I’ve believed for a while that Nissa, Who Shakes the World was the best card in Standard As fate would have it, after a big weekend at GP Tapei, Nissa has made the case pretty clearly for herself. All the same, I want to give some context to the rise of Nissa, discussing her best shell, Bant Ramp, and the various approaches people are taking to cashing in on her. Bant Ramp was the second most represented deck on day 2 of the GP, accounting for 15.9% of the meta. The Top 16 decks contained 33 copies of Nissa. And, of course, Kim Seok Hyun took home the title with a Bant Ramp list of his own.
Since the release of War of the Spark, the two factors most constraining Standard play have been Mono-Red and Teferi, Time Raveler. If you want to be competitive, you simply have to be able to deal with these two things. If your deck can’t coexist with either of the two, you’re not going to have a good time. But while these are the two most warping elements, Nissa has quietly been creeping up in popularity as the most powerful element. Ironically, however, Nissa is so powerful that even though she doesn’t conceptually force you to build your deck a certain way, she does force you to have an answer for her when she hits the table. Otherwise, you tend to lose very, very quickly. Thus, the nickname.
The Power of Nissa, Who Ends the Game
As a planeswalker in a planeswalker-dominated environment, Nissa has the immediate advantage of both being able to protect herself, and being able to immediately threaten enemy walkers. It is really crucial that she doesn’t just make lands into 3/3s. The fact that she untaps them, that they gain haste, and that they gain vigilance, are all extremely significant to her power level. In a Teferi-warped format, people are tapping out all the time, and this encourages them to play more powerful things to tap out for. Often, that’s their own planeswalkers. So being able to drop Nissa and right away present 3 damage to the walker your opponent just played can be a massive tempo swing.
On top of this, while Nissa is not one of the 3-mana planeswalkers that were the talk of the town early on in War of the Spark, she can often feel like she is: if you can play her, untap a Forest, attack with it, and then post-combat play a mana dork. But that’s just the beginning of her ramping ability. If you start a turn with Nissa on board, you immediately gain an enormous resource advantage over your opponent, with each of your Forests representing twice as much mana. With cards like Hydroid Krasis and Mass Manipulation in the format, it’s very easy to convert a mana advantage into a card or board advantage, which means that untapping with Nissa generally already makes you a massive favorite to win the game.
But what really shoots her over the top is that even when you don’t have the backup to milk her for maximum value, she presents a clock on her own. First, in the sense that she is producing a hasted creature every turn, and second in that her ultimate is actually very understated. I have played over 300 best-of-three matches with 4 Nissas in my deck at Mythic rank on MTG Arena. Want to know how many times I’ve lost after using Nissa’s ultimate? Zero. If it’s not the fact that you now have a couple of indestructible creatures on board that can both attack and block every turn, it’s the fact that your mana advantage is now permanent, or perhaps just that you’ve thinned your deck of most of its lands and are now set up to draw payoff after payoff.
Bant Ramp: A Brief History
The best home for Nissa is obviously a ramp deck. This is because she functions both as a target to ramp towards, and an enabler to ramp with. What many people don’t realize is that these decks already existed before Nissa was even in the scene. On the 5th of April, Aaron Gertler tweeted that he’d reached rank #4 with his Simic Manipulation list, this a full month before the release of War of the Spark.
Aaron Gertler’s Original “UG Theft”
Don’t be alarmed if this list looks very different to the lists you’ve just seen at the GP. Though his tweet reveals that he got the initial idea from a redditor named “kaptinkillem,” Gertler was truly the father of this archetype. Early on the innovation train, he would soon recognize that Frilled Mystic was one of the stronger cards in the deck and switch to playing four in the mainboard. At this stage, it was a slower deck, playing more of a controlling role and winning by eventually going over the top with the theft spells.
