Let’s take a trip back in time, about thirteen months ago. Khans of Tarkir was released, and Standard rotated. There were a couple of major events before Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir rolled around, as is customary. Those two weeks of results showed us a couple of things: the new set was making waves in standard, people were willing to try new things, and there were supposed new decks being heralded as “best decks” by players and commentators alike.
The first major event with Khans of Tarkir showed us a new Jeskai deck, an aggressive tempo oriented deck that ended up winning the event in the hands of Kevin Jones. We also saw a few other archetypes that showed promise, both new and old.
The second weekend showed us a midrangy Abzan deck winning the event in the hands of one Samuel Valentine, while some of the other underperformers of the first week were being pushed aside. Decks like Sultai and Mardu that people were very excited about started being pushed out.
Then the Pro Tour arrived.
The pros showed us a few new toys, mainly the UB Control deck that a lot of people were saying couldn’t really exist based on the card pool. However, for the most part, the players that succeeded at the Pro Tour ended up playing two decks other than that UB Control deck: Jeskai and Abzan.
In fact, the finals of that Pro Tour was Ari Lax playing his team’s Abzan Midrange deck featuring the newly minted king of Standard Siege Rhino against Shaun McLaren’s Jeskai Wins deck with Mantis Rider as its flagship card. The result? Imagine what would happen if a Rhinoceros and a Praying Mantis were pit against each other in a glass box. The Siege Rhino stomped on the Mantis, and Ari Lax won the event.
Let’s fast forward now to the two weeks before Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar. After the first event, there was a lot of talk of the GW Megamorph deck and some other really sweet numbers (in particular, the 5-color Bring to Light decks will always hold a special place in my ice cold heart). The second event showed us more what the metagame frontrunners looked like. There was a cool new Jeskai deck (featuring black as a fourth color this time because of the great manabases provided by fetchlands and dual lands). This deck was the talk of the town as one of the frontrunners for king of the new standard.
For two weeks, we saw a plethora of different builds featuring all kinds of different cards, from Kolaghan’s Command, to Tasigur, the Golden Fang, to even cards like Complete Disregard and Horribly Awry. This overarching macro-type of “Dark Jeskai” showcased a ton of different builds, and the majority of players were left waiting to see what the best build of this deck would be after the Pro Tour.
This weekend was Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar. Much like what happened at last year’s Pro Tour, there were a couple of new decks that seemed really sweet, including an Esper Control deck, and a couple of takes on the Aristocrats archetype, but in the end, it was Abzan versus Jeskai, and again, the Siege Rhinos of Kazuyuki Takimura crushed the Mantis Riders of Ryoichi Tamada.
So real quick, just to recap the top of the most recent Pro Tour, there were two Abzan decks, three Jeskai decks, a Jeskai Ascendancy deck, a Green/White Megamorph deck, and an Atarka Red deck. Comparing those numbers to Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir lets us see a very similar structure at the top of the field at the end of two days of competition. At Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, there were three Abzan decks, three Jeskai decks, a Jeskai Ascendancy deck, and a Blue/Black Control deck. So is it possible to glean any information from these two, year apart, top eights?
I think we are able to assess a few things:
1). Siege Rhino is still probably the best stand-alone creature in standard.
The fact that Siege Rhino has won two Pro Tours in about a year, in two different standard formats puts this guy in the place of Fleecemane Lion. I think that when Theros rotated, a lot of people thought that Abzan would be a lot weaker because of the loss of the really powerful cards in the deck that had been powerful for a while like Thoughtseize, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, Courser of Kruphix, and the aforementioned Fleecemane Lion.
However, Siege Rhino didn’t just augment the Abzan strategies, the beast was a mainstay, and is still the flagship four drop of not only his colors, but also the format. The fact that there is an entirely new archetype devoted to playing “eight” copies of the card in Bring to Light decks means the horned siege machine won’t be outclassed any time soon, even with all the talk of these fancy four color decks. Which brings us to our next point:
2.) The mana in standard is sweet, but it’s not astonishingly ground breaking.
When Battle for Zendikar first leaked the new dual lands (by the way, I am on a personal crusade of sorts to kill the term “Tango-land.” The phrase irks me to no end), everyone was so excited to be playing these “Modern format” manabases in standard. Unfortunately, these manabases are nowhere even remotely close to Modern’s flexibility and ease of use. Sure, some decks are really good when adding additional colors. Obviously, I think the most successful of these at this point is the Jeskai Black lists that run four colors, there were two in the top eight of Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, but if you look at all of the decks over the past few weeks that tried to get five, four, and even in some cases, three colors, the splash came at some discernible cost that was seen on camera.
