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Brewing BFZ - Mardu Aristocrats, Awaken Control, and Budget Eldrazi Aggro

As someone who loves brewing decks, fresh post-rotation Standard formats are one of my favorite times of the year. Sure, maybe Battle for Zendikar isn't the most exciting set ever printed, but this doesn't even matter. We don't have to worry about Thoughtsieze, Bile Blight, Courser of Kruphix, Drown in Sorrow or Elvish Mystic anymore. Our mana bases are amazing — like "I can't believe they are letting us playing Modern in Standard" amazing — and even though many Battle for Zendikar cards seem underpowered on their face, power-level is relative in Standard. 

In Modern, you don't play Lightning Strike because you can always play Lightning Bolt; same thing with Legacy. However, in Standard, you play Lightning Strike because you don't have Lightning Bolt and you play Touch of the Void because you don't have Lightning Strike. So, while two-cmc mana dorks and three-cmc Rampant Growths may seem lacking compared to the most powerful versions ever printed, these cards will still see some amount of play in Standard just because they are the best option available. 

Regardless, today we are going to look at three decks I'm super excited to playing as soon as Battle for Zendikar is legal. The first is an update to Mardu Aristocrats, the deck I've gotten the most requests for since playing it on Budget Magic a couple months ago. The second is a control deck heavily featuring the new Awaken mechanic from Battle for Zendikar, and the third is a different take on Eldrazi which you can put together for less than $40. Anyway, let's talk about some decks!

Over the past few months, Mardu Aristocrats has been the deck I've been asked to update the most. While I didn't think Magic Origins added enough to make it worth the effort, Battle for Zendikar is a different story. If I could have picked one card out of Modern to add to Mardu Aristocrats, it would have been Blood Artist. While Outpost Siege did an admirable job filling the role, it also costs four mana. As a result, the four-drop slot in the original build was a bit overloaded which in turn lead to some clunky draws. While we didn't get Blood Artist in Battle for Zendikar, we did get an (almost) functional reprint in Zulaport Cutthroat.

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I'm not sure it is possible to overstate just how much better Zulaport Cutthroat makes Mardu Aristocrats. It comes down on turn two which allows us to curve into our sacrifice outlets on turns three and four. It gains us life along with draining our opponent, which helps us live long enough to combo off. And unlike Blood Artist, it can actually attack for damage in a pinch. 

As I hinted at a moment ago, the biggest issue with the old build is that Butcher of the Horde and Outpost Siege (our combo piece and main enabler) were competing for the four-drop slot; we were often forced to choose either/or. Now this problem is gone. With the Battle for Zendikar update, we have the ability to curve Bloodsoaked Champion into Zulaport Cutthroat into Flamewake Phoenix into Butcher of the Horde. Uninhibited this gives us two damage on turn two, five more (7 total) on turn three, into ten damage on turn four (for a total of 17); if our opponent cracks on fetch on their first three turns, they are dead. Better yet, most of this damage is evasive. With this curve we can consistently kill on turn five through any number of ground blockers. The new additions go far beyond our Blood Artist, we also get a bunch of new sacrifice outlets that drastically improve our deck. 

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Nantuko Husk technically entered the format a couple months ago in Magic Origins, but his appearance in Mardu Aristocrats should not be underestimated. Apart from our Blood Artist costing four mana, another huge problem with the old build was the lack of a Cartel Aristocrat. In fact, before Magic Origins, Butcher of the Horde was the only free, repeatable sacrifice outlet in Standard, which left us playing questionable options like Tymaret, the Murder King. While Nantuko Husk isn't quite Cartel Aristocrat, coming down on turn three and sacrificing creatures for free makes it leaps and bounds better than the other options. 

Bone Splinters is another huge addition to Aristocrats. We get to replace Murderous Cut with a removal spell of a power-level similar to Dismember or Tragic Slip in our deck. Being able to unconditionally kill any creature is super powerful, but most decks shy away from Bone Splinters because the cost of sacrificing a creature is so high. In our deck we want to be sacrificing our creatures, so this "downside" is actually a benefit. The same goes for Altar's Reap. Night's Whisper sees play as far back as Modern and in a deck that actively wants to sacrifice its things, Altar's Reap is just a better version since we don't lose any life. Finally, because our combo is creature-based, we get to play a card that is quickly becoming one of my favorites:

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Having a Blood Artist in Zulaport Cutthroat means we can play a combo style similar to the one in last week's Budget Magic featuring Rally Vampires in Modern. While we still have a Plan A of beating down with hasty, evasive threats and sacrificing our board for the win, playing Rally the Ancestors gives us a legitimate Plan B — a plan where we don't even need to attack to drain our opponent out of the game. Instead, we can sacrifice a bunch of creatures (hopefully including a Zulaport Cutthroat or two), cast Rally the Ancestors on our opponent's end step, sac everything again in response to the "exile" trigger on our upkeep, and (if necessary) Rally the Ancestors again a second time during our main phase which should seal the deal. 

