At long last, Kaladesh is rotating, and not a single tear is shed.
The set that brought us a record number of Standard bans over the course of its lifespan is finally leaving us, and being replaced with a brand new Ravnica set at that. Good riddance, I welcome our new overlords, and what not. One of my personal frustrations with the Dominaria iteration of Kaladesh Standard was the substandard mana, with three-colour decks required to have unacceptable tap-land density and two-colour decks somehow just constantly missing colours. There’s good and bad news for fans of impeccable three-and-four-colour manabases. You see, we have shocklands, and a full ten buddy lands to match them, but the shocklands’ release is staggered. For now, only Dimir, Izzet, Selesnya, Golgari, and Boros have their dual lands, and the other five guilds are relegated to heinous manabases.
This leaves us with a bunch of interesting day one deckbuilding restrictions. Rakdos, Azorius, Simic, Gruul, and Orzhov decks are borderline unplayable, and the lack of shocklands in those colours also spell trouble for Bant, Mardu, Jund, Temur, and Esper. Of course, we’re not encouraged to play any of these ten colour combinations thanks to their lack of multicoloured spells in Guilds of Ravnica, but there’s another implication to the restricted shockland count for the remaining shards and wedges. You see, only two of the three sets of lands are currently in Standard, so we’re locked into Grixis decks that more easily support blue spells. In the same way, Abzan favours green, Sultai favours black, Naya favours white, and Jeskai favours red. Generally speaking, when choosing lands for these decks, you’re likely to want to max out, or come as close to maxing out as possible, on available shock and buddy lands, leaving the remaining four to six slots for basics. This gives you acceptable counts of each colour of mana for single-costed instances of your non-core colour as well as double costs of your main colour starting on turn three to five, depending on your basic count as per Frank Karsten’s work.
The powerful cycle of triple coloured creatures in Dominaria throws an additional wrench into choosing which colours to play with. Llanowar Elves into Steel Leaf Champion is likely still a tier one strategy, but only half of the possible splashes for each colour are available thanks to the lack of shocklands. That means Goblin Chainwhirler decks can’t sideboard Duress to beat Teferi, among other, lesser issues. With notable exceptions in specific decks, we’re probably not best off leaning too hard on these mono-coloured payoff cards.
While you could easily just play guild-themed decks in this nascent Standard format, the excellent manabases encourage us to dig a little bit deeper, and dig deeper I have.
The Scarab God might have rotated, but that won’t stop me from forcing my favourite archetype of value-addled midrange in a format that looks primed and ready for it. Thief of Sanity is the most interesting and difficult-to-evaluate card for Dimir in this new set, and to do it justice, we’re going to have to run through a short history lesson of its predecessor, Nightveil Specter. This staple of years past was a mainstay in the Mono-Blue Devotion decks through Theros/RTR Standard, but we’re going to focus instead on its role in the black Devotion decks instead, where its mana cost was much less important than its unique ability. Nightveil Specter was a house in any midrange or control matchup, both for its ability to give you a second chance each turn at hitting your land-drops, as well as sometimes hitting powerful spells to overwhelm your opponent with advantage. Thief of Sanity is unfortunately unable to help you find land-drops — likely for the best, as everyone seems to play with the same sleeves these days — but is much better at finding relevant spells to cast. The difference in power level of their respective abilities is likely, on average, a wash, with maybe an incremental edge to Thief of Sanity.
Something worth remembering is that by the time M15 had rolled out, people were cutting Nightveil Specter from their black midrange decks in favour of Lifebane Zombie. Blood Baron of Vizkopa had become a popular way to trump the mirror match, and Lifebane’s upside against that card and the Elvish Mystic stompy decks outshined the grindy, incremental advantage on Nightveil Specter. Of course, putting Nissa Worldwaker in your black decks was the actual answer to that format, much how Elspeth, Sun’s Champion was the truth in Thoughtseize decks a year later.
