When we last saw our hero, he was fighting the good fight, toughing it out to come back from losing his first two rounds, to 7-2, and almost certain doom. More people have 7-2 at the beginning of day 2 of GPs than all other records combined, and being perpetually against the wall of elimination is not the best place to be. That said, once you've been there since round five, you (and you're unspeakably bad tiebreakers) have hopefully gotten used to it.
This is the Abzan Control deck I played, arrived at by just aggregating the Abzan Control decks that have cashed big events since Fate Reforged was added, with just a couple minor tweaks to the sideboard, including cutting the one Fleecemane Lion that appeared in the aggregate list.
Amusingly, my aggregate-created maindeck was literally 58/60 the same as Brad Nelson, Jacob Van Lunen, Steve Rubin, and whoever else worked on the Abzan Control deck that put nineteen people in the top 8. Brad is a truly great deckbuilder, and one of his great skills is knowing when to just play a stock deck. Besides, sometimes a little spice can go a long way. Whoever came up with the idea of adding Fleecemane Lions to Abzan deserves a pat on the back.
The two differences in the maindeck? Brad played a maindeck Utter End and had a second Tasigur main, with neither Sorin nor Ugin in his starting 75. Tasigur was super awesome for me all weekend, and I would definitely advocate playing at least two main going forward. Sorin was mediocre, and I could definitely see cutting it.
As for Ugin and Utter End? Well, realistically, the second Tasigur was really in place of the Ugin, and the Utter End in place of the Sorin, but after a weekend of games, including sideboarding Utter End, I continue to not be in love with the card. Maybe we need it or whatever, but it's not something we want if there's any way to avoid it. Brad didn't have Ugin, so I would have played it too if I were him. The reason I finally pulled the trigger on cutting it was Ugin giving me an out to look for when facing hard problems like Outpost Siege.
Ugin was pretty good for me though. Maybe we can get enough value out of Tasigur to not need the Ugin endgame, but having an Ugin in your deck makes you go so much bigger than someone that doesn't have one. Obviously, the card is glacially slow, but with Abzan Control performing so well this weekend, it might be an even better time to play the Ugin, letting you be just a little bigger than the opponent that just copies Brad's list exactly.
The interesting question to me is what to do about End Hostilities. Is this really a format where we want it? Yeah, that's one of the "perks" of cutting Caryatids, but is it even good? Sure, there are some matchups where you'd sideboard it and it would be great, but Whip is mostly dead, and Green Devotion doesn't even lose to it the way they used to thanks to Whisperwood Elemental. Besides, Valorous Stance is everywhere, and five-mana sorceries that destroy are pretty easy to play around.
It was very telling to me that control-master Andrew Cuneo registered zero copies of End Hostilities in his 75 despite playing a Jeskai Control strategy with double white already for Elspeth. So many of the threats are must kills, and we get so much token relief from Bile Blight, I think I'd rather just focus on killing every major threat on spot. I'm probably still in for the sideboard End Hostilities though. Probably.
Speaking of Bile Blight, I absolutely love the amount of awesome interactions it has with popular removal spells. For instance, Valorous Stance targeting your Courser, Rhino, or Tasigur is countered with a timely Bile Blight. The same is true for opposing Abzan Charms or Elspeth minus ability activations. Meanwhile, an opponent that was looking to protect their creature with a Valorous Stance is going to be disappointed by its toughness dropping to zero (or more commonly, negative one).
Day 2 began with a feature match after my fine but not great 7-2 day 1. Foolishly, I bemoaned my fate, wasting precious mental energy focusing on the two losses that were heavily mana-related and having me wanting to slightly up the mana-count (whether by a 27th land or Satyr Wayfinder). Fortunately, there is justice in the world, and I started the day off with a punt to immediately knock me out of contention.
"Oh, you don't want to lose to manascrew, eh?"
Now, I was already down a game, so it's not like this would have for sure given me the "W" or anything, but it was pretty bad. I'm facing five tapped tokens, three untapped tokens, and an Elspeth out of R/W, to my Siege Rhino. I have a small life lead, maybe 16 to 13. We each have a few cards in hand, but mine are all land and an Ugin that my opponent knows about from an earlier Courser. What he doesn't know is if I will have an untapped land on turn 8.
