Disclaimer: I started writing this before BFZ was released, so that’s why some things are a bit vague.
Battle for Zendikar is here and that means a brand new format with four sets leaving and one new one coming in. As I mentioned in my previous article, this is the last time we’ll see a Standard rotation this dramatic. In future, only two sets – one large, one small – will rotate out at a time. The first thing I like to look at when a format shifts this dramatically is the lands. Standard decks today are built on Temples, and those are going away. Battle for Zendikar is bringing plenty of interesting replacements though, so I’m going to take a look at what mana bases can do in the new Standard format. You have to know what your mana base is capable of before you can really get down to brewing.
Fetchlands plus lands that count as two types opens up a world of possibilities when it comes to building mana bases. Everyone seems to be excited to play four color good stuff, but it isn’t that simple. For starters, both cycles are only allied colors. This limits you to being centered in an allied color pair or a three-color “shard.” Yes, you technically can play four colors, but one of those colors really has to be a splash, and relying too much on the third color can be dangerous. You also end up with a mana base that looks something like this:
8 BFZ Lands
Running very few basics means that you need to fetch them early if you want your BFZ lands to be untapped in later turns. That limits your ability to fetch your colors early. Assuming you fetch basics, you have about a 76% chance of having two basics in play by turn 3 on the play, 81.7% on the draw. It increases to 86% by your 4th draw but those numbers don’t even account for fetch removing basics from your deck. It’s also made worse by the 10% chance that you won’t have any fetch or basics in your opener. I’m not thrilled about a 20-25% chance of not having my BFZ land untapped on turn 3.
Adding a land and going to 12/6/7 helps a lot for getting those BFZs untapped, but drops your counts on each other from 20-21 to 16-17. Fewer BFZ lands also makes casting double color costs harder. Going down to a three-color “shard” doesn’t change that math much, you basically just get the one splash basic into one of your core colors, but your BFZ lands being tighter helps with double-color costs.
If you want to look those numbers in more detail, check out my Mana Base Calculator sheet. Feel free to make yourself a copy to analyze your own mana bases. Just copy the template area and input your relevant counts in the “Sources” fields.
But What about Abzan?
Hoooo boy. Wedge colors are rough. You can’t really play the BFZ duals. Maybe a Canopy Vista, but that’s about it. Sandsteppe Citadel becomes your best friend, and you probably want some Shambling Vents, but you have to go heavy on pain lands. Bile Blight and Thoughtseize were the biggest reasons to be heavy Black, but those are both gone. Some Abzan decks were already shifting to more of a GW/b configuration, and I think that’s still the way to go. Rakshasa Deathdealer and Ultimate Price are likely the only cards left under three mana that demand Black mana and it remains to be seen how good those cards are now. Ruinous Path replaces Hero’s Downfall as the only double-Black requirement. Downfall was usually the removal you saved for last because it was the most flexible, so it was pretty rare that you really had to cast it on turn three. Languish is the other double-Black spell an Abzan deck might play, but they haven’t so far and they probably won’t start now.
The outlook is similar for Jeskai, where Mantis Rider really wants to spread its wings, but likely needs all eight pain lands to support it. Jeskai also has a tough choice over which colors to make primary. Burn spells like Exquisite Firecraft draw you to red, but being base UW is a lot easier to support.
The biggest loss for aggressive decks is Mana Confluence. BFZ hasn’t helped at all in terms of untapped sources, so two color aggro decks are going to have it rough. I expect aggressive decks to have a strong primary color with an allied secondary color or maybe a double-splash. My 18-Land Boros deck is dead for other reasons, but the mana base wouldn’t survive losing both Temples and Mana Confluence. Green-White and Atarka Red are your best bets. Black has even less to offer an aggressive deck now with Thoughtseize gone.
That’s what your mana base can do in terms of color, but the power of Temples was getting a pseudo spell out of our lands. We’ve got a bunch of options for utility lands, but you can’t play a lot of them and expect BFZ lands to ever enter the battlefield untapped. What can we do if we focus on getting spells out of our lands instead of mana?
Dudes. That’s the first thing most people think of when they want to get stuff out of their lands. Battle for Zendikar also brings us two enemy colored man-lands. Lumbering Falls taps for Blue or Green and gets Hexproof, making it hard to interact with. It needs you to clear a path for it though. Shambling Vent is Black/White and becomes a 2/3 Lifelink. This is a much more defensive card, but that little bit of life gain can help stabilize and get out of range of burn and haste creatures. No, these aren’t as good as the Worldwake Manlands, but if you’re a two color deck that can activate them you still want four of them.
