Once again, we find ourselves in the uncanny valley between sets, where we know enough about Battle for Zendikar to be interested in what the formats will look like once it's released, but not enough to fully construct new decks. Luckily, there's still plenty of preparation we can do, and I'm going to lay out some of my initial impressions of the upcoming Standard format.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when building decks for Battle Standard (and if that's not a cool name, I don't know what is).
The Mana Is Going to Be Great
The combination of the Khans fetch lands and the new battle lands is going to mean that we get six months of incredible mana in Standard. As we've seen in Modern, using fetch lands with lands that count as basic land types enables all sorts of four- and five-color decks off lands alone, and we aren't going to be far from that in Standard.
Imagine a mana base like so:
3 Sunken Hollow
3 Prairie Stream
4 Shambling Vent
That's 25 lands, which is normal for a mid-range/control deck, and look at how good the mana is: seventeen blue, thirteen black, fourteen white.
Only the four Shambling Vents have to enter the battlefield tapped, and you could even replace those with some combination of Caves of Koilos and more Sunken Hollows/Prairie Streams/basic lands if you were so inclined. Even though Bloodstained Mire gets Sunken Hollow, I don't think you want off-color fetches in this deck badly enough.
This type of mana base makes the three-color combinations that don't have a Khans triland (like Sandsteppe Citadel) viable, and we might get to see an actual Esper deck instead of just blue-black decks that play three or four copies of Dragonlord Ojutai.
The three-color decks that do get lands like Sandsteppe Citadel aren't going to change as dramatically, as the scrying Temples from Theros get replaced with some combination of battle lands and lands like Shambling Vent if they are lucky enough to have one in their colors.
What about something a little more ambitious:
3 Sunken Hollow
2 Prairie Stream
2 Smoldering Marsh
For this hypothetical four-color deck, we are playing 25 lands and end up with the following counts: nineteen blue, fifteen black, nine red, five white.
If this deck is Grixis-based, with heavy blue and black, splashing a card like Dragonlord Ojutai, this mana base looks like it works. It could even play more Flooded Strands or Shivan Reefs, though I didn't want to go too overboard on the pain. This mana base could certainly support cards like Silumgar's Scorn and Languish and splash some pretty sweet options. This also gives us enough room to play one or two colorless lands if need be, which is important because of how many good spell lands there are.
Speaking of spell lands:
Lands That Provide Value Lead to Higher Land Counts
Of all the sets I can remember, Battle for Zendikar is going to be one of the ones with the most lands, and with that comes a ton of lands that do things other than just tap for mana.
Between lands that animate into creatures (and we may even get more than the two we have now), lands that sacrifice for effects, and lands that have effects when played, there are a ton of options for lands that provide value.
The main effect that has on deck-building is that decks tend to play higher land counts, because a number of the lands double as spells. Getting to play 25 to 26 lands without as high a risk of getting flooded is very powerful, and will heavily impact deck construction. It naturally favors decks that can make use of getting to six-plus mana, and most of these new lands look like they fit better into mid-range/control decks to begin with.
That's not to say that aggro is completely out of luck, because topping your curve off with something like Lumbering Falls is also quite powerful, but lands like Spawning Bed and Sanctum of Ugin certainly do promote a big-mana strategy.
What aggro does like to see is mana bases that consist of more lands that enter the battlefield untapped, which leads to my next point.
More Decks Will Play Cards on Turns One and Two
Instead of mana bases consisting of eight to twelve ETB-tapped lands, decks are now going to be playing zero to four lands that always start tapped. That's a huge shift, and you are going to lose a ton of value if your deck can't use all of that extra mana. Making a deck with zero one-drops that doesn't play tapped lands is not desirable, and more and more decks will be built with that in mind. At the very least, decks will want more cards to play on turn two, but that's still a change from how many decks operate now.
The days of tapped land into tapped land into tapped land are over, and making use of that extra mana is a way to get an edge. That could also usher in a new era of actual multicolor aggro decks, something I'm very much looking forward to. Right now, beatdown decks tend to either play one color or play only a few one-drops, but these new mana bases open the door for a more diverse beatdown strategy to emerge.
Another bonus is that more decks are going to play eight-plus fetch lands and some number of pain lands, which means that the average damage players deal to themselves is going to go up by a meaningful amount. Dealing 17 damage instead of 20 is a pretty big difference, and aggro decks are well-positioned to take advantage of that.
Moving on from lands, here are some other early considerations:
Thoughtseize Is Gone!
Thoughtseize may be just one card, but the effect it had on Standard was huge. Black decks are losing their best one-drop, their best disruption card, and, in a lot of ways, their best safety blanket. No longer can black mages be confident that they can stop their opponents from playing a sweet five-drop, and the plan of just jamming in four Thoughtseizes and feeling good against any slow deck is now gone. I, for one, will not mourn the departure of Thoughtseize, and look forward to playing decks with expensive cards that actually get to cast them.
Enchantment Is Still a Very Relevant Card Type
We are already seeing some very powerful enchantments, and cards like Jeskai Ascendancy and Outpost Siege aren't going anywhere. Even though Theros block is departing, I still think you want some answers to enchantments in your 75. We aren't quite at the point where I'm confident you want to main-deck removal, but enchantments are still a card type you want to be able to interact with.
The High End Is Going to Be REALLY High
Cards like Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger (which is my favorite name from the new set, given how much it speaks to me) indicate that decks are going to go BIG. The higher land counts, good ramp, and high-end pay-offs mean that titans will battle in this upcoming format. How frequently isn't clear yet, but anything you build should keep this in mind.
Add everything together, and you have a recipe for a very interesting Standard. Good mana, interesting expensive cards, lands that let you play a high land count, untapped lands that support aggro, and a ton of powerful options mean that these next couple months should be a wild ride.
Before I go, I want to mention how one lucky player got to live the dream last weekend, assuming the dream involves slowly grinding every opponent out of the tournament (that's my dream, at least).
Zac Elsik followed up a GP Top 16 finish with a GP win, and with a deck he undoubtedly loves. This deck is a case study in synergy, using a unique assortment of cards to put the opponent into a complete lock. Ensnaring Bridge + Lantern of Insight + Codex Shredder/Ghoulcaller's Bell stops the opponent from attacking or drawing anything, at which point the Lantern deck can win at its leisure. I played the deck after his first GP run here, and it was a lot of fun (for me—I can't vouch for my opponents).
I just wanted to point out how cool it is that Zac built this very original deck, played it a ton, and got rewarded by winning a 1,500-person tournament. That's really awesome, and even if this isn't a deck I'd want to see make up a huge percentage of any field, I have to give Zac props for his achievement.