Ajani, Strength of the Pride is one of the first cards spoiled from Core Set 2020 and looks like a huge boost to an archetype that previously looked like it had potential but was not quite there yet.
Ajani's first ability to build around is the -2 ability. Being able to run essentially 8 copies of Ajani's Pridemate lets us commit to building around the effect. Resplendent Angel is the other obvious card that grants a huge payoff for gaining life, and Ajani happens to perfectly enable the angel as well. With these 12 cards locked in, let's take a look at some of our enablers.
Since Ajani's other two abilities want us to have a lot of creatures in play, the obvious place to start is with an aggressive white weenie shell. With such an abundance of white 1-drops in Standard, we don't really have to sacrifice much card quality to pull off a resemblance to the hyper-aggressive white weenie deck that has been near the top of the Standard metagame for so long. Gideon Blackblade is one of the several powerful options white has available at 3 mana that happens to be able to gain life as well.
White Weenie with Ajani, Strength of the Pride
4 Legion's Landing/Adanto, the First Fort 4 Healer's Hawk 4 Hunted Witness 4 Ajani's Pridemate 2 Gideon Blackblade 4 History of Benalia 4 Resplendent Angel 2 Conclave Tribunal 3 Ajani, Strength of the Pride 4 Venerated Loxodon 21 Plains (331) 4 Baffling End 3 Dawn of Hope 4 Tocatli Honor Guard 2 Unbreakable Formation 2 Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants
This particular list eschews Benalish Marshal to make room for the synergistic 3-drops, but it's possible that it's such an important element to the deck that we want to fit it in. Dawn of Hope and Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants out of the sideboard give this deck the option to play a much more grindy game than an opponent of white weenie may expect.
The mono-white deck looks fine as a starting point, but what can we gain from adding a second color? It turns out quite a lot:
Black looks like an interesting place to start. Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord is another perfect fit for the types of things we're trying to do: it gains us a ton of life in small increments and it can return our build-around creatures to the battlefield (speaking of which, it might be worthwhile to consider 1-2 copies of Revival // Revenge). The only issue with Sorin is that it's another 4-mana planeswalker in a deck that's already built around a 4-mana planeswalker.
Nightmare's Thirst at first seemed a bit too cute, but after some consideration it might actually be quite strong. In any turn where we are able to do the thing that the entire deck is based around, it can generate a huge tempo swing by essentially serving as hard removal for only a single mana. When you consider the potential to use it as a blowout combat trick with an early Ajani's Pridemate, it becomes a very tempting inclusion.
Oathsworn Vampire has been around for a while without seeing any play. It barely scrapes by in the early game, but it does a stronger Gutterbones impression as the game goes on. Do we finally have the right mix of synergies available to build Black/White Knights?
Orzhov Knights with Ajani, Strength of the Pride
4 Dauntless Bodyguard 4 Nightmare's Thirst 4 Corpse Knight 4 Knight of Grace 4 Knight of Malice 4 Oathsworn Vampire 4 History of Benalia 2 Midnight Reaper 3 Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord 3 Ajani, Strength of the Pride 9 Plains (331) 7 Swamp (339) 4 Godless Shrine 4 Isolated Chapel
This is almost certainly not the correct balance of "good" aggressive knights and lifegain-focused cards, but it serves as a basis for where we can go in this archetype. Nightmare's Thirst does a lot of work in shoring up our ability to gain a bit of life while giving us some space to play removal. Its worst-case scenario of only being able to give a creature -1/-1 is also mitigated in this deck by the presence of so many creatures with First Strike. Corpse Knight is another exciting new card from Core Set 2020 that could merit its own brewing session but fits perfectly in this shell with the Oathsworn Vampire package, giving us quite a lot of reach.
What else you got, supporting colors? Green has some sweet options:
Continuing with our Ajani tribal theme, a Selesnya tokens style deck is another perfect fit for the new planeswalker. This is an archetype that is extremely efficient at spitting out large numbers of creatures with lifelink, which combines to make the +1 ability more potent and the ultimate on Ajani, Strength of the Pride a much more realistic threat.
Selesnya Tokens with Ajani, Strength of the Pride
3 Legion's Landing/Adanto, the First Fort 4 Flower/Flourish 2 Ajani's Pridemate 4 Saproling Migration 3 Emmara, Soul of the Accord 1 Gideon Blackblade 4 History of Benalia 2 Conclave Tribunal 1 Shalai, Voice of Plenty 3 Ajani, Strength of the Pride 1 Ajani, the Greathearted 4 Venerated Loxodon 1 Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves 3 Trostani Discordant 3 March of the Multitudes 8 Plains (331) 4 Forest (347) 4 Sunpetal Grove 4 Temple Garden
We're already willing to expose ourselves to removal to play the powerful Emmara, so it's possible we could just go bigger on Ajani's Pridemate. Either way, even an untuned version of this list looks extremely powerful and will certainly be one of the first things we playtest.
OK, I was originally going to include an Azorius list that used blue for some combination of Dovin, Teferi, and Deputy of Detention, but that deck would probably end up looking a lot like a better version of the white weenie deck from above. It'll be good, and we'll definitely try that too. But for now, let's just fast forward to the coolest shell for Ajani:
Esper SuperHero with Ajani, Strength of the Pride
4 Ajani's Pridemate 4 Hero of Precinct One 4 Oath of Kaya 4 Dovin, Grand Arbiter 3 Teferi, Time Raveler 2 Gideon Blackblade 1 Kaya, Orzhov Usurper 1 Saheeli, Sublime Artificer 3 Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord 3 Ajani, Strength of the Pride 3 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria 1 Liliana, Dreadhorde General 1 Despark 1 Time Wipe 3 Plains (331) 4 Glacial Fortress 4 Hallowed Fountain 4 Godless Shrine 4 Isolated Chapel 2 Watery Grave 4 Interplanar Beacon
We've gone hard on the ability to gain life and also reliably cast our spells with Interplanar Beacon in this list. Between Ajani's Pridemate and Hero of Precinct One we are committed to white as our primary color requirement for non-Planeswalker spells, so we've omitted some staples from existing Esper Hero lists such as Thought Erasure. But after we swallow this loss, the potential within this list is alluring. Between Oath of Kaya, Interplanar Beacon, and Ajani's +1 ability in conjunction with Hero of Precinct One, it's reasonable to believe that we'll be able to gain enough life to stay alive against aggro and threaten Ajani's third ability against midrange decks. These colors are able to seamlessly blend the synergies between token strategies and lifegain while also offering redundancy on the key 2-drops. We probably have some work to do tweaking the few non-Planeswalker support card slots, but this list is the one that we're most excited about trying.
Just for completeness' sake, here is a quick dump of all of the cards that we considered while brewing these decks but did not end up using yet:
After working our way through these builds, it looks like we built more towards the Ajani's Pridemate end of things and less towards the Resplendent Angel side, but there's still plenty of room to explore with both. Angel of Vitality in particular looks like it fits into the category of "lightning rod" creature that aims to overload opposing removal in an Angels shell alongside Resplendent Angel and Lyra Dawnbringer.
Thanks for reading! We're still early in spoiler season, so if any new cards are released that work well within these strategies, please let us know and we'll be sure to update our lists! And of course, if you've enjoyed our Standard content, be sure to check out that sidebar and subscribe to our Standard feed!