We as a community play so much Magic that we have the first decision of any match down to automaticity. We sit down, roll dice, and the player who rolled the highest starts on the play in game one. Technically, the player who rolled higher gets to choose whether they want the play or the draw, but let's be real, they almost never want to be on the draw. We acknowledge the importance of this ritual, sometimes making jokes about how the die roll determines the winner of the match, but rarely do we sit down and discuss the details of the consequences of that die roll.
Now, let me be very clear: I am not about to write a bunch of words attempting to convince you that in this particular Standard format, the draw is better than the play. Nothing that revolutionary to be found here today, I'm afraid. I merely wish to discuss some of the unique textures that this Battle for Zendikar Standard environment can create based on the subtle differences between the play and the draw. Textures like these exist in every format, but I have found the ones created in this Standard to be particularly interesting. Understanding the different tensions at work on the play and draw will help you bring your game to the next level.
The Scry Mulligan
Let's start with an interaction that we can expect to encounter forever in Eternal formats and at least until rotation in Standard. The intersection of fetch land-powered manabases and the new Vancouver mulligan rule creates an asymmetric effect where the player on the draw tends to get more utility out of the post-mulligan scry. If the player on the play scrys and sees a card they like on the top of their library, in order to draw that card they must forego fetching on the first turn cycle of the game. The player on the draw, however, is under no such restriction, as they will draw that top card before even having the opportunity to play a land.
If you have been playing Magic since the release of Battle for Zendikar with a deck powered by a fetchland manabase, you have probably already encountered this interaction. It is an awkward situation to be in as the player going first, forced to choose between the card you know is on the top of your deck and playing a spell turn one. I know I have foregone playing a turn one Warden of the First Tree before while piloting G/W Megamorph in order to ensure I drew the land I needed to make my hand function. Sometimes the choice isn't between playing a spell on turn one and drawing the card you scryed to the top, but between drawing that card and fetching the Battle land you need so that you have it untapped on turn two. Effectively, this is a choice between the card on the top of your deck and your two-drop. That is to say, this effect hurts decks even if they have no one-mana spells.
The more likely a deck is to want to fetch on turn one, the more it is hurt by this effect. This effect is too minimal to combat via deck construction -- I am by no means advising that decks should be built so that they don't need to activate a fetch land on turn one. Instead, incorporate this effect into your game by broadening your range of seven card hands that are keepable when on the play with these decks. When the scry mulligan took effect, we had to adjust for it and start mulliganing more seven card hands out of respect for the power of the scry one our post-mulligan hands gained. Now, with this effect in mind, we want to dial our mulligan ranges back closer to where they were prior to the new mulligan rule when on the play.
Personally, I really dislike this effect and cannot wait until the fetch lands leave Standard and we get a chance to play the Vancouver mulligan rule without fetch lands diluting the power of the scry. But Magic mechanics care not a whit about whether you like them or dislike them; they will affect you all the same. So as much as I dislike having to take this into account in my decision-making, I will still be doing my best to gain an edge from it, and advise you do the same.
Silkwrap / The Sorcery Speed Removal Problem
Now we move from a general interaction of formats with fetch lands to something more specific to this format. One of the key limitations of this Standard format that has been commented on time and time again is that the removal is fairly lacking. Silkwrap, a card we would not have considered touching last Standard, is one of the best removal spells we have access to. In general, the removal we play is either highly conditional, sorcery speed, or both. This wrinkle on the format creates some interesting play/draw dependent textures. For illustrative purposes, I am going to center this discussion on the card Silkwrap, but keep in mind that similar situations play out around other sorcery speed conditional removal spells.
We play Silkwrap due in no small part to the necessity of removing Jace, Vryn's Prodigy in a timely manner. But our Silkwraps play way differently on the play and on the draw. On the draw, when facing down our opponent's two-drop, we can deploy Silkwrap to Remove that threat. On the play, we won't be able to Remove our opponent's two-drop until our turn three because it won't be on the board until then. This is a problem that instant speed removal dodges, as we could choose to not play anything on our turn two and then deploy our removal spell on their two-drop in their end step. If we don't have a suitable target for Silkwrap on turn two on the play, we better have a two-mana threat instead, or we will be forfeiting our second turn and taking the corresponding tempo hit. I have had many hands already in this Standard format that I felt would be significantly better on the draw, as they had a reasonable two-three-four curve, but the two was Silkwrap.
