Three-color 3-drops have always been incredible—Rhox War Monk and Woolly Thoctar are good examples from the past—and Mantis Rider will be no exception. It has a good ability from each of its colors and a fine body for its mana cost. There is actually likely to be a cycle of such three-drops in Khans of Tarkir (including the absolutely insane Savage Knuckleblade) and I wouldn’t be surprised if all of them will be among the best cards in the set.
But let’s focus on Mantis Rider for now. The best way to evaluate it is by comparing it to closely related cards:
Both Lightning Angel and Skyknight Legionnaire have seen play at high-level events, and Mantis Rider compares favorably to both of them. If you can afford blue mana in your deck, then Mantis Rider is clearly better than Skyknight Legionnaire, and if you don’t care about the 4th point of toughness, then it is a clear improvement over Lightning Angel.
That point of toughness might be important enough to favor Lightning Angel over Mantis Rider, however, at least in Modern where Lightning Bolt and Snapcaster Mage run amok. In Standard, 3-toughness creatures don’t die as often as in Modern, but even then there are Lightning Strike, Anger of the Gods, and Bile Blight to worry about.
Yet, the fun thing about Magic is that what might seem to be a downside at first might actually not be a downside at all. For example, if cards like Courser of Kruphix, Polukranos, Sarkhan, and Savage Knuckleblade would dominate the post-rotation Standard, then people might start playing Pillar of Light, in which case having 3 toughness is actually a good thing!
But the main reason I’m excited about Mantis Rider is how well it will fit in the upcoming Standard. As always, context is everything. Let’s take a look at some of the cards that are bound to see a lot of play:
Mantis Rider lines up excellently against all of them.
Against red aggro decks (headlined by Goblin Rabblemaster), the most important ability on Mantis Rider will be vigilance. With vigilance, Mantis Rider can act as an excellent blocker that pressures the opponent’s life total in the meantime. So while your opponent is struggling to build up a big enough board to swarm your blockers, you get to hit him for 3 while blocking a Goblin token every turn. Pretty good.
Against green midrange decks (which will certainly feature Courser of Kruphix), the key ability of Mantis Rider will be flying. While Courser of Kruphix threatens to block most aggressive creatures, Mantis Rider just flies over it. And if that wasn’t enough, Mantis Rider has the perfect size for blocking Courser of Kruphix on the swingback, too! This will ensure you win the damage race against green decks.
Against decks with a lot of planeswalker (Xenagos and Kiora, for example), the pivotal ability on Mantis Rider will be haste. This essentially turns it into a Flametongue Kavu for planeswalkers. Mantis Rider even has the perfect size for taking out Xenagos and Kiora in a single attack. I mean, Banishing Light and Hero’s Downfall are also fine ways to deal with those planeswalkers, but Mantis Rider leaves a 3/3 flying threat on the board, and that’s a huge improvement.
I think Mantis Rider can fit in both an aggressive deck (where its main role will be to fly over Courser of Kruphix for the final points of damage) and a control deck (where its main role will be to take out planeswalkers without losing card advantage), so I made a Jeskai list for both.
(As an aside, I’m glad that the name of the wedge finally offers a decent alternative to calling U/W/R decks “American” decks. That has always been a silly name because the flag of the Netherlands, France, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, and a dozen other countries are also blue, white, and red, so “American” never described a distinctive feature. Jeskai finally offers a proper name for U/W/R decks.)
Alongside Mantis Rider, this deck features the best aggressive early drops and the best burn spells in red, white, and blue. Most of the card choices are self-explanatory, though the suite of Dauntless River Marshal, Chained to the Rocks, and Evolving Wilds is a bit speculative. The idea is that having Evolving Wilds over Mystic Monastery or scry-lands is only a minor downgrade (and it might actually be an upgrade if your opponent has Urborg in play) whereas gaining access to Dauntless River Marshal and Chained to the Rocks is a significant upgrade over the alternatives.
Beside Mantis Rider, this deck features the best control cards and planeswalkers in red, white, and blue. The deck aims to sweep the board with End Hostilities and take over the late-game with Sarkhan and Elspeth. The mana curve of the deck lacks early drops and four-drops (unfortunately Chandra, Jace, or Ajani don’t fit the strategy of this deck very well) but hopefully, there will be new cards in Khans of Tarkir to solve these issues.
One way or another, Mantis Rider will work overtime as a blocker, a win condition, and a planeswalker-slaying machine, and I expect that it will a centerpiece of Jeskai decks in the new Standard.