This holiday set release is quite a marred one indeed, people unable to go to their local game store to participate, unsure of when physical tournaments will start back up again or if they even will.
Well, for now let's put all that to one side and focus on this monster of a set, Ikoria.
Ikoria is the land of adaptation. Beasts of all sizes roam the plane hunting and scavenging, not necessarily just for food but to make changes and better themselves with new abilities.
The flagship keyword for Ikoria, and one that evokes the feeling of the set, is Mutate. Mutate appears on creatures and allows you to pay an alternative casting cost of the creature which then combines it with a non-human you control. The way Mutate works is that when you pay the Mutate cost the creature goes on top of or underneath your existing non-human creature. This creature made up of two or more cards is treated as one creature that has the power and toughness of the top creature and the keyword abilities of all creatures combined in the mutation. This mechanic offers versatility to Magic, especially in limited formats, as it allows you to form a creature that can power through your opponent's defence, or more realistically, just fly over them.
Some creatures will have effects when they or another creature mutates, there's a fair bit of this theme in the set so the build-around factor calls to the more linear of deck builders out there.
Cycling makes a well received comeback and pairs nicely with another new boy mechanic, keyword counters.
Keyword counters grant creatures different abilities like Trample, Flying and Lifelink. This is a heavy theme throughout the set and, as I mentioned, has been coupled with Cycling to give you various counters as a result of Cycling the card.
The last of the new keywords Wizards is introducing with Ikoria is Companion.
Companion is a very new keyword that appears on creatures and aims to give players access to additional value from their sideboard. A card with Companion will come with a deck building requirement - there's no way to confirm if the deck building requirement has been met without deck lists which functionally puts players on the honour system, I think this will be a fun experiment in catching cheaters but I hope it won't get to that point.
At the start of each game, each player may reveal a Companion card from their sideboard and put it into a special zone, not unlike the command zone. Once a Companion is placed in this special zone it acts just as any other creature would; you can cast it as long as you can pay for it, it can be countered and interacted with on the stack as well as in play it can be bounced, destroyed, exiled with the results of all of those not changing one bit from any other creature.
Creatures with Companion have abilities or effects and as it stands they are all two-colour hybrids which makes it easier for multiple decks to play them and ensure that the mechanic gets a good look in playability-wise.
The addition of all these new keywords and mechanics is certain to shake up Standard, which brings us perfectly onto the upcoming meta game.
I'm getting really bored of playing against, looking at or even thinking about Sultai/Bant Uro and Cat/Oven decks and I reckon most of you out there are too, so I'm going to gloss over them fairly quickly.
There’s a couple of new removal spells that the Sultai version of Uro decks could pick up in the form of Heartless Act and Easy Prey. The former gives you a straight up Terminate in most cases while also allowing you to combat the new Keyword counters, meanwhile Easy Prey gives you some traction in the early game against quick decks and doubles up as card draw whenever you need it. Neutralize is a card that I think both the Sultai and Bant versions will adopt in some amount, I think having a strictly better Cancel is a good tool but not an automatic four-off unless you’re playing Mono Blue Control. I think there's an argument for Excavation Mole, I’ve already seen some versions running Mire Triton in a similar fashion and I think the Mole could give you a bit more of an edge getting into the mid-game.
One card that I sure will impact both versions is the return of Adventurous Impulse, ensuring even more consistency and even more shots to find Uro and take over the game. This card has proved time and time again how powerful and efficient it is: one mana to find a threat in the late game or help smooth out your mana in the early game is something every green deck wants.
Along with the new removals spells I already mentioned, Red/Black and Mardu Sacrifice decks have also gained a couple of tricks. Shredded Sails is doing its best Abrade impression - I don't think it will see much main deck play but everyone said that about Abrade at first as well - though Shredded Sails is much narrower. Weaponize the Monsters offers an early game permanent that can allow the main sacrifice theme to thrive throughout the mid to late-game. Despite its cheap nature and sacrifice theme, I don't think Weaponize the Monsters is going to see heavy play in these Sacrifice decks, maybe a one or a two-of just to give them a mana sink later on in the game. On the surface it doesn't look like the Sacrifice decks are getting much from Ikoria which I'm very happy about, as I stated I don't think this type of deck is fun to play against and makes playing Standard boring and predictable.
