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Abzan ‘Aggro’ – Card Choices and Deckbuilding – Part I

Hi Everyone! My name is Walter and today we’re discussing standard.
I’ve recently been playing a variety of Abzan builds which range from very aggressive to quite midrange-y strategies. After racking up my third PPTQ Top 8 with the deck last weekend, I figured it’d be as good a time as any to write about the deck. Instead of just coming up with a tournament report or a deck tech of my current list, I’m going to do something different and hopefully more helpful and interesting here: I’ll go through the huge range of card choices available to Anafenza’s loyal followers and group them according to different constraints the deckbuilder is likely to face during their struggle for an optimally tuned 75.

For those too lazy to read the following slew of paragraphs and those happy to engage in some backwards engineering here’s the list I played to a 5-0-1, 2-0, 1-2 record. I think it’s a good one.

Creatures (23)
Warden of the First Tree
Fleecemane Lion
Heir of the Wilds
Anafenza, the Foremost
Siege Rhino
Whisperwood Elemental

Planeswalkers (2)
Sorin, Solemn Visitor

Spells (10)
Abzan Charm
Dromoka’s Command
Ultimate Price
Murderous Cut

Land (25)
Windswept Heath
Forest
Plains
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Sandsteppe Citadel
Temple of Silence
Llanowar Wastes
Swamp
Evolving Wilds
Sideboard (15)
Thoughtseize
Self-Inflicted Wound
Duress
Surge of Righteousness
Ultimate Price
Whisperwood Elemental

A deck being good is not an abstract concept, although and this very notion is why I believe simply netdecking puts you at a severe disadvantage. Every MTG decklist exists and at least partially attributes its success to a complex conglomerate of metagaming, personal playstyle and other factors. Sure, that UB list Shouta Yasooka played at the PT looks awesome when the Japanese pro effortlessly dismantled his opponents. Would I recommend running the same 75 at the next local PPTQ? Hell no. Would I recommend using it as a starting point and analysing decisions made that reflect on specific match-ups’ importance and make informed changes once you’ve gathered a decent understanding of why Shouta chose to play those cards in those quantities and what that says about his expected metagame? Hell yes.

Compared to nearly every other deck in Standard, Abzan colours offer the largest range of options, in terms of creatures, removal and disruption, and even in more abstract ways such as consistency versus power, an emphasis on one colour versus a lighter splash and pure aggression versus a flexible midgame. Since last October, cards I have played in this archetype range from Bloodsoaked Champion and Tormented Hero supported by Gather Courage to Courser of Kruphix, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion and even Hornet Queen (the latter two were in my sideboard). For writing this article I thought of what I would consider to be the non-negotiable core of Abzan Aggro (not including lands) and I came up with a surprisingly short list.

4Fleecemane Lion
3-4Anafenza, the Foremost
4Siege Rhino

2-3Dromoka’s Command

Yeah, that’s it. The best 2, 3 and 4-drops we can play and the most flexible removal/utility spell. That means if we play 25 lands we have 22 more spots to fill and there’s a multitude of cardboard waiting to be sleeved up and sent into battle.

Card Choices:

I could just group cards by type and converted mana cost but it seems to me that it makes more sense to employ other paradigms important in building a successful Abzan Aggro deck. I will focus on one of those here in part one and will return to other important considerations in parts 2-x.

Colour Commitment:

This, to me, is the most important aspect we need to consider as it heavily influences our choices and especially the construction of our mana base. We are a rather aggressive three-colour deck and do not have any significant non-land fixing, while our options regarding lands include the three on-colour temples, the two on-colour painlands, Windswept Heath Mana Confluence, Evolving Wilds and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, all of which have their individual drawbacks. Being a Khans of Tarkir clan means we get to play with the excellent Sandsteppe Citadel, which together with ‘our’ fetch and at least three corresponding basics (Forests and Plains) constitutes the core of our manabase, giving us about 15 slots to tinker with.

Green:

As can be seen from the short list above and by looking at other available early-drop creatures, green is inevitably a base colour in this deck. Going heavier into green opens up options that require GG to cast, which depending on where they stand in our list’s curve ranges from trivial to heavily constraining which lands we’d like to cast our spells with. Here’s some possible benefits from simply embracing our base colour more.

