Battle for Zendikar is on the horizon and the Floodgate of new card spoilers has been opened. There is a lot of speculation on what's to come, but today I will try to focus on what we know as fact. New cards will have a major impact on Standard and I'll discuss what some spoiled cards mean for the format, but before we decide what cards to add to our decks, we need to identify what stays, what is leaving, and what holes have been created. New cards may fill the void, but in some cases the answer may already exist, and the rotation has given the card room to shine. Today I'll share my practical approach to exploring the new format.
I'LL START WITH SIEGE RHINO.
My first place to start exploring the new Standard is with Siege Rhino, specifically in Abzan Aggro. Khans of Tarkir block was very powerful and held most slots in the deck, so the majority of the archetype remains after rotation. Abzan Aggro is proactive and doesn't necessarily require a specific metagame to thrive, because it's a fundamentally sound Magic deck in a vacuum. It's the exact sort of strategy I look towards in a new format. Furthermore, because Abzan Aggro is historically strong against Red Deck Wins (RDW), which is almost surely to be the most popular archetype in the early days of the new metagame, it is an especially attractive option.
Fleecemane Lion is lost to Theros block, but it can be replaced by Warden of the First Tree. It's functionally similar in the early game, and both scale upwards into the late game. Warden of the First Tree is actually more aggressive, because cast on turn one it can attack for three damage on turn two, something Fleecemane Lion could not claim to do. It is a less mana efficient creature, but the flexibility of the cost mostly makes up for this fact.
Heir of the Wilds has a lot of merit in the Fleecemane Lion slot, because it is more mana efficient than Warden of the First Tree, and with Deathtouch it has a more functional board presence in the early game. While Heir of the Wilds should be tested, I do think Warden of the First Tree wins out. Many games go long, and Warden of the First Tree shines in these scenarios because it can grow into an enormous threat. As a one-mana play, Warden of the First Tree has various attributes that no two-mana play can claim, specifically its strength against edict effects like Foul Tongue Invocation and Self-Inflicted Wound. It also enables aggressive turn one one-drop into turn two two-drop lines the deck would not be capable of otherwise, which is especially notable now that the deck loses Thoughtseize as a one mana play. In terms of tempo, the one mana creature is much stronger against Wild Slash than a two mana creature, and a 1/1 Warden of the First Tree can trade with some opposing one-mana creatures and even some two-mana creatures. Warden of the First Tree as an instant-speed mana sink combines well with this deck's many other end-of-turn options like Hangarback Walker's activated ability, Den Protector's megamorph, Dromoka's Command, and Abzan Charm.
Like Fleecemane Lion, Hero's Downfall is also lost to Theros block, but there is currently no suitable replacement in Standard. Battle for Zendikar, however, offers a new option that will make the transition very seamless: Ruinous Path.
Like Hero's Downfall before it, Ruinous Path also costs 1BB and it destroys target creature or planeswalker. It's effortlessly incorporated into Abzan Aggro's manabase and strategy as a new tool for a new world. The card gives up flexibility by becoming a sorcery - a major cost to be sure - but we don't have a choice in the matter if we want to maintain removal with the same scope and power level as Hero's Downfall. Ruinous Path does offer something in return, however, in the form of the new awaken ability. This option turns Ruinous Path into a 5BB removal spell that also turns a land into a 4/4 creature. The main mode of this card remains a 1BB removal spell, but in longer games it transforms into a card advantage and tempo generating spell that will quickly Turn the Tides of the battlefield. It's very nice with Den Protector, which can return to hand for reuse a Ruinous Path cast at face value earlier in the game.
Abzan Aggro is generally trying to play a short game, and it is in the longest games against control decks where it finds itself most disadvantaged in the face of their superior card advantage and power level. Ruinous Path is functionally Hero's Downfall most of the time, but in these unfavorable late-game situations it provides the deck with a way to generate a significant advantage. For Abzan Aggro, the value of awaken is realized in the exact game situations where it is most in need of help which is among the most valuable traits a Magic card can possess. Ruinous Path fills a strategic hole in the Abzan Aggro archetype by making the game plan more robust over a longer timeframe, and it makes the deck that much more difficult to beat.
Without Elspeth, Sun's Champion and Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver in the format, it is possible that the new Standard format will not be as planeswalker heavy as the last. If the value of destroying a planeswalker is minimal, and the format is highly aggressive, then Ruinous Path will prove too clunky compared to more efficient removal options like Ultimate Price, Valorous Stance, or even Silkwrap. I highly suspect this is not the case, and will assume not until the format proves otherwise.
