Zendikar Rising preview season is upon us. New cards, new mechanics, new decks. With Zendikar Rising also comes my favorite part of Standard: rotation. Goodbye Nissa, Who Shakes the World, goodbye shock lands, goodbye Aether Gust (and good riddance).
Rotation always causes a drastic shift in Standard, but what sticks around remains to shape the format. Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath. Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. Embercleave. There are cards so powerful they continue to warp the format, even when supporting cards leave. These pillars stand tall as rotation causes Standard to crumble around them, and they're the foundation new decks will be built around.
For ease of reading, I've grouped these pillars together into four categories: removal, engines/threats, aggression, and potential combos. The first three categories shape the format at a base level. Removal dictates what threats are good, engines and threats dictate the endgame, and aggression dictates how greedy you're allowed to get. The final category, potential combos, represent payoffs that can completely dominate the format if they get their missing pieces. While many will fail, it only takes one successful combo to break the format in half.
The new age Doom Blade. This is the bread and butter two-mana removal spell that kills most creatures, especially as many of the creatures it failed to remove rotate. Creatures that get counters will be extra valuable, and creatures that don't will need to have either resiliency or immediate impact.
Eliminate doesn't scale later into the game like Heartless Act, but Eliminate can also target planeswalkers. While many cheap planeswalkers rotate, Basri Ket, The Royal Scions and the already-previewed Jace, Mirror Mage are all powerful targets. Four mana will be a tipping point for creatures and planeswalkers in the upcoming format.
Bonecrusher Giant is a card whose work is done for it in the current format. Sultai Ramp has pushed out small, cheap creatures, but as rotation hits it's important to remember the other reason not to play 2-toughness creatures. Two-drops and three-drops that die to Stomp are going to need to prove themselves in order to see play in the new format.
Shatter the Sky is the unconditional sweeper surviving rotation. Creature decks will need a plan against Shatter the Sky—be that a small number of larger creatures or a combination of haste and direct damage. The downside isn't as large as it seems, and control decks will play either Shatter the Sky or Extinction Event, unless Zendikar Rising brings us a new sweeper to compete.
Where Shatter the Sky is unconditional, Extinction Event is more powerful. Exiling is much more powerful than destroying, especially against cards like Selfless Savior, Seasoned Hallowblade and Fight as One. Extinction Event will lose its primary home as much of Sultai Ramp rotates, but I'm sure we'll be seeing it plenty more.
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is the biggest, baddest sweeper of them all. At eight mana, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon clears essentially the entire board, and there are plenty of tools to accelerate into eight mana well ahead of schedule. Ugin, the Spirit Dragon threatens any synergy strategy relying on a critical mass of permanents on the board. There are going to be plenty of flashy new cards, but Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is still a limiter on the endgames of the new format.
Let's not kid anyone. Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath is one of the most powerful cards in the history of Magic. There will be an Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath deck, and it will limit the game plans that can be successful. You'll still be playing with and against Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath until it leaves the format. Exile effects and graveyard hate is at a premium, especially when tacked on to already desirable cards.
Temur Clover is a block-constructed deck that only really loses lands. Edgewall Innkeeper and Lucky Clover are still a powerful set of engines that can be used in a variety of colors, and their relative power goes up as the card pool shrinks. In five-set Standard some decks will be missing pieces, but dedicated Adventures decks will have everything they need.
While the dedicated flash core rotates out for the most part, Sea-Dasher Octopus is still a powerful and flexible Ophidian variant. Cheap ways to draw a lot of cards are always powerful, and I would not sleep on Sea-Dasher Octopus.
Elder Gargaroth took a while for people to pick up, but after some bans it's apparent how powerful it is. "The green Baneslayer Angel" is an understatement, honestly. Card draw, board presence and life gain on a sturdy body is exactly what midrange decks want and aggro decks hate. Elder Gargaroth is going to shape the format like Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath does, demanding answers in sideboard games, because almost no deck can afford to ignore it.
Dream Trawler saw quite a bit of play initially, invalidating a lot of traditional midrange decks. The big reason Dream Trawler hasn't seen much play since is that traditional midrange decks were forced out of the format. Temur Reclamation, Jund Sacrifice, Jeskai Lukka. None of these decks particularly cared about a single large flier.