One thing that could help diversify the Standard format somewhat and will definitely impact other formats is the hot button from Ikoria, fetchable Tri-Lands.
This cycle of fetchable Tri-Lands is going to allow three or more colour decks in Standard, even if those decks will be on the slower side thanks to the “enters the battlefield tapped” clause, but will also give more Midrange decks card draw in the late-game. I think the most important thing about this cycle of lands is their fetchable nature in regards to Modern and Legacy making the mana bases even smoother. I don't think these lands are auto four-offs for older formats however as usually the choice of having a shock land enter the battlefield untapped or not is a greater resource. These lands are definitely ones to pick up for the future and let's not forget Pioneer with it's notorious difficulty to build three-or-more colour decks.
Moving past the top dogs of the format and the shiniest of new toys, we can start to take a look at what could be coming back and what new archetypes might pop their heads up.
Up and Comers
I'm a big fan of Arclight Phoenix and keep trying to make it work, however in a Standard format like we have it’s not easy. You already have a nice shell with Opt, Thrill of Possibilities, Goblin Electromancer, great ways to ditch and rebuy your Arclight Phoenixes efficiently. Ikoria brings something to the table that could make that a lot easier in the form of Channelled Force.
Channelled Force makes you discard any number of cards in your hand in exchange for a scalable instant speed removal spell. The additional cost is no drawback to this deck either as it means you can get rid of dead cards or even the eponymous Arclight Phoenix while giving you a spell towards the count necessary to reanimate any Phoenixes you may have in your graveyard. At four mana it is a bit costly which is why it's almost certainly not a four-of, though it does play very well with something else Ikoria brings to the fold. Rielle the Everwise.
Usually Phoenix decks want to discard cards but also keep a tempo nature which is pretty difficult when you've discarded all your resources. Rielle gives the deck a new angle of attack with you discarding cards turning into more value and also digging you deeper towards any Arclight Phoenix. With cards like Thrill of Possibilities and Channeled Force in conjunction with Rielle it’s not unrealistic to say you could dig through half your deck which could be a lot of Phoenixes.
Blitz of the Thunder-Raptor is a card that looks like it's been almost designed for Phoenix decks, it has all the relevant text and acts as an instant speed Lava Coil. In a world full of creatures, especially those with annoying tendencies to come back from the dead, a card like Blitz of the Thunder-Raptor is welcomed with open arms. A scalable, exiling removal spell will turn into a high value card in the coming months and probably not just in Phoenix decks.
Lastly in regards to Phoenix decks, we have Sprite Dragon. This two mana Flyer offers a deck like Izzet Phoenix a lot of value as it already wants to be playing non-creature spells to discard and rebuy its Phoenixes. Sprite Dragon is a scaling threat that can be deployed as early as turn two and if unchecked can get out of hand fairly quickly. Imagine dropping Sprite Dragon on turn two and then maybe a Thirst for Meaning on turn three to ditch a Phoenix or two, then on turn four casting a Thrill of Possibilities and a couple of Opts turning your Sprite Dragon into a 5/5 and nabbing your Phoenixes back for a huge swing. Later on in the game it's also good as you can cast the Sprite Dragon and then back it up with a tonne of spells for a surprise fatty. If Blue/Red Phoenix decks are to make a comeback I'm sure this nifty two drop will settle into the deck nicely.
Blue/Black or Sultai Flash got the shot in the arm it needed from Ikoria in the form of Slitherwisp. This card will be the single reason any sort of Flash deck will see play in the upcoming meta, how can you pass up all that value? And just for a second imagine having multiple Slitherwisp in play when you drop a creature with Flash and let that warm feeling sink in. The body isn't nothing, three powers can put a lot of pressure on your opponent earlyon in the game and coupled with the value you gain just for playing creatures, it’s easy to see how absurd this three mana creature could be. I think Slitherwisp will become a much more respected card in the coming months once people understand how to play against it and how important it is to ensure you remove Slitherwisp.
Sea-Dasher Octopus can work it's way into a Flash deck easily and gives you more card advantage to abuse. I feel that for the first few weeks people won't respect Sea-Dasher Octopus and get hit by it every time and allow you to draw a card, so make the most of your innocuous Spectral Sailor being able to get in for an additional damage and a card at a reduced cost while you can. The problem with Octopus is the same problem that Ninja of Deep Hours had which is: after it’s in play your opponent has nothing to fear because they can just block it or kill it. Sea-Dasher Octopus has a little bit more going for it as you Mutate it onto an existing creature, this can help boost its stats and abilities but could also result in them removing the Mutatee in response and leaving you with a rather unthreatening Octopus they will just block later. I like the card but it doesn't contain the same power that Slitherwisp does, maybe a two-of but I would need to see a good deck to be convinced.
