The moment I saw Sylvan Caryatid, my mind has been racing with possibilities. My opinion of it changes just about everyday, and even as I write this I don't know exactly how to feel. It's funny that each person I talk to gives me a new insight on it, and to properly build good decks with the Caryatid you must understand exactly what it is and what it does. Anyone can look at it and know what it's going to do—we've all cast [card]Manaweft Sliver[/card] in draft and had good draws with it. The biggest comparison I see people making is to [card]Farseek[/card], to which my immediate response is "not quite."
Hexproof has proven to be one of the most incredible keywords in magic for its ability to completely eliminate interaction and make it impossible for your opponent to make decisions. I just recently went 3-0 in an M14 draft with 3 [card]Gladecover Scout[/card] and 3 [card]Lightning Talons[/card], doing nothing else of consequence except assembling my combo. You can even see the [card slippery bogle]Bogle[/card] deck in Modern making very good use of the hexproof ability. I can't imagine the creators of the game intended for hexproof to be used by having [card]Butcher's Cleaver[/card] land on [card]Invisible Stalker[/card], frustrating opponents for as long as that format was drafted.
So what does hexproof do for us here? Remember the old saying, “always [card lightning bolt]Bolt[/card] the [card birds of paradise]Bird[/card]”? That's been a universally recognized correct play for years and years now. I have to say, I abide by it more often than not, and it's very hard to be wrong using a cheap removal spell on a mana-producing creature, because there is a reasonable chance that you can just win by mana screw. It's not that your main goal is to win by mana-screw, but when the situation comes up, you now have the option to turn your card into a one-casting-cost, instant-speed [card]Sinkhole[/card], which is usually too good a deal to pass up. It's also usually a very good idea to [card]Counterspell[/card] a [card]Farseek[/card] or to [card]Duress[/card] it before it gets cast—I know this is a strategy I've used in Jund mirror matches—this should just illustrate that mana-ramp is incredibly powerful and if you can disrupt it you should. [card]Sylvan Caryatid[/card] sidesteps this strategy.
I think the Caryatid will not be as popular as [card]Farseek[/card] simply because there won't be nearly as many three-color decks in the new Standard format without the [card]Innistrad[/card] or M13 lands for fixing. Now if you want to fix your mana you will be forced to play with Guildgates, which makes the idea of playing three colors really unappealing. For this reason, if you play [card]Sylvan Caryatid[/card], the most common build will be two colors. Part of the allure of Farseek was fixing all three of your colors and giving you a shockland to help with [card]Woodland Cemetary[/card] or [card]Rootbound Crag[/card].
One thing that worries me, and this may or may not ever become reality, is the possibility that most or all of the control decks in the format focus their removal suit around cards like [card]Devour Flesh[/card] and [card]Far // Away[/card], which can ignore hexproof. If this is the case, then Sylvan Caryatid is certainly a worse card, though still quite playable. A deck that wants this kind of effect will usually want it at any cost, much like Jund, which people have said is a completely different deck when it has [card]Farseek[/card].
I'm not going to claim that those people were wrong, but I will say that at least in old Standard Jund, Farseek was the best card and I wanted to draw it every game. If Sylvan Caryatid is half as good as Farseek, then you'll be seeing it at the top tables of Standard tournaments very soon. One large drawback that this card has that Farseek does not is that is that it is vulnerable to [card]Supreme Verdict[/card]. If you go [card]Sylvan Caryatid[/card] into [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card], then a [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] is devastating, whereas if it were a Farseek you'd have an additional land in play and could calmly untap and cast [card]Garruk, Primal Hunter[/card] or [card]Thragtusk[/card]. One of the best ways to negate the fact that this mana acceleration will be soft to [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] is to make sure the threats you cast with the additional mana are planeswalkers.
One big edge that this card has over Farseek is that it can block a 2/2 creature, which is a double-edged sword. It can never be a bad thing for a Magic card to give you additional options because presumably you'll be smart enough to know when each is correct. If you were capable of sniffing out when your opponent has a [card]Ghor-Clan Rampager[/card] 100% of the time, then blocking a 2/2 against an aggressive deck on turn three is an amazing luxury and will save you loads of damage over the course of a tournament. That said, there will be times where you decide to block and it could be costly. On top of that, since it is a very good strategy to cast planeswalkers with this card, that is helped by the fact that she can defend them.
