Winning the Abzan Mirror – Standard’s New Rock-Paper-Scissors

We all knew Siege Rhino was going to be great. Format defining, even. I’m not sure the world was quite prepared for how many different ways there are to build around it. From the latest Grand Prix results, three viable Siege Rhino decks have made their way to prominence. The most important question: how do they interact with each other?

Abzan Aggro

Abzan Aggro burst onto the scene in the hands of Mike Sigrist at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir. After a bit of a lull, this deck has become one of the most popular decks in Standard in recent weeks. We saw three copies (all in the hands of accomplished players) make Top 8 at Grand Prix Denver. The following version was played by CFB’s own Matt Sperling to an undefeated record in the Swiss of the tournament, and eventually a runner-up finish.

Abzan Aggro has many elements of traditionally successful Standard decks. Powerful individual threats and efficient (but flexible) interaction. The beauty of this deck is in the 2-drops, Fleecemane Lion and Rakshasha Deathdealer. Both of these creatures are powerful threats not only on turn 2, but in late game situations where you have plenty of extra mana. Sperling’s list in particular also has highly efficient and targeted sideboard choices, allowing him to maintain a streamlined approach to post-sideboard games.

Abzan Midrange

Paul Cheon also made the Top 8 of Grand Prix Denver, but with a very different approach. This deck has been labeled Abzan Midrange, but I think it’s more appropriate to think of it as Abzan Control. Paul’s strategy against a huge percentage of decks in the format is to play defensive creatures and removal to keep the game under control until he can land an Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. However, the deck is similarly capable of the punishing “multiple Siege Rhino” draws we know all too well.

Note that Paul’s deck is not really a creature deck, despite playing Courser of Kruphix and Siege Rhino. This deck has a multitude of removal spells, card drawing in the form of Read the Bones and Abzan Charm, and even maindeck wraths (with many more in the sideboard, especially in matchups where Drown in Sorrow is good).

Abzan Whip

Abzan Whip is the long-game deck of the format. This deck sacrifices early interaction for true inevitability, which usually comes from Whip of Erebos, Hornet Queen, Pharika, and Soul of Innistrad. Rather than control creatures 1-for-1, Abzan Whip tries to create an insurmountable board presence and life total, while using small amounts of removal to deal with problem permanents.

Christian Calcano’s version from Grand Prix Manila is shown below, but he was accompanied by Martin Juza in that Top 8 with the same general archetype.

With these lists in mind, let’s talk a bit about how they match up against each other.

Abzan Aggro vs. Abzan Whip

Advantage: Abzan Aggro

This may be a controversial statement, but Abzan Aggro’s popularity is the result of a positive matchup against Whip of Erebos decks. Abzan Aggro is able to come out of the gates quickly with threats that are able to get through the Whip deck’s early defenses, and plays multiple copies of Anafenza, the Foremost, which adds an additional element of disruption in the matchup.

Even Bile Blight is surprisingly good at helping push through a Hornet Queen, which is typically Whip’s last-ditch attempt at trumping the board. This isn’t to say the Abzan Whip can’t win—they will just have trouble with the aggressive, tempo-oriented draws of Abzan Aggro, which represent a huge percentage of the deck’s good draws. If you take a look at Martin Juza’s deck from Grand Prix Manila, you’ll notice some card choices which I believe are attempts to shore up the Abzan Aggro matchup:

The most notable choice here is an inclusion of 4 Murderous Cut maindeck, compared to only 2 in Calcano’s list. Abzan Aggro’s best advantage over the Whip deck is a tempo game plan, and Murderous Cut allows the Whip player to cast two high-impact spells in the same turn during the early game. The tempo boost from an early Cut may actually allow a Whip player to stabilize the board at a high enough life total to take over in the late game. Martin has also chosen to include two copies of Wingmate Roc, one of the best cards against Abzan Aggro, which we’ll see applies in the Abzan Aggro mirror as well.

