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First Look at the Return

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The letter T!his past weekend showed us our first look at Standard with Return to Ravnica cards... and that first outing did not disappoint. One of the hallmarks of the original Ravnica: City of Guilds was a prevailing "Tier-Two Metagame." That is, a format where many playable cards were of comparable level (rather than being defined by a small number of defining cards), which led to a wide variety of viable deck types.

The first Top 8 from the StarCityGames Standard Open in Cincinnati might be giving us a glimpse of just such a format: a wide variety of decks doing well, from straightforward green or white aggro, to little folk playing in the graveyard, to bigger—really big, actually—folk playing in the graveyard, to pure control on the backs of some powerful Planeswalkers.


Red-White-Blue Control

Todd Anderson continued his StarCityGames Open Series hot streak with a win at the inaugural Return to Ravnica Standard Open. And his weapon of choice? Something a bit off the radar in terms of the initial chatter around Golgari, Zombies, and so on: "All-American" (RWU) Control

Todd Anderson's Red-White-Blue Control
Standard – Winner, StarCityGames Open, Cincinnati


Basic Strategy:

Todd's deck runs on two basic systems—miracles and Planeswalker control. The miracles side is pretty familiar for those paying attention since Pro Tour Avacyn Restored: Hallelujah! Flip over an early Entreat the Angels and it is bad times for almost any opponent. A stack of undercosted 4/4 fliers can certainly race!

Terminus was good enough to help Alexander Hayne win some months back, and it continues to be a strong contributor as the Wrath of God of choice (especially as we are now absent Day of Judgment in Standard). Terminus's clause putting victim creatures on the bottom of a deck (rather than the graveyard) is of particular interest in the current Standard, as two of the initial deck options—Zombies and Reanimator—really don't mind having a creature down there... Zombies likes Gravecrawler there (where it has essentially no drawback) and Geralf's Messenger (with its undying); Reanimator, of course, wouldn't necessarily mind one more go around with Unburial Rites... a Reanimator opponent might in fact have an Unburial Rites waiting.


Todd's is kind of a combo big-spell deck and creature removal deck, what with nearly one-third dedicated removal spells main deck (and only the two Syncopates for control-control). Anderson chose particular removal cards at that! Pillar of Flame is problems for a Gravecrawler and at least challenges Lotleth Troll to a game of chicken. Both Tamiyo and Jace can blunt the attack, and can prove especially useful going "infinite" with Pillar of Flame.

New Cards:

Detention Sphere and Azorius Charm continue Todd's no-graveyard creature-elimination theme (with Azorius Charm of course making for an incremental miracles catalyst as well), while Supreme Verdict makes for Terminus redundancy.


Todd's deck wins by either a powerful Angels rush or overwhelming card advantage. It has the haymaker, luck-harnessing power of the miracles mechanic... combined with the grinding ability to exhaust the opponent's resources via Jace, Architect of Thought and Tamiyo, the Moon Sage. This Planeswalker tag team has been likened to "Batman and Robin," blunting the opponent's attack and locking down his or her best threat while leveling up one or both Planeswalkers.

Grueling.

Jund

The Cincinnati Open featured a number of Jund-colored decks. To wit:

Lauren Nolen's Midrange Jund
Standard – Top 8, StarCityGames Open, Cincinnati



Nolen's deck is the more aggressive of the two, opening up with second-turn Strangleroot Geist and plugging the turn-three mana holes with Wolfir Avenger; West's deck is the more midrange, focusing on attrition and progressive card advantage. West's features Borderland Ranger as a two-for-one and the Phyrexian Arena-like Underworld Connections as a source of card advantage main.


Both decks are thick with removal, agreeing on Pillar of Flame and Sever the Bloodline (which, if you didn't already notice, puts creatures like Strangleroot Geist and Gravecrawler on special notice)... West has more where those came from.


Classic midrange decks; these looks at Jund illustrate a type of deck that can do more than one thing.

New Cards:

  • Rakdos Keyrune—I was a bit surprised to see this come up in both decks... an accelerator that jumps you from three to Thragtusk mana, as well as a first striker with enough power to hold off many commonly played creatures.
  • Mizzium Mortars—The definition of versatile removal! It's point removal when you need it, a sweeper when you are rich. Opponent just tapped out for a devastating Entreat the Angels? You could do worse than having a Mizzium Mortars available.
  • Underworld Connections—I am very interested to see where this card ends up going. On the one hand, it costs you a little extra. The commitment of a land actually encroaches on an area that card-drawing spells of the black "pay life" family have traditionally exploited—not needed up front. On the other hand, unlike a Phyrexian Arena, this won't necessarily kill you... you have a choice not to use it.
  • Cremate—Quick, cantrip, hell for Reanimator, and a nice little something to sock away for Zombies.
  • Rakdos's Return—Great huge threat card! Both Jund variations use Rakdos's Return; both of them are Keyrune decks and four-of Farseek decks... and particularly powerful in a build like West's, which packs Borderland Ranger for even more mana consistency.
  • Dreadbore—More versatility... it's like a Mizzium Mortars for Jace, Architect of Thought.
  • Deathrite Shaman—Already being called one of the best cards in the new set, Deathrite Shaman is a potential Birds of Paradise-like accelerator (given a little setup help) but really shines against decks that exploit the graveyard. Among other things? Really, really annoying for Snapcaster Mage and Unburial Rites.
  • Slaughter Games—Keeps narrow-endgame opponents honest.

Zombies

The pre-tournament favorites, Zombies came in several different varieties in Cincinnati. Riding the power of new cards like Lotleth Troll (called a Troll, but apparently also a Zombie... check out the one-two punch with Gravecrawler!) or existing synergies like Blood Artist + Falkenrath Aristocrat, Zombies in some stripe will likely cement itself as the top beatdown strategy of the coming age.


