The Khans of Tarkir Standard metagame has been constantly evolving since its inception over three months ago. It currently stands as the most diverse and dynamic Standard metagame in memory and perhaps of all-time. A year ago, Standard was divided into a few major archetypes that each occupied20% or more of the metagame, but today the top archetypes struggle to hold even 10% share of the metagame. With the new year here, and with Fate Reforged not far on the horizon, now is a great time to take stock of the Standard field. Here's the metagame picture as it currently stands, using data from Magic Online events and major paper premier event finishes:
Abzan Aggro: 11.8%
Azorius Heroic: 9.5%
Abzan Midrange: 9.4%
Jeskai Tokens: 7.5%
Abzan Whip: 6.8%
Sidisi Whip: 5.8%
Mardu Midrange: 5.5%
Gruul Monsters: 4.3%
Dimir Control: 4.3%
Boros Midrange: 3.3%
These ten archetypes combined don't even make up 70% of the total metagame, which is amazing considering that a year ago this metagame share would contain at most five distinct archetypes.
Keep in mind that these numbers don't actually represent the metagame as a whole, but the metagame of top-performing decks, that is decks that go 3-1 or better in a Magic Online Daily Event or finish highly in a paper premier event. I have always believed that, roughly, the winning metagame one week becomes the overall metagame the next week, so it's a valuable and relatively accurate representation of the metagame and the data I'd use to guide my metagame predictions.
The current top-dog of Standard is Abzan Aggro, which holds nearly 12% metagame share. It's my choice for best deck in Standard, and the deck I'd recommend playing, so it's the deck I'll focus my attentions on today. It's valuable to have a consistent, proactive gameplan in such a wide-open format, and Abzan Aggro has all of the tools required to thrive in this Standard format. In this article I'll discuss the history of the archetype, share various decklist iterations, and explain the logic behind the inclusion of specific cards in the archetype and the roles they play.
Abzan Aggro Evolved
Abzan Aggro burst onto the Standard scene after a strong performance at PT: KTK, but it failed to live up to the hype and quickly dwindled from the metagame, in part due to a weak matchup against the more controlling Abzan Midrange archetype. Abzan Aggro has since redefined itself by adopting a playset of Wingmate Roc in the maindeck, which drastically improves the Abzan Midrange matchup and makes the deck significantly more powerful overall.
The Wingmate Roc innovation was brought to the forefront by Andrew Tenjum and Thea Steele, whose respective 9th and 10th place finishes at the SCG Standard Open in Seattle three weeks ago were overshadowed by the SCG Invitational occurring that same weekend, where the archetype was notably absent from the top 8.
Brian Braun-Duin took notice of the innovation, and he played the deck to a strong top 4 finish at the SCG Players' Championship, to the surprise of many. That high-profile event put Abzan Aggro into the spotlight and has spurred the archetype's recent surge in popularity. Abzan Aggro has since fought its way to the top of the metagame, and last weekend it was a top-performing archetype at Grand Prix Denver, where it put three copies into the top 8.
Andrew Tenjum reached the top 8 of two consecutive PTQ over the last two weekends, including a close finals loss this past Saturday. Brian Braun-Duin experienced his own heartbreaking finals loss the weekend after Christmas, but he avenged himself with a flawless victory at the competitive Roanoke PTQ this past Sunday, piloting this decklist:
Abzan Aggro has a cohesive, proactive strategy, it plays many of the most powerful and individually threatening creatures in the format, and it wields some of the best disruption spells in the format. It's particularly excellent at capitalizing on slow, stumbled, or incoherent draws from the opponent, and it's equally able to take advantage of unprepared opponents or those who sideboard improperly. For all of these reasons it's competitive in every matchup against every opponent, and it's a strong option in going forward in a diverse metagame.
Rakshasa Deathdealer and Fleecemane Lion are great in the early turns of a game, but they maintain their value as excellent topdecks in the late-game. There are few proactive two-mana plays in the format as powerful as these creatures, and in this sense they are unmatched by other decks the format and give Abzan Aggro a distinct edge in this realm.
Rakshasa Deathdealer is ostensibly mana intensive, but its abilities have value in their mere presence on the card and don't necessarily require activation. The pump ability means Rakshasa Deathdealer is quite hard to block, and it can generally attack into creatures like Courser of Kruphix and even Siege Rhino with impunity. The Regeneration ability means it's impossible to destroy with any amount of gang blockers, so in the face of multiple blockers it will mow them down one-by-one, turn after turn. While opponents can force the action with blocks and demand mana expenditure on Rakshasa Deathdealer, with measured play this will be a favorable transaction for its controller.
