I still believe Abzan Aggro is the best deck, but it's only my backup plan for the Season Three Invitational this weekend. Recently, some friends have sent me some pretty great looking decklists, but in just in case they don't pan out I've been continuing to work with Dr. Siegeman Rhinocerous and The Hangfather. Those two cards are simply too good not to play unless you think you have a better option.
This is roughly what I'm playing now:
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 4 Den Protector
- 4 Fleecemane Lion
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 2 Herald of Torment
- 4 Anafenza, the Foremost
After bombing out of the Charlotte Modern Open, I wanted to play Legacy on Sunday since any real Standard testing I wanted to do could also be done online. With the recent changes to Magic Online, testing for Legacy wasn't really a viable option online. Mr. Jessup felt like he had Legacy covered and decided to hop in the Standard Premier IQ, so we talked about Standard. He watched me stream the week before and we'd been talking about Abzan Aggro already, so his deck choice was fairly easy.
He finished in ninth place (on tiebreakers I suppose, but I wouldn't ever count on an X-2 making Top Eight) and was somewhat upset with the deck. He found the mirror frustrating to play against, and I believe he lost to Mardu Dragons as well. That's definitely a matchup I would have brought in Evolutionary Leap in against, which he did not. Maybe things could have gone differently.
This list is not perfect – It's a work in progress, but I like what it's doing and I like where it's going.
Here are the issues:
People Are Gunning For You
At this point, that is certainly true, but what exactly does it mean? Is it really something that should push you off a deck? In my opinion, it's a case-by-case basis, and in this case that's just silly. At no point during this Standard season was Abzan (in some variety) not in the top five best decks in the format. There are zero cards or strategies you can point to with the explicit attempt to beat Abzan. They have the best removal, the cleanest answers to things, some of the best threats, solid lifegain, card advantage, and a phenomenal finisher.
There is no obvious weak spot. Even if something like Mono-Red Aggro shows up as a foil to Abzan because they are slacking on Arashin Clerics, they can still adapt back the next week to fight whatever metagame they expect. Abzan is tough to kill.
In general, I think getting off a deck might be correct if there is hate and the hate is good, but you can't really say that about Abzan. The metagame might shift to be more hateful to it overall, as in some bad matchups might pop up, but there's still the question of whether or not a few more bad matchups showing up is reason enough to sway you off the playing the best deck. Most of the time you won't play against all hateful matchups, and even if the format does shift, not every single one of your opponents will be playing a deck that is specifically trying to beat you. Most of the time, it will only affect a couple of matches.
There are decks like Mono-Red Aggro which are clearly hated out by the Arashin Clerics and Drown in Sorrows of the world... but Abzan, regardless of the flavor, is more similar to Caw-Blade than it is to Mono-Red, at least in terms of what it takes to hate it out. Abzan often dominates on rate, card advantage, and the late-game, so there's no angle you can attack to have a good matchup. You can position yourself better against the deck, but you can't hate it out. Good luck trying.
Overall, people switching off of certain decks because of perceived hate is a knee-jerk reaction. Instead, try to be logical about the situation. Figure out the facts and then figure out what it means for you in this specific situation without being biased from a similar situation involving an entirely different deck.
The Removal Suite Is Tough To Pin Down
What can I say? Decks are hard to build.
Valorous Stance is ineffective against Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, Mantis Rider, Stormbreath Dragon, Goblin Rabblemaster, or any other small creature. Ultimate Price is beyond terrible in the mirror match. You can only play so many Dromoka's Commands and the deck really wants two-mana plays, so you need to find an acceptable card to slot in.
One thing I like to do when deckbuilding is to find a good solution and then, even if doesn't seem reasonable, I'll try to make it work. For example, in the first iterations in the deck I really wanted to keep the black mana symbols to a minimum. It felt like I'd be able to be a G/W splash black deck and have an excellent manabase, but the more I played, the more the G/W cards weren't cutting it on their own.
Bile Blight was the perfect solution, assuming the manabase could cast it. The trick was figuring out whether the perfect removal spell was worth jumping through minor hoops in order to cast. Since the Abzan Aggro deck was able to do it in the past, it could clearly be done, but at what cost?
Anteri's winning decklist from Grand Prix London had a manabase that was compatible with BB spells, yet he chose to only incorporate a single Hero's Downfall. He was capable of outright winning a Grand Prix while still having several painlands in his manabase, so I don't see why we can't do it. Perhaps it's an issue of there not being much Mono-Red Aggro or Atarka Red running around, which could shift for this weekend, but overall I do think it's doable.
I also think it's worth it.
The Mirror Is Abominable
Alright, this is a reasonable complaint in this case. Typically, I don't mind mirror matches because the decks I play tend to be very skill-intensive. In the case of the Abzan Aggro mirror match, you can sideboard correctly, have a great plan for the matchup, eke out small edges, and still get run over by a pack of Rhinos. It doesn't matter if you're up two cards if those cards don't actually deal with what your opponent has in play.
