We finally have the full spoiler for Battle for Zendikar and, despite a lot of community dissent about the power level of the set and its mechanics, I am thrilled with a lot of the cards about to enter the Standard format. I’ve been brewing and looking over cards constantly. That said, there is one card in particular that has completely captivated my attention:
Well, not exactly Blood Artist, but close:
Blood Artist, combined with sacrifice outlets and creatures that leave behind tokens after dying, is the centerpiece of an archetype known as The Aristocrats, regardless of the format (and regardless of if there are any cards with the word “aristocrat” in the deck).
The original Aristocrats deck was a human-based sacrifice-for-value deck in the Innistrad and Return to Ravnica Standard format. Sam Black created the archetype in preparation for Pro Tour Gatecrash, and it took down the tournament in the hands of his teammate Tom Martell.
The Aristocrats piloted by Tom Martell
The deck’s name came from two of the sacrifice outlets in the deck that fueled its synergy, Cartel Aristocrat and Falkenrath Aristocrat. The value gained by sacrificing disposable creatures like Doomed Traveler to enable Morbid on Skirsdag High Priest or protect Cartel Aristocrat and Falkenrath Aristocrat with their activated abilities was the synergy that drove the archetype. Doomed Traveler is perfect in the shell, because it is not only a human to power up Champion of the Parish, but also left behind a spirit token. Though the deck didn’t dominate subsequent tournaments for the release of Dragon’s Maze, it did shine a spotlight on some powerful synergies in the deck and had the community’s attention. Several people continued to brew varying version of the deck that included Blood Artist and the deck did have some success.
The deck’s next incarnation, following the release of Dragon’s Maze, was brought to prominence and was the weapon of choice for Standard master Brad Nelson. He tweaked and popularized the deck that we knew as Junk Aristocrats.
Junk Aristocrats by Brad Nelson
There were various different viable builds of the deck in this format prior to Magic 2014 that saw success. Some lists pushed the human subtheme, playing Champion the Parish alongside Gather the Townsfolk. Regardless of what cards were added in the “flex slots”, the deck won by playing out a massive number of creatures, attacking with them, and then sacrificing them to drain out their opponents with Blood Artist triggers, amass an army of flying demons courtesy of Skirsdag High Priest, or just create a giant Voice of Resurgence token to bash their opponent to death with. Despite playing a large number of “bad cards”, the deck was resilient and a contender in the metagame.
When Innistrad and company rotated out with the introduction of Theros, the deck died. Various versions of the deck popped up in Modern. Most recently, Steve Rubin played an Abzan version of this shell to a 14th place finish at Grand Prix Oklahoma City this month.
Modern Abzan Aristocrats by Steve Rubin
What is most interesting about this modern deck is that key components of the deck came from the Standard-legal Khans of Tarkir block. Collected Company and Abzan Ascendancy are important role-players in the deck and may enable a similar deck to come to light when Battle for Zendikar is legal in Standard.
So let’s start the brewing process. Looking at the Aristocrats deck lists, I would divide the card choices into four categories:
- Cheap resilient threats/two-for-one creatures
- Sacrifice outlets
- Payoff cards
The best way to go about building a deck that fits into the Aristocrats archetype, in my opinion, is identifying the options in each of those categories and then finding the most powerful, synergistic, and powerful 60-card combination.
One card every Aristocrats deck has in common is Doomed Traveler. It’s integral to the archetype. One mana for two bodies. That’s two creatures to trade in combat or two triggers off of Zulaport Cutthroat when those creatures die. Well, we don’t have a single casting cost creature that produces a flying token on its way to the graveyard, but we do have Blisterpod, which leaves behind an Eldrazi Scion token that can ramp us to casting Collected Company. We also have Carrier Thrall and Sultai Emissary that have similar characteristics to Doomed Traveler and Voice of Resurgence. Though there is no card in the Standard format capable of doing what Voice of Resurgence does in this strategy, having creatures that leave behind tokens after they die is incredibly important. Another creature that is worth considering is Standard all-star Hangarback Walker. Though it is awkward with Collected Company, it is resilient, can leave us with multiple flying tokens, and has a high power level on its own. I would say that, no matter how we build a deck around Zulaport Cutthroat, it’s safe to say that we will be starting with four Blisterpod and can add up to four each of Carrier Thrall, Sultai Emissary, and Hangarback Walker. Though Collected Company is an instant, it does provide us with multiple bodies, and would place it in this category.
Cheap Resilient Creatures/Two-for-Ones:
- Sultai Emissary
- Carrier Thrall
- Collected Company
- Sandsteppe Outcast
- Catacomb Sifter
- Hangarback Walker
- Hordeling Outburst
- From Beyond
- Bloodsoaked Champion
- Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
As for sacrifice outlets, there are a few in Standard worth considering. The most obvious, in my opinion, is Nantuko Husk. At three mana, it’s perfect for curve considerations. Turn one, play Blisterpod. On turn two, play Zulaport Cutthroat. Turn three, play Nantuko Husk. You have your board state set up to be competitive in combat and start getting value off of Zulaport Cutthroat. The best part is that you’re also set up to follow up on turn four with either a Collected Company or by casting two additional Carrier Thrall, Hangarback Walker, and/or Sultai Emissary. There are additional ways to get value off of sacrificing creatures. Evolutionary Leap is incredible at gaining card advantage with Blisterpod. Or, you can get aggressive and producing a powerful individual threat like Butcher of the Horde. Later, we can look at some overlap between sacrifice outlets and interactive cards.
