“You’d probably be winning more if you played Great Abzan instead of Medium Abzan.” –LSV
Last weekend Ben Stark, Andrew Baeckstrom, and I played Abzan in GP Indy. We took to calling the deck “Medium Abzan” because it’s hard to be significantly favored in any given round—the deck is just okay against everything. But if you want to play some fair Magic, interact with your opponents, and have a fighting chance in every matchup, Abzan is a better choice than Jund right now.
I’ve always loved Jund. I even played it in what I think was the first Modern GP ever (GP Lincoln/Hoth), but with Death’s Shadow Aggro’s popularity, I’d rather have access to Path to Exile than Lightning Bolt. Abzan is also a better home for Grim Flayer due to its synergy with Lingering Souls, but more on that in a minute.
Below is the deck list I registered. Big thanks to Willy Edel for the initial list, and for answering all of my questions.
The big question everyone asks is “is Grim Flayer the real deal?”
Yes. Yes, he is.
While Flayer certainly isn’t some busted card, he really does add a lot to the deck.
Another cheap, large body besides Tarmogoyf is important in clocking combo decks. Discard plus a fast clock can beat them, whereas discard and Lingering Souls cannot.
Speaking of Lingering Souls—being able to put Souls in your graveyard is pretty close to drawing a card. Souls already had great synergy in the deck with Liliana, but Flayer really puts it over the top. This is also another reason to play Abzan over Jund, especially if you are playing Flayer in both decks.
Grim Flayer helps you find relevant cards against the specific archetype you are facing, which is important in a Rock deck where a large chunk of your cards are dead in certain matchups. It is very hard to lose against a creature deck if you get to continually put removal on top of your library. Similarly, your chances are much better against combo if you can look for discard or sideboard cards, e.g., Fulminator Mage.
Hierarch was a suggestion from Ben S. that I was admittedly a bit skeptical of, but I was really happy with her. She may seem like a strange inclusion given the low curve, but you are playing her in place of a land or two.
Hierarch lets you play turn-2 Liliana. If you didn’t play when Deathrite Shaman was legal, a planeswalker on turn 2 is pretty busted, and close to unbeatable for some decks.
She also allows you to play two spells in a turn faster. And between Lingering Souls and Shambling Vent, you aren’t light on ways to use extra mana. Most importantly, exalted is very good with Grim Flayer, and to a lesser extent Shambling Vent. Hierarch was often the difference between my Grim Flayer being able to connect the first time or not, which is important to achieve delirium and start controlling your draws.
Basically everyone who looked at the deck, including me, wanted to immediately cut Collective Brutality. But Willy wrote me a mini-article on why it is great, so I gave it a try, and I’m glad I did.
For the most part, Brutality is just serviceable due to its utility. It lets you play more discard while being less of a dead draw in the wrong matchups or late game. But when Brutality is good, it is very good. This is the best card in your deck against Burn, and might be the best sideboard card against them (within reason). If you double-escalate and have any sort of clock, it is very difficult to lose. It is also great against Infect, Elves, and Eldritch Evolution decks—basically anything with small creatures, high impact instants, and sorceries.
We wavered between 2 and 3 Baubles, and ended up on 2 to make room for Slaughter Pact. Bauble certainly isn’t a high impact card so it is hard to claim it is great in the deck, but it fulfills its role of helping you achieve delirium quickly.
As far as the actual effect, it does have some relevance because you have discard spells, and you get to know more about the hand they will have next turn while making decisions. Just make sure you still draw the card if this information causes you to tank on an Inquisition for a long time. I may have realized I was supposed to draw a card in the middle of my opponent’s turn during the GP.
And you can look at your top card, and get a chance at a new one if you have a fetchland in play.
The other option in this spot is Nihil Spellbomb, and we did consider running one of each. Spellbomb is a reasonable card to main deck if you expect graveyard decks to be popular, and it can free up some sideboard space if you are planning on packing a lot of graveyard hate. But 2-mana to cantrip is a lot more than zero, and this will sometimes lead to clunky draws, or slow down your ability to attack with Flayer.
