Magic has been a part of my life for more than a decade now. Throughout this time, I've learned and relearned many of the things it takes to be considered one of the best. You would think that it would only take one time to comprehend the complexities in this game, but Magic is nothing like riding a bike. Each and every year I find myself forgetting some of the most important aspects of the game, and this past weekend was a fine example of how I've overlooked things I shouldn't have.
For those of you that don't know, I have been pretty high on Bant Megamorph as of late. I played the deck to a subpar finish at #PTBFZ, but still found myself tweaking the deck in the following weeks without a reason to why I couldn't set it down. The results since then have not been bad, but not as good as I would hope or need to finish in the final eight players of my last two events.
This past weekend was #SCGPHILLY, where I finished 10-4 in played matches. It's not a bad record per se, but not what I would have hoped for when I now have so much experience with a deck. That experience was why I chose to play the deck in the first place. I did play exceptionally well this weekend if I do say so myself, but I learned many things about Bant Megamorph that made me re-evaluate my stance on the deck. It all came into light in my very last round.
I was up against the Bant Tokens deck Sam Black played at #PTBFZ. My opponent had just spent two turns casting raid enabled Wingmate Rocs, but one of his tokens was exiled thanks to Silkwrap. The rest of his battlefield was a Silkwrap with my Nissa, Vastwood Seer and an Elvish Visionary.
My battlefield was six lands, a morphed Den Protector, a face up Deathmist Raptor, and a Knight of the White Orchid. Thanks to the Dromoka's Command in my hand, I was able to attack with all three creatures and deal seven damage. Back in my main phase, I killed one of the Wingmate Rocs with Dromoka's Command, fighting my Deathmist Raptor and freeing my Nissa, Vastwood Seer to be able to flip and start drawing me cards. I drew a card off my Nissa before returning the Dromoka's Command and Deathmist Raptor with my Den Protector. The top of my library yielded me a Wingmate Roc.
For some reason I was shocked. I was shocked that my deck topdecked something unbelievably powerful! This was the first time in the entire event that this happened. Every other match was filled with incremental advantages throughout a long and drawn out game, but this situation was different. I could either kill off another token or slam Wingmate Roc. After weighing all the pros and cons, I still continued my original line and killed off another token and added a counter to my Deathmist Raptor.
This line was obviously the correct one since my opponent could have potentially killed off my fliers and took over the air, leaving me somewhat defenseless. Why this affected me so much was that I realized in that moment that Bant Megamorph was just too weak on the power scale to be the deck I wanted to continue playing.
Saying Bant Megamorph is underpowered isn't a bad thing, but it is something to consider. I rarely felt like I could lose control of a game and come back even though that is exactly what a Deathmist Raptor deck should be able to do. The only problem with this is that Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is forcing the format to play a certain way, which makes Deathmist Raptor a worse card. Esper Tokens, Bant Tokens, Abzan Aggro, Bant Megamorph, R/G Landfall, Eldrazi Ramp, and Atarka Red are all decks that exist in the way they do thanks to Gideon, Ally of Zendikar's impact on the format, which pushes Deathmist Raptor from being one of the best cards in the format. I would love casting this little guy if Esper and Jeskai were all the rage, but that isn't the case right now.
The fact of the matter is Bant Megamorph is slightly underpowered for many reasons, and even though I love the deck, I can't see myself continuing to play it. It took #SCGPHILLY to realize that, which is funny because my 12-3 finish in #GPINDY wasn't enough of an indicator for me two weeks ago. I almost even abandoned ship after that!
