The Hangarback Walker revolution caught me by surprise. The little XX artifact that could was nowhere near my radar during spoiler season, but she has more than proved her worth in the time since the release of Magic Origins. Fortunately, Magic does not remember if you predicted a card would be good or not. Now is not the time for self-recriminations over missing a spoiler gem; it is time to readjust, Refocus and correct the error. It is a Hangarback world...time to learn to walk in it.
One of the reasons Hangarback Walker sees so much play is because of just how variable the Hangarback experience truly is. The card offers unparalleled flexibility, a fact that is responsible for much of its power level and effectiveness in this Standard format but that also makes Hangarback Walker exceptionally tricky to play optimally. The card asks us a plethora of questions: when to cast it (and for how much), when to activate it, when to attack with it, when to keep it safe and when to let it die. Today I am going to discuss Hangarback Walker in detail to help make sure you're getting as much mileage as possible out of your Hangarback Walkers.
Let's start at the beginning: deploying Hangarback Walker from your hand. When you cast Hangarback Walker you get a special introductory rate on +1/+1 counters of two mana each. Later on, you will have to pay the normal rate of one mana per counter if you decide you want more. If you think that sounds more backwards than the telecom industry, you're not wrong. During the first few turns of the game as both players curve out into their initial board states, it is a good general rule to play Hangarback Walker for two (aka X=1). In my experience, the dream Hangarback Walker curve is turn two Hangarback, turn three Hangarback activation and another two-drop.
The typical play pattern with Hangarback Walker is to deploy it, activate it every turn until it becomes 'big enough,' and then attack with it. Sometimes on a turn our mana is better spent on cards in our hand and we sneak an early attack with the Walker in. If forced on the defensive in the late game, we will often find ourselves with an untapped Hangarback Walker and an extra mana at the end of our opponent's turn, a situation that lends itself to going ahead and putting another counter on the Hangarback even if it is already plenty big.
The important thing to keep in mind when trying to decide if the time is right to switch from growing the Walker to attacking is that the marginal utility on each successive +1/+1 counter decreases. That is, the first counter on Hangarback Walker is better than the second, which is better than the third, which is better than the fourth, and so on. Most of the time, three or four counters is as far as you want to take it. Once you are set to get four Thopters if your Hangarback Walker dies, getting a fifth is rarely better than attacking for four damage. That being said, this is a decision that is often decided by the specifics of the match-up you find yourself in -- just remember that damage now is often more important than Thopters later.
The Hangarback Insurance Agency
One of the main roles Hangarback Walker fulfills in many decks right now is that of an insurance policy for aggressive decks against sweeper effects. By guaranteeing some degree of board presence in a post-sweeper world, Hangarback Walker is excellent at giving control decks fits. The key to maximizing the utility you get from your Hangarback insurance policy is to know the different options available to the opposition to deny you your claim.
Don't get tricked into thinking that just because you have Hangarback Walker you can compete in the late game. You still need to apply sufficient pressure to get them to deal with the Hangarback. By knowing the tools they have at their disposal to deal with Hangarback Walker, you ensure that you have the ability to leverage your Walker as effectively as possible. For instance, the recent uptick in play of Bile Blight in UB based control strategies is something you absolutely need to be aware of.
The easiest way for them to deal with Hangarback Walker and the accompanying thopter swarm is a 1-2 punch of spot removal into sweeper. End of turn (or even during combat) Hero's Downfalling your Hangarback Walker and then untapping and casting Languish is a simple and effective way to deal with both parts of the Walker. You beat this mainly by making it as ineffective as possible -- if all they get out of this sequence is the entirety of your Hangarback, they are spending way more in both mana and cards than you are. Most of the time it is very difficult to get them to spend their resources like that on just a Hangarback Walker; in order to have adequate pressure on them you will likely need to have something else on the board that could be hit by their sweeper. Make sure you pressure them as cheaply as possible, or with cards that are resilient to their sweepers in a different way than Hangarback Walker (playing Siege Rhino when you suspect Languish, etc.).
Let It Go
Chronomaton was not a playable Constructed card during its time in Standard. In most match-ups the threat of activation of the thopter swarm is not quite good enough. If you protect your Hangarback too long in order to maximize your thopter value you are throwing away equity. To play Hangarback Walker at maximum effectiveness, you need to be willing and able to cash in your Hangarback for a storm of thopters. A large Hangarback Walker can be rendered ineffective via many methods that won't trigger its death trigger. For example, Elspeth Sun's Champion can routinely produce an infinite stream of chump blockers for a large Hangarback. As such, it is quite important to be able to find opportunities to bring out your inner George R.R. Martin and kill off your Hangarback Walker.
