In Development – Developing a Context

Sixty percent.

In about half a week, we say goodbye to the Lorwyn-Shadowmoor super block and welcome Zendikar into Standard, moving us from a Standard pool of 1,640 cards into one featuring only 977. That leaves us with a new working pool a mere sixty percent as large as the one we’re, in some cases perhaps happily, walking away from.

Last week I touched on the idea of how we can, somewhat in the abstract, evaluate a card’s worth based on the role we assign to it. We’re necessarily stuck to some degree in the abstract when we follow the organic release of spoilers ahead of a set’s official release. This is only emphasized as we transition between Standard environments, when we can’t rely on the basic templates we’ve come to know from the first half of a more developed Standard year.

This week, with full official spoiler in hand, it’s time for us to look at deck designs for the new Standard. This is also a special opportunity to examine how we can approach the annual ritual of a Standard environment rollover, and how we can effectively and affordably narrow down our deck choices before we go out and purchase the actual cardboard that powers our play.

Picking fights

In two months, preparing for a tournament will be an entirely different and rather more known quantity, something I’ll likely discuss when the time comes. At the moment, when we’re faced with a pleasing plethora of novel cards that in turn suggest new deck designs, we need to figure out how to place ourselves on an appropriate footing. So how do we do that? What does that even mean? How, before there’s ever been even one FNM at the local store, do we decide which deck designs are likely to be worth bringing to that FNM? More to the point, how do we decide that it’s worth buying those playsets of key rares?

What is, in a word, our context?

Going into any new environment, be it a full set rotation, the introduction of a new set, or, for those highly motivated among us, a Pro Tour in a brand-new format, we want to develop a sense of the opposition we’ll be facing. Mechanically, this can, and often does, mean compiling actual deck lists – but that’s much more in the realm of developing a playtest gauntlet. This is a useful step, but for later in the process. Right here and now, what we care about are the general themes we can expect to face each time we sit down at the table.

If this sounds awfully familiar, it may be because you read last week’s column and realize that I’m suggesting that we need to compile a list of answers to the question “What does your deck do?” for a collection of likely deck designs. Going into a new Standard, there are a few big places to look for this kind of information:

1 – The prior Standard
2 – The most recent Block
3 – The buzz
4 – The obvious stuff

Part one is largely an evaluation of how badly each archetype will be kneecapped by rotation. The tribal decks, comprising Faeries, Kithkin, Merfolk, and various uses of Elves, are gone. “Slap it all together” Five-Color Control is done. Various cascade aggro and control decks will have to play nicer with their manabases, but will likely remain viable.

Part one nicely segues into part two, where we simply see how effectively we can plug each Block archetype into a new Standard. The answer here is pretty concise – most of them will plug in just fine, and their mana will be smoothed out significantly by the options available in M10 and Zendikar. Once again, this means cascade aggro and control builds, ranging from three through all five colors. Naya and green-white aggro builds are also likely to be reasonably portable. I’m dubious about Esper aggro making it through into Standard, and wouldn’t spend a lot of time trying to force that transition.

Parts three and four amount to you and everyone else in the world staring at the cards for a while and trying to pick out some additional insight. The “obvious stuff” embraces all those things that stand right out when you look at the cards in the pool, such as the fact that there seems to be a strong vampire linear spread across M10 and Zendikar, or the similar fact that there are a lot of cards that could potentially support mono-black aggro or control. Similarly, Zendikar tells us that lands matter, so we can expect people to build in that direction for a while, whether it’s a good idea or not. We then wisely acknowledge that not all the “obvious stuff” is obvious to us, and look around for other analyses, whether it’s of specific cards or proposed builds. There’s nothing quite so handy as letting other people obsess over a problem for you and then leveraging their insight into making your own work better.

With my own version of these four steps compiled, I see a forthcoming Standard with some notable and entertaining features. We can expect cascade to retain its place in both aggro and control modes, as card advantage is still card advantage. At the same time, we’re losing some of our “card advantage creatures,” meaning that for the moment we don’t have to work around Spectral Procession, Cloudgoat Ranger, and an Overrun effect being dropped on top of a field of hobbits to wipe us out. We’ve also seen a pretty robust crippling of countermagic, at least for the moment, as the Faeries powerhouse is no longer keeping us in check, and other decks have lost Cryptic Command and Broken Ambitions. This, in turn, means that big “haymaker” spells have a sudden free pass. If you’re going into a control matchup, expect to have Identity Crisis, Mind Sludge, Cruel Ultimatum, Thought Hemorrhage, and all sorts of other big-ticket nonsense aimed at you. Finally, vampires and mono-black decks of various stripes look to be entirely legitimate contenders.