I was considering playing Abzan Aggro since everything pointed at that being the deck to play. Its results have spoken for themselves ever since #PTBFZ and the fact that it under-performed at that event was blown out of proportion. It's true that the deck as a whole didn't do well at the Pro Tour, but that didn't take into account how all the decks were constructed. Saying Abzan Aggro under-performed to justify saying the deck wasn't the best choice would only work if every list was built the same. Kazuyuki Takimura won the event with a very well-built Abzan Aggro deck that wasn't constructed the same as most of the other lists in the event. In reality, everyone started copying his list, and most importantly, his manabase, and started succeeding. Now we see this decklist being played by the collected conscious and absolutely destroying each and every Standard event since the Pro Tour. I discovered this trend of survival of the fittest with only a day to spare before #SCGPHILLY, but I chose to play what I knew instead of playing what I knew was the best.
This is the exact opposite of what I have done in the past. Rarely am I intimidated by the fear of the unknown, but for some reason I assumed I would make too many mistakes with Siege Rhino to justify playing the deck. This way of thinking isn't optimal in the world of Magic if the goal is to win the event. I was just scared that Abzan Aggro was going to be considered the deck to beat, which would mean that I would need to know how to play all the matchups and build my deck correctly to be able to succeed with it. I was only half correct.
Abzan Aggro was in fact the best deck to play this past weekend, but people were oddly not prepared for it. Some would argue that this statement isn't true, but facts are facts, and Abzan Aggro dominated #SCGPHILLY. Taking a quick look through the lists would show you that even though Abzan Aggro is winning the event, people are still not respecting it enough. I even fall into this category!
- 4 Deathmist Raptor
- 4 Den Protector
- 3 Knight of the White Orchid
- 2 Snapping Gnarlid
- 4 Warden of the First Tree
- 3 Wingmate Roc
- 2 Nissa, Vastwood Seer
Taking a quick look at my list will show that I have very few ways to defeat some of the powerhouse creatures in Abzan. Now I haven't had bad results in the matchup, and I actually took my first loss to the deck this past weekend, but it doesn't mean I respected the deck. One Valorous Stance in the maindeck just isn't enough removal for bigger bodies in Abzan Aggro. Snapping Gnarlid was added to the deck so I had more ways to kill Anafenza, the Foremost and Siege Rhino using Dromoka's Command, but that rarely worked out for me. I should have played at least one more Valorous Stance in my maindeck or had access to all four Valorous Stance for the matchup.
I'm not the only one who isn't playing enough dedicated removal for the matchup. You can see for yourself and take a look at Todd Anderson's and Erik Smith's top 8 finishing Jeskai Black decklists.
- 1 Dragonmaster Outcast
- 4 Mantis Rider
- 2 Soulfire Grand Master
- 4 Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
- 3 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Neither of these decks played a single Valorous Stance and only Erik Smith played a single Roast in his 75. Both of these cards were considered vital to defeating Abzan Aggro in past formats, yet we see barely any of them in any Jeskai Black decklist. The argued reason for this is how inefficient these spells are against the rest of the field, while Crackling Doom is a great catch all, but Erik Smith has even skimped on those!
This is just not enough removal to consistently defeat Abzan Aggro. I don't personally know what the correct number of removal spells are for Jeskai Black to go toe-to-toe with the deck, but what they are playing right now is not enough. Jeskai Black will have to give up on having every card in the maindeck be good in the mirror and start focusing on the best and most played deck in the format.
This is the problem right now. Many of the decks in the format have moved away from dedicating cards for Abzan Aggro and replaced those cards with those that are good in the mirror. You actually see it across the board with almost every archetype.
So even though it's easy to pinpoint the problem, it's somewhat difficult to solve it. I could sit here all day and talk about how Roast and Valorous Stance can kill all of the creature-based threats from Abzan Aggro, but that won't solve the problem of Den Protector and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. These spells prohibit any deck from jamming as many removal spells in their deck for the matchup as possible and calling it a day. So how can you beat Abzan Aggro?
Seriously, I don't know. How do you beat this deck?
Well for starters you can join them. Too often do players take the hipster way out of attacking formats and choose to innovate or metagame rather than play the best deck. This can be the optimal strategy every once and awhile, but it's not the consistent way to do things. Abzan Aggro has proven itself good, and even though we are all now starting to realize it doesn't mean we will be able to figure out how to defeat it enough of the time to deem it unplayable.
