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By: MarcosPMA, Marcos Rodriguez
Dec 27 2017 1:00pm
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Hello all!  One of the perks that's been afforded to me by writing my weekly Sealed Success column is that I have a respectable Magic Online collection that normally doesn't have any focus to it. I have cards and tickets but no real decks unless I myself want to play a constructed format.  I've had some forays into constructed before but it's never really stuck because I was just playing random games with no clear goal in mind.  Earlier this year I had a thought to try to get into Legacy because I've always wanted to play the format and so I did.  I bought into UW Control and started playing games in Tournament Practice.  It did not go well.

Legacy is a very hard format once you decide to play blue because Brainstorm and Force of Will are complex cards that require intimate knowledge of the format and your deck in order to play them at a proficient level.  Not only that, I don't have a feasible way to convert the knowledge I gain playing online Legacy into anything tangible since I don't have a paper Legacy deck or community to play with.  I was feeling disillusioned and decided to part with the deck and build a deck that I could realistically also build in paper.  I didn't want to play Storm online because as interesting as it may be to some people, it's not very fun to watch and I wanted to make YouTube content with the deck I chose.  I looked at a couple of decklists and made the executive decision that I was going to build and master Abzan.  50+ matches later I'm here to tell you all about the deck to give a basic understanding of the deck and simple sideboard plan theory.

Why is it called "A Beginner's Guide"?  Modern has so much depth and the archetype itself can be built so many different ways that I feel I'm only scratching the surface as to what I can uncover with the archetype and how the deck should be built depending on the metagame.  Also, even after playing 50+ matches with the deck I'm still trying to figure out matchups and how to sequence my plays consistently.  What I describe here is the foundation on which on can progress and learn more about the deck and how to play it.

Why Abzan?

Modern is a format that rewards knowledge of your deck and of the format much akin to Legacy so you don't have to pick the best deck in order to have success.  I did have a few goals/restrictions in mind when I starting looking for a deck to build and those were: no blue, and must have Liliana of the Veil.  I already play Gifts Storm in paper so if I want to play Serum Visions I can do that already and none of the blue decks interested me from the start.  Wanting to play Liliana of the Veil was something I chose because I'd never done it before and I wanted to see how good she was as the person controlling her.  I've played against my fair share of Liliana decks but this time I wanted to be the one casting her.  Liliana decks tended to be Jund and Abzan once you got away from blue and it's hard to say no to the sweet sweet value of Lingering Souls, so Abzan it was.

The typical pull towards midrange decks like Jund and Abzan is that they don't have too many polarizing matchups and they can have draws where they beat their worst matchups by simply going Thoughtseize into Tarmogoyf into Liliana of the Veil.  This line of play produces a big threat while denying the opponent the resources to counteract your hand and develop their board.  A large number of hands in Modern are kept with the assumption that they'll have access to all the cards they keep and sometimes the hand is significantly weakened if a card is taken away.  Beyond that you have tools to deal with any random deck that comes your way with the removal package you possess.  Abrupt Decay can destroy most cheap nonland permanents and Maelstrom Pulse can give you insurance against a big threat or planeswalker.  Path to Exile gets rid of big scary creatures and you always have the option to make your opponent discard them via Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize.  It's a safe deck choice for someone who doesn't want to feel utterly helpless in bad matchups and figures with enough experience you can gain percentage points in your favor.  Given my previous experience with Legacy, I thought taking a safe choice would help me if/when I lost badly.

Abzan Deck Tech

The video above goes into detail about each card in the deck and the overall strategy of the archetype but I thought I'd write a little about about two card choices that aren't common in Abzan lists.

Pack Rat is currently holding a spot that could be the fourth Dark Confidant, but right now I have no plans on making the switch to the full four Dark Confidants.  The idea is that while Dark Confidant is a way to draw extra cards and gain an advantage, sometimes the extra cards you draw don't do anything relevant.  In this scenario extra cards don't do anything if you need to end the game quickly, and so in that sense Pack Rat allows you to "draw" an extra creature by discarding useless cards in a given matchup.  Pack Rat can still overwhelm an opponent given enough time and you eventually reach the point where playing any card you draw is worse than making another Pack Rat token.  Abzan doesn't generally have good closing speed and a bit worse at being the aggressor in a matchup, so Pack Rat is a way to turn the corner should you need to.  It also fits into the idea that we want to one for one with our opponent but also want ways to break that parity in our favor.