Sure, Ali Aintrazi was successful with a five-color control deck that he piloted to a 9th place finish, and in week one, five color Bring to Light decks were all the rage, alongside the Jeskai Black decks and Abzan splashing blue for counterspells out of the sideboard, but if you look at the manabases of the Team Pantheon Jeskai Black decklists that top eighted, they’re still running the Khans of Tarkir Tri-lands, and a whopping five of them at that.
Also, you can take a look at some replays of the larger events in the past few weeks. One I like to point to in particular was Chris Andersen on Bant Megamorph vs Jacob Betts on Jeskai Black. Chris’ deck was essentially the GW Megamorph deck that Michael Majors piloted to second place the weekend before, but with blue for counterspells. Seems sweet, seems free, but there was at least one game that Chris lost because one of his lands, a Lumbering Falls, both came into play tapped, and couldn’t produce white mana. This straight up cost him the game, as Jacob was able to pull way ahead.
This is also evidenced if you just look at the finals of the Pro Tour. It was just a straight Abzan versus Jeskai matchup. No blue in the Abzan deck, no black in the Jeskai deck. The only thing that the off-color Battle-lands were used for was to facilitate better mana through Khans of Tarkir fetchlands, and that is something powerful. I think people were, and still are a bit ahead of themselves. They see these manabases in the first and second place lists from the Pro Tour, and think, I can just stick some Crackling Dooms or a Tasigur in the Jeskai deck, or some Disdainful Strokes in the sideboard of the Abzan deck. However, how many times have you actually been unable to cast a Siege Rhino on turn four because you were missing a color in the last Standard format? Imagine adding those spells of the fourth color, and that number multiplying. While you may be adding some amount of power to the deck, you’re also messing with the consistency by fudging the fourth color, and I think we saw the results of that with the small portion of four color decks in the top 8.
3.) Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is the best non-land card from Battle for Zendikar.
I think this goes without saying, but wanted to note it here. A lot of people were touting this guy as the best card as soon as he was spoiled. When I hear something like that being said so early in the set’s spoiler season, I am reluctant to buy into it. However, I was wrong to doubt the believers. Gideon is the real deal. We saw him just straight up take over games throughout the Pro Tour weekend. There were twenty copies of this card in the top 8 of the Pro Tour alone. Like Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, and Hangarback Walker, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar will shape Standard for the next 18 months. And it’s no coincidence that he’s in so many decks when…
4.) White is the most commonly played color, and the best support color to be playing.
While five of the top eight decks from the Pro Tour had four Gideon, Ally of Zendikar played in the maindeck, seven of the top eight decks had white somewhere in the list. This isn’t really a surprise, since we saw the same thing at last year’s Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, but with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, along with the new kill spells in Gideon’s Reproach, and old standbys like Silkwrap, white is a very appealing color to be playing, especially when it fuels such powerful hits as Mantis Rider, Siege Rhino, Anafenza, the Foremost, etc. I think that it’s just completely incorrect to not be playing white at the moment.
5.) Khans of Tarkir block was a very powerful block, and Battle for Zendikar is having a much smaller impact on Standard than Khans of Tarkir block did.
Khans of Tarkir block is insanely busted in terms of power level. The block gave us such amazing cards. Treasure Cruise, Dig Through Time (both ban worthy in Modern and Legacy), Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Gurmag Angler, Murderous Cut (Legacy and Modern playable mainstays at this point), Den Protector, Deathmist Raptor, Mantis Rider, Siege Rhino, Jeskai Ascendancy, Dragonlord Ojutai, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, I could go on. The power level of Khans of Tarkir is off the charts high.
It’s no doubt then that Wizards of the Coast tried to tone down the power level with Battle for Zendikar. I think a lot of people see the set as underpowered when compared to Khans of Tarkir block’s sets, and since that is the consensus within the community, it’s no surprise that Khans is still a driving force behind deck construction in standard. I think until Khans of Tarkir and Fate Reforged cycle out next year, we won’t see too many crazy things coming at us from Battle for Zendikar, though my friends keep trying to make a ramp deck work, so who knows who will be able to come up with what.
I hope you all enjoyed watching the Pro Tour as much as I did. It was a blast. As for me, on the competitive side of things, I have two events to choose from on Saturday. I have a standard IQ, in which I will either be battling with the winning Abzan list, or a Jeskai Black list I’ve been working on over the past few weeks. I also have Eternal Extravaganza in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania that I could go to, championing Ad Nauseam Tendrils. I know Jason “RealEvilGenius” Clark is headed there, so I may meet up with him. I’m just a little shaky with my Legacy toy, and am not so confident in my skills with it yet. I guess you have to learn sometime though. See you all next week!
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