Building Ramp Decks with Zendikar Rising

Tom AndersonStandard

Current Standard has more ramp than a skate park built in a multi-level parking garage. Ramp decks have always been a part of Magic, escaping the limits of the mana curve since the first Llanowar Elves tapped to cast Force of Nature. But design changes in the Standard rotation shifted the balance of power, doing away with many of the traditional weaknesses of such strategies to the point they completely took over.

The overall compression of mana costs — where today’s Force of Nature stand-in costs four or five mana instead of six or seven — amplifies the benefit of ramping even one turn ahead on mana. And rather than demanding you invest extra mana in upkeep each turn, modern threats actually refund the resources spent on them or generate additional value so they can’t be answered cleanly. The release of Zendikar Rising, has only increased the options available for accelerating mana, to the point that even after a token ban on Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, deciding which ones to utilize is a tricky deck-building challenge.

Since we’re all here in this skate park format together, we may as well learn how to do some tricks. Here’s how to take best advantage of the many mana accelerants in Zendikar Rising Standard.

Mana Dorks

Or mana creatures, to those with brains less pickled in the fine brine of MTG culture! Creatures that can supplement your lands by tapping for mana are a core feature of green, with Llanowar Elves and Birds of Paradise on the shortlist of Magic’s best-known cards. Current Standard features Gilded Goose, Ilysian Caryatid, Tangled Florahedron and Humble Naturalist among the playable options of this kind. (Lotus Cobra is a different beast, as we’ll see later.)

Compared to other types of ramp spells, dorks have the most unique traits; some purists would hesitate to call them ramp at all. They are often the cheapest options available; they put you ahead on mana without needing additional cards from your hand or deck, and they can often produce mana of any color or have other specific payoffs. 

This all weighs against their status as creatures; while sometimes a benefit when you need something to block, mutate or sacrifice, it is usually a drawback because it means a vital part of your game plan is vulnerable to common creature removal. Summoning sickness also prevents most dorks from contributing mana the turn they’re played — although many other ramp spells are also worded to prevent this. 

This sort of unreliability and their increasing irrelevance in combat has caused dorks to fall out of fashion lately, but you should consider them if you need cheaper ramp or if they provide a specific synergy — like Gilded Goose in sacrifice decks.

Land Search

The other classic type of ramp spell; Rampant Growth is an example strong enough to cement the name for this whole archetype. We don’t have Rampant Growth in Standard — or even Growth Spiral anymore — but we do have Cultivate, Omen of the Hunt, Roiling Regrowth, Vastwood Surge, Beanstalk Giant and other spells to put lands straight from the deck into play. Thanks to the modern design moratorium on land destruction, this method provides a near-foolproof and permanent boost in available mana — although almost all current options dictate that the land enters tapped for the turn. 

Other than their lack of immediate impact on the board, these spells have few inherent downsides. They trigger landfall, thin your deck, fix your colors and up your land or permanent count beyond the number of cards you’ve drawn naturally. About the only concern to keep in mind is a deck-building one; since most modern land search cards can only get basic lands, you need to ensure you have enough in your deck to find. In a world where those basics are competing with Temples, Triomes, powerful utility lands and now modal double-faced cards (MDFC’s), that can be a real sacrifice.

Extra Land Drops

Recent sets seem to have really played toward this templating for ramp cards. Dryad of the Ilysian Grove, Azusa, Lost But Seeking, Escape to the Wilds, and Song of Creation are the main candidates here. The interactions around these cards have gotten a little more complicated since Azusa debuted 15 years ago, and it’s worth thinking them through before you brew! Chulane, Teller of Tales is also still legal in Standard, and like Uro, its wording puts it somewhere between this kind of spell and the Rampant Growth kind in our taxonomy of ramp cards. Nahiri’s Lithoforming isn’t really a ramp spell at all, but also shares the “additional land drop” pros and cons I’ll outline here.

The “additional land drop” effects follow all the normal rules for playing lands, which can be both good and bad. You can use these to play the new MDFC’s on their land side — as opposed to Chulane, Uro, or Cultivate, which do not treat them as “land cards” since the lands are on the back. You can also use additional land drops to play lands from other zones if you’re allowed, such as your library (Radha, Heart of Keld) or your graveyard (Ancient Greenwarden). You can put lands into play untapped (assuming the land itself allows) and put in any nonbasic you like! And importantly for deck-building, static abilities like Dryad allow for zero-cost ramping on future turns — one of the few ways to be immediately mana-positive with a ramp effect.

These cards are not all upside, however. We have to remind ourselves that these effects (and the similar-enough Chulane, Uro, Arboreal Grazer set) require you to draw the extra lands you’re going to play. This is a deck-building challenge all its own; unless you’re drawing tons of cards with something like Song of Creation, you’ll be forced to play a very high number of lands or eat a fail rate on your ramp. You’ll also see diminishing returns if you manage to get multiple extra land drops at once, compared to other ramp spells which stack just fine. The final complication comes from the static abilities on cards like Azusa and Dryad; you gain or lose the “right” to play lands as these cards enter and leave play, and tracking and sequencing your remaining drops mid-combo can be very taxing.