Now, we might not have a card quite as ubiquitous an answer as Thoughtseize available to us, but this deck tries its best to mirror the glory days of black midrange in the Theros era. Vraska, Relic Seeker is our game-ending planeswalker, there’s plenty of powerful removal, and our creatures, despite not being Pack Rats, are each able to generate incremental, or sometimes overwhelming, advantage in one way or another. This is a rough draft, and the numbers will obviously need tuning based on the way the metagame settles down, but I’d imagine a strategy along these lines will be competitive, if not excellent. My primary concerns are the absence of a powerful two-mana creature in the Glint-Sleeve Siphoner/Pack Rat slot and Thief of Sanity’s vulnerability to Dead Weight and Shock, but the upside is probably worth it.
Before we move on, I’d like a minute to talk about my lord and saviour, Read the Bones. Notion Rain is a big deal for black midrange decks, especially in post-board matchups where you get to bring in Duress and cement early card advantage. A big deal has been made online about District Guide and its effect letting you “continue to play the game”, and Notion Rain does much the same thing. Even blue haters know how powerful Glimmer of Genius is, and being able to do the same on the much less important turn three is a significant upgrade for the few decks able to play this excellent card. If it wasn’t for District Guide and Thief of Sanity clogging up the three-drop slot, I’d probably try to play a third copy of this slightly better Read the Bones. I can only dream of being able to take advantage of the graveyard synergy this card offers.
Well, it’s not like Teferi got much worse. While the Esper versions of the deck are certainly gone, and a straight U/W variant lacks the all-important Hallowed Fountain for now, Jeskai seems like the way to go for a Teferi strategy on week one. You get access to a ton of effective removal and counter-magic to deal with all the aggressive Boros decks that people will be throwing at you. My primary concern is that this deck will struggle to find a way to actually win the game against any B/G/x list featuring a bunch of Vraska’s Contempt and Assassin’s Trophy to take out your Teferis. I did some Gatherer searching, but couldn’t find anything that quite made the cut to fit in the maindeck. It might not actually be a problem. Justice Strike is an excellent removal spell, and Chemister’s Insight might even be better than Glimmer of Genius and Hieroglyphic Illumination.
Lava Coil might be better in this deck than I give it credit for, as despite Scrapheap Scrounger rotating, we’re left with Rekindling Phoenix being a very powerful-looking threat in this format, and to be able to answer a resolved one for a mere two mana is excellent. As is, however, it seems like it’s a distant third behind Shivan Fire and Justice Strike as far as removal goes. Ionize is here instead of the superior Sinister Sabotage for considerations of mana consistency, as blue is not the colour favoured by Steam Vents and Sacred Foundry. This will likely change once we’re graced with Hallowed Fountain.
While we lose a bunch of the technology that Ken Yukuhiro added to this budget Magic Online deck to bring it to a Top 4 finish at Japanese Nationals, the core of this deck remains largely untouched by rotation, and I’d expect it to be a deck benefiting greatly from the rotation of cards like Fatal Push, Abrade, and Magma Spray, ubiquitous answers to the threats it presents. Curious Obsession is an obscenely powerful card, and a deck that can pair it with a bunch of cheap threats and counterspells is nothing to be scoffed at. It’s entirely possible that this deck ends up incapable of lining up against powerful decks in this format, but you’re best off not sleeping too hard on blue aggro.
Before I leave you this week, I’d like to present a little bonus in a biased and mathematically worthless power ranking of this weekend’s World Championship in Vegas. I’m absurdly excited to watch this tournament of the world’s best duking it out for the biggest title in the game, despite the extremely dead formats that they’re being made to play for some inconceivable reason. See you at Prerelease!
1. Owen Turtenwald
If you don’t think Owen is the favourite to win any given tournament, you probably haven’t been paying very much attention. Owen is dedicated to the game on an inhuman level, and pairs impeccable gameplay with unmatched preparation.
