The Pro Tour was this past weekend and one of, if not the biggest breakout card from Magic Origins was Hangarback Walker. Going into testing I worked on a lot of different shells involving Hangarback Walker, as the key to this card is its versatility. From the Blue/Red Artifact deck, to various midrange and control strategies, the card can fit in almost anywhere. This card has applications in both aggressive and control matchups which is part of what makes it so hard to actually answer. It is very hard to deal with Hangarback Walker with a single removal spell, and it isn't necessary to cast it for more than two mana the majority of the time.
Let's go ahead and look at some of the archetypes that are best able to use Hangarback Walker. For starters here is perhaps the biggest breakout deck from the Pro Tour, Mike Sigrist's Blue/Red Ensoul Artifact:
There were a couple of big teams that showed up with Blue/Red Ensoul Artifact, and for good reason. This is a strategy that took many players completely by surprise, as there are decks that have a lot of trouble answering an early 5/5 creature which could be indestructible or have flying, depending on which artifact Ensoul Artifact enchants. People knew that cards like Ensoul Artifact and Shrapnel Blast were in the format, but actually having enough artifacts to make them work was previously a challenge. Hangarback Walker may be the most important artifact to enter the deck from Magic Origins, as it is not only a very good target for Ensoul Artifact, but you can sacrifice it at will in conjunction with Shrapnel Blast to create a bunch of thopters. In round four I was actually on the wrong end of a sacrificed Hangarback Walker as my opponent killed me seemingly out of nowhere. Mike Sigrist is even running a copy of Collateral Damage in order to have another way to sacrifice Hangarback Walker.
Creating as many thopters as possible is the name of the game for this deck. With Chief of the Foundry and Ghostfire Blade it is pretty easy to make a Thopter Token into a real threat. This may be the deck that has the most new cards from Magic Origins in it. Not too many players thought Whirler Rogue would be Constructed playable, but here we are. Personally this is the list I have been most impressed with, of the various versions of Blue/Red Ensoul Artifact. The sideboard shores up many of the holes in game one, as a card like Thopter Spy Network can come in and completely swing a matchup in your favor.
Blue/Red Ensoul Artifact may have been the most played Hangarback Walker deck, but there were also many others which used the popular artifact. Here is an example of an incorporation of Hangarback Walker as part of a sideboard plan, perfected by my Pro Tour teammate Brian Kibler in his Green/White Midrange deck:
This is a classic Kibler green deck, that he was able to win nine rounds with during the Constructed portion of the event. During testing Kibler was very confident in this deck and, in retrospect, it is the deck that the entire group likely should have played. The maindeck is relatively aggressive, and has the best creatures and threats available at each mana cost in these colors. By having creatures that are slightly larger than the opponents, it makes a deck that just has small creatures, such as Monored Aggro, into a very good matchup. The maindeck is pretty straightforward and looks like a value beatdown deck, which is capable of creating unstoppable Den Protectors.
This deck has a very good matchup against aggressive decks, but can have a difficult time versus the pure control decks. This is part of the reason for the Hangarback Walkers in the sideboard. Hangarback Walker is a card that Kibler wants in his deck when he is able to reconfigure the primary game plan. Against control decks the combination of Evolutionary Leap and Hangarback Walker, leads to essentially an unbeatable stream of creatures. Hangarback Walker isn't just in the board for control, it also comes in against aggro as well. Playing Hangarback Walker even as a chump blocker for two consecutive turns can mean the difference in a game, as it soaks up a ton of damage. The name of the game is to take out the cards which are ineffective in a specific matchup, and Hangarback Walkers come in to replace them. Hangarback Walker also just works well with other cards in this deck, like Dromoka's Command and Ajani, Mentor of Heroes. Putting more counters on Hangarback Walker means that many more Thopter Tokens once you cash it in.