Tireless Tracker is almost like a fourth Dark Confidant, albeit a more mana intensive/pain free version of the card.  Tracker allows you to gain value out of the extra lands you accumulate if the game goes a bit long since land drops 5+ have no value otherwise.  A natural extension of the one for one plan is that the game slows as both players have less resources to work with.  Tireless Tracker plays well with that because it costs you time to play extra lands and convert those clues into cards.  Using the clues is a way to enable Revolt without it being obvious, and you grow your Tireless Tracker every time you use a clue.  Tracker allows you to have a card advantage engine while also being a threat on its own.  Unless you have to be mana efficient it's always better to play Tireless Tracker when you have a land drop to make, so most cases you'll play it on turn 4+.

A question you might be asking why am I playing only one copy of each card if they both work really well in the game plan?  First of all, they're both actually quite mana intensive to use and because of that they're only good in specific situations.  If the game is guaranteed to last 7+ turns then that's a game where you want more of this type of effect, but because the length of games vary from game to game, it's unwise to put slow cards in your deck when you need to be fast.  They also assume that you're in a board where you're able to utilize these creatures and not be under immediate duress from your opponent.  To achieve good returns on Pack Rat you need to invest at least 11 mana into the card: 2 to cast, 9 for multiple activations.  Similarly, you need to invest 7 mana and two land drops into Tireless Tracker to just be up one card.  This is Modern, you don't always have that kind of spare mana laying around when you could easily lose the game on turn 3/4.  By only being one ofs, you improve the odds of drawing them when they do matter and not drawing them when they don't matter.

Abzan Sideboard Plans

You might be wondering why I titled this section "sideboard plans" and not "sideboard guide".  Like many other authors have said before me, sideboarding is an art and not a science.  This means that sideboard varies from game to game, and from pilot to pilot.  In theory you can craft sideboard guides against a specific set of 75 cards and be technically correct, but that doesn't take into account the human aspect of Magic.  Even within specific deck archetypes there are variations of cards that you could see in any given match.  What if your Grixis Death's Shadow opponent doesn't play Temur Battle Rage in their 75?  What happens if they do?  Do the games play differently if they're playing an old list pre-Ixalan versus a decklist that is updated with Ixalan cards?  Is your opponent experienced with the deck or are they a complete novice?

Once you factor in the human element in it's very difficult to follow or even think of a specific sideboard guide because it might not even matter.  Instead, I like to think of sideboard plans as a better way to approach sideboarding in between games.  If you have a plan on how the matchup tends to play out/how you want it to play out, your sideboarding is a lot more fluid and you don't have to hold yourself to any sacred cows.  This line of thinking also lets you sideboard better against decks you've never played against before.  While there might not be an actual sideboard guide for your opponent's Stuffy Doll/Star of Extinction Tron deck, if you rationally assume that they need a lot of mana to operate and you're disadvantaged the longer the game goes, you can formulate a plan for that.  Your plan might be to play threats early and use Fulminator Mage to keep them off mana long enough that your threats win the game.  This is a lot more useful than a sentence that says "-3 Inquisition, +3 Fulminator".

It would be remiss for me to leave the impression that sideboard guides have no value at all.  Quite the contrary, they can be a valuable tool if you have little time to playtest or want a baseline way to approach popular matchups.  The mere existence of them can be a way for a player to internally dissect that information and ask themselves, "Why are they sideboarding that way?", or "How are they trying to position themselves?"  In fact, the plans I'm going to present do have a sideboard guide element to them.  I'll present my thoughts on the matchup/who is favored, and then give a baseline on how to sideboard using that I believe to be a "stock" version of that archetype.  After that I'll give a few key points to keep in mind as you face the archetype, these should help shape how you sideboard either with my list or any Abzan list out there.  Note: I'll only be going over a couple of matchups that I feel are the more prevalent matchups in the current metagame.  If you want thoughts on a specific deck ask away in the comments section.

Jeskai Control

This matchup is all about discard and Liliana of the Veil as a way to hamper their mana development and stripping away key reactive spells.  The discard not only allows us to develop our board and play around removal/counters, but makes it more difficult for them to hold a defensive position.  They work best when they're allowed to one for one at the pace they choose while drawing cards and making key land drops.  Our discard plan doesn't allow them to do that The late game favors them more than it does us, but we still have a chance if the game manages to drag on.  Sphinx's Revelation is the key card we need to avoid as that undoes all our work and firmly puts the game in their hands.  