Both Rakshasa Deathdealer and Fleecemane Lion are superb late-game topdecks and mana sinks. With seven lands in play, Fleecemane Lion will immediately be able to Monstrous, and the opponent must have mana and a removal spell at the ready or will be faced by an untargetable and indestructible threat that will eventually overcome most forms of resistance, even Hornet Queen. Rakshasa Deathdealer eagerly converts any extra green and black mana to extra damage, and it is particularly strong with Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. An unanswered Rakshasa Deathdealer will quickly destroy an opponent from any lifetotal.
It's rare that a two-drop creature is a strong threat in the early game but maintains value in the late-game, and it's this trade-off that aggressive decks are historically forced to make. Both of these two-drops in Abzan Aggro buck the trend and make this aggressive strategy particularly potent, because the threats don't just maintain their value as the game goes on, they scale upwards in power and eventually become the most threatening cards of all.
Heir of the Wilds is played in some versions of Abzan Aggro, and it gives these decks additional early-game pressure while still maintaining a bit of late-game value with the ability to trade with any other creature in combat. Additional two-drops make the deck more consistently aggressively, but it pigeonholes the deck into a more one-dimensional plan. I personally don't think Heir of the Wilds is necessary because I prefer a more multi-faceted game plan, but the card has had strong finishes, including a playset in Matt Sperling's GP: Denver finals deck, so it's certainly something to consider.
Siege Rhino is always excellent as an undercosted, trampling body. It gives this deck extra game-ending reach with its life drain ability, which this aggressive archetype takes better advantage of than any other. The three life taken by Siege Rhino is more significant the lower the opponent's life total, and the constant pressure applied by Abzan Aggro ensures it's particularly back-breaking when applied by this archetype. Siege Rhino is also an excellent draw in the late game, and the incremental life loss may steal a win even when the opponent has the game otherwise firmly in their control.
At the top of the mana curve, Wingmate Roc serves as a source of a card advantage and tempo. As a flying creature, it gives the aggressive deck another dimension from which to attack opponents. Previously the archetype utilized Herald of Torment for its flying abilities, but Wingmate Roc has proven itself to be a more effective and powerful threat overall. The lifegain ability on Wingmate Roc must also not be overlooked, and it makes Wingmate Roc very effective in racing situations.
Wingmate Roc is great in nearly every matchup, but it's especially important for defeating Abzan Midrange strategies. Wingmate Roc is great for defeating attrition, and as a tempo play it's quite difficult to manage without the use of a hard board sweeper like End Hostilities or Duneblast. Wingmate Roc also flies over the top of Soldier Tokens, so it's able to pressure Elspeth, Sun's Champion effectively.
With almost every decklist playing a full set of Anafenza, the Foremost in the maindeck, Abzan Aggro preys on the Whip of Erebos decks that once dominated the metagame. Anafenza, the Foremost is also a very efficient aggressive body as a three mana 4/4, and the ability to add +1/+1 counters to other attackers give the Abzan Aggro deck greater ability to snowball an early lead and push opponents onto the backfoot.
Abzan Charm highlights the removal package as the most versatile of options. It Removes most of the creatures that can stand in the way of aggression, but it's also a potent combat trick that makes blocking a real nightmare for opponents. Abzan Charm generates a multitude of bluffing opportunities, so it gives the Abzan Aggro deck a real intangible edge by its mere presence in the archetype. Abzan Charm also draws 2 cards in a pinch, a mode it often employs against opponents that seek to fight Abzan Aggro with a removal spell focused attrition strategy.
Hero's Downfall is a clean way to destroy creatures, but its real importance is as an answer to planeswalkers, especially the increasingly popular Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver and the aggro-killer Elspeth, Sun's Champion.
Bile Blight has gained a lot of popularity in recent weeks. It's perhaps the single best maindeck answer to Hordeling Outburst, and it also Removes all of the Insect Tokens created by Hornet Queen, which are otherwise quite difficult to manage. Bile Blight destroys plenty of popular creatures like Seeker of the Way, Goblin Rabblemaster, and Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, and in this early-game creature removal role it's comparable to Lightning Strike out of red decks, but Bile Blight comes with the advantage of being able to destroy any number of Goblin or Zombie Tokens accumulated by the opponent. Bile Blight is also useful as a way to manage large creatures by shrinking them in combat.
Some players also use a single Murderous Cut, which is the most narrow of removal options but potentially the most efficient, and it comes with the potential to catch an opponent off-guard and lead them into a game-ending blunder.
