Last week I mapped out my intention to explore a wide range of black midrange decks in Modern. Today, I begin with an old favorite—Abzan Midrange.
Abzan has been a thriving archetype ever since Lingering Souls. It’s been at the top of the format on at least two occasions: Around Pro Tour Fate Reforged (shortly after the printing of Siege Rhino), and around the 2016 World Championship (shortly after the printing of Grim Flayer). Like all of the decks I’ll cover in this series, it’s well-balanced with few weaknesses, and plays a high concentration of the best cards in Modern.
I chose Abzan for the Team Unified Modern Grand Prix in Madrid earlier this month. Joel Larsson (Humans), Lukas Blohon (Jeskai), and I played to a 9-5 record. My individual results with Abzan were similar to the team record at 8 wins, 5 losses, and 1 match where we didn’t need to finish game 3. Predictably, it felt great when playing against fair decks like control, Death’s Shadow, and other creature decks. But it was a bit slow and unexciting when facing down big mana decks and certain combo decks.
Since I made a couple of odd choices as a result of the Team Unified restrictions, I’ll post the deck that I would play next time instead of the deck that I played in Madrid.
The Grim Flayers (and the 2 artifacts to go with them) are an attempt to speed up the deck for the matchups where you really need to get your opponent dead. You have a fighting chance in any matchup if you can start with a discard spell into Dark Confidant or Grim Flayer. But at the GP I often found myself looking at opening hands full of removal spells, and having to guess whether or not they’d be good against my opponent’s strategy. Grim Flayer rounds out your proactive early plays, especially since Scavenging Ooze is better played later in the game than as a 2-drop.
What’s Special About Abzan?
All of the decks that I’ll cover in this series will be able to use discard spells to clear the way for hard-hitting threats like Tarmogoyf, Death’s Shadow, or Gurmag Angler. Instead, let’s focus on what Abzan has that similar decks might not. Before getting into the white cards, it’s important to mention a few of the grindier black and green cards, since most versions of Death’s Shadow typically do not include them.
Scavenging Ooze is one of the best late-game creatures in Modern. I actually played 3 main-deck copies to great effect at GP Madrid. Ooze represents incidental graveyard hate against Dredge and Living End, and incidental life gain against Burn and Affinity. It can invalidate the important effects of Snapcaster Mage, Kolaghan’s Command, and Kitchen Finks. Given enough time, it completely outclasses Tarmogoyf, and can ruin your opponent’s prospects for delve and delirium. The only weakness is that it’s slow. Prerequisites for playing Scavenging Ooze are plenty green mana, and a desire to go into the mid- and late-game.
Dark Confidant is the best turn-2 play for a black midrange deck, and also happens to be Scavenging Ooze’s best friend. These two cards excel against creature decks that lack removal, such as Humans and Collected Company, as they allow you to win the game without having to attack. Note that slower versions of Abzan don’t always play Dark Confidant, but I think that those builds are a poor choice in a field with this much combo and big mana.
Liliana of the Veil is the biggest reason to choose a strategy like Abzan or Jund over Death’s Shadow. She is a potent, efficient planeswalker that serves as removal against creature decks, resource denial against control, combo, and big mana, and a win condition against any opponent who can’t remove her.
Lingering Souls is the easiest way to gain an edge over fair decks. The forces acting on Modern players lead us to strive for more and more efficient threats and answers. In a world where most answer cards are spot removal spells that cost 1 or 2 mana, a card that produces 4 creatures can be virtually impossible to beat. It’s also resilient to permission and plays great with Liliana and Grim Flayer. Souls is the real reason to choose Abzan, and you’ll be amazed at how many games your opponents completely fold to a single copy of Lingering Souls.
It’s also no secret that Stony Silence is one of the best sideboard cards in Modern. Affinity players live in fear of it, but I also love how strong it is against Urza Tron. It has applications against plenty of other decks like Lantern, Krark-Clan Ironworks, Eldrazi Tron, and Grand Architect, just to name a few.
My Take on Abzan
My version of Abzan looks similar to Jund or G/B Rock. I love the mana efficiency of those decks and wanted to port that strength into a deck capable of casting Lingering Souls and Stony Silence. Fatal Push makes this possible, as it offers a removal spell that you’re happy to cast on turn 1, and allows Dark Confidant to provide a steady stream of efficient answer cards that keep you ahead. I like to think that the days where Abzan is required to pack a bunch of clunky 4-drops and play for long games are over.
Although it’s from a few months ago, the thought process outlined in this article is largely the one that led me to my current version of Abzan. I’ll just re-emphasize the value of being centered around black and green, without the need to fetch for white mana early in the game. It leads to taking less damage against decks that attack your life total, and improves your ability to play around Blood Moon.
