As I boarded my plane on my way to the Open in Indianapolis this past weekend, I still was not sure what I wanted to play in the first tournament with Battle for Zendikar. While I don't think I had a complete playset of Standard in my bag, I'm pretty sure I was close to having everything that I would consider playing in a sanctioned tournament with me. I figured I would work on different lists on the flight or talk to friends when I arrived in Indy, but after falling asleep before we even departed Phily and not waking up until we were descending into Indy... I started feeling the pressure of the clock ticking. I decided to message some friends that I know were testing the format a bunch during the week to see where they were going into a weekend of PPTQs, and the result was not very surprising.
It was obvious to my group that Abzan Charm and Siege Rhino was still a great base for a deck, even with the loss of Thoughtseize, Hero's Downfall, and Elspeth, Sun's Champion...but what would be the other cards in the deck? I messaged Jake Mondello who told me he was working on a Five-Color Abzan deck alongside Dylan Donegan and they were happy with where it was. He sent me the list and on first glance I realized there was no Bring to Light. When I asked him about it, he explained to me that decks like Abzan Control from the previous standard format were built around the idea that each turn they would play the best spell available to them until they reached a point where it would be the best two spells a turn and slowly, but surely, out value you as the game progressed. He went on to say this is what made cards such as Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Murderous Cut so important to previous iterations of the deck; they allowed you to double up on spells as early as turn three or four. Bring to Light supported a part of the strategy, in that it allowed you to play the best spell available to you every turn, but made playing two spells a turn much more difficult as the curve of your deck was increased to get maximum value out of your toolbox. After thinking about his reasoning, it made complete sense to me, and I kicked myself for not realizing it during the week of working on different Bring to Light lists. While the games where you can cast a turn four Siege Rhino into a turn five Bring to Light for Rhino are great, there are an equal amount of games where you start running out of relevant toolbox targets, or you get run over before any of them matter.
After talking to him a little more about the deck, I was sold. The only issue left was the mana, as we wanted to finish the rest of the list to figure out exactly what we needed our lands to do for us. As I went to sleep on Friday, I was happy with our list and felt like we were playing most of the best spells in the format. Unfortunately, there were some last minute changes to the mana that ended up being less than ideal. Regardless, this is the deck I piloted to 22nd place:
The morning of the event we added the three copies of Opulent Palace and the single Sandsteppe Citadel and as soon as I drew my opening hand round one I realized how out of place they were. The idea of going tri-land into basic, basic, in order to be able to cast Jace, Vryn's Prodigy on turn two and have access to Abzan Charm on turn three is great, but when you have to fit the tri-lands into your curve after turn one, things get very awkward. The bonus that the new dual lands offer Standard is that, after you get your first two basics out, all of your mana fixing comes into play untapped and ready to go. And while having a turn one Opulent Palace (or Sunken Hollow) is the only way to cast Jace into Abzan Charm, the downside of drawing an Opulent Palace later in the game is just not worth it. With that being said, our deck was great. Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, Siege Rhino, Dig Through Time, and Abzan Charm are some of the most powerful cards in the format, so being able to play them all together is just great. I picked up a few early losses to hyper-aggressive decks, including the Atarka Red list that ultimately won the tournament, but other than that I felt like this deck was really onto something.
I ended the tournament in 22nd place with a record of 10-4-1, losing round 14 when I thought I was alive for Top 8 only to later realize I was playing for 9th/10th. I felt like a pretty significant favorite over other midrange decks that were trying to out-value opponents, but there were definitely oversights in our deckbuilding.
The lack of Murderous Cut was felt immediately when I was being attacked by a 13/13 trampling, double strike Monastery Swiftspear and I looked at my hand of Reave Soul and Ruinous Path. Cut had always been a great card in decks like this, but we were afraid of the overuse of delve since we didn't have any great enablers. Silumgar's Command was surprisingly good for me, being used mostly to destroy a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and the token that was made in just one card. There were multiple times this weekend that my opponent was trying to set up a Wingmate Roc that just fell on its face because I was able to clear out the board with just a single card. Utter End was a lot of the same. Having the utility to hit any nonland permanent is great, even at the steep cost of four mana. The format as a whole slowed down a fair amount as people are getting used to fetching out the correct lands in the correct sequence, so the cost on Utter End doesn't feel as prohibitive as it did previously.
