Deconstructing Abzan Company

What do you think was the deck of the tournament in Detroit? UW Eldrazi would be the obvious answer, but I think Abzan Company might be the real one. Not only did it have the last laugh on this weekend of Modern GPs, but it also seems to be the only inherently powerful deck that matches up favorably with Eldrazi.

I normally don’t write about my tournaments and when I do, I did well. But leading up to GP Detroit, I was strongly considering Abzan Company. When I tried to do some research on it, I could not find any helpful articles. (Thankfully, BBD has a video available now, though). After testing the deck intensely for a week and playing it through the Grand Prix, I would like to give you my thoughts on how this deck should be built.

Abzan Company

Ralph Betesh, 1st Place at GP Detroit

Game Plan

Abzan Company has two very well defined game plans:

Plan A is to assemble the combo of Viscera Seer, Melira, Sylvok Outcast, and Kitchen Finks to gain a googol life and scry Murderous Redcap to the top, which lets you deal a googolplex damage on the next turn. But sometimes you can’t assemble the combo, or your opponent has 1 Lightning Bolt too many and breaks up the combo.

What do you do? Fortunately, there is Plan B: Gavony Township. This deck is full of cheap, dorky creatures, and with Gavony Township vitamin pills, 5+ creatures easily become a 2-turn clock.

Why Is the Deck Good Against UW Eldrazi?

Just from looking at the deck, it was not immediately clear to me that this would be the case. Having played the deck, I think that there are a number of factors at work.

First, you match their speed. Going infinite on turn 3 is not super likely, but not so unlikely that they can just ignore it. Turn 4 is definitely real. Thus, they often have to slow down to represent an answer to your combo, which gives you more time to find another piece, and Abzan Company has plenty of ways to find more combo pieces. On top of that, you have all these creatures that can potentially chump block, thus slowing them down further. Finally, if they slow too much, Township will dominate even their formidable creatures.

Why Is the Deck Good Against the Field?

Usually this kind of deck loses to the Snapcaster + Lightning Bolt decks. Fortunately, Splinter Twin was banned. The remaining Snapcaster/Bolt decks are pretty bad against the Eldrazi, and that seems to be a KO criteria in deck selection right now. Anger of the Gods is another card that you don’t want to face ever, but it isn’t popular right now.

Then there are Living End and Infect. These decks are popular decks against the Eldrazi, but both are essentially byes for you (though I did lose miserably to Living End in Detroit. He had his two Faerie Macabre game 1, and a full set post-board. They can prepare, and it’s possible you lose this matchup, but I wouldn’t expect that to happen often). Most of the other more popular decks right now like Affinity, Jund, Merfolk, and Burn should be at least in the 50/50 range.

How to Build Abzan Company

Abzan Company decks have four distinct components: mana, combo, silver bullets, and tutors.

Tutors

The full sets of Chord of Calling and Collected Company are not debatable. You win with Seer, Melira, and Finks, but that is almost an afterthought. Company and Calling power the deck and this particular combo happens to be the one that goes best with them.

Combo

With respect to the combo, there are a few more things to consider: How many pieces do you want? Which pieces exactly? And do you want to have the back-up combo of Archangel of Thune and Spike Feeder?

Considering that plan A is strong in the current metagame, I don’t see a reason to dilute the deck with the potential extra do-nothings of Feeder and Angel. You even have a plan B already, and the plan C of Angel/Feeder is as weak to creature removal as plan A. In a metagame full of Scavenging Oozes, having this backup plan might be viable. That said, many decks have some graveyard hate in the sideboard and if Gavony Township doesn’t work as a back-up plan in those matchups either, then you may want the combo in the sideboard. But these are very specific circumstances, and currently your circumstances are defined by the Eldrazi and not much else.

The exact combo pieces that most decks run are 4 Kitchen Finks, 1 Murderous Redcap, 2 Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit, 2 Melira, Sylvok Outcast, and 2-4 Viscera Seer. Considering that we have a clear plan A, I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to have the full set of Viscera Seer. The card may look weak on the surface, but I would rather cut one of the two mana pieces than a Seer. The deck is full of mana creatures, so having a Seer in play often gives you a couple of scrys for the missing piece. Meanwhile, Melira and Anafenza mostly sit there waiting for the combo to happen. Besides that, 4/4/4 is the natural distribution. Don’t cut short on one piece—maximize your combo potential. Plan for plan A!