Additionally, Voracious Greatshark offers another creature/counter spell alongside Frilled Mystic. The mana is tight if you choose to go three colours but I think it's doable, you're heavy into blue already and the mana base has been smoothed out somewhat thanks to the Tri-Lands. Flash decks already have a decent build with cards like Brineborn Cutthroat and Brazen Borrower leading into an endgame of Nightpack Ambusher but Slitherwisp offers a great alternative route to just building an army of wolves and surprise creatures, instead digging through your deck and chipping away at your opponent's life total at the same time. Looking at Voracious Greatshark, Frilled Mystic has shown us again how powerful counter spells attached to creatures can be and this is bigger and easier to cast, colour-wise at least. Greatshark is a nice follow up to Nightpack Ambusher in Blue/Green and a brilliant late game gotcha for Blue/Black or Sultai versions.
I'm sure there's a Blue/White Flyers deck out there that is just waiting for a card like Skycat Sovereign or maybe even just a dedicated Blue/White Control shell that needs a late game mana sink when their Dreamtrawlers are all taken care of. I like the idea of a deck packed with bounce spells and disruption alongside a suite of flyers for a tempo angle to the deck. We already have Brazen Borrower and Elite Skyguard as versatile creatures with a top end game winning creature in the form of Dreamtrawler. Skycat Sovereign comes down earlier than all of those and poses a great threat all throughout the game and gives you a great mana sink late on. This two mana token maker is surely a great option for any design of Blue/White deck and it reminds me of Magic played in years gone by, though we may not live in a world where Magic is played like that anymore.
Ikoria has a abundance of cards to get those deck building juices flowing: from the aforementioned Skycat Sovereign and Slitherwisp presenting good build-around-me incentives all the way up to the big splashy cards like the multicoloured Mutate cycle’s Snapdax and Vadrok, the new Ultimatum cycle, the Mythos cycle and of course the Companions.
Multicoloured Mutate cycle
I like the multicoloured Mutate cycle I really do, however I don't think any of them are going to see Standard play. The colour demand is difficult and the dependency on having another creature to Mutate and that creature actually survive is hard to get around. Sure, sometimes you’re going to land your Snapdax, Apex of the Hunt, take out a creatures wile netting some life and attack for a bunch but I think there will be more times where you overpay for your giant Mutate creature only for your opponent to remove the creature you’re Mutating onto resulting in functionally a wasted turn.
Similarly, the Ultimatum cycle is very colour demanding and very costly, at least with these you don't have to worry about your opponent removing any of your creatures, just if they have a counter spell or not. My favourite of the Ultimatums is Inspired Ultimatum because it reminds me of Cruel Ultimatum, the best Ultimatum ever printed. This and Ruinous Ultimatum are the only two I can see seeing Standard play as they are the only two with effects that don't just feel like Commander effects.
The big difference in the Inspired vs Cruel Ultimatum is the colour shift. When Cruel Ultimatum was in Standard the world was a very different place, we had perfect mana and were able to run five colours with little to no hindrance. You could be casting Wrath of God one turn, Volcanic Fallout the next followed by a Cloudthresher into a Cruel Ultimatum without breaking a sweat. Today we don't have perfect mana and being Red, White and Blue, Inspired Ultimatum will probably only serve a purpose in a dedicated Jeskai Control deck looking to go to the late game or maybe find its way into Jeskai Fires to help keep the engine going. Ruinous Ultimatum on the other hand is a good option for Midrange decks that are forced into a late game. A good pilot that's being forced this way will be able to engineer a situation where they should be able to land a Ruinous Ultimatum which can easily turn the tide of the game instantly unless your opponent can rebuild in a single turn. I'm very keen on trying both Ultimatums, hopefully finding a home for them that isn't just on the Commander tables, which these spells are perfect for by the way.