I think a lot of players fall into the trap of playing Hangarback Walker as a card whose death effect triggers only when the opponent causes its death. The truth is that a team of flying thopters is often much stronger than a single isolated creature with no combat keywords. This means that it is actually often in our opponent's interest to keep our Hangarback Walker alive. I have played many games where a Hangarback Walker grew to a point where I knew I could never beat the thopters if it died, and thus had to find a way to win the game with it on the field (while hoping that my opponent never used one of their own removal spells on it).
Many of the best decks featuring Hangarback Walker right now are pairing it with Dromoka's Command. These two cards have a ton of synergy, some of which is obvious: Dromoka's Command can put a +1/+1 counter on Hangarback Walker, speeding up its growth rate. The hidden synergy here is that Dromoka's Command also lets us kill off our own Hangarback Walker to get some shiny new Thopter Tokens. Always watch out for times when your Hangarback is big enough that cashing it in for thopters would be devastating, and when you find said times, don't be afraid to pull the trigger. I've gone so far as to Hero's Downfall my own Hangarback Walker, and there is almost nothing better than using the minus ability of Elspeth, Sun's Champion to trade your own Hangarback for thopters.
Some specific cards in the current metagame have interactions with Hangarback Walker that dictate the optimal size for the Walker to reach in match-ups that feature said interaction. Or in less vague, textbook terms: if they are playing Abzan Charm, Think Twice before you put that third counter on your Hangarback. Actually, the Abzan Charm interaction is important and prevalent enough to talk about in more detail. The surface level here is that by keeping Hangarback Walker below three counters permanently, you can Nullify the ability of Abzan Charm to deal with your Walker. This is not the same as blanking Abzan Charm, as Charm is a flexible card with tons of utility -- and probably even plenty more targets for its removal mode in your deck. Don't get so attached to the idea of Hangarback Walker that you refuse to trade it for an Abzan Charm, as there are certainly times when it is correct to give your opponent the option to make that trade.
Sometimes the cards they have dictate how big we can grow the Hangarback Walker because we want to protect it. Other times, they do so because we want to make sure that our Hangarback Walker can die. In general this will happen if we are looking to trade Hangarback off in combat. A defensive Hangarback can be a very influential blocker if it is sized such that it will die while blocking but create enough thopters to create a threatening offense. It loses a lot of that influence if it becomes bigger than all of our opponent's attackers and thus will not die if it blocks.
One of the ways to beat a very large Hangarback Walker is to have a constant stream of chump blockers for it to render its offense ineffective. There's nothing that can be done about this strategy if the chump blockers are very small (generally token based), but infinite chump blockers can be managed in other ways. Most notably, indestructible creatures. In current Standard, the most commonindestructible creature is a Fleecemane Lion that has gone monstrous. In match-ups where this is a possibility, there are not uncommon game states where it is of extreme importance to not grow Hangarback Walker past four counters so that a blocking Fleecemane Lion kills the Hangarback.
The last large area to think about with Hangarback Walker is what to do when you draw multiple copies. In general, Hangarback Walker is less effective in multiples. It is much harder to have two spare mana on a turn to activate both of them than it is to have just a single mana, and many of the cards that are good against Hangarback Walker are just as good against multiple Walkers (Bile Blight, for instance).
In general, don't prioritize deploying the second Hangarback Walker. If reasonable, use the rest of your hand first and try to force them to deal with the first Hangarback before you show them the second. If you have nothing else to do besides play a second Hangarback Walker, give serious thought to just doing nothing instead (this is likely to be the correct line against decks with sweepers). If you do end up with multiple copies of Hangarback Walker on the field, it is generally correct to fall into a pattern where you attack with one and block/activate the other. This keeps you with only one mana tied up into Hangarback activations per turn while leveraging the board presence they give you effectively. In general, you want to alternate which attacks and which levels in order to spread the growth.
Before I go, I want to leave you with a brief story from a match I played with a friend last week. I was playing Abzan Control, and he was running a GW Hardened Scales deck. The board state reached a point where his 5/5 Hangarback Walker was being blanked by my monstrous Fleecemane Lion blocking it every turn. In the process of setting up this solution to the Hangarback problem, I had fallen to a very precarious life total. Eventually he found a copy of Daghatar the Adamant, and when I used Hero's Downfall on the Daghatar, he responded by moving a counter from Hangarback Walker onto the Daghatar that was about to die. Making his Hangarback Walker smaller meant my Fleecemane Lion could no longer block it without killing it, and I'd be dead to Thopters very quickly.
So I had to use a Dromoka's Command to put a counter on his creature. We fought an intense battle over his Hangarback Walker where he wanted it smaller and I needed it bigger, counterintuitive but pivotal to the outcome of the game. I won that battle, and I won that game. The moral, of course, is that bigger is not always better. Hangarback Walker is a complicated card with a lot of moving parts -- be thoughtful when playing with it, and don't make any assumptions about how you should play it.
One things for sure: there is no autopilot in the cockpit of a Hangarback Walker.
Thanks for reading,