What have we become? The last few months have made it abundantly clear that green decks are king, and if you aren't playing green then you need to be doing something absurdly powerful to get over the top of them. There is still hope, but the light at the end of the tunnel is getting harder and harder to see.
Don't get me wrong. I like seeing Forest be the dominant basic land. After all, I do own 25 Unhinged Forests for a reason. But unfortunately for my collection of Unhinged lands, Mono-Green isn't exactly well-positioned either. If you want to play green, you're going to have to pair it with a little bit of help.
But that has usually been the case with green decks. They generally lack removal or card advantage, but provide a solid foundation for a midrange strategy. Green decks usually mean ramp spells and gigantic creatures, and this format is not much different aside from the glaring sore that is Courser of Kruphix.
For the last few months, we've seen Whip of Erebos strategies dominate Standard, with very little else making much of an impression. Sure, the powerhouse card Jeskai Ascendancy made a splash here and there, but it was made clear at the Players' Championship that Doomwake Giant, Reclamation Sage, and Sultai Charm are fantastic ways to push that archetype down. And since three of the Top 4 pilots had those exact cards in their deck, Jeskai had a bit of trouble staying in contention.
But we can't let one 16-person tournament with a split format define Standard as we know it. If I learned anything from helping Brad Nelson prepare for the event, it was that we built and tuned his deck to metagame against the rest of the field. In a completely open environment, I'm not so sure that Brad would have had the results that he did. But going in we had a good idea of what the competitors in the event would be playing, and Sultai Reanimator seemed like a very good choice.
So where do we go from here? That's the (thousand-dollar) question. Until the release of the next set, I'm not exactly sold on playing a non-green deck. Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix are just stellar in the current format, giving you access to both card advantage and mana acceleration, outpacing the rest of the field. You even have free reign to dabble in a fourth color, giving you access to cards that your deck wouldn't normally have the ability to play. With Sylvan Caryatid and a plethora of dual and tri-colored lands, anything is possible, so long as it involves green.
For a deckbuilder, this isn't exactly an ideal world. We don't want to be limited in what cards we put in our decks, but Courser of Kruphix and Sylvan Caryatid are doing exactly that. But there is one green deck in the format without those two cards that is certainly making waves. Since Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, not a lot was said about Mike Sigrist's Abzan Aggro deck. It has been getting a bit of press lately thanks to Brian Braun-Duin and a few others, but I think this deck is a very reasonable choice for an upcoming event.
But where do we start? I don't think this deck is perfect by any means. And what that implies is that improvements can be made. If you compare this version to the one Mike Sigrist played at the Pro Tour, then you'll notice a lot of changes have already been made. For instance, Sigrist played zero copies of Wingmate Roc. So why are we now playing four? There probably isn't a correct answer other than "the card is very powerful," and this deck seems like an ideal place to put powerful cards. There isn't a lot of synergy, the lands deal us a ton of damage, and every card in the deck just feels like it is the best possible spell to play for that mana cost.
Bile Blight, Abzan Charm, and Hero's Downfall are great removal spells in the current format, giving you a bit of help against a number of strategies. Bile Blight shines against Jeskai strategies, but is much weaker against midrange decks, though it does give you a bit of breathing room against Hornet Queen. Abzan Charm can exile most creatures that matter, be a combat trick, or just give you a bit of a refuel when you're low in the tank. Abzan Charm has continuously impressed me in this Standard format, but it does fight in the same slot as Hero's Downfall. At the moment, I would argue heavily in favor of Abzan Charm over Hero's Downfall, as there seems to be a severe lack of planeswalkers in the current Standard format. And against strategies that do play a lot of them, we can always play the rest of the Hero's Downfalls in the sideboard.
If you look at the new versions of Abzan Aggro, it doesn't feel as much like an aggro deck as its predecessor. It doesn't have Herald of Torment or Heir of the Wilds, and instead replaces those with more removal and a certain five-drop bird. Upping the curve like that has serious consequences, but that doesn't necessarily mean it makes the deck worse. It is just a different deck, though it looks surprisingly similar.
The one thing I loved about Sigrist's original version was the fact that it could take five or even ten points of damage from its own cards, only to have Sorin, Solemn Visitor gain it all back in one fell swoop. Sorin made it more compelling to play painlands and Herald of Torment, because you could just gain it all back at a moment's notice. Siege Rhino also does this, though on a much smaller scale. Sorin has slowly gotten worse and worse as the months have dragged on, and I don't want to rely on him too much in any deck, but this is certainly the deck that wants him the most.
