The first round of Regional PTQs is behind us and it showcased the end game of the new PPTQ season. A lot of deserving people qualified this weekend and I’d like to extend my congratulations to Paul Cheon for locking up Gold this weekend—with a little help from Nathan Holiday, of course. While the deck lists haven’t been released yet, we’ll be seeing them soon. Until then, you can find the Top 8 deck lists for CFB’s Regional PTQ below.
Esper Dragons was dominant in some places, but the metagame has started adjusting in a big way to its presence. Dedicated hate decks first started popping up on Magic Online, but even setting those aside, pretty much every non-devotion deck has been sliding toward a configuration to better survive counters and removal. Today I want to talk about the Abzan variant with morphs—an offshoot of Abzan Aggro that plays out closer to the old midrange decks.
While I don’t get to play real Magic nearly as much anymore, I’ve had a chance to compete in a couple of PPTQs lately and Top 8’d all but one with Abzan Control. What I found is that tweaking it to be more proactive was the way to go against other slow deck, especially now that Esper is the real deal. Fellow Abzan aficionado and coworker Marina turned me on to Den Protector as the answer and she was dead on. Maternal Witness quickly became one of the best cards in the deck and allowed me a lot more staying power via buying back discard and threats in the late game.
Den Protector also made sense with another move I made recently, which was to dump Satyr Wayfinder and Sylvan Caryatid into a bin and jam Fleecemane Lion instead. What I found was that while the mana is very ambitious when trying to play Lions and Deathdealers, focusing on a single gold 2-drop and keeping the rest of the creatures solidly in green made for a more consistent mana base. Once the mana became less wretched and I wanted to stay proactive, I wanted to swap Courser of Kruphix for a better attacker.
While there are plenty of reasonable 3-drops, Deathmist Raptor is the most resilient threat against removal. Not only does Raptor combo beautifully with Den Protector, they allow you some excellent mana sinks in the late game to justify the higher land count. Running 26 lands with only a few expensive spells doesn’t concern me nearly as much when Den Protector can be treated as a 5-drop and Deathmist as an 8. Against Esper Dragons and removal-heavy Abzan decks it’s possible to get dragged into longer games where you recycle these same threats over and over.
Jim Davis played a version of Abzan Morphs to a Top 16 finish at the Cleveland Open this weekend and a whole host of others were in the Top 32.
While Jim’s version still runs Courser of Kruphix, the rest of the deck is very similar to where I ultimately wanted to end up. Mastery of the Unseen in the sideboard is a nice complement to the Den/Deathmist package and keeps control on their toes. Despite 26 lands and Courser, all the high drops have been moved to the sideboard or cut entirely. That should give you an idea of how much mana you can sink into the Deathmist engine through a long game.
There are a number of ways to go from here. You could go to value town and add big planeswalkers to the main since you want to go long. Against Esper, a combo of Mastery of the Unseen and discard is a robust plan. You could go full-on Abzan Aggro taking advantage of Warden of the First Tree as an additional on-color mana sink alongside Dromoka’s Command. There’s a ton of small tweaks you can make to Abzan based on how you aggressively you want to play the deck and your expected metagame.
For example, this is the build I want to try out in the future.
While Dragons are pretty good at blocking various birds, the birds do a lot of work against everyone else in the format. Dragonlord Ojutai may be the single best finisher in the format, but a large part of that is because of how well it lines up against the current format. While GR Dragons got everyone focused on dealing with flyers for a week or two, we’re moving back toward single kill spells that don’t deal well with multiple creatures.
As for the flying monsters in Esper Dragons, well there’s not much to talk about. Dragonlord Silumgar is slowly becoming less relevant in the deck as people learn to leave in removal that deals with him and big green decks slowly get pushed away. The card is still quite powerful and can swing a game, but if green decks have access to Hero’s Downfall or Valorous Stance there’s less incentive. Old Silumgar with hexproof may be a little expensive, but at least can still block very effectively while wiping out tokens. Still, he has such minimal impact when he first hits play whereas Dragonlord Silumgar can swing a game if they don’t have the answer.
Ondřej Stráský posted an interesting list on Twitter where he added three Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver to the deck. This gives him an edge game 1 where control players aren’t necessarily expecting to deal with planeswalkers and many have cut back on Hero’s Downfall. It also gives the deck a useful angle to interact with Ojutai Bant or the aforementioned Morph Abzan decks early in the game. Killing or countering a 2-drop then jamming Ashiok on an empty board and riding it for a few turns is an easy way to gain a board presence with minimal resources expended.
In the sideboards of these control decks we start to see the quiet return of Perilous Vault. Both Stráský and Holiday have one just chilling in their sideboards as a way to deal with enchantments, and creatures like Deathmist Raptor. Utter End is another singleton starting to make a comeback, not in Abzan, but for Esper players to deal with threats that otherwise won’t go away. Silence the Believers enforces a stiff markup mana-wise, but also puts a bit of hurt on the plodding value engine I just talked about. Risen Executioner in control mirrors is a similarly scary threat.
Some people were concerned about this being a Caw-Blade scenario where the control deck got a bunch of fresh tools that made an almost-good-enough shell into the best thing around. Esper may be the best deck in the format, but it doesn’t have the raw power to force everything else out. It can still stumble for answers early or clunk out of games where it’s competitive. It doesn’t have the smooth flow or raw card advantage engine the best control decks have had.
It does, however, feature the role-switching that’s a hallmark of some of the best control decks. You can also tweak the deck to deal with these slower value engines and even turn them against opponents who would’ve been better off with threats lower to the ground.
This weekend is a good opportunity to decide what you want to do—play Esper, play a deck with a card or board advantage engine to keep up (Abzan or Temur), or go really low to the ground and overwhelm your opponent with cheap threats (red or Collected Company). Whatever you decide, just have a plan for your matchups and if you play blue, don’t commit resources before you actually have too.
Here are the Top 8 lists from our Regional PTQ.