How to Solve New Standard Formats

Posted in Top Decks on December 21, 2016

By Melissa DeTora

Melissa is a former Magic pro player and strategy writer who is now working in R&D on the Play Design team.

Happy Shadows over Innistrad Release Week! By the time this article goes live, Shadows over Innistrad will be on the shelves and we'll be in a brand-new Standard rotation. Unlike previous Standard rotations, this is the first one with the new block model. We are now in a world with two blocks per year, which means a Standard rotation every six months. With this new model, Khans of Tarkir and Fate Reforged are cycling out, leaving us with the Standard-legal sets Dragons of Tarkir, Magic Origins, Battle for Zendikar, Oath of the Gatewatch, and now Shadows over Innistrad.

Today's article is going to talk about how to solve new Standard formats. While I'll mainly be discussing the Shadows over Innistrad Standard format, these lessons can be applied to any format, not just Standard.

Step 1: What's Leaving?

The first thing I recommend to players taking a first crack at a new rotating format is to look at what's rotating out. What decks become obsolete? What holes does the format have? Do any decks stay intact?

In Khans of Tarkir Standard, the cards that defined nearly all of the Standard decks were the Khans fetch lands. The fetch lands, when combined with battle lands from Battle for Zendikar, could create nearly perfect mana bases, as each fetch land was able to search up four different colors. For example, Flooded Strand could find Island, Plains, Canopy Vista, and Sunken Hollow. This mana system meant that decks could play four or five colors very easily.

With the fetch lands gone and things being "back to normal," the days of playing four- and five-color decks in Standard are over. Dark Jeskai, Green Mardu, and the other various four-color midrange decks are losing the cards that helped them operate. The mana-fixing lands that are now available to us can only be stretched so far. For this reason, the strongest decks in the new format will be only one or two colors.

Not every deck was a four-color midrange deck. Oath of the Gatewatch provided us with a unique mechanic in colorless mana. There were many powerful Eldrazi printed in that set that you could only cast with colorless mana. These Eldrazi decks really took off, and there were many versions, including Mono-Blue, Mono-Red, and White-Black Eldrazi. Here's an example of a Mono-Blue Eldrazi deck.

Mono-Blue Eldrazi

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As you can see, most of the deck has stayed intact post-rotation. The deck lost Ghostfire Blade, Tomb of the Spirit Dragon, and some of the counterspells, but the backbone of the deck has survived the rotation. Decks like this are a great starting point to begin our Standard testing. We already know that they are strong based on their previous success.

Step 2: Find New Cards for Existing Archetypes

Once we have recognized which decks survive the rotation, the next step is to identify cards from the new set that can fill any holes. In the previous example of Mono-Blue Eldrazi, we have established that we lost some utility cards from Khans of Tarkir, such as Stubborn Denial and Ghostfire Blade. What cards from Shadows over Innistrad can fill this hole? Better yet, are there any cards from Shadows over Innistrad or another Standard-legal set that can work in Mono-Blue Eldrazi in general?

Tomb of the Spirit Dragon is one of the biggest losses for the Eldrazi decks. While nothing really comes close to filling the role that this card did, Shadows over Innistrad provides us with a cool new colorless land: Westvale Abbey. Westvale Abbey is a great way to spend your mana when you don't have much else going on, and it ensures that you always have creatures on the battlefield. With four copies of Whirler Rogue in the deck, you have a great chance of having the necessary creatures to transform Westvale Abbey into Ormendahl, Profane Prince.

The other big card we're losing is Stubborn Denial. Shadows over Innistrad doesn't have a counterspell that's as efficient as Stubborn Denial, but there are some great options in other Standard-legal sets. The first is Clash of Wills. Clash of Wills is one of my favorite counterspells in Standard because it has the greatest opportunity to counter your opponent's best spells for only two mana. Another card that works here is Warping Wail. While it only counters sorceries, it also has two other modes, making it incredibly versatile.