Ob Nixilis Reignited was very good for me, but I often felt like our deck was not built properly to take advantage of him. Without a steady stream of blockers like Hangarback Walker or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, it was difficult to cast him with the intent of destroying a creature, mostly because of opposing Shambling Vents. When he was a five mana Phyrexian Arena, I had no complains, but as a removal spell he felt a little clunky. Ruinious Path was a card that the jury ended up split on. I left Indianapolis with more respect for the card than I arrived with, but others in the group felt the mana requirement was too much and wanted to eschew it for other options. While the mana is more difficult to make work for double color spells, I feel as though if you build your fetches to dual base correctly, you can support one color with double cost cards.
While I don't know if this deck is going to become a mainstay in the format, I've made some changes to the spell and manabase based on my thoughts after this weekend.
I wanted to try out Complete Disregard over Reave Soul because of the uptick in Michael Major's G/W Megamorph deck, but being on the draw without a two-drop removal spell feels like a really easy way to fall behind aggressive decks. Speaking of which, I feel like Surge of Righteousnes is poised to make a big push in sideboard space in the coming weeks. Being able to kill a Mantis Rider, Siege Rhino, Anafenza, the Foremost, and any Immense red creature for only two mana while also gaining life is very important. With an uptick in Temur Battle Rage in the red decks, cards like Arashin Cleric become slightly less appealing in non-Ojutai Command decks.
While I did enjoy the Five-Color Abzan deck, there were two other decks from the tournament that really interested me. In round 12 I picked up an unintentional draw against Raja Sulaiman, who ended up in 19th place piloting Four-Color Abzan:
I really liked this deck and I felt like I was a dog even with trump cards like Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and Dig Through Time. The interaction between Den Protector and Kolaghan's Command is definitely strong going long in grindy Siege Rhino matchups. This was also one of the only decks I saw from this weekend that was able to combine Abzan Charm and Crackling Doom, which is an incredibly powerful combination. I would say this deck has the best mana out of all of the Four-Color Midrange decks based on the fact that Shambling Vents is at its best in a deck based in black and white, unlike the deck I piloted which was more black and blue.
As I mentioned earlier, I feel as though this is one of the better Ob Nixilis Reignited decks that did well this weekend, since it has both Hangarback Walker and Gideon to supply blockers to use him as a more well rounded card. Pair those with efficient removal and sweepers and you will make Ob Nixilis look better than he would in most decks.
The last deck I want to talk about is one that had two copies show up in the Top 8 and is really interesting me moving forward, Jeskai Black or Snap, Crackle as I've been calling it. Mantis Rider has established itself as one of the litmus tests of this format, being able to pressure opponents who are stumbling or not equipped to kill the hasted human immediately.
Adam Varner finished in 4th place with his take on the new archetype that combines a typical Jeskai Tempo deck with Crackling Doom and a few other tools. The black splash in Jeskai is almost as free as possible, since Smoldering Marsh and Sunken Hollow can be found with two of the three fetches that you were already playing in your deck.
One of the big tools that Jeskai received in Battle for Zendikar is our old friend, Dragonmaster Outcast. When paired with Ojutai's Command, the Outcast represents an easy way to close out games after trading resources early, especially with a lack of instant speed removal in the format. The only thing I question from Adam's list is only having access to two copies of Ojutai's Command in the main, but it does make slightly more sense since he is running Hangarback Walker over something like Soulfire Grandmaster.
The one maindeck copy of Dispel is great and it's something I fully expect to become standard in decks that can support it. Dispel is a very powerful tool in Modern that allows you to easily steal tempo, and if we look over the cards in this article that I'm excited about, most of them are Instants. In testing this week, I was able to Dispel a Dig Through Time in the Jeskai mirror and it felt completely backbreaking.
Butcher of the Horde is interesting and, again, makes more sense because of the inclusion of Hangarback Walker. Having the opportunity to kill a Gideon while leaving a threat on the board is very powerful, but I'm curious if it's better than having something like Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker, which I played against a lot this weekend. I guess Butcher has its own merits of being able to turn a race with lifelink, but there are other options to consider.
Wild Slash is another card that I have been moving around, generally in place of a card like Fiery Impulse. With the default Abzan Aggro list moving to Warden of the First Tree, and Jeskai having a good tournament, having the ability to kill three toughness creatures feels very important in the coming weeks.
This weekend I'm traveling to the Open in Atlanta for another display of Battle for Zendikar Standard. While I'm once again undecided on what I'm playing, I can confidently say it'll be one of the decks I talked about today. While I liked the Five-Color Abzan deck, I feel like it's a little too big for the early part of the format. The Four-Color Abzan list looks very good, but not playing with Jace, Vryn's Prodigy feels like a disservice. Snap, Crackle is great, but it seems like people are going to be a lot more ready for Mantis Rider next week than they were last. Regardless, it'll be interesting to see what a different part of the county does with Battle for Zendikar and the information gained last week.