Hangarback Walker, which rose to stardom as the breakout creature of Pro Tour Magic Origins, has emerged as the premier creature in Standard. Last weekend a new evolution of Abzan Aggro with four maindeck Hangarback Walker dominated the field at Grand Prix London. The archetype was played by five of the top nine finishers, held both finals berths, and inevitably hoisted the trophy.
Abzan Aggro has been, on many occasions, among the finest archetypes in Standard over the past year, so it's no surprise that the powerful new tool of Hangarback Walker has put it back in business. Abzan Aggro is an ideal home for Hangarback Walker which is a great upgrade to Rakshasa Deathdealer that creates synergy with the archetype's various cards that add +1/+1 counters.
Hangarback Walker has played an important role in Abzan Aggro's recent success, but the more critical factor is the development of the metagame itself. After Pro Tour Magic Origins, where Red Deck Wins and Blue/Red Ensoul Artifact outperformed the field, Dromoka's Command became apparent as the solution to the format. The following weekend, Grand Prix San Diego was filled with Green/White Megamorph decks, and they crushed these Pro Tour bogeymen from the field. While these decks were perfect for containing aggressive decks, they eventually fell short in the face of powerful, focused decks that their slow offense and minimal disruption suite was unable to race, including Esper Dragons, Abzan Constellation, and the Blue/Red Sphinx's Tutelage Mill deck that eventually won the tournament.
Hangarback Walker in Abzan Aggro solves the problems of GW Megamorph by moving beyond the grindy, attrition-oriented, ground clogging style of GW Megamorph towards a more dedicated aggro-rock deck with larger creatures and a more robust disruption suite that includes black removal and a playset of sideboard Thoughtseize. Abzan Aggro is much more effective than GW Megamorph at punishing gimmicky decks and control, while it's nearly as effective at containing decks like RDW and UR Ensoul. Anafenza, the Foremost snowballs an early aggressive lead into a win in a way that Deathmist Raptor cannot ever hope to, and Siege Rhino is a more powerful and efficient threat than anything GW Megamorph can muster, so Abzan Aggro is much better at closing the game out quickly. The combination of Thoughtseize and Den Protector provides a disruptive engine that stops opposing synergies in a way GW can't, and black removal is more flexible and powerful than what white has to offer. This deck can still grind with the best of them, because Hangarback Walker generates value, and Den Protector keep threats flowing into the late game.
Abzan Aggro presents a focused, proactive plan that is effective against any opponent, and its versatile disruption spells allow it to eliminate nearly anything the opponent can put in its way. It has a winning chance in any matchup, and it's going to remain a key player in Standard until rotation. It's important to understand how the archetype will impact the metagame going forward, so today I'll identify which archetypes are poised to gain from the rise of Abzan Aggro, and which are slated to lose.
Having weathered a storm of metagame changes, GR Devotion is still the most powerful deck in Standard. Its proactive plan of using mana acceleration and huge threats to overpower its opponents is effective against the field, but recent metagame developments have made the archetype better positioned now than it has been since Magic Origins was released. Red Deck Wins and UR Ensoul Artifact preyed on GR Devotion, which made the archetype among the worst-performing of the Pro Tour, but times have changed, and those decks have been mostly pushed out of the metagame. In their place has come the rise of Dromoka's Command decks, which GR Devotion is positioned to exploit.
GR Devotion was underrepresented in London, but those that did pilot the archetype over performed relative to its numbers. Three copies did reach the Top 16, with the highest being this decklist:
Abzan Aggro is a historically favorable matchup for GR Devotion, and the movement towards the grindy Hangarback Walker and Den Protector makes Abzan Aggro even less effective in the matchup. The threats of Abzan Aggro are relatively small compared to the large blockers GR Devotion can put in the way, so cards like Polukranos, World Eater, Whisperwood Elemental, and especially Dragonlord Atarka spell trouble for Abzan Aggro. Lacking Thoughtseize and black removal, GW Megamorph fares far worse in the matchup.
Another favorable matchup for GR Devotion is Abzan Control, which lacks the ability to tangibly pressure GR Devotion, but also lacks the tools to play as a true control deck and exhaust GR Devotion's ability to generate threats. Abzan Control is sure to gain metagame share on the back of its strong Abzan Aggro matchup, so GR Devotion may very well be the single best metagame call for tournaments this week.
Abzan Control reached the Top 8 of Grand Prix London:
This decklist is similar to the version played by Paul Rietzl to the Top 8 of Grand Prix San Diego, which is similar to the decklist played by Matt Sperling to the Top 8 of Pro Tour Magic Origins. Abzan Control is good, and has always been good, and will always be good, but right now it's particularly well-positioned. Abzan Control has always proven to be a tough matchup for Abzan Aggro, and while Hangarback Walker is a useful tool for aggro, and the adoption of Den Protector is a step in the direction for beating control, the control version retains an edge, and it is positioned to prey on Abzan Aggro decks this weekend.
Abzan Control is also a big winner in the decline of Red Deck Wins and UR Ensoul Artifact. Courser of Kruphix and Siege Rhino give Abzan Control plenty of game against Red Deck Wins, but its slow, painful manabase and clunky cards give red decks a clear advantage. It is forced to rely on sideboard cards like Arashin Cleric to win the matchup, and a decline in red gives Abzan Control more breathing room.
Abzan Control does suffer against GR Devotion, but with a proper sideboard and access to cards including Ultimate Price and Tragic Arrogance, the matchup is surely winnable.
In a field like Grand Prix London, where Abzan Aggro was king, GR Devotion was underplayed, and Red Deck Wins was absent, I can't imagine a better option than Abzan Control, which would dominate the metagame with its Elspeth, Sun's Champion top-end. Abzan Control will be popular this weekend, making Abzan Control a great option, but be sure to move away from the archetype if GR Devotion rises to the most popular deck in the metagame.
Martin Juza took a different approach to Standard with the RG Midrange deck he played to a Top 8 finish:
This deck uses mana acceleration to go over the top of opponents much like GR Devotion does, but it's built with a much more aggressive slant. Rather than robust green creatures, this deck uses aggressive red flying dragons to attack past ground blockers, which makes it especially strong against decks like Abzan Aggro and GW Megamorph, which have issues dealing with dragons. RG Midrange has access to a removal suite with Draconic Roar and Wild Slash, so it's able to stop aggressive decks in their tracks before winning a damage race with dragons.
RG Midrange is disadvantaged against GR Devotion, where Dragonlord Atarka and Hornet Queen provide serious issues in the air, but RG Midrange will be an excellent option until GR Devotion becomes more popular.
Bant Heroic, which utilizes a playset of Dromoka's Command and a set of Seeker of the Way, is adept at defeating Red Deck Wins and UR Ensoul Artifact. Its ability to create large creatures and send them past blockers makes it exceptionally strong against GR Devotion. If these archetypes rise to prominence, then Bant Heroic is the best place to be, but the realities of the current metagame are hostile towards Bant Heroic.
Abzan Aggro is historically a poor matchup for Bant Heroic, and the archetype was responsible for keeping Todd Anderson out of the Grand Prix London Top 8:
Heroic is susceptible to a combination of disruption and aggression, which is exactly what Abzan Aggro presents. From the sideboard, Self-Inflicted Injury is a real issue, but Tragic Arrogance is the best sweeper yet against the archetype because it dodges any and all protection spells. I know that Todd and others who played the archetype in London fell against Abzan Aggro, and it's doubtful they would recommend the deck going forward in this hostile environment. With Bant Heroic's best prey, GR Devotion, at a low point there is no real payoff for playing it. Keep your Bant Heroic decks in waiting until GR Devotion takes the top spot in the metagame, or until Red Deck Wins shows its face again.
