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By: Psychobabble, PB
Oct 17 2014 12:00pm
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While I wait for KTK Block Constructed events to start on October 22 (details here) I've been dipping my toes into standard. The first Pro Tour of the season has been and gone, which means that the results of the collective playtesting of the top pros and teams has been revealed - the format is officially solved, for now. Following on from the event, I've been jamming a bunch of games with various flavours of Abzan deck - a colour combination which put up three quite different decks in the top 8 of the pro tour, and many more on the tables below that. This article explores the differences between the Abzan deck types currently featuring in standard to help you play with and against them. In my not particularly controversial opinion, Abzan is the best colour combination in standard right now, which bodes very well for the future of the deck in block constructed as the key pieces of the deck are all from Khans.

Abzan aggro

The first version of the deck that caught my eye was the one labelled Abzan Aggro by the coverage team. It was piloted by a few members of team Face to Face games from Canada, including Mike Sigrist who made the top 8 with the following list:

Abzan
Mike Sigrist - Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir (Top 4)
Creatures
4 Fleecemane Lion
4 Herald of Torment
4 Rakshasa Deathdealer
2 Heir of the Wilds
3 Anafenza, the Foremost
4 Siege Rhino
21 cards

Other Spells
4 Thoughtseize
1 Ulcerate
3 Abzan Charm
4 Hero's Downfall
3 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
15 cards
Lands
4 Sandsteppe Citadel
1 Plains
2 Forest
4 Windswept Heath
2 Llanowar Wastes
2 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
4 Caves of Koilos
4 Temple of Malady
1 Temple of Silence
24 cards

Rakshasa Deathdealer

While I think it's highly misleading to label a deck playing no one drops and three copies of a planeswalker whose main purpose is to gain life an aggro deck, but that's the label this was given. The reason is that it eschews the Theros block all-star partnership of Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix in favour of more aggressive options, namely 10 two-drops that can attack fairly effectively into the aforementioned green cards and a couple of hard-hitting three drops in Anafenza, the Foremost and Herald of Torment. The other cards generally speak for themselves, but Heir of the Wilds is a very interesting inclusion. It's fairly unassuming, and certainly the least exciting of the two-drops, but there's seven creatures that directly turn on ferocious in this deck (Anafenza and Siege Rhino) and a number of other ways to do so (bestow, +1/+1 counters from Abzan Charm) which means that it attacks as an annoying-to-block 3-power two drop a surprising amount of the time. It's not complete draft fodder as it appears at first glance.

In fact, "annoying to block" is one of the defining features of this deck. The creatures all start off big and/or evasive, deathdealer can embiggen itself and Abzan Charm means that any early attack with mana open can lead to huge blowouts on for the defender. This deck basically has to be fought with spells not creatures, unless you can ignore it and just race. This is where Sorin, Solemn Visitor comes into the picture. While it's only a moderately threatening card against control compared to a repeatable token maker like Xenagos or Elspeth, it can lead to some incredibly life total swings to completely turn race situations against decks like Jeskai around. The nice thing about the lifegain effect being on a planeswalker is that not only do you get the one big hit in, any opponent trying to race you has to immediately use at least five points of damage to take out Sorin or else the situation will get out of control. A lot of people underestimated this walker during spoiler season, but given the emergence of the Jeskai deck in the meta it's found a really nice niche here.

A couple of other interactions with the deck to keep in mind. If you cast a card for its bestow cost, its converted mana cost remains the mana cost printed at the top right of the card. This means that a bestowed Herald of Torment cannot be hit by Disdainful stroke, which is quite relevant at the moment because there's a lot of that card floating around. Don't forget that Anafenza exiles creatures from the graveyard, it makes casting and keeping her alive a huge priority against the various graveyard-based decks that are around, including Abzan reanimator and some rogue Sigrsi lists. With Heir of the Wilds, don't forget that the ferocious ability checks before you declare attackers (and will check itself too). There are some board-states where you can win if you trigger ferocious using Abzan charm pumps - make sure to cast it pre-combat in that case. Finally, when thinking about whether to pump Rakshasa Deathdealer during an attack, keep in mind that Abzan Charm can only hit power 3+ creatures, and that could well be your opponent's only way of killing it in their whole deck. Not that you should always just attack as a 2/2 out of fear, but it's something to keep in mind, particularly if you don't have anything else going on.