Since I don’t have too many wacky card choices in my main deck, perhaps it’s better to focus on what I don’t have.
I did play with 1 Siege Rhino in Madrid, but it was unexciting. It’s smaller than creatures that cost a fraction of the mana, and you don’t want to see 4-mana spells in your opening hand. Lingering Souls is simply the best card if you’re looking for midgame firepower.
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or Elspeth, Knight-Errant is a strong card if you’re looking for even more ways to gain an edge in fair matchups. But since fair matchups don’t seem to be a top priority right now, I don’t think it’s worth going out of your way to support the double-white mana costs.
Quantifying how good or bad matchups are in Modern is tricky. Small details about players, deck lists, and sideboard strategies can change a lot. It’s also bound to be controversial because everyone’s experiences have been different.
You might see me write a sentence like, “Abzan has a good matchup against Storm.” This is not to say that Storm cannot beat Abzan. In fact, if you’re an expert Storm player, I could certainly believe that you beat Abzan more than half the time that you play the matchup, due to your experience edge over an average opponent. The way you should interpret that sentence is, “I believe that with tight play and a good list of Abzan, against a Storm player of roughly equal skill, you will win (noticeably) more than half the time.”
Death’s Shadow. Abzan shines against opposing black midrange decks, largely due to Lingering Souls. Death’s Shadow is a midrange mirror where you have more card advantage, creaturelands, and Souls. You can kill all of their threats 1-for-1 with the exception of Snapcaster Mage, which you can easily outclass. Even when they stick a threat, their life total will be so low that they sometimes can’t even trade hits with your Treetop Village.
Storm. You have discard, a reasonable clock, and tons of ways to kill Baral, Chief of Compliance and Goblin Electromancer. You have access to graveyard hate while not folding to Plan B strategies like Empty the Warrens or Blood Moon.
Small creature decks (Humans, Hatebears, Zoo). You have tons of efficient removal and your creatures tend to trump theirs on an individual basis. Damnation in the sideboard is just the cherry on top.
Celestial Colonnade decks (U/W and Jeskai). This is another spot where Abzan has a favorable matchup, but other versions of black midrange do not. It’s hard to win these matchups with creatures, but threats that can’t be answered 1-for-1 (Liliana and Lingering Souls) will win games when backed up by discard spells.
Infect. You have tons of removal and other disruption that all cost 1 and 2 mana. Tarmogoyf, Confidant, and Liliana put them away quickly if they stumble. They usually need a great draw on the play if they want to beat you.
Fair (Close to Even) Matchups
Abzan Collected Company and Elves. This is always a war. Both Abzan and these CoCo decks excel at defending themselves, generating value, and can win without attacking for chip damage. Scavenging Ooze and Dark Confidant are your most important cards. I prefer Jund for these matchup as well, particularly since Lingering Souls is unexciting.
Dredge. I consider this a close matchup for the Abzan list offered in this article. (Main-deck Scavenging Ooze and Nihil Spellbomb with 3 more pieces of graveyard hate in the sideboard.) If you skimp on hate cards, it’s going to be a bad matchup.
U/R Breach. A good matchup in theory, but a only fair matchup in practice. There are too many “gotcha” games that they steal with Blood Moon, a flurry of burn spells, or assembling their combo.
Eldrazi. It’s harder to get your removal to line up properly as compared to other creature decks. You also do not have inevitability as the game drags on.
Urza Tron. Extremely hard to beat their good draws in game 1, but things improve a bit after sideboarding.
I believe Abzan is a good choice for your next Modern tournament. In other words, it’s not outstanding, but it’s better than choosing a random 5-0 deck from a Magic Online League. You also get my 100% satisfaction guarantee on the deck list offered in this article.
I like the matchup against Death’s Shadow, Storm, and Celestial Colonnade decks enough that I’m willing to stomach 10 or 15 percent of my matches being against big mana decks. But you can’t sideboard for all of your bad matchups at the same time, and if that number continues climbing into the 20 percent range, then it’ll probably be time to put Abzan on the shelf.
Lingering Souls is only good against a subsection of the Modern field, but it’s so amazing when it’s good that it’s a very high-value card to have access to. Emphasizing the matchup against fair decks seems like a better way to play to the strengths of G/B, and many of the strongest Modern players still choose Death’s Shadow and control decks. Having a favorable matchup against them is quite appealing.
I hope you enjoyed this discussion of Abzan Midrange. Remember to post in the comments section if there’s a particular Thoughtseize+Fatal Push deck that you’d like to hear about. You can expect me to dive into some Death’s Shadow strategies in the coming weeks.