In terms of being played on curve, Silkwrap is clearly better on the draw. But Silkwrap is a removal spell, a class of cards that we historically don't care that much about playing on curve. The problem is that Silkwrap in this format is a card with a mission, a specific target. And that target is time sensitive -- with all the fetch lands in the format, a single turn with a not summoning sick Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is often enough to enlist Jace, Telepath Unbound to your cause. And not to be obvious, but Silkwrap cannot deal with a Jace, Telepath Unbound. So on the play, we often find ourselves forced to deploy a Silkwrap on a Jace on turn three rather than play our three-drop on curve. This is awkward because as I previously mentioned a couple of weeks ago, there isn't really a fundamental unit of one mana in this format --it is very hard to do anything in addition to our two-drop on turn three. Most often we want to use our Silkwrap to trade with their two-drop and when we are on the draw that means that we are using our turn three to play only a two-drop and thus being mana inefficient. In general, I think this problem is leading us as a community to over correct and play our sorcery speed removal at the first possible instance. We are scared of being forced to play it later on a turn when it is mana inefficient to do so, so we will play our sorcery speed removal effect on the first possible target if that means it sequences well with the rest of our hand.
So, this is what's going on - how do we use this information to gain an edge in our play? Well, again, this isn't an instance where this effect means that we should be building our decks differently. We are playing Silkwrap for a reason, Jace is very hard to beat without it for the G/W-based decks. Instead, we need to be aware of this when evaluating our hands for mulligan purposes. On the draw, hands that have Silkwrap and no other two-drops are likely fine. But on the play, hands like this might need to be thrown back. Skipping your turn two because there isn't a suitable target for your Silkwrap and then casting the Silkwrap instead of your three-drop on turn three is a very slow out of the gate start and it forfeits much of the tempo that being on the play naturally generates.
It is worth noting that this effect is not universal throughout this Standard format. The Jeskai Black decks in particular have access to better removal and don't face much of these concerns. If you are a Jeskai Black pilot and feel that the previous discussion did not benefit you, think again. Understanding how awkward their sorcery speed removal effects can be allows you to maximize that awkwardness by sequencing your spells in such a way that they are forced to cast their removal at mana inefficient times. For bonus points, you can often find ways to get them to cast their removal on the wrong targets by presenting your lower priority threats at times when they would love to cast their awkward removal sorceries.
In keeping with The General progression of this article from The General to the specific, this last section will be a discussion of various single cards that play out very differently on the play and the draw. To start, let's consider Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. In the scant few weeks of this Standard format, there have already been many words devoted to the unique dynamics of the Gideon mirror. It is generally held that the player on the play in a Gideon war holds a massive advantage. This is understandable, as a Gideon that comes down before the opponent's is the first Gideon capable of turning into a creature and attacking the opposing Gideon. Backed up with a removal spell, the first Gideon will almost certainly take down the second Gideon, and the player on the play will typically win the game from there. Keep in mind, however that this is just a general play pattern. There are certainly many confounding factors here, and ways that you can build your deck to have a better shot of winning the Gideon battle whether you are on the play or the draw. More early creatures to play really helps in these fights, such as the Heir of the Wilds I championed last week. Overall, you need to be aware of how Gideon wars play out and have a plan for not folding to them on the draw. Keep in mind too that Gideon in general is far more powerful on the play, as he will generally be better defended when you are ahead in tempo. A natural consequence of this is that, on the draw, it is more often right to give up on defending your Gideon and just cash him in for his emblem immediately.
Knight of the White Orchid is a card that has been picking up a lot of steam recently, and it is notable because it has one of the most stark power level differences between being on the play and on the draw. On the play, Knight of the White Orchid is unlikely to trigger its effect until very late in the game, unless you fall greatly behind in land drops made earlier than that (in which case, you are probably losing). On the draw, however, its trigger can resolve as early as turn three! This huge discrepancy is making some players go so far as to board their Knight of the White Orchids with the intention of only having them in their deck when they are on the draw. There isn't a ton to be done here, as it is generally true that skipping land drops to make your opponent's Knight of the White Orchids bad is a not so good idea. Just be aware if you are looking to play Knight of the White Orchid for the first time, that you likely want all of your Knights in the sideboard for any game that you are on the play for. If you want to get really fancy, you could elect to draw when you suspect your opponent boarded into Knights, but this is likely ill-advised.
The last single card that I want to talk about is Ojutai's Command. Ojutai's Command was one of the hallmark cards in the Jeskai decks of last format, and it is still very good in this format's Jeskai Black decks. In combination with Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, Ojutai's Command has a tendency to lock down games and make life very difficult for the opposing player. Its big power level difference between the play and the draw centers around the fact that on the play it can be held up on your opponent's turn four and on the draw it can't be held up until your opponent's turn five. This means that in half your games you can counter Siege Rhinos on the turn they come down and then in half your games you can't. As such, it's possible that Jeskai Black decks want more answers to Siege Rhino on the draw, when Ojutai's Command can't counter it, then on the play, when it can.
Sometimes the difference in power of a card on the play and on the draw is obvious, like with Daze in Legacy or Remand in Modern. Sometimes it's much less obvious, as in most of what I talked about today. No matter how obvious, however, it is always important. Use these thoughts about the differences in this Standard format to your advantage, but always be on the lookout for other differences -- and more importantly, ways to gain an edge from those differences.
Thanks for reading,