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Will Rotation Fix Standard?


At this point, it is more or less agreed upon that the last year of Standard—from Core Set 2020 through Core Set 2021—was one of the worst years for Standard in the entire history of Magic, with bannings happening on a near-monthly basis, decks taking up 40% (or even 70%) of the metagame, goldfishy combos, broken cards, and more. However, one of the best aspects of Standard (and arguably an aspect of Standard that should happen more often, although that's an article for another day) is that the format eventually rotates, so no matter how dominant a card or deck may be, its rule will come to an end, sooner or later. 

The next Standard rotation will happen in September when Zendikar Rising is released, with both Ravnica sets, War of the Spark, and Core Set 2020 leaving the format. Considering that War of the Spark might be the Standard set that has had the biggest impact on the format (especially when you consider that most of the broken cards from Throne of Eldraine have been banned), this gives us some amount of hope that September's rotation will fix the Standard format. As such, our plan for today is to look at the top decks and cards in Standard and try to determine just how big of an impact rotation will have on the format.

Of course, this analysis comes with one major asterisk: we don't know what Wizards will print in Zendikar Rising. As of right now, Growth Spiral leaving the format seems like a huge win for Standard players, although it's not completely impossible that Wizards, under some misguided philosophy like wanting to "make sure landfall (if it returns) sees play," would reprint Growth Spiral or *gulp* something even more powerful. Basically, there's no way of guessing what Wizards might put in Zendikar Rising, so our focus will be on the cards that are leaving Standard and replacements that are already available in the non-rotating (Throne of Eldraine, Theros: Beyond Death, Ikoria, and Core Set 2021) card pool. Let's start by looking at the most played cards in the format before moving onto decks.

50 Most Played Cards

Note: You can find the 50 most played cards by format, and much more, on the format staples page.

Of the 50 most played cards in Standard, 20 will be leaving the format in September, although in reality, the number is slightly higher than it looks because several cards (like Duress, Opt, Scorching Dragonfire, and Negate) probably shouldn't count since they get reprinted so often that they are essentially always legal in Standard and never really rotate. Excluding these cards, just under half of the 50 most played cards in the format will be leaving in September.  

However, the picture is a bit less rosy if we look only at the 50 most played creatures in Standard, with only 19 of the top 50 creatures rotating in September. On the other hand, 24 of the top 50 noncreature spells will rotate, which is a bit more than half if we exclude the Negates and Duresses of the world. 

Taken as a whole, these numbers suggest that while Standard will certainly change in September, the most playable cards in Standard are relatively evenly split between sets that will rotate and sets that will remain in Standard, weighted slightly toward sets that won't rotate. At a glance, this would seem like bad news: it's not like Standard is dominated by cards and decks built around themes and mechanics from older, soon-to-be-rotating sets. However, in many ways, which specific cards will rotate is far more important than the number of cards that will rotate. Even a single key card rotating can mean that a deck no longer exists, so for this, we need to move beyond lists of format staples and look at some of the most played decks in the format, one by one.

The Decks

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Key Rotating Cards: Growth Spiral, Teferi, Time Raveler, Nissa, Who Shakes the World, Hydroid Krasis

Let's start with perhaps the most important deck on the list: Bant Mythics / Ramp. Over the past few months, much has been made about the power of ramp in our current Standard format and how the ease of access to fast mana (without any meaningful downside) might be the biggest issue with Standard. Will rotation fix the issue? It's hard to say for certain, but I'm leaning toward yes. Both Growth Spiral and Nissa, Who Shakes the World rotate in September, along with their occasional partner in crime Arboreal Grazer. On the other hand, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath will remain, and there are less powerful replacement ramp spells like Cultivate still in the format. 

Perhaps the biggest reason why ramp strategies have dominated our current Standard format is that the ramp spells not only ramp but also generate additional card advantage, while ramp finishers (like Hydroid Krasis) are not just huge threats but also draw cards. As a result, it's almost impossible for a deck like Bant Ramp to run out of action, when in the past, the main issue with ramp decks is that they would sometimes beat themselves by drawing all Cultivates and Rampant Growths but no finisher, or all finishers but no Cultivates or Rampant Growths. While Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath remaining in the format is a concern, with Growth Spiral and Nissa, Who Shakes the World rotating, it seems like there is a chance that post-rotation builds of ramp will at least be a little bit fairer and be forced to deal with some of the issues that traditionally plagued the archetype. 