In a post-Nissa world, the deck became faster and more proactive. This is both because Nissa allows that, and because the introduction of Teferi made it a lot trickier to play a strategy focused on playing spells on your opponent’s turn. Of course, the other thing that Teferi did was give you an incentive to play…Teferi. And that’s how Simic Manipulation became Bant Manipulation.
Perhaps the final straw in popularizing the archetype was the fact that MPL player and Hall of Famer Martin Juza started to pilot the deck to great success in both ladder and tournament play. If you haven’t already seen it, Martin wrote an excellent article about both the Simic and Bant versions of the deck, discussing many of his card choices in great detail.
Martin Juza’s Bant Ramp
4 Breeding Pool 4 Hinterland Harbor 1 Hallowed Fountain 4 Temple Garden 4 Glacial Fortress 4 Island (335) 5 Forest (347) 4 Llanowar Elves 4 Incubation Druid 4 Paradise Druid 3 Frilled Mystic 4 Hydroid Krasis 4 Mass Manipulation 3 Entrancing Melody 4 Teferi, Time Raveler 4 Nissa, Who Shakes the World Sideboard 1 Entrancing Melody 4 Negate 3 Ripjaw Raptor 4 Thrashing Brontodon 3 Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves
At the time Juza shared his article, I inquired whether it wouldn’t be better to play Shalai over Frilled Mystic. I’d been running Bant Manipulation for all of May, and had found that after the addition of Shalai a lot of my matchups became much better.
She fills many gaps in the deck. At the most basic level, she offers a proactive play at 4 mana which is something the deck had never had before–though it’s rarely spoken of, the addition of Teferi offered a similar benefit. It’s nice to have things to do in between your setup turns and your payoff turns. Shalai also provides an enormous, game-winning mana sink, something you’re obviously invested in. She protects you against discard strategies, both by actively disabling those cards once she’s out, and by improving your ratio of setup-to-payoff cards.
She blanks some other common cards like Vraska and Cast Down, and perhaps most of all she is excellent in the Red matchup. Usually, if they kill her, it’s a two-for-one, which is already one of the best ways to gain ground against red decks. But if they can’t kill her, even just for a turn or two, she completely takes over the game. For some examples, Viashino Pyromancer is almost unplayable when Shalai is on the board, as it’s forced into friendly-fire mode. Chandra, who is otherwise very difficult for Bant to deal with, is forced to deal damage to herself when Shalai is around. Further, blocking Chainwhirlers becomes much easier to do when Shalai is around, as the opponent’s burn spells can only target her while she’s on the board.
Anthony Hodgson’s Bant Ramp
My record with Bant Ramp over the past two seasons is 136-58 (70%), which has kept me around the top 10 on Arena for most of the last six weeks. Quite remarkably, since adding Shalai, I’ve gone 12-2 against Mono-Red. Realistically, I don’t think the matchup is as favorable as that. But I do think it definitely is favorable, especially post board–maybe 60-40 would be more accurate, despite the fact you take damage from your own lands. Cards like Shalai, Tolsimir, and Thrashing Brontodon simply pull so much weight in this matchup.
The only other innovation that I could claim in this deck is my usage of Oketra. My motivation here is mostly that I wanted to have an extra high-impact 5-drop for the times where I ramp into 5 mana on turn 3 but don’t have Nissa in hand. To be clear, when you get a turn 3 Nissa, you win–so it felt unfortunate that sometimes you get there on mana but just don’t have the payoff in hand. Oketra also obviously synergizes nicely with having so many mana dorks, and makes drawing them later feel a lot better. That said, I consider it a fairly flexible slot, and often side her out for more targeted cards.
Bant Ramp in Taipei
The ramp lists represented in Taipei were extremely diverse in their builds. While all of them played 4 Nissa and all had the same underlying structure, different players explored all kinds of different tech, with variations in mana bases, ramp pieces, and payoff slots.
