It's an awkward time to be writing an article. The Battle for Zendikar Prereleases are in two weeks, which means there's exactly one weekend left of this Standard format. I imagine the audience of people looking for last minute current Standard strategy is pretty small, so that seems like a poor topic choice. It is still early in the spoiler season, and the cards currently spoiled leave me with more questions than thoughts. So much of their playability depends on what the rest of the set looks like, and we just don't have enough information yet.
And frankly, I'm not quite done with Theros - Khans of Tarkir Standard. I feel like there's still so much left unsaid. I doubt that I would get bored of this Standard format if time froze and I had another year to play it as it currently is. Alas, that's rather unlikely to happen. So, to make the most of the time that I do have, today's article will be a hodgepodge of things I've been thinking but haven't found a good place to share yet. Since the format is almost over, the emphasis will be on what to remember / learn going forward into a bold new Standard.
Farewell, Bile Blight. I knew thee well
Before anything else, I have to give Bile Blight a proper farewell. Bile Blight is the reason I play Magic today. Throughout Return to Ravnica block I flirted with Magic, playing in spurts as my friends dragged me in again and quitting for stretches as finances and school drove me away. This pattern continued with the release of Theros, and in one of my 'on' spells I found myself grinding Monoblack Devotion on Magic Online. I became intimately familiar with the power of Pack Rat and incredibly frustrated with my inability to find a way to gain an edge in the mirror. I grappled with the Pack Rat problem for what felt like an eternity, going deep for solutions like Gaze of Granite, but ultimately finding nothing. When I saw Bile Blight in the spoiler for Born of the Gods something clicked inside me and engaged me in Magic like I had never been before.
Bile Blight has been a solid role-player throughout its time in Standard. It obviously played an important role in Return to Ravnica - Theros Standard as a way to punish players who chose to overcommit into a Pack Rat, but has continued to prove its worth in Theros - Khans of Tarkir Standard. When token-based strategies were well-positioned, Bile Blight was there to keep them in check. But the thing I appreciate most about Bile Blight is how it fights back against typical deckbuilding by punishing playing four-ofs. I have played decks where I felt forced to shave down to three copies of all my best threats post-board against Bile Blight decks because drawing two copies in a game and being terrified of committing the second felt awful. Bile Blight creates a kind of tension that no other card really does, and I will miss that. Wizards of the Coast really has been doing a great job of keeping Standard dynamic and interesting with cards like Bile Blight, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with in the future.
(Almost) There and Back Again
I feel like we as a community did a fairly poor job of evaluating the flip planeswalkers during Origins spoiler season. Not too surprising, as Magic is a very hard game and these new creature walkers were markedly different than anything we had ever seen. But for whatever reason, Nissa, Vastwood Seer and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy are way better than the collective conscious put them at. Nissa became a staple in Abzan Control (the unofficial 'best deck' of this Standard in its dying days) and Jace has seen four-of play across multiple archetypes -- and even a little cross-format play.
In retrospect, I think the paradigm we should have used to evaluate Nissa and Jace is something I refer to as "almost good enough + much more." Both Nissa, Vastwood Seer and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy have as their creature side cards that we have seen before -- Borderland Ranger and Merfolk Looter, respectively. In spoiler season these comparisons were in fact made, but generally to downplay how good Nissa and Jace were, as Borderland Ranger and Merfolk Looter were never strong Constructed playables. What we missed is that Ranger and Looter weren't quite good enough, no, but they were close. When you take a card that is almost good enough and add on to it a powerful upside, what you get is a very good card.
Hindsight is 20-20 and all, but I really hope to internalize this maxim and learn to apply it appropriately in the future. As an evaluation tool it's certainly a little narrow and thus the reward for internalizing it isn't sky high, but another tool for my toolbox is always something I am on the lookout for.
One of the quiet truths of this Standard format was that the scrylands were both incredibly important and incredibly difficult to utilize perfectly. The best players consistently gained a large edge simply through more effective utilization of their scrylands. My perception is that the majority of players use their scry effects mostly to fight Mana Shorts and flood, and maybe to dig to specific outs in perilous situations.
These common case scry uses are fairly obvious (hence why they are correctly used by most players). And yet, I routinely watch matches of great players in which they go into the tank longer for their scryland triggers than anything else. Often, the card they thought so long about will be something akin to their sixth land. When you play a temple and see a card you are very medium on, like a land when you have enough to operate but not so much that you can't use more, or a spell that's fine on the current board but nothing special, most players will shrug and arbitrarily make a decision (often to keep such a spell and ship such a land). Great players will tank, think turns ahead, and actually figure out where that dead average card belongs.
I think we will all be missing the scrylands when they are gone. They let us build decks greedier than we otherwise could have, and they certainly let us play greedier than we otherwise could have. Thankfully, the Vancouver mulligan comes into effect right when the scrylands leave, so our scry muscles will still be used often and won't atrophy in neglect.
