It’s a Modern weekend. Between World Magic Cup Qualifiers across the world and the SCG Open in Orlando—and because (let’s face it), Eldritch Moon Standard is breathing its dying breaths before the release of Kaladesh—all eyes are going to be on the modern format. The weekend’s deck to beat is a new twist on an old favorite: Grim Flayer Abzan.
Abzan was the choice of a full 1/3 of the World Championship field. It’s a good deck and performed reasonably well at Worlds. Moreover, my personal experience has taught me that these Rock-style midrange decks always tend to be overrepresented (meaning they’re among the most popular choices even when they’re mediocre, and are the most popular by far when they’re among the best decks). So when the MTG world sees their favorite players choosing Abzan, when Abzan is a solid deck with no weaknesses, and when Abzan even gets a couple of exciting new cards, you can believe that Abzan is going to be a popular deck.
Luis Scott-Vargas, 6th place at the World Championship
We generally know what the G/B midrange decks do in Modern. They try to dismantle the opponent with discard, Liliana of the Veil, and removal spells, and they close the game around turn 5 or 6 using giant Tarmogoyfs and a smattering of other creatures. Abzan has since gained Grim Flayer, however, which you can basically think of as Tarmogoyfs number 5 through 8. The presence of this card increases the chances of getting that ideal draw of turn-1 discard plus turn-2 big creature. It streamlines the deck and makes it faster, particularly against opposing combo decks.
Two months ago, I could’ve comfortably made the claim that Abzan is the slower version of G/B midrange (compared to Jund). The adoption of Grim Flayer complicates the question a little bit. Lingering Souls is still the hallmark card of the white splash, however, and it’s by no means a fast card. Lingering Souls is there to improve the slower matchups, and to give Abzan an advantage in the heads-up match against Jund. It also has important applications against Infect and Affinity. Where Lingering Souls does not shine is against non-interactive combo decks like Ad Nauseam and Scapeshift. The other important white card is Path to Exile.
If I was to simplify beating Abzan into one sentence it would be this: Try to exploit the clunkiness of Lingering Souls, or try to exploit the card disadvantage of Path to Exile.
Fast, linear decks are the best way to exploit the clunkiness of Lingering Souls. That said, I had a hard time writing this section because Abzan is such a well-rounded and customizable deck. Many of the best ways to beat it involve guessing at which powerful linear strategy your opponents will be unprepared for. Unfortunately, if you take the Affinity route, you could run into the guy or girl playing 4 Stony Silence. If you choose Dredge, you might start every sideboarded game facing down a Leyline of the Void. In spite of that, I think many linear strategies are good choices in a field of Abzan.
I’d like to start by offering my two cents on the way Affinity and Infect matchup against Abzan. I’ve seen some statements lately along the lines of, “don’t play Infect or Affinity because Lingering Souls is popular.” I think this is too extreme. Lingering Souls is a 3-mana card, and these decks can easily win the game on turn 3! Affinity is still a big favorite to win game 1 against Abzan. In the absence of three or more dedicated hate cards, it’s still a big favorite to win the match. Etched Champion is excellent against both Lingering Souls and Stony Silence, and should be a go-to card for Affinity players this weekend.
Team Pantheon once choose Infect for a Modern Pro Tour specifically because we felt it was so favored against Abzan! Play a couple copies each of Distortion Strike and Apostle’s Blessing, and you have a great chance of simply winning the game when the opponent taps out for Lingering Souls. Granted, since that time, Path to Exile has become a ubiquitous 4-of, and the clunky Siege Rhino has gone down in popularity. These trends will bring the matchup closer to 50/50, but it’s still not a reason to scrap your Infect deck.
It’s even better to find a non-interactive deck that doesn’t have to attack to win the game, though. If you can do that, most of what you need to worry about are the discard spells. Two-card combos like Ad Nauseam plus Angel’s Grace or Through the Breach plus Emrakul can be weak to Thoughtseize. Instead, I’m a big fan of decks like Scapeshift and Tron, which can simply put a bunch of mana into play, and then wait to topdeck a game-winner. I also think that Burn is excellent against Abzan, and that many Abzan players will be skimping on Burn hate right now.
Beating Abzan with fair decks is about making sure that you’re not playing into the hands of Lingering Souls and Path to Exile. It only takes a couple of games to realize that spending spot removal spells on Spirit tokens is a losing battle. Liliana of the Veil loses a lot of value in a field full of Lingering Souls.
Equally important is constructing your deck in a way to take advantage of Path to Exile. If you let that card function as Swords to Plowshares against you, you’re gifting your opponents the best card in the format. On the other hand, if your deck has plenty of basic lands, and you force your opponent into giving you clean 2-for-1 card advantage, you’ll fair a lot better.
There are plenty of great things about playing all-in decks like Death’s Shadow, but for this weekend, I think you’d much prefer to be Player C than Player A.
There are three parts to exploiting Path to Exile. Part one is to construct your deck with plenty of basic lands (in a perfect world you could fit four or more), and be careful not to fetch them out of your deck too early in the game. Part two is to play with creatures that can’t simply be blanked by blockers. Good examples are Dark Confidant, Eidolon of the Great Revel, and Merrow Reejery. Part three is to have something to spend extra mana on. Creaturelands like Treetop Village and Shambling Vent excel in grindy matchups where your opponent is Pathing you. Bant Eldrazi, Merfolk, and Melira Company are examples of decks that meet these criteria.
What To Do:
• Be fast. Force them to have the right answers in their opening hand.
• Play from the graveyard, or play well off the top of your library.
• Single cards that excel against Abzan: Ancestral Vision, Blood Moon, Lingering Souls, Primeval Titan, creaturelands, Rest in Peace (in small numbers).
• My top anti-Abzan deck choices for this weekend (in order): (1) Bant Eldrazi (2) Dredge or Living End (3) Burn (4) Merfolk (5) Scapeshift (6) Tron (7) Creature Combo Decks (Melira Company, Kiki-Chord, etc.) (8) Anything with Ancestral Vision.
What Not To Do:
• Don’t play into the hands of Lingering Souls and Path to Exile.
• Don’t be weak to discard spells.
• Poor deck choices in a field of Abzan (in no particular order): Jund, Death’s Shadow, medium-speed beatdown decks, Hate Bears.
Abzan is a good deck, and can be a tough nut to crack. No matter what deck you choose, it can be your misfortune to have your Abzan opponent draw the right sideboard cards in his or her opening hand against you. Even when things go your way, it’s hard to be significantly over 50/50 against them. But if you consider the advice I’ve offered in this article, I believe that you’ll give yourself your best chance of performing well in a field full of Abzan.