It's been too long, old friend.
It feels like it has been ages since Mantis Rider was a true top-tier contender in Standard. It saw a little bit of play in the early versions of Jeskai Black after the release of Battle for Zendikar, but as the format progressed, Mantis Rider was slowly phased out in favor of other victory conditions like Monastery Mentor and Painful Truths. As someone who loves Mantis Rider but also loves competing, I had sadly resigned myself to letting my Mantis Riders spend their last few weeks of Standard legality rotting away in a box. And then, everything changed.
When I say everything changed, I mean slight metagame shifts occurred that make Mantis Rider an attractive option once again. But that's way less dramatic. Specifically, the rise of Four-Color Rally as the deck to beat of Standard has greatly increased the tournament viability of Mantis Rider. Simply put, Rally is weak to flying, and Mantis Rider flies. Flying is better right now than it has been in a while, and recent results bear that out (the increase in popularity and success of Red-Black Dragons is strong evidence). This is great news for Mantis Rider and Mantis Rider aficionados (like myself) alike.
Rally is a really hard deck to beat on the ground. We've started to come around to the realization that, despite being a deck of weak low converted mana cost, low impact creatures, Rally still wins the long game against 'normal' decks (read: everything outside of ramp strategies). The longer the game goes, the more creatures Rally has access to, whether in its graveyard or its battlefield. As such, significant pressure is a necessary component of winning the Rally matchup. But the Rally deck has access to a near infinite stream of chump blockers on the ground — and sometimes allowing them to lose a creature in combat will benefit them, not hurt them. In reality, beating Rally on the ground involves a combination of trample and exile effects. So if you're not playing Abzan Aggro, it's probably not going to happen. Enter Mantis Rider.
So, maybe I've convinced you that the time is right to be playing Mantis Rider. Maybe you, like me, didn't really need all that much convincing to begin with. Either way, four of 75 cards for your next deck are now locked in — what are you supposed to with the other 71 slots? I found myself facing this exact conundrum a week ago as I started to prepare for a couple local tournaments. Today I will share the paths I walked down, what worked and what didn't, and the pros and cons of each of the various options available to you as you live the Mantis Rider life.
The natural first step in thinking about what cards to surround our beloved Mantis Riders with is to draw inspiration from the decks that it had been previously played in during this Standard format. And when it comes to inspiration, what better source is there than the Pro Tour? Take a look at this list that reached the elimination rounds of Pro Tour: Battle for Zendikar in the hands of two different pilots (Jon Finkel and Owen Turtenwald):
Jeskai Black was the terror of Standard for a solid month or so after the Pro Tour and although it eventually dropped the Mantis Riders, now that Mantis Rider is good again it makes perfect sense to just go back to a build of Jeskai Black like this one. The problem with that idea is that the Jeskai Black deck did not use Mantis Rider for the same reasons that make it good right now; the aggressive strengths that have me wanting to play Mantis Rider in current Standard are not close to maximized in a build like this. The Jeskai Black deck was a control deck built around the idea of landing an effective and efficient single threat and then devoting all resources to protecting it and recurring it. There was no emphasis in this deck towards ending the game quickly — the idea was to control the game while making constant progress towards the win, no matter how slow the rate of that progress was. We want to use Mantis Rider as a way to put Rally decks under the gun, and to accomplish that we're going to need to support Mantis Rider's aggressive tendencies, not repress them. As such, I moved away from Jeskai Black in my deliberations.
Now we're talking. Here's a deck that is absolutely focused on an aggressive game plan — perfect! There's still some elements of this list that I believe need updating to reflect the current landscape of Standard, but this is a fantastic starting point. I don't like that Mantis Rider is essentially the only instance of the keyword flying in this deck — since I believe that flying is really good at the moment, it makes a lot of sense to include more flying than just Mantis Rider. In a somewhat counterintuitive stance, I don't like Hangarback Walker right now. Sure, the tokens fly, but Hangarback Walker cannot be fairly characterized as an aggressive card. It gives the deck a solid defensive roadblock against decks with an aggressive ground game, but those aren't the decks I'm worried about. I also am not in love with Seeker of the Way. Medium sized ground-bound attackers are just not where I want to be.
Well, not quite yet. Despite feeling new again right now in the present climate, Mantis Rider has been around in Standard for a while. But even old school flavors can benefit from some of the new Oath of the Gatewatch spice. I identified three new cards as strong candidates to pair with Mantis Rider: Reflector Mage, Chandra, Flamecaller, and Wandering Fumarole.
Many of you are probably not surprised to hear me mention Reflector Mage. After all, it's beginning to look like the best card for Standard to come out of Oath of the Gatewatch. The Mage feels like a natural inclusion with Mantis Rider. Sure, Reflector Mage doesn't fly and isn't very aggressive, but he is an incredibly strong tempo card poised to help us make the most of the tempo game of Mantis Rider. After all, the original home for Mantis Rider back in the day was Jeskai Tempo. The downside of Reflector Mage is that he is fairly miserable against the deck we are ostensibly gunning for, Four-Color Rally. That being said, I believe he does enough to shore up our matchups against the rest of the field that he is worth playing.
