Double-box at The Underground – 1st with Abzan Midrange
By Neil T Stacey
As I’m writing this, the StarcityGames Invitational is still underway but the Swiss rounds are over with, leaving us with our first real look at the new Standard. Sixteen decks went 7-1 or better in the eight rounds of Standard, with ten distinct archetypes present in that top-performing bracket, or possibly eleven depending on how finely you wish to split hairs when it comes to Abzan variants.
Despite the apparent diversity, there are some clear patterns that we can discern in the mix. Mono-red Aggro seems to have gained the most from the addition of DTK, with three copies of the deck going 7-1. One of the three decks isn’t quite mono-red, splashing red for Atarka’s Command in the maindeck and Destructive Revelry in the sideboard.
It’s good to see a third set making an immediate impact on an established format, but amidst the buzz of the new set, the usual suspects have continued to turn in solid performances. Some of the new cards are clearly good, it has to be said, but they aren’t Siege Rhino good.
Three copies of Abzan Midrange and two of Abzan Aggro each took their pilots to a record of 7-1 or better in Standard. Rhino’s partner in crime, Courser of Kruphix, was also found in two Sultai Reanimator decks as well as a G/W Devotion deck and an interesting Abzan Constellation build. It looks as though a big part of the metagame is back to its old configuration of Abzan variants leading the way, with a handful of slower decks going over the top of them and a handful of faster decks taking advantage of the slow, painful mana-bases.
The big story of the tournament is the absence of R/W amongst the top-performing decks, with not a single copy going 7-1 or better. It’s possible the deck just wasn’t present in large numbers, but it seems more likely that the new Standard is a hostile environment for the deck. Dromoka’s Command is a terrifying prospect for RW; it not only clears out a Chained to the Rocks or an Outpost Siege, it also stops a burn spell, ruins combat and/or kills a creature. It’s laughably easy for the card to get a two-for-one against R/W and situations do come up where a three-for-one is possible.
Add to that the fact that every creature in the deck dies to Ultimate Price and it’s clear that the deck is much less viable now than it was a week ago.
Closer to home, the Underground put up two boxes of DTK for their release FNM and I sleeved up an Abzan Midrange deck with some added flexibility offered by Chord of Calling.
Abzan Chord (Standard) by Neil Stacey: 1st place at THUG Release Event
Instants and Sorceries (17):
2x Ultimate Price
2x Bile Blight
3x Hero’s Downfall
1x Abzan Charm
2x Murderous Cut
2x Chord of Calling
4x Fleecemane Lion
4x Courser of Kruphix
1x Reclamation Sage
4x Siege Rhino
2x Eidolon of Blossoms
2x Whisperwood Elemental
2x Tasigur, the Golden Fang
1x Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
1x Temple of Silence
4x Caves of Koilos
4x Temple of Malady
4x Llanowar wastes
3x Windswept Heath
1x Temple of Plenty
4x Sandsteppe Citadel
1x Bile Blight
1x Reclamation Sage
1x Ultimate Price
1x Glare of Heresy
1x End Hostilities
1x Hero’s Downfall
1x Dromoka’s Command
1x High Sentinels of Arashin
2x Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
3x Drown in Sorrow
The core of the deck is typical of Abzan Midrange; Courser of Kruphix and Siege Rhino backed by Thoughtseize and removal; it’s a solid package that has never been far from the top for the entire time it has been in Standard. Fleecemane Lion has been a point of debate for the deck, with some opting to relegate them to the sideboard and others cutting the numbers. I’ve opted for the full set in the maindeck, primarily to enable Chord of Calling and support the singleton Dromoka’s Command I decided to test out. You need a creature on board to get full value of the Command so it works best alongside some efficient beaters.
Chord of Calling is in as a two-of and offers a range of utility albeit at a modest power level. Most often it just serves as extra copies of Siege Rhino, which is perfectly fine. The second most important mode for it is fetching out the singleton Reclamation Sage which does wreck a lot of opposition; R/W really struggles to catch up after you take out a Chained to the Rocks or Outpost Siege while putting an extra body on the board. It also adds a little bit of maindeck insurance against Jeskai Ascendancy as well as Whip of Erebos, drastically improving your percentages in a handful of matchups.
