Abzan Control Primer

Boris PanIf you had told me that I would finish day one of an SCG Open at 6-3, then have a win-and-in for Top 8 in the very last round, I probably would have laughed at you. Not because I doubt my ability as a player, but because it is very difficult to do so. With three losses, you would have to go undefeated on day two – one loss and you are stone cold dead for Top 8.

And then I would’ve had to eat my words, apologize for laughing at you, and maybe buy you dinner.

This past weekend saw the Starcitygames.com Open Series stop in Indianapolis. I was originally unable to go due to having to work over the weekend, but with some good fortune, was informed that I would not be needed after all. I found a couple travel buddies, booked a hotel, and looked forward to eating a delicious steak at St. Elmo Steakhouse. After all, the REAL reason people go to Indianapolis is to eat at this fine restaurant, right? Right. The tournament is just a bonus.

If you know me, you would know that I’ve been playing an Abzan midrange list that a friend of mine was crushing PPTQs and 5Ks with, with a few minor tweaks of course. However, in the week leading up to the Open, I was unsure if Abzan would be the right call. The standard portion at the Starcitygames.com Invitational showcased a resurgence in a long-forgotten archetype: R/G Devotion, putting four copies into the Top 8, another copy into the Top 8 of the Standard Premier IQ, and a sixth copy into Top 16 of that Premier IQ. These decks typically have a good matchup against the slower Abzan decks, as the combination of mana acceleration, Xenagos, the Reveler, and good top end spells like Whisperwood Elemental, Genesis Hydra, and Dragonlord Atarka provides enough gas to strain the removal spells from the Abzan deck. I thought about resurrecting another forgotten archetype in Jeskai Aggro, as typically the best way to beat these devotion decks were to bash in with fliers because they have very few removal spells, if any. Also, Xenagos hates Mantis Rider with a passion.

Another deck I considered sleeving up was Esper Dragons, the format’s premier control deck (although Adrian Sullivan may disagree). However, people have figured out how to beat Dragonlord Ojutai and friends, and they have fallen out of favor in recent weeks. While I expected a good amount of devotion strategies, arguably the control deck’s best matchup, I anticipated a lot more decks in the field that would be hostile to the control deck, such as the Abzan Aggro list BBD had been advocating.

In the end, I decided to stick to my guns and play the Abzan Midrange deck that I had been championing. It was clear to me that G/R Devotion would be the deck to beat, so a lot of players would play either some form of control deck, a Jeskai deck with lots of fliers, or Abzan Aggro, since the deck can actually race the devotion deck really well. As Dan Cato told me the night before we left: when they zig, you zag.

And when in doubt, Rhino them. Here is the list I registered for the event.

You’ll notice that there are some interesting card choices (and some missing cards) in the deck.

  1. End Hostilities v. Crux of Fate

If you saw my list from the Invitational LCQ’s, you would notice that I played Crux of Fate instead of End Hostilities. However, there are many situations against the G/R Devotion and various dragon decks where I just want the board completely wrathed, and Crux is very awkward against those decks. End Hostilities, on the other hand, does a very good job of clearing the entire board. In addition, Boon Satyr has seen some more play, and End Hostilities can get rid of a bestowed Boon Satyr, while Crux cannot. These factors tilted the scales in the favor of the white board sweeper.

  1. No Ugin, the Spiritdragon in the 75

A couple people have come up to me asking me why I don’t play Ugin in my 75. My answer? It’s slow. It’s clunky. It costs eight mana. In the matchups you would want Ugin, your five mana spells are enough. End Hostilities is a better board clear in the G/R Devotion and the many flavors of creature and dragon decks, because it actually comes down in time. Ugin is also awkward against Dragonlord Atarka, both in mana cost and the fact that it can deal up to five damage to Ugin when it comes down, which is usually enough to kill the spirit dragon. In the Abzan mirrors (I am lumping aggro and megamorph/control here), Wingmate Roc is one of the best trumps, and you are actually being proactive rather than reactive. While the games do go long, often times you will be stuck with an Ugin in hand and only seven mana on the board, and your opponent is beating you down with a Siege Rhino or generating lots of advantage with Elspeth, and sometimes it is too late when you draw the eighth land.

  1. Fleecemane Lion over Deathmist Raptor

On the flip side, not swapping in Deathmist Raptor for Fleecemane Lion was a bit tougher of a decision. In the end, I feel like Fleecemane is better overall – it is a two drop with a reasonable body that can steal the play if you are on the draw and your opponent does not play a two drop. It is also great against the control decks, as a hexproof and indestructible Lion can give control players fits. That isn’t to say Deathmist Raptor isn’t a great card either – it is fantastic, and the synergy between it and Den Protector is very powerful and has been showcased many times already. However, it IS another three drop where you already have plenty of cards at that spot, and it also sort of forces you to play Satyr Wayfinder, a card I hate. Friday night I did actually try to brew up a list with Fleecemane and Deathmist, but you lose out on too many removal spells/other important cards that it was not worth it. In the end, Fleecemane got the nod due to being a two drop and allowing you to steal the play while being on the draw.

