Cultivate Your Ramp
- Gianluca Aicardi
Standard has no shortage of great ways to ramp, and M21 added a few more, mostly by reprinting established classics. One of these has been a staple of Commander since its debut in M11 as a functional clone of Kodama's Reach with a more generic name. Does it change anything in the way current ramp decks operate?
Every ramp player knows the safest way to increase your mana output is through lands — either by procuring additional land drops or by fetching extra lands to the battlefield. Mana creatures are easily swept away, sending the whole ramp effort back to square one. Even mana artifacts, as well as Auras and other occasional mana-producing enchantments such as Sanctum of Fruitful Harvest, always run the risk of being destroyed in a variety of ways. Lands, on the other hand, are the most resilient of permanents; especially basic lands, and especially in Standard, where Ponza decks rarely happen and a proper Armageddon is not going to be reprinted anytime soon.
Indeed the most successful ramp decks in Standard were already applying this principle before Core Set 2021 released. They increased their land-drop quota via popular Simic cards like Growth Spiral, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, and Risen Reef.
One issue with the kind of spells that lets you put more lands on the battlefield is that you need to have those lands in hand to begin with. The only way to ensure that with any degree of consistency is by running a large amount of lands, often 28 or 29. Even then, you still won't be 100% sure that multiple spells relying on prospective extra lands in your hand or on top of your library will actually deliver on their promise of ramp.
It's the Arboreal Grazer predicament: Grazer is a solid 1-drop that nicely kickstarts the ramp plan, but the first copy we cast is sometimes irrelevant if we don't have enough follow-up lands, and the second is almost always just a 0/3 that can block fliers. Running four Grazers has been known as a bittersweet experience, because they don't have the built-in redraw functionality of Spiral and Uro, which at the very least can get themselves out of the way when they're not useful anymore.
The solution to this conundrum is twofold. Rather than dropping additional lands from your hand, you can move them from the library directly to the battlefield; or you can search them to your hand to feed the land drop enhancers.
Or, even better, you can do both.
It's indeed crucial that Cultivate supplies the two mentioned effects at once — one land goes to the battlefield, another goes to hand. We already had cards that did one or the other at 3: Fertile Footsteps and Omen of the Hunt for the former, District Guide and Farfinder for the latter. But one-for-one is not enough if we aim to be explosive; you have to do two-for-one. And once we take the Cultivate route, we may remember there's another card that does double-land duty on an even earlier turn: Nissa's Triumph. A card that always felt on the brink of being significant, but never went past fringe-list territory.
These two tutors are the tools to make the first Grazer always relevant while giving the second a better chance to matter, thus more easily justifying running a full playset of the sloth-like beast. Turn-one Grazer followed by turn-two Cultivate, or by Triumph into another Grazer, or by Spiral into Triumph, are all sequences that allow you to untap with five mana available on turn three, which means Nissa, which means going crazy on four. They require fewer lands to be drawn naturally for the same result compared to the previous Grazer/Spiral/Uro patterns. And they assemble a beautiful all-land ramp, very hard to counteract.
The Spirit of Ramp
Inspired by this tweet, our own Tobi Henke rolled up his sleeves, broke out his plough, and started to farm those lands and celebrate Nissa's accomplishments, as one should. The goal? Why, freshly returned professional ramp payoff Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, of course. The kind of card you don't want many nonland permanents around when you drop it.
|All In on U/Gin by Tobi Henke|
We've seen the one-two-three progression that gives us Nissa, Who Shakes the World on turn three. One could actually accomplish the same in monogreen. But there's no reason not to dip into blue for Uro and Hydroid Krasis as this era's customary alternative finishers for this kind of deck. Similarly, Growth Spiral proved superior to monocolored options like Azusa, Lost but Seeking. Even with Cultivate and Nissa's Triumph, Azusa still doesn't cut it, causing the same kind of grief that Grazer brings about once we run out of lands — only more so and at a higher cost.
At 5, Tobi also runs Cavalier of Thorns, which is more ramp for Ugin, a robust roadblock that stops pretty much anything, and can act as a minor win condition in a pinch. Plus, it's valuable recursion and feeds Uro. All in all, the thorny Cavalier proved to be the most versatile of the five Elemental Knights, despite appearing at first as the least flashy one.
As for the mana base, it's still 27-land deep, but that's at least a bit less extreme than the 28–29 of earlier Grazer decks. Fabled Passage barely features as it interacts poorly with a turn-one Grazer compared to regular tapped lands, as this particular combination doesn't give you extra mana on turn two. The presence of Nissa together with her Triumph might suggest the inclusion of a few utility lands: for example a singleton Blast Zone to fetch later on when the Triumph suddenly turns into a triple Sylvan Scrying. Although at that point in the game, if the board isn't already taken over, it might be wiser to search up and cycle away some Triomes to find more impactful cards. Either way, the power of suddenly being able to dig for three cards shouldn't be understated.
So why play this version over, say, the more illustrious Bant Ramp, which has also instantly adopted Ugin as its top end? Well, I guess it ultimately boils down to personal preferences and affinities. But the consistency is off the charts, and the results are undeniable: Tobi tested the list above on MTG Arena, ranking up from Diamond 4 to Mythic within a span of three days. His win ratio — close to 60% — is a big deal in Diamond.
It's probably not going to be a lasting fixture in the metagame, once the M21 additions will be more thoroughly absorbed during the summer. But Nissa is going to rotate in a few months — likely replaced by a new incarnation from Zendikar Rising. And she's definitely been a protagonist throughout her whole stay in Standard, shaking more than one world in more than one way. Time to say goodbye by giving her one last triumph.
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