If you were to ask me a few weeks ago what I would be sleeving up for Denver, I would have responded with, “anything with Whip of Erebos in it.” I just couldn't justify playing any other deck as the Whip decks were supposed to go over the top of all the other green midrange decks in the format.
Then the Players Championship happened and Abzan Aggro started rising in popularity. Sidisi Whip and G/B Constellation were my two top choices for the tournament but I felt like the Abzan Aggro deck was well equipped to beat both decks. Anafenza is excellent against Sidisi Whip and Back to Nature does a great job of hosing the Constellation deck. There was no chance I was going to play something that was weak to a deck I felt would be heavily represented at the tournament.
My deck choice was then narrowed down to choosing between Abzan Aggro, Abzan Whip, and Abzan Midrange. I felt that you were doing it wrong if you were not playing Siege Rhino in a field as open as a Grand Prix. There is just such a wide array of decks that you can run into at a Grand Prix and Siege Rhino is just much more powerful as a standalone creature when compared to Eidolon of Blossoms and Sidisi, Brood Tyrant.
Ultimately I decided to go with Abzan Midrange, as I felt that it fit my style of play a bit better and I liked its matchup against the Abzan Aggro deck. I would also like to thank Brandon Nelson for helping me test with the deck. His results and opinions on the list helped me feel more confident about the 75 I sleeved for the tournament:
Now onto my matchups for the Grand Prix!
Round 1 - Bye
Round 2 - Bye (Had to win a GP Trial to earn these byes)
Round 3 - Chris Goodwin (UW Heroic) W 2-1
Round 4 - Max Sibert (Mono-Red Aggro) W 2-1
Round 5 - Jesus Magana (R/G Monsters) W 2-1
I considered playing an additional Murderous Cut or Silence the Believers specifically for this matchup as Stormbreath Dragon is sad times. Fortunately he only beat me with the card once in the three games.
Round 6 - Micah Manary (Abzan Midrange) W 2-1
Micah played a slightly more aggressive version of the deck featuring Wingmate Rocs and Fleecemane Lions. This is exactly why I chose to play a more controlling version of Abzan as I felt that I had an edge against these creatures. He also had zero Read the Bones in his 75 and I was able to bury him with the card advantage of chaining multiple Read the Bones and Abzan Charms.
Round 7 - Greg Ogreenc (UW Heroic) W 2-1
Greg had a slightly slower build of Heroic, featuring maindeck Treasure Cruise and Fabled Hero. He was able to draw his fair share of cards but I had just enough removal spells to deal with his threats. This was the exact reason why I was not a fan of playing UW Heroic. Your nut draws can still be beaten if your opponents have some combination of multiple removal spells and/or Thoughtseizes.
Round 8 - Ben Friedman (UW Heroic) W 2-0
My first match where it didn't go 3 games! I must say, it's always a pleasure playing against Ben. He approaches the game more calmly than any other pro I've played against. Don't let that fool you as he is an incredibly talented Magic player. so make sure you're on top of your game if you go up against him. Ben drew approximately 10 more cards than I did game 2 but did not end up drawing enough ways to protect his creatures, and I was able to ride my Elspeth to victory. Going 3-0 against UW Heroic felt incredible as I was very close to playing GB Constellation at this GP (which has a horrendous UW Heroic matchup).
Round 9 - Corey Burkhart (Sidisi Whip) Unintentional Draw - Overall 8-0-1
I actually tested the Sidisi Whip/Abzan Midrange matchup for 3 hours the day before the GP with Corey. We played 6 preboarded games and I ended up going 4-2, but the matchup felt pretty poor. I was then notified by Corey that he added 3 additional cards in his sideboard for this specific matchup.
We played a hard-fought match and game 3 was a roller coaster ride. We were at a stalemate until I drew a Read the Bones, which found a Duneblast with a Siege Rhino in play. At this point I thought I was going to be able to Duneblast him for the win. He topdecked a Thoughtseize and snagged the Duneblast out of my hand while time was called. He followed that up with a Whip of Erebos but did not have enough to kill me and we ended up with a draw. I went from thinking I was going to lose, to thinking I was going to win, to thinking I was going to lose again all within 3 turns.
Round 10 - Chris Fennell (Naya Planeswalkers/Tokens/DICTATE) L 0-2
Chris played a deck that looked like a kid put together a bunch of his sweet rares and took it to a tournament. He played a deck with ramp, planeswalkers, Wingmate Rocs, and Dictate of Heliod. So everything was essentially a 2-for-1 while also playing Dictate of Heliod, which actually ended up being incredible in the deck. He dismantled me easily in two games and the matchup seemed very bad as the Abzan player. After the match I asked if he had any removal spells in his deck to which he simply smiled and replied, “Nope! HAHA!”
Round 11 - Ben Yu (Abzan Whip) W 2-0
Ben was rocking some sweet 2015 shades for the feature match area. When I asked if he was trying to milk his 15 minutes of fame, somebody responded with, “no, he's going for 2015 minutes of fame…” Ben Yu is an up-and-coming player who has been grinding all the North American Grand Prix. I missed an on-board kill game 2 as I chose to draw cards with Abzan Charm instead of pumping my guys, but he was unable to deal with my Elspeth and I managed to almost throw the game away. Ben wound up 9th at the tournament on tie breaks and it's only a matter of time before he ends up qualifying and making it onto the gravy train.
