This week, I'm ranking the Top 20 cards from Shadows Over Innistrad for Standard. If you're looking for advice on which cards to pre-order for your deck, know that this list should be read as the cards from Shadows over Innistrad that are most likely to show up in winning decks.
Next week I will do my financial review of the set, focusing on which cards are overpriced and which are sleepers to invest in, but if you read between the lines you'll likely be able to figure out where I stand on most of these cards.
If these lands did not exist, it would have a larger impact on Shadows over Innistrad Standard than the absence of any other individual card in the set, but only because the mana in the format would then be heavily skewed toward enemy color decks instead of being balanced between enemy and allied colors. If you only buy 20 cards from Shadows over Innistrad, it should be your playset of each of the five dual-lands. They will be defining cards of Standard.
Delirium requires some work to set up, but if you do, you can gain some serious benefit out of this card. As long as you play things like Evolving Wilds, discard spells (Duress, Transgress the Mind), removal spells, countermagic, and maybe some cards like Hangarback Walker or some other creatures and/or planeswalkers that your opponents will want to help put in the graveyard for you, by the time you hit six mana, you will often incidentally have delirium.
Descend upon the Sinful is similar to an awakened Planar Outburst. The token also flies, which helps pick up an opposing planeswalker that might happen to survive the board wipe. I don't expect this to be as format defining as Languish—four mana is much easier to hit than six—but it's definitely worthy of respect.
Jace's newest iteration offers some powerful options. Bouncing a creature isn't as good as killing it, but it's better protection than making a token to block. Jace, Unraveler of Secrets can also start with six loyalty if you use his plus ability immediately. Six is a lot of damage, which means Jace, Unraveler of Secrets will often live.
The biggest thing working against Jace, Unraveler of Secrets is the existence of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy in the format. A lot of the decks that would want Jace, Unraveler of Secrets likely want Jace, Vryn's Prodigy more, but if some of those decks want to go entirely creatureless to neutralize opposing removal, they now have incentive to do so without losing their blue planeswalker. If not before then, Jace, Unraveler of Secrets will likely take off once Jace, Vryn's Prodigy rotates out of Standard.
This card has a lot of things going for it. The potential scenario of end of turn, activate Jace, Vryn's Prodigy discarding Avacyn's Judgment, tap out to either kill whatever creature(s) you played or deal X damage to you is a big game. I expect direct damage to play an important role in Shadows over Innistrad Standard. There is not a lot of quality lifegain in the format anymore and some of the best cards pay life as a resource (Anguished Unmaking, Ob Nixilis Reignited, etc). The dream scenario is your opponent casting Goldnight Castigator into your Jace, Vryn's Prodigy with Avacyn's Judgment in hand. I can definitely see a blue/red deck with Fiery Temper, Lightning Axe, and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy making it big in Standard.
Humans aren't the biggest winners in Innistrad this time around, but they did get a few sweet cards to work with. All the good one-drops in white are humans and there are enough other quality humans in the format to cobble together a decent human tribal deck that can gain full value out of Thalia's Lieutenant. You can be mono-white, or splash blue for Reflector Mage, green for Den Protector, Dromoka's Command, and Sigarda, Heron's Grace, red for Abbot of Keral Keep, or black simply for Shambling Vents, Caves of Koilos, and some discard spells (Duress, Transgress the Mind).
Champion of the Parish was sweet on turn one, but was pretty bad if you drew it after playing out all your other humans. Thalia's Lieutenant is good in either scenario since it can still pump your team even if it's the last human to the party, but there is yet another card that pumps your team and makes the human tribe more exciting…
The difference between Honor of the Pure and Intangible Virtue in a token strategy is big. The difference between Always Watching and Glorious Anthem is even bigger. It won't pump your token creatures but it will allow all your first strike creatures (Knight of the White Orchid, Consul's Lieutenant, etc) to attack while still holding down the fort on defense. Some key creatures also benefit from vigilance such as Archangel of Tithes and Dragonlord Ojutai. I suspect most people are underrating this card (or perhaps, as is usually the case, I'm overvaluing the cool new white card). I have high hopes for it though. I can even see a Boros deck that tops out at angels being good. If Goldnight Castigator is playable anywhere, I imagine it's alongside this card. Turning it into a 5/10 with haste and vigilance increases the clock by a turn while also mitigating the drawback by being able to block.
I think this removal spell is being underrated right now. It is efficient removal that exiles unconditionally, which means it will answer most problematic creatures no matter what the metagame looks like. It also pressures the opponent to play around it by not playing out multiple copies of the same creature. It can also take out a swarm of tokens without any drawback. The biggest downside to the card is that it is a sorcery instead of an instant, which means a card like Stasis Snare is a better answer to Archangel Avacyn or any creature with haste. Fortunately you can play both in the same deck if you want to. The only reason this card isn't higher on the list is because Silkwrap, Stasis Snare, and this next card exist…
Utter End is no longer legal, although Ruinous Path is. I suspect decks that can afford the heavier black commitment would prefer Ruinous Path since the three life loss is usually not worth the flexibility of instant speed, though sometimes it is. If the opponent can't punish you for the life loss, such as in a control mirror, this is basically Hero's Downfall. Similarly, if you use Anguished Unmaking proactively to kill an opposing blocker or a planeswalker that is threatening to stabilize the board, your opponent won't have time to capitalize on the life loss. Anguished Unmaking will provide important options and deckbuilding decisions that otherwise would not exist.
