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Realizing the New Standard

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Standard

I’ve spent a large part of this past week testing Battle for Zendikar Standard, and I’ve realized some things. Now, because I’m writing this before/during SCG Indianapolis but it’s getting published after, there is definitely a chance that I may end up eating my words, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take. This article is about breaking down the realizations I have had, why I think they exist, and what you can do to take mitigate or take advantage of them. And, because of the unique timing of the article, you all can grade me on how I did.

Realization #1: The format somehow became even more about haymakers than it was before.

I have had a ton of games come down to topdecks, and while being able to run a creature land helps with that, usually the game comes down to the first person to draw something big. This is more evident in game one than in sideboard games, but it’s still relevant postboard.

Why it’s happening:

This is mostly due to Wizards lowering the overall power level of Standard. Although I personally dislike formats with low power levels, and tend to think they are bad for the competitive side of the game, that is just one of many positions, and there isn’t much we can do about it as players other than make decisions with it in mind.

What you can do:

Build decks with good topdecks. A large part of this is having cards that are good at multiple points in the game, such as cards with Awaken, lands that act as spells, or cards with multiple modes. Overall, the more easily your deck “pivots” (transitions from low-resource states to high-resource states) the better you will be in this format.

Another way you can compensate for the low power level of this format is to kill your opponent before the game gets down to topdecks. The faster you can establish and leverage a board position, the lower the chance topdecks become relevant.

Realization #2: Aggro decks based around clan colors aren’t great.

The games I played with Abzan Aggro were kind of frustrating; I couldn’t curve out quickly enough to kill my opponent, but because I was an aggressive deck I didn’t quite have enough staying power to finish opponents off once they stabilized. Shambling Vent helped with the latter problem, but it didn’t make up for the loss of velocity I received from playing black.

Why it’s happening:

As an aggro deck, you need your lands to come into play untapped and you need to be able to play a smaller number of lands than the midrange and control decks so that you have a higher threat density. But it’s very difficult to successfully play fewer lands than your opponents and play pain lands, clan lands, creature lands, fetches, and tango lands and still have a smooth manabase.

What you can do:

The best mana bases in this format are the ones that take advantage of the fetch-tango interaction. Thus, playing two-color aggro decks that are an allied pair or three-color decks that are shards are the best in terms of curving out quickly and efficiently. Just remember that in terms of hitting multiple sources of the same color of mana, Bant will be primarily white, Jund will be primarily red, and Naya will be primarily green, although there are ways to skew towards other colors if you feel you need to. The mana bases of enemy-colored two-color aggro decks aren’t necessarily as bad as clan-colored decks, but they aren’t as solid as allied-color decks either.

Realization #3: Four- and five-color decks are viable but difficult to build.

Bring to Light is a great card, but only if you can utilize it properly. Five-color aggro decks get to play Mantis Rider, Savage Knuckleblade, Woodland Wanderer, and Siege Rhino, not to mention Dromoka’s Command and Crackling Doom.

Why it’s happening:

Khans had fine mana and amazing spells. Battle for Zendikar has amazing mana and fine spells. Using BFZ mana to cast KTK spells is pretty much the most powerful thing you can do in this format, regardless of whether you take a more aggressive or controlling stance. It turns out that fetch/dual interactions make the best manabases in literally every format. The problem with Battle for Zendikar is that the only fetches and duals that are available are allied colors, which makes building and sequencing the manabase incredibly difficult.

What you can do:

Play more than three colors. Brad Nelson, Todd Anderson, Tom Ross, and Brian Braun-Duin played a Hangarback Abzan deck at SCG Indianapolis that splashed blue for sideboard cards, while Gerry Thompson and a few others played 5-color Bring to Light control. The best way to approach playing a lot of colors is to solitaire a bunch of games with well-performing decks to see how the mana works. Don’t make changes until you understand the typical play patterns, but also don’t assume that the manabase is perfect just because the deck performed well.

If you aren’t playing a four- or five-color deck, play a deck that’s designed to take advantage of the fact that those decks are more likely to stumble on mana than two- and three-color decks. Soft counterspells like Clash of Wills and Silumgar’s Scorn get better, as well as aggressive tempo plays like Atarka’s Command, Dromoka’s Command, and Crackling Doom.

Realization #4: There are clear holes in the format.

Because Standard is only five sets deep right now, there are definitely holes in the format that can be exploited. Certain threats are quite effective because there are few or no answers available. In no particular order, these threats are: Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker; Mantis Rider; Hangarback Walker; Deathmist Raptor; and creature lands.

Why it’s happening:

There is a distinct lack of instant-speed targeted removal, and the best option available is Wild Slash, which is why Sarkhan and Mantis Rider are so good. Sure, Abzan Charm exists, and Utter End is kind of a card, but there isn’t nearly the redundancy that existed when Abzan Charm and Hero’s Downfall were in the format. This leaves a hole for creatures with Haste and more than two toughness. In addition, there is a lack of efficient exile effects (or even inefficient ones that generate card advantage, like Silence the Believers). This means that Hangarback Walker and Deathmist Raptor are excellent options moving forward.

What you can do:

Play the cards listed above. If you don’t want to, find the right mix of Draconic Roar, Foul-Tongue Invocation, Jeskai Charm, Brutal Expulsion, Crackling Doom, Utter End, and/or Murderous Cut in order to answer the above cards. Once the metagame becomes more regular, you’ll be able to more consistently predict which resilient threats you need to answer and which won’t show up as much at a given tournament. Until the metagame stabilizes, though, I would definitely err on the side of threats rather than answers.

With all of these facts in mind, there’s a deck that I want to play that I feel takes advantage of the way games tend to play out.


This deck is linear and aggressive, and it hits all of the points I mentioned above. It is explosive enough for its games to rarely be grindy, so it ignores topdeck wars. It plays an allied color combination, which means that it’s likely to curve out smoothly with good mana. Its speed allows it to take advantage of other decks that are trying to play more than two colors. It plays Hangarback Walker, Servant of the Scale, and Undergrowth Champion, which all make it resilient to removal. Overall, it is aggressive without being helpless in the middle game.

I have been impressed with every single card in the deck; even Servant of the Scale and Endless One are solid role-players, and when Hardened Scales is in play they are very powerful. Abzan Falconer is one of the more conditional cards in the deck, but the fact that in some situations it makes my creatures unblockable can turn difficult games into easy ones.

Hardened Scales is a very powerful archetype, and I think this is the best way to build it. I’m planning on playing it next weekend at my local TCGPlayer State Championships, and I’ll have a tournament report for you all next Monday.

Let me know what you think about my thoughts on the format or if you have any questions about the Hardened Scales list!

Casper Mulholland

@CasperZML on Twitter

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