This past weekend at Grand Prix Memphis there was one archetype that dominated the event and it was Abzan Control. While Sultai Control did end up winning the event that was likely a result of Sultai Control having a pretty good matchup versus Abzan, as I know Jack Fogle got paired against Abzan at least five times during the event. This particular Abzan Control list was a collaboration between a lot of the top players on Team TCGplayer, and it is was what I opted to play. The architect behind this strategy has always been Steve Rubin, though Brad Nelson also made significant contributions to the deck for this event.
What distinguishes the list that we played at GP Memphis from previous iterations of the deck is the Fleecemane Lions in the board, which I will talk about in greater detail shortly. While Brad Nelson, Alex Majlaton, Chris Fennell, and Steve Rubin all made Top 8 with the deck, I quietly settled for a Top 16. While each of our lists were a couple of cards different from one another that is just due to personal preference, but I consider Brad Nelson's take to be the best version, here it is:
The maindeck may not look too different from the lists that have already found success in Standard and that's because it's not. While initial versions of Abzan Midrange played Sylvan Caryatid, what makes this deck "Abzan Control" is the addition of End Hostilities in the main, and cutting the Sylvan Caryatids entirely. Cutting arguably the most powerful mana producer in the format was a tough decision, but there are two reasons for doing so. First, it allows you to play less mana sources and more spells that affect the lategame, and anyone that has played previous versions of the deck knows the worst card to flip off Courser of Kruphix is usually Sylvan Caryatid. The other reason is we wanted the End Hostilities in the maindeck, and didn't want to be destroying our own Sylvan Caryatids when wrathing the board. Cutting Sylvan Caryatid does make the mana a bit worse and for sure the deck needs to play 26 lands.
Since Fate Reforged is a relatively new addition to the format it was unclear exactly how many copies of Tasigur, the Golden Fang the deck wants. There does need to be one Murderous Cut as a concession to the importance of dealing with Stormbreath Dragon, so the question becomes how many delve spells is too many? In the end some people opted to go with only a single copy of Tasigur, the Golden Fang, but my opinion is that two is the way to go. Tasigur, the Golden Fang provides another threat which means that you can cut the Sorin, Solemn Visitors from the main, as they aren't well positioned in a room full of Wild Slashes. Over the course of the tournament whenever someone cast a Tasigur, the Golden Fang in the later stages of the game they always went on to win that game.
The sideboard is really where the innovation comes in, with the most important card by far being Fleecemane Lion. So what matchups is Fleecemane Lion good versus? The answer is that it gets boarded in against everything except Abzan Aggro. Yes, Fleecemane Lion comes in versus aggro, control, and even against Blue/White Heroic and Green Devotion. So if the Fleecemane Lions are good in so many matchups how come they aren't in the main? The answer is that many deck are maindecking cards like Bile Blight and Lightning Strike, but those cards generally get boarded out versus Abzan Control. Fleecemane Lion is a proactive threat for only two mana, and when the opponent doesn't have the immediate removal spell, even if the Fleecemane Lion is dealt with later by something like Stoke the Flames or Hero's Downfall, you have gained a big swing in tempo.
So I have talked a bit about this list but now I want to provide a detailed sideboard guide, as sideboarding really is the key to the deck.Versus RW Aggro:
-2 Read the Bones, -4 Abzan Charm, -2 End Hostilities, -1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang, -4 Thoughtseize
+1 Erase, +3 Drown in Sorrow, +4 Fleecemane Lion, +3 Glare of Heresy, +2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
Yes there are an astounding 13 cards that come in for this matchup! This matchup isn't too bad game one, but becomes outstanding after board. One of the best tools the Red/white deck has access to in game one is Chained to the Rocks, but with the addition of the Erase and the Glare of Heresy's, Chained to the Rocks becomes much more vulnerable. The Fleecemane Lions and Sorin, Solemn Visitors are a package deal which allows you to play more aggressively, and gain an advantage in tempo early, before cards like Outpost Siege can hurt you. With the additional creature the +1 from Sorin, Solemn Visitor becomes much more effective. The Drown in Sorrows come in to replace the End Hostilities as they deal with everything except Stormbreath Dragon. This is why it is important to save Hero's Downfall and Murderous Cut to kill Stormbreath Dragon.Versus Green Devotion:
-2 Tasigur, the Golden Fang, -1 Courser of Kruphix, -1 Siege Rhino, -2 Thoughtseize, -1 Utter End, -2 Read the Bones
+3 Drown in Sorrow, +1 End Hostilities, +4 Fleecemane Lion, +1 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
Whether Monogreen or Green/Red Devotion the sideboard plan doesn't change too much. However, this plan can be adjusted based on what cards you see in game one. For example, the Drown in Sorrows are a concession to Hornet Queen, but if you don't think the version you are playing against has Hornet Queen the Drown in Sorrows are not as important. The Thoughtseizes and Sorin, Solemn Visitors are also flexible as sometimes you want more Thoughtseize on the draw, and all the Sorin, Solemn Visitors on the play. Boarding out a Courser of Kruphix and a Siege Rhino may seem a bit unconventional, but the way you beat Green Devotion is by dealing with their threats, not by playing your own. This is a matchup where Courser of Kruphix very rarely dies, so you never really want to draw more than one. In general many players may think that Green Devotion is a bad matchup for Abzan Control but it actually is decent. End Hostilities is a card that Green Devotion has a very difficult time coming back from.Versus Jeskai Aggro:
-2 Read the Bones, -2 Thoughtseize, -4 Abzan Charm, -2 End Hostilities, -1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
+4 Fleecemane Lion, +3 Glare of Heresy, +2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor, +2 Drown in Sorrow
Unlike Red/White, Jeskai Aggro can sideboard into a control plan which involves a host of Negates and Disdainful Strokes which are important to be aware of. Also, Jeskai Aggro usually will be packing four copies of Valorous Stance after board, so the matchup is usually pretty close. Since Jeskai Aggro has both Goblin Rabblemaster and Mantis Rider, it is important to try and leave up a removal spell early to stop these creatures dealing you any damage, and not tap out until later in the game. Two copies of Drown in Sorrow do come in as you want a nice answer to Goblin Rabblemaster, but pretty much never want to draw two, as often times Jeskai Tempo boards out some of their two drops that would otherwise die to a Drown in Sorrow.Versus Control (Blue/Black or Sultai):
-3 Bile Blight, -2 End Hostilities, -1 Murderous Cut, -1 Elspeth, Sun's Champion
+4 Fleecemane Lion, +2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor, +1 Read the Bones
The sideboard plan against both Sultai Control and Blue/Black Control remains pretty much the same. Taking out the Bile Blights, End Hostilities, and the Murderous Cut is pretty much self-explanatory. As for the Elspeth, Sun's Champion it is a big late game card that can be answered by any Counterspell out of the control deck, and when you are trading a six mana card for a two mana one, that isn't great. There are versions of Blue/Black that don't play Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver where you would rather cut a Hero's Downfall than an Elspeth Sun's Champion. The control matchup is another matchup that is supposed to be bad for Abzan, but isn't necessarily. Personally, I would be more worried about Sultai than Blue/Black when playing Abzan. The sideboard plan which includes Fleecemane Lion allows you to get under the countermagic from the Blue/Black deck, and you never need to over commit into a Crux of Fate. My advice is to try to play game one quickly and willingly concede when in a losing position, as these matchups are vulnerable to drawing. One question I have received a couple times is how come there are not any Nissa Worldwakers in the sideboard? It is true that Nissa Worldwaker is great versus control, but it is also a five mana card that can just trade for a Disdainful Stroke. The answer is essentially that because we are boarding in Fleecemane Lion we are more interested in playing the tempo game, rather than have the most individually powerful threats. Another part of this is that because the Fleecemane Lions are in the sideboard inevitably some other cards that used to be in the board have to get cut.The Mirror Match:
-3 Bile Blight, -4 Thoughtseize, -2 End Hostilities, -1 Utter End
+4 Fleecemane Lion, +1 Read the Bones, +2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor, +3 Glare of Heresy
The mirror is another slow and grindy matchup, and can also be quite interactive and close. If you are expecting your opponent to be boarding in Fleecemane Lion than it is correct to bring in Glare of Heresy. However, if you don't anticipate the Glare of Heresy's than I wouldn't take out all the Thoughteizes. Thoughtseize is a card I want to draw early in the matchup but there are times you get into a topdeck war. Honestly at the Grand Prix I never faced the mirror and I may have been too scared to take out all the Thoughtseizes, even if it is correct. If your opponent does not have Fleecemane Lion, you are the favorite, as this card really shines and can help Overload the opponents Hero's Downfalls and Abzan Charms, once the Bile Blights have been cut.Versus Heroic:
-2 Read the Bones, -2 Elspeth, Sun's Champion, -1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang, -2 Read the Bones, -2 End Hostilities
+4 Fleecemane Lion, +3 Glare of Heresy, +2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
Heroic is a matchup that many players should be familiar with at this point. This deck has so much targeted removal that it can be pretty easy to Overload opposing Gods Willing's and Feat of Resistance, or kill a creature if the Heroic player is forced to tap out. A lot of the bigger and slower cards aren't as useful in this matchup especially since Heroic often boards in Stubborn Denials and Disdainful Strokes. The Fleecemane Lions do come in as a way to put pressure on the Heroic player, and are much better than one would think initially. Versus Abzan Aggro:
-2 Read the Bones, -2 Thoughtseize
+3 Glare of Heresy, +1 End Hostilities
This is one of the best matchups for Abzan Control so there isn't too much you need to bring in after board. The additional removal spells are great, and it is very difficult for Abzan Aggro to win an attrition based fight. Wingmate Roc getting raided in is the thing you need to be most aware of, but the perfect answer to Wingmate Roc is End Hostilities.
Alright well I hope this sideboarding guide helps players looking to try Abzan Control, or players who already have been playing Abzan Control, but want to add Fleecemane Lion to their sideboard. I recommend the Fleecemane Lions but as a result of Grand Prix Memphis the "secret tech" is now no longer secret, of course. I did not go through how to sideboard against every matchup in Standard but tried to cover a lot of the top decks.
Thanks for reading,