While it is impossible to say just how well (or poor) Mardu Aristocrats is positioned in Standard (considering we really don't have any idea what the format will look like in a month), the good news is there is only one hate card in the format that sees any play (Anafenza, the Foremost) and it dies to both Bone Splinters and Mardu Charm. Otherwise, we are looking to dodge fringe sideboard cards like Cranial Archive and that's about it. The normal "trumps" in Standard (removal, big ground blockers like Siege Rhino and even counterspells) really don't interact all that well this build, so it seems like it should have a shot at being competitive in the new format. 

Manabases in Standard are in a really interesting place — a place that adds a lot of tension to deck building. Many of the most powerful cards in Standard are the wedge cards from Khans block (Siege Rhino, Crackling Doom, Anafenza, the Foremost, etc) which naturally push decks in the directly of wedge colors. However, because both fetches and slowlands are allied colored, you can build a Modern-level manabase, but only for Shards. As a result, deckbuilders are forced to make a choice: do you want to play the best cards in Standard, or do you want to have the best manabase in Standard — you can't have both. 

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Esper Awaken Control chooses the latter. Being able to play eight on-color fetches and eight on-color slowlands means the manabase is pristine. Not only does it allow us to play any blue, white or black cards we want (going double-black for Ruinous Path into double-white for Gideon, Ally of Zendikar into double-blue for Dig Through Time shouldn't be a problem), but it also lets us play some of the super powerful colorless lands we have available in the format (e.g. Blighted Cataract).

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My initial idea for the deck was to be creature-free and depend completely on Awaken cards and a couple of planeswalkers to close out the game. However, I realized that good, unconditional, early-game removal is severely lacking in the format. We lose not only Bile Blight and Last Breath, but Ultimate Price gets worse since the mono-colored theme of Theros is replaced by the devoid-centric Battle for Zendikar. Enter Fathom Feeder. In the early game, the Eldrazi Drone is an unconditional removal spell for any ground creature in the format, while in the late game it can provide an insurmountable amount of card advantage. Once it became clear that we needed four copies of Fathom Feeder, it was only natural that we would run Jace, Vryn's Prodigy as well, who despite my initial skepticism, has proven to be one of the most powerful cards in Standard. 

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Awaken, as a mechanic, seems tragically underrated. Although not exciting, all of these cards are playable without their awaken ability as a sorcery speed Hero's Downfall, a Cancel and an End Hostilities. We have no problem firing these off on turn three (or five, for Planar Outburst). However, because of their awaken ability, they are close to auto-wins in late game top deck wars. Not only do they all answer any one of our opponent's top decks, but they come along with a reasonably sized, hasty body to help us close out the game. Plus, since our mana is so good, we get to run four copies of Shambling Vent, whose lifelink ability should be able to pull us out of danger — especially when it is awoken with three or four +1/+1 counters (just remember you'll still need to pay the activation cost to give it lifelink). 

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The rest of the deck is, more or less, a typical Esper Control build. We get Dig Through Time to hold everything together, Clash of Will as a scaleable counter and Ojutai's Command to gain us some life, counter a creature spell, or most importantly return a Fathom Feeder or Jace, Vryn's Prodigy to the battlefield in the late game. Ob Nixilis Reignited, on the other hand, is purely speculative. It seems like a great card to find with Dig Through Time in the late game where it can either kill a problematic creature or, if the battlefield is clean, put the game out of reach with his Phyrexian Arena +1. 

While I have no idea how good this deck will be, Esper Awaken might be the deck I'm most excited to play in Battle for Zendikar. For me, there is nothing better in all of Magic than drawing cards with my lands (Blighted Cataract) and creatures (Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and Fathom Feeder) while getting automatic two-for-ones with my removal (Planar Outburst and Ruinous Path) and counterspells (Ojutai's Command and Scatter to the Winds). The value is real and Esper Awaken Control's ability to grind is unrivaled in Standard. 

