Standard has revolved around creatures for some time now. That’s not going to change with Shadows over Innistrad.
Archangel Avacyn, Thing in the Ice, Olivia, Mobilized for War, and Thalia’s Lieutenant join the ranks of Thought-Knot Seer, Reality Smasher, Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet as format-defining creatures. With creatures being so powerful, you need spot removal. You can’t allow an early Jace or Thalia’s Lieutenant to get out of control. You can’t survive without an answer to Avacyn or Thought-Knot later in the game.
When creature removal is at a premium, cards that produce a swarm of creatures become more powerful. This is the basis for tokens strategies. You need to find ways to pump the tokens, but those synergies are built in with your token makers these days.
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is the perfect example. Every turn, Gideon can churn out a 2/2 Knight Ally token to continue to bolster your army. If you don’t need to go wide, Gideon himself can turn into a massive indestructible creature. Already have a huge army and need to start pressing forward? Gideon is also your anthem effect. Gideon emblems are a staple of Standard play and they shine in token strategies better than all others.
Nissa, Voice of Zendikar follows the same path as another planeswalker that both helps you go wide and helps you go big. When your token makers can double as your pump effects, that’s when you have a potential powerhouse deck on your hands.
At Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, Team Ultra Pro utilized a Bant Tokens strategy that relied heavily on Retreat to Emeria. Now, you don’t need to play a card as weak as Retreat—slow to produce tokens, needs additional resources to get any effect, and requires 4 mana to cast. It’s also answered by cards like Dromoka’s Command and Anguished Unmaking. But the fact that this card and this deck were successful goes to show the power of combining token production and global pump, even at a bad rate.
The big downside to playing a strategy that relies on tokens is that you lose a ton of value from playing a great creature. Archangel Avacyn looks like a pretty busted card in any deck that is going to have a bunch of creatures on the battlefield, but if they’ve saved up their spot removal for lack of a reasonable target, it mitigates the strength of a card like this. It may still be worth it for the deck to play these creatures. They’re considered incredibly powerful for a reason. You will, however, have to realize how much weaker they might be in game 1 when opponents still have all of their Ultimate Prices and Grasp of Darknesses in their decks.
The other big downside is that you don’t actually get to utilize the best anthem in Standard. Always Watching is completely nuts. Intangible Virtue is a great card in Modern tokens and was banned in Block Constructed. Always Watching allows you to do incredible things on both offense and defense, but does absolutely nothing for your token creatures. While it’s not the biggest deal to not be able to utilize all the powerful cards in the format, it does make tokens slightly less appealing.
To mitigate the effects of removal, you’ll want to make sure your creatures get value. Thraben Inspector isn’t too far off from Elvish Visionary, giving you a body that can be pumped and a card. Elvish Visionary is a Modern format staple that becomes awesome in any deck that can use the 1/1 base body. Neither of these creatures are truly outstanding, but they’re “free.” When combined with anthems, these become serious threats that can also chump block, trade with opposing x/1s, and help keep your deck consistent and your hand filled with gas.
Hangarback Walker is pretty weak in the format. Silkwrap, Stasis Snare, and now Declaration in Stone are major Standard players. There are going to be plenty of matchups against decks that play these cards where Hangarback will still do work. It is also a 2-mana play and a mana sink, so trading 1-for-1 with premium removal isn’t a huge loss. Having your deck rely on Hangarback Walker is a mistake, but being weaker to the removal in the format doesn’t make it a bad card. It simply means there are games where you’re trading 1-for-1, and other games where it will still be awesome.
Scion Summoner isn’t the most exciting creature, but it’s 3 power for 3 mana. It’s also spread out over multiple bodies, which is much more useful in a deck featuring Nissa’s minus and Gideon emblems. You can also use the Scion token to help ramp out something bigger—nice for the games where you don’t have a fourth land and want to deploy Gideon on time, but this deck plays a lot of land and card draw, so it shouldn’t be a frequent occurrence.
The king of token makers is still Secure the Wastes. With a single Gideon emblem or Nissa in play, the tokens are formidable threats to win the game on their own. They can also ambush creatures in combat (doubly so with that emblem). Their best use, however, is as sacrifice fodder for an even bigger threat.
The main reason behind playing so many lands in this deck is to turn on Westvale Abbey. There is no deck in the format better at getting to 5 creatures in play than GW Tokens. You can go from no board at all to a 9/7 flying, indestructible, haste, flyer after an end-step Secure followed by an Abbey. Nobody is ever safe to tap out after turn 5 against the tokens deck. The Abbey can also create its own token army before flipping, which is awesome with all of the planeswalkers. This is the best deck I’ve seen at transforming into Ormendahl, Profane Prince.
The other big Shadows over Innistrad gain for a strategy like this is also one of the more formidable weapons against tokens. Declaration in Stone is an awesome piece of removal that pulls players even further into Standard’s best color. The great thing about this particular tokens deck is how little it cares about Declaration! Yes, it will wipe out Hangarback Walker, so playing 2 at once is going to be tough unless you’re OK with some Clues, but if it happens to kill a pair of Elvish Visionaries or Thraben Inspectors, you aren’t overly concerned since you received tons of card advantage. It’s also good at wiping out your Secure tokens, but casting it at instant speed means you got some damage in. The real strength of Declaration is against Ormendahl, but hopefully you were able to get a solid hit in first and can win the game from there. Killing some Plant tokens or Knight tokens isn’t a huge concern either.