Playing against this deck there's a few things to keep in mind. Most importantly, this is the only version of the Abzan deck that has sufficient targets for Bile Blight for it to be something you keep in your 60 post-board. I see way too many people keep in Bile Blights against other versions of the Abzan deck, if you haven't seen some combination of Rakshasa Deathdealer/Herald of Torment/Heir of the Wilds in game one then take your Bile Blights out. Other versions may play up to four copies of Fleecemane Lion, but that will be their only target, so it's not worth it. Another thing to keep in mind is that Rakshasa Deathdealer is a highly mana-intensive card. While its various pump abilities can be a powerful source of card advantage or inevitability in a long/grindy game, it can completely mess your opponent's curve up in the mid game if you choose to make a block that they will have to pump twice to win - you might just be better off sacrificing your Mantis Rider or whatever if preventing their turn 4/5 play seems more relevant. Finally, this deck (and the other Abzan decks) is a massive, massive dog against Hornet Queen. I mean, its only answer could well be to just suck up the five-for-one (note: I had used Hero's Downfall on the queen herself the turn prior):

As with most of the Abzan decks floating around, this aggro-ish version is a strong and viable choice in standard at the moment. On account of its ability to set up multiple threats early in the game to stretch opposing removal (much of which doesn't come online until turn 3 in the format, either due to CMC or taplands) and get in under counterspells, it's probably slightly better against Jeskai and UB control than slower versions, although the latter does play Bile Blight which does hit this deck pretty hard. It's definitely weaker in the mirror though and tapers off in the very long game, finding it difficult to answer cards like Elspeth and opposing Siege Rhinos. If you want a more detailed rundown of this version from one of its creators, Sam Pardee has an article up on it here.

Abzan Walkers

The other version that you'll be seeing a lot of is the one piloted by Ari Lax who, of course, took the whole thing down. This version drops the attacking two-drops in favour of the the Caryatid/Courser combination, along with a top end consisting of a bunch of planeswalkers and a couple of Wingmate Rocs:

Abzan Walkers
Ari Lax - Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir (First)
Creatures
2 Elvish Mystic
4 Sylvan Caryatid
4 Courser of Kruphix
2 Wingmate Roc
4 Siege Rhino
16 cards

Other Spells
4 Abzan Charm
3 Hero's Downfall
2 Utter End
2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
2 Ajani, Mentor of Heroes
3 Elspeth, Sun's Champion
4 Thoughtseize
19 cards
Lands
4 Sandsteppe Citadel
3 Forest
2 Plains
4 Windswept Heath
4 Temple of Malady
2 Llanowar Wastes
2 Caves of Koilos
1 Mana Confluence
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
1 Temple of Silence
24 cards

Sideboard
1 Mass Calcify
3 Drown in Sorrow
3 Bile Blight
1 Liliana Vess
2 Nissa, Worldwaker
1 Unravel the Aether
1 End Hostilities
2 Murderous Cut
1 Duneblast
15 cards
Sorin, Solemn Visitor

This list is going to be pretty much the default version for the immediate future; winning a pro tour will tend to do that. The feature that sets it apart from the other versions is the planeswalker component which really give the deck the power to grind out a longer game than some of the other versions. Ajani is the poster boy here. It breaks down stalled board states in the Abzan mirror by making your creatures enough bigger than theirs to punch through - two of the key Abzan cards (Siege Rhino and Wingmate Roc) have one more point of toughness than power which means that these stalled board-states can develop. Another interesting play I saw Ari make with the deck was to put the counters on his own Sylvan Caryatid which basically turns it into an unkillable blocker against pretty much any creature on the ground. Ajani is also obviously great against UB control, and all of these planeswalkers get better in combination with others as they are able to help each other protect themselves, leading to a number of real "superfriends" boardstates which just snowball out of control. Unfortunately, in playing the deck I found that it was just awful against Jeskai, and Jeskai is everywhere online at the moment. I honestly don't feel like Ajani is a good maindeck card on MTGO at the moment; I could be wrong.

