Breaking Through – Igniting Abzan

Many people are already starting to get bored with Standard, although I think that stems mostly from the complexity of the format. Sometimes, a format will be dominated by a certain deck or a certain style of deck and everything else just feels bad by comparison.

If we take a trip back in time, we can look to decks like Caw Blade or Delver. Those decks actually had a stranglehold on the format and pushed weaker decks out of the format. People got bored with the format because it was not possible for any other deck to come out on top and defeat those lists.

If the current Standard format gets stale, I believe that the source is quite different. We have some strong decks in the format like Abzan, Jeskai, mono-green, even aggressive options like UW Heroic and mono-red. The problem is that when you go to start jotting down a new deck list, you very quickly end up arriving at one of those established lists or something that is just worse.

The format has a list of tier 1 cards that most decks will gravitate toward playing and as a result, only a few common shells. It can be daunting to look outside of those major archetypes as everything from the mana in the format to the removal suite can be intimidating. The power level of Standard is so high that messing up just leaves you run over at the end of the tournament.

Avoiding New with New

However, as a deckbuilder, it is not always your job to go into the tank and come out with something completely new. Sometimes deck building is recognizing strengths and weaknesses of a format and moving things around to accommodate for them. Sometimes you need Black Sun’s Zenith over Slagstorm to be competitive. Sometimes you need blue or green in your Tempered Steel list for its matchups to fall in line. Sometimes you just need to go a little bit further than everyone else.

If you have been sitting on some wacky brew that brings an entirely new element to the table, great, but it doesn’t always have to be so extreme. Brewing, like most things, exists along a scale with various levels of “going deep.” Just because you only changed ten cards does not mean your deck is any less inventive. Often, because you are rooting your brew in known good cards, the risks of having something completely unplayable are mitigated.

There are a few very solid shells that have room for customization in Standard. Whether you are into UW Heroic or Jeskai Tempo, these lists are not finalized and set in stone and yet people seem to think they are. Teammate Steve Rubin designed our shell for Abzan that ended up winning the Pro Tour and then won an SCG Open with a descendant of the same list. This implies that deck is good, sure, but with so many options among those three colors, do you really think he came upon the ONLY way to build Abzan? Obviously not, but most lists you see will be remarkably similar.

In the effort of exploration and keeping Standard fresh, I wanted to take a look at one of the angles for Abzan that we explored before the Pro Tour but that I have not seen very often since.

At the time, some of the strongest cards in what we expected the format look like were red. Anger of the Gods was at the top of my list, but cards like Butcher of the Horde and Crater’s Claws were both extremely strong in the metagame. I had already been working with a five-color midrange shell using Temur Ascendancy so I knew that the mana could be stretched beyond three colors. Consistency would decrease, but greater power level and range was a worthwhile tradeoff, at least in theory.

In my opinion, red makes a much better pair with the Abzan base than blue does simply because it allows for a wider range of applications. If you are adding blue, you are adding Sultai, which is not the most aggressive wedge of the bunch. Sultai Charm is an OK pickup, but what are we really gaining? Kiora, the Crashing Wave? Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver? Villainous Wealth? Prophet of Kruphix?

None of those cards particularly excite me within the context of Abzan, especially with the wedge already picking up a nice card advantage tool in Abzan Charm. And on top of that, even if those cards did excite me, all of them lend themselves toward a longer, more controlling game. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, one of my favorite attributes about Abzan is its ability to turn the corner very quickly and end a game before the opponent can recover from whatever blow was just dealt. Blue does not add any pressure and instead will just offer more control.

Red, on the other hand, has some really nice options to both take over a game without really slowing things down, as well as to close a game pretty quickly with threats that are individually strong. This would potentially give us a speed advantage over traditional Abzan while also picking up a sweeper that doesn’t cost a million mana but has wider applications than Drown in Sorrow.