Abzan Aggro vs. Abzan Midrange

Advantage: Abzan Midrange

Unlike the Whip decks, Abzan Midrange is equipped with more than enough early removal to blunt Abzan Aggro’s aggression, and hopefully render Wingmate Roc less effective. Wingmate Roc is one of the most powerful tools Abzan Aggro has at its disposal in this matchup, mostly because of how well it lines up against Elspeth. Despite that, Elspeth is one of the most powerful tools in Standard against Abzan Aggro. It provides removal for a decent percentage of their creatures, stabilizes the board against the others, and is a resilient finisher. While the midrange deck already has a natural advantage in the attrition games, Elspeth is pretty much a guaranteed 2-or-1, and is the only card in the deck (and one of the few in the format) capable of dealing with a monstrous Fleecemane Lion. From the midrange side, you should avoid relying too much on the tokens in the face of otherwise dead Bile Blights from your opponent.

This matchup substantially favors Abzan Midrange. The combination of Elspeth, card advantage, and flexible removal (particularly Utter End and Abzan Charm to deal with otherwise pesky Deathdealers), allow midrange to win a long game, but also maintain a high life total early, unlike Abzan Whip. Aggro players should look to steal games with aggressive Wingmate Roc or Herald of Torment.

The post-board games in this matchup don’t really change much in terms of texture—Abzan Aggro gets some tools to aid the tempo draws in cheaper removal (as well as answers to Elspeth), but the midrange decks also get more wraths to help punish those draws. Both sides are really are just happy to not have Thoughtseize in their deck anymore, though it wouldn’t be as unreasonable to keep some in on the aggro side to defend against Elspeth or End Hostilities.

Abzan Whip vs. Abzan Midrange

Advantage: Abzan Whip

This is the most lopsided of the three matchups, at least in game one. Neither deck is suited to end the game quickly, and the Whip deck has a much more resilient and difficult to answer set of threats. Abzan Midrange might technically have all of the tools—Utter End and Thoughtseize for Whips, wraths for Hornet Queen—but it is very difficult to play a game where your answers line up to their threats in time. Soul of Innistrad is also nearly impossible to beat if the Whip player is patient and gets maximum value.

Part of the issue is that Elspeth is pretty bad against Abzan Whip, rendering a huge percentage of midrange’s threats ineffective. The midrange deck essentially has to hope to steal a quick game with Siege Rhino or Nissa, or set up a blowout End Hostilities. The second of these is particularly easy to mitigate for a savvy Whip player. The post-board games are definitely closer to even, because midrange gets both more answers to Hornet Queen and more answers to Whip, as well as additional copies of Nissa.

What to do about Thoughtseize and Sylvan Caryatid?

This matchup exemplifies a key sideboarding strategy in this format, with regards to Sylvan Caryatid and Thoughtseize. Typically considered two of the more powerful cards in the format, these cards are both very bad in long, attrition-oriented games (particularly when wrath effects are involved). Both players are motivated to sideboard out all of these cards and settle in for a drawn-out affair. The midrange deck might want to keep a Thoughtseize or two in as additional answers to Whip (which is particularly good for nabbing a redundant copy before you kill the first one). That said, it wouldn’t be a bad strategy to just board all of these cards out and play for the true long game.

One thing that Abzan Midrange has going for it currently is that the Whip decks are trending away from playing lots of copies of both Whip and Hornet Queen, which are by far the two biggest problems. Note that Martin Juza’s Top 8 deck from Manila has only two copies of each, down from 3 and 4 respectively in early versions of the deck. If Abzan Midrange picks up in popularity, adding back more copies of those cards is certainly the best avenue to an easy victory.

Abzan Aggro Mirror

The Abzan Aggro mirror is fundamentally based around tempo. The player on the play has so many advantages, because cards like Fleecemane Lion, Rakshasa Deathdealer and Anafenza are much more effective on offense than on defense. The removal spells (particularly Bile Blight) are similarly better when you already have a board presence and are pressuring their life total. Perhaps the biggest advantage of being on the play is you are much more likely to be able to trigger Wingmate Roc, simply because the player on the draw rarely has the luxury of attacking.

Approach 1 – Leverage Tempo

However, there are two different approaches to sideboarding for the Abzan Aggro mirror. If you look at Matt Sperling’s list again, he uses Hunt the Hunter, Dark Betrayal, Murderous Cut, and Glare of Heresy to leverage those tempo draws and get ahead quickly by casting multiple impactful spells in the same turn. These cards are good both at pressing advantage when you are ahead, and bringing a game back to parity when you are behind. Given how much of the matchup is centered around triggering Wingmate Roc, being ahead is everything.