Play: -3 Abrupt Decay, - 1 Maelstrom Pulse, +2 Fulminator Mage, +2 Nihil Spellbomb

Draw: -3 Abrupt Decay, -1 Maelstrom Pulse, -1 Liliana of the Veil, +3 Fulminator Mage, +2 Nihil Spellbomb

Postboard our plans remain the same while adding ways to deal with Celestial Colonnade.  This is just a baseline on how I'd sideboard in the dark against Jeskai Control.  Fulminators and Spellbombs are definitely important, but past that you have options in Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Collective Brutality.  My main focus is to deal with Snapcaster Mage/Celestial Colonnade, then from there you can change your deck as you see fit.

  • Heavy discard is good against them
  • Have an answer to Celestial Colonnade
  • Don't play threats into an unknown hand, use discard wisely

Jeskai Midrange

The midrange version of the deck is more aggressive but can take a controlling stance.  You'll know if you're playing against this version of the deck if you see Spell Queller and Geist of Saint Traft.  Discard is good here but it's not as useful as it is against the control version of the deck.  If they play Geist of Saint Traft your first priority is to get rid of it because they won't play it into your blockers if they don't have removal to clear the way.  Liliana of the Veil is best but multiple Tarmogoyfs can work in a pinch.  Positioning is key here since they are more flexible than you because of their card draw, whereas you're forced into either the aggressive or defensive stance you find yourself in.  All things being equal I think you have to be the aggressor in this matchup.  Abrupt Decay has very few targets but it's your cleanest answer for Spell Queller.

Play: -3 Path to Exile, -1 Pack Rat, -1 Liliana, the Last Hope, -1 Maelstrom Pulse, +1 Damnation, +2 Kitchen Finks, +2 Fulminator Mage, +1 Nihil Spellbomb

Draw: -3 Path to Exile, -1 Pack Rat, -1 Liliana, the Last Hope, -1 Maelstrom Pulse, -1 Tireless Tracker, +1 Flaying Tendrils, +1 Damnation, +2 Fulminator Mage, +2 Nihil Spellbomb, +1 Kitchen Finks

It's tough to give a sideboard guide here because you have to win the Geist battle while still dealing with the midrange threats they bring in as well as Snapcaster Mage value.  They attack on a bunch of different angles and you're at the mercy of your opening hand to see how the game will progress.  General theory is if you believe the game is lost if it goes too long then you take out Pack Rat and Tireless Tracker but if you want to position yourself for the late game then you keep them in.  The matchup is tougher for you on the draw but Thoughtseize into Tarmogoyf into Liliana of the Veil can still win you games no matter what both your hands look like.


Burn can be a good or bad matchup depending on how your hand plays against their hand.  The hands where they have a bunch of instants and sorceries loses to your hand of Fatal Push while their creature hand beats your Inquisition of Kozilek hand.  They will usually always be the aggressor, forcing you to be on the defensive right from the start.  You can win game 1 if your hand lines up well but that doesn't usually happen.  Eidolon of the Great Revel is tough to beat if left unchecked and your lifegain effects can be negated by Skullcrack.  Protect an early Scavenging Ooze from Lightning Bolt as best you can and always have as much green mana as possible.  Every point of life matters here so don't take unnecessary damage via your lands.

Play: -3 Thoughtseize, -3 Dark Confidant, +2 Fulminator Mage, +2 Collective Brutality, +2 Kitchen Finks

Draw: -3 Thoughtseize, -3 Dark Confidant, -1 Liliana of the Veil, +2 Fulminator Mage, +2 Collective Brutality, +2 Kitchen Finks, +1 Flaying Tendrils

Post board you want to protect your life total and keep it as high as possible, so Thoughtseize and Dark Confidant come out in favor of lifegain options in Collective Brutality and Kitchen Finks.  I would use Collective Brutality very aggressively and always escalate once, twice if you have the option of giving an opposing creature -2/-2.  Stunting their offense is very key and any you can trade one for one and take no damage is an exchange in your favor.  Liliana of the Veil on the play can take a burn spell or two from your opponent while she's less likely to do so on the draw, so that's why one copy of her is taken out there.  Flaying Tendrils on the draw is insurance against the multiple Goblin Guide/Monastery Swiftspear beatdown plan.  In general keep your life total high, strip away their cards and creatures, then turn the corner and win as quickly as possible.  This line of thinking works well against every variation of burn.

  • Keep your life total high, fetch basics if possible
  • Play around Skullcrack effects as best you can
  • Protecting Scavenging Ooze is a path to victory

Gifts Storm

Game 1 is very winnable but you need the right hand for it to work.  Thoughtseize into Liliana of the Veil with Scavenging Ooze/Tarmogoyf backup is your best bet to win the first game.  They can go off quickly but if you put them under duress from the start then it hampers their ability to play the game they way they want to.  Absent any discard, you need to have removal for Baral, Chief of Compliance/Goblin Electromancer and hope that's enough to stunt their mana development.  The longer the game goes the more favored the Storm deck because of Gifts Ungiven/Past in Flames so don't let the game drag too long.  Under duress from discard spells and graveyard hate you should be able to win very easily.

