Abzan Control is the best deck in Standard. Memphis strongly implied this, and my testing confirms it. There are, as always, advocates of many other decks, and white/red may remain the most popular choice, but in terms of both raw power and matchups against the field, Abzan Control is the clear first choice. If logistics allowed me to attend Grand Prix Miami, this would be my deck:
This list is very close to the standard model, and that’s for a good reason: The list played by Brad Nelson, which I consider the default Abzan Control deck list, is very strong in ways both obvious and subtle. The changes I’ve made are to remove End Hostilities from the main deck for Garruk, Apex Predator and Ajani, Mentor of Heroes, to remove a Read the Bones from the sideboard for a second End Hostilities since I’ve cut it from the main deck, and to exchange the third Glare of Heresy for the second Erase given the rise of Outpost Siege in red/white and the cornucopia of good options in the places you want Glare of Heresy but not Erase. These changes give up your ability to sweep the board in game one in order to ensure that you don’t get stuck with too many dead cards in certain matchups or when you are ahead on board.
Almost everything I say applies to all similar builds of Abzan Control. I will note explicitly where this is not the case.
How Abzan Control Works
Abzan Control is fundamentally a good stuff midrange strategy that wins off of incremental advantage and card quality. Your cards are better and more powerful than what your opponents are casting for the same amount of mana, and the nature of your cards allows you to have higher curve than your opponent’s. By playing lots of lands and lots of Temples, and having so many of your cards be able to fill multiple roles, you minimize the number of bad draws and mulligans.
Typical Early Play: Your Land Is Tapped
The typical game sequence is a little slow because your first land comes into play tapped. On turn two you probably play another tapped land, and Thoughtseize them if you have one. You don’t fear any 2-drops, so there’s no reason to jump the gun and Thoughtseize them on turn one, but you do often want to take 3-drops. The only exception is against Green Devotion or other decks with Elvish Mystic where you may want to take a mana creature out of their hand, but even if you do have an untapped black source, doing this will usually make a future turn awkward. You have a lot of tapped lands in the deck.
Having all these tapped lands is usually fine because there are a lot of turns when you can afford to have your land come into play tapped. Turn three is the only turn you often want an untapped land that badly because you want to play a removal or card draw spell and then play another 3-mana card on turn four. You also often want your sixth land untapped for Elspeth, Sun’s Champion or to play two 3-drops. There is usually little cost to playing tapped lands on turns one, two, or five. Turn four is bad only if you draw Siege Rhino and need to play it.
The result of this is that you are somewhat slower out of the gate than you look. Bile Blight is not a turn-two play for Abzan Control all that often. You can only play six untapped black sources, due to a combination of Fleecemane Lion and Windswept Heath, and even if you draw one, it will usually mean taking pain for multiple turns, and it’s often not worth it because it means playing a tapped land on turn three or not having double-green for Courser of Kruphix without either skipping turn three or first playing land four, both of which are tragedies.
Matchups: Choosing Your Role
Abzan Control will typically take the control role (hence the name) against other decks that don’t call themselves control decks, and be the aggressor against decks that do call themselves control decks. Other control decks tend to gain advantage in large chunks, so you need to start generating advantage on turn three and never stop until they are overwhelmed. My next article is all about designing and playing the deck to make that strategy succeed against other control decks. When playing the mirror, you need to adopt your role to the hands that you’ve each been dealt, but understand that aggression there is mostly in the form of generating card advantage rather than dealing damage.
Against aggressive decks, your goal is simple: survive. They have a window during the first two turns when you’re not impacting the board, so if they can take full advantage of that window you’re going to be in trouble. The good news is that your plays on turns three and four are very strong ways of stabilizing the board. Siege Rhino and Courser of Kruphix are the best defense out there. In game one you’re counting on those being good enough. You need the aggressive decks not to work quite right, especially when you’re on the draw, but that happens more often than you would think. You then bring in most of the sideboard and take out the cards that either cost life or cost a lot of mana, and your quality and quantity of good answers improves dramatically, including picking up extra 2-drops, while their sideboard does little for them.
Midrange decks have two ways to win: They can try to get to you early, since you miss turn two and often want to spend a turn after that drawing cards, and then either remove your answers or burn you out. That’s how the majority of games start, and it’s a lot like playing against aggressive decks that aren’t as dangerous and don’t show up a third of the time, but in exchange you do have to worry a little about the later stages of the game. Your good early draws are enough to stop most of their early draws, but their great early draws will be able to overwhelm you in game one.