While Forsberg's deck is a Jund variant by colors, I chose to group it with the Zombies decks as it shares much more strategically with those decks than the Farseek-into-Thragtusk crowd.

Forsberg's version took advantage of new cards like Dreg Mangler and Lotleth Troll but also setup into Falkenrath Aristocrat... which is an outstanding offensive curve, especially given the haste and the three- and four-spots!


Falkenrath Aristocrat (or just combat, setup removal spells, whatever) works with Brimstone Volley to really shorten the clock.

Daniel Caskey's Golgari Zombies
Standard – Top 8, StarCityGames Open, Cincinnati


If I had to guess ahead of time, I would have hazarded that the Golgari version of Zombies would settle into being the most popular when the dust settles.

Caskey starts on Rakdos Cackler as a redundant 2-power one-drop (buddy buddy with fellow non-defenders Diregraf Ghoul and Gravecrawler), then follows up with new cards Lotleth Troll and Dreg Mangler.


Although this build doesn't go into the Falkenrath Aristocrat-punch mode, it gets a lot of additional mileage out of its little guys via Rancor.

Joe Bernal's Rakdos Zombies
Standard – Top 8, StarCityGames Open, Cincinnati


Black-Red Zombies is still alive and kicking (if zombies can be said to be "alive"). Super redundant offense at the one, chaining up to the heavy-hitting Falkenrath Aristocrat for big damage. The synergies with cards like Gravecrawler and Geralf's Messenger are unambiguous.


Bernal went with a relatively heavy burn component, including Bump in the Night, Searing Spear, and Brimstone Volley to close out games even outside of the red zone.

Reanimator

Chris Weidinger's Four-Color Reanimator
Standard – Top 8, StarCityGames Open, Cincinnati


Basic Strategy:

Weidinger's Reanimator deck is almost a hybrid deck. It has a reasonable "play fair" branch that can just play out Centaur Healer for a strong (defensive) creature on curve, manage the board with Lingering Souls, and eventually play Thragtusk on the five. Win on the merits of card quality.


But in addition to the potential for fair play, this Reanimator has a very powerful combo-like way to play. Grisly Salvage or Mulch on the second turn can dump a big creature—and maybe even an Unburial Rites depending on how lucky you are—into the graveyard. You will want that card to be Angel of Serenity in all likelihood, but a 7/7 flying Necropotence or even a "lowly" Thragtusk would be fine.


Your one big threat can now challenge to take control of the game. Any of Angel of Serenity, Griselbrand, or Thragtusk can have a huge effect on the battlefield, whether by eliminating threats or gaining life while producing a large board presence. And in the case of Thragtusk especially, trading, getting token + lifegain value, and then reanimating again makes for a more layered path to success than just playing a five on five.

New Cards:

  • Angel of Serenity—Chief target for an Unburial Rites setup, Angel of Serenity is actually cheap enough to pay retail for. It doesn't matter how big a game the opponent is up to, Angel of Serenity can potentially lock down undying Zombies, 4/4 Angel tokens, or even an ultimate Vraska in its entirety. Then, of course, as a flier, it makes for a quick race.
  • Golgari Charm—Like any Charm, this card gives you more than one way to skin a cat; my guess is that the most strategic mode is the third... you spend all this mana or set up with multiple cards over multiple turns... you really want your big guy to live.
  • Grisly Salvage—Redundant setup card to Mulch. The dream against aggro might be to give yourself a Centaur Healer while dumping Unburial Rites and a big guy for the turn three or turn four.
  • Dreadbore—Flexible removal.
  • Vraska the Unseen—It will be exciting to see how Vraska spends the next year or so. She is a Desert Twister for five... who has tons of additional text. Vraska makes attacking unattractive, can defend herself, and has a potentially game-winning ultimate that isn't too hard to level into.

Honorary Mention: Elderscale Wurm

Elderscale Wurm isn't a Return to Ravnica new card... but it is still pretty new. Essentially a one-card Worship that also clocks the opponent with a trampling 7/7 creature. If memory serves, this Reanimator build is the first performing list to exploit this weapon.

Selesnya Aggro

Dan Kauffman's Selesnya Aggro
Standard – Top 8, StarCityGames Open, Cincinnati


Basic Strategy:

Kauffman runs great creatures and bolsters them with acceleration... an age-old strategy that is no less awesome with today's offensive crop of Silverblade Paladin, Sublime Archangel, and Wolfir Silverheart.


I mean, just imagine those three creatures chaining into one another starting on turn three...

Paladin is now coming in double-exalted?

What about pairing Sublime Archangel (soon-to-be triple exalted) with Wolfir Silverheart as well? Hugely soulbonded... exalted-exalted-exalted... and then double strike? Can you even count that high?

Rancor can make even a lowly Arbor Elf into a significant powerhouse.

New Cards:

  • Loxodon Smiter—Perfect here due to the eight-pack presence of Arbor Elf and Avacyn's Pilgrim. A 4/4 on turn two? This would probably be good enough even if it didn't dance around discard and make blue decks feel foolish.
  • Selesnya Charm—This card is many things in many situations. It is a surprise mugging of a one-drop on turn two, it helps your creatures win combat/live/go over the top, and it is a solution to other peoples' Wolfir Silverhearts. And given the potential diversity of this format? You are probably going to need every mode on your Charms!

Jace, Architect of Thought | Art by Jaime Jones

If this first event tells us anything, it is that there are tons of different strategies you can play. There are tons of beatdown options, from Selesnya to a pile of different Zombies; the first big winner was control, but when you consider the Reanimator deck... there is even a kind of combo to be looked at.

With the State Championships on the horizon this weekend...

What will be your weapon of choice?

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