The Heart and Souls of Standard

Posted in NEWS on July 4, 2014

By Luis Scott-Vargas

Luis Scott-Vargas plays, writes, and makes videos about Magic. He has played on the Pro Tour for almost a decade, and between that and producing content for ChannelFireball, often has his hands full (of cards).

Magic 2015 is on the horizon, and it's looking awesome. Besides the exciting cards I got to preview, ton of cool cards have been revealed. Among them is the Soul cycle, where six different planes get cards to represent them, and powerful cards at that. The flavor here is great, which should please noted flavor aficionado and Hall of Famer Ben Stark, and the gameplay looks like it's going to match. This cycle is reminiscent of the Titan cycle from Magic 2011, and the Titans not only impacted Standard, they took it and turned it on its head.

One of the remarkable things about the Titans was how each one got its time in the spotlight. Sure, Primeval Titan was overall the most dominant, but every Titan had at least some time where it was legitimately the best Titan in Standard (even Frost Titan). Let's take a look at the Souls and see if they can fill the (impressively giant) shoes left by the previous cycle:

The first thing to note is how powerful each ability is. Starting with the baseline of a 6/6 with a keyword is good, but the activated ability is really the soul of each card, because that's the part of the card you are reliably getting. Granted, some keywords are better than others (flying over trample, for example), but the number one reason the Souls will see play is what they can activate for.

Speaking of the activated abilities, those are how the Souls get to fight against all the removal they will inevitably be facing. The Titans got around removal by paying you off up front, and the Souls take the opposite approach. They don't give you anything the turn they are played, but you then get a one-shot use at any point later, and in uncounterable and instant-speed fashion. The realities of Constructed Magic being what they are, you really can't pay more than four mana for a card that doesn't match up well against removal, so the "play from the graveyard" clause on the Souls is critical to their upcoming success.

Looking at the commonly played removal in Standard, we have a mix of cards that looks something like this:

That list even gets to ignore cards like Bile Blight, Mizzium Mortars (and the rest of the red removal), Domri Rade, and Polukranos, World Eater. That's a good sign for our soulful overlords, as the only cards that are really problematic are Banishing Light, Detention Sphere, and Cyclonic Rift. Given that, I think the assumption that you will get value out of your Souls is a pretty good one.

I've Got Soul

Going in classic WUBRG order, here are the Souls in all their glory. Where inspiration strikes me, I'll be looking at (or building) decks where a particular Soul might shine, and even if I don't, analyzing each Soul's potential uses is, well, useful.

This is one of the most exciting Souls, just because of how absurd the ability gets once you have just two or more creatures (or even one big creature, like a 6/6 of some kind). The biggest drawback of Soul of Theros (and Zendikar) is a boogeyman who won't be around for that long, a boogeyman called Lifebane Zombie. Lifebane Zombie sits on expensive green and white creatures pretty hard, and to add insult to injury, it exiles them, making the Souls completely and utterly vulnerable to the sickest of the Magic 2014 color hosers. Setting Lifebane Zombie aside, I do think that Soul of Theros has insane potential, and I think there are a number of ways to utilize it.

The most straightforward is to put it at the top of the curve in a midrange deck. I'm starting with midrange instead of aggro because it lets you play some mana ramp and some six-drops, and play for slightly longer games. Plus, the most powerful part about the ability is the massive lifelink-fueled life swing, and aggro decks don't particularly care about gaining life unless they are fighting other aggro decks.

GW Midrange

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The days where all I played were Loxodon Hierarch decks aren't that far gone, and this is certainly a throwback to them. It's got plenty of cards that gum up the ground, some good late-game Planeswalkers and Souls, and a lot of very removal-resistant threats. Getting your expensive cards Doom Bladed is not the end of the world, and between Voice, Advent of the Wurm, and Planeswalkers, even something like Supreme Verdict isn't as crushing as it could be.

A lot of the cards in the deck make multiple creatures, and it seems trivially easy to activate Soul of Theros and get 10+ damage and life out of the deal. I've even tossed in a Soul of Zendikar, because despite Soul of Theros being more powerful in this deck, Soul of Zendikar might be better than drawing a second Soul of Theros in some games.

I also have to mention Reclamation Sage and how it is reclaiming main deck space for artifact/enchantment removal. I think this card is cheap enough and has enough targets to be a legitimate staple, and I will at least be trying it in a lot of the decks I'm going to build.

While the Titans tended to be good in and promote control decks, the Souls mostly have abilities that lean toward more creature-based strategies. One exception, of course, is the blue one, with Soul of Ravnica drawing cards like a good control finisher should. Even just drawing two cards off a Detention Sphere is powerful, and if you can reliably hit three different colors, that's awesome. It doesn't hurt that Soul of Ravnica is also a 6/6 flier, which is the best among the bunch.

Because Sylvan Caryatid is essentially a Soulmate, here's another deck that plants a wall in front of the enemy and helps ramp out a Soul finisher (and where Sylvan Caryatid is, Courser of Kruphix is not far behind).

