Hangarback Walker is great in Abzan Aggro because the deck has some convenient ways to add +1/+1 counters in Dromoka's Command, Abzan Charm, and Anafenza, the Foremost. Hangarback Walker's ability to grow turn after turn gives it an advantage in board stalls, and as an X spell it's a great top deck no matter how late into the game it is. Hangarback Walker and its Thopter Tokens are also great for fulfilling the raid trigger on Wingmate Roc.
Despite its unique advantages, recently some Abzan Aggro lists have trimmed down on their number of Hangarback Walkers, if not cut them entirely. The metagame has become increasingly hostile towards the card: Eldrazi Ramp decks go over the top of Hangarback Walker with Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger removing it or Dragonlord Atarka killing the tokens. Four-Color Rally decks aren't pressured by it, and in the Mirror Match it's contained by Anafenza, the Foremost and Abzan Charm. Matchups where it shines, like Atarka Red and Jeskai Black, have been in decline. There has also been an increase in the number of cards that cleanly stop Hangarback Walker, including Silkwrap, Stasis Snare, Utter End, and Complete Disregard.
Esper Dragons had an excellent performance at Grand Prix Brussels where it won the event in the hands of Lukas Blohon, put Ondrej Strasky into the Top 8, and put Martin Juza and Pro Tour Champion Ivan Floch into the Top 16. Going forward I expect Esper Dragons to catch on with many players. A rise in Esper Dragons might seem like a positive thing for Hangarback Walker because it's especially strong at interfering with Foul-Tongue Invocation, however Esper Dragons does have clean ways to answer the card in a pair of Utter End and a Complete Disregard, and as an attacker Hangarback Walker isn't a large threat.
An Abzan Aggro deck in the Brussels Top 8 played three Rattleclaw Mystic as a two-mana play to accelerate threats into play and to help generate blue mana for a sideboard splash. Playing Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or Siege Rhino on turn three sounds great, but on average Rattleclaw Mystic is an underpowered attacker that doesn't offer anything special offensively or provide any value in a long game.
The most common creature replacing Hangarback Walker is Heir of the Wilds, which has deathtouch and potentially gains +1/+1 with ferocious. It attacks into any blocker, which fits into Abzan Aggro's plan of always wanting to attack. On defense it has the ability to trade up against a more powerful and expensive attacking creature. In the rare case I want to two-for-one myself, deathtouch is also strong with Dromoka's Command and has the ability to destroy any creature. Still, there may be an even better two-mana creature option.
Snapping Gnarlid is easy to cast, reliably attacks as a 3/3, and in an archetype that plays 12 fetch lands it's very often a 4/4. If Abzan wants to truly live up to its "aggro" name then it should be as aggressive as possible, and Snapping Gnarlid is the most aggressive creature available. In a damage race the difference between attacking with a 4/4 Snapping Gnarlid on turn three compared to attacking with a 1/1 Hangarback Walker is tremendous, and the benefits of Snapping Gnarlid become even clearer when it attacks again on turn four and beyond, even as a 3/3 or 2/2. Playing Snapping Gnarlid in Abzan Aggro makes the deck decidedly faster and more aggressive in a way that no other two-mana creature can, and it has a ton of unexplored potential in the archetype.
In the Mirror Match against other Abzan Aggro decks, victory goes to the player who gains the initiative and puts the opponent on the defensive. This is showcased well by Anafenza, the Foremost, which makes itself and other creatures better when attacking. Abzan Charm compounds the issue because its ability to buff attackers makes blockers particularly poor. Dromoka's Command only works as a removal spell with a creature already in play, so it too gives advantage to the player who first establishes a board presence.
The most powerful card in the matchup, Wingmate Roc, clearly demonstrates the necessity of attacking while preventing the opponent from doing so. This all adds up to mean that the player on the play is strongly favored in any particularly game. The player on the draw needs to "break serve," however possible, ideally by containing opposing creatures with efficient removal.
This is where the sideboard comes in, and both Silkwrap and Self-Inflicted Wound do an excellent job of wrestling control from an opponent on the play, or they will further bury an opponent on the draw. Tasigur, the Golden Fang is a potent tempo tool for the midgame, because it comes down for as little as one mana, and it allows one to play multiple threats in a turn and leave the opponent two steps behind.
In on the Play: 2 Silkwrap, 2 Self-Inflicted Wound
Out on Play: 2 Dromoka's Command, 1 Gideon Ally of Zendikar, 1 Den Protector
In on the Draw: 2 Silkwrap, 2 Self-Inflicted Wound, 1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Out on Draw: 2 Dromoka's Command, 2 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, 1 Anafenza, the Foremost
Dromoka's Command is worse with lots of removal flying around, so I like to cut some, but it's still strong, especially because this list doesn't have Hangarback Walker and can reliably free creatures from Silkwrap. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is weaker on the draw because you are more often behind on board and the planeswalker is more likely to be attacked and killed. Anafenza, the Foremost is worse on the draw because it's less likely to be able to attack and put a counter on something. On the play I am comfortable trimming a Den Protector because I want to focus on curving out on them. On the draw I am less aggressive and am aiming to grind them out, which is why Tasigur, the Golden Fang is included. It's also a great way to regain initiative from behind.
A rise in Esper Dragons means Abzan Aggro will have to contend with a matchup that it isn't particularly favored in. Abzan Aggro has a lot of game against Esper Control strategies in general, but compared to traditional control versions Dragonlord Ojutai is hard for Abzan Aggro to deal with, so it's an efficient way for Esper to seize control. Compared to last season the loss of Thoughtseize means Abzan Aggro has fewer ways to disrupt the control deck, and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is a potent threat they didn't have to contend with before.
The sideboard provides the discard Abzan Aggro needs to disrupt Esper Dragons, especially Dig Through Time, and Self-Inflicted Wound is a brutal answer to Dragonlord Ojutai that they often don't expect or have no choice but to play into. Ultimate Price isn't ideal for the matchup, but it's a necessary concession to Jace, Vryn's Prodigy. It's also removal for any Tasigur, the Golden Fang they bring in, so it's worth the space. Tasigur, the Golden Fang is a cheap threat because it has a lot of delve fuel with discard spells being cast and creatures being countered or destroyed. It's best when it can be cast with four extra mana up to guarantee gaining a card.
In: 2 Duress, 2 Transgress the Mind, 2 Self-Inflicted Wound, 2 Ultimate Price, 2 Tasigur, the Golden Fang, 1 Mastery of the Unseen
Out: 4 Dromoka's Command, 1 Murderous Cut, 2 Wingmate Roc, 3 Anafenza, the Foremost, 1 Plains
Dromoka's Command has some utility game one because it can destroy Jace, Vryn's Prodigy or Dragonlord Ojutai, but it's very poor in general. Anafenza, the Foremost isn't bad, but it's expensive compared to other creatures and doesn't generate value compared to Siege Rhino. Wingmate Roc won't reliably raid, it's poor against Counterspells, the payoff is trumped by Crux of Fate or Dragonlord Ojutai, and cutting it also allows us to Remove a Plains.
Four-Color Aristocrats had a great showing in Brussels and is going to gain some converts, so I'd expect to play against it in the near future. That bodes well for Abzan Aggro. Anafenza, the Foremost is the most effective card in the format against the archetype because it stops all of their tricks. Four-Color Aristocrats can deal with Anafenza, the Foremost with Sidisi's Faithful or sideboard Murderous Cut, so we turn to the sideboard for extra help.
Duress and Transgress the Mind stop their key ways to generate card advantage in Rally the Ancestors and Collected Company. Ultimate Price destroys any of their key creatures, and it can even effectively counter Sidisi's Faithful before its trigger resolves. Silkwrap is nearly as effective.
In: 2 Duress, 2 Transgress the Mind, 2 Ultimate Price, 2 Silkwrap
Out: 3 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, 4 Abzan Charm, 1 Den Protector
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar doesn't impress me in the matchup because I would rather be casting cheap threats and disruption. 2/2 tokens are not particularly strong, the 5/5 body is chumped, and the anthem ability unimportant because Abzan Aggro's creatures are already bigger than the opponent's. Abzan Charm has limited use as a removal spell, and there isn't much time to spend on drawing cards.
Atarka Red / R/G Landfall
Red decks are traditionally good matchups for Abzan Aggro because Abzan has bigger creatures, Dromoka's Command is such a good tool, and Abzan gains more from sideboarding. A wealth of creature removal helps contain aggressive red starts, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang generates a significant board presence at a low rate.
In: 2 Surge of Righteousness, 2 Silkwrap, 2 Ultimate Price, 2 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Out: 3 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, 4 Abzan Charm , 1 Den Protector
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is always under pressure, so it's too much of a liability. Abzan Charm finds few creatures to Remove and is inefficient if it does, and drawing cards is too costly in the matchup.
There are Jeskai Black decks lurking, and they are very tricky to play against. Sideboarding in discard helps to trump their cards like Ojutai's Command, and removal helps keep their creatures at bay. Tasigur, the Golden Fang is a very potent threat that they can have a hard time destroying. Mastery of the Unseen is almost impossible for them to grind out without Utter End.
In: 2 Duress, 2 Silkwrap, 2 Ultimate Price, 2 Tasigur, the Golden Fang, 1 Mastery of the Unseen
Out: 4 Dromoka's Command, 4 Snapping Gnarlid, 1 Warden of the First Tree
Dromoka's Command has some potential, but they play few burn spells to counter and have too much removal to make fighting reliable. Snapping Gnarlid is very weak to Wild Slash, Fiery Impulse, and Kolaghan's Command.
G/W Megamorph is on the decline, but perhaps it will see an increase because Deathmist Raptor is so strong against Esper Dragons. The matchup is close, and sideboarding in some removal helps the fight
In: 2 Silkwrap
Out: 1 Murderous Cut, 1 Den Protector
Esper Tokens relies on its planeswalkers and removal spells, so hammer them with discard and apply continuous pressure with creatures.
In: 2 Duress, 2 Transgress the Mind
Out: 3 Dromoka's Command, 1 Murderous Cut
Anafenza, the Foremost and Abzan Charm do a good job of containing Hangarback Walker, so Silkwrap isn't necessary, but it could be useful. Dromoka's Command isn't great, but it does counter a Silkwrap and is a decent removal spell, so I'd leave one in.
Abzan Aggro can certainly race Green-based Ramp, and discard makes things easier. Silkwrap stops Hangarback Walker and Nissa, Vastwood Seer.
In: 2 Duress, 2 Transgress the Mind, 2 Silkwrap
Out: 4 Dromoka's Command, 2 Wingmate Roc
Dromoka's Command doesn't do much of anything, and Wingmate Roc is too slow to matter and easily trumped.
What other Abzan Aggro matchups are you interested in hearing about? What is your opinion on Snapping Gnarlid, Heir of the Wilds, Hangarback Walker, Rattleclaw Mystic, or any other Abzan Aggro turn-two play? I'll do my best to answer any questions in the comments.
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