The other defining feature of the deck is Elspeth - a card which Ari was very high on, but many others weren't. The problems with Elspeth are many. Wingmate Roc, Siege Rhino (trample), Mantis Rider, Sarkhan/Stormbreath Dragon, Hornet Queen and Doomwake Giant are all present in the format in large numbers. It's also pretty slow, and doesn't do much to stabilise you against Jeskai (unlike Sorin, for example, which can simply put those games away in one combat step). This lead many teams to cut the card entirely. I'm not entirely out on Elspeth though. In contrast to Ajani, she was quite good for me in testing. She's still excellent at gumming up the ground against big green dorks, can take out a lot of relevant creatures with her minus ability and can certainly threaten an ultimate when protected with a wall of Rhinos and Rocs herself. I do think three might be too many, but I wouldn't be selling your copies just yet as some are suggesting, and I think Ari was certainly on to something in playing her even if three might be a bit too many.

One factor to keep in mind in sideboarding with this deck in the mirror is something which came up a lot in the grindier Courser/Caryatid mirrors in Theros Block constructed. The number of answers these decks play to larger threats are big enough that games frequently become long, drawn out affairs decided by the person who can stick the last threat. In those situations, I highly recommend taking out at least some if not all of your mana acceleration, as they are embarrassing in a topdeck scenario. Thoughtseize similarly loses a lot of value, although can be good to pre-emptively clear away answers to your threat, so depending on what you have to bring in you may want to leave at least a couple in.

Abzan Rocs

The final versions of the Abzan deck which featured at the pro tour are ones that featured 4x Wingmate Roc. The previous two lists both had a couple in the 75, but one player in the top 8 and a number outside (including fellow Aussie, 14th place finisher Don van Ravenszaaij) realised the power of Broodmate Bird and ran the full playset maindeck:

Abzan Rocs
Thiago Saporito - Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir (Top 4)
Creatures
4 Fleecemane Lion
4 Sylvan Caryatid
4 Courser of Kruphix
1 Anafenza, the Foremost
4 Siege Rhino
4 Wingmate Roc
21 cards

Other Spells
1 Drown in Sorrow
1 Thoughtseize
4 Hero's Downfall
2 Bile Blight
3 Abzan Charm
1 Whip of Erebos
2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
14 cards
Lands
4 Sandsteppe Citadel
1 Temple of Malady
4 Temple of Silence
1 Temple of Plenty
4 Llanowar Wastes
4 Windswept Heath
2 Plains
2 Forest
1 Swamp
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
1 Mana Confluence
25 cards

Sideboard
3 Thoughtseize
1 Agent of Erebos
1 Erase
1 Back to Nature
2 Elspeth, Sun's Champion
1 Stain the Mind
1 Utter End
4 End Hostilities
15 cards
Wingmate Roc

Playing 4x Wingmate Rocs actually places more constraints on your deck construction than is obvious at first. As Frank Karsten outlines here, the key with Wingmate Roc is that you have to prioritise being able to turn on Raid on turn 5 with it. That means the decks which play 4 copies almost universally play 4x Fleecemane Lion and often play cards like Anafenza and/or Elvish Mystic as well. Here's an example of that principal in play. It's my turn three on the play and this is the boardstate (I haven't played a land for the turn):

There's two lines here, you can either kill the Mantis Rider and follow up the next turn with one of Rhino or Roc, or play the Rhino here. Scared of the power of the Jeskai deck to burn me out, I stupidly took the former line. My opponent untapped, Stoked the Courser, played Banishing Light on my Rhino (I didn't think he would have any maindeck answers to it, other than Jeskai Charm which is horrible) and so I was unable to trigger raid on my Wingmate Roc, which I embarrassingly played out for no value - it was promptly Sarkhan-ed and I lost the game. That game goes entirely differently if I had prioritiesed getting to a boardstate where I would definitely be able to trigger raid, and I will keep that in mind in the future.

It really is difficult to overstate how good a turn 5 (or any turn really) raided Wingmate Roc is in the format. It's incredible against the Jeskai deck, blunting all of their creature attacks (barring trickery) and shutting off their burn plan on the following turn thanks to the lifegain. It's great against UB control as they don't have a good wrath. It's good against everything other than Hornet Queen in the green devotion decks. it's amazing in the mirror. There's just no matchup where you don't want it. I am fully on board with the 4x Wingmate Roc plan, and I highly recommend that you play a version with the full set.

