Jan 18, 2013
We are currently in the most diverse Standard format of all time. There is a huge variety of viable archetypes and strategies, and even though these are the twilight hours of the format there continues to be innovation. At Grand Prix Atlantic City last weekend, a deck leaning on Hexproof creatures and auras (yes really, auras) took first and second place. The Starcity Games Open Series in San Diego had a Top 8 featuring an interesting RG Aggro build, not quite like anything previously seen at similar events. In this installment of Key Cards of Standard, we’ll examine cards that helped these new archetypes thrive as well as interesting choices from established favorites.
White – Ethereal Armor
Ethereal Armor is an integral part of the arura-based decks that stormed GP Atlantic City. First Strike is an amazingly relevant ability in the format at the moment, determining whether or not combat is even worth it (depending on which side you’re on). By boosting size and granting First Strike, Ethereal Armor protects Geist of Saint Traft’s otherwise fragile spirit cleric shell. Multiple copies of Ethereal Armor all boost each other, granting an advantage that becomes incrementally more devastating. Since the armor aura counts all auras you control, Rancor is an ideal pairing. Put another way, Ethereal Armor offers immense value from the synergy of playing inexpensive auras with efficient creatures. Many of the creatures in the deck have abilities like double strike or hexproof and are thus especially deadly or hard to kill. Let’s say turn one is Forest and Avacyn’s Pilgrim and turn two is Hallowed Fountain and Geist of Saint Traft. Turn three then could easily be a third land, Spectral Flight, Rancor and Ethereal Armor. You now have a 9/7 Geist of Saint Traft with flying, first strike and trample that will end the game next turn. Plus you still have a card in hand even if on the play. Should your special ghost meet with a Terminus or what have you, then Rancor will return to your hand ready to enchant your Fencing Ace or Invisible Stalker.
Blue – Invisible Stalker
Whether you imagine Claude Rains or Chevy Chase, Invisible Stalker has a lot going for it at a very low mana cost. It is a Hexproof version of the older Metathran Soldier which has spawned many permutations, and it is precisely that ability that makes Invisible Stalker so good. Typically, unblockable creatures are saddled with mana costs that render them unplayable. Often the ones with a good cost-to-benefit ratio are painfully fragile. But not Invisible Stalker, who graciously accepts any auras or equipments and utilizes them to their fullest. In the WUG Auras decks that stormed GP Atlantic City, Invisible Stalker presented a considerable threat, as Ethereal Armor, Rancor and Spectral Flight turned an aggressive creature into an insurmountable blocker. This in turn put the brakes on hyper-aggressive mono-red builds, zombies, and whatever else hoped to get in quickly. Furthermore, Invisible Stalker is an excellent example of the success of top-down design in Innistrad, and fantastic effort from the creative team as well. Not just the name, but the creature type and rules text serve to make the card feel that it is an invisible person. The flavor text goes on to do a bit of world building, interspersing some humor while illustrating how difficult Invisible Stalker is to kill. Because the stalker is so hard to kill, it’s possible to simply load up on auras and commit nothing else to the board, simply demanding an answer. By only requiring one threat on the table, your hand stays full so as to immediately play another threat should the Nephalian rogue meet with an untimely demise. Aside from sacrifice effects like Tribute to Hunger or board sweepers like Supreme Verdict, there is precious little else to deal with the combination of Hexproof and being unblockable. Well, except for…
Black – Curse of Death’s Hold
Five mana is the point at which cards need to be able to win the game by themselves. Curse of Death’s Hold, against certain decks, makes it almost impossible for your opponent to win. Gravecrawler, Invisible Stalker, mana dorks, and even mighty Falkenrath Aristocrats will die the moment they enter the battlefield, thanks to the one-sideded Night of Souls’ Betrayal. Even the notoriously obnoxious Thalia, Guardian of Thraben will have little effect on the spells of the deck running Curse of Death’s Hold once it’s resolved. Decreasing the power of all opposing creatures by one slows down the fastest of decks to the point that they no longer pose a significant threat, or at the very least buys you enough time to deal with your opponent’s board state. If you’re able to survive an early onslaught and on turn five whisper, “thinner”, it’s likely clear sailing from there no matter how much junk food your opponent manages to eat. Decks looking to grind out an advantage with Snapcaster Mage or Moorland Haunt tokens will have to rely on their 2/3 Restoration Angels and 1/1 Geist of Saint Trafts instead, and mono-red blitzes will have to look beyond their instantly dead Stromkirk Nobles and Lightning Maulers to their 1/1 Ash Zealots and hamstrung Hellriders. Of course, if you don’t manage to find your five mana swear word in time then you could be in serious trouble from firebreathing from Stonewright.
