There is a correlation between the week before a Modern Grand Prix and my general life happiness. Testing for a Modern GP is awesome because it means that I get to play a ton of Modern and try out a bunch of new decks.
In testing I focused on a range of decks that I thought were pretty sweet: Dredge, Abzan Control, and Death’s Shadow Aggro. The deck that absorbed the lion’s share of my games were Death’s Shadow decks. The problem was that despite getting as many reps as possible, I continued to find myself in situations where I felt unsure about how to proceed.
In playtesting with the Ann Arbor guys, everybody was pretty high on Death’s Shadow for most of the week. But by the time we were actually driving down to Indianapolis, everybody had audibled off the deck and had decided to play decks they were more comfortable with. The fact that everybody else had jumped ship, in combination with the fact that I had doubts about my ability to pilot it well, ultimately led me to back out.
Back on the Abzan Train
I decided to get back on board with one of my absolute favorite Modern decks ever:
Brian DeMars, 30th place at GP Indianapolis
Abzan Company has been my “comfort deck” for the past 6 months. It is kind of funny because I had initially written off the idea of playing Company because I was afraid of all the Grafdigger’s Cages I imagined people would be sideboarding to beat Dredge.
All things considered, Dredge is a good deck but not the unstoppable Modern juggernaut that people were freaking out about. There might have been slightly more graveyard hate floating around (which does disrupt my infinite life combo) but the only real card I was worried about was the Cage.
Opponents frequently overestimate how good graveyard hate is against this deck and bring in too much of it for the post-sideboard games. In most matchups I board out the majority of my combo pieces and focus on being a better interactive beatdown deck. There are few things as gratifying as beating an opponent down who is confused about losing to Abzan with a Tormod’s Crypt and a Rest in Peace in play!
Notes on Archangel and Infinite Life
I strongly advocate adding the Archangel of Thune combo to the Collected Company deck. Rather than use those spots for more Melira combo cards, the Angels diversify your plan of attack.
Because sometimes you need ALL the infinite life combos?
It doesn’t die to Bolt, Decay, or Anger of the Gods. It can also take over a game and win in a few turns all by itself. A giant lifelink flyer is pretty reasonable against Affinity, Infect, Burn, and Zoo. If you can survive long enough to deploy it, the correlation with winning the game is pretty strong.
Archangel and Spike Feeder is an infinite life and damage combo that doesn’t use the graveyard (and thus avoids Cage, Crypt, Leyline etc). You can also go infinite with a Viscera Seer + Kitchen Finks + Archangel of Thune, which isn’t the easiest combo to assemble but does come up.
It is funny, and important, that the primary objective of this deck is not to try and turbo out the infinite life combo. My A plan against almost every deck is to beat them to death with creatures and card advantage via Collected Company. The deck is extremely efficient at surviving and bringing those midrange beatdowns.
It is worth noting that in 13 rounds of Grand Prix Magic I only gained infinite life 6 times (and only twice in post-sideboard games because I typically board it out against a lot of decks). Two of those games were against Merfolk where the combo is great because they are a better beatdown deck and can’t beat infinite life. Another time was a game 1 against Tron that I set up just to scry through my deck. The infinite life is irrelevant when they can restart the game with Karn.
Of the decks I played against, roughly half could beat me if I assembled an infinite life combo, so you need to be aware of other ways to win with the deck. Jeskai can deck you with Emrakul, Tron can Karn you, Infect and Affinity can poison you—the list goes on and on. Infinite life is a great dynamic to have in your back pocket against the decks that can’t beat it but Abzan Company is not a one-trick pony.
The “Jund Plan” Works
Perhaps the most interesting element of Abzan Company that I have to talk about today is my approach to the controlling matchups. I’ve found that mono-removal decks backed up by powerful creatures or planeswalkers are among the hardest matchups for CoCo.
I ended up 12-3 at the Grand Prix and finished in 30th place despite some pretty tough matchups. Here is what I faced off against:
Suicide Zoo: WIN 2-1
Jund: LOSS 0-2
Infect: WIN 2-0
RG Tron: WIN 2-0
Ad Nauseum: 2-0
Merfolk: WIN 2-0
RG Tron: 2-1
UW Control: LOSS 1-2
Affinity: WIN 2-1
Zoo Burn: LOSS 0-2
Zoo Burn: WIN 2-0
Jund: WIN 2-1
Jeskai Flash: WIN 2-0
The last two events I played in I went a combined 0-7 (making up all of my losses) against the removal-heavy decks. Not good. But this time around I improved my win percentage from 0% to 50% on the back of a new sideboard strategy that I think is pretty saucy. It is also worth noting that my two control losses were certainly very much in reach. Against Jund I whiffed a Company (and I did not dilute my deck in a game where he ended the at 2 life) and against UW Control I made a horrible play that straight-up cost me the match on the spot.
Here is how I approach the controlling matchups. Keep in mind I’m referring to all of the removal-heavy GBx decks as “controlling” because in the matchup I am the beatdown and they are the control.
One important realization I had is that combo’ing isn’t a legitimate option. These decks have so much spot removal—sweepers and sideboard graveyard hate—that having three unique creatures in play at the same time is kind of a pipe dream. Instead, I want to go beatdown and interact with them as much as possible. It is typically not a route of attack they are expecting, which makes it all the better.
I sideboard 12 cards (which is a ton in any matchup).
I’m doing a couple of things:
First, I’m bringing in hard answers to a Grafdigger’s Cage in the form of Pridemage, Pulse, and Decay. Secondly, I’m bringing out cards like Chord of Calling and the graveyard combo because they are disrupted by Cage and other graveyard hate my opponents are likely bringing in.
It is unfortunate that no matter what you do, Grafdigger’s Cage is going to be insane against you, because it stops:
Understanding how matchups work is important. Most of these decks want to kill everything you play and ride a Tarmogoyf or Scavenging Ooze to victory. Therefore, if you have removal for their ‘Goyfs and Oozes, you can disrupt that plan. You can make the game go long enough that your Collected Companies and Gavony Townships can take over and overrun their defenses. The Archangel is also another late-game bomb to save until the shields are down. I also love that Inquisition of Kozilek can’t snatch away the Angels that you are saving until the coast is clear.
I’ve gotten a lot of recognition for championing Affinity over the years and for good reason—I do love that deck. Nothing against Affinity (because I still always have a 75 sleeved up in my backpack), but Abzan Company has become my “go to” Modern deck for the past 6 months. I’ve played it in 3 large tournaments in a row and cashed each one, which is a pretty outstanding run for my standards. I love that the deck is flexible, dynamic, and powerful, and has game against everybody. Even the difficult matchups like Jund and Tron are within reach if you have a good sideboard plan and understand what is going on.