The recent work on Abzan Control has been outstanding. The build that Brad Nelson and company used to dominate Grand Prix Memphis does almost everything right and any changes made to the deck need to be subtle. Those subtle changes, however, can make a ton of difference, especially now after Grand Prix Memphis. There has been a rise in the prevalence of Blue/Black Control and Sultai Control, and these matchups are highly dependent on your exact card choices and long-term lines of play, especially in game one. These matchups are quite winnable if you are prepared, but if you are not prepared you will win precious few games. Getting a strong configuration against these decks without sacrificing too much in other matchups is likely the key to succeeding with Abzan Control going forward.
This primer looks at the matchups against Blue/Black Control and Sultai Control. It assumes you know the basics of the Abzan Control deck, and takes as its baseline Brad Nelson’s list from Grand Prix Memphis:
Here is my current list, which makes some small adjustments to deal with the issues presented here:
When I talk about sideboarding, I’m talking about my list. If you’re using Brad’s list, you have access to a third Read the Bones but two fewer planeswalkers, so you’ll leave one more marginal card in when sideboarding against control, which will be a Siege Rhino or Hero’s Downfall, and bring in Read the Bones. The second Erase is due to the increase in quantity of Outpost Siege. I’m confident you want two but fitting a third is very hard for Elephant reasons.
Blue/Black Control: The Exhaustion War
The matchup between Abzan and the heavier control decks is always going to be a long game. I’ll start with Blue/Black Control. They gain advantage in four ways. One, they can draw cards directly with Dig Through Time and Jace’s Ingenuity, which is the primary way they get ahead. Two, they can use mass removal from Perilous Vault, Silence the Believers, and Crux of Fate, especially if you don’t respect this and commit too much to the board. You can choose either to make this a source of card advantage, or resign yourself to the game going long, but you can’t have it both ways. Third, they can occasionally stick an Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver for an early knockout, or get advantage off an Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, but effectively these are rare in game one because of the more important fourth advantage.
That fourth and key advantage is that they strand your cards by making your removal do very little. Utter End and Hero’s Downfall only have a handful of targets and Bile Blight, Murderous Cut, and End Hostilities are basically only good for killing Pearl Lake Ancient and creatures that emerge from Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver. Every time you draw these cards, you’re drawing at least a partial blank, and that adds up over time.
You can gain advantage in several ways as well. You have a lot of sources of gradual incremental advantage, and you’re hoping that this can win the long-term exhaustion war. Every time you cast Abzan Charm or Read the Bones, you’re getting ahead by a card, and Read the Bones also gives you two extra scrys. Whenever Tasigur, the Golden Fang resolves, you’re going to get at least one activation before he dies. Every turn that Courser of Kruphix sticks around, you draw almost half an extra card by playing land off the top of your deck, and effectively it’s more than half because you get to time your fetchlands, Temples, and draw-twos accordingly. If you resolve Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, only Perilous Vault or Ugin, the Spirit Dragon trade with it efficiently. You also have four more Temples than they do, they have to run one or two more lands than you, and their Bile Blights are basically half a card.
You also get to put pressure on their life total with threats, which they can’t do in return. They usually run a big risk if they use mass removal on only one target, which means you get to stick one threat to the table more often and for longer than you would expect.
They get to use counters to stop many of your threats, and sometimes Thoughtseize as well, and you get four Thoughtseizes to attack their hand. The question now becomes: whose advantage engine will be stronger?
If you use the build from Grand Prix Memphis, the answer is almost always going to be that the Blue/Black Control deck comes out ahead, because of the number of weak or dead cards in your deck and their ability to run you out of threats and deck you. Thanks to Courser of Kruphix and your draw-twos, you will end up getting decked before they do, and this is a bigger threat to you than Pearl Lake Ancient. Pearl Lake Ancient eventually becomes relevant once they have enough extra land, but normally it gets caught in a huge war where it’s fighting against multiple otherwise dead cards and they wisely allow it to die. If you had more cards in your library when this happened, it would be huge, but unfortunately this is quite rare.
Typically you will use your early Thoughtseize to take out their Dig Through Time or Jace’s Ingenuity, which is almost always better than taking removal or a counter, and start grinding out advantage, and you almost always get ahead on cards in the midgame, but those extra cards don’t do very much. For a while, they can’t gain much advantage and things look great.
Eventually, they use Dig Through Time to find answers to trade with your big threats. If you can present more threats than they have answers, you win, and you can usually feel like you’re getting close because their Dig engine has limited scope, but they have a lot of ways to bleed cards or life to buy time and end up drawing out of it thanks to your being stuck with dead cards.