Red – Stonewright
I suppose Standard is full of innocuous cards that sort of fell through the cracks when they were released. Stonewright is another ‘seems bad’ card that does a lot of work in the proper deck. Turn one Rakdos Cackler and turn two Stonewright BFFs are really all the more board presence you need to be lethal. You are free to attack with the devil (and possibly the human, if advantageous) each turn, and sink your mana into extra damage. If your creature trades with a more expensive or powerful creature, you’ve generated value. If your creature gets through, you can deal as much damage as you have land available, saving your precious spells for the final blow. Against a deck that wants to maximize value from wrath effects, this presents a losing situation in which your opponent is forced to clear your board but your hand is still full of action. Combined with first strike, the firebreathing from Stonewright is incredibly difficult to play around. Even if Stonewright is barbequed by a Pillar of Flame, your stronger creatures are still alive and able to apply pressure. Against instant speed removal, you’ll still have the option to spend your red mana before Stonewright dies, its soulbond with it. With even two copies, you are likely to see one per game, and might even see it in your opening hand. Regardless of the stage of the game in which you draw it, Stonewright and any other creature become very potent threats.
Green – Abundant Growth
Thragtusk is probably what comes to mind when you think of amazing green cards in Standard. But it’s cards like Farseek, Borderland Ranger and Abundant Growth that are essential to the success of decks playing Forests these days. Abundant Growth may seem like it’s not worth a card, and admittedly it’s not. Or rather, the ability by itself isn’t but the clause that draws a card makes the card worthwhile. Because Abundant Growth only costs one mana, you’re essentially cycling a card for one green mana by playing it. This generates incremental card advantage, lessening the number of remaining cards in your deck and increasing the likelihood that you’ll draw into better spells (similar to the rationale behind Cremate in last week’s article). The color fixing ability, though not worth a card by itself, is still very good. Enchanting a Cavern of Souls creates a land that taps for any color any time, and happens to make one creature type uncounterable. In the three-color auras deck, and in the RG aggro deck that does not yet have access to Stomping Ground, color fixing can be a big deal. Also, because Abundant Growth is an aura it will improve the ability granted by Ethereal Armor, while drawing a card and fixing mana. If you’re looking for a way to improve your consistency (or win a ribbon in whatever the Ravnican equivalent of 4H is), Abundant Growth may be the answer.
Multi – Rakdos’s Return and Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
According to the official story, the demon Rakdos has been taking a nap for quite some time after a minor disagreement with Experiment Kraj. Rakdos is apparently very cranky once he wakes up from his kerfuffle-induced coma, because Rakdos’s Return is quite an angry card. Being on the receiving end of Rakdos’s Return, having your hand emptied and suddenly facing lethal damage from either creatures or Brimstone Volley is a disheartening situation. It would make sense then that being the one controlling that effect would be something worth doing. Setting X to one is probably not going to do a lot, but X=3 seems to be the sweet spot. Alongside Farseek, you are able to set X to higher values earlier and thus more able to destroy your opponent’s hand. Rakdos’s Return punishes decks who dump most of their hands early but hold back a few important spells, as well as decks looking to hold onto their cards until absolutely necessary to use them. It’s easy to get hung up on the discard aspect of the demon lord’s return, but it’s also a fine burn spell that is able of killing an opponent outright. Even if your opponent only has two cards in hand, spending as much mana as you can to set X as high as possible in order to maximize damage output is probably correct. Once thought to be superior to Sphinx’s Revelation (my, how times change), Rakdos’s Return is still relevant in the Standard Metagame. Hand destruction, direct damage, control utility and finisher all in one, the return of Rakdos heralds doom.