Jeskai Tempo, with a large assortment of cheap burn spells for removing small creatures and life gain from Soulfire Grand Master, was a natural response to the rise of Red Deck Wins. Jeskai is not nearly as effective at containing the robust creatures of Abzan Aggro, which have historically proven to be an issue for the deck. The old problem of Siege Rhino has been partially solved by Valorous Stance, but Jeskai lacks clean maindeck answers to Hangarback Walker, and sideboard options like Revoke Existence are quite narrow. With Abzan Aggro on the rise, Jeskai Midrange is not where I want to be.
The archetype did reach the Top 8 of GP London...
...but winning the event was unlikely in a Top 8 filled with Abzan Aggro. Jeskai has a strong game against the slower and clunkier Abzan Control deck, so if that deck becomes popular on the back of its strong Abzan Aggro matchup and eliminates that archetype from the metagame, Jeskai will be a great option.
Blue/Black based control decks are big losers in the rise of Abzan Aggro. The robust, aggressive creature suite has become even more troublesome with the addition of Hangarback Walker, which creates value and tempo advantage against removal, including Languish. Maindeck Den Protector makes things significantly worse, because not only can Abzan Aggro recur potent threats like Hangarback Walker or disruption like Thoughtseize, it can chain multiple Den Protector together and exhaust any stream of removal spells. UBx Control decks fare a bit better against Abzan Control, but their combination of threats and disruption is similarly troublesome.
The biggest prey for UBx control decks, GR Devotion, has been in decline, which means there is little to prey on but much to be eaten by. There's little incentive to play the archetype when every matchup is an uphill battle, so it's better left on the sidelines until GR Devotion is the most popular archetype.
NEW STANDARD TECH
In the past week some rogue archetypes were successful on Magic Online, and they were too interesting not to share. While these decks may not be mainstream, they have been winning, and they could be positioned for success going forward.
Triosk is better known as Yuuki Ichikawa, one of the strongest Japanese players in the game, and he has found consistent success with decks of his own design. His take on UW Control, with full playsets of Ojutai's Command, Clash of Wills, and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, finished 4-0 in a Magic Online Daily event, and it is worth a deeper look.
A couple variations of Blue Devotion have found Magic Online success in the past week. The first is a rather traditional-looking Blue Devotion deck that splashes into white to add a pair of Dragonlord Ojutai to three Iceall Regent, which supports a playset of Silumgar's Scorn.
Ojutai's Command is great in this archetype because there are many good options for creatures to Reanimate. This deck also includes Faerie Miscreant which, in multiples, generates card advantage and is a more reliable source of value than the rare corner case of Bestowing Hypnotic Siren. This deck finished in 18th place in the MTGO PTQ last weekend, and could be well-positioned going forward.
Another version of Blue Devotion is an artifact build with Military Intelligence and Ensoul Artifact:
This deck finished 4-0 in a Daily Event this week, and it's a fun option for those looking for something a bit different.
Wrapping up and Looking Forward
Abzan Aggro is sure to gain many followers this week, and it may be the most popular archetype this weekend. Enterprising players are sure to fight back by playing its foils, including GR Devotion, RG Midrange, and Abzan Midrange. If the metagame moves too far towards GR and Abzan Midrange, then RDW and UR Ensoul will become great once again. UB Control and Bant Heroic are currently at their worst, and they require significant shifts in the metagame to be competitive. This weekend I would recommend playing Abzan Aggro or any of its foils, the best option of all likely being GR Devotion. Regardless of your archetype, I would plan on being prepared for Abzan Aggro, Abzan Midrange, and GR, and would not focus much attention on RDW nor UR Ensoul.
Where do you see the metagame headed next? What deck are you playing with this weekend, and what are your most important sideboard cards? Can any other established archetypes incorporate Hangarback Walker? Have you seen or played with any exceptional rogue decks?