Esper – Even to favorable. If you read my CFB article you would know the first deck I wanted to look at for fighting Esper was Abzan Control. Post-board you have 6 draw-twos which are almost functionally Dig through Times because, other than Ojutai, the Esper answers are not very well lined up against your threats, so they look at 7 and have to pick 2 cards which trade 1-for-1 (at best) with whatever card you’re threatening with. They also can’t really afford to keep in discard, whereas yours is great against them, making your curve overall better. The biggest threat they have is 1-for-1 until turn-5 Ojutai. If you get Nissa down on the play first, even that isn’t relevant. Game 1, you only have 3 completely dead cards, so you should have a chance (I won 1 of my 3 game 1s).
Blue Decks Without Ojutai – As unloseable as a matchup gets in Standard. I thought these might be popular because they are good against Raptor and Esper.
Abzan Aggro – Favorable. Elspeth is the best thing you can be doing. Wingmate Roc is scary, but you have answers. They can tempo you out with a good curve, but if both players draw decently you’re just better suited to fighting their threats than they are to fighting yours.
Abzan Midrange – Even to favorable. Half the people on Day of Toronto were playing 72-75 of my 75. But if they don’t have Protectors and Nissa (both of which are excellent in the mirror), then you have an edge.
Deathmist Raptor Decks – Favorable. Raptor decks almost universally scoop to Elspeth assuming you draw an equal number of spells. Even Mastery loses to Elspeth usually and you have GW Commands to answer that even. Den Protector can have difficulty getting through Lions and your Den Protectors. Abzan Charms can sometimes shut off GY shenanigans and they aren’t usually fast enough to aggro you out.
RDW – Even to favorable. Game 1 is tough but you can always Lion/Courser/Rhino/Rhino them. Post-board you have a lot of great tools. I chose Arashin Cleric over Hornet Nest/Drown because my current version is light on turn-2 interaction (whereas there is quite a bit on 3) and because I found they often played one threat only and were dashing a bunch. Basically you want to draw 1 Drown + 1 Cleric every game but not 2 of either.
Stormbreath Dragon Decks – Even to unfavorable. We are light on answers to Stormbreath, but Ultimate Price is just generally poor in the current field. I think the versions which max out on Havens and have Elvish Mystic are the worst matchup. Things like Mardu or Jeskai are slightly better.
Green Devotion – Unfavorable. Probably the worst possible matchup. You are rarely aggressive enough to get under them and without cheap removal they can quickly go over the top of you.
Heroic – Unfavorable. Their deck can always self-destruct, so you have a chance, but your best chance is the Lion + Rhino draws.
If you look at the Day 2 metagame for GP Toronto, the first 6 decks were about 85% of the metgame. That’s exactly what I was hoping for when I locked into the current build of Abzan.
Wizards classifies Abzan decks in a bunch of different ways. But those titles are misleading because they ignore the fundamental strategic approach in my mind.
Abzan Aggro – This is generally the best deck for beating random stuff. It also has the best red matchup from my testing.
Abzan Morph – I think this is the weakest version. Deathmist Raptor/Mastery of the Unseen is less powerful than Elspeth and I don’t think its aggressive enough to beat the random stuff that Abzan Control loses to.
Abzan Control – Leveraging the power of Elspeth and Nissa. All the other decisions in deckbuilding are basically to support these two finishers. You play more lands than everyone else (26 + Courser), you play answers over threats (because we are more concerned with getting to 6), and also about protecting your bombs from the few answers they may have. Sometimes your answers are proactive (Fleecemane/Rhino for example).
Elspeth is the best card in the format against a lot of decks. Decks like Abzan Aggro/Deathmist Raptor have few answers to it and even when they do it’s at least a 2-for-1. It also closes out the game very quickly in any boardstate that isn’t very unfavorable.
Two popular decks don’t care as much about Elspeth. Versus Esper Dragons the card is situational and expensive. It isn’t terrible but it isn’t great either. Against RDW Elspeth is an acceptable finisher since it prevents tokens + Atarka’s Command shenanigans, though you win most long games without her anyway. In most games she will be too slow to matter.
That’s where having a good sideboard/main deck comes in. For this tournament I chose to fill my main deck with complementary pieces that were good against Esper (Lion/Den Protector/Crux/Nissa) while using the majority of my sideboard space for red.