My guess is that ramp strategies will still exist in post-rotation Standard. Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath is too powerful to go unplayed, there are replacement ramp spells in the format (but much less powerful than Nissa and Growth Spiral), and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is still a great finisher. But hopefully, these decks will be much less consistent (and much easier to interact with thanks to the loss of Teferi, Time Raveler), which might push them down from "best deck in the format" to "solid second-tier option" status, which would be a huge win for Standard players after dealing with a year of opponents consistently having eight lands on the battlefield (while still having a grip full of cards) by Turn 4 or 5.

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Key Rotating Cards: Scorch Spitter, Light Up the Stage, Runaway Steam-Kin.

Mono-Red Aggro is a deck that seemingly always exists in Standard, so even though it will lose a couple of really strong cards in Light Up the Stage and Runaway Steam-Kin, it seems like a safe bet to exist in some form or another. Embercleave and Anax, Hardened in the Forge don't rotate, and these are the two foundational cards in the deck. As long as Embercleave is legal, there will be decks built around janking people out with a swarm of high-powered creatures. 

Thankfully, even though Mono-Red Aggro has gained some popularity in recent weeks, it has been far from oppressive in our current Standard format. In fact, aggro hasn't really been very good at all recently, so it might be that the key Mono-Red Aggro cards sticking around through rotation is a positive rather than a negative, although getting Embercleaved is rarely an enjoyable experience. 

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Key Rotating Cards: Knight of the Ebon Legion, Gutterbones, Rotting Regisaur, Spawn of Mayhem

Unlike Mono-Red Aggro, which keeps most of its key cards, Mono-Black Aggro gets absolutely crushed by rotation, losing its two best one-drops in Gutterbones and Knight of the Ebon Legion and its two primary finishers in Spawn of Mayhem and Rotting Regisaur. More importantly, there simply aren't good replacements available for these cards in the Standard card pool. As a result, Mono-Black Aggro seems dead in the water come September.

That said, all is not lost if you are a Mono-Black fan. While the aggro / beatdown plan might be off the table at rotation, there are other ways to play Mono-Black that could rise to the forefront of the format. Mono-Black Devotion keeps pretty much all of its key pieces; Mono-Black Sacrifice still has Cauldron Familiar, Witch's Oven, Lurrus of the Dream-Den, and Woe Strider; and it's even possible that adventure-based Knights will make a return thanks to the power of Order of Midnight, Smitten Swordmaster, and Lucky Clover

While the best beatdown-focused one-drops and three-drops are rotating, black still has some very solid archetype staples for both of those slots, with cards like Serrated Scorpion and Whisper Squad arguably being better than Knight of the Ebon Legion if your plan is to sacrifice things for value, and Ayara, First of Locthwain being more powerful than Rotting Regisaur or Spawn of Mayhem if your goal is to up your devotion to black. 

Basically, while Mono-Black Aggro seems unlikely to exist after rotation, rather than being the death of Mono-Black in the format, it seems more likely that black decks will have to shift away from the beatdown plan and toward something like sacrifice, devotion, or adventures once Zendikar Rising is released. At this point, it's impossible to say which of these archetypes will rise to the top (although sacrifice probably has a head start), but it seems likely that some sort of Mono-Black (or at least, heavy-black) deck will still be around after rotation—it just won't be the build that is currently near the top of the meta.

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Key Rotating Cards: Pelt Collector, Barkhide Troll, Kraul Harpooner, Vivien, Arkbow Ranger

Mono-Green Stompy might be the hardest deck in Standard when it comes to predicting post-rotation success or failure. On one hand, most of its good one and two-drops will rotate (with Stonecoil Serpent being the only survivor), along with staple planeswalker Vivien, Arkbow Ranger. On the other hand, all of Mono-Green Stompy's finishers—Questing Beast, Gemrazer, Lovestruck Beast—survive, along with The Great Henge, while Garruk, Unleashed might be up to the task of replacing Vivien, Arkbow Ranger in the four-mana planeswalker slot.

As far as creature replacements, the two-drop slot should be fine. Even without additional help from Zendikar Rising, some combination of Syr Faren, the Hengehammer, Wildborn Preserver, and Nessian Hornbeetle should be up to the task of replacing Barkhide Troll and Kraul Harpooner. On the other hand, the one-drop slot leaves a lot to be desired, with the best Pelt Collector replacement probably being something like Wildwood Tracker, Moss Viper, or Chainweb Aracnir, none of which is especially exciting. Mono-Green should be fine if it gets a good one-drop in Zendikar Rising; otherwise, the deck might have to reach into another color for a one-drop to support its aggro starts. 

