Rees’ Pieces #15 – Battle for Zendikar Standard part 1: Old Dragons New Tricks

Hi everyone, after another shorter hiatus I am back with a two part article for y’all. Battle for Zendikar has just been released and with it a new standard format to have a look at. This week I’m going to be going over decks that should survive rotation, and next week once we have some results in I’ll be checking out the new kids on the block.


So then what makes it through the change over? There are three big decks that look like favourites to transition well into the new format: Esper Dragons, Abzan Aggro, and Atarka Red. While there are others that could make it, these are definitely the big three decks to look out for. Lets take a look at them and see what they lose and what they’ve gained.


Esper Dragons


Esper is a deck that came out strong at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir but went a bit off the radar for a while, showing up every now and then but not being a mainstay of the format. It reappeared somewhat when Magic Origins came out but now it seems set up to have a real resurgence. Esper loses the scry lands and Urborg, which get replaced by the new ‘Tango’ lands (synergizing incredibly well with the Fetches we have) and it can also run some number of Shambling Vent the new BW manland plus we still have Caves of Koilos. It remains to be seen how good the new mana is, it looks very good but tricky to build right.


Esper also loses a couple of key removal spells in Bile Blight and Drown in Sorrow. Blight is fairly replaceable, we have Ultimate Price already and also cards like Reave Soul could take its place. Its worth noting that the removal in white has also got a lot better with cards like Swift Reckoning and Gideons Reproach. Drown was necessary last format because the red decks were so so fast and deadly, they should be a fair amount slower now which leaves Esper Mages open to relying on Languish, Crux of Fate, or End Hostilities. Another card that drops out is Heros Downfall, the most important removal spell in standard for most of its time. We have a replacement, at sorcery speed whether you like it or not in Ruinous Path. It has a little upside when you’re in the late game or flooded with the awakening ability, but sorcery speed is a downgrade. Too big of a downgrade, some say. We’ll definitely see in the next week or so if it will live up to its predecessor.


The coutermagic we have access also change a little, we still have Silumgars Scorn, one of  the best cards in the deck as a force spike or as actual Counterspell  if you have a dragon in hand or in play. While that remains though we do lose Dissolve which was a mainstay of more traditional control decks and most Esper decks played at least a couple of copies. Again we have a replacement in Scatter to the Winds a new three mana counterspell but again like Ruinous Path has an awakening ability that can come into play in the late game. Every Blue player will tell you the worst part about playing control is having to play win conditions, so why not have one stapled to a counterspell!



Abzan Aggro

rhnohangarback walker

Lets talk Abzan. I said these three decks are the ones to look out for and this is the one with the big TARGET on its head. Yup, Siege Rhino and friends don’t seem to be going anywhere. Abzan Control used to be the top dog but more recently (and certainly with the loss of Elspeth Suns Champion) we have seen the Abzan Aggro decks absolutely crushing, utilising a new card from Magic Origins in Hangarback Walker. Walker itself might be the Big Bad Wolf in new Standard but more on that later. I mentioned mana bases earlier with the loss of the scry lands and Urborg, but once again we get new Tangos (though only 4 fetches fro them instead of the 8 Esper gets) and Abzan can use Shambling Vent too.



As far as creatures go there are a decent number of options available. While Fleecemane Lion has bitten the dust we still have Rakshasa Deathdealer and Warden of the First Tree which saw play last format. Other occasional sights were Kytheon Hero of Akros and Heir of the Wilds which cropped up here and there. We also have some sweet new additions to go in this deck the most hyped of which is Drana Liberator of Malakir, another three drop for the deck to go along with Anafenza the Foremost and Den Protector. She’s pretty sweet and if you can get a swing in while you have another creature or two on board you can put a very fast clock on your opponents, and its another card that synergizes really well with Hangarback Walker (did I mention that card before).



The last thing I wanted to discuss about Abzan is the planeswalkers. Elspeth Suns Champion has been a defining card of Standard since she came in back in Theros, while she was primarily used in the control variants of Abzan she often cropped up as a one of in the maindeck or a pair in the sideboard of Abzan Aggro. Sadly/Gladly she is now gone but we still have Planeswalkers to spare between Sorin Solemn Visitor and the brand new Gideon Ally of Zendikar. Gideons looks to be a staple of the Abzan Aggro decks we’ll see with rotation. His ability to come down on T4, and make a dude to protect himself is excellent, and he can either just keep churning out guys or come in for a smackdown himself. Of course we still have the flip Planeswalkers from Origins to complement these two in the aforementioned Kytheon and Nissa Vastwood Seer.






Atarka Red


While mono red and red based aggro decks are traditionally underplayed at the Pro Tour, Atarka Red is the deck that won Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir and Mono Red won Pro Tour Magic Origins. It might not surprise you then that Red decks are still going to be good after rotation. The card quality drops for mono colour decks with rotation and with the new fixing we have Atarka Red seems like the best way to build an aggressive red deck. The cards we lose though are very significant. Eidolon of the Great Revel was a pillar in the red decks seeing play pre-rotation, and we also lose a couple of one drops in Foundry Street Denizen and Firedrinker Satyr. Eidolon is a super powerful effect we’re unlikely to see a good replacement for and we haven’t really got any new playable one drops, Goblin Glory Chaser doesn’t quite get there. With the Green splash we see the possibilities of a RG landfall deck which might give us Scythe Leopard if the card is good enough to warrant a slot along with Makindi Sliderunner which looks like a good two drop. We do still have options like Monastery Swiftspear, Zurgo Bellstriker, and Lightning Berserker to fall back on if need be.

Scythe Leopardsli

Burn spell wise we lose Lightning Strike and Stoke the Flames, two huge cards in red decks recently. Red got given Exquisite Firecraft when Origins came out as another quality burn spell and we still retain Wild Slash along with Atarkas Command; the big reason to play RG. We didn’t really get any quality burn spells from Battle for Zendikar though, instead we may have to run more of a prowess game with pump spells like Titans Strength which got reprinted in Origins and possibly even a Become Immense or two. Removal was great before and you couldn’t really afford to get two-for-one’d early, now its a bit less likely and does let you put a lot of damage through very quickly.


One big card that stays around is Chandra Fire of Kaladesh, which saw a little play in Origins standard but looks likely to see a bit of an up-tick here with the format slowing down a little. Abbot of Keral Keep is another Excellent card from Origins that has even made its way over into Modern, in standard it is still a powerhouse in red decks letting you play further into the late game and just giving you card advantage. Overall the deck looks really solid and I would be very surprised if it didn’t turn out to be a real player in new Standard.


So thats what I believe the ‘big 3’ decks from old Standard that will transition well into the new format: Atarka Red, Abzan Aggro and Esper Dragons. There will be other carry overs I’m sure, decks like Jeskai and UB Control or Bant/GW Megamorph coming back. We might even see a return of the Five Colour Dragons deck Michael Flores used to win his PT Invite earlier this year. And its not just old decks rotating as there will be plenty of new ones coming out with Battle for Zendikar. There are loads of cards to brew around like Part the Waterveil or Bring to Light,  and I’d love to see a big Eldrazi ramp deck too. The format seems to be wide open at the moment but with the SCG Open this weekend and with a Grand Prix and the Pro Tour coming up we’ll surely see the new format take shape. As I said before this is the first part of a two-piece article on New Standard. This time I’ve covered old decks making their way across, and next time I’m going to be looking at all the shiny new stuff once we’ve had some results in.

Thanks for reading, Alastair

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