Round 12 - Bradley Thompson (Abzan Aggro) W 2-1
Round 13 - Edward Nguyen (Mardu Aggro) W 2-1
Round 14 - Lee Marino (R/W Tokens) W 2-1
This was my win-and-in match. I would be lying to you if I said that I felt no pressure. I lost in the finals of multiple PTQs last year and I did NOT want that to happen again. This match was insane and I highly recommend you watch the video of the match. Lee absolutely crushed me in the first game and I was starting to have flashbacks of the crushing finals losses in the past. I knew I had to get myself together and just try to play tight and win the next two games. Then I mulled to 4. I did not have lands or a spell I could cast for my first three hands. He snap-kept his 7 and I just started thinking about whether or not I could Top 8 after the loss I would take this round.
My opening hand had 2 lands, Abzan Charm, and a card I can't remember. On turn 3, I found a land to cast an Abzan Charm and he missed his 3rd land drop. I followed that up with a turn 4 Courser of Kruphix hitting land, spell, land, spell, and played a turn 6 Elspeth. The game ended up not being remotely close due to my perfect draws. I was able to use that momentum to take down the 3rd and final game. A highlight from that game included me blocking his Seeker of the Way with my Sylvan Caryatid. The look on his face was priceless as he thought I was completely insane for blocking. The reason for the block was the fact that he can have almost no spell there to pump his Seeker as all good R/W players will be boarding out their Lightning Strikes and Magma Jets post-board against Abzan midrange.
Words could not describe the wave of emotion I felt after I won that match. All the time I spent practicing for this tournament and the realization that all the hard work paid off hit me so hard that I could barely keep myself together. I was once again locked for a GP Top 8 and qualified for the Pro Tour!
Round 15 - Matt Sperling (Abzan Aggro) ID - Overall 12-1-2
Top 8 - Sam Pardee (R/W Tokens)
Sam Pardee was the end boss for me as he was able to defeat me in two straight games. Game 1 was incredibly close as he kept a hand with only 2 lands but managed to rattle off several lands in a row to curve out.
On the last turn of the game, I had a Siege Rhino and a Sylvan Caryatid in play with 4 untapped lands and a Sorin in my hand and the life totals were 5 a piece. He had 3 tapped Goblins and 3 untapped Goblins with a Stoke the Flames in his hand. For whatever reason, I kept thinking that I would take 1 point of pain from one of my lands to cast the Sorin in my hand. I went through this play multiple times in my head but every time, I came to the conclusion that I would take 1 from Sorin if I did not tap my Caryatid. Taking 1 would have left me dead as I knew he had a Stoke the Flames in his hand. I ended up tapping the Caryatid to cast Sorin, ticked him up to 5, and attacked for 5 with the Siege Rhino. This put me at 10 life and he had to chump with 2 Goblins. Sam then opted to cast Stoke the Flames putting me to 6, attacked me down to 2 and topdecked Lightning Strike to kill me. Had I not tapped the Caryatid, I would have been able to block a Goblin and I would have ended the game at 1 life (as Caryatid would be 1/4 lifelink). It was maximum punishment for my mistake, since if he drew a Stormbreath Dragon/Stoke the Flames, I would have been dead no matter what.
Despite that, Sam convincingly crushed me in the 2nd game and that was the end of the tournament for me.
Still, another GP Top 8 and another qualification means that my goal of obtaining Silver status this year is within reach. I have 14 Pro Points on the year and need 6 points between Brussels and all future GPs to try and get a Silver invite to Vancouver. It still feels a bit surreal that I have once again managed to qualify. I've wanted this so much over the past year and it is an amazing feeling to be able to compete and once again play against the best in the world!
Last but not least, a sideboard guide:
It's possible you want some number of Caryatids on the play, but Thoughtseize isn't great as their threats are very redundant and it is a very bad topdeck. I like Liliana perhaps only on the play as a way to tutor for wraths. The matchup ends up playing out like an Abzan Midrange matchup as their deck really does not put a lot of pressure on you. If they're also playing Heir of the Wilds, then the 2nd Bile Blight should definitely come in. I just don't like it very much if all they have is Fleecemane Lion and Rakshasa Deathdealer.
I think I want some number of Thoughtseizes as they do tend to bring in Disdainful Strokes. Drown in Sorrow doesn't seem great, but after playing the matchup a lot, both sides generally get to cast all their spells and Hornet Queen is very problematic. It may even be correct to board in 2 Drowns. At some point, they will be able to resolve a Whip of Erebos and put a Hornet Queen into play so you need a way to interact with the tokens.
I'm not sure it's correct to board out all the Thoughtseizes. The Abzan deck is very clunky and it does not have too many plays early in the game. Being able to strip sideboard cards such as Harness by Force or a Hall of Triumph could be good enough to warrant keeping a couple of Thoughtseizes. I also keep one End Hostilities as kind of a 5th Drown in Sorrow, but it isn't great. Utter End is also not very good as it's a 4-mana spot removal spell, which is why I'm not a fan of bringing the 3rd in from the sideboard.
Sylvan Caryatid and Hero's Downfall are not great. UB usually has Ashiok so you want to keep Downfalls but you are also going up to 3 Utter Ends to deal with their Perilous Vaults. You can't really afford to be holding a pile of removal spells in this matchup.
I haven't played against this matchup to know for sure what I want to cut here. I do know that you want to maximize answers to Ascendancy and I like Thoughtseize for that reason. It can also nab the Treasure Cruises in their hand. The Jeskai Tokens deck functions as more of a combo deck so you are generally not in as much danger of being burned out, so Thoughtseize is actually good here. Utter Ends might be a bit slow and it's possible that you want a couple of Caryatids to stem the early game beats from the tokens.