Last week I headed to Denver, Colorado to play in ChannelFireball’s own Grand Prix Denver and ring in the New Year at a great New Year’s Eve party hosted by none other than my TeamCFB: Pantheon teammate Patrick Chapin. The week in Denver started out great, as Patrick really knows how to throw a party. Because of the holidays, I didn’t spend too much time practicing Standard. Owen and I had watched the Players Championship a few weeks ago, and both really liked the look of BBD’s Abzan Aggro deck. I played the deck in a few 8-man queues on Magic Online, and I liked the play of it, the numbers felt good, and I thought I’d enjoy running it at the Grand Prix, so I essentially just locked it in.
I talked to BBD a little bit about what he thought about the deck and any potential changes. He recommended trying Elspeth in the sideboard, which sounded reasonable to me, and that I should work on coming up with a plan for the mirror. I didn’t spend as much time on that as I could have, partly because I didn’t expect Abzan Aggro to be nearly as popular as it ended up being, and partly because of the holidays.
Here is the list that I settled on for the Grand Prix, which Owen played as well:
I ended up going 10-3 in matches played, including a round one exit in the Top 8 to Valentin Mackl, also playing Abzan Aggro. He drew a little bit better than I did, I felt, and was able to get raided Wingmate Rocs into play both games, which I failed to do in either game. One of my two losses in the Swiss was also to Abzan Aggro, and the games played out similarly.
My other loss was to Sam Pardee, who also ended up making Top 8, playing a W/R Midrange deck. This match was pretty interesting, as it was not a deck that I have played much against with any deck. I wasn’t certain how to sideboard, or what cards Sam would even have in his deck.
I think the W/R deck was a very good choice for the tournament, as it felt like Sam was favored in our matchup. Stormbreath Dragon is quite good against the Abzan Aggro deck, as there are only a handful of cards that can deal with it. Chained to the Rocks is a great card in any deck that can support it, and in combination with Seeker of the Way, the W/R deck was able to pull ahead of me very quickly and force me to play from behind, which is not really a strength of Abzan Aggro.
I played against Mardu at least three or four times in the tournament. Only one of my Mardu opponents had Stormbreath Dragon in his deck, and that was by far the closest matchup of all of them. I felt reasonably advantaged there. Crackling Doom is the best card out of Mardu in the matchup, and the games can be relatively difficult for them if they don’t draw many of them.
The closest matchup I played all weekend was certainly against Mono-Red Aggro. Game one, I mulliganed to six, and ended up missing my third land drop for a few turns. I was able to play a couple cheap creatures and a Bile Blight to hang in there but was eventually overrun.
In game two, I cast Drown in Sorrow very early, netting about four cards, and won relatively easily.
Game three was an interesting one. I kept a hand that had only two lands: Caves of Koilos and Llanowar Wastes, largely because my hand also contained Drown in Sorrow. After playing turn-two Deathdealer and turn-three Anafenza (after drawing yet another painland) I had already done 5 damage to myself. On my fourth turn I attacked, then cast Drown in Sorrow, putting myself to 6 life. I was able to survive until my next turn where I could cast Sorin dealing 1 more damage to myself, down to 5, and fade a double-burn kill, then quickly gain 10 life from my creatures, putting the game out of reach.
One interesting thing was that I actually played against zero decks containing Whip of Erebos in the entire event. I certainly didn’t expect that.
Here’s an overview of how I was sideboarding to go in most of the most common matchups, or how I think they’d go in the cases where I don’t have a ton of experience with the matchup:
It’s possible that the 4th Roc is better than the third Bile Blight. Bile Blight is somewhat necessary to ever have a chance to beat a Hornet Queen, to clean up the tokens, and also an efficient way to remove Sidisi is also nice. I actually like Wingmate Roc in the matchup, but I chose to remove one because I think if we draw two of them too early in the game, it is very easy to fall behind the Whip deck and find ourselves in a completely lost position. Back to Nature is great as an answer to both Whip and Courser, and Murderous Cut is just a better version of Hero’s Downfall in the matchup, so adding the Cut was an easy choice.
The major difference here is that Bile Blight doesn’t have the utility of killing Sidisi, and only interacts positively with the tokens from Hornet Queen. It is also possible that against the version of Abzan Whip with many copies of Soul of Theros we want to include Glare of Heresy over some of the other removal spells, since it removes Soul of Theros as well as the problematic opposing Siege Rhino.
Control (UB, Esper, Jeksai)
(Against lists without planeswalkers. Against lists with planeswalkers, remove a Murderous Cut instead.)
This sideboarding strategy is relatively straightforward. Because the control decks tend to have very few or no creatures, we are going to remove most of our creature removal spells from our deck and replace them with our major threats from the sideboard. One of the best things we can do to combat sweepers from the control deck is to have a multi-pronged attack, to get around cards like End Hostilities.
Perilous Vault is tricky, as it will exile our planeswalkers along with our creatures, but at least we have a Nissa we can draw to, since any lands that have become 4/4s due to her ability will remain in play. Thoughtseize is the best card in post-sideboarded games—our best tool to force through our best threats.