One minor upgrade to the manabase just has to be Mana Confluence. With so many heavy color requirements from your early spells, your Llanowar Wastes and Caves of Koilos are going to deal you a lot of damage, so what is the difference when you're playing Mana Confluence? I've had quite a few draws with the current Abzan Aggro deck that just couldn't play a creature in the early turns because I drew too many of these painlands, where Mana Confluence would have been a major upgrade. Don't be afraid of taking a lot of damage in this deck, as we saw BBD do in the Players' Championship quite a few times and still come out on top. There are times where the damage will add up, but I would much rather be able to cast my spells on time, as stumbling at any point with this deck will surely spell your demise.
What I do like about Abzan Aggro is that it has draws that are very difficult for most decks to beat. Fleecemane Lion and Rakshasa Deathdealer are phenomenal threats that hit hard in both the early and lategame. Without a lot of removal, those creatures will take over the game given enough time, which is fantastic for a two-mana creature. The curve of Fleecemane Lion into Anafenza, the Foremost while on the play threatens to end the game in just a few attacks, or at least get your opponent low enough on life so that a Siege Rhino or two will do all the cleanup. And even if your opponent can handle the early pressure of these creatures, having a backbreaker of a five-drop in Wingmate Roc will usually seal the deal.
I think that Abzan Aggro is a solid favorite against most decks in the format, but its main problem stems from how the deck is built. Since it relies so heavily on its curve, too many lands entering the battlefield tapped or just drawing too few lands will leave you in awkward spots. Similarly, drawing only two of your three colors could keep you from casting the majority of spells that you draw. Without Sylvan Caryatid or Courser of Kruphix to smooth out your draws, the deck can sometimes just fall apart. Abzan Aggro's main enemy is itself, so finding the optimal build to mitigate that fact as much as possible could lead to an unstoppable force.
Here is my attempt.
- 4 Fleecemane Lion
- 3 Heir of the Wilds
- 4 Rakshasa Deathdealer
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 2 Wingmate Roc
- 4 Anafenza, the Foremost
I think a possible hole in this archetype is W/U Heroic. While you have a lot of removal and solid threats, their creatures can outclass yours in a hurry, and their copies of Gods Willing and Feat of Resistance match up nicely against your spells. With three of the competitors who made it to the second day of play at the Players' Championship playing W/U Heroic, the deck is going to be on the radar, and especially so if Tom "The Boss" Ross keeps writing articles about it.
But this version is much less soft to W/U Heroic than normal. Having access to Thoughtseize in the maindeck could strip them of their protection spell, leaving your removal spell to take care of their major creature. It is also important to note that the easiest way to attack W/U Heroic is to play a few big threats and follow those up with disruption and removal, which this deck does quite nicely. The damage you take from your own lands could be detrimental, but thankfully we got Sorin back into the mix, which can swing the game heavily in your favor in just a single attack.
I also like Heir of the Wilds a lot in this matchup, as it gives you a cheap way to provide defense, regardless of the size of their creature. If they go for a Gods Willing to protect their creature after you've blocked, that could leave them vulnerable to a removal spell, or hopefully just run them out of resources. I would think that many pilots of W/U Heroic would move towards more copies of Stratus Walk or Aqueous Form in order to plow through the sludge-filled boards built by green decks, which could invalidate Heir of the Wilds, but that isn't the norm just yet. We still have time.
The nod in the sideboard to Heroic is just jamming four copies of Glare of Heresy, which are also great against Jeskai Ascendancy and the mirror match. I don't know if I want four copies of either in the non-Heroic matchups, but that mostly means we're just dedicating three copies to a spread of matchups and the fourth to Heroic.
The Hero You Deserve
But as we've all learned in the past few months, Heroic strategies seem like a natural foil to green-based strategies. I've had a lot of success with Heroic in the last few weeks, turning me into a major advocate of the archetype, so long as it can adapt and keep on pace with the changing metagame. When the opposition is all moving towards Murderous Cut as the major removal spell of choice, taking the time to reexamine your protective spell suite is an important first step. With a decline in Abzan Charm, Feat of Resistance might not be the card we need it to be. After all, it is twice as expensive as Gods Willing, but I've always thought the counter boost was powerful enough to justify it in the deck.
Protection is a powerful thing in Magic. Making your creature unblockable, protecting it from removal, and preventing all the damage it is dealt in combat is a great argument for playing a card when your entire goal is to assemble one massive creature. But we have an overwhelming number of options at our disposal for protecting our creatures.
- 4 Battlewise Hoplite
- 4 Favored Hoplite
- 3 Heliod's Pilgrim
- 4 Hero of Iroas
- 3 Seeker of the Way
- 1 Eidolon of Countless Battles
So we start here. Tom Ross has been playing and advancing W/U Heroic for a few months now, pushing it to the forefront of the metagame. The main argument for playing this archetype is that it gets a lot of free wins against decks featuring Courser of Kruphix. That isn't to say that the Courser decks can't beat you, but you are heavily favored as long as you come bearing the right tools. Heroic plays out much in the same way as Infect in Legacy, where you can play the long game of protecting your creatures and pecking away at the opponent's life total, or you can move all-in on one creature and end the game quickly. In many ways, Heroic is like a combo deck.