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Key Rotating Cards: Mayhem Devil, Priest of Forgotten Gods, Bolas's Citadel.  

Jund Sacrifice is mostly a Throne of Eldraine–based deck, which means it won't lose all that much at rotation (and even less when you consider that Bolas's Citadel is a recent addition to the deck and hasn't traditionally been essential to the deck's success). Losing Priest of Forgotten Gods hurts but doesn't seem like a deal-breaker, especially with Woe Strider existing in the format as a backup sacrifice outlet. On the other hand, losing Mayhem Devil might be a deal-breaker for Jund Sacrifice. There just isn't a replacement of similar power in the card pool, with the next best options being the five-mana Havoc Jester (which doesn't seem Standard playable) and Bastion of Remembrance (which can't ping creatures and is more of a traditional Blood Artist effect on an enchantment). 

While the fact that Cat Oven, Woe Strider, and friends will remain in the format after rotation means that some sort of sacrifice deck will likely continue to exist this fall, without Mayhem Devil, is there enough of a reason to be Jund, or will some other style of sacrifice deck rise to the top? My guess is the latter. Mayhem Devil is the best and most important card in Jund Sacrifice, and without it (or a replacement), I'm not sure anyone will be afraid to play against the deck. Being able to use your Blood Artist to snipe down creatures is a huge, huge deal. With that off the table, going mono-black, black–white, or even Abzan with a sacrifice deck will become much more appealing. Will sacrifice exist post-rotation? Most likely. Will the sacrifice deck be Jund? Perhaps not.

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Key Rotating Cards: Wilderness Reclamation (nothing else really matters).

As a general rule, when your deck is named after one card and that card rotates, it's bad news for your deck. Temur Reclamation is all about the mana-doubling power of Wilderness Reclamation, and with Wilderness Reclamation leaving the format, the deck will cease to exist. Add in the loss of Expansion // Explosion, Growth Spiral, and Nightpack Ambusher, and it becomes doubly clear just how dead the deck will be in September. Thank the Magic gods. 

While there isn't much value in dancing on Temur Reclamation's grave, as tempting as it might be, a more exciting part of Wilderness Reclamation rotating is that it means that when September comes, we'll finally be rid of all of the mana-doubling effects that made Standard so miserable through much of the year. Fires of Invention already met its end with a banning, while Nissa, Who Shakes the World and Wilderness Reclamation will rotate. 

This, combined with the loss of Growth Spiral and various War of the Spark planeswalkers, which have made interacting somewhere between unprofitable and impossible, gives me the most hope for Standard's post-rotation future. I still believe that Standard's biggest problem over the past year—by a pretty wide margin—is that players can generate too much mana too quickly, which means that to have a chance to compete in the format, you either need to be ramping yourself or be as aggressive as possible to try to kill the ramping player before their finisher comes down, pushing fair midrange decks out of the meta entirely. While Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath worries me, it seems that post-rotation Zendikar Rising Standard should be rid of many of the worst offenders—Fires of Invention, Nissa, Who Shakes the World, Wilderness Reclamation, Growth Spiral, and Arboreal Grazer—which gives me hope that rotation really will fix Standard by making mana costs matter once again. 

Of course, this is assuming Wizards doesn't print some equally broken mana doublers or ramp spells in Zendikar Rising itself, which is always a risk, although I would hope that the endless complaints about Standard over the past year combined with being forced to ban a ton of cards just to keep the format in a barely playable state will add up to a lesson learned by Wizards. Mana costs need to matter. The color pie needs to matter. The number of cards in your starting hand matters. Variance matters. 

While the past year has almost certainly been the worst year of Standard in a long, long time, many of the most problematic cards will be leaving the format in September. If Wizards learned something from the past year and can put those lessons into future set designs (hopefully starting with Zendikar Rising), it seems possible that Standard is about to turn a corner. Or perhaps nothing was learned and come October, we'll be banning a bunch of Zendikar Rising cards. For now, I'll remain hopeful, but only time will tell.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. What do you think Standard will look like after rotation? Will the cards leaving fix the format? Let us know in the comments! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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