Welcome to the first article of my new weekly column, The Deck to Beat! Each week, I’ll highlight a deck that savvy players will want to add to their testing gauntlet. It won’t always be the format’s most popular deck (that might get repetitive), but instead, one that’s likely to see a surge in popularity for the coming weekend.

This week, my choice was a no-brainer—Hangarback Abzan. This deck dominated Grand Prix London two weeks ago, winning the event, and putting four other players between 2nd and 9th place! Last weekend, I watched fellow ChannelFireball columnist Matt Costa tear up our Northeast United States WMCQ with the deck, before finally losing in the Top 8.

Hangarback Abzan is a “middle speed” build of Abzan. It shares similarities to Abzan Aggro, but has cashed in its Rakshasa Deathdealers for the staying power of Hangarback Walker and Den Protector. After sideboarding, it can take an even more controlling posture if it really wants to grind out the opponent. It’s a rock-solid deck that plays a tremendous concentration of the format’s most powerful cards. It has no glaring weaknesses that can easily be exploited.

Additional reading on Hangarback Abzan here.

Hangarback Abzan

I’ve offered up a representative deck list that I think is well-balanced, and helpful to test against. Although the GP London decks had lots of Ultimate Prices, I expect the numbers of that card to decrease, since it’s quite poor in the Hangarback Abzan mirror.

In a world of midrange decks, proper positioning is key. From my experience, the best way to attack these metagames is to try your best to be either much faster than your opponents, or else to be a little slower than them. If you can rush people down and score easy wins, go for it! If not, you have to settle in for long, drawn-out sieges, and you’d better make sure you’re the one with the heavier artillery.

What to Do

What Not to Do

Matchups

Hangarback Abzan Mirror

This is a grindy midrange mirror, but the die roll is more important than normal due to the presence of Dromoka’s Command. Be prepared to employ different game plans and sideboard strategies when you’re on the play or on the draw.

On the play, you might gain an early advantage via a quick beatdown draw, and push that advantage via Dromoka’s Command. (Command is absolutely perfect if your opponent is mirroring your creatures, and you’re pumping plus fighting). Finishing off with a Wingmate Roc or Ajani, Mentor of Heroes will be perfect.

If you’re on the draw, and want to beat an opponent with a good beatdown curve-out, you’re going to need lots of non-Dromoka’s Command removal. Self-Inflicted Wound is best, and Ultimate Price is quite poor. Bile Blight, Valorous Stance, Glare of Heresy, Abzan Charm, and Hero’s Downfall are also good. You can use Surge of Righteousness or Dark Betrayal, but don’t overdo it on those. Once you’ve stabilized, win via Elspeth, Sun’s Champion or Den Protector card advantage.

One final tip is to think carefully about Hangarback Walkers matching up against opposing Abzan Charms. In some situations, you’ll want to keep your Walker as a 2/2 to play around it. However, Abzan Charm is always going to be a great card in the matchup, so it’s not as though you’re making their card dead when you play around it. Use your best judgment—play safe, but don’t play scared.

Mono-Red

Hangarback Walker is going to be a troublesome card for you, but other than that, it’ll be the same as any other Abzan deck. I think it’s best to just fight through the Hangarbacks, since sideboarding narrow cards like Magma Spray or Scouring Sands can cause you to lose if they don’t draw it.

The good news is that you won’t normally have to worry about board sweepers. In fact, you should definitely not play around board sweepers! You should go for the throat and try to win quickly. If you play conservatively, Siege Rhinos and Sorin, Solemn Visitor are going to ruin your day. More good news is that Hangarback Abzan plays a lot of pain lands.

Sideboard some Roasts and Goblin Heelcutters, but stick to the plan of being fast and attacking their life total.

Jeskai

Jeskai is traditionally a small underdog against Abzan, and particularly struggles with the card Siege Rhino. However, attacking Hangarback Abzan in the air is going to be a good plan. Mantis Rider and Stormbreath Dragon will be your heavy lifters.

With all of the Dromoka’s Commands running around, it’s a bad time for Jeskai Ascendancy, Outpost Siege, Chained to the Rocks, or any other enchantments that decks in this vein would normally consider.

Bring a healthy number of Roasts and Valorous Stances, try to stick a threat like Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy or Mantis Rider, and pull ahead with a well-placed Dig Through Time.

Conclusion

All in all, Hangarback Abzan doesn’t bring many surprises. Everything that’s been good against Abzan for the past year is still going to be good. Hangarback is a bit of a speed bump against fast decks, and offers a bit more staying power against slow decks. However, it also makes Hangarback Abzan slower than older versions of Abzan Aggro.