Finally, I have adopted a Den Protector as my source of late-game card advantage. Other people play more planeswalkers, Read the Bones, or Tasigurs. I like Den Protector because it can be a 2-drop when needed and because getting back specific cards is important against decks like Esper Dragons where you will often have dead cards for the specific context of the game.
And 2 removal spells.
Take out a Nissa instead if you are on the draw or think they are playing a super aggressive version.
And 2 removal spells.
I was taking out two Coursers because they seemed to have a ton of Dromoka’s Commands but this should maybe be something else.
I sometimes side out an Elspeth or Urborg instead depending on their sideboard strategy and whether I’m on the play or draw. For example, on the draw vs. a ton of Ashioks I often keep the third Downfall over the third Elspeth.
Tips and Tricks with Abzan
Turn-2 Den Protectors: This only comes up when you don’t have a Thoughtseize/Lion to play on turn 2. The most common reason to turn-2 a Den Protector is because you are on the draw and want to Read the Bones/Abzan Charm on turn 2. But in general it’s also very good against blue decks because you need to apply enough pressure that they have to spend mana on their turn. It also protects Coursers/Rhinos from Edicts.
Abzan Charm: Growing your Den Protector can often make it unblockable. You can also put counters on your opponent’s creatures (Wingmate Roc is a good example) at the end of their turn so your Elspeth can kill them with her second ability.
Nissa, Worldwaker: Priority #1 is resolving Nissa. You often have opportunities to play her on 5 mana and make a tapped creature. This is always correct if they can’t kill the Nissa on board. Remember, the lands live through both Vault and Ugin.
Prioritize putting your fetches into play in the mid-late game. I often see people play a painland/Sandsteppe Citadel over a fetch when they have a land drop they don’t need the mana from. But having fetches in play for when you draw Courser is very valuable. If you reveal 2 lands in a row off of Courser that fetch in play essentially draws you a card.
You also want to save scrylands for as long as possible, especially in game 1. Maybe you wouldn’t mind a 4th/5th land, but want to avoid drawing more. If you play a scryland turn 1 and see that 4th land, you will have to keep. But you would have been happy to draw a spell there and scry afterwards. A good rule of thumb is you should know what you are looking for when you play that scryland over say a Sandsteppe Citadel on turn 1. If there isn’t anything in particular then consider holding them until you have more information.
Thoughtseize then scry. I think this is true when you play Esper/Abzan. Your deck is full of answers that are only needed based on specific scenarios. For example, if I scry early and see a Crux, I might want to keep it if their hand has two Dragons (since I can only Thoughtseize one). On the other hand if they had zero Dragons I definitely don’t want it.
The only corner-case exception is if knowing that an untapped land is on top will change what you want to take. For example if I have 5 lands and Elspeth, I may care less about an Ojutai if there is an untapped land on top. Or if I know my third land is on top (and it’s untapped) I can take a more expensive spell because I will be able to cast my removal on time to prevent aggressive draws.
Round 1-2. Bye
Round 3 vs. Justin Atarka Red. L. 2-1
Round 4 vs. William. /w Fabiano’s Esper. W. 3-1
Round 5 vs. Lisa /w Abzan Aggro. W. 4-1
Round 6 vs. Sheffi /w Esper Dragons. W. 5-1
Round 7 vs. Huey /w UW Control. W. 6-1
Round 8 vs. Dylan Donegan (t16) /w Brad Nelson Aggro. W. 7-1
Round 9 vs. Eric Li (t16) /w Esper Dragons. W. 8-1
Round 10 vs. Bangliang (t32) w/ Abzan Reanimator . W. 9-1
Round 11 vs. David (t16) /w GR Dragons. L. 9-2
Round 12 vs. Reid Duke /w UW Control. W. 10-2
Round 13 vs. Christian Calcano (t16) /w UB Control. W. 11-2
Round 14 vs. Dustin (t64) /w GR Dragons. W. 12-2
Round 15 vs. Marcel (t16) /w Esper Dragons. W. 13-2
Eric and Dustin had very poor draws against me in Rounds 9 and 14. I drew my Nissa game 1 vs. Reid/Huey and Calcano. It was enough to beat good draws against all of them. AgainstAbzan Reanimator he tried to set up big turns with Whip twice and both times Dromoka’s Command fizzled the life gain which put him essentially dead on board.