Bant Control

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This will likely end up in the giant pile of Bant decks I keep trying to make, but the idea of a resilient and eventually unstoppable card-draw engine seems pretty nice. This deck doesn't go too far out of its way to get Soul going, and if you wanted to get really wild, you could play more colors, more hybrid cards (Frostburn Weird is interesting) or both. I also don't know that it's bad to just put Soul of Ravnica in a UW or Esper deck, and just be fine with drawing two cards if opponents kill your 6/6 flier. How Souls really play out is going to be interesting, and I don't have a good sense yet on just how much you have to build around them and how much you can just toss them in a deck and have them be awesome.

Speaking of creature-based abilities, we have Soul of Innistrad. What I like about this is how neatly it fits in an already-existing shell, as the Dredge deck not only has a ton of creatures but also dumps a bunch of cards in its graveyard. This is also the first deck that is trying to cheat the ability of a particular Soul, as all the other decks are intending to cast their Souls and use the flashback as a backup plan.

BG Dredge

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Again, Soul of Zendikar pops in, but this is still a deck that identifies more with Soul of Innistrad. I debated including a Nyx Weaver to get the full combo going (Nyx Weaver gets brought back by Whip or Soul of Innistrad and can, in turn, bring back anything!), but this deck already is doing a lot of durdling. Adding the Souls makes this deck even more resilient in the late game, although at the cost of having more six-mana cards it could potentially draw. I do like what they add to the deck, and they now give Dredge an excess of options in deck building. It wasn't that many months ago that Dredge was a few cards short (Drown in Filth, anyone?), but now the opposite problem is happening: Dredge has too many good cards, and there are a multitude of ways to build the deck. This build is one path; an enchantment-based constellation deck is another, and a third way is to eschew a lot of the cute stuff and just max out on Lotleth Trolls and bestow guys.

I don't know which way is best, but it's probably not too surprising that I started with Value Dredge and am going to work my way from there.

Soul of Innistrad could also be a solid one-of or two-of somewhere in Black Devotion's 75, as long as it's alongside Gray Merchants, and I wouldn't be surprised if it helped get an edge in the super attrition matchups. While we are mentioning Black Devotion, by the way, I'd be remiss in my duties if I didn't point out how much better Silence the Believers just got. If this cycle truly is the heart and soul of the format, Silence the Believers just went from a solid removal option to an awesome one, much closer to what it was in Block Constructed.

This card evokes fond memories of playing the original digital Magic game, which came out back in 1997. Playing Magic on my computer was revolutionary, and the amount of hours I spent wandering Shandalar was not a small number. The Soul that represents (inhabits? Flavor Judge!) Shandalar is a much more streamlined and aggressive beast than the game it reminds me of, which puts this card in an interesting spot.

Aggro decks aren't really in the market for six-drops, especially six-drops without haste, and the effect it has doesn't really punish control decks enough for midrange decks to be interested. What it does do is help fight medium creatures and Planeswalkers, which along with a very hard-to-fight body, could make it a key tool in a midrange vs. midrange matchup. My first inclination is to put this in a RG Monsters shell, because it beats all other monsters in a fair fight, as well as killing Xenagos or Domri once its ability gets activated. Of course, those decks are still flooded with options, so where Soul of Shandalar lands is still a mystery to me.

As you may have seen, Soul of Zendikar has shown up in all the decks I've built so far (and if I included a RG Monsters list, it'd probably be there too). I really like this one, and think it provides exactly the kind of value needed to see play. A 6/6 reach can't be ignored and does stop just about any offense your opponent might be bringing, with the exception of an already-fed Desecration Demon. If this survives, cranking out 3/3s is as good a plan as any, and against non-Supreme Verdict decks will usually put you in a really good spot.

If this does get dealt with, having the ability to make a 3/3 at any point in the future is huge, and takes very little in the way of context to be good. Most of the other Soul abilities require something to be happening to be good. Theros demands you have some creatures in play, Innistrad wants them to be in the graveyard, Ravnica needs a multicolored set of permanents, and Shandalar needs the opponent to have an x/3 in play to really get value. Zendikar is much less picky, and a 3/3 is basically always useful in some capacity. Zendikar is the workhorse of the group, with the least flashy and most consistent ability, and I like that.

There are plenty of Soul of Zendikar decks that are waiting to be built; I've shown you three already, and basically any green deck that expects to get to six mana should at least consider this. It's one of the more resilient game-enders, and requires so much less work than something like Garruk, Caller of Beasts or the like.

This has the most purely defensive ability of the bunch, which makes me a little wary. Keeping mana up to try and stop removal or a Wrath isn't very realistic, and a 6/6 trampler isn't enough to really make up for that. Go figure that the artifact is the most soulless of the bunch.

The Souls will have an impact on Standard, both in what decks choose to finish games with and what removal gets played. If Detention Sphere and Silence the Believers become incredibly popular, Souls might fade, but that's more of an ebb and flow than anything else. Plus, cards like Reclamation Sage can counter Detention Sphere, and I can put more Souls in my deck than my opponents can Silence the Believers (just watch me).

I'm playing a ton of Magic this next month, with the Magic 2015 Prerelease followed by Pro Tour testing, Pro Tour Magic 2015, and Grand Prix Portland. With some luck, I'll have good news to talk about as a result!