Aloha!

Today I want to talk about the deck Frank Karsten, Matej Zatklaj and I played at the PT in Honolulu. As usual, we spent around 2 weeks testing the format and felt Abzan Midrange, Jeskai Aggro, and Green Devotion would be the 3 biggest decks of the tournament, which meant that any deck that wasn’t beating 2 of these 3 was easily discarded. It actually feels very much like a rock-paper-scissors format, where Abzan beats Jeskai, Jeskai beats Devotion, and Devotion beats Abzan. After playing with Devotion for some time, we felt like the deck wasn’t very stable and didn’t offer much more than just ramping into big monsters.

We tried a version with red, but Xenagos was really bad against Mantis Rider. Black offered Doomwake Giant but it was a bit too slow and except for Rabblemaster tokens there aren’t really any other X/1s in this format that you could kill. We also had a mono-green version with 4 Arbor Colossus and 4 See the Unwritten to help us find Hornet Queen against the midrange decks, but in the end we discarded that deck as well. No deck could reliably beat the big 3 and as they say, if you cant beat ’em, join ’em. That left us with Jeskai aggro and Abzan Midrange, with a bit of spice added to both lists to gain some edge in the important matchups.

I had these 2 deck lists filled out the night before the PT:

Jeskai Aggro

I ended up giving this 75 to Ondrej Strasky, who Top 8’d the PT. Watching his games I was wishing I played the deck as well. There was just so much Abzan at the top tables and our version with Ashcloud Phoenixes and 4 Hushwing Gryffs in the main instead of Rabblemasters was built to swing the matchup in your favor. Flying just seemed really well positioned in this metagame and cancelling the effects of Siege Rhinos, Wingmate Rocs, Hornet Queens, Nylea’s Disciples with the Gryff turned out to be a great metagame call.

But I have always been a fan of the Junk decks with discard, undercosted creatures, and versatile removal, which I guess slightly tipped the scales in the favor of the other deck. I didn’t do very well, but I feel like our preparation was good and our read on the metagame was spot-on. This is what I ended up playing at the PT:

Abzan Midrange

This deck is basicaly a collection of value. The only problem is Hornet Queen, which completely destroys you in game 1—and the fact that you are playing 31 mana sources, so sometimes you just flood out. I’ll explain some of the card choices and leave the rest to Frank.

This is the best land in the deck and playing less than 4 is definitely a mistake. We started with 2 and a more aggresive mana base, but quickly realized that we always wanted to have a Citadel in our opening hand. Same goes for the Jeskai decks, make sure your mana base contains 4 Mystic Monastery.

Free card selection is always great, but it does come with a cost. You can’t afford to play too many tapped lands because you need to curve out and you really want to resolve your Rhinos and Rocs as soon as possible. Thoughtseize and Elvish Mystic help a bit with that because you can follow up your turn 1 Citadel with a turn 2 scry land and still have a meaningful play. Frank’s numbers on the mana base suggested we play an extra Temple over a Forest, but we decided to go with the extra untapped land to maximize our chances of turn 3 Rhino and turn 4 Roc.

Unless you want to play the aggresive version with cards like Rakshasa Deathdealer then 4 Caryatid is a no-brainer, it fixes your mana and ramps you into big monsters. We also played 2 Elvish Mystic to make sure we don’t fall too far behind when you draw too many enter-the-battlefield-tapped lands or when you are on the draw. More felt like too many, because you never want to draw 2 and cutting them entirely made the deck a little too slow.

Even though we went with the midrange version, we wanted to keep some of the aggresive elements. Fleecemane Lion and Anafenza are good undercosted creatures that can put big pressure on your opponent early in the game. Lion probably wouldn’t be very good in this format where half the decks play Courser of Kruphix, but the presence of Abzan Charm in your deck makes blocking for your opponent a nightmare. Anafenza’s second ability is also relevant against decks with Whip of Erebos and Dig Through Time.

Your ultimate midrange card, now even better with the reprinting of fetchlands. The 3-mana slot is a little crowded but it’s just too good to not play 4. If you want to make room then cutting 1 Anafenza is fine. It can be a little awkward to draw the second copy because of its Legendary status.

Siege Rhino is simply awesome, it has a big body, has trample, doesn’t die to Stoke the Flames or Sarkhan’s -3 ability, and creates a big life swing when you cast it. It’s what makes this deck so good, putting pressure on your opponent and helping you turn the race in your favor. The fact that Jeskai Aggro is the deck to beat means Siege Rhino will be the Thragtusk of the upcoming Standard.

Wingmate Roc is the best thing you can play the turn after Siege Rhino. The first time I cast it I knew this card would be awesome. Decks like U/B Control or to some extent Jeskai (mostly in the post-board games) are built to trade 1-for-1 with you and eventually beat you with card selection so if you manage to put 2 big flyers into play on turn 4 or 5 they won’t be able to keep up with you by killing one creature every turn and will fall too far behind. Against aggro, Rhino followed by 2 big bodies that can even gain you more life next turn is also pretty much game over. A full week before the PT all I wanted to do was to play the best Wingmate Roc deck, the card is really that good and I’m pretty sure we’ll be seeing more of it.

Downfall is just a very versatile removal spell that will almost never be dead unless you are playing against U/B Control with no planeswalkers and Sphinx or Pearl Lake Ancient as their win condition, and even then you can use it to push some damage through by tapping the Sphinx or forcing them to bounce the Ancient. The most important thing is that it kills Stormbreath Dragon though, because that card is very tough to beat otherwise.