It's like Sylvan Scrying and Eladamri's Call mashed together in a way that fits perfectly into the current Standard format. Early in the game you can cast it to find whatever color basic you need, then reveal that basic to each of your new Shadow lands so they enter the battlefield untapped. Then, since you have two basics (the basic you found with Traverse the Ulvenwald, plus either the Forest you used to cast Traverse the Ulvenwald on turn one, or the basic you revealed to have your Shadow land enter the battlefield untapped so you could cast Traverse the Ulvenwald on turn one), your Battle lands will also enter untapped.
What really makes this card great is that later in the game, when you're looking for action instead of lands, it will find any creature. It's a powerful card that is good early and good late as long as your deck can reliably turn on delirium. It can also fuel Corrupted Grafstone beautifully.
The zombie tribe gained some sweet new cards and Relentless Dead looks to be the centerpiece to the strategy and likely the only zombie that will see play outside the tribal deck. Diregraf Colossus and Prized Amalgam are further incentives to go tribal. Menace and the ability to block really separates Relentless Dead from many of its predecessors.
If I'm ahead, she allows me to rummage twice before going ultimate. If I'm behind, she kills my opponent's best creature. She can also blow up a Corrupted Grafstone, Stasis Snare, or Silkwrap.
Control decks will alter their play pattern the turn before they want to cast this. Instead of killing your attacker and leaving you with the next creature you play, they will take the damage from the attacker, kill the post-combat creature on your end step, then untap and cast Nahiri, the Harbinger to exile the tapped creature you attacked with. Control players sometimes take this line anyway if their removal spell is Stasis Snare or whatever because they would rather use it on the more important creature you play on turn 4 than on the creature you played on turn 3. Nevertheless the fact that you will have to sometimes take an unwanted hit from a creature before being able to kill it with Nahiri, the Harbinger makes it a little less appealing. Also imagine if the Eldrazispiracy rumors are true and Emrakul is lurking on Innistrad? That will make Nahiri's ultimate that much scarier!
This will almost certainly see play in Modern and Legacy, where Gitaxian Probe, Brainstorm, Snapcaster Mage, Force of Will, Daze, and all sorts of shenanigans go down. It fits right into most Delver of Secrets shells. As far as Standard is concerned, you can take either of two approaches. You can be "all-in" with cheap spells or you can be more of a control deck that looks to naturally flip it over the course of a few turns without doing anything out of the ordinary. It blocks early and can be protected by counters later when you're ready for a win condition. Here's an example of the "all-in" build:
Sorin, Grim Nemesis is one of the few good ways to gain life in Standard. The typical line against a deck with burn spells will be to target a creature for 5 damage and gain 5 life. This keeps Sorin, Grim Nemesis around and effectively forces them to attack it or use a burn spell on it, thereby gaining more than just five life. Against a midrange deck, you can kill their best creature or Planeswalker and still have a powerful Planeswalker on the battlefield that will draw cards.
While Sin Prodder is a neat reverse Dark Confidant where the opponent loses the life, Sorin, Grim Nemesis is too, and is likely the better of the two. I expect Sorin, Grim Nemesis to dominate midrange mirrors. As long as he comes down after Chandra, Flamecaller he can even kill her in a fight too!
Most people discussing Arlinn Kord in a midrange Planeswalker deck, trying to play her for value. This will be one of the places Arlinn Kord gets used, but I think her most straightforward application is in a red and green wolf tribal deck that utilizes Silverfur Partisan, Pack Guardian, Howlpack Resurgence, and various werewolves. Werewolf tribal was underpowered in Innistrad, but Huntmaster of the Fells saw play anyway. Therefore people see Arlinn Kord the same way. I have faith that this time, the wolves are good enough and that their leader, Arlinn Kord, will guide them to tournament respectability!
The state of the Shadows over Innistrad tribes is as follows: Spirits lack support for Rattlechains, humans are just treading water, wolves are a question mark, zombies appear to have enough, but vampires definitely have enough support and incentive. Olivia, Mobilized for War is a super all-star that incentivizes a red/black aggro deck all by herself. Once you're in red/black, the cheap vampire synergies and madness mechanic are the best available options. Therefore, the Vampire tribal deck naturally rallies behind Olivia, Mobilized for War. Cards like Asylum Visitor, Heir of Falkenrath, and Falkenrath Gorger make this tribe a serious threat to contend with. As powerful as Olivia, Mobilized for War is, I wouldn't be surprised if she randomly shows up in midrange decks or even a Collected Company deck just for value. Did I mention Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is a vampire?
Platinum pro Brad Nelson called Archangel Avacyn "the new Bonfire of the Damned" in the sense that when she transforms she deals damage to the opponent and all their creatures. Also if you have another Archangel Avacyn in hand, you can play it on upkeep with the ability on the stack to make all your own creatures indestructible. You also get to keep both angels since they have different names! Some decks will prefer Dragonlord Ojutai, others will prefer Secure the Wastes, and still others may prefer Sigarda, Heron's Grace or a Planeswalker like Ob Nixilis Reignited. Nevertheless, no other card in the set will change the play patterns or dictate what removal spells need to be played more than Archangel Avacyn. She's a great curve topper in aggro decks, fights well in midrange decks, and even has utility in control decks as a win condition that threatens to wrath the opponent's team. If she doesn't see heavy play in Standard, it will be because she redefined the parameters of the format. In other words, it will be because she demands Languish, Grasp of Darkness, Stasis Snare, and Anguished Unmaking as the staple removal spells of the format just to keep her in check.