Sorin Markov’s grandfather is the alchemist responsible for all vampires on their native plane of Innistrad. Appropriate then that Sorin, Lord of Innistrad makes vampire tokens. I think Sorin is worth playing just being a vampire planeswalker, but let’s be a bit more objective.The ability to spam tokens (well, as much as one per round is spamming) can be a serious speed bump in aggressive strategies. It becomes a win condition when you’ve ground the game to a halt, and the lifelink on the vampire tokens certainly adds up over time. What makes this version of Sorin so good is the interaction between his first and second abilities. Don’t be afraid to play Sorin, get an emblem, and have his loyalty reduced to zero in the first subsequent attack against you. It makes all creatures you play in the future that much better. Bonuses from multiple emblems are cumulative, so having more than one emblem is worthwhile. Sometimes you’ll be tempted to make tokens to protect your Planeswalker and life total, but be sure your view of the game state doesn’t become myopic. The Lord of Innistrad is best in attrition-based control decks, so it is quite likely that you’ll find another copy. When you do, making 2/1 lifelink vampire tokens is going to have a much greater impact on the game. Being in white and black opens up possibilities for Vault of the Archangel, and while lifelink twice is redundant, deathtouch is very good on your little vampire tokens. Fun and effective as it may be to make bloodthirsty vampires and increase the power of all your creatures, the ultimate ability on the vampire planeswalker is devastating. You need fear very little (beside Zealous Conscripts) if you generate that many loyalty counters. Whether to clear the way for your tokens, grind out an advantage with your opponent’s planeswalkers, or to steal threats for yourself, Sorin’s vampiric wrath is fearsome and terrible. Speaking of Zealous Conscripts, if you manage to steal Sorin, Lord of Innistrad with seven or more counters on him (he has to survive the ultimate activation for this to work), you can target himself with his ultimate ability. This will let you keep him beyond the conscripts’ ability to do so. Sorin costs a mere four mana and provides meaningful ways to interact with the board state, and will likely only improve in effectiveness when Gatecrash becomes tournament-legal.
Colorless – Staff of Nin
Typically, the Pain Artist’s pointy stick occupies one or two sideboard slots but does on occasion find its way into the main deck. Again, five mana is usually the point at which cards need to be able to win the game by themselves. Staff of Nin, at six mana, may at first glance appear to be unplayable. However, the combination of drawing a card and doing damage every single turn makes the investment worth it. This investment is also up front, so once it’s bought and paid for it’s all upside. There isn’t a lot of artifact destruction in decks these days, which makes Staff of Nin more likely to stick around, which in turn generates huge amounts of value over the course of the game. Drawing two cards per turn (one at your upkeep, and one during your draw step per usual) is enough to break a stalemate in control mirrors, and since the damage provided by the Staff can target creatures or players it keeps small threats in check and Planeswalker loyalty counters down. When combined with burn or Curse of Death’s Hold, Staff of Nin is capable of crippling some strategies. It can close out games incrementally faster if the board is locked, or provide a way to interact with creatures, Planeswalkers and life totals while keeping mana open for removal and countermagic. If your deck can ramp or plod to six mana, consider a copy of Staff of Nin somewhere in your seventy-five cards.
This coming weekend is the final SCG Open for Return to Ravnica Standard. We’re also only a few days away from having the entire Gatecrash set list revealed! I plan on doing a follow-up to my article, From the Tiniest Seed (which was the first article I ever wrote for 60cards.com!), so be on the lookout for that. For some reason, Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne just popped into my head screaming, “you wanna get nuts? Come on! Let’s get nuts!” So if I do what 80′s Batman tells me, I’ll post some Gatecrash decklists on Tumblr and post updates via Twitter; if you’d follow me on both I’d be much obliged! For now though, I need to see if there are any apartments for rent in Zonot One.