Matt Sperling: Hey Paul, I thought we could do a joint report on Abzan Aggro and Grand Prix Denver since you did the “practice Standard and tune the deck” part and I did the “run well and almost win the GP” part. Maybe give a little background on Standard and how you landed on testing Abzan Aggro.

Here’s the deck list we both played so people can take a look before we dig in:

Paul Rietzl: I tried a lot of different decks for GP Denver. I gave Jeskai and various Whip strategies a real hard look. Jeskai showed a lot of promise, but had actual bad matchups. The Whip of Erebos decks have just never impressed me. Cards like Satyr Wayfinder and Commune with the Gods are just so bad unless you actually have the Whip going. So I settled eventually on some flavor of Abzan.

Abzan midrange had the benefit of the Courser of KruphixSylvan Caryatid early game, which negates a huge swath of potential problems posed by aggressive opponents. I’d played the deck at Worlds and was comfortable with the interactions. But I’d also been impressed by the look of the Abzan Aggro deck that had been making the rounds on the internet. I tried it out, and I was hooked.

I love proactive decks, and I love using my mana efficiently. Many Abzan midrange decks already used Fleecemane Lion and Bile Blight to make sure they didn’t fall too far behind. Abzan Aggro, as popularized by Brian Braun-Duin and others, replaced a lot of the reactive and/or grindy elements of the midrange deck and replaced them with more creatures.

The lynchpin of the deck is Anafenza, the Foremost. While I pushed to include Anafenza in the sideboard of our deck at Worlds, an aggressive maindeck shell was a natural home for her. The body is excellent, the triggered ability is frequently relevant, and the ability to proactively shut down grayeyard strategies was more than a bonus.

First, I want to talk about some cards I had for a while but ultimately dismissed before I sent you the deck.

Boon Satyr – This was the hardest card for me to cut. When I built my own version of the deck, I did not have any Wingmate Rocs. I generally hate expensive cards in aaggro decks, and Boon Satyr did a few nice things. It turned on Heir of the Wilds on turn three, if that was required. It provided an instant-speed threat. It allowed you to attack for a tremendous amount of damage on turn five, especially when combined with Siege Rhino. It was a blowout midcombat. It let you build an absolute voltron with a monstrous Fleecemane Lion.

Honestly, I had no problems with the card. In most situations, I actually preferred it to the Roc. However, Wingmate Roc is just too good in the Abzan Aggro mirrors. Once I determined I had to have some number of Rocs, I no longer wanted any other spells that I intended to play turn 5 or later.

Courser of Kruphix There is a common misconception that Courser is a “0 or 4” card. I think this is myopic, and I frequently like putting 1-2 of a card like Courser into a deck like this. Courser is just objectively powerful, and was really good for me against decks trying to answer my onslaught with Anger of the Gods. As the weakest (least on-theme) 3-drop in the deck, however, it eventually got cut in favor of more removal spells.

Gather Courage Cute, and awesome vs. all the Mardu and Jeskai decks that tried to burn your 2-drops. Ultimately too low impact, I cut it for Thoughtseize.

Ajani Steadfast I had one Ajani Steadfast for a while, because it combo’d so well with Boon Satyr. Without Boon Satyrs, Ajani is too cute.

The final list I came up with is pretty similar to what BBD had, with Heir of the Wilds and the Herald of Torment the notable differences. What did you think of the list, and specifically those two cards, when I sent it to you?

Matt: The Heir of the Wilds really represents going all-in on 2-drops. The lists with 4 Lion 4 Rakshasa Deathdealer are looking to have a 2-drop most of the time. You were going one step further and basically saying that you always want a 2-drop even if it means drawing 2 and topdecking them in the mid-and late game. The strategy is effective precisely because most of your removal costs 3 (Abzan Charm and Hero’s Downfall) and so many of your lands enter the battlefield tapped.

One thing I kept realizing about the deck as the GP went on is that so many cards in our deck and in the opposing decks played great from ahead and horribly from behind. Sorin and Wingmate Roc are pretty great when you have stuff on the board, and pretty bad when you don’t. The other guy’s Stormbreath Dragon is scary if you’re behind but a lot less scary if you’re ahead. Keeping the curve low makes perfect sense to me.