Another type of spell-land are lands you can cash in later for an effect. Foundry of the Consuls and Spawning Bed straddle the line between dude-lands and spell lands as they sac to make creatures. Foundry gives you a pair of evasive creatures, presenting both a good threat and a good defense. This is my first choice if color isn’t an issue. Spawning Bed is very similar, providing three Eldrazi Scions for six mana. I like that if I’m trying to cast 8-10 drops, but otherwise give me the Thopters.
BFZ introduces a fully cycle of such lands and they’re all relevant. Control and ramp style decks will appreciate these lands the most, since those decks traditionally play more lands and have low threat density.
Blighted Cataract is the best “cash-in” land we have seen in a long time. Horizon Canopy could sac to draw a card, but being able to pop it for two cards is worlds different. Plus, it wasn’t blue. Cephalid Coliseum was a powerful looting effect but didn’t net you any cards so it mostly saw play in graveyard decks. Six mana plus itself is clearly too much for older formats, but we’re talking Standard, where you’ll have no trouble cashing this thing in when you need it. This is a game changer for control decks. I really hate to use that term, but it is correct here. You’ll still want something like Anticipate to smooth out your early draws and Dig Through Time is too good not to play, but you don’t have to mess around with anything else. This is the replacement for Jace’s Ingenuity, not some clunky sorcery.
Edict effects have a weird usefulness curve in that they’re very good early when your opponent only have one threat, get worse as your opponent deploys more, but then get great again when the board has cleared and casting single threats off the top. Blighted Fen loses the early game usefulness of an edict, but bypasses the mid-game lull by just being a land tapping for mana. It waits patiently, helping you cast your sweeper, ready to pounce when your opponent follows up with that big threat they were sandbagging. You can activate it as an instant too, even stopping hasty beats.
Blighted Gorge harkens back to one of my favorite cards, Barbarian Ring. The problem is that if you get to 5+ lands in a red deck you’ve probably already lost. Gorge does help by giving you extra reach and live draws in the late game, but the activation cost is the most prohibitive of the cycle.
Blighted Steppe and Blighted Woodland are interesting in that they provide their effects without paying a premium in mana. Yes, the fact that they have to tap and sac effectively adds one to the cost, but compared to the other three which all cost 2-4 more than their spells would before counting themselves is significant. Mana ramp on a land is kind of weird. It’s a turn slower than Explosive Vegetation and you lose a land, which makes it really more like Harrow.
Enter the Battlefield effects. There’s a cycle of five common lands that do something when they ETB. People are hyped about Mortuary Mire getting your good threats back, but I’m more excited about Skyline Cascade. Before Blighted Cataract was spoiled I thought this might actually be the most important land in Battle for Zendikar. The effect seems pretty innocuous. It doesn’t tap the creature, and it only “ices” it for one turn. What it does though is interact with a creature in the early turns of the game, which is very valuable to a control deck. If you’re a blue deck, creatures are going to be attacking you. Even if you’re some weird aggro/tempo deck, you’ll probably be racing at some point. Finding a tapped creature to ice isn’t going to be a problem. This is going to save at a minimum two damage, but scales to the size of the threat you’re facing.
Every control deck needs to play enough cheap spells that interact early in the game to make sure that they survive long enough to cast a sweeper, draw some cards and take over the game. The trouble with those cards is that they typically become very poor draws late in the game. They either don’t answer the big threats or are dead cards against an opponent without threats. Skyline Cascade has neither of those problems. It will buy a turn against any non-hexproof attacker, and it’s always a land, even if it enters the battlefield tapped. More importantly, it lets you play fewer of those cheap, low-upside spells and lets you play more powerful spells and more lands to cast them.
Not knowing what the format will look like, here’s how I’d build a UW control deck for BFZ Standard:
That’s a 27 land deck where 10 of its lands are legit spells, plus the Khans “Gain” lands. Beyond that, you get to play eight Awaken spells in Scatter to the Winds and Planar Outburst that can turn your non-utility lands into creatures. That kind of spell flexibility on top of unprecedented land utility allows you to eschew dedicated win conditions and just play all control cards. Hangarback Walker plays a good two-way game and scales to any situation. The biggest argument against Hangarback is that everyone should be prepared for it.
Bonus MS Paint Job: