My Constructed preparation for Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar consisted of trying every flavor of Abzan I could get my hands on. This wasn’t long after Worlds, so I was (understandably) still high on the idea of playing an Abzan Control deck.
The first thing I noticed about the format was a lack of quality 1-to-2-cmc spells, so Elvish Visionary was attractive. I’ve always thought that it’s a great card, and it is a staple in Legacy Elves. It seemed good as a speed bump against Red if they were going to play Lightning Berserker, and it felt like the mana in Standard would be worse without scrylands, so a cheap cantrip meant I could get my colors more often and hit land drops successfully.
It didn’t take long to identify Anafenza, the Foremost as ridiculously powerful, and worthy of maindecking—Elvish Visionary had nice synergy here too against non-interactive decks, as just putting counters on the Visionary was a fast clock. Lastly, I wanted to port over the Sidisi, Undead Vizier engine Jacob Wilson won the SCG Invitational with. It wasn’t particularly good in that format, but I felt enough had changed that it was worth exploring.
I ultimately dismissed this deck for two reasons: Elvish Visionary plus Sidisi was just worse than playing Wingmate Rocs, and given the strength of Anafenza it simply made more sense to play Abzan Aggro over Abzan Control. Also, games would go long, and without Courser of Kruphix or Elspeth, Sun’s Champion other decks had a similar or superior late game.
Abzan Red Midrange
This was the Abzan build I was the most interested in for the longest. The biggest draw here was that against GW decks, Radiant Flames with an Anafenza on the board would exile your opponent’s Deathmist Raptors and Hangerback Walkers. With Duress and Ultimate Price in the main deck, I was generally favored against Mono-Red and I was going about 50/50 with the Ojutai’s-Command-plus-Jace decks.
I was still losing to GW which is why I eventually gave Abzan Red up. Wingmate Roc was a huge problem, Gideon was not easy to defeat, and lastly my cockamamie Radiant-Flames-plus-Anafenza combo was cool but too often thwarted by Dromoka’s Command’s damage prevention mode. It was a huge handicap to have 4 main deck Duress in that matchup, but cutting those meant I would be even weaker to Ojutai’s Command and Gideon.
I practiced a lot with Atarka Red as well, and I dismissed that because it was too weak to the team’s top choice: Jeskai Black. I even tried to build my red deck in such a way where I would have a better chance against Jace, Soulfire Grandmaster, and Mantis Rider. I ran 4 Wild Slashes and 4 Fiery Impulses. Then my deck had too many reactive cards and I wasn’t getting the cheap, quick win that Atarka Red is known for. Too much removal made the games go long and I would lose to their card advantage from Dig Through Time, Ojutai’s Command, and Kolaghan’s Command. If I did not have enough removal they would slam Mantis Rider and I would be unable to attack past it and I’d just take 20 damage from that card alone.
You might notice a trend at this point of me trying every deck and building them to be extra hostile against the Jace decks. Near the end of testing my Abzan list had 4 Silkwrap and 4 Ultimate Price because Jace was so absurd that if I did not kill it immediately I would effectively lose on the spot. I was a beaten man. I tried everything I could to beat the Jeskai deck, and I failed—I had to play it myself. I hated the mana in the deck and was unhappy playing 4 colors with such steep color requirements, which is the main reason why I was so resistant to it, but it was simply too good to not play. Despite the number of games that Jeskai lost to itself due to mana issues, it still had a crazy high win rate.
As the date of the tournament approached I became more and more confident. Tasigur and Kolaghan’s Command were not only insane cards in the mirror match, but they were just awesome cards in the format that weren’t showing up at all in MTGO or independent tournament circuits results. Sometimes people would play 1 Tasigur or maybe even 2.
We had 3.
And I never saw a single Kolaghan’s Command. Those were both huge pieces of technology.
In the end I went 8-1-1 in the Swiss rounds with the deck, and Jon Finkel and I both made Top 8 playing the same 75 cards. I highly recommend the deck moving forward and I feel it’s easily one of the best—if not the single best—decks in the format, and the list we played will be the stock version of it in the future.