In my head, I was imagining having to -6 on the Ugin to kill Elspeth, since it was at five the previous turn. However, when I attacked it with my Siege Rhino, he did not block, meaning it was now at just two loyalty. I attacked with my Siege Rhino again, thinking if he lets it die, I can just kill the tokens with Ugin's ability, and if he triple blocks, I don't actually need to kill the Elspeth with Ugin.
Of course, what I didn't put together until I had already turned my creature sideways, was that both paths involve me using Ugin's minus ability for zero. If I just do it before I attack, I definitely kill the Elspeth. He correctly triple blocks, and I face the cold, harsh reality that my next play is going to be embarrassing. When you make a horrible mistake that can be explained by you taking a suboptimal line after it, it can be very attractive. Your evaluations can temporarily be impaired, and it can be easy to rationalize what you would normally know is not the right play, as there is such a physical desire to save face.
When you are in that spot, you have to dig deep inside and just face the humiliation. You want to win, right? Then it doesn't matter if your next play reveals how awful your first play was. You make it and suck it up. You made that play. You might as well own it. You want to impress your opponent more than you want to win? Or are you trying to delude yourself, laying the groundwork for a story that explains why you lost, in which it isn't your fault?
So, I dropped Ugin, used the minus ability and moved on with life. I did consider the possibility of just shooting Elspeth with Ugin, so at least she'd be dead. The problem is, if he drops a Sarkhan or a Stormbreath Dragon, he'd exactly kill Ugin, and he's been holding a couple cards.
On his turn, he casts Glare of Heresy on my Rhino, drops Stormbreath Dragon, attacks Ugin, knocking him to three, and makes three more tokens. On my turn, I draw Bile Blight. What now? I use a Temple of Silence to check the top of my library, seeing an End Hostilities that I choose to keep. Among the Dragon, the tokens, and the Elspeth, I am going to need another kill spell. Ugin and Bile Blight can't kill them all, at this point.
I could shoot the Elspeth with Ugin and sweep the tokens with Bile Blight, but he's got seven lands and will be able to kill Ugin with Stormbreath Dragon. My End Hostilities could kill the Dragon, but then I have nothing. I ended up deciding instead to Bile Blight and Ugin +2 the Dragon. Then three tokens would only knock Ugin to two, and then I'd be facing six tokens and Elspeth at three. On my turn, I can End Hostilities and plus Ugin to kill Elspeth.
Sadly, he was able to follow up with a Sarkhan, killing Ugin. Now, I was drawing an End Hostilities, with no answer to Elspeth or Sarkhan on the horizon.
Now, what about the world where I actually Ugin pre-combat?
I kill all of the tokens with Ugin, then kill Elspeth with the Rhino. He drops the Dragon and knocks Ugin to 3. I Bile Blight + Ugin the Dragon, going up to five loyalty. I also scry End Hostilities to the bottom. He drops Sarkhan, attacking Ugin down to one. Now, I draw a mostly random card and have an Ugin at one, versus a Sarkhan at five. I also have sixteen life to play with. That is far from a conclusive board position, but it is obviously night and day from the same position, but instead of me having an Ugin, my opponent has an Elspeth.
I signed the slip and tried to pull it together. I started having visions of crashing and burning during the second half of the last Pro Tour. It actually occurred to me to wonder if I would ever win another match in my life.
That is clearly not "focusing only on what matters."
My next match was against Jeskai, and this time I was neither manascrewed nor making horrible misplays. The games were close, and in the decisive game, I was looking very good, before a topdecked Treasure Cruise into two Valorous Stances and another Treasure Cruise turned things around.
You don't want to lose because of manascrew or blunders? Okay, happy now?
