It's no secret that I'm a lifelong fan of B/G/x Midrange—particularly in Modern—and Fatal Push has been a tremendous boost to the archetype. Additionally, the Modern metagame has developed in a way where some of the old staples are the best they've ever been. Liliana of the Veil shines against the delve creatures of Grixis Shadow, as well as against ramp and control decks. Scavenging Ooze is one of the best game 1 cards you can have against Dredge, Living End, and Collected Company decks. It's a good time to be a B/G player!
Beyond that, one card in particular I'll be focusing on today is Lingering Souls. Souls is no stranger to Modern, but it's so good right now that I believe it's worth going pretty far out of your way to be able to play with it. It's probably the single best card against the best deck in the format (Grixis Shadow), while also excelling against Affinity, Control, and in B/G/x mirrors.
So once you've decided that you want to play white, green, and black to have access to Lingering Souls, where should you go from there? There are a lot of choices to make, and these choices are often subtle and interconnected. Today I will analyze some of them.
I'll be really sinking my teeth into Abzan Midrange in just a moment, but the important question of whether or not to play with Death's Shadow is one that I'll have to put off for another day.
Clearly, Death's Shadow is an excellent strategy, and can also be built to take advantage of Lingering Souls. Abzan Shadow, Esper Shadow, 4-Color Shadow—these are all highly effective decks. But including the package of Death's Shadow and Street Wraith (and omitting Dark Confidant because unpredictable life loss makes it too hard to plan races), fundamentally changes your strategy and the way you have to approach the games.
Although a detailed pros and cons comparison of Death's Shadow and classic Abzan would be valuable, it's outside the scope of today's article. All I can say is that both are good decks, and today I'll be focusing on Classic Abzan Midrange.
Question #1: Delirium
The first question to tackle is whether you want to get delirium quickly, and whether or not you're willing to pay the deck building costs to do so.
If you can have delirium 90% of the time by the time you reach turn 3, then Traverse the Ulvenwald is going to be incredible for you. If you're only going to have delirium 50% or 60% of the times you draw it, then it's going to be disappointing.
Grim Flayer is a little bit more forgiving since you cast cast it early and achieve delirium later, and since getting a clean hit is really good, even with just the 2/2 body. Nonetheless, you want a realistic chance of making the Flayer a 4/4 early in the game, or else it's going to be worse than your alternatives.
The easy parts of turning on delirium are fetchlands (at least 8), discard spells (at least 6), and instant-speed removal (at least 7). Beyond that, you'll need some other types going to the graveyard quickly. Street Wraith works, but the cost is high for a non-Death's Shadow deck. Mishra's Bauble, Nihil Spellbomb, and Engineered Explosives are all good artifact options. Bitterblossom has excellent types, but rarely winds up in the graveyard. Liliana of the Veil and Liliana, the Last Hope can help in the midgame.
If you want to play with Traverse, you shouldn't leave home without the full playset of Mishra's Baubles. If you only want to play with Grim Flayer, you probably want about 3 artifacts that go to your graveyard on the cheap.
Question #2: How Deep to Go into White
To state the obvious, most of what I love about G/B/x Midrange is in green and black. But white does offer Lingering Souls and excellent sideboard cards. So a second important question is how deep should you go into white? Will your deck be 3 colors equally? Or will you be set up to operate mostly on black and green, making your mana a bit smoother and less painful?
Here's the deck I played to an 11-4 finish at GP Las Vegas:
My main deck was built to be as smooth and consistent as possible in order to perform best against combo, ramp, and burn decks. I wanted to maximize my chances of turn-1 discard into turn-2 creature, I wanted to play with the hyper-efficient Treetop Village, and I wanted my mana to be as consistent and painless as possible. After sideboarding, I got access to Lingering Souls for fair matchups, and both Souls and Stony Silence against Affinity.
The key is that I can always crack my fetchlands for Forest, Swamp, or Overgrown Tomb and never think twice about it. The first white card you add to the main deck changes the equation completely, because it forces you to fetch your lands with the possibility of drawing it in mind.
I liked this deck and think it's a completely reasonable way to approach Abzan. (Some quick changes are -2 Victim of Night, -1 Twilight Mire, +1 Murderous Cut, +1 Go for the Throat, +1 Blooming Marsh).
The White Cards
What was I missing out on?
Lingering Souls is awesome, and despite it being lackluster against ramp and combo decks, it would be nice to have 2 or 3 in the main deck.