Sideboarding

Before we delve into the matchups, remember that a sideboarding guide is not always set in stone. Your opponents may be playing a slightly different version of the deck, or sideboarding in a different way than other people do. Sideboarding is an art, and the key is to stay flexible.

v. G/R Devotion

This matchup is all about containing the amount of devotion they can generate with Nykthos. Ultimate Price and Thoughtseize both play pivotal roles here, as they allow you to cast two spells in a turn. End Hostilities and Elspeth are also great. Finally, try not to play into getting blown out by Dragonlord Atarka.

Out:

-1 Thoughtseize

-2 Abzan Charm

-1 Courser of Kruphix

In:

+1 Silence the Believers

+1 Ultimate Price

+2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor

Abzan Charm, while great against Deathmist Raptor, can be a little clunky to cast at times. Silence the Believers does a good Abzan Charm impression, and can generate more value in the late game. Sorin is good for generating fliers and padding your life total, and the third Ultimate Price is just great.

v. G/R Dragons

This matchup is fairly similar to the G/R Devotion matchup, but instead of trying to contain their devotion, you are just trying to contain their board. End Hostilities and Elspeth play an important role because they can kill dragons without having to take damage from Thunderbreak Regent, if it is on the board. Ultimate Price is also great.

Out:

-1 Abzan Charm

-2 Thoughtseize

-1 Courser of Kruphix

In:

+1 Ultimate Price

+1 Silence the Believers

+2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor

Sideboarding is very similar to the G/R Devotion matchup. Thoughtseize is a little worse here because they can deal you damage quicker, and they play Haven of the Spirit Dragon so they can bring back any dragons you get rid of. Because of this, try to save your exile effects (Charm and Silence) for their actual dragons and Ashcloud Phoenix (if they play it). Also, remember that Stormbreath Dragon cannot be targeted by Abzan Charm, so hold onto the Silence if you can, or a Hero’s Downfall or Ultimate Price.

v. Esper Dragons

This matchup is super close game one, and is entirely dependent on how many dead cards you draw versus how many Thoughtseizes/Den Protectors you draw. Courser of Kruphix is also important in this matchup, as it generates incremental card advantage while attacking for two. Often, my control opponents will let the Courser stick around, and I am more than happy when they do.

Out:

-2 Ultimate Price

-1 Murderous Cut

-1 End Hostilities

In:

+2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor

+1 Nissa, Worldwaker

+1 Duress

Postboard, the matchup becomes better, because you get to swap out your dead cards for fantastic ones. I leave in all three Downfalls because a lot of control decks are playing Ashiok, and that card can be a nightmare{EDITOR’S NOTE: More pls} if played at the right time. Again, Courser of Kruphix is phenomenal in these matchups, and Abzan Charm is also great.

v. Abzan Control/Megamorph

Ah, the classic mirror match. These games are mostly decided by whoever lands Elspeth and protects her first. Just like in the control matchup, Courser of Kruphix plays an important role in generating you incremental card advantage. Fleecemane is also great on turn two, as it allows you to get in for some free points of damage and cannot be dealt with after you monstrous it. It is, however, brick walled by an opposing Elspeth. This is also one of the only matchups where I have a slightly different board plan when on the play and when on the draw.

Out (on the draw):

-2 Thoughtseize

-2 Ultimate Price

-1 End Hostilities

-1 Courser of Kruphix

In (on the draw)

+2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor

+1 Silence the Believers

+2 Wingmate Roc

+1 Nissa, Worldwaker

On the draw, you are the control deck. You want to deal with everything your opponent plays then slam an Elspeth or Nissa on an empty board. Wingmate Roc is one of the best cards in the mirror, second to Elspeth. I leave in two Thoughtseize because it allows you to play two spells in one turn, and you can strip a threat from their hand, such as an Elspeth or Den Protector. Some decks will board into Dromoka’s Command, so I shave a Courser to mitigate getting blown out by it.

Out (on the play):

-4 [card]Thoughtseize

-2 [card]Ultimate Price

-1 [card]End Hostilities

-1 [card]Courser of Kruphix

In (on the play):

+2 [card]Sorin, Solemn Visitor

+1 [card]Silence the Believers

+2 [card]Wingmate Roc

+1 [card]Nissa, Worldwaker

+2 [card]Dromoka’s Command

Sideboarding on the play is almost the same as on the draw. The only difference is that the remaining two Thoughtseize get boarded out for two Dromoka’s Command. Because you are on the play, you can use Dromoka’s Command to great effect, often times generating a two-for-one if you are patient enough. It is entirely possible that this is incorrect, however, and that leaving in the two Thoughtseize is better.

That’s all I have for today. I hope you enjoyed this article and the insight into some of my card and sideboarding choices. If you have any questions, or feel that I forgot to talk about a deck in my sideboarding guide, feel free to comment below on contact me on social media!

See you next time!

Boris

@BorisTheDagger

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