I’ve also encountered multiple games where I lost a lot of percentage because Abzan Charm and Read the Bones stop being good late in the game—most of your remaining library consists of cards that you’ve put on the bottom that you know don’t do anything, so you’d be drawing dead, and this means you can’t get a good card off a Tasigur, the Golden Fang activation either, because they give you another useless Abzan Charm and you risk milling that last threat. This means that you don’t want to load up even more on draw-twos to improve the matchup in game one.
If you have the full load of dead cards that were there in Memphis, that means you can’t play the long game and hope to win it. Eventually the Blue/Black deck will pull ahead, even if you keep a Courser of Kruphix in play for a while, so you have to play multiple threats to the board and hope to win quickly, which isn’t that likely to be effective. The question is, how much do you have to change the deck to shift strategies? You don’t want to try to play for the long game when that long game is out of reach from the start, or you’ll have a very low game one win percentage.
Adjusting the Build
The answer against the traditional Blue/Black build is that you are remarkably close. If you shift one bad card into a great card, you can approach parity in the long game and consider a world in which you’re casting draw-twos and sticking Courser of Kruphix to be a potential path to victory. This, together with similar shifts against other non-aggressive decks, means that at least one maindeck card should shift, and losing two dead cards while picking up two actively good cards will give you a structural advantage.
I’m confident that right now I am correct to cut End Hostilities from the main deck. End Hostilities shines against Green/Red Devotion (despite Whisperwood Elemental) and is situationally great against most creature decks, but Green/Red Devotion isn’t that popular and the card is embarrassing or dead often. Against White/Red sometimes it sweeps their early board and is great, but against builds with lots of Outpost Sieges that should be more popular now, it can also lose you the game because you need to win now while you have them overpowered, rather than trying to reset the board and letting them catch back up. Against pure aggression it’s solid but does not add much percentage because it comes down so late, and against other big decks that do offer some targets you want to be pressing board advantage. Having access to some in the board is good enough.
The best single card to add is Garruk, Apex Predator. It does not seem as impactful as Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, but the key is to consider what your deck wants to do. Garruk can generate advantage on a static or slow board, or blow open a stalemate in a way that Ugin sometimes can and sometimes cannot. 3 damage is mediocre where a deathtouch Beast is almost always worthwhile, and being able to +1 and kill a planeswalker, including an Ugin, is huge. It’s exactly how you want to answer Ugin, it’s better on an empty board, and 7 is a lot less than 8. You don’t need to gain huge advantage by blowing up the board very often, whereas additional incremental edge is perfect. I don’t think you can afford to run more than one, but you also don’t need to.
Now that you have that Garruk, the last slot does not need to be as impactful, so you don’t need to sacrifice that much against other decks. All you need is a solid threat. First I tried moving the third Read the Bones into the main deck, but ran into the problem of not having enough true threats and realized this card has to be something that can kill the opponent. There are two cards I consider to be in contention for this last slot: The third Tasigur, the Golden Fang or the first Ajani, Mentor of Heroes. If it weren’t for the legend rule it would clearly be Tasigur, but drawing two can be awkward, including the risk that they can give you Tasigur off a Tasigur activation, so it might be better as Ajani. Then again, there are situations where the second Tasigur is actually much better than the first, because you can use the extra delve to get rid of all but one of your spells in your graveyard and avoid getting cards back you do not want. An extra Tasigur also helps solve the issue you have after board against raw aggression, in particular red aggression, in a way that Ajani does not.
Sideboarding is mostly straightforward: You get to take out bad cards and put in good cards. It’s a little more complex now because you have more good cards available. Bile Blight is terrible as is Murderous Cut, but that’s only three easy outs and you want to bring in the six-card Fleecemane Lion and Sorin, Solemn Visitor package. The obvious thing to do is take out three Hero’s Downfall, but your opponent could still have Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver and bring in Tasigur. Tasigur simply must be killed on sight and if I was running Blue/Black Control I’d try to have more than two in my board.
My current plan is to leave in two Hero’s Downfall and trim a Siege Rhino since you are bringing in Lion, especially if you have a confirmed sighting of Ashiok, and I can see leaving in three Downfalls for extra safety if you have the read that they’re going to have both Ashiok and Tasigur. It’s not obvious that Ashiok should still be in their deck, but from what I’ve heard and seen, people don’t think that way and leave him in. If you go low on Downfalls, do consider saving Abzan Charm when you have other plays in order to make sure you can use it on Tasigur if you need to, this has come up more than you would expect.
After board, you have the edge against the normal Blue/Black build because you gain so much incremental advantage and now everything you hit is good. Your threats are now deployable into Silence the Believers and Crux of Fate, so only Perilous Vault can force you to go slow, and it’s slow itself so you normally know about it in time to pace properly. They can win, but the game going long is not exciting for them if you’re playing the game you want to play, and if they think that it is, that’s even better.