If the early rush isn’t there or it fails, they are going to try to pull off some source of continuous card advantage. Keeping an Outpost Siege on Khans going on a quiet board, going off with Jeskai Ascendancy and Monastery Mentor, having Soulflayers with all the fixings including indestructible, or making enough mana with Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx when X is far, far larger than it needs to be. If the engine they have access to shows up, you’ll need to stop or overpower that engine. With Thoughtseize and a lot of good removal, you can often isolate the key cards and trade 1-for-1 with those, leaving an empty shell that’s easy to deal with. You start with a ton more power than they have.
Often what will happen is that you’ll use Thoughtseize and your removal to break up what they’re trying to do, after which they won’t have much going on. Frequently they’ll be playing a bunch of burn or other removal, draw too much of it, and be stuck with nothing to do but kill your threats for a while. In those situations, you need to press your advantage more than you think if they can potentially start their engine. Jeskai Ascendancy decks in particular have a third stage of the game that you do not want any part of, and white/red can pack a lot of copies of Outpost Siege. If Outpost Siege comes down, you should have a window of a number of turns where you’re still in command, but if it stays on board too long it can get them back into the game, so you need to get aggressive.
Your sideboarding is based on the question of how to keep their engine from working, while maintaining an early defense in case they try to rush you. Whatever is their long-term threat, that’s what you want as many answers for as possible. They are relying on a few big cards far more than you are, so answer those and the long game is yours.
Abzan Control’s game plan is to play a 3-drop on turn three and then play good cards. You have a lot of 3-drops, most of your 3-drops provide card advantage in some form that helps get you to the next good card, and you have eight Temples. This often lets you keep hands that have four or five lands in them without worrying too much about flooding.
You need to send back anything with zero, one, six or seven lands, but five land hands with good colored mana can be kept if you have an early play and multiple Temples. One Temple is good enough if you’ve got Courser of Kruphix and either Hero’s Downfall, Bile Blight, Read the Bones or Siege Rhino. The extra land will prove useful, and allows you to safely scry additional lands to the bottom. Two land hands that don’t have Temples are usually mulligans, but with two Temples you keep most of them and with one and a Bile Blight you can cast you can keep that too. As usual with such hands the question is how good the hand becomes once land three shows up. If you’re very happy at that point, keep the hand. Almost all hands with three or four lands should be kept provided they don’t have a colored mana problem.
Matchups and Sideboarding
You almost always bring in Fleecemane Lion. In game one, you’re trying to strand cards like Lightning Strike and Bile Blight and make them only worth half a card, so Fleecemane Lion isn’t worth it. After sideboarding, they can leave in those cards if they want, and even if you have Lion in your deck, you’re happy they still have them.
You have three basic modes after sideboarding: Sometimes you want to stay alive, sometimes you want to gain resource advantage, and sometimes you need to fight on both fronts. The last few card choices are often flexible and come down to building a deck against a particular opponents’ expected post-sideboard configuration and play style.
Whenever the goal is to take control of the game, my priority is to have as many cards that help take control as possible. That means identifying which cards do not help you do that, and cutting them down to the bare minimum. Often Siege Rhino is one of those cards. It’s a great Magic card, but when someone is going to dominate the board, what it does can be irrelevant to the game at hand. When that’s the case, you don’t need four copies.
You can sometimes trim one land from the deck if the matchup will be about card exhaustion and you don’t feel you have a big edge. When you are structurally advantaged, leave the land where it is because there’s no reason to take that kind of risk.
The full anti-control resource advantage plans will be discussed in detail in the second article.
The Full Anti-Aggressive Sideboard Plan
Against pure aggression like the mono-red decks, you have a lot of cards that are not ideal and your curve is far too high. You have a lot of cards you can bring in, but not quite enough to let you cut everything you want to cut. It is of course possible to have 60 cards available here that you actively want, but it will be painful elsewhere, so you end up having to keep four of Elspeth, Sun’s Champion and Thoughtseize when they don’t give you creatures worth taking out with Abzan Charm. Elspeth actually isn’t bad, because it is very good at stabilizing the board and closing things out, and you do run the risk of not having enough raw power because you’re going to have a bunch more lands in your deck than they do. If you bring your curve down too much and take out your card draw, it can sometimes create a problem.
