Zendikar Rising spoiler season is in full swing, and this imminent arrival of new cards also means the departure of the old. Standard rotation will completely rewrite the reality of the metagame by removing many existing staples, and with that, open space for new ones.
Every fall, cards that were previously non-factors in Standard have the potential to become major players, often in conjunction with new cards and mechanics that change their fortunes. Sorting this all out is much of the challenge—and fun—of building post-rotation decks.
A key example is landfall, which will bring to the forefront anything that has to do with putting lands in play.
The Party mechanic, found across every color, specifically mentions four creature types—Cleric, Rogue, Warrior, and Wizard—so any creature bearing these types from previous sets now deserves a second look. The spoilers show that each of these creature types has also received new tools that could support tribal decks dedicated to just one of them, which opens up even further applications for these existing cards.
Add in more minor themes, including +1/+1 counters on creatures and Equipment synergies on Boros-color gold cards, and there's a ton to consider.
To gain some insight into what cards might now be more important, I've taken a deep delve into the previous sets in Standard: Throne of Eldraine, Theros Beyond Death, Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths and Core Set 2021. Beyond my own pouring over the old card lists and new spoilers searching for connections, I've also looked for clues wherever available. One great resource is the decklists others are posting and conversations they are having on social media.
When a certain, previously unimportant card keeps popping up, there's a good chance it's going to be a real player. I've even taken a look at the movement of card prices, which is a way to gauge the sentiments of the wider Magic Standard-playing community as a whole, or at least that of some very confident speculators.
I've focused my efforts on highlighting the most unknown and unused cards, which accordingly have the most to gain in terms of utility and potentially even price, but there are some important already playable cards that will become even better.
The prime example is Fabled Passage, which was already a fantastic mana fixer, but is now the single best enabler for every variety of landfall card across all colors. In a world without true fetch lands, Fabled Passage will be everywhere, and it was a smart move by Wizards to print it twice in the past year, putting it in the hands of players.
Rotation has also increased the importance of the five Ikoria Triomes. With the departure of shock lands, these tri-lands will need to do more heavy lifting in terms of mana fixing. So too will the cycle of Temple scry lands, but the Triomes are unique in Standard in that they carry with them an actual basic land type. This makes them a more direct replacement for shock lands in their synergy with cards that care about such things, specifically the Throne of Eldraine utility land cycle including Castle Ardenvale and Castle Locthwain.
Landfall is the iconic mechanic of the Zendikar plane. Its return in Zendikar Rising in every color, and including some powerful cards like the reprint of Lotus Cobra, will bring it to the forefront of Standard. Putting extra lands into play with cards like Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath has already been an important aspect of the metagame before rotation, but it's only going to become more so.
One card I have my eye on is Solemn Simulacrum, which will be a perfect way to dig for lands while generating plenty of extra value. The card was a major staple during its Standard run in Mirrodin, and while it saw relatively minor play during its M12 run, the M21 reprint, coinciding with landfall and the realities of the current metagame with cards like Ugin, the Spirit Dragon to ramp to, should lead to great things for the card over the next year.
Another M21 reprint of note is Azusa, Lost but Seeking, which is among the most powerful tools available for putting extra lands into play for triggering landfall. It didn't seem to matter at all in Standard before, but its inclusion in the set suddenly makes a lot of sense, and I expect we'll be seeing plenty of it after Zendikar Rising.
The biggest thing holding the card back is actually having lands in hand to play, since it doesn't produce any real value of its own. That's why its best use historically has been with bounce lands in Modern, but I foresee it'll be particularly strong with the new double-faced modal cards that can be played as a land. These will enable decks to play an extraordinarily high land count and get full use out of Azusa, Lost but Seeking, enabling cards like the new Turntimber Symbiosis to be reliably played as early as turn four.
While not quite as explosive as Azusa, Lost but Seeking, Dryad of the Ilysian Grove comes with its own ability to play extra lands. In exchange, it gains the utility of a robust body twice the size, and the important addition of being a polychromatic color fixer. It will perform well in landfall decks that stretch their colors, perhaps with Omnath, Locus of Creation, where it will also enable extra land drops to unlock the full power of its landfall.
Party is one of the more unique mechanics conceived in Magic, and it'll be interesting to see how it develops for constructed purposes. It's quite demanding in its requirements, but is also designed to work incrementally as opposed to all-or-nothing. Each additional member of the party provides a benefit before unlocking more value if the full party is reached, like in the case of what seems to be the most sure-fire party Standard staple: Archpriest of Iona.
Decks will have to be carefully constructed with a balance of creatures across the four party types to make the most of the mechanic. That said, one card in particular throws this out the window by potentially enabling it almost single-handedly.
With the ability to generate tokens in each of Cleric, Rogue, and Warrior, Outlaws' Merriment goes a long way toward enabling party. It does leave out Wizard, and the randomness element means it can't be completely counted on to do the job, but it's certainly a great tool for any deck using the mechanic. It also fits well alongside the creature-based mechanic's inherent aggressive slant, and will fit into aggro decks making good use of the ability to continuously generate tokens.