When I first saw the list and saw 1 Herald of Torment, I thought it was the right kind of card to have 1 copy of. It’s an expensive spell in its best mode, and while it fights with Wingmate Roc at the 5 slot, it does have that 3-cost mode if you draw multiple expensive cards, something that always scares me when people put 4 Wingmate Roc into their decks.

You’re right that you could play a Courser of Kruphix or two, but you have to ask yourself why if your curve is topping out at a couple 5-drops and not playing stuff like Elspeth. I don’t think any copies of Courser belong in this deck. Gather Courage is a cool card, especially if Lightning Strike is extremely popular, but I don’t think it is popular enough right now.

One other note on skewing low on mana cost: your deck has many scry lands, and it’s awfully nice to know you don’t need those extra lands. Playing a traditional Abzan deck, you get into these spots where you’re scrying 1, and you’d like to have some action to improve your position on the board, but you’ve also got this Elspeth in your hand that requires those 5th and 6th lands. What do you do? Sometimes it will be right to take the action and wait for lands, other times not, but we’ve managed to sidestep the question and just dig for “business” in those spots. That gives our deck a structural advantage.

What are your thoughts on not playing Elspeth specifically anywhere in our 75? Owen and Huey played it, what do you think?

Paul: Elspeth is interesting in that it attacks on a different axis, being a planeswalker. On a basic level, it’s just a strong card, as evidenced by all the games that it has ended in Standard over the last year. And it matches up pretty well against a lot of the things people might try to do to you in this format. It laughs at Hordeling Outburst. It’s a great play vs. an opponent’s Siege Rhino, where you can minus your Elspeth and leave behind a great threat. And it’s not too shabby vs. most of the other creatures you see in a lot of Abzan decks.

If Fleecemane Lion, Heir of the Wilds, Anafenza and Rakshasa Deathdealer share a critical flaw, it’s a lack of evasion or trample. One Elspeth can largely brick wall them. Still, I think there are a few important points against:

  • Virtually every major deck in the format has access to Hero’s Downfall, Thoughtseize, or both. In that sense, Elspeth is not attacking on as different an axis as we might assume. Downfall was already going to be good against us and we now make it better. Thoughtseize was a card we might’ve hoped to make a bad topdeck. Elspeth dramatically increases the likelihood that it will be effective.
  • The two big bazooka-style creatures in the format are Hornet Queen and Wingmate Roc. A startlingly high percentage of decks plays one of these cards and Elspeth is very poor against them.
  • Because we are not playing Sylvan Caryatid, Courser of Kruphix, or Read the Bones, we are unlikely to smoothly curve to six mana and, in fact, might have to wait multiple turns to be able to cast our Elspeth. I despise having to wait to cast my spells in an aggressive deck. We do not have inevitability and no amount of sideboarding transformation will make this so. The violence of action is to our advantage.
  • Assuming we get to 6 mana, we will frequently have other things to do with it. The mana sink potential of Deathdealer and/or Fleecemane Lion might sometimes do more to advance our game than playing an Elspeth.
  • All that being said, given a large enough sideboard, we’d still obviously include Elspeth in our deck, as there are clearly times when it shines. One of the things people too often ignore is opportunity cost in sideboarding. Each of the cards we included were chosen for a specific purpose, and are high-impact, low-cost interaction (with the exception of the one Roc). So the question is more than “Is Elspeth good?” It’s “What option are we willing to forgo in order to have access to Elspeth?”

Anyway, I felt great going into the tournament and thought we had an excellent deck. I’ll give my tournament report first, since it’s short. In the first round I played against 4c Whip, our putative best matchup.

In the first game I kept Heir of the Wilds, Bile Blight, Abzan Charm, and 4 lands. The game lasted eight turns, I scryed three lands to the bottom, fetched twice, and drew 2 cards off Abzan Charm and never found another nonland card. A truly Froehlichian start to my event, and it never got much better. I went on to lose that match and then missed multiple land drops the next round against BG Constellation.

I started to right the ship a bit against Mardu midrange, but was then again horribly mana screwed against Mono-Red aggro to end my event. I have a tendency to be harshly self-critical when it comes to my play and find many things I could’ve done differently after a tournament. Truth is, this time, I almost never had between 3 and 7 lands out, so I hit the showers prematurely, winning a combined total of 2 games.

