Modern Abzan Deck Guide

I played Abzan at GP Pittsburgh. I know that eventually every road leads to it. More than once I’ve played BGx decks when I knew they weren’t great (for example at the World Championship last year when Dig/Cruise/Pod were all legal). This time I actually felt that I was playing the best possible deck for the format I expected.

Abzan

Yes, 61 cards. I’m aware that I just lost half of my readers here and the other half need a break to vomit, so I will wait a bit before I continue.

No, it’s not okay to play 61. You are undermining yourself. DO NOT DO IT.

“If you say it’s so bad, why did you do it?”

Short answer:

I’m an idiot.

Long answer:

Most of my playtesting was with 24 lands, but I was losing too many games to being stuck on lands and/or not having the right colors for Liliana of the Veil and Kitchen Finks on turn 3. My sideboard plan for several matchups also relied on expensive cards costing 4 mana or more (Damnation and Sigarda). I was sure I would need an additional mana source (a utility land).

Fortunately, we now have a BW manland that solves both of these problems, so I quickly added it to the deck. Since I loved my list at that point (two days before the GP) I only had time to play the deck in a few events on MTGO with 61 cards. I expected something to underperform. It turned out the deck kept performing very well and nothing stood out for an immediate cut. I pushed off that last cut until after my flight to Pittsburgh when I could play some last-minute games the night before the GP.

As truly befitting punishment, I forgot to pack my laptop and found myself unable to play anymore. Using exhaustion as my excuse, I did the lazy thing and submitted 76 cards. My one hope was that I would tilt someone who pile shuffled my deck. Sadly, nobody did. There is no Jundstice.

In retrospect, I should have moved a removal or discard spell to the sideboard and cut the Engineered Explosives or a Kitchen Finks.

Even though I had 61 cards, the deck ran fairly smoothly. I finished 11-4 (8-4 discounting byes) facing 11 different decks (Jeskai, Abzan, Griselshoal, BW tokens, Scapeshift, Jund, Burn, Affinity, and Storm twice).

Some Facts and Thoughts

I lost to Jund, Abzan, Jeskai, and Scapeshift.

I really hate to lose the “mirror.” I used to set up my list to beat the mirror back in the days that Jund/Abzan were the actual best decks. I used to ignore decks like Burn and Tron (even though the matchups were really bad) and didn’t devote any sideboard slots to cards like Fulminator Mage and Feed the Clan. If I got paired gainst them, I would just lose. But this meant I would be prepared to fight the rest of the field.

After PT Fate Reforged, things changed: the Amulet deck evolved and Burn showed itself to be a real deck with the addition of Monastery Swiftspear. Grixis became the new Jund with its dreaded duo of Snapcaster Mage and Kolaghan’s Command (it then got even better with the addition of Jace shortly after). Even Tron got a great new addition in Ugin (and now Ulamog).

All that meant I needed some land hate, some way to gain life, and a way to fight against a midrange deck with a flash Bloodbraid Elf. To adapt, I subconsciously moved away from versions that were stronger in “mirror” matches. Instead I trusted my ability/knowledge with the deck to free up these “extra” sideboard slots. It’s funny that only now, after putting the words on paper, do I realize why my win percentage in the mirror dropped from around 80% to 55-60%.

These sideboarding decisions were not what specifically cost me in my Pittsburgh mirrors. I ran pretty cold in both matches, mulliganing several times and having mana issues. It turns out BG decks are pretty good punishing you for that.

I don’t remember the last time I lost to Jeskai, but at that time, I probably had some answers to Keranos. Nowadays every single URx deck has a couple Keranos and I was greatly punished for cutting my Celestial Purge the day before. It solo’d me both post-sideboard games. The card is unbeatable versus my list if they untap with it.

Scapeshift was another deck I wasn’t expecting to lose to, at least the traditional RUG version, since I had some discard, land destruction, Liliana, etc. This one was special: a straight RG version with more basics, more Valakuts, and more ramp. My Inquisitions whiffed all the time and he had too many threats for me to handle. I lost both games (after winning game 1 somehow) to Primeval Titan in situations where Scapeshift wouldn’t do much.

I won 11/12 of my game 1s. While I felt my main deck was pretty good and well positioned for the field, I ran hot vs. some matchups (namely Grishoalbrand, Scapeshift, and Storm) that are solidly unfavorable considering how many dead cards I have. I even chose to cut my sideboard-mainstay Nihil Spellbombs at the last minute. I was kicking myself when I was paired vs. Griselshoalbrand after losing my first round.

I’ve said in previous articles about Jund/Abzan that you should build BGx decks as a 75-card deck. This doesn’t mean you don’t have to be prepared in the main deck for some (bad) matchups that can nut draw you no matter how many cards you devote to them post-board—in these cases, it’s good to have some (versatile) answers main deck.