In my opinion the only one of the Mythos cycle that will see Standard play is Mythos of Nethroi and none of the others come close. That might have something to do with the fact that it’s the only instant speed spell out of the cycle but also because it’s a removal spell in the right colours. Nissa, Who Shakes the World is big right now as is Teferi, Uro is also a huge target right alongside Hydroid Krasis, Mythos of Nethroi deals with all of them at instant speed and fairly efficiently. The correct colours I alluded to - being Black, White and Green - brings together some great pieces for a Midrange deck. Questing Beast, adventure + removal spell creature and another newbie Lavabrink Venturer gives you a solid creature base, throw some disruption and more removal in there and you have a deck.
The rest of the Mythos cycle is very unexciting for me. They’re all slow and require three colours to have any decent effect, maybe Mythos of Snapdax will get a little love but subpar Balance effects haven’t been good in the past.
Time for a Brew
There’s a lot of brews I’ve been kicking ideas about for but one that I keep coming back to is Unpredictable Cyclone This card is a brewer’s dream because it offers a lot of potential but it comes with a restriction, translation - powerful ability and puzzle to solve to get to that powerful ability, two things gamers love. You can probably see how a deck containing Unpredictable Cyclone aims to work: Cycle non-land permanents to find other permanents and gain value, so first things first we have to find some non-land permanents with Cycling. Unfortunately, this rules out Planeswalkers straight away, for the best as that would be broken. Aside from that we have pretty much free reign of Artifacts, Enchantments and Creatures, the latter Ikoria has provided a nice array of. Now, with this type of out-there brew I feel like you either go big or don't go at all and with this in mind my attention is instantly attracted to two huge creatures from Ikoria: Yidaro, Wandering Monster and Titanoth Rex.
Yidaro is a great inclusion as it shuffles itself back into your library when you Cycle it, effectively swapping a card in your library for a card in your hand. There's a small chance that you draw another Yidaro, or even the same one, but I think this is a good effect to have alongside Unpredictable Cyclone. Our other creature in Titanoth Rex, an 11/11 Trample creature that you are almost never going to cast but gives you an enormous threat if you could somehow cheat it into play, say with a five mana Enchantment.
So we have our big threats to cheat to play, now how do we get there?
Well, with the restriction Unpredictable Cyclone imposes, it's hard to run mana dorks like Gilded Goose to help ramp to the end game. The substitution I found was Wolfwillow Haven, a non-creature way to net mana early with very little drawback and a mana sink for later on.
Here is my mock up of what this deck could look like…
4 Wolfwillow Haven
4 Fire Prophecy
4 Omen of the Hunt
2 Flame Spill
3 Storm’s Wrath
3 Migration Path
1 Quartzwood Crasher
4 Unpredictable Cyclone
2 Nissa, Who Shakes the World
4 Yidaro, Wandering Monster
4 Titanoth Rex
2 Purphoros’s Intervention
4 Stomping Ground
4 Temple of Abandon
Bear in mind that this is by no means a refined list and isn’t aimed at the top tier of the Standard meta by any stretch of the imagination. What I wanted to do with this deck was abuse Unpredictable Cyclone with huge creatures and there aren’t many creatures bigger than Titanoth Rex right now. Ofcourse, with a deck that contains a lot of high end drops on the mana curve so we need some mana ramp to get us to the late game as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, with the clause on Unpredictable Cyclone we can’t really run any mana dorks so we’re relying on Wolfwillow Haven and Omen of the Hunt, both give us the additional mana we need early on while also turning into a good mana sink and help smooth out your draws later on.
Fire Prophecy is probably one of the best commons from Ikoria and gives this deck a much needed way of getting rid of any huge creatures that get stuck in your hand, hopefully trading them in for more utility cards like Unpredictable Cyclone or Nissa, Who Shakes the World.
Flame Spill caught my eye immediately on the spoiler, I like the Trample-esc design applied to this Instant. On top of that it’s easy to splash and packs a punch especially in the early game, I’m not convinced yet just how applicable Flame Spill is in the current Standard meta but I’m eager to see if this type of innovative card design continues.
Another deck I wanted to touch on is one that has already gained notoriety in the short time of Ikoria’s release solely thanks to one card, Gyruda, Doom of Depths.
