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

And… I’m back with the second part of this currently open-ended series on how to build Abzan Aggro in Standard. Maybe I’ll write about how to play this deck too at some point, but at the moment it seems like I’ve got a lot to say about card choices and lists before I can even think about getting into gameplay. Due to writing/editing/publishing etc. taking some time, these articles are and will continue to be a little behind the metagame, so let’s preface today’s installment with the metagame last week’s decklist was built for.

Here it is in case you missed it: Abzan Aggro – Card Choices & Deckbuilding – Part I

The PPTQ I played this list in was on the Pro Tour weekend; hence, I expected a metagame that reflected results from big events prior to the PT and local preferences. Seeing that Mr Big Beard, CVM, took down a SCG open saturated with aggressive green/red decks with a slightly more midrange take on the exact same archetype and Melbourne players seem to love jamming dorks into big beaters (I made day 2 of GP Melbourne 2014 mostly based on facing GR Monsters four times on day 1 and going 8-0 in games in those matches. My deck? Abzan ‘Aggro’ which was still universally called Junk then, curving Fleecemane Lions into bigger creatures and removal) as evidenced at the first PPTQ after the release of FRF which I unfortunately couldn’t play in because work but which had about four GR aggro decks in the Top 8. Anyways my metagame prediction was completely wrong and 50% of the room were on various Abzan lists.

What I at least to some extent did manage was tweaking my list to reflect the expected prevalence of a certain archetype, identify strengths and weaknesses in my deck and figure out how that affect card choices. As discussed in part one, I went with a list that doesn’t go deep on any of Abzan’s three colours and offers a comparatively large number of untapped, pain-free mana sources. This is quite important in a match-up which revolves around tempo and in which incidental damage is not trivial. It adds up quickly when our opponents play cards such as Draconic Roar, Thunderbreak Regent and Crater’s Claws. The bogeyman in the GR aggro – Abzan Aggro heads-up is clearly Stormbreath Dragon which is a fast, hasty clock that can play defence quite well with its protection from most of our deck.

If we were to go with a heavier black commitment, this wouldn’t be too much of an issue as four copies of Hero’s Downfall go a long way towards us being able to reasonably fend off the scaly menace. On the other hand, we really don’t want to be caught with a hand full of Abzan Charms, Dromoka’s Commands and Valorous Stances when our opponent casts the dragon that forgot to brush its teeth as early a turn three. Thus, my list had two Ultimate Prices and two Murderous Cuts in the maindeck, giving me the same number of cards that can deal with Stormbreath as playing Murder+++ would. Most of the time these answers also cost less mana, letting us cast two spells a turn as early as turn four, further getting ahead on tempo. It’s not all upside though: Ultimate Price is rather horrifying against the mirror and the second copy of the delve spell is pushing it as we don’t naturally fill up our graveyard that fast. Against control decks we’re trading a bad card (Downfall) for two worse cards and we weaken our game against a resolved Elspeth, Sun’s Champion.

Now, keep this in mind and compare my list to what I played the following weekend to a mediocre 2-2 and drop record at a PPTQ and a win (3-1, 2-0, 2-0) at the bounce-back Game Day event hosted by GUF Werribee. I expected a field of (dragon) control, RgDW and Abzan.

Creatures: (23)
Warden of the First Tree
Fleecemane Lion
Rakshasa Deathdealer
Anafenza, the Foremost
Siege Rhino
Whisperwood Elemental

Planeswalkers: (2)
Sorin, Solemn Visitor

Spells: (9)
Abzan Charm
Dromoka’s Command
Valorous Stance
Lands: (26)
Windswept Heath
Forest
Plains
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Sandsteppe Citadel
Temple of Silence
Llanowar Wastes
Swamp
Caves of Koilos

Sideboard: (15)
Thoughtseize
Self-Inflicted Wound
Surge of Righteousness
Ultimate Price
Whisperwood Elemental

Even though I beat a strong pilot on UB the previous week, my list was pretty bad in that match-up and I had to depend on drawing the right half of my deck, which worked out in my favour after I mulliganed a hand with two dead removal spells in game one, knowing what tricks to expect from my opponent. Here’s the exact changes I made with the primary focus of addressing the control decks I expected to face.

– 4 Heir of the Wilds
+ 4 Rakshasa Deathdealer

The deathtouch bear is great against GR aggro and Gx devotion strategies as it only requires a minimal initial mana investment and then keeps on swinging through any bigger creatures that might clog the board, often reducing the opponent’s life total in chunks of three. Against control decks it leads to overextending, weak topdecks and general misery. In the grindy Abzan match-ups drawing a cat demon with 9 lands on the field will also ensure that a top-deck war will come to an end rather quickly. To satisfy the undead kitty’s thirst for GB mana, I increased the black sources by two, going up to 16 while adding a 26th land, inspired by Brad Nelson’ 9-1 list from the Pro Tour. Otherwise, the creature base is unchanged. Whisperwood Elemental has proved to be a huge asset in the Abzan match-ups and it’s as good against control as a five-drop creature can be, i.e. clunky but a potential blow-out.

