Playing Modern in Standard

Battle for Zendikar Standard has just begun and it will be interesting to see what this new set will contribute to the standard environment.

Many decks will transition easily into the new format – Abzan aggro, Mono Red, various Dragons decks – which keep many of their important cards. Beyond that, experienced pilots will know how to update them, to keep their deck functionally similar (albeit honed for a new metagame).

My inspiration is not, however, coming from Standard past. Some of the uncommon, and even common, offerings from BFZ have me looking a little further afield.

Steve Rubin’s GP Oklahoma Return to the Ranks deck

Brad Nelson’s Junk Aristocrats

These decks play loads of terrible creatures, and a few cards that offer payoff for playing draft chaff in Constructed. The plan is to play a load of creatures that die more than once. Get in a few mediocre beats, then sacrifice them all to drain your opponent one point at a time with Blood Artist triggers.

One card – Zulaport Cutthroat – makes a return of this archetype to Standard possible, and Sam Black is probably still cackling into his Cornflakes. This card lets your terrible creatures deal damage when they inevitably die because they’re terrible (and probably makes Rubin’s deck way better with more Blood Artist effects). Carrier Thrall and Blister Pod are sufficiently miserable fodder, and Nantuko Husk is hungry.

There have been plenty of Standard and Extended decks making their way into Modern – Jund, Affinity, Twin, Living End, and so on – but rarely do we have a chance to bring a Modern deck into Standard. These often make use of un-reprintable cards (Cranial Plating, Tarmogoyf) or require more than one card to be reprinted (Scapeshift/Valakut, Splinter Twin/Deceiver Exarch).

Steve Rubin’s deck might be the exception. Look at the direct comparisons available to us:

Doomed Traveller = Blister Pod

Viscera Seer = Nantuko Husk

Voice of Resurgence = Sultai Emissary

Blood Artist = Zulaport Cutthroat

Return to the Ranks = Rally the Ancestors

Collected Company = Collected Company

Abzan Ascendancy = Abzan Ascendancy

This would already give us 26 spells for a new Aristocrats-style deck. Sure, the power level is lower, but it should be – this is Standard! A few cards are good enough to be in Rubin’s deck, and the rest are synergistic enough to support those.

If we add in some non-direct replacements, we end up with something like this:

Creatures: (37)
Carrier Thrall
Sultai Emissary
Zulaport Cutthroat
Elvish Visionary
Nantuko Husk
Liliana, Heretical Healer
Grim Haruspex
Evolutionary Leap
Collected Company
Rally the Ancestors
Abzan Ascendancy

Land: (23)
23 Land

I’ll leave the mana base aside for now because the new Tango lands make building mana based very tricky, and there are plenty of articles devoted to this elsewhere. Plus the maths makes my head hurt.

Grim Haruspex, Liliana and Evolutionary Leap offer some card advantage, which is important because the end goal for the deck involves having Nantuko Husk and Cutthroat on the board together. Leap looks impressive in long games, turning each Blisterpod into two new creatures, that can each turn into two more… the deck might actually need more mana if this engine gets going regularly enough. Rally lets you recur the resources you’ve already used, and Abzan Ascendancy turns a lot of your creatures into three, or even four, bodies that can be fed to the Husk or Leap. The rest of the deck is, as promised, terrible creatures.

My favourite trick, if Husk is on the board, is to sacrifice creatures in response to the Ascendancy’s enter-the-battlefield trigger, creating spirits that then receive +1/+1 counters – instant air force! The curve is low, and seems pretty resilient for a deck whose biggest creature is a 3/2.

This kind of deck lets the pilot feel incredibly smug, as you can unleash intricate chains of creatures, sacrifice effects and spells to ping your opponent for exactsies. But beyond feeding superiority complexes, it looks like it might be quite powerful. Plenty of life gain and the potential for more in the sideboard could make Red decks easy prey, and the main game plan fights well against attrition-based decks – you want to kill my creatures? That’s fine, I was going to sacrifice them anyway…

There are two glaring issues with this sketch. The first is the lack of Hangarback Walker. Whilst it fits perfectly with the plan of sacrificing creatures for profit, it is less perfect with Collected Company and Rally the Ancestors (unless Cutthroat, Ascendancy or both are involved). Some testing is required, but the non-Cutthroat two-drops could be cut if the ubiquitous arifact is better despite the lack of synergy. Or CoCo might have to GoGo…

The other problem is Anafenza, the Foremost. I don’t know if the deck can afford to play enough main-deck removal to handle her, and she makes the terrible cards in the deck even worse. It might be that the Companies and Rallies need to get cut back to add 4 Abzan Charms, because a handful of Merciless Executioners isn’t going to cut it. For now, I plan on running the risk of being embarrassed game one, and sideboard plenty of answers.

Speaking of which, a starting sideboard might look like this:

Arashin Cleric
Harsh Sustenance
Abzan Charm
Ruinous Path
Den Protector

The 7 life gain spells come in against Red decks. The 8 removal spells come in against Anafenza (building a huge board and pointing Sustenance at their face if necessary). The 3 Den Protectors are for upping the attrition game plan. Until it becomes clear what the metagame is going to be like, putting too much thought into a sideboard seems low EV.

This is more thought experiment than real deck. Until we see what other people are playing, it will not be clear if this approach has a place in Standard. But the interesting thing, from my perspective, is the idea that Modern decks can be reverse engineered into Standard ones, just as Legacy decks like Merfolk, Delver and Death and Taxes sometimes show up in Modern.


  • I’ve been trying to put this together in my head since I saw Zulaport Cutthroat spoiled. I was going to use Bloodsoaked Champion though… is that too mana intensive?

    • Anonymous

      It’s not, but being unable to block is pretty awkward, and the reason I go for Blisterpod. In the Whirler Rogue builds, Champion is exactly the right card though.

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