- Nantuko Husk
- Evolutionary Leap
- Butcher of the Horde
- Smothering Abomination
- Altar’s Reap
- Sidisi, Undead Vizier
So, now we have to figure out what higher purpose these poor creatures being sacrificed for. The sacrifice outlets give us value, our reward for making such a dark deal to begin with. That said, we still need to extract additional value out of our dying creatures. The premier payoff card is the reason for building this style of deck, Zulaport Cutthroat. It’s one of our most promising win conditions and makes cluttered battlefields insurmountable for our opponents. Grim Haruspex would also be a great way to generate incredible card advantage. If we aren’t generating value out of the sacrifice itself, we need to get value out of having multiple creatures on the battlefield. Abzan Ascendancy buffs our creatures and also provides evasive threats or sacrifice fodder as well. Liliana, Heretical Healer is also a versatile, powerful option that is can easily be flipped. She is good against red decks, gains value over the course of the game when flipped in the midrange match-ups, and can threaten the hand of control players or recur threats in the late game. There are several options to consider.
- Zulaport Cutthroat
- Grim Haruspex
- Liliana, Heretical Healer
- Abzan Ascendancy
- Sorin, Solemn Visitor
- Rally the Ancestors
- Drana, Liberator of Malakir
Now we need to figure out what kind of interaction or disruption we need. If we want a catch-all removal spell, we would look to play the slow, but effective Utter End. If the shell we end up building has an aggressive slant, we may consider Crackling Doom. Other good removal spells in the four colors we have touched on thus far include Ruinous Path, Murderous Cut, Mardu Charm(versatile and can create additional creatures when advantageous[/card], and Abzan Charm. Any of those could be fine options. As far as other disruption goes, without Thoughtseize in the format, I think the available discard spells are too narrow. If we want to continue looking at flexible forms of interaction, Kolaghan’s Command could also be a viable and synergistic option, as it does allow us rebuy a Zulaport Cutthroat or Carrier Thrall. Continuing down the path of looking at synergistic interactive spells, we should definitely consider cards that work with the sacrifice theme of the deck. Fleshbag Marauder/Merciless Executioner have a symmetrical effect that our deck is well-suited to abuse, and, if Collected Company is in the deck, the 3/1s are additional targets for the powerful instant. Last but not least, the recently spoiled reprint Bone Splinters would also serve as a way to sacrifice creatures.
- Ruinous Path
- Utter End
- Ultimate Price
- Mardu Charm
- Abzan Charm
- Murderous Cut
- Kolaghan’s Command
- Crackling Doom
- Transgress the Mind
- Deadbridge Shaman
At this point all that’s left is building a shell and testing. There are tons of options available, and many of them could be viable or competitive. An aggressive Mardu shell featuring Butcher of the Horde and Bloodsoaked Champion with lots of removal spells could be one direction to go. If you wanted Zulaport Cutthroat to be reach to close out a game, perhaps a Black-White weenie strategy with a multitude of 2/1s for one, including Kytheon, Hero of Akros, along with Drana, Liberator of Malakir and Sorin, Solemn Visitor could be fast enough to punish midrange decks. From initial testing and deckbuilding with Justin Heilig (who designed the White Devotion deck played by Craig Wescoe at a WMCQ to a top eight finish and by Sam Black to 4-0 the Standard Swiss rounds at Worlds) we’ve wanted to capture the feel of the Aristocrats predecessors. We wanted to balance raw power level of card selections with synergy and thus far, though it’s early in testing, our favorite build is a base green and black shell splashing red and white. Blisterpod seems like it is one of the most important role-players and the best thing to do on turn one when playing Zulaport Cutthroat.
We had input from several friends including Zach Byrd, Robbie Mitchell, and Allen Wiggs in developing this list. The deck has several resilient creatures, making Abzan Ascendancy powerful as an anthem effect and as a way to generate additional creatures. One synergy I particularly like in grindy match-ups is Sultai Emissary and Abzan Ascendancy. With 29 creatures in the list, the manifest created when Sultai Emissary dies can often turn into a more powerful creature and, if the manifests die, you generate a spirit token off the Ascendancy (unlike the tokens created by Carrier Thrall or Hangarback Walker. That continuous stream of creatures allows you to start alpha striking when your opponent is at a fairly high life total and then drain them out with Zulaport Cutthroat. Collected Company is incredibly powerful but puts a substantial constraint on deckbuilding. This list has 26 targets, which is enough to hit two creatures with a fair degree of consistency. It can be awkward with Hangarback Walker, but having to choose it as one of the targets for Collected Company isn’t the absolute worst. With Zulaport Cutthroat, you get a drain trigger, and with Abzan Ascendancy, the Hangarback Walker generates a spirit token. The Hangarback dying immediately will also flip a Liliana, Heretical Healer.
The sideboard has some some powerful tools. Against red decks, you can simply sideboard out Abzan Ascendancy and two Butcher of the Horde for Sorin, Solemn Visitor and Arashin Cleric. The deck has blockers for days and has more attrition tools in the match-up. Against control, Bloodsoaked Champion allows for fast starts and is great against sweepers. Evolutionary Leap comes in to ensure there’s a constant stream of threats to combat their removal spells. Shadows of the Past may also have a role in the board for slower, grindier match-ups. The remaining cards are catch-all answers to nearly anything problematic your opponent presents.