But what Heroic does not have is the ability to kill the opponent from a very high life total. It is explosive at times, but the weaker draws have a tough time beating much of anything. Drawing too many creatures, protection spells, or lands can all lead to your demise before the game even really begins. Additionally, any draw featuring an early Siege Rhino or Sidisi, Brood Tyrant backed by a lot of disruption and removal, is going to put you in a tough spot.
So what do we do? How do we adapt?
The first step here is acknowledging that Ajani's Presence is probably the second best protective spell behind Gods Willing. It allows you to do something with an excess of mana when you're flooding out while simultaneously protecting you from End Hostilities or other destroy effects for just one mana. In a world full of Murderous Cut, that's exactly what you need. There are so many turns where you need to tap out, save for a single mana, to put enough pressure on your opponent to end the game. Feat of Resistance puts too much pressure on you to hold up your lands in order to protect your creature, and that eventually leads to you falling too far behind against a reasonable draw.
When your deck is designed to leave up mana every turn and your opponent is free to use all of theirs every turn, you aren't exactly battling on the same axis. Sure, you can still win those games and your deck is designed to do just that, but you need enough mana to consistently deploy threats, pump spells, and protection effects. Much like Abzan Aggro, if you stumble, you're generally going to lose. Just a single turn of missing a beat against an explosive draw from a green deck will kill you.
So in order to keep your foot on the gas pedal, I've built a version of Heroic that could help alleviate many of the problems it once had.
My main problem with previous iterations of W/U Heroic is that they were slow because they put too much emphasis on Heliod's Pilgrim. While Pilgrim can be quite good, as it gives you redundancy with Ordeal of Thassa, it forces you into too many situations where it gets stuck in your hand or forces you to tap out when you need to hold up a protective spell. I like it in some number, as it gives you some flexibility against decks without a lot of removal, as well as an additional body to start attacking (or blocking) when your opponent doesn't have much of a board presence.
This version also puts a heavy emphasis on Stratus Walk. As an ideal enchantment for Heroic, giving both evasion and drawing a card, Stratus Walk lets you soar over the stalled boards that green decks can create. And since you can rarely afford to stumble, drawing a card to help find lands or protective spells is exactly the type of card that you want to draw, even in multiples.
There is also a lot of good to be said about Seeker of the Way in a deck featuring four copies of Stratus Walk. It can be insanely difficult for many opponents to keep up with you if you're constantly hitting them with a Baneslayer Angel proxy while simultaneously playing and growing other creatures. That's the beauty of prowess in a deck like this! I haven't been a big fan of Seeker of the Way in the Heroic decks, but I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that I had too few spells that ended up drawing me cards. Playing spells to pump Seeker felt like a waste, but that is much less of a problem when they are all drawing you cards in addition to doing their job.
Since Seeker of the Way doesn't have Heroic, you don't want to target it as much as your other creatures, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Building a different large monster while you're clocking them for three to five points of damage a turn is fantastic, and puts pressure on the opponent from two different points. They're going to need multiple removal spells to deal with your threats, as opposed to just needing one, and that gives you even more of an advantage when you draw a Gods Willing or Ajani's Presence.
This version is a bit softer to Abzan Charm and Utter End, as we're cutting Feat of Resistance for Ajani's Presence, but I don't know if that's such a bad thing. I expect many Whip of Erebos decks to be much more reliant on Murderous Cut than any other removal spell, and I'd rather build my deck to fight that than Abzan Charm, or any other removal spell that is seeing less play. Deckbuilding is all about finding the right tools to get the job done, and you are in a place where you constantly need to adapt to keep up.
This is why we're also leaning hard on Stratus Walk, because we can't afford to play our opponent's game. If we let them build up the ground and block our creatures every turn, we're going to end up in a losing situation eventually. That's what their deck is designed to do. So in order to combat this, we want to eliminate the part of their plan that allows them to gain an advantage.
I think that both Abzan Aggro and W/U Heroic are fantastic choices for upcoming tournaments. Both decks attack from a unique angle that many opponents aren't properly prepared for. All of the Whip decks are gunning for one another, making them much softer from different spots. Finding those spots and exploiting them is exactly what you want to be doing at the moment.
This coming weekend, we ring in the new year with the first Open Series event of 2015. I'm excited to be heading to Columbus for my first shot at the new 15-round structure. I haven't quite decided what I want to play yet, but you can bet your bottom dollar that I would rather do anything in the world than play a Whip of Erebos mirror.