– 2 Ultimate Price
– 2 Murderous Cut
+ 1 Abzan Charm
+ 2 Valorous Stance

The second adjustment concerns the removal split I decided to run. Even though NZ player Jason Chung made Top 8 of the Pro Tour with GR dragons, the deck’s overall abysmal performance and the fact that it was virtually non-existent at the previous PPTQ convinced me that I could get away with exactly zero maindeck ways to kill Stormbreath Dragon. Post-board I would still have access to a playset of Ultimate Price. In exchange for being weak to SBD, the number of dead cards against control got reduced from seven to three, ensuring less hands where we just run out of gas after drawing multiple removal spells.

In terms of sideboarding, minimal changes reflect this shift in maindeck focus: with only five cards we don’t want in our deck in games two and three against control, the two copies of Duress got replaced with the two Ultimate Prices that got cut from the maindeck.

So, how did my metagame predictions and card choices work out? Well, there were very few GR aggro decks and quite a lot of control and Abzan. What I underestimated was the impact the decent performance of Gx devotion at the Pro Tour would have on the local metagame. Here’s my record from the PPTQ:

R1: Win vs UBw control (2-1)
R2: Loss vs GW devotion (1-2)
R3: Win vs Abzan midrange (2-0)
R4: Loss vs GR devotion (1-2)

My list felt strong against control and Abzan and I feel very comfortable playing those match-ups against experienced players. The devotion match doesn’t seem horrible, but the above list is definitely the underdog in game one when grindy cards like Sorin, Solemn Visitor and Whisperwood Elemental are close to blanks when our opponents can go way over the top of whatever advantage these 2-for-1s provide. Postboard, being on the play with 4 Self-Inflicted Wounds and 4 Ultimate Prices often feels ridiculously easy as early pressure and multiple cheap removal spells are nearly impossible for the devotion player to recover from. Being on the draw in game three (which I was in both of my devotion matches, losing both deciding games) is a different story though; the hateful edict is probably not even good enough and it becomes a lot harder to stunt devotion’s mana development while simultaneously building board presence.

Based on my personal experience and the results of GP Krakow (6 Esper Dragons lists in the Top 8), I am working on a different list for next weekend, addressing the fact that UBw control seems to be established as THE deck to beat while trying to have more game against devotion strategies in my maindeck.

Creatures: (23)
Warden of the First Tree
Fleecemane Lion
Rakshasa Deathdealer
Den Protector
Anafenza, the Foremost
Siege Rhino
Tasigur, the Golden Fang

Spells: (12)
Abzan Charm
Dromoka’s Command
Valorous Stance
Thoughtseize
Lands: (25)
Windswept Heath
Sandsteppe Citadel
Temple of Silence
Llanowar Wastes
Forest
Plains
Swamp
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

Sideboard: (15)
Ultimate Price
Self-Inflicted Wound
Sorin, Solemn Visitor
Arashin Cleric
Den Protector
Duress

Okay, so it looks like there’s slightly more changes this week. The overall idea was to lower the curve and add more early interaction while still keeping some grindy cards as well as having a low number of dead weight against control.

– 3 Whisperwood Elemental
+ 2 Den Protector
+ 1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang

This swap is meant to address the fact that 5-drops are often clunky, but have powerful effects. While Whisperwood can only be cast for five mana, these replacement “five-drops” can be cast way more flexibly. Den Protector is a great card in a vacuum, but has two important functions here: the synergy with four maindeck Thoughtseizes that allows for repeated shots at opponents’ hands and being an additional early game creature against mono-red. As an added bonus, she can pressure Elspeth quite well. The banana king benefits from more cheap spells too and lets us reach “two spells a turn” territory earlier in the midgame while providing another late-game manasink.

– 2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
– 1 Valorous Stance
– 1 Land
+ 4 Thoughtseize

That’s the big one. While Thoughtseize was a staple in Abzan Aggro for a long time, I abandoned the card maindeck ages ago and it has broadly fallen out of favour recently. It’s also really bad against the deck that just won the Pro Tour. Yet I think that now the time has come to return to a full set of this in the maindeck. The main reason for this is obviously the existence of a very powerful and surprisingly proactive control deck supported by a need for more broad answers when not playing cards like Hero’s Downfall. With a lower curve pre and post-board the 26th land becomes less necessary and unlike lists that have more black colour requirements a second copy of Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth is not necessary here.

As we have 9 more or less atrocious cards against mono-red in our maindeck now (which still makes G1 quite winnable), this needs to be reflected in an adapted sideboard. On top of the set of Ultimate Price we have access to the 2 Sorins that got moved from the maindeck and three copies of a newcomer that was quite prevalent in last weekend’s GP and SCG Open: Arashin Cleric. Slotting into the role previously assumed by Surge of Righteousness this draft last pick seems like the real deal to me. With aggressive red decks adopting a token theme to support the splashed Atarka’s Command this unassuming creature plays a huge role in the match-up. As a blocker it embarrasses 1/1 goblin tokens while additional incidental lifegain is more than welcome. If it eats a burn spell, great, that’s one less for our Fleecemane Lions and friends.

So yeah, three different lists for three different metagames. Remember, don’t netdeck unless you think that the pilot of a deck correctly predicted a metagame and you expect a similar metagame at your next local event.

See you next week for part three.

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