Still, these effects have become very powerful with the advent of Zendikar Rising, featuring strong synergies with both landfall cards and the powerful spell-lands. If your deck can keep up with the need to draw a ton of lands, they offer the highest potential upside. Well, highest except for the last “category”…

Lotus Cobra & Omnath, Locus of Creation

I was going to call this section “Landfallers,” but there are only these two landfall cards which directly accelerate your mana — and big surprise, they’re both broken. Cobra and Omnath have warped the meta after just a week of legality — and, having been granted life beyond that by Uro’s sacrifice in the B&R, you can bet they will continue to do so for at least another month. Omnath is a powerhouse unto itself — and, at this point, a known quantity — but Lotus Cobra is explosively splashable into any green (and plenty of non-green) strategies. While it’s as vulnerable as a traditional mana dork, it can produce mana of any color, without needing to tap, in quantities limited only by the number of lands you can make hit the battlefield. Whether you’re pursuing more traditional mana acceleration with a two-mana bump off just Fabled Passage, or trying to cast your whole deck in one go with Nahiri’s Lithoforming, it’s hard not to make four Cobras your starting point.

The Right Fuel For Your Engine

The optimal route depends on what precisely you’re trying to achieve with your ramp suite. Are you aiming for the largest, fastest burst of mana to cast one huge spell (likely Ugin or Genesis Ultimatum)? Mana dorks and landfallers start the compounding effects of ramp earliest, and produce bonus mana without using up extra cards — which maximizes the “peak mana” you can produce from any given hand.

Depending on how game-ending your payoff(s) are and how much effort it takes to draw them, you might even have spare “spell slots” to introduce other ramp effects on top of a high land count. In this case, I would prefer land searching over extra land drops, since you’re likely already playing lands as fast as you can draw them. This can change, though, if you feel it’s better to play a ton of MDFC’s or you have powerful card draw.

Other strategies use ramp to skip the early turns and start immediately chaining three- to five-mana threats as a tempo play — think Llanowar Elves into Steel Leaf Champion from older formats. 

The fast start offered by dorks and landfall is also good here, but you’re equally happy to play Explore or any other ramp you can get at that cost. Landfall or extra land drops are a little worse, since you want extra mana to be consistently available and may not be able to afford to play high land counts like the decks that can win with one spell. The spell-lands that offer a creature side — particularly Kazandu Mammoth and Turntimber Symbiosis — can be a decent compromise here.

The third goal you can work toward is probably the most exciting: using all that mana to combo off in one supernova turn. Of course, any combo deck which needs to hit a certain mana threshold for its winning line can use ramp to effectively reduce its clock, but there are other combos that make assembling a huge pile of lands or mana their primary wincon. In current Standard, the key enabler is Lotus Cobra, with its uncapped, immediate, and stackable mana generation. What you plan to ultimately use that mana for is, as usual, less important than working out how to harness the Cobra as effectively and reliably as possible.

Obviously, Cobra combo decks like my example above are going to favor effects that trigger landfall: extra land drops and land searching. Land searching can be useful before combo turns for thinning your deck and setting up a good amount of starting mana without using up “ammunition” from your hand. But it’s still important to have extra land drops, as those produce instant positive mana like the Cobra does, giving you a hint of combo redundancy. Valakut Awakening, Nahiri’s Lithoforming and Radha (especially combined with Vivien, Monsters’ Advocate) help churn through your deck, which is even more powerful when you stack the deck with spell-lands.

Turning Up the Bass

Choosing your ramp spells is only half the equation. How you construct your mana base is an intrinsically linked set of decisions, and you should ideally do both at the same time. 

Obviously, ramp decks are going to want to start with at least the average number of lands, probably a little above the norm. But which ones?!?

This is particularly an issue with multicolor decks. I usually start as greedy as possible — all the Triomes, Temples and Pathways in my colors. But you might need to add some number of basics. This can be because you’re playing land searching spells that specify them, because you’re running Fabled Passage to power landfall cards, or because you need to enable your Castles or Mystic Sanctuary.

In current Standard, your basic land count is also a measure of how often you need lands to enter untapped, mythic spell-lands and Pathways aside. Luckily, ramp decks tend to jump spots on the curve; you can afford not to use all your mana every turn, so you may not need as many basics as you think. Only decks with important early plays across consecutive turns need to focus on including untapped lands. Similar, you may not need basics in all your colors — but often, decks with a splash do end up playing one or more, because their land searching ramp spells can then double as fixing.

My final pass over my mana base is to choose how many spell-lands to play. For most decks, it’s as many as I can get away with. Weirdly, ramp decks seem like one of the archetypes that will sometimes avoid playing these; the additional manabase hoops they need to jump through for ramp effects can’t always allow for the additional greed. If you do seek to include them, I would use them to replace other spells instead of your normal lands — particularly if your focus is on land-searching effects or playing on curve.

Kickflip off my Cobra

When in Zendikar, we must do as the Zendikari do — and that’s make a ton of mana at breakneck pace. While this exaggerated Standard environment does make it hard for some decks to survive, one advantage of easy mana is that you can use it to power out almost any jank you could dream of. I hope that these ramp tips can help you understand how to best accelerate into whatever parts of Magic bring you joy.