The New Year is a time for reflection on the past, for assessment of the present, and for looking towards the future. I want to explore those topics as they relate to the world of Magic.
Today I will reflect on my journey towards winning the 2015 MaxPoint Championship last month. I will discuss my preparation for the tournament, and I'll explore some video coverage of the event. I'll share some situations where luck was on my side, to show that preparation and execution are just part of the puzzle on the tumultuous road that is tournament Magic. I also want to highlight my mistakes, which will serve as a learning opportunity for readers and will help me find places for improvement in 2016
I'll also discuss the current state of Abzan Aggro in the Standard metagame. Since the MaxPoint Championship I have continued to play Abzan Aggro, but my decklist has evolved. The day after Christmas I played a new decklist to the finals of the biggest tournament of the year at the local store, but further changes are necessary to compete with the shifting metagame. I want to play the deck as much as I can, so this weekend I'm heading to Grand Prix Oakland to test my newest build. Today I'll share my latest decklist and explain the changes I made.
Oath of the Gatewatch will be released in two weeks, and it represents the future of Standard. Abzan Aggro will have to adapt to new cards and new decks. Next week, when more cards are revealed, I'll discuss what the new set means for Abzan Aggro in the metagame, and I will identify what new cards could see play in the archetype.
Preparing for the MaxPoint Championship
I'd summarize my experience with the MaxPoint Championship as the culmination of preparation, focus, and good fortune. Most of my Standard experience last season was split between Abzan Aggro and Abzan Midrange and, with Elspeth, Sun's Champion and the scry lands leaving but most of Abzan Aggro being left intact, I planned to play Abzan Aggro immediately after rotation. Instead, I fell into the hype of Jeskai Black and earned my worst Standard Grand Prix performance of the year in Indianapolis, a city where I have had a disproportionately high success rate in the past. If I played Abzan Aggro the result would have been different, because playing Jeskai Black without enough preparation, and all of it online, was a poor choice that resulted in bad pairings, murky mirror matches where my intuition was forced to overcome a gap in experience, and even an unintentional draw in the early rounds due to my clumsy pacing and mechanics.
Standard had developed significantly in the month between Indianapolis and the MaxPoint Championship, and I knew I would have to get up to speed on the format if I wanted to be successful. Luckily I had a great tool for making that happen. The new Magic Online League system allows one to play sets of five matches with a deck, but unlike a tournament you can play at your own pace. You don't have to wait between matches, and you can take a break whenever you want, so it's a great testing tool and a real improvement to the program. Leagues are a means to play meaningful matches against excellent competition, so they are something I plan to use often in 2016.
I started exploring the format with Abzan Aggro, but uninspiring results and Impatience drove me to seek other options. I wanted something faster, which brought me to Atarka Red, but sitting behind the wheel of the deck left me out of my element and struggling to win games. When playing against Atarka Red it seems like the deck is a never-ending stream of creatures, but when playing the deck myself I found that creatures were a rare and precious commodity. I often mulliganed because my hands lacked them, and other times I died holding multiple pump spells after the opponent destroyed all of my creatures. The experience taught me the valuable lesson that the deck relies heavily on its creatures, which highlighted the importance of Abzan Charm and sideboard cards like Ultimate Price and Surge of Righteousness when combatting Atarka Red with Abzan Aggro.
From Atarka Red I moved to Mardu, which is appealing as a familiar midrange deck with a lot of great tools. I was holding my own with the field, but I eventually decided that the deck didn't provide enough incentive to not play Siege Rhino and Abzan Charm. One issue was the relatively low threat density. This means Mardu is positioned as a control deck but without card advantage that's a losing battle against cards like Dig Through Time and Den Protector. At the time, Painful Truths was a sideboard card, but today Mardu players are finding success with the card in the starring role. These players have also added Soulfire Grand Master to make the deck more aggressive and add additional card advantage.
From Mardu I moved to Esper Dragons, which I played briefly last season but abandoned for Abzan Control. A strategy like Esper Dragons is right up my alley if it's well-positioned in the metagame, so I wanted to give the deck a shot. I won my fair share of matches, but the deck left a poor taste in my mouth. It didn't seem to make the most of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy; there is variance because Silumgar's Scorn and Foul-Tongue Invocation can be hit-or-miss depending on if there is a Dragon in hand or not; but worst of all, the deck felt too reactive for an open and unpredictable metagame. With extensive testing I could master the deck, but that wasn't feasible in amount of time I had.
I liked the utility that the Esper shell offered, but I wanted something more proactive than Esper Dragons, which brought me to Esper Tokens. I was very interested in Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, so I started with a relatively controlling tokens list that had success on Magic Online. It gave up aggressive cards like Hangarback Walker and Wingmate Roc for Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and more disruption, so of course it was inevitably too reactive for my liking.
At this point I started to seriously consider the Esper Tokens technology of using Eldrazi Skyspawner to enable turn four Wingmate Roc. The deck quietly made the Top 16 of a GP in Japan and was becoming increasingly popular on Magic Online before eventually some pros discussed it in their articles. I played with various versions of the deck, all with Jace, Vryn's Prodigy. One build played Hangarback Walker, and another included Knight of the White Orchid and three Ojutai's Command, but they were all similar in their single-minded focus on Wingmate Roc. The deck struggled with generating card advantage, and Painful Truths proved quite painful, but I had great success against red decks, and the promise of turn four Wingmate Roc seemed like easy wins against Abzan Aggro. In one of my league testing matches I crossed Craig Wescoe testing his B/W Wasteland Strangler deck, only he had added Eldrazi Skyspawner! A few days before the MaxPoint event I actually unsleeved my unused Abzan Aggro deck so I could use the sleeves and cards to put together Esper Tokens .