It also lets you play at instant speed which is useful against control, letting you force them to use counter-magic on their turn before you untap. After a sweeper, you won’t have the board presence to Chord in a big creature but it’s also very reasonable to fetch out a Lion against a tapped-out opponent and activate Monstrous when you untap.
Eidolon of Blossoms is a card of variable value, which makes it ideal alongside Chord. It gains value in multiples, so if you draw one copy naturally, the value of the other copy increases, becoming a more appealing Chord target.
The cost to playing a few copies of Chord is quite low; when you aren’t using it for anything specific it plays reasonably well with your default game plan, fetching out solid creatures like Siege Rhino or Whisperwood Elemental.
Speaking of Whisperwood Elemental, it’s not a card I’ve seen in other Abzan lists and that consistently surprises me. I’ve found it to be excellent and I am definitely interested in a few more copies. Against most opposition it rapidly stabilises the board and lets you turn the corner and get aggressive in short order. Aside from its high raw power level it also matches up exceptionally well against a lot of the cards that are typically difficult for Abzan to deal with.
It’s one of the few threats in the format that stacks up well against Ugin. Whisperwood is one of the few threats in the format that stacks up well against Ugin. The colourless manifests survive an activation of Ugin’s sweeper ability while the Whisperwood itself survives a hit from Ugin’s +2. This makes it awkward for an Ugin to deal with a Whisperwood without dying to the swarm of manifests.
It also matches up well against Elspeth despite costing one less; if it lands just one turn before Elspeth you can pressure her while forcing the tokens into chump block mode. The fact that the Manifest creatures are colourless also makes them awkward for UW Heroic to push past, since Gods Willing only sneaks past coloured creatures.
Onto the matches. Pairings were announced on a first-name basis, so I hope no-one is offended if I omit a surname or get one wrong here.
Match 1: John Wood (Sultai Control)
Game 1 was a lucky affair for me. Most of my removal is more or less blank in this matchup and I was fortunate enough not to draw any of it. John also mulliganed to five and didn’t manage too much resistance to an early Fleecemane Lion followed by a Rhino.
Game 2 stretched far longer and at one stage I was pretty sure I had lost. However, despite resolving two copies of Dig Through Time, John couldn’t find a copy of Dissolve or Disdainful Stroke for the Rhino I top-decked when he was at two life.
Match 2: Andre (BW Warriors)
Black/White Warriors is a deck that has been on the cusp of playability for a long time and with everything it picked up in DTK, it could easily be a good aggressive option. In Game 1 I struggled to hold off an aggressive start after Thoughtseizing away a Chief of the Edge. A Siege Rhino kept me alive long enough for Whisperwood Elemental to lock up the board and the game.
With extra removal and Drown in Sorrow from the board I felt like the post-board matchup would be strongly in my favour and as it transpired, an early Bile Blight and a Drown in Sorrow were good enough to clear the way for Whisperwood Elemental to take over the game once again.
Match 3: Theuns Prinsloo (GW Devotion)
Game 1 went pretty badly; I drew more land than anything else and despite the best efforts of a Courser and a Rhino, I was steamrolled by early acceleration followed by Polukranos, Whisperwood Elemental and Soul of Theros.
Game 2 was something of the opposite; Green-White Devotion doesn’t do much without green mana and Theuns didn’t have a forest in his opening seven cards nor in the next four draws. I had one major worry at this point though; I had been planning to add a singleton Hornet Queen to my sideboard for this matchup and I’d forgotten to do it before leaving.