Play/Draw: -3 Path to Exile, -1 Liliana, the Last Hope, -1 Pack Rat, +3 Nihil Spellbomb, +1 Flaying Tendrils, +1 Collective Brutality

Sideboarding here is pretty simple as you attack the graveyard with Nihil Spellbomb while covering yourself from Empty the Warrens with the maindeck Maelstrom Pulse and sideboarded Flaying Tendrils.  The plan is still the same here but you do have to watch out for Blood Moon against some variants of the deck.  If you see fetchlands then it's safe to say they have Blood Moon in the sideboard but if you see Shivan Reef then they're likely not playing it.  The reason for this is that they're less likely to have a basic Island in play if they have Shivan Reef and not Scalding Tarn, so the Blood Moon plan is much more dangerous than it normally would be.  Mulligan aggressively for hands that actually do something in the first three turns of the game.  You can't keep 4 lands, Tarmogoyf, Tireless Tracker, Maelstrom Pulse.  Playable hands need to have a turn 1 discard spell or Nihil Spellbomb.  The first three turns of the game are the most important turns of the game and if you skip a beat then you'll lose on the spot.

  • Attack their hand via discard
  • Manage their graveyard
  • Turn the corner quickly
  • Active Liliana is almost game-winning


This is a very bad matchup and you'd have to contort your entire sideboard to try and beat it, which frankly isn't worth it at all.  The problem with this matchup is that they're very redundant and they attack via an angle that we have very little control over: lands.  The creatures they play are mainly there to get more lands into play to trigger Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle.  They don't mind playing a one for one game because lands are actually live draws for them and they topdeck very well with Scapeshift, Primeval Titan, and Summoner's Pact as cards that can win the game on the spot.  Since a lot of our cards are worthless we have to try and win as quickly as possible to try and combat the inherent disadvantage we have playing against them.  Our best hands are Thoughtseize into Tarmogoyf into Liliana of the Veil and hoping they don't draw a card that wins them the game.

Play/Draw: -3 Fatal Push, -3 Abrupt Decay, +3 Fulminator Mage, +2 Kitchen Finks, +1 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar

Our sideboard plan seems very poor and that's because it very much is poor.  In fact, I would take out more cards out if possible but there's nothing that we have that would be better to bring in. Fulminator Mage is just a temporary measure against Valakut and shouldn't be seen as a trump card, instead it's meant to delay the opponent a turn while we attack with Tarmogoyf.  Even though our removal is bad we still keep in Path to Exile so we can get past a Primeval Titan.  While stranger things may happen, your best bet to winning any game is to play Thoughtseize into Tarmogoyf.

  • Turn two Tarmogoyf is your best bet at winning
  • Early discard can help keep your opponent off base
  • Fulminator Mage is not a trump, it's there to buy time
  • Stay above 18 if possible

Grixis Death's Shadow

This matchup feels similar to Jeskai Midrange but instead of Geist they have Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Gurmag Angler to complement Death's Shadow.  That said all of their threats you can deal with and you don't have to worry about any creaturelands, so in that aspect it's a bit of an easier matchup.  Game 1 is a bit of a tossup since they also have discard and removal, so whoever has better positioning and can hold onto it is going to prevail.  Abrupt Decay is our cleanest way to deal with Death's Shadow but they have Kolaghan's Command and Snapcaster Mage to rebuy it, so it's only a temporary reprieve.  An active Liliana of the Veil can hamper them enough if you have your own card advantage engines going to work, so finding them fast is key once you have some semblance of control.    You should be the aggressor if possible and if you're forced to play defensive make sure you can generate card advantage or else they'll bury you in the amount of cards they can see during a game.

Play: -3 Inquisition of Kozilek, -1 Liliana of the Veil, +3 Nihil Spellbomb, +1 Kitchen Finks

Draw: -3 Inquisition of Kozilek, -3 Thoughtseize, -2 Liliana of the Veil, +3 Nihil Spellbomb, +2 Kitchen Finks, +1 Damnation, +2 Fulminator Mage

My theory is to be a bit aggressive on discard on the play to take an aggressive stance while on the draw taking most of my discard out and trying to be more threat dense and play a longer game.  The reasoning here is that if they keep in discard while they're on the play to push their advantage then I have less tools to work with if I keep in discard, so I'd rather have actual spells to draw into.  On the play I can try to stop an early Tasigur and ride Tarmogoyf into Liliana to victory.  Admittedly I haven't played this matchup much so I can be completely wrong here but I look at it as a midrange mirror with my opponent having more recursion than I do, so a long game doesn't always favor me.  If they don't keep in any discard then I still want some number on the play in order to stop a fast Delve creature and perhaps some number of Thoughtseize on the draw as well.  Oddly enough I don't think Death's Shadow is the real threat in this matchup, it's actually the Delve creatures because there's less removal that actually hits them from our side of the table.