Let’s boil it down. We need to beat cascade, black, vampires, and big spells aimed at our head. Check.

We have our environment firmly – we hope – in hand. Time to build some decks.

Open design work

In designing decks, I spend an awful lot of time not touching any cards. There’s research on Gatherer, putting lists together, pondering mana bases, and so forth. However, even after I’ve settled on some concepts I want to test out, I still don’t rush out and put together the actual deck, preferring to rely on some form of proxy play before I grab the actual cards. This isn’t even about buying the cards – although it’s good when you haven’t yet decided where you’re going to spend your cash. Rather, it’s so I can very quickly test and evaluate design elements. Is a deck’s mana going to work? Is it likely to curve out properly? How often do I see, and how often can I cast, the spells I need to make the build work the way I think it should?

In a sense, this mimics the playtest processes we’ve seen described for Wizards R&D, where they scribble new text on blank cards and modify how cards work as they go along. My version lets me fluidly swap cards in and out much, much faster than I can manage to dig them out of my collection. I’d argue against this approach for actual pre-tournament playtesting, as there are some cognitive issues with not having the actual cards in your hands when you’re really hammering down how the deck works. But when I’m just trying to figure out if a concept works, it’s all about speed and having a fluidity of process that supports fluidity of thought.

I’ll delve into that method more at a later date, but the upshot for this week is that I’m about to launch into discussion of a number of deck archetypes, and I don’t expect all of them to make it through the coming week. I plan to eventually settle down and discuss two decks – one aggro, one control. In the meantime, though, this is your window into my process of figuring out which of the many, many potential decks in a new Standard will be both fun and successful.

Ascension Control

As we saw last week, I’m quite excited about Luminarch Ascension. This card offers tremendous power as a finisher, power that evokes the efficacy of Decree of Justice in terms of suddenly and perhaps irreversibly turning the game in the favor of the player who hits an active Ascension first. I’m so high on this card that I’m inclined to just jam it randomly into decks of all stripes, but that is both clumsy and unhelpful for the reader, so I’ll focus on control builds featuring this fine card.

Ascension Control wants to stick an Ascension or other major threat, then make sure nothing happens until it wins the game. On the plus side, we have a lot of ways to make sure nothing happens on the board at the moment. On the minus side, we have that haymaker problem I mentioned above. If we drag this game out, someone is going to eviscerate use with an [card]Identity Crisis[/card] and then Baneslayer us to death. We’d like to avoid that. Here’s one way:

Walker Ascension Control

Walker Ascension Control tries to dodge the haymakers by filling the board with an abundance of card-advantage generating threats. The hope for this build is to ramp into the women (Nissa and Elspeth, that is) while clearing the board as needed with removal. There are seven sweepers, three of which are also game-ending threats, along with an endless supply of either attackers or blockers as needed from both planeswalkers. There’s nothing built into the deck that will keep you from losing your hand or hand and graveyard to Sludge and Crisis, respectively, but at the same time this deck tries not to care. No cards in hand? Time to search up another Chosen.

The Walker variant of Ascension Control benefits from a clean mana base. It is harmed somewhat by its inability to directly protect its own Ascensions, which is an issue in an Ascension fight, and an issue generally because the thing has to stay in play for four long damage-free turns.

Here’s another take on Ascension Control:

Esper Ascension Control

This is a far more controlling version of Ascension Control, illustrating an alternate approach to the dual issues of avoiding haymakers and winning an Ascension fight. For the former, it packs Cancels (yes, Cancels) and Traumatic Visions. Visions is a carryover from Shards Block Constructed, where it helpfully played a dual role, fixing your mana in the early game and then keeping you from eating an Ultimatum or having to fight a Broodmate in the late game. Its purpose is the same here.

This deck also reflects an area of my personal game development that I’m interested in working on. It packs uncomfortably few win conditions. In thinking about Ascension Control builds this week, I’ve referred back repeatedly to the Wake decks of Worlds 2003. Daniel Zink’s winning build ran two Decree of Justice maindeck, with the ability to wish for a way to recur them once each in the sideboard. This makes me just a little ill, but even with a scant four chances to actually win the game, these decks did tremendously well. Clearly, that’s an area of my game to work on, and I think a deck like Esper Ascension with a small but diversified (remember Thought Hemorrhage) set of win conditions is a good way to do so.

Iona is perhaps a bit fanciful here, but I wanted to give her a try before I ruled her out. The ideal play is to use Liliana to tutor up a Rise with Iona in hand, then on the next turn Lily yourself to ditch Iona and Rise her back for the win.