Thoughtseize is necessary for disrupting the strategies of controlling decks like Abzan Midrange and Dimir Control, and for dismantling linear strategies like Jeskai Tokens and Azorius Heroic. While it hasn't always earned maindeck slots in this archetype, it's a key component of the total 75. Brian Braun-Duin has said Thoughtseize overperformed for him at the PTQ, and if the results of GP: Denver are any indication, it should very likely see maindeck play in this metagame. Abzan Aggro plays a high number of come-into-played tapped lands, so it's generally not an effective turn one-play, but rather it can be slipped into the curve later in the game, when it's often more clear what card is the most valuable to the opponent.
Elspeth, Sun's Champion is found in many sideboards, but Brian Braun-Duin now advocates it in his maindeck, which is how he employed the planeswalker in his PTQ victory. Elspeth, Sun's Champion brings the curve of the deck even higher than Wingmate Roc, and is supported by an extra land, but it pushes the power-level to the maximum and goes over the top of nearly everything but Hornet Queen. As a removal spell it's great for shutting down opposing Siege Rhino that clog the board, leaving Abzan Aggro's own two-drops and Wingmate Roc untouched, while as a token generator it quickly amasses an army and demands an immediate answer. I am a big fan of this addition, and it helps to make Abzan Aggro a truly well-rounded deck capable of battling against midrange opponents on its own terms.
As a three-color deck Abzan Aggro has access to strong sideboard cards, and I'll give a rundown of the popular options:
Drown in Sorrow is important as an answer to Jeskai Tokens opponents. It destroys any number of tokens from Raise the Alarm and Hordeling Outburst, and it also importantly destroys Goblin Rabblemaster and any Goblin Tokens. Drown in Sorrow is also a fine answer to Hornet Queen and any of its tokens, though it's not necessarily always used in this fashion. Drown in Sorrow is also a fine catch-all to any aggressive strategy, like Boss Sligh.
Back to Nature is an enchantment removal spell that is not as efficient as Erase, but is potentially more powerful. It deals with Courser of Kruphix, Eidolon of Blossoms, and Whip of Erebos all at once, but it's just as useful for destroying Jeskai Ascendancy, Chained to the Rocks, Banishing Light, or enchantments from Heroic decks.
Glare of Heresy is perhaps the best sideboard spell in Standard for its sheer versatility. It deals with a veritable bucket list of cards ranging from Siege Rhino, to Chained to the Rocks, to Elspeth, Sun's Champion, and even cleanly answers Soul of Theros. Glare of Heresy is also quite important as disruption against Azorius Heroic, where it Removes any of their threats. Glare of Heresy is a card I would not leave home without, and I will personally be experimenting with the full playset going forward.
Sorin, Solemn Visitor has fallen from some maindecks, but it's still an important fixture of the 75. It fills two major functions, the first as a source of lifegain against other aggressive decks, including the mirror match, and second as a source of card advantage and must-answer threat against controlling decks.
One option that may see more play in the near future is Hunt the Hunter, which combined with cheap green creatures functions as a very efficient removal spell against other green creatures, especially against other Abzan Aggro decks, and it's capable of destroying even Siege Rhino. The tempo generated from this sort of play can be massive and game-ending, so it's a card that should be on everyone's radar.
As the deck continues to grow bigger, Duneblast becomes an option, and it provides Abzan Aggro with a brutal board sweeper that, unlike End Hostilities, allows it to maintain significant board presence and immediately pressure the opponent.
Abzan Aggro and the Metagame Moving Forward
Abzan Aggro has evolved over the past three months to reach where it currently stands, and as last weekend's events show, it continues to evolve. The deck will continue to adapt to the metagame going forward, likely going even bigger as did Briaun Braun-Duin. Depending on the metagame, another possibility is the deck goes under opponents like it has done in the past. Bloodsoaked Champion would exhaust attrition opponents like the Dimir Control deck that won GP: Denver. Soldier of the Pantheon would make the deck more aggressive, but would be particularly useful in the mirror match as a cheap solution to the gold creatures. Wherever it is headed, Abzan Aggro is here to stay. Fate Reforged will certainly change the metagame, but Abzan Aggro will roll with the punches, adapt, and continue to attack!
What is your experience with or against Abzan Aggro? How should the metagame react? Share your thoughts in the comments.
As the Fate Reforged spoiler is revealed, stay tuned to magic.tcgplayer.com for all of the latest information on new cards and the future of Standard.