Gyruda is a value based card from the Companion cycle of multi-coloured creatures and in the right deck allows you to go pretty crazy. Just pick any even converted mana cost Clone and you're good to go. When Gyruda enters the battlefield you and your opponent each mill four cards, if you hit a Clone effect - currently it's Spark Double - then you return it and copy Gyruda and do it all over again until eventually your opponent is overwhelmed by the value you’ve gained or you hit a Thassa’s Oracle and you win. I’ve seen various iterations of this deck, some aiming to mill their opponent out while some or just gaining value. A nice addition to this mix is Thassa, Deep Dwelling both as a nice hit off Gyruda and a way to start the chain all over again by blinking Gyruda at the end of your turn. Right now I think Blue/Green is the way to go as you need some mana in the early game, you do have to coincide with Gyruda’s Companion restriction so you’re priced into four Paradise Druid almost immediately but there are much worse mana dorks out there.
2 Thassa’s intervention
2 Thassa’s oracle
2 Wolfwillow haven
2 Fblthp, the Lost
4 Paradise Druid
3 Growth Spiral
2 Essence Scatter
4 Migration Path
4 Spark Double
3 Thassa, Deep Dwelling
3 Gyruda, Doom of Depths
2 Dream Eater
1 Honey Mammoth
1 Kogla, the Titan Ape
1 End-Raze Forerunners
4 Breeding Pool
4 Temple of Mystery
4 Fabled Passage
1 Castle Vantress
1 Gyruda, Doom of Depths
There's an argument for not having Gyruda in your sideboard and just relying on drawing a copy and casting it but why would you pass up an opportunity for a reliable way to cast your possibly game winning card? And that's one of the upsides that Gyruda has that not all the Companions offer, you can play Gyruda in a deck where Gyruda is your Companion.
This deck looks to do some mana ramping and eventually land a Gyruda which will hopefully either allow you to hit a Spark Double, Thassa, Deep Dwelling, or another Gyruda to keep the combo going. There's a couple of copies of Thassa’s Oracle to give you an alternative win condition, but most of the time you’re going to be sitting there with a lot of power on the board once all of your Gyruda triggers have resolved. You need some disruption in the form of counterspells, though thanks to Gyruda's Companion restriction you pretty much only have access to two mana counterspells like Negate and Essence Scatter. Quench is a good shout but I always feel that Quench in the late game is so bad. Despite the narrow nature of Negate and Essence Scatter I think the hard counter is worth more than Quench, however in a Standard environment Aether Gust is still a big player as far as counterspells go with its rather versatile effect.
Your top end consists of the obvious, Gyruda, but also some utility creatures like Dreameater - a good way of digging through your deck and ensuring Gyruda hits something worthwhile while also hindering your opponent’s battlefield presence. Honey Mammoth helps keep you in the game with its life gain, it may not seem like much on the surface but if you can blink it with Thassa you’re in business. Kogla is another of the new cards Ikoria has graced us with and it’s something I’ve wanted to use. It’s only a one-of here but I can see it increasing or maybe even more being played in the sideboard. Lastly, a favourite of mine, End-Raze Forerunners gives you that quick close out to a game or just a big fatty that can apply pressure and also sit back and block.
Make lots of fatties quick and kill your opponent, I think that’s a mission statement any player can get behind.
Since the release of Theros: Beyond Death caused Standard to settle things into a nightmare of “are you faster than Uro? No, then I guess you lose.” repeating over and over again, and every other match including cat/oven antics, I think people are dying for a shake up to what has become one of the most stale formats available. I'm not going to mince words, I don't think Ikoria will have a huge impact on defeating the two aforementioned archetypes, unfortunately I think we are destined to see this out until Throne of Eldraine and Theros: Beyond Death rotate out of Standard. What Ikoria will do is provide a myriad of new tools to help forge the new Standard post rotation. Between Companions and Mutating creatures I can see a very creature heavy and aggressive format on the horizon, a possible throwback to the good old days of Magic where people threw creatures at one another until something gave way, albeit looking slightly different in a fancy hat.
On the whole, I don't think the metagame will change too much until premier events start up again. However, I do think that because of the lack of events we as a player base have a lot of room for manoeuvre in terms of building decks more loosely than normal. Look at the more fun, out there strategies. Strategies that would never get a look-in in the real meta. Have fun and be weird with your deckbuilding, often deck ideas that don’t pan out aren’t entire wastes and there can be engines or tricks that you discover and can utilise in other decks. Magic is, at its heart, supposed to be enjoyable and make sure you don’t forget that, especially in these uncertain times.
Stay safe and keep brewing!