Some Interesting Decisions
Round 3: Opponent flips a Mountain while shuffling. I keep G (Forest), W (Plains), Heath, Courser, Lion, 2x Rhino, on the draw and never see a 4th land and the tilt begins to settle in.
Game 3 I keep Arashin Cleric, Dromoka’s Command, Elspeth + 4 lands on the play. My opponent attacks on turn 2 (I drew a Cut) with two Swiftspears. I am at 22. If I block I can get blown out by a Wild Slash or Coordinated Assault. Normally it wouldn’t be a huge deal, but I need a creature to use Dromoka’s Command most effectively. However, almost no one plays the Assault and I believe 100% that siding out Wild Slash is correct. His attack is also guaranteed whenever he has nothing. So I choose to block. He Wild Slashed and I never drew another creature (only lands and downfalls).
Round 4: My opponent played a maindeck Utter End, which I knew was in Fabiano’s Esper Dragon’s list (but not in most others). I also knew the SCG Cleveland list had a ton of planeswalkers so I didn’t side out any Hero’s Downfalls, eventually killing a Narset with one. Happy that some of the prep work paid off.
Round 7: Huey introduced himself with a cordial nice to meet you. This is the third time we have met.
Round 12: I assume Reid is playing something similar to Huey but he has Silumgar’s Scorn, so maybe not. Both games I am very conservative, squeezing maximum value and playing to his outs and even though he topdecks reasonably well, I am able to outlast him on the back of green card draw (good job Wizards!).
Round 15: Game 1 I mulligan and die to mana. Game 2, I have a fairly poor draw again eventually Duressing him when I have a Rhino and a Courser in play to his Ojutai. I cast Thoughtseize as well and his hand is:
I make the determination that I can’t possibly win a long game (which is actually rare in this matchup), so I take both removal spells and pray he bricks on DTT. I think if he had cast Downfall in response he would have won this game. As is, I had to get very lucky and am happy to even get to game 3.
Game 3, I make my proudest play of tournament. I am on the draw and when I Duress him on turn 2 I see the perfect hand from him:
Him: 2 Temples, and he just scryed to the top.
You: 2 lands in play
And 2 lands.
What do you take?
We have to imagine that both sides are getting to their land drops on time or this game is not going to be close. In that case I saw that Elspeth is going to be too slow no matter what. But even if I take a counter he will have one for Abzan Charm, which means I need to have 3 mana up on his turn 6. I can then Charm, hopefully baiting his only counter and then use Elspeth. So I take a counter.
But there is another problem, which is that his Bile Blight actually saves him from Elspeth’s 2nd ability. So I need to bait this Bile Blight from him using my creatures.
Turn 4 I can play the Lion, but if he has drawn another removal/counter I won’t get the Blight, but if I wait until 5 I can play it after Ojutai. He will Dissolve the Abzan Charm and have 2 mana up (in particular he is likely not to have 4 blue). So he will be tempted to mainphase the Bile Blight (especially if he forgets Elspeth).
I am not sure if this entire sequence was even optimal, but I made a plan on turn 2 and executed. The rest of the game I play very conservatively and again am able to beat some topdecks. Feeling on top of my game, the overconfidence comes back for me against Brad in the semis.
Quarterfinals: Craig Wescoe with GW.
I think Craig’s deck is about as good as a matchup as I can hope for. He can definitely come out too fast for me (especially with Mystic), but his grindy cards aren’t enough generally and he can’t really beat a resolved Elspeth without Den Protectors and a board advantage. He did miss on Collected Company (when he knew top card was a land) early in the first game, but I only drew half the spells he did so it felt fairly representative of the match.
Semifinals: Brad Nelson with Abzan Aggro.
Game 1, I lose to mana which is unfortunate because generally I have found this matchup great game 1 on the play.
Game 2, I am basically ahead for the whole thing. I cast turn 2 Den Protector because I want to protect myself against Self-Inflicted Wound and I knew I would want to play turn 3 Read/Turn 4 Rhino probably. Read the Bones is already going to generate card advantage so it’s more important to not die quickly.