Step 3: Identify New Mechanics

The best thing about a new Standard format is the brand-new decks that come out of the latest set. Often new Magic sets have an on-theme mechanic that is cool and exciting enough to build an entire deck around. If you look back at Magic's history, I'll bet you can identify plenty of Magic sets that had their own mechanics or themes that spawned new Standard decks. Some examples are Lorwyn with tribal, Zendikar with landfall, and Theros with devotion. In Shadows over Innistrad, the major mechanics are madness, delirium, and tribal. If I were building a gauntlet of new Standard decks from Shadows over Innistrad, I'd start building decks with those themes.

Sometimes these themes have a decent amount of overlap. In fact, two of the new mechanics from Shadows over Innistrad have so much overlap that it's pretty easy to build our first new deck. Which themes am I talking about? Madness and Vampires, of course!

Many of the Vampires from Shadows over Innistrad have the madness mechanic attached to them. Vampires are also good at providing a way for you to discard cards in order to cast your madness spells. For example, one of the new double-faced cards in the set, Heir of Falkenrath, asks you to discard a card to transform it. What if the card you choose to discard is one of the Vampires that has the madness ability, such as Incorrigible Youths? This little combo allows you to not only transform your Heir of Falkenrath into a 3/2 flying creature, but also cast your Incorrigible Youths at a discount!

To build our Vampire Madness deck, we need to take a look at all of the cards throughout Standard that both a) have madness and b) have an ability that lets you discard cards. The easy part of this task is that we know that madness only appears in Shadows over Innistrad, so we don't have to look very far to find our madness spells. Identifying the best discard outlets is a bit trickier, but a quick search on Gatherer should narrow things down nicely. Here's our Vampire Madness deck.

Melissa DeTora's Red-Black Vampire Madness

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Step 4: Find Cool New Build-Arounds

The most fun part of deck building is getting creative with new cards. I always like to identify single cards that ask me to build a brand-new deck. A recent example is Collected Company. Collected Company has found homes in many decks. It works best with creatures with powerful enters-the-battlefield abilities, like Reflector Mage and Shaman of the Pack.

There are so many cool build-arounds in Shadows over Innistrad that I can't possibly list them all in this article. Two cards that really get my gears going are Relentless Dead and Prized Amalgam. I bet we can build a really cool graveyard recursion deck with these Zombies.

When building a deck like this, our first task is ask ourselves what these cards are trying to do. In the case of Relentless Dead, it wants us to do two different things: play lots of Zombies and play ways to sacrifice those Zombies so we can return them to the battlefield. We're going to want to play cards that give us bonuses when we sacrifice them, such as Shambling Goblin, alongside sacrifice outlets like Nantuko Husk. We also want ways to fill up our graveyard so that we can have creatures to return with Relentless Dead. Epiphany at the Drownyard, Screeching Skaab, and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy are great at doing this.

Prized Amalgam is asking us to find ways to return creatures from our graveyard to the battlefield. The first card that comes to mind that accomplishes this is an old friend from Dragons of Tarkir, Risen Executioner. Another cool card that can trigger Prized Amalgam is Geralf's Masterpiece. It sounds super fun to return a Geralf's Masterpiece and then every Prized Amalgam from the graveyard to the battlefield. The best part is that the emptier your hand is, the bigger Geralf's Masterpiece gets, so discarding three cards can be perceived as a bonus!

Here's how I built the Zombie Recursion deck.

Melissa DeTora's Blue-Black Zombie Recursion

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And that's how you solve a new format! Well, actually, it's not as easy as it looks. Formats can take quite a while to completely solve, and sometimes even the best pro players can't solve a format before the next rotation. However, these tips are a great starting point for approaching a new format, and can make the process much less overwhelming!

What cards are you most excited to build around from Shadows over Innistrad? What deck are you going to take to the first Friday Night Magic of the new format? Send your answer my way via Twitter (@MelissaDeTora), and as always thanks for reading!

Melissa DeTora

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