The necessity of playing a mix of creatures to enable party also highlights individual cards that stand out as among the best options in their type. A good example is Robber of the Rich, which is an aggressive and powerful Rogue on curve after a card like Archpriest of Iona in Boros or in Rakdos before Zagras, Thief of Heartbeats—another one of the most promising party cards.
Rankle, Master of Pranks, another powerful individual Rogue, happens to curve well into Zagras, Thief of Heartbeats, and should see a significant increase in play and importance.
Rogues are especially interesting because they have received some tribal support, like the lord Soaring Thought-Thief and the powerful Zareth San, the Trickster. The cards highlight the tribe's focus as a mill strategy, not necessarily to kill the opponent outright, but to enable and power up their cards. It's a theme started in M21 with Thieves' Guild Enforcer, which brings utility as a powerful threat that's part payoff and part enabler. It will certainly be a key component of any competitive Rogue tribal deck that may make it to Standard. Add in its potential as a cheap party member, and you have a card that gets a lot better after Zendikar Rising.
Party brings attention to Clerics, which has also received some dedicated tribal support and looks especially viable as a competitive option. Orah, Skyclave Hierophant and Cleric of Life's Bond are two particularly powerful cards and meaningful payoffs for a Cleric tribal deck, and they bring to light some previous Clerics that haven't received much attention.
Vito, Thorn of Dusk Rose fits right into the Cleric theme of life gain and life loss. Its passive ability is a great payoff for the lifegain in the tribe, while its activated ability can be a crushing game-ending blow.
Speaker of the Heavens is another payoff for a Cleric deck filled with life gain, while also helping to enable it as a lifelink creature itself. It's also a cheap Cleric to fill a party, which could have applications in decks like Boros or Azorius with Linvala, Shield of Sea Gate and Spoils of Adventure, which also helps enable its ability.
Probably the most individually powerful existing Cleric is Mangara, the Diplomat, which offers multiple useful abilities and a solid body. It's a great option both for party decks looking for a good Cleric and potentially for dedicated tribal decks, so it's fortunes have definitely improved.
Wizards is a unique tribe—it cares more about spells than actual creatures. This is highlighted by its biggest new addition Kaza, Roil Chaser, which acts as a cost reducer for spells. It's potent in its role as essentially mana acceleration in colors that don't typically get it. Master of Winds, which generates card advantage with its draw two loot ability, and its own Wizard synergy, is further incentive to stay tribal. Some of the most appealing cards in the set also happen to be Wizards, like Sea Gate Stormcaller and Magmatic Channeler.
All of these new cards point to an increase in the utility of Standard's previous Wizards, with Rielle, the Everwise standing out as a huge winner. It not only meshes well with the tribe's spell theme, but offers very juicy interactions with Master of Winds and especially Magmatic Channeler, which can trigger it to draw extra cards each turn.
Barrin, Tolarian Archmage is another option for tribal decks, but it really stands out as one of the most individually powerful Wizards for blue party decks.
Zendikar Rising spoilers include quite a number of creatures that care about +1/+1 counters, and it seems to be an important subtheme of the set. One example is Grakmaw, Skyclave Ravager, which is a strong Magic card on its own, as well as having strong synergy alongside other +1/+1 counters cards. With such strong support, some sort of +1/+1 counters deck looks inevitable, so anything prior that deals with them is going to be relevant.
Hardened Scales or Winding Constrictor would have been incredible in this format alongside Grakmaw, Skyclave Ravager, but Conclave Mentor will do the job just as well in an Abzan deck.
It wasn't a card I ever looked twice at previously, but when looking at price movements I came across Steelbane Hydra, which stands out as a strong option for +1/+1 counter decks. It's not super efficient, but it is potentially powerful and will work well in decks that can use its counters. Add in its utility as a Naturalize effect, and you have a card that might suddenly be a staple.
Zendikar Rising includes a variety of Equipment, as well as some payoff synergies for using them. Akiri, Fearless Voyager's ability to draw cards from Equipment is strong, especially combined with its ability to protect equipped creatures. Nahiri, Heir of Ancients is a unique planeswalker that'll be quite powerful in a deck with Equipment, which is necessary to make the most of all three of its abilities.
With Equipment now being more important, I want to highlight Shadowspear, which stands out as the most impressive of the Equipment currently available in Standard. It's a powerful card in its own right, good enough to see Pioneer play, and will be an efficient enabler for Equipment synergy. It's also notable as a source of life gain, which could be useful in Cleric decks, so its applications are numerous.
This past year has produced some of the best Magic cards ever printed, and led to some of the most powerful Standard decks in memory. Zendikar Rising looks to be a worthy follow-up that will only continue the trend. The double-faced modal cards that can be played as lands are a complete paradigm shift in Magic design and the way games will play out. I didn't find any specific ways to abuse them previously in Standard, like a card such as Meloku the Clouded Mirror will be able to do in Modern, but they're so good they really won't need help.