These cards were mostly a concession to Eldrazi—we wanted our last few removal spells to be able to kill a Reality Smasher at instant speed. One issue with Pact is that it doesn’t kill Death’s Shadow, but it is still good against that deck, just not its namesake card, so Pact seemed better than something like Go for the Throat that is dead against a common deck.
Murderous Cut seems like it would be an issue with Tarmogoyf and Grim Flayer, but Ben S. and I never had that come up. And when it does come up, you probably really need to kill something for 1 mana, so it is a worthwhile trade-off.
The rest of the main deck is fairly standard for Abzan, so let’s move on to the sideboard:
These are, of course, for big mana decks like Tron and Scapeshift, which are generally bad match-ups for Abzan. Between Tarmogoyf and Grim Flayer, you can hit pretty hard early, and Fulminator can slow them down long enough for you to win. Fulminator is also reasonable to side in against decks with creaturelands, such as midrange pseudo-mirrors. But keep in mind that you’ll usually have a hard time totally mana screwing anyone that you also leave in Path to Exile against.
Grafdigger’s Cage is likely the most versatile graveyard hate at the moment, since, in addition to being good against Dredge, it has splash damage against Elves and Eldritch Evolution decks.
The reason we played Surgicals instead of more Cages is that Surgical can combo with Fulminator Mage to steal some wins against Tron and some versions of Scapeshift. If you Surgical a Tron piece or 4/9 Mountains, it is very difficult for them to win. And against Scapeshift you can also just make them discard their namesake card, then Surgical that.
Though Through the Breach is the most popular “Scapeshift” (Valakut) deck right now, Surgical is much less effective against them. Baeckstrom suggested that we cut Surgical for better graveyard hate, and Grim Flayer provides enough extra clock that removing a Tron piece isn’t totally necessary. This could well be the case.
Stony Silence is mostly for Affinity. But it can also be effective against Tron and Ad Nauseam. Just remember to side out your Baubles whenever you side this in! #nonbo
The planeswalkers are mostly for other fair decks: Jund, Abzan, Jeskai, etc. Gideon is certainly better in these spots since having to remove loyalty from your planeswalker is a real liability against Lightning Bolt decks. The main reason I played a split is that Sorin can come in against Burn, and we otherwise only had 1 card in our sideboard for that deck, whereas we needed to bring out 2 cards (Thoughtseizes).
Both Willy and Ben advocated for two ways to kill Leyline of Sanctity, since the decks that bring that card in (Ad Nauseam, Bogles) are very hard to interact with if it is in play. Maelstrom Pulse is just a good catch-all card, and another way to kill an Eldrazi. Golgari Charm can come in against Affinity, Elves, and Infect for the -1/-1 ability (and is a second relevant mode against Bogles). It is a little awkward to play such an effect when you run Hierarch and Lingering Souls, but it is almost certainly going to hurt your opponent more.
Random aside: I brought both of these cards in against Elves, and they killed 3 creatures each!
These are additional discard spells to bring in against combo decks, but serve some additional purposes. Thoughtseize is much better against Eldrazi than Inquisition. I’ve already sung the praises of Collective Brutality, but it is a very high impact card to bring in against Burn.
I asked for questions about the deck on Twitter. A couple common ones I didn’t yet answer:
Q: Why no Siege Rhino?
A: I consider this to barely be a Modern card. The format is quite fast at the moment, so I’m not too interested in tapping out on turn 4 for a creature. Additionally, Grim Flayer adds another large, cheap creature to the deck, so you really don’t need Rhino.
Q: How is this deck against Eldrazi/what should I sideboard against Eldrazi?
A: I admittedly have only played against Eldrazi a few times, but I think Abzan is a slight dog. Inquisition and Abrupt Decay both miss their highest impact cards. This matchup could be improved by swapping an Inquisition for a Thoughtseize, and an Abrupt Decay for something that kills big creatures.
Damnation is probably the best card against Eldrazi in our colors, but awkward when we also run a bunch of creatures. Other options are any cheap removal that kills big creatures (e.g., Doom Blade, Go for the Throat), or things that are good against Reality Smasher: Seal of Doom, Shriekmaw, Intrepid Hero.
Okay, that’s all I have for today, be sure to check out the Abzan videos I recorded as well!