2. Marcio Carvalho
His unapologetically sketchy past aside, there’s no doubt that Marcio has proven himself as of late one of the best players in the world. Coming off of back-to-back PT Top 8s, Marcio has the momentum, and with 6 rounds of Dominaria Draft ahead of him, this Draft specialist is looking primed to make a deep run.
3. Reid Duke
Despite narrowly missing out in the Player of the Year race, Reid’s on a tear. He plays with the best of the best, and shines bright even among his peers. Reid’s gonna kill it.
4. Ken Yukuhiro
Ken’s recent semifinals finish at Japanese Nationals with Mono-Blue Aggro turned heads around the world, but also will throw wrenches in the precise Standard metagaming taking place among this narrow field of players. Ken’s perfect and blazingly fast play with unfamiliar decks and strategies gives him an edge, even against players as well-prepared as this field.
5. Seth Manfield
Seth’s play is incomprehensible to us mere mortals, but the results don’t lie. Even against the best players in the world, Seth will always be a favourite.
6. Luis Salvatto
Despite being the second-best Luis in Magic, Salvatto finds himself as the top Luis in this particular tournament. Oh, he’s also extremely good and would be locked for Player of the Year if he had only dodged the brick wall of a pro Magic player who was trying to quit in Ondrej Strasky during the quarterfinals of GP Stockholm. Seems like someone who’s playing out of their mind.
7. Javier Dominguez
I don’t know much about Javier, but reliable sources tell me he’s an outstanding player who certainly deserves his stellar results as of late. I see no reason to believe that his story will end here.
8. Ben Stark
Despite being arguably the best drafter in the history of the game, Ben’s been absent from the Worlds stage for a while thanks to some uncharacteristically cold seasons. He’s back, and Dominaria limited is one of the most skill-testing formats in recent memory.
9. Brad Nelson
Former Player of the Year Brad Nelson returns to the Worlds stage, though his major success this year at Pro Tour Ixalan was in a very different-looking Standard.
10. Mike Sigrist
Unfortunately for Mike, known for his reputation as a Standard master, the stale format for this Worlds is as good as solved. While there might be some clever tuning to be done, his typical advantage here will be lessened in Kaladesh Standard’s last hurrah.
11. Martin Juza
Martin’s as practiced as anyone can be with the black-red decks dominant in this Standard format and stands well-positioned for a deep run.
12. Gerry Thompson
Alongside Brad, Gerry is without a doubt one of the masters of tightly tuning Standard decks for a prospective field, and once again, his advantage here is lessened by the antiquated nature of the format.
13. Shahar Shenhar
Shahar’s been tearing up GPs this year, and you can’t win back-to-back Worlds solely on the back of little kid luck. Let’s see if Shahar can be the three-time champion.
14. Brian Braun-Duin
BBD is a great player and, despite his proclivity for, let’s say, poor jokes, an amazing writer and theorist, but in a field as strong as this one, he will be taxed to his limits. That said, he’s done it before, and there’s only 23 of the best players in the world trying to stop him from doing it again.
15. Matthew Nass
Matt has been on a tear this year with his trusty KCI deck, outright winning multiple GPs. Unfortunately, those cards are neither in Dominaria nor Standard-legal, and he’ll have to rely on playing fair Magic to win out here. Regardless, Matt is an elite player, and has as good a chance as anyone of making a deep run.
16. Andrea Mengucci
Mengu is an absolute all-star, but I can’t bring myself to say that he lines up favourably against the top players at this event. That said, he did bring his dad to this event, so the nutritional upgrade from American food to #menguccicuisine might give him the boost he needs to take this one down.
17-24. Matthew Severa, John Rolf, Grzegorz Kowalski, Gregory Orange, Ben Hull, Elias Watsfeldt, Wyatt Darby, Allen Wu
I don’t really know anything about these players aside from their results that got them here, so I can’t pretend that I have any meaningful way of ranking them!