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Gearing Up for Theros

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Value. If you’re a planeswalker worth your spark, you know it and love it. From the first time you turned your Grizzly Bears sideways, the multiverse has been training you to pay as little as possible for as much as possible whenever you can.

Which is why many players I know say they hate Standard.

Most of these cards won’t be any good in Modern, they say, so when half of my card pool rotates out, how am I supposed to retain any value?

The answer to this question is the answer to many of life’s questions. You should spend a lot of time on the Internet. Or, more precisely, you should do your research. With the release of Theros only a few weeks away, and with all of Innistrad block about to disappear, now is an ideal time to prepare for rotation by acquiring the staples of the new Standard. I’ve done some research for you, so you can become ready with a minimum expenditure of your own time. How’s that for value?

Hallowed Fountain
Sphinx's Revelation
Jace, Architect of Thought

Azorius control, and its splash-variants Esper and R/W/U, have been leading decks in Standard since the beginning of Return to Ravnica block due to its synergistic trio of sweeper, draw spell, and card-drawing planeswalker. With Terminus, Mutilate, and Bonfire of the Damned all jumping on the bus, Azorius retains the only aggressively-costed sweeper in Supreme Verdict. Sphinx's Revelation has nearly dominated Standard at times already and is a monster in controlling decks. This season, W/U/x decks leaned heavily on Restoration Angel to generate early card advantage and pressure; Resto’s out, but Jace, Architect of Thought has been filling that role in Block and should be able to do so in Standard. An absence of Cavern of Souls will only make it easier for you blue controllers.

If you intend to play this archetype post-rotation, you’ll want play sets of Verdicts, Revelations, Jaces, and the appropriate shock lands. Detention Sphere is another Azorius staple you may want to acquire now—it’s not as though anyone will be drafting more any time soon. But perhaps you feel that Azorius is too mainstream. Not a problem. The Return to Ravnica block Daily Events on Magic Online suggest that control players might, instead, want to turn to the dark side.

Drowned Catacomb
Rakdos's Return
Mizzium Mortars

Ravnica block has another aggressively-costed sweeper, and it’s a Flame Slash in a pinch. It also has another Sphinx's Revelation, but it is a bad, backward revelation, like finding out you never actually graduated from college because of library fees (now, ain’t that a Mind Twist?)

Take a look at these B/R controlling decks that have been tearing up the Return to Ravnica Block queues lately:

These two decks appear quite different, but the shells and the game plans are in essence the same: Mash two-for-ones such as Boros Reckoner, Turn // Burn, Far // Away, and planeswalkers to develop some modest advantage on the board. Then, blow your (hopefully) beleaguered opponent right of the game with an overloaded Mizzium Mortars or a Rakdos's Return for all the cards. Aetherling and Assemble the Legion round these decks out as hard-to-race, hard-to-kill uber-threats. Figase’s string of 4–0s with the Dega midrange/control list speaks to the raw power of both Mortars and Return, so if you enjoy playing a ton of removal and a suite of powerful 5- or 6-drops, make sure to pick up Mizzium Mortars, Rakdos's Return, and appropriate shock lands while they’re cheap. Ral Zarek is presently unpopular in Standard, and if you can pick him up at around the $6 to $8 level, that’s good value for future Grixis players. Finally, if you intend to play a controlling deck that runs black this season, you will probably want at least two or three Lifebane Zombies for your sideboard.

Some Block players online have been trying to merge the Dega and Grixis lists, but I don’t think four-colored control has been solved in that format yet. It will probably be very intensive on the shock lands, especially the blue ones (for the double-blue cost of Sphinx's Revelation) and the ones relevant to your chosen sweeper (white for Verdict and red for Mortars). A tap-out strategy like this is going to favor ramp, so Ral Zarek is a hit here, too. If you expect a lot of control players in your meta, this is the way to next-level them—but be careful that you don’t just lose to aggressive strategies—the leading aggressive strategies in Block are receiving some upgrades from Magic 2014 Core Set. Alternatively, another anti-control route would be to ramp into Planar Cleansing from a Darksteel Ingot in order to fight all the control threats that aren’t Aetherling.