Game one is about defending yourself from Goblin Rabblemaster or a quick rush of other creatures backed up by Chained to the Rocks, leaving them with a bunch of burn, then closing the game out before they can either burn you out or lean hard on Outpost Siege. They have a lot of burn and your focus should be on taking out the cards that might kill you while grinding out advantage. Try to get at least one shot at Courser of Kruphix before it dies, as this is more important than it looks. So is keeping them from getting tokens off of Goblin Rabblemaster.
Sideboarding gives you lots of options, and the tricky part is taking enough cards out. Thoughtseize is great on turn two but pretty bad later, and it feels like you take less risk not having it than you do by having it, now that you have both Erase and Utter End to take out Outpost Siege. I disagree with Brad Nelson’s suggestion of cutting a Bile Blight and an Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, both of which I find to be excellent. Elspeth is never fun for them, and Bile Blight is a key part of your “don’t get killed” plan. By contrast, I don’t like Sorin here. I find that Sorin has a tendency to get killed for not that much advantage on the board, and I’m focused on board presence rather than life totals. My other options are better at keeping the board clean and preventing bad things from happening.
Note that Stormbreath Dragon and/or Sarkhan will be the only threats left that can actually touch you after a while if they board as expected, so preserve Hero’s Downfall and Murderous Cut when you have the option. Murderous Cut is great because it can be disguised in a way your other removal spells cannot, and Erase is often a blowout midcombat by killing Chained to the Rocks when it’s not taking out Outpost Siege.
An additional concern is the potential for them to board in or play Ashcloud Phoenix. In practice this is currently rare, but Ben Stark has proposed it as his sideboard card of choice against control going forward, and while it is eminently beatable, it is also a very good reason to keep in Abzan Charm. You have a number of good trimming choices in order to make that happen.
There are two Jeskai decks. If you are up against Jeskai Non-Tokens (the builds without Jeskai Ascendancy), you’re basically up against a bad red/white deck with some card draw spells in it. Drown in Sorrow is neither especially reliable nor necessary now, and Erase does nothing, so leave those behind, keep Thoughtseize to take away Treasure Cruise and bring in Sorin, Solemn Visitor.
Against Jeskai Ascendancy, your prime directive is to keep them off Jeskai Ascendancy itself and make sure Monastery Mentor dies. Here sweepers are actually good, since they have no choice but to spam the table with tokens, and 1-for-1 removal isn’t all that great, as its only important target is the Mentor. Here you can afford to take out some copies of Siege Rhino, because the games are all or nothing, and you would much rather keep their board quiet. Fleecemane Lion is better at what you want to be doing, both early as a 3/3 and late as a 4/4. Thoughtseize isn’t going anywhere since it can take out card draw and Jeskai Ascendancy, and they are playing something at least halfway to a combo deck.
If their creatures go crazy, it will beat what you’re up to. If they don’t, the Heroic deck will be crushed. This build is a little light on answers and it does have an impact, but things are still fine because their deck simply isn’t very good. This is the only place where I don’t feel the need to have all the Fleecemane Lions, but that also might be a mistake—you actually need to use the -3 on Elspeth a lot, so Siege Rhino might be the worse of the two creatures, but that’s probably being too cute because the life swing can be pretty important and you often have to race.
Another question I’ve toyed with is whether you should put in a copy or two of Erase. Aqueous Form is very dangerous for you, and taking out an Ordeal either saves 10 life or two cards even though they still get the one counter, so there are lots of good deals to be had, but is that better than what you’re otherwise giving up? I’m not sure, as I haven’t run into this deck as much as I’d like to in order to be able to experiment with more plans, but it’s certainly a reasonable option. If you don’t do that your boarding looks like this:
If your build has access to a third End Hostilities, you would board in one fewer Lion to fit it in.
If their deck fires on all cylinders and does its thing, you’re pretty much toast. You can break that up by going after their mana or by going after their threats. In general going after the threats is the better bet, as they have a lot of mana. If you go after the mana, often they just play a slower game and their threats resolve anyway. Keep the option in mind, but don’t be inclined to go for it unless you see that you can create an issue and have the means to close the game out quickly.
