The return of Theros is finally here!
With the set finally out, it seems safe to say that 2020 is off to a good start to avoid repeating 2019, as the set is pretty much devoid from the free mana and under-costed planeswalkers that have dominated the past year in constructed formats across the board. The set is far from under-powered though, and is rife with build-arounds to explore in Standard in the coming months and years.
Rakdos Sacrifice – Baker Neenan
Rakdos Sacrifice is already an established deck, but it got several new upgrades from the latest set. In Throne of Eldraine standard the deck had a variety of ways to generate extra advantage when it assembled the combo of Witch’s Oven and Cauldron Familiar. When it didn’t though, it could struggle to accomplish much with it’s sacrifice outlets due to lacking efficient ways to produce fodder to chain Priest of Forgotten Gods activations and make use of Mayhem Devil.
Anax, Hardened in the Forge makes those concerns trivial, generating new waves of creatures with no additional mana investment to feed back into the engine or just building an army off spinning our wheels with Cauldron Familiars. Erebos, Bleak-Hearted is another new payoff that makes the deck much stronger at playing into a long game. It may be less efficient than Midnight Reaper, but that’s less important now that we have better options for generating extra material. Unlike Reaper however, our opponent can’t simply point a creature removal spell at it to limit us to only drawing a single card and once our life total gets low we can just choose to stop paying life to draw extra cards where Reaper could sometimes be a liability.
Another piece adding to our ability to play the long-game more effectively is Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger. The “front” half provides some nice extra value, essentially being a free body to feed into our sacrifice outlets and trigger Anax, Erebos and Mayhem Devil while trading off for a card. The real value comes from the Escape of course, as having a high impact threat gives us a chance to keep up if our small ball sacrifice plan gets outsized and additional recursive threats are always welcome. Five other cards in the graveyard is a real cost to enabling the escape, especially when we want to avoid exiling our other recursive threats, which is where Tymaret Calls the Dead steps in. The saga fuels an escape of Kroxa by itself, gains some spare life to help fuel Erebos draws, and of course gives us two bodies to keep Priest of Forgotten Gods topped off.
One notable absence here from the new set is Woe Strider. A free sacrifice outlet is powerful, but not in a vacuum. Standard right now doesn’t have access to strong enough recursive effects to actually do anything with this effect, and we don’t gain enough value out of sacrificing large swaths of our board to actually profit off of doing so for no material advantage in most cases. We’d rather just play sacrifice outlets that actually pay us back for what we put in and only sacrifice a creature or two at a time.
The Akroan War is essentially an oversized Claim the Firstborn for matchups that feature creatures too expensive for Claim. Notably, the Jeskai fires matchup features them repeatedly slamming giant creatures that must be answered, but overloading on direct removal results in you getting ground out by board wipes and value generated by the five drops. Getting a swing in with a Cavalier helps actually close the game with chip damage from early attacks, Mayhem Devil and Cauldron Familiar. Taking an untapped Kenrith or Cavalier of Flames can even let you attack immediately, potentially getting two swings in off of the same Akroan War.
Gruul Frenzy – Baker Neenan
The power of Experimental Frenzy is well-established, but the scope of its use is limited mostly to low-curve aggro decks that can support a low land count to minimize the chances of hitting multiple lands in a turn. Dryad of the Ilysian Grove lets us subvert that with the ability to play an additional land each turn, allowing Frenzy to go truly berserk without playing all low impact spells and struggling to win when we don’t draw it. It also supports Nissa, Who Shakes the World well, ramping it out a turn early through a removal effect and turning all of our lands into Forests to benefit from her static ability if the Dryad is left alive. These massive boosts in mana and cards let us play a typical midrange creature deck that can go over the top of almost anyone at the drop of a dime.
Destiny Spinner was the final crucial piece to making this deck come together. A 2/3 for two is a reasonable defensive body that helps us stabilize the board while we build up our engine pieces, the un-counterable clause on Frenzy can win games versus blue decks single-handedly. And with twelve enchantments in the deck the animation ability can even help close out games where we have more mana than things to do with it. It even pairs well with Nissa animation, since the base power and toughness stacks with Nissa’s +1/+1 counters, and the ability to do this at instant speed can make it impossible for the opponent to get anywhere in the combat step even without many other enchantments.
Bonecrusher Giant, Voracious Hydra and Living Twister are mostly filler that are strong on-rate, fit the curve, and are proactive enough to reliably be cast-able when they’re the top card with a Frenzy in play. I picked these for their ability to crush other creature decks since the stack of Frenzies and planeswalkers should carry us to victory as long as we can prevent being run over, but they could be swapped out easily to adjust for a metagame where small creatures aren’t relevant. Thrashing Brontodon in the maindeck to combat Witch’s Oven and Trail of Crumbs is one option, as are cards like Shifting Ceratops or Questing Beast for the ability to match size with the Cavaliers in Fires of Invention decks.