Avatar of the Resolute
A GG 2-drop requires about 19 green sources (for more info on coloured sources and the maths/logic behind it, google Frank Karsten’s amazing article and read it if you haven’t already done so), which is definitely not trivial. If we satisfy this card’s greed for green though, we’re rewarded with a 3-power beater that trample over tokens and can trade with Mantis Rider as well as (chump) block various dragons. It also retains value in the late game through its synergy with cards such as both Anafenza, Abzan Charm and Dromoka’s Command, allowing us to cast it as a 4/3 or even 5/4.

Courser of Kruphix
This Standard staple only need us to run about 17 green sources and while not the most aggressive of 3-drops can provide both an insurance against aggressive strategies as well as an engine that powers up our late game and is best combined with an emphasis on cards on the upper end of the curve, either in the maindeck or the sideboard.

Deathmist Raptor
Everybody’s favourite grindy dinosaur is representative of another direction we could take this deck in, one focused on constantly recurring this annoying attacker and blocker through cards like Den Protector, Hidden Dragonslayer, Whisperwood Elemental and Mastery of the Unseen.

Boon Satyr
This one’s a bit harder to evaluate in terms of mana requirements as it’s a 3-drop that wishes to be a 5-drop at all times but often has to come down as a 4/2 flash. It’s probably fine with 16 green sources and can provide another way to punch through big blockers as well as an additional 3-drop. On the other hand, its non-bestow side is weak to 2/x creatures and Wild Slash.

While there are quite a few other cards with GG in their cost that are considerations for Abzan Aggro (Surrak, the Hunt Caller, Whisperwood Elemental, Nissa, Worldwaker, etc.) most of these should not put any additional pressure on our manabase, considering we want to consistently cast Fleecemane Lion and another green 2-drop; hence, they’re not included in this section.

White:

Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit
Manawise it doesn’t get much greedier than this. While Avatar is already pushing what is doable in a three-colour deck, Anafenza exacerbates this issue as she’s not in our primary colour. Nonetheless, dabbling heavily in white for this alternate timeline clan leader has been tried by people getting decent results on the SCG open series a permanent boost to our creatures is definitely something this deck is interested in. Mostly Anafenza has been employed as a supplementary 2-drop to support 8 other, more castable ones, which also makes sense regarding her legendary status. If we decide to go with Weeniefenza, all that is asked from us in terms of deckbuilding is an emphasis on creatures, especially cheaper ones and it makes considering Collected Company more attractive to get two bolster triggers out of our efforts. I’ll also note that Anafenza is not the reason to go deep on white, but rather an added reward if we decide to run the following card on this list.

Brimaz, King of Oreskos
Now we’re talking. The lion king himself is exactly what we want to be doing in terms of power level and also benefits from the non-trivial amount of removal Abzan Aggro is running. The temptation to alter our manabase a little to accommodate WW on turn 3 is particularly high as most other possible supplements to Anafenza, the Foremost are unfortunately not all that good. Back in week 1 of KTK Standard I even ran 4 Brimaz to go along with my 4 Anafenzas, which at that time proved very strong against the popular Jeskai Aggro strategies that ran 4 Magma Jets and 4 Lightning Strikes. Nowadays people generally run 2 or 3 copies of this legendary creature and even though some pilots try to get away with 16 white sources, I’d be more comfortable with 17.

Wingmate Roc
As we move higher up the curve, the mana requirements necessary to run WW spells become less stringent but it is still worthwhile to consider that running the 2-for-1 bird in a list that does not go deeper into white than necessary for the core cards listed earlier and hence can confidently play 14 white sources is probably not optimal. When faced with the option of adding another W-producing land or running an alternate 5-drop of comparable power level, I am mostly inclined to go with the second option. If we already have the mana to easily support the Roc though, it offers us two disparaging scenarios: one ¾ flyer or two ¾ flyers depending on whether we were able to trigger Raid successfully. If it’s not obvious, this is VERY high variance as one bird is horrible while two birds are insane. Thus, running Wingmate Roc influences deckbuilding (more creatures, especially cheap ones that can attack non-suicidally) as well as gameplay (carefully set up Raid even if it means taking extra damage).

