By Caleb Scherer, 1st Place at the Standard Invitational
Abzan Aggro is the most played and most successful deck in Standard. It’s won the Pro Tour, it regularly performs well on the SCG Open series—including winning the Invitational this past weekend—and even scored a trophy at the Grand Prix level. It feels like every weekend that there’s a major Magic tournament, the top prize goes to Abzan. It’s a difficult deck to target with specific cards but there are ways to beat it and these are the best and worst ways I’ve found.
The Best Answer: Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
This is the single best card in the format against Abzan Aggro and it has the highest correlation between resolving and winning the game. I’m sure Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger has a similarly high correlation, but the more modestly-priced Ugin is going to be relevant in a higher percentage of games and that’s outright better.
Abzan doesn’t play any cards that get around Ugin’s colorless clause and the only possible insulation they can hope for is a Shambling Vent which has the low ceiling of 2 damage on the back swing. There’s a chance they can get you down to 3 life before you cast it at which point they’re drawing live to topdeck a Siege Rhino, but these are all small corner-cases and the reality of the situation is that Ugin is an amazing card against Abzan—if I wanted to build a deck with the sole purpose of beating Abzan, I would play between 1 and 3 copies in the main deck.
Rising: Monastery Mentor
This is a card that has recently picked up in popularity and I’m disappointed in myself for not having thought about it sooner. It’s at a perfect spot in a metagame where Wild Slash and Fiery Impulse aren’t as widely played anymore, and the decks that play them don’t represent a major percentage of the meta—and Abzan Charm is very good.
Monastery Mentor is a slam-dunk turn-3 play against Abzan Aggro and if they don’t have a Dromoka’s Command or a Silkwrap as an immediate response, they’re going to get trounced by an army of Monk tokens. Abzan struggles against a strategy that goes wide because it runs no sweepers and has very few ways of producing card advantage, so once you get way ahead it has virtually no chance to win. Mentor is almost a 1-card army similar to Hordeling Outburst and Dragon Fodder, but without the low-power downside.
Rising: Nissa, Vastwood Seer
I played this card in Abzan in the previous Standard format and swore by it then. In my preparation for Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar I built many decks that included this card and it took a lot to convince me that it never felt quite right. Monastery Mentor, having 2 power is a boon now since it dodges Abzan Charm, and so with that being the hallmark removal of the best deck in the format, it’s totally reasonable to look back on 2-power creatures that are high impact and have been previously discarded. When Jeskai Black ran rampant with Wild Slash, Fiery Impulse, and Kolaghan’s Command, it was prudent to shy away from Nissa. But with Abzan being the new boogeyman, I say it’s time for Nissa to shine again.
Underrated: Painful Truths
This card looks like it may not be good against Abzan Aggro because it matches up poorly against their fastest hands that contain Warden of the First Tree and Snapping Gnarlid, and damaging yourself is the last thing you want to do against Siege Rhino, but I still think it’s one of the best available options against the deck.
If you were to lay out an Abzan Aggro deck, it’s just a collection of good cards evenly spread across the mana curve which is not typical among good aggro decks across Magic’s history. It’s just exactly 4 cards that cost 1 mana, a few that cost 2, 4 cards that cost 3 mana, and so on.
It’s very hard for them to have a good mana curve starting at 1 and ending at 5, so their draws are typically disjointed and they’ll stumble around playing cards of a really high power level, just hoping you can’t deal with them. Unless they have a perfect hand, a turn-3 Painful Truths on the play is likely going to be the best card in Standard you could cast at that spot on the curve. It also supplements the “kill everything” plan you already want to be on once you’ve decided to play black and be paired against a deck with Wingmate Roc. I’ve said it before and I’m happy to say it again Painful Truths is ridiculously good.