Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar is over, and unfortunately I didn’t manage to pull out any good finishes during my stay in the States—between SCG Indianapolis, GP Madison, and PTBFZ.
My Standard preparation with the team formerly known as Team TCGPlayer was great, with Seth Manfield, Brad Nelson, Ari Lax, Steve Rubin, Brian Kibler, Gerry Thompson, Brian Braun-Duin, Michael Majors, Chris Fennell, and more excellent players.
Our testing started before Battle for Zendikar was fully spoiled, and a group of 6 of us showed up in Indianapolis for the very first Standard event with the new set.
Given my love for Abzan Hangarback, I started building with it first, and day by day BBD and I kept working on it.
In the end we recognized that Sandsteppe Citadel and Shambling Vent weren’t performing well, and that we preferred a mana base full of fetchlands and battlelands to allow your lands to always come into play untapped and to curve out more easily.
At SCG Indianapolis BBD, Brad, Steve, and I ended up playing Blue Abzan. Unfortunately, I lost to 2 Ugin/Ulamog ramp decks, and wasn’t able to advance to Day 2.
The rest of the group reached the Top 32 with this deck list:
Blue Abzan Aggro
This deck list is very close to Paul Dean’s Top 4 list from Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, while Kazuyuki Takimura added 4 copies of Shambling Vent.
We quickly decided that this deck wasn’t good enough because of the rising popularity of one of its worst matchups: Dark Jeskai. Crackling Doom in particular is an efficient, cheap removal spell against Abzan.
We also determined that Shambling Vent is a necessary evil because otherwise the deck doesn’t have any late game, which leaves you weak to control decks, but can make it problematic to curve out with basics and battlelands.
We focused our testing on different decks—the first one we explored was Dark Jeskai. I loved the deck and it seemed unbeatable, at least when you don’t stumble with your mana. The mana base was the biggest problem for Jeskai, and there aren’t many ways to solve it. Swamp plus Mantis Rider or Island plus Crackling Doom were recurring jokes during testing, and that’s why I decided to focus on different archetypes.
Michael Majors showed everyone the strength of GW in Indianapolis—the deck became tier 1 alongside Dark Jeskai by just the second week of Standard.
Having Majors on the team helped us make progress with GW when he showed us his new tech: Avatar of the Resolute, which is huge game against Mantis Rider and Thunderbreak Regent—a powerful 2-drop and something new that the world couldn’t net-deck.
After playing GW for couple of days I discovered its biggest weakness: Atarka Red.
Since GW has so few ways to interact with the opponent (4 Dromoka’s Commands are the only instants), every time you don’t draw Command or you tap out, you die to their combo: Become Immense plus Temur Battle Rage. I expected Atarka Red to be widely played at the PT and I didn’t want to play a deck that had a bad matchup against it.
Meanwhile, other players in the house were testing various versions of RG Landfall. Gerry Thompson worked on a version with Retreat to Valakut and 11 landfall creatures, but abandoned it to join Majors.
Corey Bukhart and Gabe Carleton Barnes kept saying that RG Landfall had potential, however, so we tried it—and it was awesome!
Den Protector is the real deal—a card that nobody thought to play in Atarka Red. It’s actually insanely good because you can combo without Temur Battle Rage—if you pump Den Protector with Become Immense and Titan’s Strength, that’s 12 damage your opponent can’t block.
Also Den Protector gave the deck more late game and that was always one of the problems for Atarka Red.
Why is RG Landfall Better than Atarka Red?
- Did you know that Wild Nacatl is Standard legal? It’s called Scythe Leopard! It’s way better than Lightning Berserker or Goblin Glory Chaser!
- Den Protector, Snapping Gnarlid and Scythe Leopard give you a better sideboard plan against decks that board in Arashin Cleric and Surge of Righteousness—cards that are great against Atarka Red, but worse against our version.
- Den Protector is a great 2-, 3-, and 5-drop that can rebuy combo pieces if your opponent survived your first attempt.
- Playing 24 lands rather than 21 lets you have a sideboard plan against Jeskai that involves Outpost Siege and Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker. Jeskai is an unfavorable matchup for red decks without access to those cards.
- Surprise effects are always a huge game at PTs.
Here’s the deck list Seth Manfield, Steve Rubin, Ari Lax, Chris Fennell, Austin Bursavich, Corey Burkhart, Corey Baumeister, Gabe Carleton-Barnes, and I played to a 64% win percentage, with two records of 8-2 and three records of 7-3:
We tuned our decklist to beat GW and to have a good sideboard plan against Jeskai.
It must be said that our Jeskai deck list didn’t have any copies of Tasigur, the Golden Fang, which turned out to be a huge problem for this deck.
We figured that Abzan wouldn’t be popular (which it wasn’t), so we didn’t put any Roasts in the sideboard. Now that Abzan won the Pro Tour, I would play 2 copies in the sideboard, cutting a Rending Volley and a Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker.
Yasova Dragonclaw was a piece of tech brought to us by Chris Fennell. She is insanely good against GW since that deck has only Dromoka’s Command (that will always be a 2-for-1 for them) and Silkwrap to deal with her. If they don’t, Yasova will quickly take over the game. Remember when using Yasova that the ability goes on the stack before you tap your mana, so if your opponent lets it resolve and you pay the mana cost, they can’t do anything about it and the creature is under your control until end of turn.
This matchup is incredibly good, at the PT I played against it 4 times and my record was 3-0-1. Den Protector is a huge game here, if they don’t block it and you pump it with Titan’s Strength, neither Surge of Righteousness nor Valorous Stance can do anything to stop it.
This is a massive sideboard plan for this matchup. Jeskai has an incredible amount of removal that will always keep you off your combo, so you remove all the pieces of your combo and totally change plans.
In order to play the control game,you have to have many ways to answer their threats: Rending Volley and Roast are great the best options. Arc Lightning and Wild Slash aren’t the best, but the sideboard cards for Atarka Red are incidentally useful against Jeskai as well.
Keep the board clear, gain card advantage with Den Protectors, Abbot of Keral Keeps, and Outposts—don’t play Abbot or Den Protector on turn 2 like you would in other matchups, you need to gain the maximum advantage from every card to keep up against their plan.
This matchup is pretty bad, because they are faster and have more Wild Slashes, but Arc Lightning can turn the game in your favor.
Hooting Mandrills is their most dangerous card, that’s why I would board in Roast.
This plays out similar to GW, so you’re favored. They will eventually tap out and you can combo them out. If they don’t, they won’t be able to pressure you, and Scythe Leopard and Monastery Swiftspear will deal lots of damage.
There are many kinds of control decks, you have to board based on their plan:
- If they play red, Radiant Flames is likely in their sideboard. Don’t overextend if you feel like you can’t recover from it—the same goes for Languish.
- If you play against decks with many removal spells, I suggest you board out every trick/combo piece or they will be stuck in your hand and your opponent will never tap out.
I played against Adrian Sullivan and his Esper Demonic Pact deck: I easily won game 1 on the play, but in game 2 I didn’t board out the combo and between Ultimate Prices and Disperses I was never able to combo out and he defeated me. I boarded out all 12 pump spells for creatures and burn, and eventually won the match.
Atarka Red and RG Landfall are tough decks to play. I recommend you to practice a lot and distinguish the right moment to go for it or wait for them to tap out.
I hope you enjoyed my PTBFZ testing story, post any questions you might have in the comments!