Black:

Bile Blight
Unlike a heavy white commitment, running double B spells is nearly universally accepted wisdom among Abzan Aggro pilots and it is hard to argue that we don’t want to be running effects like this as they cover weaknesses no comparable other main deck cards can quite touch upon. Bile Blight is useful in two ways, as an early game removal spell and as an insurance policy against tokens, while also doubling up as a combat trick against bigger blockers if need be. How much we want this spell depends on the expected meta: it’s obviously insane against token strategies and very good against decks with lots of small beaters, but pretty underwhelming against Abzan decks of all kinds as they either run no creatures that die to it or those creatures have also been summoned on your side of the board. As we don’t necessarily want to cast Bile Blight on turn 2, 17 black sources is probably okay (although that means accepting we won’t cast this as consistently early as we’d like to).

Hero’s Downfall
The universal 3-mana removal spell. It kills any creature and it kills a planeswalker, which is something unique in this deck. If we don’t run this effect, it’s important to have a solid plan against planeswalkers, which means effectively pressuring them with creatures, preferably multiples or evasive ones. Still, leaving Downfall on the sidelines will lead to some number of traumatic losses to Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. In terms of unconditionally killing creatures, we have valid alternatives at our disposal that I will discuss more in-depth in part 2.

Herald of Torment
Popularised by Mike Sigrist who Top 8’ed Pro Tour KTK with a full playset of this sneaky demon. As Boon Satyr’s black cousin it is not surprising that we have a rather mediocre 3-drop that doubles up as a 5-drop that is pretty damn bonkers in ground stalls and embarrasses Elspeth. It hasn’t seen much play in a while as the drawback of losing life is real and the deck has shifted into more midrange territory compared to its original incarnation. If the meta shifts towards midrange decks like Sidisi Whip or devotion strategies, the ability to fly over a clogged board and close out the game in just 2-3 swings is very powerful.

Thoughtseize
Hey, that’s not a double black card. True and I have run this iconic discard spell in nearly every iteration of Abzan Aggro I’ve gone through. It’s still on this list as the debate generally doesn’t resolve around whether to include Thoughtseize in our 75 but rather whether to run it main or side. Whereas sideboarding it for control match-ups does not require any additional black sources (we don’t need to play it early as we often want to snag a stabilising spell such as a sweeper, a Dig Through Time or a scary threat in the midgame), starting with it in our 60 means we need to be able to reliably cast it on turn 1-3 to disrupt our opponent’s plans. Conveniently the sequence of T1 scryland into T2 Thoughtseize plus scryland synergises well with the higher number of Temple we’re required to run if we go heavier into black.

Rakshasa Deathdealer
Another card that’s actually rather trivial to cast but faces some more subtle challenges. We don’t just want a 2/2 that can pump or regenerate once a turn as what makes the Cat Demon a late-game powerhouse is the fact that in the right shell it can attack for 8 and still be safe from opposing removal spells. This requires a large number of green and black sources (at least 16 each) and it actively encourages us to run one card in our deck in the lowest quantity possible: basic Plains. Rakshasa Deathdealer HATES Plains. On the other hand, it’s best buds with Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, which is one of the main reasons most lists run two copies of the legendary land irrespective of the possible clunkiness. If its mana requirements are met this undead kitty packs a punch and is not something your UB control opponent likes getting beaten down with.

Drown in Sorrow
This potent sideboard card is another compelling reason for a heavy black commitment as regardless of its lack of synergy with the dealer of death it can wreck decks that swarm the board with lots of little creatures or tokens, ie. Mono-red and Jeskai Tokens for example. It needs to be noted that both strategies got additional tools to play around sweeper effects in DTK and that you shouldn’t depend on this as the ultimate trump when possibly facing dashed Zurgo, Bellstrikers and Lightning Berserkers.

Possible Manabases

After this brief breakdown about what we can gain by embracing any of the Abzan colours more, let’s have a look on how that affects what lands we can play and the up and downsides involved in that. If it hasn’t become obvious yet, I chose to eschew any double-coloured spells except for Whisperwood Elemental in my current build, being able to run what I believe is a consistent, rather painfree and untapped manabase.

All manabases in the following sections are just examples and can each be tinkered with A LOT.

