Exert in a New Standard

Let’s be honest, the Hour of Devastation spoilers thus far haven’t been so exciting…

We’ve been introduced to a few new lackluster planeswalker cards, a rather narrow sideboard cycle, and a three-mana downgrade to Lightning Strike.


Knowing that this is one of the last experiences with a multi-set block due to recently announced updates from WOtC, Hour of Devastation marks one of the last times that keyword mechanics and set themes will have a large presence in consecutive sets (except in the rare cases that consecutive ‘blocks’ may experiment with similar mechanics).  In cases where a second set utilizes mechanics from the first, decks built around these mechanics can only improve.

This time around, I’ve got my eye on one mechanic in particular.  Exert.

I’ve toyed around with this one quite a bit in a GW Humans shell due to the obvious playability of two on-tribe exert creatures, Glory-Bound Initiate and Gust Walker.  These two humans fit well with one-drops like Thraben Inspector, Expedition Envoy, and Town Gossipmonger, and can be effectively topped off with a Thalia’s Lieutenant to keep the curve low and remain aggressive.  Similar decks were historically very effective in standard and already ran exert-enablers like Always Watching.

From this solidly white base, a second color is an easy addition.  Many players have attempted WR to moderate success using pieces like Honored Crop-Captain, Combat Celebrant, Hanweir Garrison, or Glorybringer.  Rather than splashing another color for more exert creatures, I’ve opted to splash for what I feel is a very overlooked exert enabler…

Particularly now that the card is not well-known, the surprise of being able to untap an exerted creature to block, gain life, and then exert again on your next turn is extremely effective.  Beyond that, Fight (while an extremely over-costed version of cards with similar effects) provides a way to squeeze extra pieces of creature removal into the deck without sacrificing cards that advance your exert plan or aggressive strategy.

Other advantages to running green lie in Heron’s Grace Champion and Tireless Tracker.  Both cards provide great things to do on your opponent’s turn (cracking clues or casting a Champion to block).  Alternatively, you could be saving that mana for a Prepare.

EDIT: An early comment on this article was “there are no mechanics, only cards.”  YES!  I totally agree.  Building a trample or first strike deck might be a bit ridiculous.  Exert, however, appears on creatures who in the first  attack, are quite “pushed” at the cost of being iced in the next turn and can be abused via enablers that either give vigilance or untap.  Some cards like Glorybringer are good enough to run in decks that don’t have ways to abuse them but when others are included, you are incentivized to play card so like Always Watching which are in line with an exert strategy.  This doesn’t mean that all of the deck’s creatures need to have the keyword, but in a deck that is optimized to take advantage of exert, having other choices that use the mechanic help to make the deck stronger and more versatile.

Here’s a very rough shell for this sort of deck…

GW Humans

Town Gossipmonger
Expedition Envoy
Thraben Inspector
Thalia’s Lieutenant
Gust Walker
Thalia, Heretic Cathar
Glory-Bound Initiate
Tireless Tracker
Heron’s Grace Champion
Prepare // Fight
Declaration in Stone
Always Watching
Canopy Vista
Fortified Village
10 Plains

Having played various iterations of this deck over the last week, I’ve run into some problems.  While the exert engine has been rather good, the tribal aggressive plan is far inferior to its zombies counterpart.  Having the combination of both ideas in the deck leaves us in a grey area that is a worse version of both plans.  We are neither aggressive enough to race decks with sweepers and bigger creatures nor are we deep enough into the exert plan to out-value decks like Delirium or Temur Energy and drawing cards like Expedition Envoy feels rather bad vs. Bristling Hydra and Chandra, Torch of Defiance.

Currently, this type of deck doesn’t have a chance of being a better aggressive deck than zombies but with some new tools from Hour of Devastation, a more midrange version may be able to fly over and outvalue them or a more focused aggressive version may be able to race.  Depending on which new pieces become available to us, breaking the tribal theme or changing colors are both plausible.

What’s Missing?

Let’s look at some possibilities from Hour of Devastation that would lead to a successful exert deck in this meta.

  • Red exert creatures seems to be aggressive, difficult to block, or have potential to trade up.  If HoD includes a strong, playable one-drop exert creature, a RW or GRW exert aggro deck deck featuring Ahn-Crop Crasher, Glory-Bound Initiate, and/or Combat Celebrant.

Exert ~: +2/0 and first strike until end of turn.

  • In order for GW or Naya exert to be possible (ie. Prepare // Fight, Glory-Bound Initiate, Glorybringer), we’ll need a 3 or 4-mana value creature (likely a rare) with some sort of evasion or trample.  Glory-Bound currently applies quite a bit of pressure and demands and answer but we don’t have a good follow up.  Unfortunately, nearly every piece of removal in Standard can deal with it.  If we’ve got another must-answer creature that fits into our exert plan on 3 or 4-mana, we won’t be so sad to see Glory-Bound go as it has effectively eaten a removal spell that would otherwise be pointed at something more valuable to our plan.

Exert ~: +2/+2 and First Strike until end of turn.

  • Lastly, an on-curve creature removal (or functional creature removal) ‘exerter’ to fit the theme of the deck while still dealing with problem blockers on the other side of the table would help quite a bit.  For this, I’m imagining a flicker-type ability on a white human creature.  The wall that the humans deck frequently runs into is that a single blocker can often stunt your attack plan.  Often times, an Archangel Avacyn is played and even though you’ve got 5 creatures to your opponent’s 1, an attack is unwise, knowing that you’ll be feeding your attackers into the angel while only dealing your opponent 3 or 4 damage at a time.  Something like this might be able to get your mono W-based exert humans through those pesky blockers.

Creature – Human

Exert ~: exile target creature until the beginning of the next end step.

EDIT: Since this article was written, Pride Sovereign has been previewed.  This card certainly provides interesting options for exert-themed strategies.

It can be followed up with some pretty exciting Prepare//Fight shenanigans.  My favorite of which is…

  • Turn 3: Pride Sovereign
  • Turn 4: Block, make cats >> Prepare >> make more cats (and crush a big unsuspecting attacker)?

Looking Forward

This leaves us with a lot of ifs.  There is certainly still a lot to preview for Hour of Devastation but I can’t help but to wonder what’s to come and what it will do to shake up standard.  These hypotheticals may or may not make a difference for this type of strategy but one thing IS for sure, there will be more exert cards printed in Hour of Devastation.  I’m excited to see what the set brings and what new tools these cards will provide.