Kim Seok Hyun, 1st at GP Taipei
The most striking thing about Kim Syeok Hyun’s build is that he’s clearly prioritized diversity both in threats and answers. Rather than choosing between Mystic and Shalai, he went with a pair of each. Instead of four Manipulations, he plays three alongside a Finale of Glory and an Immortal Sun. Hyun also chose to run two Melodies and one Time Wipe as opposed to the usual three Melodies.
One benefit of being more diverse is becoming more versatile. Finale of Glory is better than Mass Manipulation when you have a lot of mana but there’s nothing to steal. Time Wipe is better than Melody if your opponent is going wide. Of course, in order to gain this advantage, you do compromise your consistency somewhat.
Which leads to the second striking observation about this list: that it only runs 25 lands. In fact, both of the Bant Ramp lists to Top 8 the Grand Prix played 25 lands. With the vast majority of builds being on 26, and Aaron Gertler and his team most recently running as many as 27, seeing the most successful lists running 25 is something of a surprise.
To be clear, 25 lands is more than enough if you take for granted that your ramping creatures won’t be removed. But that’s quite a big call to make, especially because attacking your mana dorks is one of the most common ways people try to undermine this deck. Perhaps, then, one of the crucial observations made by Hyun was that the meta has shifted from being red-dominated to being hating-on-red-dominated. Even so, with Gruul being the most popular deck of the tournament, it still strikes me as a bit greedy to skimp on lands.
A different thought is that if Hyun anticipated people to expect ramp, he might have expected a format centered around ramp plans and plans to beat ramp plans. One of the more direct ways that people attack this deck is with discard strategies, and those are indeed matchups where you want to side out a land to mitigate against flooding out. It’s reasonable to do the same in the mirror, where having one more payoff generally means you win. So from that perspective, it’s reasonable to consider the decision to play 25 lands as a metagame call and a championship-winning one in this case.
For those wanting to play Bant Ramp on Arena, I would still recommend starting off with 26 lands, as the metagame is diverse enough to punish you for being a greedy.
That said, one thing we can learn from the ramp lists of Grand Prix Taipei is that lots of different approaches can succeed. While it’s a mistake to infer that all are equally optimal, it is worth taking a moment to appreciate when a powerful card like Nissa can enable further innovation rather than shutting it down. In Taipei, players explored all kinds of interesting ramp payoffs, ranging from all three Finales, to Nexus of Fate, to in one case even cutting the entire theft plan in favor of their own Trostani Discordant!
Tatsuro Shoji, 10th at GP Taipei
One strategy that stood out to me was Tatsuro Shoji’s. Shoji opted not to play any copies of Paradise Druid or Incubation Druid, instead relying on Arboreal Grazer and Growth Spiral to fulfill their roles. While this approach does have weaknesses (fewer bodies to pressure enemy planeswalkers and not being able to ramp beyond your land count), it also has the advantage of playing very effectively around removal spells and especially board wipes.
The only thing worse than killing off your mana dorks one-by-one is killing them all in one go. Cards like Deafening Clarion and Massacre Girl don’t only kill your mana dorks, but will also usually take out any lands that Nissa has animated!
It’s very interesting to take apart the different Bant Ramp builds of Grand Prix Taipei as each of them seem to present a lesson of their own. The one lesson that they all agree on, though, is that Nissa is the driving force of the deck and perhaps soon all of Standard. Indeed, even Sultai and Gruul players have begun to play Nissa in their decks.
Nissa is the most powerful card in Standard. But I also don’t think she is too powerful. Her most effective home, Bant Ramp, has some natural counters that are already very active in the format–Izzet Phoenix is a tough matchup and discard strategies and board wipes can both be tricky to navigate.
And if people start to find Nissa too oppressive, Standard also offers a pair of cheap creatures that present problems for her in the form of Tomik, Distinguished Advokist and Lavinia, Azorius Renegade. While the latter might be harder to find a home for, it would not surprise me to see White Weenie lists going up from one to two Tomiks in the coming weeks.