Recently, my weapon of choice in standard has been Abzan Megamorph. But calling the deck Abzan Megamorph is a little too specific -- at this point in Standard, it's fairly well accepted that the various Abzan decks are not really discrete decks, just different points on a wide spectrum. This means that no matter what the official nomenclature for an Abzan deck is, it will share a significant portion of its cards with other Abzan decks. Because of this, I have found it useful to think about Abzan colored 'mirrors' as one single matchup. Today, I will be talking about what I have gleaned about how to play Abzan mirrors.
Before delving into the specifics of Abzan mirrors, I want to point out how having so many different decks folded together under one banner (and playing so many of the same cards) makes the mirrors more interesting. Because such an absurdly large percentage of the cards are the same regardless of the specifics of the decklists, the role each player takes in any individual game is often more draw dependent than due to the differences in their lists. I really enjoy Abzan mirrors because of this as the games are often very dynamic and reward reading your opponent's draw.
The Beatdown Plan
Here's the thing about the Abzan cards: they can close out games fast. If you haven't been quickly dispatched by a crash of Siege Rhinos yet, you haven't been playing much Standard. So, naturally, when you pit two Abzan decks vs each other sometimes the game ends quickly. In my experience, the threshold for the beatdown plan mattering is one player being two creatures up and able to profitably attack. This typically will happen when one player's two-drop is unmatched and the opponent's third land comes into play tapped, allowing the two-drop player's three-drop to also be unmatched. It doesn't matter a whole lot what the two creatures you are up are -- Fleecemane Lion and Courser of Kruphix are a much less scary offensive force than Rakshasa Deathdealer and Anafenza, the Foremost, but either will get the job done.
If you get off to a slow start and your opponent gets up the critical two creatures, prioritize removal first, and mana efficiency second. Trying to stabilize via playing creatures to block is not ideal, as if they have a removal spell for your blocker that's a lot of tempo and free damage for them. If this happens too many times, the game will soon be over. So we Remove their creatures first, until they either run out of follow-up creatures and the potential free damage is much smaller, or we run out of removal spells and are forced to deploy creatures. While doing so, we are also keeping our eye out for the first opportunity at which we will be able to cast two spells in one turn and reclaim some of the tempo we lost in the early game.
If you are the player on the offensive, you need to always be thinking about if your offense plan is actually going to be able to end the game. Committing too many resources to an attack that they recover from is typically a game losing play. Knowing when to follow-through on your offense by using Abzan Charm to exile their Siege Rhino and when to give up the attack, draw two cards and let the board stalemate is a skill that decides games. Elspeth, Sun's Champion is the important card to think about when deciding how much to commit: is your attack foiled by a turn six Elspeth? If it is, it's probably right to switch off the offensive. But if you have a plan for Elspeth and enough removal spells and creatures in hand to maintain your tempo lead throughout the one spell per turn phase of the game, the offensive plan is fantastic.
In games where you are committed to your offense, save your removal for creatures that can actually block. If they play something that you can attack into, doing so and playing an additional threat main phase two is much stronger than removing their non-blocker. Keep in mind that the range of creatures you can attack into is a little higher than it appears, as your opponent often needs to respect the +1/+1 counter mode on Abzan Charm in making their blocks. Upgrading one of your creatures by letting it trade and then playing something better is also a fine offensive play.
The Cards Don't Matter
Here's the thing about the Abzan cards: they are prone to stalemating each other. Siege Rhino is blocked by Siege Rhino. Fleecemane Lion is blocked by Courser of Kruphix. Removal is everywhere, and it is often very hard to build a board that is enough better than your opponent's to matter. This is the 'classic' Abzan mirror, and it plays wildly different than the beatdown games.
These are the grindy clock consuming games that Abzan mirrors have become infamous for. In these games, the important thing to prioritize is simply raw cards. Mana efficiency is important in trying to get to a point where you can cast two spells a turn, but the really important thing is seeing as many cards in your deck as possible. This is because so few of the cards in either deck really matter. The creatures either bounce off each other or trade with a removal spell. Without one player getting a strong early tempo lead, it is very unlikely for a creature advantage large enough to matter to develop. Feel free to use your life total as a resource (10 or so is pretty safe) in order to play your cards out in a more efficient manner.
The important cards in these kinds of games are the powerful game-ending trump spells like Elspeth, Sun's Champion and the cards that help you get through your deck to find those cards. As such, Courser of Kruphix is generally more of a threat than Siege Rhino in these games. Den Protector is another all-star for its ability to regrow cards that matter (with the added utility of being able to attack through Elspeth tokens and Courser of Kruphix), and should almost never be played before you can leave the mana up to flip it face-up in the end step with a good target in the yard. Use your Abzan Charms to Remove things only if you really have to, otherwise they want to be drawing you more cards. Hero's Downfall is a card that should be conserved when possible, as it is one of the few answers to any planeswalker trump card.
The end condition in these games comes from either the culmination of incremental advantages or one of the myriad of trump card available in the Abzan colors. Trumps end games more commonly, but sometimes they are never drawn or are all answered, and the game will go until someone gets far enough ahead on creatures to end it. Sometimes this is due to an unanswered Courser of Kruphix; sometimes one player draws way more Abzan Charms. For how grindy the games are and how little the creatures matter, when one player pulls ahead the games will end really quick due to just how strong the creatures are.
Elspeth, Sun's Champion is the most common trump for Abzan, and for good reason. On an even board she can end games on her own very quickly and will do so if not immediately answered. When behind, she will generally immediately stabilize the board. She is somewhat weak to Hero's Downfall, as the three soldiers left behind matter very little in the Abzan mirror, but her minus two ability gives you some room to maneuver around Downfall by getting value that matters right away.
The printing of Den Protector added a new dimension to Elspeth wars, helping to recast answered Elspeths while also being able to evade the soldiers protecting your opponent's Elspeth. Den Protector is also sometimes a trump card in its own right in combination with Abzan Charm. A Den Protector with five power is unblockable by any creature typically played in Abzan and represents a major threat. This is of course a very fragile threat, but is a very effective last resort 'answer-this-or-die' play that also sometimes works to turn your Abzan Charm into a Hero's Downfall by swinging into a planeswalker they tapped out for.
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is another card that functions in this trump role in the control flavored Abzan decks. Often, his most important effect on the game is to prevent overextension due to fear of getting punished by his minus ability. It is hard to play Ugin as more than a one-of since he costs eight and there are other matchups out there where playing multiple copies of an eight drop is simply not feasible. As such, relying on finding Ugin in a given game is not the plan you want to be on if possible. If your opponent's deck looks like it could have Ugin though, it is a good thing to play around when you can afford to do so.
My trump card of choice for the matchup, however, has been Mastery of the Unseen. It's much slower than Elspeth and often loses in the heads-up battle if the turn six Elspeth doesn't have an answer, but in the long game is nearly unbeatable. Grand Prix Miami showed the world the power of Mastery of the Unseen with massive amounts of mana in the Green/White Devotion deck, and in the late game of the Abzan mirror the card can be similarly powerful.
Crux of Fate isn't always an important card in a given game, but it is always the single best answer for the defensive player in a beatdown game. Similar to Ugin, Crux is an important card to remember and play around because overextending into it is game-ending. Unlike Ugin, it isn't flexible or otherwise powerful, so if you manage to not let a Crux they are holding ever be good you have obtained a minor edge.
The last 'trump' card I want to discuss isn't actually a trump card, but a false trump. Monstrous Fleecemane Lion is a play that I have noticed is more highly valued than it should be by many players. The appeal is obvious, as a permanent 4/4 threat has an elegant simplicity. The problem is that a 4/4 just isn't good enough to really matter a lot of the time. Monstrous Fleecemane Lion is still blocked by Siege Rhino, chumped by Soldier Tokens and can only ever block one creature per attack step. Given the opportunity, the monstrous ability on Fleecemane Lion is certainly worth activating but the priority on it is actually fairly low. When you do find yourself with a monstrous Lion, keep in mind that ways of getting it to the critical fifth point of power (Abzan Charm, Dromoka's Command, Sorin, Solemn Visitor) are very valuable.
Thinking about all of the Abzan mirrors as one matchup is all well and good for general thinking, but there are some wrinkles introduced into the match by which specific decks each player is on. Mostly, the lists have a lot influence on what kind of game plays out. Abzan Aggro lists, naturally, lend themselves to beatdown games. They play enough cheap creatures to get the critical two creatures ahead early very consistently. In exchange, they play very few of the important trump cards and can't go late effectively. That being said, post-board Abzan Aggro decks sometimes pick up some copies of Elspeth, Sun's Champion to enable some semblance of late game play.
In the midrange/control mirrors, the texture of the games are decided by the inclusions at the low end of the curve and which trump cards each player has. If one person has Fleecemane Lion and the other doesn't, the player without Lion has to keep the possibility of their opponent getting an aggressive draw in mind in sideboarding and mulligan decisions. If one has Ugin or Crux or Mastery of the Unseen and the other doesn't, that matters and will affect how the game should be played. Study decklists and pay attention to what you see in game one to deduce what trumps your opponent likely has and you will gain an important edge.
The key to the Abzan mirrors is figuring out and understanding what the game that is being played is likely to look like. The cards in Abzan are all super flexible and as such need to be sequenced, prioritized, and used differently in different game textures. Planning ahead is critically important. I discussed the categories and signposts I use to figure out what kind of game is going to develop, but others could work too -- the key is to be thinking about the mirror in this kind of long term way.
Thanks for reading,
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