The Gatewatch may have successfully kicked the Eldrazi out of Zendikar, but the titans and their spawn have already made Modern their new home and this weekend they're looking to conquer even more territory.
Eldrazi ramp decks featuring Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger have been a staple of Standard since Battle for Zendikar and its 10/10 titan hit the format last fall. Pro Tour Atlanta and Modern, however, showcased the potency of the more reasonably sized Eldrazi, and some players at Grand Prix Houston are trying to harness these same threats to take down this weekend's Standard tournament.
Mindless beings of the Blind Eternities like the Eldrazi aren't necessarily the organized type, but their multifaceted approach to devouring the competition at Grand Prix Houston shows a fearsome ability to gain the advantage during the early, mid, or late game.
At least three distinct flavors of Eldrazi have appeared in Houston, including mono-blue aggro, a deck that takes advantage of potent stat-boosting cards like Ghostfire Blade and Ruination Guide to pressure the opponent early and evasive cards like Whirler Rogue to finish them off. It also features a few cards that have recently made a splash in Modern, such as the relentless Reality Smasher.
“Reality Smasher is just a beating,” says streamer Athena Huey. “Every time I cast that card I feel like I'm winning . . . normally because I am at that point. Whirler Rogue has a lot of good interactions with the deck. It allows you to finish off those last few points of damage or maybe get the evasion you need. If you equip a Ghostfire Blade to a Thopter you're doing really well, or if you have a Ruination Guide in play pumping up your colorless creatures, all of a sudden your Thopters are coming in for four damage.”
A set of mid-range Blue-Red Eldrazi decks that tailor their game plan to best combat their opponent's strategy use the Eldrazi spells that Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch provided, as well as an until-now overlooked tool that came with those same Eldrazi – colorless utility lands.
“Tomb of the Spirit Dragon is the biggest draw in Standard,” says Chris Fennell, a Limited aficionado with a total of eight Grand Prix top eights. “There are multiple colorless lands that produce multiple colorless creatures to go with the Tomb of the Spirit Dragon. You can play a deck with twenty-six lands and fourteen of the lands are actually spells.”
“All the lands are so good,” Christian Calcano adds. “You have Foundry, you have Spawning Bed, you have Tomb. Tomb is obviously the best one, it lets you win races where your opponent, if they try to race you, they're going to lose every time.”
These lands outshine even Pro-Tour winning staples like Thought-Knot Seer.
“Thought-Knot Seer can feel like the core, especially when you go turn two Hedron Crawler, turn three Thought-Knot Seer, but the lands are what makes the deck,” says Sam Lowe, who won a Last Chance Qualifier with the deck on Friday evening.
Tomb of the Spirit Dragon, once the bane of Limited players everywhere, is proving powerful enough in Standard that even the aggro deck plays it.
“When you sit down and you've got your Whirler Rogue out plus some of your early drop Eldrazi, you're all of a sudden gaining five life a turn and it's really hard for your opponent to race at that point,” Athena says.
Colorless lands aren't the only value cards these Eldrazi players are piloting to victory. Both Blue-Red Eldrazi and Red-Green Eldrazi utilize powerful spells with valuable additional abilities.
“Once you start casting Drowners of Hope and start to gain a bunch of life with Tomb of the Spirit Dragon, the game starts to spiral out of control for your opponent and then you take over and win,” Calcano says. “I think Drowner is probably the best card in the deck overall, and that's what all the other Eldrazi decks that we've seen online were lacking.”
“Drowner of Hope is just absurd in the deck,” Fennell agrees. “It's just an absurd card in Standard because basically everything in Standard's a 4/5 and it's a 5/5, and they have to play out their removal spells on your Vile Aggregates and your other creatures, and then when you play Drowner of Hope it just blanks their whole board.”
2014 World Magic Cup competitor Andrew Baeckstrom came to Houston with a leaner version of the old Green-Red Ramp decks.
“My deck is really focused on the interaction between World Breaker and Kozilek's Return,” Baeckstrom says. “When you cast World Breaker and you've got a Kozilek's Return in your graveyard you get an uncounterable, unpreventable five damage to all creatures. Everything is focused on getting the game to the point where that'll happen and once that happens it's usually pretty easy from there.”
As evidenced by the multitude of Eldrazi strategies, there was no one straightforward approach to bringing the Eldrazi to Houston.
“I've been playing Green-Red ramp for a while, and to mixed results,” says Baeckstrom. “So I cut all the puny non-Eldrazi creatures from my deck and now that it's a much more pure, Eldrazi-focused deck things have been going much better.”
“When Eldrazi blew up in Modern, I had a lot of time and I felt like Eldrazi had to be good in Standard but just hard to figure out,” says Fennell.
What put these players in the path of the ravenous Eldrazi - the appeal of beating an old Standard foe, getting the advantage over a new Standard staple, the lure of victory?
“I think you win a lot of games you have no business winning at all,” says Lowe. “It's about beating people who don't expect what you're doing.”
“Something that's characteristic of the Eldrazi is that when you cast them or they enter the battlefield they tend to do something awesome and really leave a mark,” says Baeckstrom. “If people are playing a lot of Reflector Mages – which people are – they're going to pay for bouncing that creature back to your hand.”
In the wake of the destructive path Eldrazi carved through Pro Tour Atlanta, players are wondering if Standard will be the next format the titans and their spawn will decimate. While we wait in trepidation to see what destruction they'll bring, all we know for now is that the Eldrazi are returning to make their mark on day two.