Your tournament went a bit better.

Matt: I had never played a single game with Abzan Aggro until I got to the tournament hall. You and I sat down during the bye rounds for a friendly scrimmage, and I was excited to get underway. It’s not like the deck is Ascendancy Combo which punishes every mistake AND doesn’t resemble decks I’ve played before, so I figured whatever, I could wing it. I remember crushing you 2-0, and joking that the student had become the master. There’s no question you were better prepared for the event, and 2 practice games hardly matter, but I felt as if was going in with at least a puncher’s chance to run well and excel with this cool deck.

Standard format Magic: The Gathering these days is about competency, not finding exotic lines of play to dazzle and amaze people. I had a lot of success in the previous “Pack Rat Standard” format where mulliganing and sideboarding combined with basic execution of the decks created the necessary conditions for riding some luck to success.

Mulliganing is particularly critical when the cards are as powerful as Pack Rat or Siege Rhino and winning is less about sequencing a bunch of minor moves and more about being able to produce a few large, Rhino-sized moves.

I won’t bore people with the round-by-round. I played a pretty diverse smattering of Standard decks over the course of the 10 Swiss rounds I played (I had 3 byes to start and 2 draws to finish). I won all 10 of those rounds thanks to the above competency, especially in mulliganing, and of course plenty of good luck. Show me someone who went undefeated and doesn’t think they got lucky, I’ll show you someone who is wrong.

In the quarterfinals I played a very close match against Lucas Parsons playing RG monsters. I had been uncertain about whether Sorin was good because of the life gain or bad because of the ease with which flyers and/or hasty creatures can kill it. I had them in my sideboard for game 2 but afterwards I changed my tune mentally and thought I had gotten it wrong—the life gain was important enough that even a situational card was worth having around.

Game 3 I could not have won with any other card in my deck other than the Sorin I drew, as my opponent had flown in with a Stormbreath Dragon and was poised to finish me off with Crater’s Claws. I gained 10-12 life with a Sorin-fueled attack and Lucas could not burn me out. Part of the reason I aspire to be BETTER at sideboarding on the fly than someone else’s sideboarding guide or my own sideboarding guide is that I want to leave room to be flexible as I encounter different opposing lists, and I also want to be flexible to improve upon my own ideas or someone else’s ideas about which cards are likely going to be good. I had it wrong in game 2 but I stayed skeptical of my own decision and reversed it to win the match.

In the semifinals I faced Sam Pardee’s RW deck. A bad matchup perhaps, in that he had 4 copies of Stormbreath Dragon and we mostly skimped on Hero’s Downfall and Murderous Cut all the way down to basically the bare minimum 2 maindeck Downfall and 1 sideboard Cut.

Game 1 was really interesting. I found myself ahead enough that Sam left a Stormbreath Dragon on defense for a turn or two, but when he dropped the second Dragon with 6 total lands in play, and after getting chump blockers off a topdecked Hordeling Outburst, he sent them both in threatening to kill me the following turn if he drew a land.

Sam’s blockers included multiple Goblin tokens from Hordeling Outburst and a Rabblemaster. My board was 2 Rakshasa Deathdealer, 1 Anafenza, and 1 Bird token from Wingmate Roc (4/5 from an Anafenza counter). Sam was at 12. I had 5 mana in play, just 1 card in hand (a Siege Rhino I just drew). I had to get Sam to take 9 damage, or else be stuck praying that Sam didn’t draw a land.

I decided to attack with just 1 Deathdealer, 1 Anafenza, and the Roc token, and to pump the Roc token to 5/6. This way, Sam would be tempted to block the Deathdealer only (if 2 are attacking you’d have to chump both to stop me from pumping) and take the 9 damage from Anafenza and Bird, and I’d have 2 blockers back for his Rabblemaster, so if he blocked carefully and drew a Chained to the Rocks I would still be alive.

Sam blocked the Deathdealer and took 9, and I killed him with Rhino. His block is a clear mistake given all the circumstances, but since the board was so complicated it wasn’t an obvious blunder, just a clear mistake under careful examination, once you realize that I couldn’t have pumped Deathdealer twice and still cast anything else, so chumping Anafenza was the better chump block. Games 2 and 3 were less interesting, and I was able to advance to the finals.