Approach 2 – Change Roles

You’ll also notice that both William Jensen and Valentin Mackl’s Top 8 decks from Denver take a different posture. Rather than trying to win the snowball games, they abandon the tempo plan and sideboard multiple copies of Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. Taking a page of out Abzan Midrange’s book, Elspeth is a mirror breaker than will allow you to win games from behind and as the control role. The main criticism of this strategy is that Elspeth does close to nothing (besides cute Abzan Charm tricks) against a resolved Wingmate Roc. When bringing in Elspeth, you’re committing to killing all of their guys pre-raid, or using Rocs of your own to defend against theirs.

Just like the very grindy Abzan matches, Thoughtseize is also bad in a tempo-oriented match like this one. You simply don’t want to trade life and mana for a card that they have had to invest neither of those resources into.

Abzan Midrange Mirror

The Abzan Midrange mirror might just be the most attrition-based matchup in Standard. Both players have more removal spells than the other player has threats, and plenty of ways to draw cards and gain life. Game one is usually decided by Elspeth or Nissa, unless one player stumbles and gets run over by Rhinos.

Cut Caryatid and Thoughtseize. Lean on planeswalkers. Maximize value.

The post-board games are very, very different—filled with wraths and planeswalkers. Sylvan Caryatid and Thoughtseize are beyond bad (even worse than in the midrange vs. Whip matchup). These games almost always come down to Nissa advantage—you never aggressively pressure their life total—but the points all add up in the face of hasty 4/4 lands. As a result, Sorin often plays a huge role in putting you out of Nissa range by gaining life and fueling Read the Bones and Abzan Charm. It’s a bizarre matchup where both players have in wraths and so few creatures—but that’s really just a concession to how powerful Nissa is.

Like many control mirrors, you rarely want to play your threats in a way that lets your opponent cast their removal spells at convenient times. Many classic techniques apply: never cast your Coursers on turn 3, sandbag other threats to make their answers awkward. If you keep making land drops and out-mana them on the two or three key turns in the matchup, that is one way to win. In reality, most of these games are going to degenerate into topdeck wars, decided by Read the Bones and Nissa advantage. Using Coursers to time your scrylands to maximum effect is a small edge that will add up in a long game.

Abzan Whip Mirror

This matchup is also very drawn out, but in a different way than the Abzan Midrange mirror. Both players will typically slam haymakers back and forth, and setting up the biggest blowout or hardest-to-deal-with board is the best strategy. If one player consistently uses their cards more efficiently over the course of a few of these blowout turns, they will usually end up ahead. Whips and Queens are much less important in this post-board games in the face of many Reclamation Sages and Doomwake Giants. As a result, the sideboarded games are usually won by Pharika. However, I’ve seen other players turn to Nissa or Ajani, Mentor of Heroes to build a powerful board. Soul of Theros was once a very popular strategy for the Abzan Whip mirror, but that card does seem to have fallen out of favor recently.

Moving Forward

Each of these Abzan decks has known strengths and weaknesses, and the capability to beat the others with proper sideboarding and preparation. If this Standard format continued forever, a new one might be the best choice each week, though in reality they would all probably trend toward the middle—something we’ve seen in the lists of both Jensen and Juza. While the matchups I’ve covered are all directly Abzan on Abzan, these lessons apply to other matchups.

• The way to beat Abzan Whip is by pressuring their life total with resilient threats.

• You beat Abzan Aggro by getting ahead on tempo—and taking advantage of a painful mana base.

• You beat Abzan Midrange by playing for the long game—with Whips or Queens, but also with Dig Through Times and Pearl Lake Ancients (but watch out for Nissa!).

One huge trend is how bad Thoughtseize is across the board in Abzan vs. Abzan of basically any flavor. In a world dominated by Siege Rhino, get those out of your deck. Creatures with flying are great, and falling behind is fatal, but if you plan to slog through the early game you better be able to go long with the best of them. A couple of Elspeths don’t count as late game in this format.

With Fate Reforged on the horizon, everything is about to change, but I don’t see Siege Rhino going anywhere. In the land of Dragons, Rhinos are still king.

Thanks for reading,

Matt Costa


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