I had 5 expectations for Battle for Zendikar Standard going into the first post-rotation weekend , which I wrote about in a post on Reddit last week. Today, I’ll check my predictions against what actually happened in Indianapolis at the SCG Open.
1: Abzan Aggro—Sigh
Abzan Aggro was the most popular deck at the tournament and had the highest retention rate on Day Two. But, no Abzan Aggro players made it to the Top 8. Meanwhile, only a handful of entrants piloted Esper Dragons and Dark Jacekai, but they placed a pair of each deck into the Top 8. Bring to Light also seemed to have a strong conversion rate, though differences between the lists make them a little harder to pin down.
So why did Abzan Aggro come up short? Well unlike Atarka Red, everyone was prepared for Abzan Aggro. It was the safest option of the potential decks after rotation. In fact, it was clearly one of the few decks that gained more than it lost—Shambling Vent and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. As a result, everyone tweaked their decks to better handle Siege Rhino and the assorted threats in Abzan. My version of Dark Jacekai had Dragonmaster Outcast and Crackling Doom specifically to deal with Rhinos and Wingmate Roc.
2: The mana is amazing—Unless you want to cast spells early
I was only half wrong on this one. If you watched the coverage or played Standard this weekend you saw that mana bases are actually better than they were before. They’re also reasonable at casting spells on curve, even without extra help from tri-lands and painlands, which I thought would be necessary in many decks.
With that said, I was correct to say players would stumble in the early game way more often. A big part of the appeal of Hangarback Walker is that it’s castable with any two random basics, which leaves your fetchland free to find your 3rd and 4th color.
Players adapted to this pretty well and made sure they either skewed more heavily toward blue to help cast Jace or toward green to cast Warden of the First Tree. Meanwhile, nobody playing more than two colors cared about casting early creatures, with the exception of those few people playing Rattleclaw Mystic. Instead of trying to naturally hit domain on demand, players actually streamlined their early color costs and focused the mana for that purpose.
Red decks were enticing because those decks preyed on players stumbling to cast removal on time. But it was not quite the slow durdley format I expected. Gerry Thompson—piloting Bring to Light—demonstrated that even the greediest deck was still perfectly capable of playing Reave Soul into 3-mana removal spell into Siege Rhino consistently.
Speaking of rough 4-color mana bases, my Dark Jeskai deck Top 4’d in the hands of Adam Varner. One of its biggest strengths was utilizing black to tee off on green decks. In fact, I probably didn’t go far enough—other Dark Jeskai players included Kolaghan’s Command. Some even played a Silumgar’s Command for the mirror and Tasigur against slower decks. You can safely run Gideon in your 4-color deck alongside black.
I would consider adding a pair of Kolaghan’s Command if blue decks gain in popularity, and a Silumgar’s Command in the sideboard for the mirror. Negating a spell and killing a creature or Gideon is absurd value. I’m not totally sold on Tasigur, but I’ll test it. I’ll post an update in the comments later, but right now I still recommend the deck wholeheartedly.
The Dragonmaster Outcast plus Ojutai’s Command synergy is ridiculous and gives the deck a huge edge against midrange and control. If Atarka Red becomes popular, Dark Jeskai’s combination of Wild Slash, Fiery Impulse, Crackling Doom, Radiant Flames, and available life gain should handle all but the very best aggressive hands.
3: GR Landfall is the real deal
Like Atarka Red, GR Landfall kills incredibly quickly with Scythe Leopard and Makindi Sliderunner. The key difference between the Temur Battle Rage builds and the landfall deck is that the latter relies on creatures to do the heavy lifting. Demars’ winning Atarka Red list abused prowess and kept the noncreature spell count higher than the land count. But GR Landfall is versatile and you can build in resilience to removal and focus on Retreat to Valakut at the cost of some speed.
While Atarka Red ruled the roost this weekend, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Landfall also make waves. My slower build already won a PPTQ and got a few Top 8s post-rotation which tells me there’s likely room for both types of decks in the format. Though only testing and more tournament grinding will tell.
4: Ramp decks have very little to ramp into
Well this prediction was dead accurate: ramp decks were absent from the tournament because the best ramp spells rotated and the bombs aren’t worthwhile. It’s hard to compete with a Siege Rhino or Dragonlord Ojutai and deal with removal. Not only did it become more difficult to ramp into huge creatures, Dragonlord Atarka just doesn’t pay off any more. Killing a Rhino and then losing your creature to a removal spell is not a winning play when you invested so many resources into your single threat. Eldrazi were supposed to make up for this, but they just don’t have enough of an impact.
The best-case scenario for a ramp deck is to play an early Ugin, the Spirit Dragon to wipe your opponent’s board. Janitor duty is the best you can hope for from Ugin—he’s just too expensive and doesn’t do enough against the majority of decks in the format. Oblivion Sower was the only mildly impressive card that was “cheap” on the ramp scale that felt better than Rhino or Bring to Light.
5: Control feels viable right away
Two copies of Esper Dragons made Top 8 and had a solid Top 64 conversion rate overall. In fact, I think the only bad matchup for the archetype is Atarka Red, and Demars winning the tournament was the only blemish it had. Outside of that, Esper Dragons has easy matchups everywhere else.
So how does Esper Dragons beat the latest Open Champion? Ultimate Price is likely going to see more play, purely because of how it lines up against the pump plan presented by Atarka Red. Instant-speed removal is necessary against aggro, and Foul-Tongue Invocation’s life gain keeps you out of burn range. Surge of Righteousness can’t consistently be cast early, but it’s another option as a back-up removal spell that gains some life. Dispel stops red’s highest-damage spells, Temur Battle Rage and Atarka’s Command, and is respectable in other matchups.
Once you hit the midgame you’re golden, so it’s all about making sure to get ahead early. It may be better to take Jeff Kruchkow’s route with Jace in the sideboard to make room for more interaction game 1. His card choices are by far the most interesting, so familiarize yourself with the list to get a better idea of the spectrum of cards Esper has available.
In week 2 we’ll likely see a wider variety of decks, but the #1 option will still be Atarka Red due to its cost and explosiveness. Abzan Aggro will still be very highly rated despite being overplayed. Jeskai and Esper Dragons will creep up in numbers. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me to see new archetypes continue to surface.
Just as week 1 drew a small number of Standard players due to limited card availability, week 2 turnout will be affected by a number of players who prefer to wait for Pro Tour results before buying into the format.
If you have time to test, then I’d recommend trying:
Bring to Light Abzan
And if you have even more time and the inclination, try out the 4-5c Collected Company and GW Megamorph decks.