Loxodon Smiter
Scavenging Ooze
Archangel of Thune

Aggressive Selesnya decks have been performing well in Block thanks largely to the trio of Voice of Resurgence, Loxodon Smiter, and Rootborn Defenses, all of which fight both aggressive and controlling decks well. In Standard, this has been a difficult archetype to win with, but after rotation, you will not need to worry about your Voice of Resurgence eating a Pillar of Flame or Olivia Voldaren conscripting all your Beast tokens.

Even without the inclusion of M14 spells, these Selesnya midrange/populate decks are pretty beefy. Trostani and Advent of the Wurm tokens both shrug off Mizzium Mortars, and four main-decked Rootborn Defenses give you a lot of game against both Mortars and Verdict. Selesnya Charm is very good, and in my mind, it’s one of the main draws to this strategy, although, to be fair, there may not be a lot of powerhouse 5/5s to exile once Thragtusk and Thundermaw Hellkite are lost. M14 adds Elvish Mystic, Scavenging Ooze, and Archangel of Thune, which will improve this strategy a great deal by allowing you to play more of a midrange beatdown role. Archangel lets you play Trostani in the main, and if you want to go deep on that plan, you can also proc Archangel triggers with your Scavenging Ooze or with Alive // Well, a card that is going to be playing the Thragtusk role against red decks quite a bit this year. Selesnya loses the very powerful Gavony Township this rotation, but if you are a fan of mana-sinking utility lands, Grove of the Guardian does exist. Watch out for Sinkhole Doom Blade. Good luck with Ratchet Bomb.

If you’re interested in playing this archetype post-rotation, I would advise you pick up the Ravnica-block cards immediately (no one’s drafting them) and pick up your Oozes and Angels as you may—M14 cards are still being drafted—and still hitting the secondary market—until the Theros release.

Domri Rade
Burning-Tree Emissary
Chandra's Phoenix

An archetype that has not been well-represented in Block is Gruul aggro, which mostly suffers from a lack of Hellriders and Thundermaws. It does retain a few of its powerhouses, but they will need reinforcement from M14. In particular, I like Chandra and her Phoenix here; Phoenix’s evasion and Chandra’s mini-Mugging will help you power through clogged-up boards. If you would like to play this archetype post-rotation, hold on to your Domris—and shock lands, obviously; a play set of Mizzium Mortars is advisable as well. If you go this route, you are strongly banking on Theros providing you with some more support, so be careful. I have a feeling that Chandra, Pyromaster is as close as we’re going to see to a Hellrider-style, defense-piercing 4-drop for a while. You won’t even be able to lean on Burning Earth that much, because in a month, no one will have any core-set dual lands to punish. One way you might consider avoiding this is to go Naya, in which case, you’ll need Temple Gardens and Boros Reckoners. “My Reckoner fights your guy,” is usually a two- or even three-for-one, and it’s among the more powerful plays currently possible in Standard—but Naya Blitz has been more fragile than Gruul aggro, and Naya midrange has been overly soft to Jund, so we haven’t been seeing much of it. If you can build a mana base that allows you to do it, it’s still going to be a great move going forward—so good, in fact, that if you do play Naya with Reckoners, you might even want additional fight effects out of the board for creature matchups. Just don’t go too deep on those Hunt the Weaks.

In summation, I predict the power shells going into Theros (and the components of those shells you should acquire) will be Azorius control (Supreme Verdicts and Sphinx's Revelations), B/R/x midrange/control (Rakdos's Return and Mizzium Mortars), Selesnya midrange (Loxodon Smiter and Voice of Resurgence), and Gruul aggro (Domri Rade and Chandra, Pyromaster). If you would like to play one of these archetypes in the upcoming season, make arrangements to acquire the chase cards that are critical components of their shells. You don’t want to be that guy who can’t put a Standard deck together for months and puts himself in the poor-house drafting.