So yes, sometimes it's very frustrating, but that doesn't mean that the edges don't matter or that you can't build your deck in such a way to have an advantage in the mirror. I haven't found out what that is precisely, but I'm unwilling to believe that a good plan doesn't exist. Either going low to the ground Boswell-style is a better option, or sideboarding in a bunch of haymakers like Wingmate Roc and Elspeth, Sun's Champion is the way to go. I just need to figure out which one it is.
My biggest issue with the mirror is that it's nearly impossible to grind them down to nothing. Cards like Siege Rhino, Hangarback Walker, and Den Protector all provide some sort of value, so it's nearly impossible for someone to just completely run out of gas. There are games that play out like pure attrition-fests, making the game about who draws fewer lands or the best spells. Some games are decided by early aggression backed up by removal, which renders the opponent's mid-game cards irrelevant if they can't stabilize.
Either you run them over or grind them out, but neither is more likely nor more important than the other. Your cards will eventually trade with the other person's, but since it's difficult to run out of gas it can feel like none of the decisions you make matter.
It can be frustrating, but if your deck is well-positioned against most other things I would be more than fine if my punishment was slogging through a couple mirror matches. It might not be fun, but at the worst you're 50/50, so it's not like you can explain it away as a popular bad matchup.
Not all of your matchups are going to be fun. Not all of your matchups are going to be easy. You just have to be willing to sacrifice something in your pursuit of success and sometimes fun is going to be that thing.
Bad Matchups Already Exist
I don't know why, but I continually lose to Mardu Dragons. That's not even with Abzan Aggro, just most decks in general. It just seems to always have my number despite not really putting up any good tournament finishes. I guess you could say it's a bad G/R Dragons and a bad R/B Dragons, but neither of those matchups are cakewalks either.
Overall, the matchup against Mardu Dragons has a bunch of tiny stuff going wrong. Abzan Charm is one of your best cards in most matchups, but it's abysmal against them. Abzan Aggro is mostly one-dimensional, but Mardu Dragons has the crazy Goblin Rabblemaster starts and the Anger of the Gods plus Elspeth, Sun's Champion sideboard plan. I used to feel like most people abandoned that plan but it seems like it's come back around full-circle.
When you don't have a two-drop (or your Fleecemane Lion gets tagged by a Draconic Roar), Mardu Dragons can capitalize on that with their ability to turn the corner quickly. Additionally, Soulfire Grand Master might not brawl particularly well, but giving their spells Lifelink allows them to win the race. Sometimes a Goblin Rabblemaster on the play eats you alive. Maybe you have a great draw for an attrition-based game but they trump you with an Elspeth, Sun's Champion.
Abzan Aggro is trying to play monsters and kill stuff while Mardu Dragons is more malleable. Mardu may lose out on raw power level, but it's never easy to play against while Abzan Aggro typically is. That makes things a little too easy for the Mardu players, but the hope is that your power level destroys them. It's not fancy, but it should be able to do the trick.
The other elephant in the room is Abzan Control. Languish and Elspeth, Sun's Champion are supposed to be the game-breakers, but they only are some of the time. Abzan Aggro wants to be tightening the noose against Abzan Control by making each move they could potentially make into a bad decision. You want to set the game up so that you're not getting blown out by a Languish or Siege Rhino or Elspeth and instead have good ways to get around those cards. Herald of Torment is excellent against each of those cards, which is why I'm currently so high on it.
I don't think Abzan Control is a huge favorite even though they have a distinct edge in the matchup. With careful play and smart deckbuilding, you can figure out ways to make their lives difficult. All in all, there are matchups out there that aren't perfect, but there's nothing I'd really be scared to go up against.
Should we take a lesson from Mardu's playbook and try to flip the script on some people? Unfortunately, I don't think the cards are there. You could sideboard out Anafenza, the Foremost in some matchups for more reactive cards and end up with a deck that is full of removal and utility creatures, but that doesn't exactly play to Abzan Aggro's strengths. You're still missing some key parts like Courser of Kruphix (and/or Nissa, Vastwood Seer) and Elspeth, Sun's Champion that make Abzan Control a great deck. That's part of the reason why I don't like jamming Elspeth, Sun's Champion into the sideboard of Abzan Aggro – they can't utilize it as well as Abzan Control can.
Either way, the sideboard is currently a pile of cards, and that simply won't do. I need to figure out better plans for each of the matchups, but that's a job for tomorrow, probably while I'm on a lengthy car ride from Roanoke, Virginia to Edison, New Jersey. I tend to do my best work while traveling to my next event, and I don't expect this tournament to be any different.
It's been a while since I've put up a noteworthy finish at an Invitational, but I've got a good feeling about this one. Wish me luck!