Wandering Fumarole is the creature-land I've been craving since Mutavault rotated. One of my favorite roles that creature-lands fill is that of pressuring Planeswalkers. Mutavault was excellent at this, as the cost to animate was so low. None of the Battle for Zendikar creature lands fulfills this function particularly well, as the activation cost to power ratio is just too high. Wandering Fumarole, on the other hand, is excellent at this. Four power matches up incredibly well against the loyalties of the current Planeswalkers in Standard. The four mana activation cost is high, but worth it. Mantis Rider is also phenomenal at dealing with pesky Planeswalkers, meaning that a deck with both of these cards will often find itself strategically advantaged against any deck leaning on its Planeswalkers, which is kind of a nice signing bonus. I prefer Wandering Fumarole to Needle Spires simply because Wandering Fumarole isn't weak to Wild Slash or Fiery Impulse, a huge weakness of Needle Spires. Overall, Wandering Fumarole is a slam dunk inclusion for the deck.
Chandra, Flamecaller, on the other hand, is a little less perfect. At first glance, she seems like she could be pretty good. Her plus ability is fittingly aggressive, although not evasive in a way that combines well with Mantis Rider. Her zero ability does lend itself to helping us cycle away the situational cards that Jeskai tends to run in the situations where they are less than ideal, and her 'ultimate' sweeper ability can help buy time when we are behind (although it is hard to minus her for a relevant amount that doesn't also kill our Mantis Riders). I played her last weekend because the tournaments I was playing were relatively low-stakes and I wanted to see what I could learn, but I don't think I will be playing her going forward. In the end, she doesn't mesh with our strategy, but we are trying to include her on the theory that her overall power level is high enough to justify not being a perfect complement to the rest of our deck. The truth is that Chandra, Flamecaller is just not quite at that level.
After a weekend of tournament play with this deck, here is the list I settled on (minor tweaks away from the list I played on Sunday):
This deck impressed me. I began the weekend part-believing that Mantis Rider wasn't actually well-positioned, that I just wanted it to be and was twisting logic in that direction as I had so many times before. By the end of my tournaments I had put those doubts to rest completely. Despite a mana base that played so poorly that it was clear that I had either completely misbuilt it or got fairly unlucky often, the deck played well. I built the deck with reasoning and rationale predicated on the idea that beating Rally was vital. The strength of the deck against the rest of the field took me by surprise. Abzan Aggro was by far my worst matchup (as it has historically been for Jeskai) but it was far from unwinnable and Reflector Mage was fantastic everywhere.
The weird thing, however, was that the deck did not end up being all that great against Four-Color Rally. Mantis Rider was, as predicted, incredible, and landing it on turn three with any follow-up at all was generally good enough to win the game. But you don't always have Mantis Rider on three, and the games where I didn't felt like a real struggle. I blame too many concessions in my list to beating the field, notably Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is an absurdly powerful card, but he is close to a blank against Rally. Neither a steady stream of 2/2s or a 5/5 attacker without trample are very good in that matchup, and the flexibility of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar isn't enough to make him any better than the sum of his parts in this case. Reflector Mage is another card that is very good against the field and fairly bad against Rally. If I had to choose one of these cards to part ways with, it would absolutely be Gideon, Ally of Zendikar — the strain he creates on the mana base is sizeable and the raw power we need can be found in other places.
What would we do without Gideon, Ally of Zendikar? Maybe something like this:
This Jeskai Black deck is the same as the previously shared Pro Tour: Battle for Zendikar Jeskai Black list in name only. Gone are the control elements that I argued against earlier, leaving a single-mindedly aggressive deck very similar to the lists I played this last weekend despite having a fourth color. Without Gideon, Ally of Zendikar contorting the mana base there's no need to avoid splashing black. The black part of Jeskai Black becomes essentially free and we can improve our removal from the situational Valorous Stance and Roast to the excellent Crackling Doom. Crackling Doom also gives us some incremental damage while clearing a path, the combination of which may make a ground offensive better and thus Seeker of the Way playable. I'm still not sold on Seeker of the Way, but it certainly worked for Andrew Tenjum at the Open.
For me, the Gideon, Ally of Zendikar question is not fully resolved yet. If you think Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is good right now, I highly recommend playing a list like the pure Jeskai list I shared earlier. If you don't like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar right now, exploring the potential of a black splash is a great idea. For myself, I intend to pursue both routes simultaneously, seeing if the pure Jeskai list can be further tuned and attempting to make the Jeskai Black list more flying-centric. I strongly suspect that in the last ten or so weeks of Mantis Rider's legality in Standard, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar will alternate between boon and burden week-to-week: sometimes correct to play and sometimes correct to avoid.
Whatever your plan, I hope your adventures with Mantis Rider cause your win rate to soar as high as the Mantis Rider himself.
Thanks for reading,