There are entirely reasonable Naya, Jund, and Bant builds of Ascension control as well, but the two builds above reflect the two major ways of approaching this archetype, and these will serve as my launching point for the coming week’s analysis.

Vastwood Aggro

As I wrote last week, there was a card in the unofficial spoilers that had me quite excited. When it was formally confirmed on Friday, I was so very tickled, and knew what direction I’d be taking for aggro builds in the near future.

In Extended, Gaea’s Might and Might of Alara have a dual nature. On one hand, they’re “win faster” spells, meant to pump your creatures all out of proportion to the spell’s price and smack the opponent for an extra 5, or perhaps 10 damage. On the other hand, they are a “save me” for your creature, letting it live through a poor combat exchange, a Bolt to the head, or a board-clearing Volcanic Fallout. The first role may or may not be worth a slot in your deck, but the second role is tremendous.

Unfortunately, a Giant Growth, even an amplified Giant Growth, won’t un-[card Path to Exile]Path[/card] or un-Doom Blade your creature. Given that our creatures are going to spend a lot of time running into these removal options, no amount of +N/+N is going to help us out.

This is why Vines of Vastwood is such an exciting card. At one mana, Vines lets your attacking critter dodge targeted removal, and that alone may well be worth the price of entry. At two mana, it’s 80% of a Might with shroud tacked on. Brilliant. When we combine this with the excising of the Kithkin aggro option, this suggests a new breed of high-speed Zoo deck for the upcoming Standard:

Vastwood Aggro (Naya)


Although Vines sparked my interest in this deck, I really should emphasize that I didn’t just say “I want to cast Vines!” and run with it – although that can be a perfectly fair way to build a deck. Instead, I saw that the new Standard was moving away from Processions, Cloudgoats, Figures, and Faeries, and felt that this meant that an “old school” small-creature-oriented Zoo deck could be remarkably effective.


This deck runs a very, very low curve. There are twelve one-drops, four two-drops, and four three-drops, along with twelve one-mana instants and four more that we’ll usually want to cast at two mana. The curve is so low, in fact, that I might want to shave a couple lands off. That, of course, is what testing is for.

We’ve just come off of a Standard full of decks that deploy tremendously slowly. I think a design like this may be able to slip into that gap and victimize Shards Block influenced decks very effectively for a while. This deck wants to drop a beater on turn one, drop a beater on turn two, attack for a couple of turns, and then come over the top with Bolts and Bursts for the win.

I’ll leave off here with some food for thought. I can imagine packing Ascensions in the sideboard here for matchups versus control, where you’ll easily pick up four turns sans life loss, and can suddenly generate 4/4s at will.

Here’s one other approach:

Vastwood Aggro (Jund)

Zendikar brings a fascinating crop of black aggro choices to the table, and those in combination with fetches let us run a Jund take on the Vastwood concept. The basic structure is very similar, with twelve one-drops and eight two-drops. The addition of the Slaughtermaster depowers the deck up front, but offers the possibility of a massive “Gaea’s Might Win” type of swing when we drop a kicked Vines on it and hit for 10. The build is otherwise functionally very, very similar. I’ve chosen to shave the manabase here a little to explore what that might look like. The main impact seems to be allowing more burn, which isn’t bad.

Building your toolbox

There are other designs. Of course there are other designs. The best part of a new set is considering what directions we might want to follow. I have a list here for Reliquary Aggro, and I want to see if some variation on Big Red is viable once again, with Chandra Ablaze sliding in at the top of the curve. I’m sure more ideas will appear in the coming weeks.

Practically speaking, we can’t build every deck we’d like. This is why I recommend a lot of proxy work in advance, so you don’t waste your time and money playtesting a deck with cards you don’t need. At the same time, I do have a specific recommendation for making it easy to do a wide range of tinkering without putting yourself out of joint having to hunt down cards. Buy a full common and uncommon playset. I do this with each expansion. I hate having to try and track down specific commons and uncommons, and if you’re going to end up getting any amount of use out of the non-rares in a set, you’ll find this rapidly becomes the most affordable choice, if you aren’t otherwise building up a collection of utility cards (serial drafters are probably fine). Having a full common and uncommon toolbox is like having a workshop stocked with all the standard screws and hex wrenches – it lets you focus on the real guts of the problem, instead of having to work around card availability all the time.

Next week I’ll come back with a report on the shakedown cruise experience for these ideas, and some thoughts about how I like to approach this very early stage of development.


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