You lose if they start their engine going and counter your advantage cards with cards off card draw, so try to hit Dig Through Time or Jace’s Ingenuity with Thoughtseize whenever possible. Occasionally you’ll have to hit Tasigur, the Golden Fang instead, but that’s also all right.
Extreme Variations of Blue/Black
There is also a variation of the Blue/Black deck that runs Palace Siege and/or Silumgar, the Drifting Death instead of planeswalkers to truly blank Hero’s Downfall and potentially even Utter End. That game one is much harder, and you need both of your new good cards to even compete, since Silumgar can effectively blank Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. After board they may or may not go with Tasigur, the Golden Fang like everyone else, so you still can’t cut out all the Downfalls without risk, but if they are going with Silumgar, the Drifting Death at this point I’m ready to say that he’s bad enough for you that you’re forced to keep or bring in End Hostilities, which also solves the issue of needing Hero’s Downfall. It seems like tapping out to clear the board is a disaster, but it isn’t, because you’ll be ahead on cards in the long run if you can deal with Silumgar, the Death Dealer.
Sultai Control has remained remarkably close to the original design by Gerrard Fabiano. Rakshasa’s Secret is clearly too cute, but all his other choices have essentially held up despite most early reactions, including my own, to that list being along the lines of Pikula’s comment that you “never go full Gerard.” The matchup once again is similar, as you face off against Dig Through Time and try to beat them with the Abzan card engine. Here, however, you need to play very differently, because their deck composition is weaker in important ways, both allowing you and forcing you to commit more resources to the board.
Planeswalkers are in many ways the opposite of board sweepers. If you have a strong board presence, planeswalkers are poor cards. Playing Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver into a losing board may or may not soak up 5 or 7 damage, but it won’t do much else, and a Kiora, the Crashing Wave is similar. Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is a true sweeper and does punish you for having a board, but the best way to beat Ugin is to win before they cast him, since 8 mana and an Ugin is asking a lot for a deck that can’t protect that strongly against Thoughtseize.
Sultai Control is not sitting on a hand full of answers. It is sitting on a lot of mana and the hope that it will be able to resolve and use very powerful spells to take control of the game. The majority of their deck is land, Satyr Wayfinder, and Bile Blight. There are two copies of Crux of Fate and two copies of Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, but that’s it. If you’ve seen their hand, and took their sweeper, there’s a good chance they can’t sweep the board, so it’s much more important to protect against Kiora, Ashiok, and the buying of time—if they find the other Crux, fine, they got there. Don’t expose yourself to it for no reason, they can Dig Through Time for it, but it’s an acceptable risk.
Once you know Ugin is coming, and if you haven’t checked their hand you know it’s probably coming, you need to think about a plan of recovery. Sultai has a ton of mana sources, and their big cards only provide incremental advantage, so unless you’ve already fallen way behind Ugin is not automatically game over. If they play Ugin, you need to quickly establish pressure again while taking care of Ugin. This is where Garruk shines. If you can answer Ugin with Garruk (or Garruk with Garruk) suddenly you are in command of the game again. If you possibly can, save Garruk until he is going to kill a planeswalker you otherwise care about, unless playing him lets you lock up the game or you’re too far behind to win with him even if it works. In the middle range, where you’ll usually be, play other cards instead and wait for it.
Against Blue/Black Control you should always be thinking about gaining long-term advantage and grinding the game out by using your mana efficiently without exposing yourself to mass removal, unless that’s about to be out of reach. Against Sultai Control, you’re trying to accumulate advantage while keeping them from getting advantage from their planeswalkers, which means having two threats on the board whenever you’re not holding an answer to a new planeswalker, and often even if you do have that answer, depending on how many unknown cards they have seen.
After sideboarding you would think that they would bring in more mass removal for matchups where it is good, but they do not do this. They do bring in creatures in the form of Rakshasa Deathdealer and Tasigur, the Golden Fang, which means that your main deck (now that it does not have End Hostilities) is close to reasonable against them in post-sideboard games. Bile Blight is the card that clearly comes out, and Murderous Cut isn’t bad but is the least flexible card left, which leaves two cards to cut in order to bring in the Sorin, Solemn Visitor and Fleecemane Lion package that you clearly want.
I believe the right answer is to cut two copies of Siege Rhino. With Lion in your deck you have enough creatures to support your plans, and the drain effect isn’t important on either end. I’d much rather deploy a Lion for cheap and threaten to make it monstrous than be stuck with a 4-mana 4/5 that can’t win a fight with either creature they’re bringing in or get me card advantage before it draws out removal.