As the event approached, I came to the realization that most of my doubts about Abzan Aggro were those of others that I had heard or read, and that my own recent experiences with the archetype were negatively biased because of them. I came to the conclusion that it was better to play the tried-and-true Abzan Aggro and make my opponents beat me, rather than play a new brew and attempt to beat them. Abzan Aggro was the Wingmate Roc deck I was looking for all along.
I became especially resolved in my deck choice when my travel companion to the MaxPoint event shared Magic Online matchup data he had found, which stated Abzan Aggro had a 54% win-rate against the field and was at least even or better against all of the most popular decks in the format. How could this be, given that so many other decks are popular and successful? This data isn't common knowledge, and many that do come across such information are quick to dismiss it, especially because it's derived from Magic Online. I'd argue that Magic Online data is more reliable than paper data, in part because it's less fraught with human Error, but mostly because the sample size is much larger. I took the data to be fact and assuming that Abzan Aggro has anywhere near a 54% win-rate against the field with no bad matchups means there was no real logical argument for playing anything else.
My high confidence in Abzan Aggro and my ability to pilot it translated into a heightened sense of awareness in the MaxPoint event. Focusing on all of the finest details of matches allowed me to completely immerse myself in the experience, which translated to me playing my A-game and making the most of my cards. I used every mana to the fullest and fought for every point of damage. I put myself in position to make the most of the situations where luck was on my side, which were numerous throughout the event.
In my first pairing of the day, Craig Wescoe struggled with severe mana issues in games one and three, which made the meeting something of a non-match.
The fact that I cast Wingmate Roc against an opponent still stuck on one land shows just how extremely unlucky Craig was in that game. It was unfortunate for the viewers at home, but it was obviously a boon to my tournament and set the tone for my weekend.
A Crash of Rhinos
My next trip under the feature match lights a few rounds later showcased another example of fortune being on my side, this time manifested through a Crash of Rhinos:
The Not-So-Legendary Anafenza
Anafenza, the Foremost is Abzan Aggro's most important card against Four-Color Rally, and in my matches against the deck I couldn't stop drawing copies of the card. I drew three in game two of the finals:
I also played Anafenza, the Foremost right on schedule in game three (along with the topdecked land I needed to cast it), and I had a second copy ready after he destroyed the first:
The best thing a player can do after an event is look back and identify what mistakes were made in preparation, deck selection, and game play, identify the root causes of those Errors, and then make a plan to prevent similar mistakes in the future. It's especially important to do this after a success, where it's easier to be results-oriented and gloss over mistakes. Successes are a great opportunity to show just how costly mistakes can be, but also that they can potentially be overcome.
In game two of the quarterfinals I topdecked Gideon, Ally of Zendikar on turn four, which was the best possible draw against an opponent holding Self-Inflicted Wound and Crackling Doom, and it all but clinched victory against an opponent who missed a land drop:
This looks like another example of getting lucky, and it was, but it also showcases a major Error because I had actually sideboarded out a copy of the planeswalker! To sideboard out the card that might be my single best tool in the matchup is a terrible mistake, and it could have cost me.
Later in the game I put myself in a great position with Den Protector, but by playing a superfluous land I exposed my returned card to Kolaghan's Command and lost my game-winning resource. This forced me into topdeck mode and could have very easily cost me my tournament:
Towards the very end of the semifinals, when I was far ahead and making a lethal alpha-strike, I forgot to add loyalty to my Gideon, Ally of Zendikar before combat, so I could not attack with it and missed out on five damage:
My opponent ends up making a mistake the same turn, failing to recognize a +1/+1 counter on my creature and thus making a double chump block, but had I played correctly I would have forced my opponent into the same situation instead of allowing him to keep a creature alive.
The mistake of playing an unnecessary land and exposing myself to Kolaghan's Command was a tactical mistake and shows that I was not thinking about my opponent's holdings, and not activating Gideon, Ally of Zendikar was a mistake in battlefield oversight and management. Holding extra lands to discard to a potential Kolaghan's Command is usually something I think about, and of course I usually activate my Gideon, Ally of Zendikar when I intend to attack with it, so I attribute those mistakes to Fatigue from playing a long day of Magic. I'll need to work on my endurance in 2016. I could also attribute mistakes to pressure from playing for high-states in the feature match area, so that's another thing I'll strive to be mindful of when I find myself in those situations again.
Abzan Aggro Today
Since the MaxPoint Championship the Standard metagame has evolved, notably with a resurgence in Jeskai Black. Four-Color Rally has become more popular, while Esper Dragons and Atarka Red have lost some of their popularity. The most common variation of Jeskai Black has moved completely away from Ojutai's Command, which improves the position of Wingmate Roc. Jeskai Black has moved away from Mantis Rider and Tasigur, the Golden Fang towards Soulfire Grand Master and Monastery Mentor, so it must be met with an adjusted assortment of removal spells. Given that Heir of the Wilds is the weakest card in Abzan Aggro and a card I sideboard out in most matchups, I cut the card completely to move two sideboard cards into the maindeck, a Wingmate Roc and an Ultimate Price. This opens up space in the sideboard for more high-impact cards against the field. My current decklist for the weekend stands at:
Next week most of Oath of the Gatewatch will be revealed, so check back for my analysis of how it impacts Abzan Aggro and the future of Standard. Turn to the comments section with any questions!