Like I said earlier, Tom Ross and I considered it a mistake to just not play this deck last weekend. Just because we made this mistake doesn't mean we missed our opportunity to play the deck in future events. I've begun working on the deck in my spare time on Magic Online and can tell you right now it would be the deck I would play if I had a Standard event this coming weekend. If you don't know what to play, don't be too proud. Pick up Abzan Aggro and begin learning it. I don't know when the deck won't be the best, and it's all thanks to this guy!
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is a powerhouse that obviously rules over this format with an iron fist. Many other decks are playing this mythic planeswalker as well, but none can play it while also consistently pressuring it as well as Abzan Aggro. The same goes for the Wingmate Rocs that often accompany Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. We've seen decks like Bant Megamorph and Esper Tokens see sporadic play in the past couple weeks using this engine of white mythics, but the results speak for themselves, and Abzan Aggro is the best of the three due to the fact that Anafenza, the Foremost and Siege Rhino play a significant role in breaking serve against these standout cards. Personally, I hate trying to beat a Wingmate Roc when playing Bant Megamorph, which is why it's Bant in the first place, but I never feel like my Wingmate Rocs are that great against Abzan Aggro. They never get to block and almost never win the race. I usually have to be miles ahead of my opponent to take a real advantage with the card. I've felt similarly in my limited testing of Esper Tokens.
The other great thing about Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in Abzan Aggro is how much easier it is to find a spot to cast this guy. Anzafenza, the Foremost and Siege Rhino are such powerful threats that it is rarely possible for a player to be extremely reactive. Most of the time, players will have to flip a Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and flashback a removal spell to begin to catch back up, which is the best place to play him. Even if they are trying to be reactive, Gideon isn't stopped by Ojutai's Command. The list of interactions goes on and on that make this card great, but I don't think you signed up for premium to hear the obvious. Let's talk about how to beat the deck without joining it.
There's only one deck in this format that I consider beats Abzan Aggro straight up, and that's R/G Landfall.
- 4 Abbot of Keral Keep
- 4 Den Protector
- 4 Monastery Swiftspear
- 4 Scythe Leopard
- 3 Snapping Gnarlid
- 1 Zurgo Bellstriker
This was the deck that my team worked on for #PTBFZ, but I was too afraid to pull the trigger on it. The reason for this deck's advantage over Abzan Aggro is that it is one of the few decks in the format that can ignore Gideon, Ally of Zendkiar. Now Atarka Red might be able to execute many of the same strategies that R/G Landfall can, but ignoring Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is not one of them. In all actuality, this is the card that gives Abzan Aggro so much of its power and why R/G Landfall is a pretty good choice to play right now.
R/G Landfall's worst matchups are Jeskai Black and Atarka Red. Both are winnable, but not what you would hope to play against when picking up the deck. The sideboard does have tools needed to put up a fight, but I wouldn't want to play this deck if I didn't expect a ton of Abzan Aggro. Luckily, not only is Abzan Aggro picking up steam but so are Eldrazi Ramp strategies which also succumb to the utterly disgusting speed of R/G Landfall.
I hope that I have more answers than to play Abzan Aggro or R/G Landfall in the near future, but that's all I've got for now. This Standard format is a much more difficult egg to crack than last season, and it's all thanks to the aggressive elements forced onto us by Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. I don't know where this format is heading, but I wouldn't be shocked if we all end up crashing one time or another.
This weekend I will be in Atlanta for #GPAtlanta. This event will be a nice change of pace for me since I will get to try my hand at 40 cards instead of four Gideon, Ally of Zendikars. I've been testing for this event a lot, which is something I can rarely say for a Limited Grand Prix so I'm looking forward to finding out if that testing is even relevant given how terrible I am at Limited. I guess I can only get better!