Maybe I should just focus on playing the best I can and let the chips fall where they may. For instance, I could have sideboarded better in this matchup. I boarded in a Drown in Sorrow, which could have just been another Abzan Charm. I saw multiple Stormbreaths earlier, but I had forgotten how many people board in Sarkhan when they have Dragons main. Besides, I mostly dislike boarding Drown in Sorrow unless I see an above average amount of stuff like Soulfire Grand Master and Hordeling Outburst.
Well, okay, now I was 7-4, needing to win out to earn a single Pro Point.
Round 12, back against the wall for anything at all, I faced a G/R Aggro deck with Elvish Mystic, Heir of the Wilds, Goblin Rabblemaster, Shaman of the Great Hunt, Stormbreath Dragon, splashing Chained to the Rocks and Valorous Stance. His draws weren't great and basically folded to two removal spells each game.
Okay! Turning it around! Up next, another Jeskai Aggro deck. This time, however, I managed to squeak it out. The matchup is close, but drawing a lot of Siege Rhinos is a good time.
It was at this point I played my old friend Adrian Sullivan in an exhibition match. He was on U/B Control, which is always a challenge for Abzan Control, but at least we were going straight to sideboarding. I did manage to win the one game we played, despite the game going on six more turns after an Interpret the Signs for eight(!).
It was then I made the mistake of saying how much I enjoy this matchup and how I kind of hoped I would get to play against more U/B Control.
Round 15: U/B Control in the hands of Shaheen Soorani.
What have I done? Not only is Shaheen an extremely experienced control player, his build of U/B Control has a fair bit more card draw than most. Our match was relatively uninteresting, with all three games involving manascrew. However, it did leave us time for two more which were excellent battles, which we split one-one. Good times, but a small consolation for elimination from the event.
Of course, maybe I wasn't eliminated! Maybe, just maybe, I could sneak into the top 64 for a zero point min-cash! Somewhere between 5-10 people would probably make it. I could be one of them! Besides, I could go for one more round of experience to help inform me about picking and tuning a deck for Miami.
My final opponent of the weekend was Andrew Cuneo, armed with Jeskai Control. I had already played a game or two against Andrew for fun before the event, so we both knew what it was hitting for. Sadly, our match wasn't particularly interesting, as I snowballed early with some pretty great draws. I was consistently able to ride a Courser, hit my draw-twos, and use Thoughtseize to disrupt his ability to fight back effectively.
Final record: 10-5 (7-5 without the byes)
A disappointing finish to be sure, including the 66th place, two spots out of the money just to add a little emphasis. Still, I had a great time and learned a lot. I'm not sure if I will play Abzan Control again in Miami, but it is definitely a strong consideration. Moving forward, here's what I am thinking so far:
Compared to my previous list:
— I swapped the second Tasigur into the maindeck for the Sorin, Solemn Visitor.
— I cut the two End Hostilities for a Satyr Wayfinder and the fourth Bile Blight. End Hostilities was so bad for me, and having more two-drops seems like exactly what I am in the market for. I am leaning towards still having the End Hostilities in the board, however. I may not have faced Green Devotion or much R/G aggro, but I do respect them.
— My sideboard has re-adopted the Fleecemane Lion sideboard plan. I love a Lion and agree with Brad's assessment about this being a good time for it, even when people know about it. It worked for me at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, and it wasn't even as well-positioned then as it is now.
There is actually one more change, but it warrants a little more in-depth discussion. I cut a Llanowar Wastes and a Caves of Koilos for a Temple of Plenty and a Swamp. Satyr Wayfinder has about a 75% chance of hitting a black source, and an extra scry gives us almost a 29% chance of hitting a black source, so it's like we have more black mana anyway.
Besides, Temples are amazing, and I'd love to find a way to fit a ninth in here. Why not cut the Sandsteppe Citadel? After all, thirteen tapped lands is a lot. The thing is, Sandsteppe Citadel is also so good, and painlands are so bad. Drawing two painlands can be so brutal.
Nobody plays Swamp in Abzan Control! What are you doing?
I know, I know. Consider that my innovation. I am just so sick of taking huge amounts of damage from my lands. The Swamp is actually the card I am most excited about in the deck. It could be sweet!
Antonio DeRosa won 100 packs in a side event with this hot little number!