Sylvan Caryatid seems like the best possible way to ramp into a Xenagos, the Reveler, and both of these cards offer a strong incentive to play a Gruul big-mana strategy. A rough draft could like this:
[deck]4 Elvish Mystic
4 Zhur-Taa Druid
4 Sylvan Caryatid
4 Mizzium Mortars
1 Gruul Keyrune
3 Polukranos, World Eater
4 Xenagos, the Reveler
4 Kalonian Hydra
4 Primeval Bounty
2 Savageborn Hydra
4 Stomping Ground
2 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
This deck seems pretty bonkers to me, and makes use of some of the sweetest cards from Return to Ravnica and Theros. Having access to [card]Elvish Mystic[/card], [card]Zhur-Taa Druid[/card], and [card]Sylvan Caryatid[/card] means not only will Xenagos consistently come down early, but he will also be doing some serious work providing two or three additional mana at a crack.
[card]Elvish Mystic[/card] is not traditionally good in a red-green [card]Primeval Titan[/card]-style ramp deck, but the options for acceleration are limited in this format and Xenagos puts a high demand on your deck to have creature cards. In addition to that, [card]Zhur-Taa Druid[/card] has really not yet had his day, but with a much smaller card pool to work from I think he will be better appreciated, and having cast him many times in draft, he is a deceptively powerful card. Both of those cards also do good things to increase your devotion, making Nykthos feel like a [card]Cabal Coffers[/card].
[card]Mizzium Mortars[/card] was an obvious include, because not only is it a very good card, it does a wonderful job at bridging the gap between the first three turns of the game and the last three turns of the game. It is always a difficult task with ramp decks to build them in such a way that you don't die because you've drawn only the cards you want to ramp into or only the cards that help you ramp. When you draw a decent mix of both with lands it feels very hard to lose, Mizzium Mortars is one of those cards that you are quite happy to see on turn two killing a [card]Rakdos Cackler[/card], or later on to [card]Plague Wind[/card] them out of a board stall. It is a compelling reason to play red in this deck on its own.
[card]Gruul Keyrune[/card] is a bit speculative but I believe it is worth a shot. I have loved [card]Rakdos Keyrune[/card] in my Jund decks for a long while and I wanted more mana acceleration. It would not surprise me if this were the first card to get cut from the deck after some playtesting in a harsher environment.
Polukranos, World Eater seems like a great tool when you want to ramp as quickly as possible. I imagine he is a serviceable threat against control while being a total powerhouse against something like mono-red. None of their removal can kill it ever, and if you get to untap with it then he is going to wreak havoc on their creatures. Still weak to [card]Doom Blade[/card], but that's how it goes in a world with Doom Blade in it.
[card]Kalonian Hydra[/card] reminds me of [card]Spectral Force[/card], which was a key card in old school ramp decks. He gives you a reason to play [card]Elvish Mystic[/card] and [card]Zhur-Taa Druid[/card]—turn three Hydras are pretty good. It's nice because if he is the only threat you draw he can win the game single-handedly and that is precisely what you should be looking for in this style deck. If you draw 10 mana sources and a Kalonian Hydra you can defeat many opponents, in fact that's probably close to a nut draw. This is a card you should watch out for in new Standard and the only reason he wasn't played more before is because he had to compete with [card]Thragtusk[/card].
[card]Primeval Bounty[/card] is a pet card of mine and it could be wishful thinking, but it does do many things well. It ensures that you cannot flood out, since even a turn that involves only an [card]Elvish Mystic[/card] off the top and a land drop is going to do a very good job at simulating a [card]Thragtusk[/card]. I like the fact that it puts a large number of +1/+1 counters on my creatures, so that with Kalonian Hydra it really goes nuts. If this card performs anything like it does in M14 Limited then you cast it—preferably on turn four—and the opponent stares at it futilely for a turn before giving up. I like it because it's resistant to removal and a constant source of card advantage.
Savageborn Hydra is a card I have always thought was good but never quite had a home. It seems great here because it can be massive quickly thanks to Xenagos and you'll probably need a couple 20-sided dice to keep track of this guy alongside Kalonian Hydra.
I started off wanting to talk about Sylvan Caryatid but I went off on a rant building decks and talking about new planeswalkers. Halfway through this article I actually thought about scraping the deck list and saving it for the Pro Tour because it looked so good. If I was interested in breaking Xenagos or Sylvan Caryatid in Standard, this is where I would start. I imagine mono-red would be a tough matchup, and because of that you might want some number of [card]Shock[/card] in the main deck, or even [card]Electrickery[/card] to deal with [card]Young Pyromancer[/card]. The other obvious deck to consider is blue-white or Esper—that might be a tougher nut to crack but you could consider trying to splash black for [card]Rakdos's Return[/card] or [card]Sire of Insanity[/card]. [card ruric thar, the unbowed]Ruric Thar[/card] ain't half bad either!
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