive upgrade for a strategy like this that naturally preys on an entire portion of the metagame in game one.
Whether you play a fun, janky deck like the one I've been enjoying or a more traditional control option like Jeskai or Esper, control is poised once again to be a dominant, and maybe even stifling part of the format because of (I can't really stress enough) how important life gain is to these decks to allow the time to survive for their superior endgame. Having it tacked on to cards like Revitalize and Absorb is a massive, massive improvement for these strategies, and a card like Absorb might have even been a mistake to print.
Don't sleep on control decks with life gain to buffer their strategy. We've seen them dominate in the last Ravnica Standard. I wouldn't be surprised to see it again.
One thing I have loved so far about Ravnica Allegiance is that there are a lot of cards, like Prime Speaker Vannifar, that promote really fun and interesting deck designs. What I love even more is that these decks are surprisingly playable and maybe even good.
This is a Bant Prime Speaker Vannifar deck that Ali Aintrazi built and that I made some "Colossal" upgrades to by throwing in Colossal Dreadmaw, to see how many people I could get to concede to Ixalan's first and foremost planeswalker. Outside of my desire to meme on people by giving them a real feeling of dread(maw), I was impressed with how much I was winning with this deck and how good it seemed.
There are a lot of interesting, build-around-me cards or interactions in this set, and not only are they actually fun to play with, they are surprisingly competitive too, which make for some of the best formats for brewers and best-deck players alike. Brewers have viable options to test their chops, and people content to play the tier 1 strategies get to play actually fun and competitive games against people's brews. It's the best of both worlds.
Ultimately, I have been incredibly impressed with Ravnica Allegiance so far. Last time Ravnica was in Standard was one of the golden ages of Standard for the 12 years I have been playing this game. Last Ravnica Standard five years ago was diverse, but it was also fun, and it was diverse not just in the number of decks that were viable, but the styles of decks you could play.
I'm seeing it again. Burn, Aggro, Control, Midrange, Combo, and Engine decks are all present, and they are all powerful enough to compete with each other to the point where I don't know which ones are actually the best. I feel competitive playing any of them, I'm having fun playing them, and I'm constantly changing my mind about what the "best" strategy is. When it comes to Standard, a format I have maligned greatly and have hated greatly in the past three years, I honestly cannot be any happier with how things are going. Enjoy it while it lasts. I can't imagine it lasts forever. Nothing lasts forever.
Except diamonds. Diamonds are forever. They'll even survive the heat death of the universe, according to one out of five dentists.