As always, Mono-Red will be very fast and very aggressive. Drown in Sorrow is probably the best card in the format against them, and if I expected to play in a Mono-Red-heavy metagame, I would include the fourth copy of Drown in Sorrow in the sideboard. The Sorins come in as a way to have additional life gain. He will particularly help in games where we’re able to stabilize with a creature or two in play and gain fast life in order to prevent being burned out over the next couple turns.
UW Heroic has been a very popular deck as of late. Glare of Heresy is one of the best cards against it, as it can remove any of the deck’s threats, no matter how large it has grown. Thoughtseize is, once again, unsurprisingly going to be one of our best tools, as it is the best way to fight through cards like Gods Willing and Feat of Resistance. The Murderous Cut is a pretty obvious addition, as we want as much creature removal as possible. Wingmate Roc is a little weak in the matchup since we typically don’t win by racing. It’s not a horrible card, but it’s the worst of the options available to us.
This plan is just my instinct against Abzan Midrange as a general archetype, without knowing more specifics of an individual deck. This matchup, more than any other, will have wildly different strategies because of the variety of different ways the Abzan Midrange deck can sideboard.
For example, against an Abzan player without End Hostilities or Duneblast, I think Wingmate Roc would not be a card that I would want to sideboard out. But those cards, specifically Duneblast, have become a mainstay in the Abzan sideboard, and therefore unless I knew better against a specific opponent, I would err on the side of taking them out.
Like against the control decks, the planeswalkers have added value because of their ability to fight against sweepers, and also provide a consistent threat that is not quite as easy to remove as the big creatures like Siege Rhino or Anafenza. It’s important to be able to remove our opponent’s Siege Rhinos, and that’s a big part of why the addition of the two copies of Glares of Heresy. I chose not to add more than that because other than Siege Rhino, we can really only use them to remove Sorin or Elspeth.
Like I said above, BBD warned me before the tournament to come up with a good plan for the mirror. I didn’t end up spending too much time on it though, so more or less had the same plan as everyone else: be the first to raid a Wingmate Roc. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done, and the match seemed to often come down to whoever was able to draw the precise mix of removal and creatures, or draw more Wingmate Rocs, if need be.
In any case, BBD said he tried a strategy of Courser and Duneblast in the sideboard for the mirror at the PTQ he won last weekend, which sounds reasonable to me, but I’m unsure what to cut from the current list. Most things would have to be decided based on the expected metagame for whichever tournament we were preparing for. It could be possible to run the “no mono-red” gambit and cut all the Drown in Sorrow, with the obvious problem there being that if we’re wrong, we do get punished very badly.
I will preface this by saying that against versions of Jeskai Tokens that have Mantis Rider, which are becoming more popular, I’d be less inclined to board in the planeswalkers and wouldn’t shave as much on the removal.
Against the traditional Yuuya like versions of the deck, where they sideboard in to more controlling strategies with multiple copies of Disdainful Stroke and End Hostilities, I like to board in the big threats. I think because Treasure Cruise and Ascendancy are so powerful, we’re often forced to Thoughtseize those cards, rather than a card like Disdainful Stroke, so it’s not quite as easy to force the big threats through.
This is another matchup where Wingmate Roc is coming out in fear of sweepers, and also possibly Disdainful Stroke, but if I knew the opponent’s list and they were light on those cards, I would consider leaving some of them in. People often board out cards like Rabblemaster and Seeker of the Way when trying to play the control game. Sometimes, they even board out some of the token generators. If that isn’t happening, Drown in Sorrow is a consideration to board in as well.
This is another example of a matchup where sideboarding can be drastically different depending on the anticipated strategy of our opponent. If our opponent is going to have Seeker of the Way and Goblin Rabblemaster in their deck after sideboard, we probably don’t want to shave Bile Blights. Also, if we know they aren’t going to board in End Hostilities, we might want to leave in some Wingmate Rocs. Sorin becomes better against them if they are shaving on creatures, or potentially worse against version of the deck with Stormbreath Dragon. Against planeswalker-light versions of Mardu, the 2nd Murderous Cut is often better than the 3rd Hero’s Downfall. This would be the baseline that I’d use for sideboarding and adjust as necessary.
I had a great time in Denver, both at the tournament and otherwise. A quarterfinal exit in the Top 8 is always a letdown, but of course it’s a good result and one that I’m proud of. Owen played the exact same list and finished 12-3, one win away from a Top 8 as well, so I think it’s reasonable to say that we made a good choice. The deck is fun and powerful, and I’d recommend it for anyone who is looking to have some fun with Standard before it changes in a few weeks.
In only a few weeks is the release of Fate Reforged, which means the Pro Tour is right around the corner. I’m excitedly looking ahead to that, but also looking forward to prerelease weekend where I can try out the new set and its new mechanics. What about Fate Reforged are you most looking forward to?
This weekend I’m heading to Omaha to play some Modern at Grand Prix Omaha. Hope to see you there!