There were opportunities when I could have attacked for “free damage” with Den Protector but chose not to. In those cases it was because there was no way for Brad to kill my Siege Rhino and leave mana up for his Deathdealer. So Den Protector threatening blocks made any removal spell do 2 less damage for him.
When I reveal Crux on top of my library (while scrying) I am pretty far ahead on life and a little ahead on board. But Brad made a comment “I am in if you’re in.” I can’t really explain it, but it almost seemed like he wanted me to bottom the Crux. So I end up in the tank, worried that I am overthinking it. Trying not to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Given that he was stuck on 4 lands, the first thing I thought of was Wingmate Roc. This makes sense to me as one way to lose so I keep the Crux on top.
Unfortunately I miss an on-board kill at that point (I could have Abzan Charmed my own Den Protector), and I literally see it 1 second after passing the turn. If you watch the game I look visibly frustrated and this is why. Embarrassing, but luckily it would help me refocus for the next match.
Game 3, is another great game. I basically have Courser going and Brad is “stuck” on 6 lands with 2 Deathdealers. He Thoughtseizes me and leaves me with Crux and Downfall. I use the threat of Crux + Downfall to constrain his mana and prevent good attacks/blocks.
He also sees every draw step, so I make sure that I don’t play my last threat without having one on top. That way he won’t just be okay with losing his board to Crux and going into topdeck mode. I don’t cast either removal spell for multiple turns and eventually get enough ahead to close him out. This is a great game to watch. Using removal spells would have immediately relieved pressure on his mana. So I didn’t even really want to trade them 1-for-1. Instead, by buying time for my Coursers to do work I gained card advantage.
Finals: Edgar with Mardu Dragons.
Game 1 is very interesting. He keeps 7 and when I run my Den Protector face down on turn 3, he doesn’t Draconic Roar it. He also plays his third land tapped. Turn 4, I play Rhino and have some serious pressure on him. The only cards that make sense in his hand at this point are 3 mana removal spells and Dragons.
On turns 3 and 4 (after he has seen Den Protector) he bottoms cards with Temples. So I am absolutely sure he doesn’t have Draconic Roar at this point. He kills my first Rhino and I have a choice of playing a 2nd Rhino or playing Courser and using Den Protector. He will have 5 mana next turn. I decide to Rhino since another edict isn’t a big deal, because then I can flip Den Protector for the third Rhino and maximize pressure vs. a Dragon-heavy hand, and I don’t want to be closed out by multiple Dragons. He draws Draconic Roar and had the 2nd edict, so I lose my board (AND THE DEN VALUE), eventually losing to a million Dragons.
In game 2 I decide to try Nissa against him since I assume he will side into a slower deck, and on the play combined with Thoughtseize they might steal a game. He keeps a 2-Cave hand (which I would mulligan) and dies.
Game 3. Since Edgar goes back for his sideboard, I have to consider the possibility he might try to go under me. I decide to side out Thoughtseizes + Nissa for a combination of Bile Blights, Cruxes, and Abzan Charms. Hopefully this prevents me from dying to Rabblemaster shenanigans but will allow me to play a long game as well.
He mulls to 5, but my Courser doesn’t hit for 5-6 turns and he is drawing only gas to match me. I use my removal as patiently as possible trying to avoid damage. At one point he Kologhan’s Commands me forcing me to discard when my hand is Silence the Believers, Downfall, Rhino, and Elspeth and I am stuck on 5.
I discarded Silence, which was a mistake. I think keeping Rhino and Elspeth is fine since you want to finish the game and it is possible you flood out from this point. But Silence exiles (relevant due to Havens and Commands) and it would help reduce the runner-runner-runner outs of 3x Stormbreath (or some combination with recursion) which I could have potentially lost to. At the time I thought the mana would be more important, but since he can only deploy 1 threat a turn I am less likely to be behind on tempo.
I finally draw a tapped land and Edgar draws a Stormbreath. This time I see the winning line with Abzan Charm (Pump his Seeker and then use Elspeth to kill it and Dragon). At this point I can see that I have won and just kind of threw my cards on the table.
Not the most gracious victory ever, but it feels good to finally win a GP after going 2nd, 2nd, 4th.