For example, Burn: When I see the deck lists as a whole, I will always say Abzan should win. You have cheap removal, big and cheap creatures, and so much life gain. But, in stock Abzan lists, you usually see a full set of Lingering Souls main, no Finks, and usually only 1 Tasigur. These lists always have the life gain tools in the sideboard, but when you are such a dog in the first game, no matter how much hate you have, it’s hard to start 0-1 all the time—sometimes you don’t draw them, sometimes they nut draw you and sometimes you have mana problems. Burn is very popular now. There are now so many different versions: with or without green, with or without black, suicidal, straight burn, or even creature-oriented versions that are more reminiscent of Zoo. Kitchen Finks is great against all of these. It’s also a super versatile card that I always bring in against grindy decks. It was an easy pick to move to the main deck for this specific tournament and should be whenever you expect a lot of Burn/Zoo.

Keep in mind when toying with your deck list for a specific tournament that there are no untouchable cards in this archetype besides Tarmogoyf. None. You don’t need a full playset of a card just because it is good. This is true for Liliana, Lingering Souls, Abrupt Decay, Siege Rhino, and Dark Confidant. Every time I build (or see) a list with 2 or 3 copies of these cards, people raise eyebrows. These cards are not always well-positioned. In a deck like Abzan when you have small advantages here and there, it’s important to find the perfect set of 75 cards across the field. Pretty often you need to sacrifice something you feel is untouchable.

FAQ

What’s the deal with Painful Truths?

Many of your games are long and involve exchanging cards and resources making for small wins of incremental value. If you run Dark Confidant, it is easy to keep up in cards while dealing with opponents’ threats. Lightning Bolt is extremely popular and so are some aggressive decks. Bob is a fragile source of card advantage and a bad card vs. aggressive strategies. You can afford to not have any dedicated card drawing main deck if you know how to extract value from key cards (namely Liliana of the Veil and utility lands).

After sideboard, things change. You need to replace your dead cards (which you will always have, it is the nature of the deck). Some decks (specifically Twin) change their entire game plan for a more attrition-oriented matchup, so you will need to be up on cards.

In the past I’ve run cards like Chandra Pyromaster, Harmonize, sideboarded Dark Confidants, Read the Bones, Outpost Siege, and others. While there’s always a better card in each situation, what you need the most is something that is cheap, can’t be destroyed, and gives you immediate effect. Painful Truths passes these requirements.

Confidant is easily killed and despite the “free” 2/1 body, it will take 3 turns to match the effect. Outpost Siege and Chandra can be incredibly slow and take as many turns.

The greatest competition in this spot is Read the Bones (which I had in my sideboard at the last Modern PT). Some argue that scry 2 plus draw 2 is better than draw 3. I think this could be compelling if we were discussing main-deck games where you have so many dead cards that you don’t want to draw in any given matchup. But after sideboard you cut these dead cards. Even drawing lands is important since you have so many utility lands and hitting lands drops is important to activate manlands and keep casting spells.

If you have any doubt, remember that Shardless Agent plus Ancestral Vision are incredible together in Legacy, and Painful Truths has the same effect by itself without setup coin flip—as long as your life total is not an issue (which is true vs. the vast majority of Modern decks.)

By the way, if you’ve ever played with Chandra, Pyromaster in Jund and liked it, Ob Nixilis Reignited does almost everything better (except mow down Spirit tokens.) I’ve been very impressed by it.

Shambling Vent, Stirring Wildwoods, Treetop Village? And colorless lands?

Treetop is the best one and it is not close. It has one big problem—it only provides green mana in a deck that has very few green cards, multiple double-black cards, and many more white cards than I would like. That said, I don’t think you can play Treetops anymore with such heavy color commitments.

Between Wildwoods and Vent, the GW land is significantly better. It doesn’t die to Bolt and it blocks Inkmoth Nexus. Sadly it doesn’t provide black mana which is the main color of the deck. When I saw the first spoiled manlands from BFZ I said that I would run the BG land in Modern NO MATTER WHAT IT DOES.

While I may have exaggerated a bit, it is mostly true since my primary concerns are casting all my spells and then activating manlands. So I tried Vent. It did everything I wanted. It fixed my mana, attacked in the late game, and the life gain was relevant more often than I expected. I’m considering adding a second. In this version of Abzan I want at least 18 sources of both black and green and 15 sources of white.

I’m also often asked about colorless lands. I see that Gavony Township is a fan favorite, but I don’t buy it. It’s mostly a win-more card and only at its best in the mirror match. It is good if your field is crowded with midrange decks, but I would avoid it in an open field.

Vault of the Archangel has some niche uses as well. Life gain and deathtouch can both be highly relevant. I like it more than Gavony but think both are currently worse than the “Wasteland effects.”

I used to be a huge fan of Tectonic Edge, using it as a 4-of for a long time. The card is amazing against the mirror, Scapeshift, Jeskai, and others. Unfortunately, times have changed and now many matches end before you have the chance to activate it.