The next place to update Abzan Aggro with Battle for Zendikar is the manabase. The scrylands Temple of Malady and Temple of Silence are gone, which leaves a major void in the deck, one that could be easily replaced by gainlands like Blossoming Sands, but not ideally. Luckily, Battle for Zendikar has already provided glimpse of the replacements it shall provide, if Lumbering Falls is any indication of what is to come. This enemy-colored manland likely herald's the printing of a cycle of enemy-colored manlands, which means a BG and a BW land are in our near future: perfect replacements to the scrylands of the same colors. It's not clear what creatures they will yield, but they are likely very playable, and they will be an easy inclusion into this archetype. For the sake of deckbuilding today I will assume they are great and an easy four inclusion, which leaves our decklist as:
Losing scrylands is going to hurt the consistency of any three-color deck, but not enough to make the strategy poor. Aggressive decks like Abzan Aggro are also less affected than controlling decks like Abzan Control because they are less reliant on specific cards in specific situations. With manlands providing extra value from lands, it's possible the archetype should simply move towards 27 or even 28 lands, which will help to provide more consistent access to colors. When the three-color Jund deck was in Standard, it contained four or more manlands and regularly played 27 lands, so there is precedent. Keep in mind that the new scry mulligan rule will do a small part in adding consistency to the archetype. Assuming the manlands do not materialize, the gainlands, more painlands, and perhaps some number of new dual lands are suitable replacements.
The other home of Siege Rhino is Abzan Control. With the loss of Thoughtseize as a critical component in its flexible disruption suite and the loss of Elspeth, Sun's Champion as its top-end trump, Abzan Control will have to reinvent itself for the new environment. While this archetype does not seamlessly transition to the new format, as the top archetype of the current format it's important we explore it, because in some form it's very likely to be among the top decks after rotation.
My first thought was to get proactive with Hangarback Walker, which has already proven itself in the full range of Abzan strategies. Thoughtseize and Hangarback Walker could not be any more different in function; they share the similarity of being strong against nearly every potential opponent. Hangarback Walker isn't a swingy, powerful finisher like Elspeth, Sun's Champion, but it offers incremental advantage and inevitability nonetheless.
The loss of Courser of Kruphix cannot be easily reconciled, but Nissa, Vastwood Seer will certainly step up to the plate and help Abzan Control hit its land drops. Current iterations of the archetype play two copies, but in the future three will be the norm, and I would not be surprised to see people play all four.
Elspeth, Sun's Champion was unparalleled in its ability to dominate midrange strategies and it will be missed by Abzan Control. Replacement finishers are unlikely to be as powerful, but that doesn't mean there aren't good options. Going higher on the curve to Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is great, but it's simply too slow to be relied upon. Dragonlord Dromoka has seen success in the archetype as recently as the World Championship, and it's just as dominant as Elspeth, Sun's Champion against some strategies, even more so against Red Deck Wins, so it could step up to the plate.
Rather than being forced to play something mediocre, Abzan Control can shift towards a more agile and aggressive plan with cheaper spells. With the awaken cards Ruinous Path and Planar Outburst, the deck has access to a large dose of extra finishing power without having to play dedicated finishing cards to win the game. To fill in the extra space left behind by Elspeth, Sun's Champion, Battle for Zendikar has already provided some promising options in Ob Nixilis Reignited and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. These planeswalkers could be exactly what Abzan Control is looking for to shore up its game plan.
Ob Nixilis Reignited draws comparison to Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker, but Ob Nixilis is going to command significantly more Standard play. The -3 ability destroying any creature is an order of magnitude better than dealing four damage to a creature, and in a world of Siege Rhino, it's the difference between being another forgotten planeswalker and a format staple. The ability to come down after Siege Rhino on curve makes it both excellent removal for opposing Siege Rhino and a potent follow-up to one's own. The +1 card drawing ability is not as flashy as attacking with a 4/4 flying creature, but it's actually more valuable in the decks that would want to play Ob Nixilis Reignited, like Abzan Control. While the deck can be aggressive, it would generally rather play the long game and bury the l opponent with its superior forces, and the incremental advantage gained by drawing an extra card each turn is exactly coordinated with that plan. The ultimate ability will not win the game quickly, but will inevitably, and unlike the ultimate of Elspeth, Sun's Champion, it doesn't have any reliance on creatures.
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar reminds me of planeswalkers Xenagos, the Reveler and Garruk Relentless, but in terms of Abzan it is best compared to Sorin, Solemn Visitor. This card has seen play in Abzan throughout its time in Standard, but Gideon, Ally of Zendikar may be much better in the archetype. For one, its stream of 2/2 tokens does not run out. For two, while the +1 ability of Sorin, Solemn Visitor is useful, Gideon's +1 ability reliably generates more power without the help of any other creatures. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar has a lot of potential in Abzan Control as a way to generate board presence and accrue an incremental advantage.
That leaves the decklist as:
What do your post-rotation Battle for Zendikar Standard Siege Rhino decks look like? What other archetypes are you working on? Turn to the comments with any idea or questions!