  • Have a plan for Delve creatures
  • Graveyard hate is important
  • Keep up with recursion/card advantage



These are my most recent Modern Friendly Leagues with Abzan and without spoiling the videos I've been pretty well recently.  My overall win percentage is pretty high all things considered, but I'm realistic enough to know that it's only a matter of time before it evens out towards 50/60%.  The thing to note about these videos is that even against the same matchup I don't always sideboard the same, and that's because I tend to sideboard depending on how the game played out and what cards my opponent showed me.  This is why I said in the sideboard section that it's more important to have a plan than to have a list of cards coming in/out.  In the dark I generally keep any hand that has lands and spells, but in more polarizing matchups I will mulligan aggressively for key cards that follow a winning game plan.    The most important thing to realize is that most hands look keepable, and that's just the nature of playing a deck with no synergy and a bunch of good cards.  The best hands have a discard spell into turn 2 creature, but past that you're liable to draw average looking hands that get better or worse depending on what your opponent is up to.


While there are other decks I could talk about in terms of sideboarding, the general theory can be derived from the decks I mentioned above along with the gameplay videos.  Tron variants are similar to TitanShift with Eldrazi Tron being slightly more manageable but still a bad matchup.  Affinity and other aggressive decks can borrow from the Burn section while UW Control is similar enough to Jeskai Control.  Jund and Abzan share the same principles I outlined with Grixis Death's Shadow although there you take out all the discard except for Liliana.  Once again, I want to point out that I haven't played the Death's Shadow matchup enough so I could be completely off base there.

I do hope that this guide has been of some help to you, either in helping you start your journey in playing the deck or understanding how the deck works and how to play against it.  While the deck does have catch-all answers, it does have problems with specific strategies and doesn't have enough closing speed at times to make up for that.  Nevertheless it does have game against most decks and can't steer you wrong once you know its strengths and how to play the deck.  If nothing else that's the number one thing to take away from Abzan, it's a deck that doesn't have good matchups but doesn't have that many bad matchups either.  It's a 50/50 deck that can beat anybody with the right hand.

Deck guides aren't a specialty of mine so if I left something out or you need a question answered please leave them in the comments section below, or feel free to send a message/comment over on my YouTube channel.  I have more gameplay videos as well as all my Modern leagues so you can see how I was playing early on and how I play now.

Thanks for reading/watching!


Great article, thanks for by MichelleWong at Fri, 12/29/2017 - 10:33
MichelleWong's picture

Great article, thanks for posting.

As you say, it has few horrible matchups. As far as I know, Tron, Titanshift and Dredge are the three decks it most fears (amongst the most popular Tier 1 decks running around).

Marcos, can I ask you: Do you believe that Abzan is favored against Blue Moon (Through the Breach version)? I suspect that Abzan is favored because its hand disruption would usually prevent a Moon lock and the opponent's first Through the Breach can also be Thoughtseized, buying enough time for the Goyfs and Souls to beat down for the win. Interested to know your view.

I would imagine that the by MarcosPMA at Fri, 12/29/2017 - 15:31
MarcosPMA's picture

I would imagine that the hands of Thoughtseize/Tarmogoyf/Liliana give the Abzan deck a good shot at winning, but it's a tricky matchup since Emrakul is almost game over and you still have to beat Blood Moon to even play the game. There's also the fact that Abzan doesn't play the aggro role as well as Jund does.

I suspect the matchup is not in Abzan's favor overall, with a better chance on the play. Game 1 is likely horrible given the hands that don't do anything against the deck, and the low chance of playing around Blood Moon.

Emrakul is what what makes the matchup bad since you don't have time to play a normal game, you have to win quickly but also try and beat Blood Moon at the same time. Makes it hard to tap out if you have Abrupt Decay but no basics. You can't stop the topdecks after all.

All noted Marcos, makes by MichelleWong at Sat, 12/30/2017 - 01:52
MichelleWong's picture

All noted Marcos, makes sense. You have convinced me that this matchup is an uphill battle for Abzan.