One choice that is just plain wrong is the 2 Anafenzas. It should be 3 Melira and 1 Anafenza. The most important reason for this is that Anafenza’s mana cost is a real liability. With Anafenza in your hand, you will often be forced to fetch for Temple Garden instead of a Forest—thus, Anafenza costs you 2 life. Also, with Anafenza in play, occasionally you won’t be able to cast Chord because you are a green source short. Finally as a bonus, Melira is strong main-deck hate card against Infect. The redeeming qualities of Anafenza are few—actually, I can name only one. If both players are limping through a game, Anafenza provides a few free +1/+1 counters where Melira wouldn’t have done anything.

The reason that I did not cut the last copy of Anafenza as well is because she provides extra combo potential. You want to board Murderous Redcap out in matchups where not much can go wrong after you are at infinite life. In these cases, you can pump your board to infinity with Melira, Anafenza, Seer, and Finks, thus overpowering the remaining opposition easily. Anafenza is also valuable as a tutor target when your Kitchen Finks have a -1/-1 counter because she can revitalize the Finks as a combo piece. There is also the rare case where you can combo with Anafenza, Melira, and Murderous Redcap.

Mana

Looking at the popular deck lists, there don’t seem to be great disagreements over this question. Do you want 22 or 23 land? 2 or 3 Gavony Townships? 7 or 8 one-drop mana creatures? 1 or 2 Wall of Roots? And 1, 2, or 3 Horizon Canopy?

With the constraint of maxing out on plan A, I am an advocate of 8 one-drops. Granted, Wall of Roots is well positioned against the Eldrazi, but Birds make you faster, and almost every starting hand without a Bird/Hierarch foretells an uphill battle. Also, Hierarchs can attack and Walls can’t.

3 Townships is a necessity as Township is Plan B, and basing that on just 2 cards is unreliable. This in turn makes me lean toward 23 lands. 22 lands with three colorless sources is just greedy. The final question comes down to the number of Horizon Canopys. I have seen lists with 22 lands and 3 Canopys, and again I find that extremely greedy. Horizon Canopy is a natural fit for this deck, and I would like to have access to as many as possible, but at the same time, a starting hand of double Horizon Canopy with no other lands is an auto-mulligan. So I’d rather go with 2 as this greatly reduces the likelihood of having 2 Canopys in your opening hand.

Having determined the mana and the combo pieces, there are 7 slots left. A few of them will go to Eternal Witness. The card is too slow to hardcast against the Eldrazi, but is the nicest card to find in a Collected Company. How many copies of such a card do you play? You don’t want more than 2 copies. The argument is basically the same as the one that I made for Horizon Canopy. It’s nice to have, but non-essential for the deck, and finding 2 in your opening hand will lead to a mulligan most times. Including 2 copies seems correct.

Silver Bullets

There are 5 slots left for the silver bullets. These cards should be so powerful that you reasonably want to Chord for them instead of a combo piece while at the same time not being embarrassing in your opening hand.

Spellskite is the most obvious card in this category. It protects the combo and crushes Bogles on the play besides being a reasonable card in many other matchups. Why people opt for 3 in a metagame where removal is relatively scarce is beyond me, though. Scavenging Ooze is amazing in the mirror, good against Living End and the occasional Snapcaster Mage deck, as well as being the only card in the deck that can sometimes play the role of a tank.

Then there is Orzhov Pontiff. It looks like the worst card, but everybody plays it, and the card is actually amazing. It crushes the mirror and the Eldrazi hate it, but most importantly, it is the only maindeckable card that is good against Affinity. The final 2 slots in my deck went to Fiend Hunters. You want 1 anyway, because it upgrades Chord of Calling to unconditional creature removal, and the second one was a concession to the Eldrazi menace. Naturally-cast Fiend Hunters take a lot of tempo away from them, and the card is a liability in very few other matchups.

My Deck List

A deck is only complete with its sideboard and I will give you mine, but as they say, nothing is as old as yesterday’s news. It’s not quite as bad with sideboards, so take a look at what I played and determine for yourself if it’s what you need for the metagame you expect. Most cards should be self-explanatory, but feel free to ask me about anything in the comments. This is the list I was happy to play in Detroit.