In the finals, Andrew Brown (who I had beaten in the Swiss) demolished me 2-0. I don’t think Andrew sideboarded Murk Lurkers in against me in the finals, though he had done so in the Swiss. Here again was someone willing to try something out but remain flexible and ultimately change sideboarding strategy based on his ever-improving understanding of the matchup.

People kept saying “congrats and condolences” on 2nd place, which is of course a nice sentiment, but I felt no need to be consoled. This is my second Grand Prix 2nd-place finish, and I’ll take as many as I can get!

If I was going to play this deck again I would find a way to have 1 Murderous Cut in my main deck in addition to the 1 in the sideboard. 3 Back to Natures is too many, but the other sideboard cards were all pretty productive for me. What changes would you make to the deck going forward?

Paul: I would cut all the Thoughtseizes for 1 Courser of Kruphix, a 3rd Wingmate Roc, the 1 Murderous Cut you suggested, and either a 3rd Hero’s Downfall or 3rd Bile Blight depending on how the metagame develops. I know you are kind of sour on 1 Courser, but I’ve had really good experiences.

In the sideboard, I’d cut 1 Back to Nature, 1 Wingmate Roc (which I’d move to the main), and 1 Dark Betrayal for 1 Reclamation Sage, 1 Nissa, Worldwaker, and a 4th Anafenza, the Foremost.

I agree that 3 Back to Nature is just too much of this effect. Switching one to a Reclamation Sage allows us to have another sweet card against UB Control, as killing Perilous Vault is very frequently game over.

Moving the Roc to the main deck clears room in the sideboard for a Nissa, another bullet vs. UB Control. I’m not convinced that UB Control is all that great of a deck, but you have to respect whatever archetype just won the last North American GP, and we’re making our deck a bit weaker against it by removing the maindeck Thoughtseizes.

Finally, the Dark Betrayal was a last-second, heavily metagamed call specifically for GP Denver. I expected many of the top players to come to a similar conclusion about the format and play Abzan Aggro, and having another cheap way to interact in the mirror is key. For a more diverse field like an FNM or SCG Open, I’d rather have access to a 4th Anafenza. Whip decks are still going to be among the most popular.

That being said, you don’t have to cut Thoughtseize entirely. Again, there is no rule that says you need to play 0 or 4 of a card like Thoughtseize. I could easily see shaving down to 2-3.

I’m not currently scheduled to play in a Standard event until Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir in Belgium, but if for some reason I get crazy and hit up Memphis or Miami, I’m definitely starting my testing with this deck.

Matt: That all sounds reasonable. Thoughtseize was an underperformer for me except against blue control decks, which are a small part of the metagame.

Before we go, what do you think of the new Fate Reforged cards Warden of the First Tree, Tasigur, and Valorous Stance specifically for the Abzan Aggro deck?

Paul: The problem with Warden of the First Tree is that it can’t protect itself and competes with Fleecemane Lion and Rakshasa Deathdealer in the mana sink department. Moreover, you frequently need to play a tapped land on turn one in order to ensure a smooth development of your curve. I could see playing 1-2 of them, but I doubt it becomes a 4-of format staple.

I don’t see Tasigur as a fit for this deck. It’s frequently going to cost 4 or more mana and compete with Siege Rhino, which is to say, lose badly to Siege Rhino for that slot. Perhaps as a sideboard card vs. pure control. Tasigur plays really well with Thoughtseize, so make sure you aren’t cutting Thoughtseize if you’re trying him out.

Valorous Stance is the most interesting card to me. If we could play more Abzan Charms, I think we would—the card is just so good. Valorous Stance kills most of the cards that Abzan Charm does with the added benefit of dealing with opposing Courser of Kruphixes. I like that it can protect something like Fleecemane Lion until you get to 5 mana or an Anafenza that you needed to attack with for the +1/+1 trigger. My guess is it settles in as a 1- or 2-of a la Gods Willing in Jeskai circa 2 months ago.

Thanks for reading,

-Paul Rietzl (@paulrietzl on Twitter) and Matt Sperling (@mtg_law_etc on Twitter).