While the very idea of an Eldrazi Aggro deck might sound like an oxymoron, in the brave new world of Battle for Zendikar anything is possible. I knew I wanted to include at least one budget brew in the article, and my first idea was to simply throw together a Mono Red Aggro deck — the default aggro/budget deck for week one in a new format. But as I was browsing the spoiler, I realized that Rakdos Eldrazi were not only less expensive and more fun, but in a world with no Lightning Strike, possibly just as competitive as Mono Red. So other than the fact that it is super cheap (under $40 in paper), why should you play Eldrazi Aggro? We'll, there are a few reasons. 

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There's nothing an aggro deck like more than a Bonesplitter, and in our deck comprised 100 percent of colorless creatures, Ghostfire Blade will always be Bonesplitter on steroids. Thanks to Endless One and Sludge Crawler, we have eight one drops that can be attacking for three on turn two with the help of Ghostfire Blade. A bit later in the game, Ghostfire Blade turns into a great way for our creature to trade up. For the one-mana equip cost, our two- and three-drops can swing into and trade with (or even swing past) a Siege Rhino. Ghostfire Blade is the perfect card for this deck; it helps us get off to explosive starts, but also gives us more of a chance in the late game than many other aggro decks. 

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We are also built to abuse two powerful "build around me cards" from Battle for Zendikar. Swarm Surge might look silly in a constructed deck, and if it was just giving our creatures +2/+0 it would be. But since we are completely colorless, all of our creatures also gain first strike which makes Swarm Surge more like Plague Wind rather than Rally the Peasants. Assuming we can flood the board with inexpensive colorless creatures, Swarm Surge on turn four or five should put our opponents in a position where they either need to make an unprofitable block or just lose the game on the spot. 

Titan's Presence, on the other hand, is the best removal spell in Standard if you can always reveal a colorless creature with a reasonable amount of power. In our deck it should be able to hit anything with power three or less pretty much all the time, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Siege Rhino with some amount of regularity — all at instant speed for only three mana. More importantly, we can fire this off at any early plays our opponents might have, allowing us to get through some crucial early damage. 

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As for our creatures, our three drops are definitely the main reason to play the deck. Dominator Drone comes with a respectable body and gives us creature-based reach not available to other aggro decks. While draining for two might not seem like much, remember that we don't have a Lightning Strike to finish our opponents off after getting in early damage; in Battle for Zendikar Standard, Dominator Drone is a respectable replacement in the right deck. 

Vile Aggregate is basically the Tarmogoyf of our deck; it will often come down as a 3/5 on turn three and be attacking for four (or even five) on turn four. It interacts well with Ghostfire Blade, trampling over anything in its path, and five toughness where you want to be dodging Exquisite Firecraft and swinging past Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Siege Rhino. In the late game, who knows how big this thing can get. We don't have to worry about Drown in Sorrow anymore, Radiant Flames is limited to three-color+ builds, and wraths cost five, so there really isn't much to punish us for going wide with x/2 colorless creatures. 

Finally, Wasteland Strangler is almost a Flametongue Kavu. We have enough Ingest cards that we should always have at least one card in our opponent's exile zone, at which point Wasteland Strangler has potential to provide a game winning, two-for-one tempo swing on turn three. The dream scenario (which won't be all that uncommon) is to play a Sludge Crawler on turn one, attack and Ingest a card on turn two, play a Forerunner of Slaughter, and then use Wasteland Strangler to kill our opponents first play on turn three. Not many decks will be able to come back from this start, especially when it's backed up by Titan's Presence, Ghostfire Blade and our underrated finisher Dust Stalker

How good is Eldrazi Aggro? I have no idea. But I think it has a shot to be playable, especially in the first weeks of the format for two reasons. First, as I mentioned earlier, the cards that really punish us for playing this archetype are gone; no Bile Blight, no Drown in Sorrow, no Last Breath, no Anger of the Gods. By default, the best two mana removal spell in the format is Ultimate Price, a dead card against our deck (colorless is not mono-colored). So what is going to stop us from beating down with little Eldrazi? Second, some people are going to fall into the "cool things" trap and try to cast Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and other expensive Eldrazi. We are built to get in under these decks, especially since the ramp in the format is relatively slow. 

Would I expect to take down a GP or SCG Open with this deck? Probably not and definitely not without significant practice and testing. But for under $40, I would certainly play it at a Friday Night Magic and wouldn't be the least bit embarrassed to try it at more competitive events. 


Anyway, that's all for today. What are you excited to play this weekend? What Battle for Zendikar cards are screaming out "build around me?" Can Aristocrats be a tier one deck in BFZ Standard? What cards did I miss that would be perfect for Mardu Aristocrats, Awaken Control or Eldrazi Aggro? Let me know in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter (or MTGO) @SaffronOlive.

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