Path to Exile—I hate it. I refuse to be caught dead playing Path to Exile in a black midrange deck, especially now that Fatal Push exists. It's contrary to the resource denial plan, and forces you to fetch out white mana earlier than you want to. Almost all Modern decks can put the extra land to good use. I know that I'm in the minority on this position, so you won't hurt my feelings if you disagree. But the only way you'd convince me to play with Path is if you told me I'd be facing a lot of Mirran Crusaders and Chameleon Colossuses, and even then I'd have to be dragged kicking and screaming.
Voice of Resurgence, Knight of the Reliquary, and Renegade Rallier are options that some people toy with. They're solid enough cards, but I don't feel like I'd be missing out on much by omitting them.
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and other double-white sideboard options are worth considering as well. You can't play those with only 10 or 12 sources of white mana.
Question #3: Dark Confidant
My answer: Yes, please! Dark Confidant excels against combo, ramp, and linear creature decks. Those decks don't have a lot of removal, and Confidant will draw you into the disruption or removal that you need to win the matchup. In control matchups and midrange mirrors, it's a must-kill, and sometimes they simply don't have the answer. When I draw my opening hand against an unknown opponent in Modern, there's nothing I want to see more than turn-1 discard into turn-2 Dark Confidant. It earns you a lot of free wins.
I understand the counterarguments. It's awful against Burn, it's fragile, and doesn't play well with expensive cards or with board sweepers like Flaying Tendrils. Plus, some people just want to beat down, which I can certainly respect. To each their own, but in my book, Dark Confidant is an all-star of this archetype.
Inquisition of Kozilek—I consider it better than Thoughtseize, and always main deck 4. Inquisition is one of the best cards against Burn while Thoughtseize is one of the worst cards, and that's all of the convincing I ever need.
Thoughtseize—Most players agree that 6 discard spells is about right in the main deck, with a few more in the sideboard.
Collective Brutality—Excellent way to round out the discard suite, while also having extra removal spells to bring in against weenie creatures. I like 2 or 3 in the sideboard.
Fatal Push—One of the best cards in Modern, and I recommend the full 4.
Other removal—You probably want 9, 10, or 11 dedicated removal spells, but beyond Push and Decay there are no stand-outs. Round things out with a bunch of 1s and 2s. Options include: Path to Exile, Go for the Throat, Victim of Night, Murderous Cut, and Maelstrom Pulse.
Liliana of the Veil—Still one of my favorite cards in the archetype. I always go with the full 4, even though Liliana, the Last Hope is also really good. For now I'll list LOTV as "key" and leave the Last Hope as merely a strong consideration.
Tarmogoyf—Remains king, and is the only 2-drop that you're happy to see in virtually every matchup.
Lingering Souls—Is the best card for fair matchups. You want 3 or 4 between the main deck and sideboard.
Fulminator Mage—I wouldn't go below 2 in the sideboard. You still need it to have a decent matchup against Tron, Valakut, and Celestial Colonnade decks.
One Possible Build
Hopefully I've offered some food for thought about Abzan Midrange in Modern. There are a few distinct tracks to follow, and plenty of room for customization along each one. What I'll offer next is a well-balanced Abzan deck that checks off all of the necessities that I've mentioned. It's what I'd play if I had a big Modern tournament tomorrow.
This version does have white cards in the main deck, but is still primarily black and green—it won't ask you to shock yourself with a white dual land on the first or second turn. As such, it sacrifices the ability to sideboard something like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, but that's okay with me.
There's no delirium package. While I would love 1 or 2 extra 2-drops in the form of Grim Flayer, I don't want to play a bunch of weird cards just to facilitate that. (Scavenging Ooze is technically a 2-drop, but not always the best play on turn 2).
1 Siege Rhino looks a bit odd, but it's just a marginal card that fits the mana curve well. I don't see it as an all-or-nothing question.
The sideboard has slightly less emphasis on midrange mirrors (the main deck is already good there), and slightly more emphasis on Affinity. Collective Brutality is my go-to against Burn, since it can also come in against something like Storm or control when you have cards to sideboard out. Mirran Crusader is going to be annoying, and you'll have to try and beat it with discard spells, Lingering Souls, and the 1 Damnation in the sideboard.
I don't claim that it's the perfect deck, nor that it's the single best way to build Abzan midrange. But it's well-balanced and maintains all of the strengths of the archetype. This is a great time to be playing with Lingering Souls, and I think Abzan is a very strong choice for your next Modern tournament.