Game 3 yielded one of the most frustrating moments of the tournament; On turn 2 I cast Thoughtseize before playing my land for the turn. Seeing a Polukranos and a Mastery of the Unseen, I took the Mastery because my deck has far more ways of killing creatures than enchantments. When I played a temple for the turn to scry, the perfect answer for Mastery was sitting right on top in the form of Reclamation Sage. I killed Polukranos but another one followed and my Siege Rhino, along with its Courser of Kruphix sidekick had to hang around looking embarrassed as it took chunks out of my life total. I knew that gang-blocking wouldn’t work out because my Thoughtseize had also revealed a Gods Willing, which would unfortunately be able to force damage my blockers at some stage. Things started to look properly hairy when an Arbor Colossus joined the board on the other side.
The game took an interesting twist at this point when I played a Whisperwood Elemental which gave me a colourless chump blocker. A second Whisperwood stabilised the board by giving me two chump blockers per turn, with a Hero’s Downfall in hand to respond to a Polukranos activation if one were forthcoming.
The standoff continued for a few turns until my Courser revealed an End Hostilities on top of my library, forcing Theuns into a big swing. I was able to set up good blocks and respond to Gods Willing with Hero’s Downfall, preserving most of my board and setting me up for a lethal swing back on the next turn.
Match 4: Naeem Essop (Jeskai Tokens)
Game 1 was more or less resolved by a Bile Blight taking out a team of tokens and a hard-cast Reclamation Sage taking care of Jeskai Ascendancy. Courser of Kruphix backed up by a Rhino did the rest.
Game 2 let me bring in more Bile Blight along with my Drown in Sorrows so I felt pretty confident of my chances after boarding. The game went more or less according to that script; Naeem had a Jeskai Ascendancy on the board, letting him loot furiously while killing most of my threats. However, I was able to keep his board empty and when he ran out of removal, a hard-working Courser of Kruphix dug me through a thick clump of lands while padding my life total and chipping away at Naeem’s. Stoke the Flames eventually got rid of the Courser, but Whisperwood Elemental followed and only needed two attacks to finish off the game.
Match 5: Clintin Riddel (RW)
A lot of this match took place on the wrong side of midnight, so I might have some of the details of this match wrong.
As I recall, Clintin mulliganed to six and got stuck on two lands for a while in Game 1. I was on the play and Clintin led off with a Dragon Fodder. I followed with Courser of Kruphix, but Clintin got rid of it with Chained to the Rocks and swung in. I had Dromoka’s Command on hand to get it back, but with a lack of targets for the other modes I was forced to put a +1+1 counter on an opposing goblin. When Clintin hit his third land he was able to go wide once again with Hordeling Outburst, but I drew Whisperwood Elemental which put me in a commanding position, taking the game shortly after.
Game 2 yielded an interesting situation. I had a Courser, a Lion and an Eidolon of Blossoms on the board and Clintin cast an Anger of the Gods. I glanced at the Dromoka’s Command in my hand and resolved to save my Lion by putting a +1+1 counter on it. Then, remembering the previous game, I surveyed the board in search of targets for another mode. Clintin had no creatures or enchantments on the board, so I took another look at Dromoka’s Command to figure out my best line. I was mildly disbelieving when I realised that the first mode stops Anger cold.
Putting that disbelief aside, I essentially countered the Anger while adding a counter to my Lion. After untapping, I activated the Monstrous ability on the Lion with Clintin tapped out, giving me a near-unbeatable board. Two attacks was all it took from there, and I went to 5-0, winning the tournament and a box of Dragons Of Tarkir boosters.
Five matches isn’t a tremendous sample size but the thing that struck me about this tournament was that a lot of the games I won were due to Whisperwood Elemental and the only game I lost was against an opposing Whisperwood Elemental.
The card feels amazing in this deck; it does everything a midrange deck wants from a threat; stabilising, gaining value and taking over the game. It also happens to stack up well against a lot of the cards that are otherwise problematic for the deck. The incredible synergy with sweepers is worth exploring a bit more. It seems crazy to me that other Abzan decks aren’t running this card.
Going forward, I would definitely work in one or two more copies. I will also be switching out one Elspeth for a Hornet Queen in the board and adding a second End Hostilities in place of the additional Reclamation Sage.