Don’t call it a comeback. Despite what fools like myself thought, Abzan never left.
In the weeks preceding Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, the decks on everybody’s minds (and the ones dominating the SCG Open circut) were Atarka Red, Dark Jeskai, and GW Megamorph. Today, we know that Siege Rhino still has a few tricks up its sleeve.
Abzan maintains the strengths of GW Megamorph—the ability to curve out aggressively, and to settle in for a long game when the situation calls for it. However, it gets additional access to many of Standard’s best cards: Siege Rhino, Abzan Charm, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang. Foremost of them all, though, is Anafenza, who proved to be one of the most valuable cards of the Pro Tour. The ability to put 4 power and toughness onto the table for 3 mana is hard to match. She slips in underneath Ojutai’s Command, and she throws off opposing delve plans, ruins Hangarback Walkers, and puts a stop to any Grim Haruspex shenanigans. I believe that many of the players who chose Abzan for the Pro Tour would name Anafenza, the Foremost as their reason, even before they’d name Siege Rhino.
You’ll notice that I’ve simply been calling Kazuyuki Takimura’s winning deck “Abzan,” instead of specifying “Abzan Aggro” or “Abzan Control.” The new-age versions of Abzan seem to be… just Abzan. They play Warden of the First Tree and Anafenza in order to output damage quickly, but they also utilize Den Protector and Abzan Charm for card advantage. Abzan is simply a collection of excellent cards, and is not a slave to any kind of linear game plan. As such, attacking it is a real challenge.
What to Do
- Diversify your removal spells. You’ll need to start fighting right away or risk taking massive damage from a Warden of the First Tree. However, cheap removal like Wild Slash, Ultimate Price, or Reave Soul will fail you when you need to answer Siege Rhinos or giant Hangarback Walkers. You’ll have the most success combining 1-2 copies of a variety of removal spells, so that you can find the right tool for the job. (Crackling Doom is an exception, and you should play 4 copies if your deck can support it.)
- Go a little bigger. I bring this up every time I feature a midrange deck, but if you can fight more or less on par with your opponent, but have a slightly stronger late game, then you’ll have an advantage in the matchup. Abzan Control lost its crown jewel when Elspeth, Sun’s Champion rotated, but its inherent strengths against smaller-creature decks might make it worth playing anyway. Nissa, Vastwood Seer is a great card in a grindy creature mirror. Ruinous Path, Murderous Cut, Painful Truths, and Ob Nixilis Reignited offer a nice shell for a more controlling Abzan deck.
- Play single cards that will give Abzan trouble. Hexproof creatures have fallen slightly out of favor due to the popularity of Crackling Doom, but Dragonlord Ojutai and Silumgar, the Drifting Death are excellent against Abzan. Wingmate Roc and Exert Influence also fit the bill.
- Good deck choices: Abzan Control, Esper Dragons, Dark Jeskai, Bant Tokens, Ramp.
What Not to Do
- Don’t fold to Anafenza, the Foremost.
- Don’t be unprepared for Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.
- Don’t be too slow, and don’t lean too heavily on planeswalkers or permission spells. Abzan is great at attacking planeswalkers to death, and many control decks will have a hard time clawing back into the game if they start out behind.
Abzan doesn’t exactly bring anything to the table that we haven’t seen before. That said, it’s a deck that’s smooth, consistent, and extremely unforgiving. If you’re fooling around, or trying to do something a little too fancy, you put yourself at risk of getting stomped by an Anafenza curve-out. Include Abzan in your testing gauntlet as a power level check for any deck you’re considering for your next Standard tournament.