As I mentioned before, Butcher of the Horde and Crater’s Claws were already cards that we were trying in just about everything we could, so I simply decided to expand the range of decks that “we could.” First up was an aggressive midrange deck that gets to utilize Anger of the Gods without losing too much to the sweeper itself.

There are a lot of similarities to Steve’s Abzan deck in here, from Courser/Caryatid all the way up to Wingmate Roc and Elspeth, but let’s focus on some of the differences. Traditional Abzan is a lot more reliant on 1-for-1 removal to get it to a point in the game where its cards are better. In this list, while we can play that game on occasion, we would much rather make our transition into the mid- or late game by cleaning up the board with an Anger of the Gods and then dropping individual threats. A matchup like small Abzan was very tough before because our removal had trouble keeping up with their threat density whereas a card like Anger can ignore that.

Decks get scared once they hit around 6 life against Abzan because a pair of Siege Rhinos is always an out. Once we add red, we actually extend that number closer to 10 life. Now we have Crater’s Claws which can just finish any game out of nowhere as well as Butcher of the Horde who offers 5 hasty damage himself. One of those two cards from 10 life will put you into the Siege Rhino-equals-death position that you are used to, which expands the number of free wins.

Underworld Cerberus is an exciting card in these midrange decks. Now that Detention Sphere is gone and Banishing Light is seeing so much less play, it has the ability to gain a ton of advantage in the late game. Rebuying your dead Siege Rhino and Butcher of the Horde is already very powerful and any attrition-based matchup is likely going to see higher creature turnover than that. Elspeth even gives you an easy out to kill your own Cerberus for value, should that be desired.

A Little Faster Please

Despite just how good Anger of the Gods can be against many of the decks in the format, it does not necessarily capitalize on what else red has to offer. For example, Lightning Strike is one of the better cards in the format, but the above deck cannot really afford to dedicate that many slots to dealing with 3-toughness-or-less creatures, so Anger ends up pushing out the burn spell. Similarly, I think that Underworld Cerberus is one of those cards that is very strong right now but does not have a good home. While I loves its ability to draw you gas later on in the game, Anger of the Gods can put a damper on that by exiling some of your mana creatures. While I think that exiling your opponent’s creatures will usually be more important than losing your own, there is a chance we can do even better here.

Focusing on a more aggressive shell, we might arrive at something like this:

Right off the bat, while we traded in any synergy, or anti-synergy, that Anger of the Gods may have had in our list, we now pick up a pretty sweet combo in Anafenza plus Underworld Cerberus. Together this pair helps to ensure your opponent’s creatures are getting exiled while yours await their rebirth once ol’ three-head has his say. I originally had Brimaz in the Anafenza slot but once the second ability on Anafenza becomes relevant, I think its inclusion makes sense.

Our mana improves as we gain access to 4 copies of Mana Confluence, because we anticipate that games will end sooner and the pain will matter less. Of course, casting the likes of Fleecemane Lion on turn 2 is still more difficult than Rattleclaw Mystic, so there will be some games we do not curve out perfectly, but our power level is high enough that we can make up for that with haymakers later on.

With Lightning Strike now in the deck, the opportunities to burn people out from a relatively high life total are even greater. Butcher and Siege Rhino still do a great job of pressuring life totals and we add early game pressure through Lion and late game pressure through more direct damage. That means any close game is likely to end up going in favor of this list, assuming your mana cooperates.

As far as the sideboarded Drown in Sorrows are concerned, they very well may end up being better as Anger of the Gods, but with Lion in our deck and no Rattleclaw Mystic, the prospect of not killing a single one of our own creatures has led me to try the new Infest over Anger in the meantime.

Wrap Up

Standard is far too new to be solved, but it does take a willingness to try new things.

The focus has shifted a bit to older formats recently, but Standard is still going to have plenty of data and tournament results coming in so be sure to pay attention to the metagame as the right opening for whatever you are working on might open up at any point in time.

And until then, give the above lists a shot. There are a lot of powerful things going on and the ability for customization is nearly endless. As always, thanks for reading!

Conley Woods

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