The Theory of Best
You Thoughtseize your opponent, revealing a hand of removal and a lone Stormbreath Dragon. Stormbreath Dragon is the best card in the matchup against you, but you have an Ultimate Price all ready for it, so you take one of the removal spells since you will have to fight through them all eventually to win the game. They draw another Stormbreath Dragon and kill you with it.
Sometimes we get too fancy in our decision making. Everyone says Thoughtseize is about looking at their hand, looking at our hand, and picking the card that steers the game in a direction that our hand works best in. We had an answer to that Stormbreath Dragon already, and it's not like there were any other targets for our Price! Sometimes, the best card is just the best card. If hasty Dragons are the best thing they can have against you, taking the first one with a Thoughtseize means your removal spell will deal with the second and they will have to draw a third to have a shot against you. Sometimes, you just take the best card.
A similar phenomenon took place with scrylands as well. You'd scry early in the game, see a second copy of a card that is very good for you to have, and ship it because the second is much worse than the first or you wanted to ensure you hit your sixth land drop or curved out perfectly, etc. They would then of course answer the first copy and you would spend the whole game regretting that scry effect. Sometimes the best card is just the best card, and the only thing better than having the best card is having two of it.
There is, of course, a time and a place to not Thoughtseize their best card or to ship another copy of your best card to the bottom, but it has happened more frequently than it should as players try to get fancy. Scrylands and Thoughtseize are both rotating and were certainly by far the most common cards that made this idea relevant, but recognizing that power often trumps finesse and to not get overly fancy is an idea we can hold onto and bring forward with us.
Courser of Kruphix and Information
I hated Courser of Kruphix for almost the entirety of its time in Standard. My favorite part of Magic is the information game -- reading my opponent, controlling what information they have of mine, reading how they perceive my strength in this board state, etc. I felt like Courser of Kruphix took a lot of that away from me by telling my opponent every card I drew for as long as it was on the field. During Return to Ravnica - Theros Standard, I won so many matches where my opponent played a Courser of Kruphix on turn three, I didn't kill it, and I was able to play perfectly for the rest of the game because I knew every card they had (Thoughtseize was often involved).
The information edge that Courser gave your opponent was a huge downside of the card, but Khans of Tarkir mitigated it to a large extent with the reprinting of the Onslaught fetchlands. All of a sudden it was trivially easy for the player with the Courser of Kruphix to utilize the information Courser was giving as well, timing shuffle effects for when the top card was not desired. Combined with scrylands, Courser of Kruphix's stock went way up. I was too stubborn on Courser, not quick enough to change my evaluation of the card when the context around it changed. I did eventually start playing Abzan and learned to appreciate Courser, but I would have made that jump much sooner if I didn't overvalue keeping information secret.
That being said, information does have a huge importance in Magic, and I think Courser of Kruphix helped us all appreciate that to a greater degree. Right after the release of Magic Origins, I was birding a local tournament that my boyfriend was playing in. After watching him get absolutely demolished by the UR Mill deck, I half-jokingly asked him why he decided to leave Lantern of Insight in against the Lantern Control deck. He stared at me blankly, and I pointed to his Courser of Kruphix. A lantern turned on inside his head, as he realized how the UR Mill deck was able to utilize his Courser of Kruphix to time its mill effects to ensure that he never drew a relevant spell. It was a brutal loss, but a great illustration of the downside of Courser of Kruphix.
The Return of Creature-lands
And a little Battle for Zendikar talk to round things out. Creature-lands are back! Specifically, the cycle started in original Zendikar is being completed with a five card cycle of enemy colored creature-lands. I am very excited for the return of creature-lands; I really miss Mutavault. Not that any of the new lands are likely to be able to be comparable to the vault, as there's something truly special about a creature-land that only takes one mana to activate.
So, what implications does the return of creature-lands have for post Battle for Zendikar Standard? The main one, to me, is just that we will still be getting plenty of play out of our lands. With scrylands rotating I was worried that lands would no longer be generating tons of interesting decisions but the return of creature-lands put that worry to rest. The decision point of when to activate a creature-land vs. develop the board is a very interesting one, and one that is made even more critical by the high activation costs on these creature-lands.
Creature-lands are also something we have to keep in mind when evaluating planeswalkers in a format. Planeswalkers that can't protect themselves are generally super weak to creature-lands, as no amount of board control can stabilize a game enough to protect from a creature-land. It's board presence or bust. And if any of the unspoiled creature-lands has an evasion ability this problem is exacerbated greatly. High starting loyalty will be a very important quality for planeswalkers to have in Battle for Zendikar Standard.
As much as I am going to miss this Standard format, I'm certainly excited for Battle for Zendikar. Original Zendikar is my all time-favorite set, and returning to that plane for the first set of the new block structure is something I've been excited about since it was announced. As bright as the present is, the future is even brighter.
Thanks for reading,