The other big reason that Dream Trawler suffered was a Nissa, Who Shakes the World-powered Hydroid Krasis just outclassed Dream Trawler, offering more cards and a bigger body that didn't need to resolve. With rotation I expect Dream Trawler to be a point of frustration for traditional aggro and midrange decks.
Another block-constructed deck, the Cycling deck is incredibly linear, but still powerful. Mono-Red Aggro is always everyone's go-to in a brand new format, but I think Cycling is just as good as Mono-Red is at punishing stumbles, if not better. Anyone without adequate removal will get completely demolished by Flourishing Fox and Zenith Flare.
Speaking of Mono-Red Aggro, Torbran, Thane of Red Fell survives rotation alongside its partner in crime Anax, Hardened in the Forge. Some of the red early creatures rotate, but Bonecrusher Giant, Fervent Champion, Rimrock Knight and Robber of the Rich all stick around. With a smaller card pool and worse mana, the consistency of mono-colored strategies is a compelling reason to play them, and Torbran, Thane of Red Fell is quite the payoff.
The other red payoff, Embercleave is still a powerful and punishing card, and gives red aggressive decks an incredible way to slam the door on opponents. Keep an eye out for cheap creatures with high power, especially one-drops. If there's ever a deck that can consistently equip an Embercleave on something bigger than a 1/1 on turn three, it will be absolutely terrifying.
Look for any Human in Zendikar Rising that costs more than three mana. Winota, Joiner of Forces cheating in even reasonable cards is incredibly powerful, let alone cards like Agent of Treachery. If there are expensive Humans in Zendikar, it's worth working with Winota, Joiner of Forces to put them into play.
The other thing to look for with Winota, Joiner of Forces is token generators. Raise the Alarm rotates, but Zendikar usually has non-Human tribes like Goblins, Merfolk and Elves. Any way to put two non-Humans into play for less than four mana is excellent. Winota, Joiner of Forces will force decks to either have quick answers, or the ability to clear the board.
Haste. Stats. Text lines. Questing Beast has all three, and is a natural foil to decks built around planeswalkers and removal. "Big Green Threats on Curve" is often a recipe for success, and little of Mono-Green Aggro rotates. Questing Beast and company should be on your radar as you assess the new cards.
Woe Strider sticks around, and both Luminous Broodmoth and Nightmare Shepherd are capable of some truly powerful sequences, given the right fodder. While Prime Speaker Vannifar rotates, it's still possible to put together sacrifice decks that generate a lot of advantage or end the game with direct damage. Keep an eye out for payoffs for these cards: creatures with enters-the-battlefield abilities, permanents with death triggers, and tutor effects.
Look, there are always token generators. These are two of the most powerful Polymorph effects we've ever seen. Zendikar is a plane focused on lands and Elves, often home to some truly gigantic and game-ending threats. Cheating them into play on turn four or five is ludicrous. If we get any big Eldrazi, Titans, or Avenger of Zendikar-type creatures, it is absolutely worth building around Transmogrify and Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast.
Emergent Ultimatum saw some play in Standard already, and is a powerful (if expensive) payoff. This requires multiple expensive, powerful, multicolor cards to work properly, but it's worth keeping in the back of your mind while cards are previewed.
Zendikar has two modes: really big, and really fast. If we get one of the really fast Zendikar sets, Song of Creation is possibly the most powerful card in Standard. Any Llanowar Elves-type accelerant means Song of Creation comes online early, and future mana dorks refill your hand. Escape and Adventure are both mechanics that play great with Song of Creation, and Thassa's Oracle survives rotation as well. The real gift to this card is that Aether Gust rotates.
If this is a "really big" Zendikar set, Genesis Ultimatum is where the payoff is. Much like Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast and Transmogrify, Genesis Ultimatum benefits from big, expensive endgame threats. Unlike Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast and Transmogrify, though, Genesis Ultimatum allows you to play accelerants to cast those threats fairly, and can put expensive noncreature permanents into play. Lotus Cobra was previewed yesterday, which makes Genesis Ultimatum absolutely terrifying by allowing Genesis Ultimatum to be cast very early and making it easy to chain Ultimatums together.
As always, I'm excited for new cards, new mechanics, and new decks! As we get into Zendikar Rising preview season, keep an eye on my Twitter for decklists, card reviews, and analysis on the upcoming formats. Preview season is my favorite time of the year—look forward to next week's article where I'll be talking all about the new cards. Until then, stay safe and take care of each other.