Not-heavy-on-any-colour manabase (could run GG 3-drops)

17G/14W/14B

(25)
Windswept Heath
Forest
Plains
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Sandsteppe Citadel
Temple of Silence
Llanowar Wastes
Swamp
Evolving Wilds

This combination of lands provides us with 17G/14W/14B sources (this article will disregard that fetches are not actual duals etc. for purposes of relative brevity), enough to reliably cast Fleecemane Lion and black removal on Turn 2.

Tapped lands: 7
Painlands: 4
Basics: 9

Now for comparison I will look at possible manabases for lists that want to run a GG 2-drop, a WW 2-drop, the BB removal suite and any combination of these.

The ‘my list with Avatar of the Resolute’ manabase.

Compared to the 17 G sources seen above, we’d like to have two additional ones. The straightforward solution is to replace the 2 Temple of Silence with 2 additional Evolving Wilds. While on paper this gives us the required sources, we need to consider that the Sam Karopoulos invitational card only nets us a Forest, a Plains OR a Swamp, which especially in multiples can make it awkward to hit our colour requirements. Other potential swaps to increase the G-count are Plains -> Temple of Plenty, Swamp -> Temple of Malady and Temple of Silence -> Mana Confluence. Considering a healthy balance between tapped lands and painlands, the following manabase is a possible solution.

(25)
Windswept Heath
Forest
Plains
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Sandsteppe Citadel
Temple of Silence
Llanowar Wastes
Swamp
Evolving Wilds
Mana Confluence
Temple of Malady

Tapped lands: 7
Painlands: 5 (1 Mana Confluence)
Basics: 8

The Anafenza and Brimaz list

Here I assume no GG or BB spells but 3 Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit and 3 Brimaz, King of Oreskos.

16G/18W/14B

(25)
Sandsteppe Citadel
Windswept Heath
Forest
Plains
Temple of Silence
Temple of Plenty
Mana Confluence
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Swamp
Caves of Koilos
Llanowar Wastes

Tapped lands: 8
Painlands: 5 (2 Mana Confluence)
Basics: 7

The Hero’s Downfall + Co list

16G/14W/17B

(25)
Sandsteppe Citadel
Windswept Heath
Forest
Plains
Temple of Silence
Temple of Malady
Caves of Koilos
Llanowar Wastes
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Swamp

Tapped lands: 9
Painlands: 5
Basics: 5

The GG + WW list

19G/18W/14B

(25)
Sandsteppe Citadel
Windswept Heath
Forest
Plains
Temple of Plenty
Temple of Silence
Temple of Malady
Mana Confluence
Caves of Koilos
Llanowar Wastes
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

Tapped lands: 8
Painlands: 7 (3 Mana Confluence)
Basics: 5

Alternatively replace painlands with corresponding Temples to alter the balance between the two (e.g. 10 tapped lands/5 painlands).

The GG + BB list

19G/14W/17B

(25)
Sandsteppe Citadel
Windswept Heath
Forest
Plains
Temple of Malady
Temple of Silence
Mana Confluence
Llanowar Wastes
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

Tapped lands: 9
Painlands: 6 (2 Mana Confluence)
Basics: 4

It’s possible to replace 1 Temple of Silence with 1 Caves of Koilos here.

The WW and BB list

16G/18W/17B

(25)
Sandsteppe Citadel
Windswept Heath
Forest
Plains
Temple of Malady
Temple of Silence
Mana Confluence
Llanowar Wastes
Caves of Koilos
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

Tapped lands: 9
Painlands: 6 (3 Mana Confluence)
Basics: 4

Again, the Temple/painland balance can be shifted.

The greedy (GG, WW, BB) list

19G/18W/17B

(25)
Sandsteppe Citadel
Windswept Heath
Forest
Plains
Temple of Malady
Temple of Silence
Mana Confluence
Llanowar Wastes
Caves of Koilos

Tapped lands: 10
Painlands: 7 (Mana Confluence)
Basics: 4

With 25 lands, there’s not even space for a single Urborg here.

Conclusion

That’s it for part 1. I hope you’re still awake and will join me for part 2 which will be out soon and will further look into card choices for Standard Abzan Aggro, guided by other aspects than colour requirements which was this article’s focus. I will also talk more about my current build of the deck and analyse important deckbuilding decisions caused by not going deeper on any colour, especially things we have to consider when not running the BB removal suite.

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