So what about a pure control deck featuring Hangarback Walker? There were definitely some amount of these types of decks that showed up to the Pro Tour. Many of them were straight Blue/Black, such as this list of Jasper Grinner:
This is a completely different way of using Hangarback Walker. Hangarback Walker is the primary threat and win condition in Jasper's deck. By having Hangarback Walker in a deck all of a sudden you are able to enable a bunch of different artifact synergies. The likelihood is that you will have a Hangarback Walker or Thopter Token in play, so all of a sudden you can play Thopter Spy Network and Artificer's Epiphany. Even with only eight artifacts in the deck, Hangarback is very tough to get rid of, and Darksteel Citadel is almost impossible to Remove from play. The deck is essentially a traditional Blue/Black Control deck with a better late game, and you have a creature that can provide valuable chump blockers early.
Killing your own Hangarback Walker with a Languish or Crux of Fate really isn't a big deal, so oftentimes it is correct to not block with Hangarback Walker early, so that the Thopter Tokens will stick around after a sweeper is cast. What works to your advantage is that many times opponents will worry too much about killing your Hangarback Walker, but then it will grow very large and you kill it yourself. Artificer's Epiphany is a nice card to have in this type of control deck as it allows you to not need to tap out mainphase as much. Working at instant speed is nice, and more often than not opponents will be forced to walk into your Counterspells. The single copy of Sidisi, Undead Vizier provides another method for sacrificing Hangarback Walker, or you can always just sacrifice a thopter if Hangarback Walker isn't around.
I expect control decks to start moving more in the direction of Hangarback Walker, so as to have a threat that also has applications against Mono Red, rather than big creatures like Pearl Lake Ancient. This goes to show how pre-existing archetypes, which seemingly don't want Hangarback Walker, actually might. There are plenty of pre-existing strategies, but then there are seemingly pure brews based around the synergies of the plus one plus one counters. This is an extreme example which Ken Yukihiro used to great effect:
Here is what looks like a pure brew and, while that may be true, that doesn't mean that the concept is bad; in fact this deck is able to do a number of powerful things. For starters there is the card Hardened Scales. This is the card that the deck is built around, and it means that your creatures will be much larger as long as Hardened Scales is in play. So what sorts of creatures work well with counters on them? The first one that comes to mind is of course Hangarback Walker, as it is already a very strong card even without the additional synergies. Abzan Falconer is a creature on the opposite side of the spectrum, as it hasn't seen much Constructed play, but is spectacular here. Giving your creatures flying is specifically a big deal in a format full of Green Devotion and thopters.
The deck has a pair of one mana creatures, the first being a card that is seemingly unplayable, yet works so well in this deck it is worth having a couple copies, and that is Servant of the Scale. Think about Servant of the Scale in combination with Hardened Scales. He comes into play with two counters, you trade him off, and then put three counters on say your Hangarback Walker, that seems sweet. Honored Hierarch has gotten a little bit of a bad rap, but if this guy becomes renowned he is absolutely spectacular here. Whether it is the acceleration or another beater, Honored Hierarch actually fills the turn one slot nicely.
As far as other threats in the deck there are the cheap green creatures that are capable of getting huge very quickly, and they are Avatar of the Resolute and Managorger Hydra. Both of these creatures can get absurdly large with a Hardened Scales and allow the deck to have a fast clock. Besides the creatures there are also copies of both Citadel Siege and Ajani, Mentor of Heroes, to continue the amazing synergy. Alright, so it should be apparent that the creatures get very big very quickly.
The deck does need some form of protection for your creatures, so that you aren't too vulnerable to removal. The deck is almost like a Heroic deck in that it uses both Gods Willing and Dromoka's Command to great effect. Either being able to save a creature of your own, or make a large guy unblockable can be great with Gods Willing. Dromoka's Command can be a removal spell, but of course this is a way of putting counters on your creatures at instant speed. This is a spot where Dromoka's Command thrives as the card is already very good with things like Hangarback Walker, and you can use your Hangarback Walker to fight another creature if you need to cash it in for thopters.
Overall if I were to pick one single breakout card from Pro Tour Origins it would be Hangarback Walker. Personally I want to continue looking into the applications it has, as it has renewed old archetypes, as well as created completely new ones.
Thanks for reading,