Going after their threats is far more realistic. They likely have about 20 big cards that require an answer, thanks to all their mana sources. In theory, Thoughtseize, Hero’s Downfall, Utter End, Abzan Charm, and Murderous Cut should all be able to trade off for one of those twenty, leaving only six more including Courser of Kruphix, and leaving you with Garruk, Apex Predator, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, and the card advantage off of Courser of Kruphix, Read the Bones, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang to bring it home. Even without End Hostilities, winning this way can definitely work, and if you see a threat-light hand with a Thoughtseize, this is the path you take. The biggest problem is Genesis Hydra, which must be answered twice if they draw it in the right window.
Sideboarding means deciding how much you want to fight the mana versus fight the threats. With the ability to bring in End Hostilities and go monstrous on Fleecemane Lion, which can hold off many enemy threats, I’m inclined to continue aiming at their threats and to play a control game. Cutting Courser of Kruphix or Read the Bones, as Brad Nelson suggests, seems poor to me, as you want your card advantage engine up and running to get to the good stuff, but taking out some of Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Siege Rhino makes sense because the only threat they stop is Whisperwood Elemental, and they don’t even stop that for long—they can go over the top of 4/5s quite easily and activating Tasigur is a slow game.
The life swing really doesn’t do much on either side, and you generate a graveyard, so Tasigur gets the nod for me because he’s cheaper and you can potentially activate him. Putting in Lion gives you enough early presence that you can afford to take out Bile Blight and trim Siege Rhino. There will be games you’ll be wishing you had Drown in Sorrow or Bile Blight, but there will be other games that those cards would be the way you lose, and I think there are more games in the second category than the first one.
Everything matters in the mirror. With lots of planeswalkers running around, board presence can lead to large card advantage even when it can’t kill the opponent, so you can’t ignore the board and fall behind in order to focus purely on Courser of Kruphix and Read the Bones, as much as you would like to, and later on the players will trade haymakers if they both survive. Your goal is to develop your board while being able to have a strong answer should the opponent show up with a planeswalker, and sometimes one player can go on the offensive and go for the kill. The games can go long, but they often don’t.
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is the only good way to catch up against a dominant board, but even he is not especially good at that, because he costs 8 and everyone runs four Thoughtseize. If you see him with the first Thoughtseize, you often take him then and there to be safe if you can afford to, but usually you’ll have time for the second Thoughtseize to get him later, and if you’re snowballing it’s usually not that hard to gain other forms of advantage than non-land permanents, or space the casting costs of everyone’s permanents, such that Ugin can’t turn things around all that well. On at least a third of boards Ugin won’t have much impact if he gets removed right away by Hero’s Downfall or Utter End.
Garruk, Apex Predator can provide very strong incremental edge over the board by coming down and killing Elspeth, Sun’s Champion or Sorin, Solemn Visitor without wiping your own board, can always make Beasts, and costs 7. That doesn’t mean Ugin isn’t great, he’s pretty sweet, but he’s manageable and in my experience Garruk is even better.
While sideboarding, an argument can be made for a lot of cards, and the question becomes what 15 cards are out rather than what 60 are in. You know you’re not playing:
It’s safe to assume that no one can afford an efficient way to clear out Elspeth, Sun’s Champion once she starts making tokens, but there are plenty of ways to overwhelm that if she doesn’t live. End Hostilities is sometimes great and sometimes terrible, but most of the time your opponent will be on a combination of indestructible Lions and a bunch of planeswalkers, so it’s tough to get much advantage out of it.
That gives you 10 cards out. The other 5 are less obvious.
Glare of Heresy takes out Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, and she very much has to die. It can also kill Sorin, Siege Rhino, or an early Lion. That’s not bad for two mana, but it can lead to things lining up badly. My inclination is to not bring it in to avoid random bad outcomes, which gets you to 12.
Siege Rhino normally ends up being killed after generating a life swing, but often is less impactful on the real situation than the other available cards. You don’t want only one, but four is a lot given how good all your cards are. So the question is, how many of these are you going to buy for yourself by cutting some combination of other cards? The fourth Lion might be one too many, the Murderous Cut can only hit creatures, so those are the alternatives. My default would likely be three Lions and two Siege Rhinos, and cutting a land is also very reasonable.
[Editor’s Note: This article listed Erase and Glare of Heresy as an answer to Outpost Siege instead of Erase and Utter End.]