Abzan Charm is excellent and you will use all 3 modes very often. The first mode kills cards like Mantis Rider, Polukranos, Siege Rhino, and Sarkhan. The second mode lets you attack with smaller creatures into bigger ones, which is especially important for Wingmate Roc, because even if you dont have the Charm in your hand, your opponent will usually not want to risk it. You will appreciate the third mode mostly against control decks and it basically makes sure the card is never dead in any matchup. We tried really hard to make room for the 4th copy but there are just too many good cards you need to fit in the deck.

Thoughtseize is an interesting card. If the format were more combo-oriented, with decks like Jeskai Ascendancy, or if it were full of U/B Control, then you would want to play the full 4, because taking one of their combo pieces or Dig Through Time can buy you enough time to overrun them with creatures. But if you look at all the decks now, most of them are just a collection of 36 good cards and 24 lands and messing up your curve to take an 8.5 and leave them with three other 8.0s in their hand doesn’t seem nearly that exciting to me. I still like two because of the reasons I explained above with the enter-the-battlefield-tapped lands but I don’t think you want to play 4 because it’s usually a dead draw later in the game.

These were our last 3 cards that narrowly edged out 1 Bile Blight and 1 Sorin, Solemn Visitor. Bile Blight is great against Jeskai, the occasional red or black aggro deck, and kills all Hornet Queen tokens, but it’s pretty bad in the mirror and we expected Abzan to be the most popular deck and other aggro decks to be almost non-existent, so we decided to just go with 3 copies in the sideboard. The problem with Sorin is that he’s either really good or really bad. When you play a card like Siege Rhino, you always know exactly what you are going to get.

With Sorin, you get a card that completely swings the matchup in your favor 20% of the time and a 2/2 creature for 4 mana the other 80% of the time. There is no “average” solid play with it that you could count on and that’s why we cut it.

Duneblast was a trump for the mirror and against the devotion decks, it was basically the only card we found that could swing the game if they were the first one to trigger Wingmate Roc or resolve a Hornet Queen.

Polukranos was Matej’s last-minute idea and it pretty much replaced Sorin, because we kept saying how awkward Sorin has been for us and we knew exactly what we were getting with the Polukranos. The 3rd copy of Anafenza was added to lower the curve a little bit and maximize your chance at curving out because turn 2 Lion, turn 3 Anafenza, backed up by Abzan Charm and followed up by removal is usually enough in most games.

Cards that Didn’t Make the Cut

Elspeth, Sun’s Champion – I feel like Elspeth went from one of the best cards in the format to mediocre at best. The problem is that it’s terrible against Wingmate Roc, too slow against Jeskai and all their flying creatures, Disdainful Stroke deals with it for 2 mana, and there are too many Sarkhans and Stormbreath Dragons. Same goes for other expensive planewalkers like Ajani, Mentor of Heroes or Liliana Vess.

Murderous Cut – For a long time we had one in the deck because we felt like without running any other delve cards it would almost always be a 2-3 mana instant removal spell, but it just didn’t pull its weight and it was just too underpowered in the games where you don’t have an early fetchland or Thoughtseize to quickly fill your graveyard.

Utter End – We felt like the curve was already getting a big high and for 4 mana you would at least want something that deals with a Stormbreath Dragon. But if Banishing Light and Suspension Field start getting more popular, I could see playing 1 or 2 copies in the deck.

Despise – With the life you get back from Siege Rhino and Wingmate Roc you can easily afford to pay the extra 2 life for Thoughtseize.

Whip of Erebos – We thought this card would be good in the mirror, but it’s just too slow and Anafenza makes it look pretty bad.

Sideboard Guide

Mirror

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Before we added Duneblast, the mirror was pretty much about playing first and triggering Wingmate Roc. With Duneblast, you can play a slower game, monstrous a Fleecemane Lion and clear the board if you are behind and kill their planeswalker with the creature you keep. The thing that makes Duneblast so much better than End Hostilities is that you can keep playing creatures and pressuring them and if they start getting ahead you just pull the trigger. Even if they know about the Duneblast, it’s really hard to play against it. What are you gonna do, not play creatures?

Jeskai Aggro

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+1 Silence the Believers if you see Phoenixes and Stormbreath Dragons. +1 Sorin, Solemn Visitor on the play

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With 4 Wingmate Rocs in the deck instead of clunky planeswalkers, we felt like this matchup was in our favor. Bile Blight is a great sideboard card because it lets you kill their Mantis Rider and Rabblemaster for only 2 mana. We were having problems with double-black though, so that’s why there is an extra Urborg for these matchups where you are bringing in the BB removal spells.

Green/X Devotion

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Game 1 is all about Hornet Queen. If they resolve one, you will lose. If they can’t find it in time or you draw your maindeck Duneblast, you should win with Wingmate Roc. After sideboard it gets better, they aren’t really pressuring you so you have all the time in the world to get value out of your Coursers, monstrous a Fleecemane Lion, and set up a devastating Duneblast.

U/B Control

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Pretty even matchup where the better you curve out the bigger your chance at winning is. With Dig Through Time and Prognostic Sphinx they have a better late game, so try to pressure them as much as possible. Monstrous Fleecemane Lion also goes a long way.

Ascendancy Combo

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To be honest, I haven’t really played this matchup very much because I didn’t expect it to be too popular at the PT, but sideboarding here seems pretty intuitive. Try to break their combo with a removal spell or Thoughtseizes and take out the cards that don’t do anything. Keep in mind you can also Bile Blight your own Caryatid to kill theirs, even though it has hexproof, to prevent them from going off.

Mono-Red Aggro

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This match is all about staying alive. Don’t be too agressive, you have a much better late game then they do, so don’t try to race unless you really have to.

Going forward I can see cutting 1 Anafenza and 1 Polukranos for whatever you want to make your deck better against. Otherwise, I do like this version more than the slower one with planeswalkers like Ari played because I think you want to make your deck better against Jeskai, and Elspeth is a very unexciting card in general right now.

Thanks for reading!