As for the exact list, that's harder to nail down and will, in any event, be in a constant state of flux. I'm not a fan of Whip of Erebos in the current metagame - Anafenza straight out embarrasses it and a whole lot of relevant removal (Abzan Charm, Utter End, Perilous Vault) exiles instead of kills creatures. Drown in Sorrow, which is in the above list, isn't a maindeck card in my opinion (although it is an out to Hornet Queen, it's too narrow otherwise). The number of Thoughtseizes is another big question, some lists play one or two while the first two above played the full four. Given how bad it is against Jeskai, especially if you play it off a painland, I don't think you should have more than two maindeck. There's also additional mana acceleration to consider. Frank Karsten recommends 2x Elvish Mystic, which I think might be right, at least in game one. Frank also recommends extra copies of Anafenza which I quite like, but then included a random copy of Polukranos which seems terrible to me - that card just seems awful in this format if you can't do stupid things with devotion and infinity mana. Anyway, there is unlikely to be such a thing as the absolute perfect list, but I would personally recommend something like the following:

Abzan Combined
 
Creatures
2 Elvish Mystic
4 Fleecemane Lion
4 Sylvan Caryatid
4 Courser of Kruphix
3 Anafenza, the Foremost
4 Siege Rhino
4 Wingmate Roc
25 cards

Other Spells
3 Abzan Charm
3 Hero's Downfall
2 Thoughtseize
2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
10 cards
Lands
4 Sandsteppe Citadel
1 Caves of Koilos
3 Forest
3 Llanowar Wastes
1 Mana Confluence
2 Plains
2 Temple of Malady
3 Temple of Silence
2 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
4 Windswept Heath
25 cards

Wingmate Roc

This is something of a hybrid of Ari and Frank's versions. I've opted for 2x Sorin over Polukranos and Bile Blight - the latter is mainly good against Jeskai, which Sorin is also good against, and Sorin additionally creates an attacker for Wingmate Roc if needed, putting the number of cards that can turn on raid for the turn 5 Wingmate Roc up to 23 which is high. The sideboard is mostly the same, although I've gone with Glare of Heresy over Erase - Glare kills the main enchantments you care about (Banishing Light, Jeskai Ascendancy) while also being quite good in the mirror as a 2-mana removal spell for Rhino, Sorin, Ajani, half of Roc and Elspeth. As I said, I'm sure this isn't the final word in the deck, but it's playing well for me at the moment.

Porting Abzan to Block Constructed

I wrote last week that Abzan Midrange seems like one of the strongest decks of the upcoming block format. And the fact that the core shell of the block deck is making waves in standard is a good vindication of that initial impression. Having played with the standard decks a bit more, there's a few additional things to think about. First of all is whether you want to include Heir of the Wilds, possibly up to four copies. The block deck can't play mana acceleration which means you want to play at the lower end of the curve, and it also doesn't have a natural 3/3 for 2 mana like Fleecemane Lion. While Rakshasa Deathdealer is obviously one great turn 2 play, having redundancy with the early drops really helps with the Wingmate Roc plan and it's a card which isn't dead in the late game as it trades at worst with any ground creature. I think I'm on board for at least two. Here's a bit of a shuffling of the list to accomade them, and some other minor changes (note that the mana base here may need serious additional work, and quite possibly 25 total lands):

Abzan midrange
Khans Block Constructed
Creatures
4 Rakshasa Deathdealer
4 Heir of the Wilds
3 Anafenza, the Foremost
4 Siege Rhino
4 Wingmate Roc
4 Hooded Hydra
23 cards

Other Spells
4 Abzan Charm
4 Utter end
4 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
2 Murderous Cut
14 cards
Lands
4 Windswept Heath
3 Forest
3 Plains
2 Swamp
4 Jungle Hollow
4 Sandsteppe Citadel
4 Scoured Barrens
24 cards
 
Anafenza, the Foremost

I'll almost certainly be sleeving something like that up next week when KTK Block Constructed launches online - can't wait to see how it goes, and whether it will be facing off against the predicted Temur Midrange deck, which hasn't done anything in Standard despite the best efforts of Brian Kibler.

Conclusion

Abzan is truly the junk food of the current standard format. It's easy, it's popular, sophisticated people sneer at it (pfft, turning creatures sideways) but at the end of the day you know you love it. Right now it's top dog, enjoy it while it lasts - whichever flavour floats your boat.