Abzan Company

Cards I Left Out

I have no Voice of Resurgence in my 75. Voice is actually decent against the Eldrazi with the Elemental token sometimes dominating their creatures, but I don’t think it’s worth the slot right now. Counters are terrible against the Eldrazi and non-Eldrazi blue decks are consequently hated out of the format, and decks that are afraid of the Voice have become scarce. Should Snapcaster decks become more popular again you might want to include Voices, but maybe you are better off looking for other decks in that case.

Ethersworn Canonist would have been my 16th sideboard, but with only 15 slots available, I decided that Storm was not a factor and my matchup against Living End was great anyway. Well, the second part didn’t go too well, but nevermind that. If you want to include Canonist or Eidolon of the Rhetoric, then I would lean toward Canonist right now. Living End is much more popular than Storm at the moment, and they have Shriekmaws. You would rather hedge against Shriekmaw than Lightning Bolt. Against Storm, sitting on Chord while cautiously developing your board will have to do.

Linvala is supposedly the trump in the mirror, and there is no denying that, but the card is clunky—so clunky that you cannot even collect her with Company, and by the time you can Chord for X=4, your opponent might have their combo assembled. In that situation, your opponent will dig for a Fiend Hunter with Linvala on the stack, take her away, and look for a Redcap the turn after. There are a few other matchups like Affinity where she is not terrible, but would you not rather look for a Kataki there? In the mirror, Ooze and and Pontiff can do similar things for less mana, and against the Angel Chord decks, Phyrexian Revoker does the trick. Sure, it feels satisfying to blank their combo and their mana creatures, but in the end, the upgrade over the other options combined with the high cost doesn’t seem worth the slot.

Then there is Fulminator Mage. Most decks play 3 or even 4, and I don’t get it. He is decent against Affinity, Infect, and whatnot, but do you really want to waste 3 sideboard slots on one low-impact card when you are playing white, the color of high-impact sideboard cards? Is that what you want to do when having access to more creatures gives your tutors additional flexibility? For the longest time, I didn’t have a single Fulminator Mage in my sideboard, but on the evening before the Grand Prix, I realized that I wanted one to tutor up in the mirror. Of all matchups, the mirror! The reasoning here was that with both players having Ooze, Pontiff, Fiend Hunter, and some number of Path to Exile, the combo was not a reliable plan. When no one can combo off, the Township is king, so having a Fulminator Mage can provide a key advantage.

A card that I haven’t played so far is Intrepid Hero. The theory is that the card completely trumps the Eldrazi decks. I knew of the “tech“ before the tournament, but opted not to play the Hero. I am not completely sure that this was correct, but there are a few reasons not to play him: First, Fiend Hunter is a more flexible card. You will probably never board the Hero in a non-Eldrazi matchup, but you can bring Fiend Hunter in against any removal-light creature deck—like the mirror, for example. But even if you are mainly concerned about the Eldrazi, Intrepid Hero might not be as good as he seems. I played Fiend Hunters as a natural turn-2 play to slow down the Eldrazi, and didn’t mind when they killed him. That meant they had one less removal spell with which to interact with the combo and it wasted some time. If you play Intrepid Hero, they can just untap and kill it, and you didn’t even take away a single combat step from them. Going all in and tutoring for the Hero seems like a bad plan, too. Your deck is well equipped to get the other two combo parts into play fairly, so why try to dig up a Hero when you can go for the combo instead? Sometimes, Fiend Hunter also provides a solid body to block Scions, and sometimes you play and sacrifice him right away and the Eldrazi cannot interact at all. All things considered, I think that the Company deck is good enough in this matchup that you want to go for the more reliable Fiend Hunter plan.

I would like to comment on the main-deck Swamp. I had one as well until that game where I couldn’t combo on turn 3 because of it. This by itself doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t play a Swamp of course, but it made me reconsider if the card was necessary for the deck. Most 3-color decks have a basic land of each type. These days, this seems to be a thing that you just do and people don’t think about it too much. With the basics, you are somewhat safe from Blood Moon, and having a non-shocking fetch target is valuable. But Blood Moon is rarely a concern for this deck, and when you encounter a Blood Moon deck, you will most likely not fetch for a Swamp regardless, as the first 2 Forests and the first Plains are more valuable than the first Swamp. And even in non-Blood-Moon scenarios, it is extremely rare that you want to search for a Swamp as you are playing a deck with severe green and white mana constraints and very, very few black cards. The Swamp increases your fail potential while not doing much for the deck.

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