Today marks the official release of Oath of the Gatewatch, the newest Magic: the Gathering set and second of two releases in the Battle for Zendikar block.
During this time, there’s been one deck and one deck only (with the exception of two weeks) that I’ve played: Abzan. In fact, I’d argue that for about 75% of the time Siege Rhino has been legal in Standard, I’ve been playing a variant of Abzan. It’s a deck I know well in addition to one that I’ve piloted to success. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much longer that success will continue. Oath offers up a bevy of new intriguing cards that can (and will) lead to new archetypes. While Abzan will undoubtedly still be a force within the meta due to its nature of being a collection of “really good cards,” its time at the top of the hill may be over. Despite that, I’m going to keep on trucking alongside my trusty Rhino.
I’ve seen a lot of different variations of how to adapt Abzan moving forward. Most of them, however, appear to be very, very wrong. First things first, let’s consider the “nut draw” Abzan has that allows it to beat so many decks:
Turn 1 Warden, Turn 2 pump, Turn 3 Anafenza, Turn 4 Siege Rhino. This creates a total of 17 damage in four turns. Last time I checked, that’s a lot of damage. Why, then, would anyone want to disrupt this opening? It’s — in a word — ludicrous. Yet that’s what I’m seeing some people do: they’re disposing of Warden of the First Tree or a more midrange/late-game approach with Eldrazi. This approach is 100% wrong.
Part of the temptation in this regard is the ability to repeatedly blink Siege Rhino with Eldrazi Displacer. Don’t get me wrong, it’s both cute and highly effective provided your opponent isn’t doing anything to interrupt the shenanigans. With that being said, if your opponent isn’t interrupting anything you do, Abzan is going to win anyway just due to the raw card power within the deck. There’s also extenuating circumstances to consider with this “combo,” too. You’re going to need to run colorless mana to make sure Displacer gets to blink creatures. Cuts need to be made to make room for Displacer itself. On the surface, this second factor isn’t much of an issue; the two drop slot in Abzan decks often run Heir of the Wilds just because “it’s better than all of the other options out there.” Consider, however, the cost at replacing Eldrazi Displacer (a three-drop) with Heir of the Wilds (a two-drop):
- That gums up the 3 mana slot even more with morphed Den Protect, Anafenza, and Eldrazi Displacer, which needs colorless mana to be effective.
- You need to up your colorless mana for Displacer to be of any use.
- You need to play a longer game to get full value from blinking Rhinos.
It’s the first and third points here that make the Displacer/Rhino combo so undesirable in my mind. Displacer is, far and away, the least effective three mana card you can be running. Why would you want to play it alongside cards that are far and away superior at that converted mana cost?
As for the third point, consider this: do you want to play a late game with blink Rhino or Ugin/Ulamog/Kozilek? I don’t know about you, but I can answer that question without even blinking.
So what then does Abzan do with these new cards? How does it incorporate additions from the Oath of the Gatewatch? One seems pretty simple to me, and for that we go to the two-drop slot. Again, Heir of the Wilds is a fine card, but one that’s rune due to a lack of better options. Those days are thankfully now over, thanks to Sylvan Advocate. While others have been advocating Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim in this slot, consider the converted mana costs: 1+Green vs. Black+White. One of those is far easier to cast than the other. The next step in this evaluation process is to examine the stats. Advocate is a 2/3 with vigilance where Ayli is a 2/3 with deathtouch. On the surface, these are even trades, but remember: Anafenza works better with Ayli than it does with Advocate (in which it doesn’t work at all). Then there’s the lasting effect these cards have on a game. Sylvan Advocate makes your Shambling Vents into 4/5 lifelinkers. Those are really, really good in standard right now. Slamming Advocate after an Ugin into activating Shambling vents and attacking could lead to some pretty impressive blowouts. Being able to constantly have a blocker for Siege Rhino while putting you ahead in life is nothing to scoff at. To be fair, Ayli’s abilities are also nothing to scoff at, but you need to find a dedicated shell to make her exile ability actually meaningful. Abzan can be great at gaining life, but consistently being above 30 is pushing it. This is why I favor Sylvan Advocate for Abzan over Ayli, which will undoubtedly find a home somewhere in Rally decks.
The other key addition into Abzan Aggro is Reality Smasher, though this one comes at a pretty big cost. The trick here is finding out the right number of pain lands to run in the Abzan deck. Let’s go back to our “nut” draw scenario of 17damage by turn four. The addition of a turn five Reality Smasher brings us to a total of 27 damage. TWENTY-SEVEN! That’s a really, really big number, one that very little decks can effectively deal with. It’s why I’m pulling for the Eldrazi to replace Wingmate Roc’s spot in the deck. That’s not to diminish the power of the Khans of Tarkir bird; it’s still a fantastic card, but I’m honestly tired of being stuck with it in my hand waiting to be able to attack with whatever creature just to get its full effectiveness.
Before presenting with a decklist, I want to go back to one of the issues I had with Eldrazi Displacer: it needs colorless mana to be effective. This same drawback exists when playing a card like Reality Smasher. With that being said, I think the reward here outweighs the risk. If you’re going to be taking full advantage of Displacer, chances are you’re running four. This means you will certainly have to double down on your painlands and run the risk of having issues with aggressive red match-ups. Thankfully, we can have a sideboard that can help deal with that. Is all of the pain going to be worth it? Time will tell, but for now, here’s where I’m looking for Abzan post-Oath:
Abzan Aggro – Oath of the Gatewatch Edition
4x Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
A couple of things to consider in closing:
- By cutting four fetchlands, this makes delve cards worse. Therefore, I’ve cut a Murderous Cut for the second Dromoka’s Command. This should also help out with the aggressive matchups and give Abzan more protection against burn.
- Yep, I’m scared of Rally. It’s bar none the best deck in the format and it will definitely be getting better thanks to a card like Reflector Mage. You better be prepared for it.
- No Wingmate Roc anywhere in the 75. Linvala, let’s see what you can do.
- Do not run Oath of Nissa in an aggressive Abzan shell. Your non-creature, non-planeswalker cards are just as important; removal is pretty damn key in this deck and it would royally suck to see the kill spell you need go to the bottom off of an Oath trigger.
- I thought about Remorseless Punishment as the card has over performed during the pre-release, but I’m not on that hype train. Yet.
- Not running Ayli because Sylvan Advocate is such a better draw late game.