The speed at which this new War of the Spark Standard format is moving is astounding. In a few short weeks we’ve gone from “Simic Nexus is the end of the world!” to “Esper Control is unstoppable!” to “Mono-Red still great!” to “Arclight Phoenix is back!” to “Mox Amber wins a tournament!”
The crazy thing is it feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface.
The influx of powerful planeswalkers and their various (and sometimes frustrating) static abilities has caused an upheaval of everything we thought we knew, drastically changing the landscape of what cards are effective in the format. Previous format staples like Absorb and Chemister's Insight look downright silly with so many copies of Teferi, Time Raveler and Narset, Parter of Veils floating around, and new cards have moved in to take their places in this ever-changing ecosystem.
The value of any card is directly tied to how it interacts in the context of a format, and today we are going to look at cards that had fallen by the wayside and are now returning because of how well they line up in the new format, specifically against planeswalkers like Teferi and Narset.
1. Thorn Lieutenant
You only have to look at the Top 8 of SCG Syracuse last weekend to get a real clear picture of where we are currently at in Standard - the Top 8 was five Teferi, Time Raveler decks and three Mono-Red Aggro decks. There were certainly other decks at the event, but make no mistake that Teferi and Goblin Chainwhirler are the current litmus test for the format. Each of them presents a test for every threat you may want to play: “How bad is it if this card is bounced by Teferi? / How vulnerable is this card to Goblin Chainwhirler?” Cards that don’t pass these tests must be heavily scrutinized.
Do you know what card is very good against both Teferi and Mono-Red?
Thorn Lieutenant passes the Teferi-check even on the draw, as if your opponent wants to deploy Teferi and bounce your 2-drop to push way ahead on tempo, you get a 1/1 Elf token that can swing right back and kill Teferi. Many planeswalkers end up going down to one loyalty to kill things, so the 1/1 Elf is just the right size to punish them for it. Thorn Lieutenant also is phenomenal against Mono-Red Aggro, providing a 2-drop that always provides value when killed and matches up perfectly against all but their best creatures. Lastly, Thorn Lieutenant also plays excellently with Nissa, Who Shakes the World, providing a mana sink that is also very relevant on turn two.
If you’re playing Green and looking for a good 2-drop, Thorn Lieutenant is it.
2. Legion Warboss
Legion Warboss is not nearly as good against Mono-Red Aggro as it is against planeswalkers and other slow decks, but it is really good against planeswalkers and non-interactive decks.
Legion Warboss passes the Teferi-test with flying colors, either providing an immediate advantage that can finish off the Teferi if it is bounced, or as a follow up to a creature that was bounced by Teferi so you can finish it off. Haste is an exceptional ability against planeswalkers, as what makes planeswalkers powerful is the ability to get them going on a stable board; haste allows you to destabilize the board when your opponent isn’t expecting it. Getting to pick off a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria or Ugin, the Ineffable that minused while also adding a significant threat to the board is awesome.
What Legion Warboss also excels at is beating up on decks that are just trying to ignore what you are doing. There are a number of big Green Nissa, Who Shakes the World decks floating around looking to go over the top of everything, as well as the Simic deck from last season based around mana acceleration into Mass Manipulation. These decks do not interact well with creatures, allowing Legion Warboss to go wide and wild.
Legion Warboss has also replaced Thief of Sanity as the go-to “sideboard juke” creature from control and planeswalker decks, as Thief of Sanity play so poorly against Teferi, Time Raveler that it has started to fall considerably out of favor; if you play Thief of Sanity on turn three and your opponent responds with a Teferi to minus and send it back to your hand, you’ve just entered a tempo black hole.
Even if you’re not looking to play Legion Warboss yourself, make sure you’re prepared for it!
3. Assassin’s Trophy
Notice anything about the Lotus Box Jeskai Planeswalkers deck that won SCG Syracuse or the Four-Color Command the Dreadhorde deck I played in that event as well?
I’ve long been an Assassin's Trophy naysayer. Giving your opponent a free land in Standard, where there are tons of five and 6-drops as well as cards like Hydroid Krasis, is very hard to stomach. Assassin's Trophy’s allure comes from how cheap and efficient it is, but giving your opponent a Rampant Growth on the early turns when you could just play basically any other removal spell is not usually where you want to be.
If the biggest decks in the format continue to be Jeskai Planeswalkers, Four-Color Command the Dreadhorde, and Mono-Red Aggro, Assassin's Trophy is awesome. Being able to kill anything with little to no drawback is great and you never have to worry about your removal spell being dead like a card like Cast Down or The Elderspell could be. And it gets even better, because once you know what you’re up against you can punish those greedy three color mana bases with a well timed Sinkhole.
And even if your opponent has a good amount basic lands? Well, you can just time it appropriately and be happy you have an answer to whatever they are bringing to the table.
4. Field of Ruin
If you thought Sinkhole was great, how about one that doesn’t even take up a spell slot in your deck?
Field of Ruin is an excellent Magic card, but its use in Standard has mostly been limited to keeping fancy lands like Search for Azcanta in check. However the greedier people get with their mana bases, the closer it comes to being a super Strip Mine. Remember, when you activate Field of Ruin you don’t actually lose anything because it replaces itself, unlike Strip Mine or Wasteland. There are also corner case benefits like mana fixing and multiple landfall activations for something like Evolution Sage, but make no mistake here - we are looking to Stone Rain some people out of existence.
How far you want to take Field of Ruin is up to you, whether you’re using it as a disruptive element to supplement some beatdowns, adding it in with things like Assassin's Trophy to really stack up on the effect, or going full lockdown with something like Crucible of Worlds. The end result however is that if people are going to continue to be super greedy with their mana bases, there are definitely tools available to punish them.
5. Nissa, Who Shakes the World
As we continue to explore all of the planeswalkers in War of the Spark, we can take a deeper look at some of the more confusing ones. It’s not too hard to figure out what to do with Teferi or Narset because their power levels are so high, but a card like Nissa, Who Shakes the World can be confusing.
Is Nissa a ramp card?
Is Nissa an aggro/midrange card?
...Why not both?
Nissa granting your lands both haste and vigilance is superb in a format defined by attacking and defending planeswalkers. Nissa is able to come down and threaten your opponent’s planeswalkers right away, present her own planeswalker presence on the board, and also threaten a huge follow up turn as you get to untap with all your mana. That’s a lot of value for five mana, especially in a color capable of casting her as early as turn four.
Nissa is seeing some play in big mana Mono Green decks as well as Simic Mass Manipulation decks and Sultai Midrange decks, but she still isn’t being played enough. If you’re playing Green you should be taking a good, long look at Nissa, Who Shakes the World.
A Moving Target
These are some of the cards that can give you a huge leg up in the current Standard format. They are a direct reaction to current metagame trends and you will likely be seeing a lot of them going forward. Play them, or be ready to play against them.
Don’t forget that the Standard metagame is always a moving target, with this format being even more so than usual. Take time to notice the trends and why these cards are currently valued so high, so that when things shift again you can make similar deductions and pick out the next wave of cards who’s value has risen due to shifts in the format.
Watching and understanding these trends is what makes a good Standard player and deck-builder.