This deck also gets a surprising amount of mileage from its manabase despite playing all duals and basics. The incidental card selection from Temple of Abandon is hugely important to hitting our land-drops in the early game and still finding one of our key action spells in Chandra or Frenzy to turn the corner going long, and is relatively painless to get into play thanks to Dryad and Grazer giving us free extra land drops. Fabled Passage is also a huge boon to have lying around anytime we get a Frenzy into play, giving us a rebuy when we hit running lands we can’t play or letting us avoid sinking mana into a redundant frenzy or planeswalker. Whenever possible we want to avoid sacrificing passage in the mid-game to get that extra value.
Selesnya Aggro – Baker Neenan
The First Iroan Games is an absolutely obscene card — provided you can actually get all the modes off. Since the restrictions here mostly come down to “put some creatures in play”, it seems pretty safe to pursue the payoff. Lovestruck Beast is the first card we want in any Iroan Games deck, as the adventure mode helps ensure we have plenty of targets for the second chapter and the 5/5 body helps us get the card draw even if something goes wrong. Questing Beast is also probably mandatory, both as an on curve enabler for the third chapter and because it’s just Questing Beast and we’re a green deck — the card is pretty nuts. Similarly, Pelt Collector is the best one-drop we’re going to get and is really good friends with a bunch of four power creatures anyway.
From there, we’ll need some games to see just how easy it is to get the second and third modes off reliably, but to start with I built towards them as much as possible because it seems so easy to win when it all works. Tithe Taker, Bronzehide Lion and Paradise Druid all provide us some degree of cover when the second chapter is going off, forcing our opponent’s hand on removal on their turn before we have to choose where to put the +1/+1 counters. Growth-Chamber Guardian does something similar for the third chapter, with the ability to activate in response should our other four power creatures get killed and ensure we get our two cards.
Without the adventure package, it’s surprisingly difficult to find 1/1s to pair with Lovestruck Beast. Fortunately we have a brand new format staple to fill that role in Elspeth, Sun’s Nemesis that can ensure we never run out of them, and even dissuade people from attempting to cut us off of 1/1s in case we do have it. The minus also threatens to convert all of our incidental value creatures and tokens into real threats that can’t be bricked in the combat step, ensuring we can’t get outsized as the game goes long against opposing creature decks while removal spells pick off our few large bodies.
Grixis Dredge – Baker Neenan
Bonus round! Ox of Agonas is easily the most fundamentally broken card in the set, but the tools to break it open in Standard aren’t really there and it’s home in Modern is pretty obvious. In Pioneer however it can prove to be a meaningful upgrade to the self-mill archetypes. Currently they play Sultai to support two mana mill spells that don’t put you down a card in Gather the Pack and Grisly Salvage because the deck needs the extra gas to finish out a game, especially when trying to support Haunted Dead. With the addition of Ox we no longer have any concerns about card quantity, and can turn to more mana efficient mill effects in Tome Scour, Venture Deeper and Breaking // Entering in order to produce far more consistent and explosive starts. Then when we run out of gas, we just cast a 5/3 for two from our graveyard that refuels us and keep going.
The mana requirements are definitely pushing it here, but between Creeping Chill and general speed of the deck, we’re perfectly comfortable dealing ourselves large chunks of damage to make it all work and Mana Confluence goes a long way to making it all work out. My experience goldfishing with the deck was that you dealt yourself about four to five damage a game off your lands but mana constraints were almost never an issue, so if aggro or burn decks are sufficiently popular there’s probably some room to make the mana a little worse to help there. You could also consider a straight Izzet version that swaps Haunted Dead out for Stitchwing Skaab, but I think the replacement mill options for Stitcher’s Supplier and Breaking are too much of a downgrade.
Like most graveyard decks, the sideboard is exclusively meant to answer hate permanents so we can go back to executing our primary gameplan. This is actually the spot where we miss green the most, as our answer to Leyline of the Void has to be Void Snare which is generally less effective against other forms of graveyard hate than a Naturalize variant would be. We’re also a lot worse at removing a Rest in Peace from play, and must rely on Thoughtseize and Spell Pierce to keep it from resolving. This is definitely an archetype that is strongest when it’s not on anyone’s radar, and may require a retool into Temur or Jeskai if it proves strong enough that people start respecting it heavily.
That’s all I’ve got for today, although there’s still plenty to explore. I haven’t cracked the code for building around the gods and Devotion, and the combination of Anax, Hardened in the Forge and Embercleave is stuck in my brain like the hook of a catchy pop song. Plus there’s Lazav, the Multifarious transforming into the Titans, provided you can get the mana to work for the three color deck. There’s no shortage of appealing interactions to chase down, and there’s probably a busted deck out there somewhere waiting to win a huge tournament and propel someone into Rivals contention and beyond — might as well be you.