Enter Ghost Quarter. The card is amazing versus Affinity, Infect, and Amulet, and even has some fringe uses to fix your mana or play around Blood Moon. I think this is a no-brainer.

Lastly, I’m not totally sure that the second Twilight Mire is better than having the first Woodland Cemetery. Mire has always been an all-star for me, but since I now have so many lands to turn on the Cemetery, I’ve started testing it. I am liking it so far.

You always mention how you value versatile cards but you have a full set of Fulminators. What’s the deal there?

I hate the fact that I have to run Fulminator Mage. It’s a necessary evil with the emergence of Amulet decks (especially among Pro players). If you plan to have a deep run in a tournament you will eventually play against some. They are also fantastic versus Scapeshift for obvious reasons.

I’ve been boarding them against Affinity and Infect for a long time. In the beginning people called me an idiot or, if they were polite, rolled eyes. Now it is industry standard. The biggest threats coming from these decks are their lands—the same is true for Jeskai’s Celestial Colonnades. Not only do they have evasion, but your removal matches up pretty poorly versus them (good luck with your Decays and sorcery-speed spells). It’s pretty common to kill all their creatures and lose to their lands even with your Lingering Souls. Infect can use Apostle’s Blessing or Distortion Strike and Affinity sometimes packs random hate such as Whipflare, Illness in the Ranks, or Ghirapur Aether Grid. If you have Fulminators in your sideboard, do not bring in one or two against these decks.

Bring them all in.

Another use for Fulminators that is surprisingly useful is to bring them in versus decks that run Blood Moon. The idea is to have spells to play if they land it and you have few/no basics. Sometimes these decks keep hands (like Storm or Shoal) where they are all-in on the Blood-Moon-on-turn-2 plan. Sometimes these Gray Ogres that come out of nowhere are good enough. They can be very good at screwing land-light decks such as Storm, especially backed by a flurry of discard and Liliana. I also bring them versus Burn by replacing a couple Lilianas. They block well and even if they don’t trade in combat with Swiftspear, they can take a land with them instead. I have won a fair share of games by taking out their green/white mana. The plan is all about surviving to start to casting Rhinos. They are better than extra copies of Liliana, especially on the draw.

One last piece of advice on Fulminator: do not bring them in without a good reason. Some Pros advocate for them while playing Jund with Kolaghan’s Command, but even in this scenario I’m not a fan. Experienced played can always fetch basics, and in the late game Fulminator is almost as bad as a Thoughtseize.

The good reasons to bring them in the mirror:

  • You do not have any other cards to bring in and want to take out your discard.
  • They have Gavony Township (which is very hard to beat). In this case I’d like to have ~3 cards to deal with it (including Ghost Quarters).
  • You are on the play, playing a version with Dark Confidants, and want to have a more aggressive plan.
  • You need to win super fast—such as running out of time on the clock—and you are hoping to get a free win by mana-screwing them.

Why Sigarda?

She is probably the best possible card you can have for the mirror match, especially against Jund. It’s worse than Thrun against blue decks but is still a beating. Her utility versus Living End sold me since, for this tournament, I did not have any graveyard hate. Living End? Yes! Please read the card.

Why Abzan over Jund?

This will probably need a full article but I will try in a few words. The biggest strengths from Abzan are: Path to Exile, Siege Rhino, and of course Lingering Souls.

Jund’s are: Lightning Bolt and Kolaghan’s Command. Jund also has better mana because of Blackcleave Cliffs. I will not mention what sets of cards are better in the current meta. If you want to play with Bolt plus Command, would you prefer to pair them with Snapcaster Mage/Jace or Tarmogoyf/Scavenging Ooze? I don’t think this is a close call. The only reasons to play black/red/green in this scenario are card availability issues or personal affinity for Jund. Otherwise Grixis (vomit) will serve you better.

No Love for Noble Hierarch?

No. Since Deathrite Shaman was banned, a lot of (good) players have tried replacing it. Noble doesn’t come close to accomplish that. First, it doesn’t produce black mana, which is your main color and therefore makes it difficult to cast Liliana or Fulminator Mage on turn 2. Exalted can be nice in some board states, but it makes you much softer to Lightning Bolt and doesn’t play well with sweepers you have in the sideboard.

Of course it will be always great on the early turns and can produce nut draws, but I prefer to see Abzan as a more controlling midrange deck with as few dead draws as possible in the late game.

That’s it for today, I didn’t want to dive in much on concepts of deck building because I wrote about them before, and with this kind of deck the final list REALLY depends of the field you are playing in.

In the next weeks I will be writing more about the best archetype in Magic in preparation for PT Oath of the Gatewatch. Some things you can expect:

Updates on JUNDINATOR!

  • Keep of Mull Jund/Abzan edition.
  • A sideboard primer.
  • Impact of the new set/changes in the ban list.
  • The ultimate automated tool to build your Jund (not guaranteed before the PT).
  • How to play with Liliana of the Veil (not guaranteed before the PT).

If you have any doubts, let me know in the comments section.

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