When you’re going wide, being able to take out multiple creatures or their biggest threat for just 2 mana is backbreaking. With so many ways to end the game quickly thanks to anthem effects, Secures, and Ormendahls, your opponents won’t have the time to crack the Clues anyways.
Oath of Nissa helps tie the deck together. It finds Westvale Abbey all of your planeswalkers. Not being able to get Declaration or Secure is a little frustrating and Oath can be underwhelming when you’re looking for those cards, but the real topper is making it easier to cast Nissa or Gideon. Mana is worse in Standard now than it was with fetchlands, and while a 2-color deck won’t have too many mana problems, Oath of Nissa helps with all of your double colored cards.
Here’s the list Chris Andersen played to within a single match of the Top 8 last weekend:
Chris Andersen, 18th place in a Standard Open
I think this list is rough and has room for a number of improvements, but it’s still in week 1 of a brand new format, so only time will tell for sure. Playing 26 lands, all 4-ofs and a couple 3s implies either that this is an incredibly linear aggro deck playing only the best cards, or a deck that hasn’t been well tuned. That doesn’t make it bad, but even if each 4-of is the absolute best card for the deck, each 3-of suggests it isn’t exploring all of the options.
You could simply play some of the really good creatures. This deck has Archangel Avacyn in the sideboard to not play into opponent’s removal spells when they’re sure to be there in game 1, but it could be powerful enough to slot in.
The sideboard is relatively transformational. Archangel Avacyn and Surrak, the Hunt Caller are undercosted and powerful creatures that also walk directly into Ultimate Price and Grasp of Darkness. These cards completely dominate when your opponent can’t interact with them immediately. Surrak granting haste and Avacyn’s flash play extremely well against removal spells that are good against tokens, such as Declaration in Stone, while giving you much more game against sweepers. Planeswalkers are already powerful against sweepers, but being able to follow one up with an end-step Avacyn into Surrak for 9 damage is incredible.
You also don’t have many powerful creatures in the main deck to make Evolutionary Leap really shine, but it’s pure value. Chaining Elvish Visionary into Elvish Visionary isn’t the most impressive, but it will get the job done. The card advantage will eventually take over into the powerful threats if you can continue hitting your land drops. Leap becomes much better after sideboard when you have access to awesome creatures to help hit. It’s also a great sacrifice outlet for Hangarback Walker, as well as for flipping Archangel Avacyn.
Dromoka’s Command is powerful enough to play in the main deck, but also isn’t necessary. It’s far from the best removal spell when the average creature in the deck has a power of 1, but it can also help remove some small, troublesome threats. Being able to prevent the rare burn spell, such as Fiery Impulse or Lightning Axe, or make an opponent sacrifice their Always Watching, is pretty awesome.
Clip Wings has made its way into the sideboard of most green decks in the format. The top targets are Archangel Avacyn, Dragonlord Ojutai, and Ormendahl, Profane Prince. It’s also nice at taking down Thunderbreak Regent, but it’s rarely going to do much against decks that are sporting the Dragon—they’ll usually have Thopter tokens to protect Thunderbreak.
Almost all white decks (a category which happens to encompass almost all Standard decks in the format right now) feature additional removal spells in the sideboard. These start with Declaration in Stone, assuming there aren’t already 4 in the main deck. From there, Stasis Snare and Silkwraps come in. These are nice catchalls as they can come in for matchups where you happen to have bad cards. When you have mediocre cards in your deck, such as a token maker you didn’t want, removal is a pretty good filler. This can also be critical against something like Thing in the Ice, a card that can completely ruin your day.
The same strategies that have always been useful against tokens are strong here, but be prepared to play at instant speed. This means Kozilek’s Return could be extremely important where Flaying Tendrils and Languish may have been sufficient in the past.
You also need to be careful how you actually play against tokens with these sweepers. Letting them untap after resolving Secure the Wastes could be a game-losing mistake. Not only could they have access to Archangel Avacyn, saving their entire team, but they could simply play and activate Westvale Abbey before you had a chance to respond with the Return, leaving you to face down a 9/7 flying lifelink!
Virulent Plague is going to be an important sideboard card for a number of decks. It shuts down Thopters, Scions, the armies that both Nissa and Gideon would produce, and makes Secure the Wastes do nothing. Westvale Abbey will never flip and also not be able to produce any tokens. Gideon could still win the game single-handedly, and maybe Hangarback Walkers can get the job done without making Thopters, but this is a nightmare card to face. If you’re playing Tokens and suspect your opponent has access to Plague, bring in answers like Dromoka’s Commands (or something else, depending how you build your deck). It’s possible to sideboard out enough token producers for enough real creatures against decks with Virulent Plagues as their sweeper of choice, which can turn the matchup around.
Thing in the Ice is also a tough one. Having your tokens bounced means that they aren’t coming back. Then you’re facing down a 7/8 that will end the game quickly. You will want answers to the Thing since flipping it at instant speed, or even the mere threat of doing so, will cripple your game plan. Conveniently, Elvish Visionary and Thraben Inspector play much more nicely against things that are in ice.
This is a powerful strategy with some room to grow. Considering the success of Hardened Scales at the end of the last Standard season, I strongly suspect a number of players will gravitate toward this strategy. What token makers or sideboard strategy are you most excited to try out?