Last week I discussed the impact that Languish had on Standard and how card choices would be forced to change around the new sweeper. Languish was so impactful upon printing that the decks that were weak to the card could not be played the weekend prior to and even at the Pro Tour. The decline of decks that Languish excelled against led to an obvious decline in decks playing Languish, which brought us back to Abzan Aggro being the deck to play.
Fabrizio Anteri took down his third Grand Prix and sixth Top 8 with the updated version of an old powerhouse. Incorporating Hangarback Walker and Den Protector to have more resiliency against the format's answers, this version of Abzan Aggro was the breakout deck of the week.
But I'm not here to tell you why you should play Hangarback Abzan; plenty of people before me have done that already. I'm here to discuss how to adjust the answers in the format to the newly presented threats.
The week before the Pro Tour, I made the Top 8 of the StarCityGames Standard Open in Richmond piloting Sultai Control. The deck was incredibly powerful and was well suited to the expected metagame at that tournament. Before the printing of Origins, Sultai Control was my go to deck when the format moved up the curve a bit too much. The deck has all of the tools necessary to compete with the larger green-based midrange decks in the format, while also presenting unique decision points for other blue-based control decks.
Right off the bat, Origins helped Sultai Control as much as any other established archetype. Languish and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy were both natural inclusions in the deck. Jace fit the bill almost perfectly. Playing well with Satyr Wayfinder to allow it to flip early, it protected us from small threats, generated card advantage as the game went longer, and offered an alternative win condition. While I do not believe Jace is a sacred cow in the deck, it is something that will be a strong consideration in decks like this constantly. Languish on the other hand is something that was desperately needed, but this was best case scenario. Crux of Fate was just a little too slow for the format and was also beatable with cards such as Fleecemane Lion and Rakshasa Deathdealer. This sweeper invalidated Abzan Aggro! With the deck's worst matchup removed from the field, I felt it was time for the deck to finally break out in popularity, right?
Well, almost. The Pro Tour metagame was not kind to the Sultai Control deck. Dropping back down to the level zero archetypes, the low to the ground aggressive decks that dominated the Pro Tour were pretty much worst case scenario for anyone trying to grind out a game with Dig Through Time and Den Protector. While some brave souls did bring the deck to battle, none of them had exceptional results to show for it. Had I been qualified, I would have joined them in the "we picked the wrong deck" section of the local bar.
But have no fear! Like all things in the world, things change and formats adapt. We had to sideline Sultai for a couple weeks until those pesky uncounterable burn spells and indestructible 5/5's were done running us over, and I think that time is now.
Isn't it beautiful? What is more attractive than just playing a 1-1 game with removal spells and slowly grinding out an advantage through cards such as Den Protector and Dig Through Time? Cleaning everything up with Ugin and having Satyr Wayfinder hold the deck together? Where do I sign up? Well, let's get into it now!
One of the biggest changes I've made to the deck is removing Jace, Vryn's Prodigy from the list and moving Ashiok to the main. In Richmond, I was positive that Jace was one of the best things this deck can be doing, but I was unsure about Ashiok. While the power level of the card is obvious, Jace and Ashiok fill similar roles in my mind and I was worried about having too many cards that generated value long term, but had no immediate impact on the board. As such, Ashiok was delegated to the sideboard for matches where it would shine and Jace got the starting role: a decision I did not regret. While Ashiok did come in a large percent of matches, I do not know what I would have changed from the main to incorporate Ashiok and how that would have affected the rest of my tournament.
Things are different now though. Hero's Downfall is at an all time low and Dromoka's Command is running wild. While Jace benefits from the lack of Hero's Downfall, it suffers greatly from an increase in cheap removal such as Command, Wild Slash, and Searing Blood. This deck does not offer many profitable fight targets for Dromoka's Command and I would rather not turn on my opponent's otherwise dead card. Ashiok on the other hand, is perfect right now. Abzan Aggro does not have the tools necessary to overwhelm Ashiok without running headfirst into Languish or Crux of Fate. While Hangarback Walker does give resiliency against cards like Languish, it is much slower than the traditional Rakshasa Deathdealer and gives the control player much more time to set up their board.
I've included a Silumgar, the Drifting Death in the maindeck as opposed to the sideboard slot it held prior. I believe Silumgar is one of the better end games you can currently have. Crux of Fate, Crackling Doom, and Foul-Tongue Invocation are all barely represented in the format, and even the number of Ugin, the Spirit Dragons have dropped off. That in conjunction with the rise in Hangarback Walker has pushed this card back into the starting 60.
The inclusion of Tasigur in the main is something that I have never done before, but have been testing recently. Those brave souls that piloted this deck at the Pro Tour included two of the legendary banana king in their list so I figured it was at least worth testing. My Hesitation was with turning on my opponent's removal, but with Abzan Charm being more dominate than Hero's Downfall currently, I am fine with having my early roadblock exiled with the multi-purpose Sign in Blood. I've been impressed with the card the more I play with it and it has likely earned its spot in the main. These spots were previously held by Garruk, Apex Predator and Murderous Cut, but I feel Tasigur is a better fit for a few reasons. Garruk was mainly there to prevent being "burned out" by Abzan's Siege Rhinos after taking early hits from Courser of Kruphix, Nissa, Vastwood Seer, or Den Protectors. The match is pretty grindy and you generally want to hold Downfalls for larger threats or Planeswalkers if possible, so you use your life as a resource often. Garruk was very good at coming down to answer a freshly cast Rhino or Elspeth, while still presenting a threat that required an answer. Tasigur fills a similar role. While not being a direct answer to Rhino, he does offer a roadblock to those cheaper creatures to essentially gain life in the midgame. If they take time off to answer Tasigur, it is likely that their mana investment was higher than ours, which buys us time to get deeper into the game.
While Tasigur is obviously not comparable to Murderous Cut, I am very delve conscious in decks like this. I do not want to be stranded with expensive cards in hand or cause tension with Den Protector with cards to be left in the graveyard. I usually keep the number of delve spells at five, but Tasigur can also contribute to the graveyard via his ability, so I decided to move up to a sixth and have not regretted it.
Removing Murderous Cut is something that took some convincing, but the effect was lacking and I wanted something that had a little more utility. Thankfully, this is the perfect time to be exiling creatures.
With the rise in Hangarback Walker and other midrange green threats, Silence the Believers starts looking better and better. Being a full retail answer to any creature in the midgame, Silence is a card that gains tremendous value as the game progresses. Being able to rebuy it with Den Protector after using it as a one-for-one to get a two-for-one is also something that I have enjoyed doing; if you can't tell, I really like grinding out value.
I've gone down to a single copy of Sultai Charm because the card has gotten worse in recent weeks. The Ultimate Price mode is fine against the GR decks, but lacking in most other spots. Having a Disenchant is nice, but the format has adjusted to the existence of Dromoka's Command and has dropped off from good targets. The Catalog mode on the card gives it use past Ultimate Price / Disenchant and I'm not sure if it's playable without it. Being able to cycle through your deck while feeding future delve spells is very important in certain spots, making the card never truly dead.
My split on Counterspells is something that I've been on the fence about. Disdainful Stroke is fine right now, but by no means as well-positioned as it was previously. I still think Dissolve is a great card and actually added a copy since the Richmond Open. I'm not sure if I still want a 3rd Stroke in the 75, but for now I'm keeping it. If anything, it would be the Stroke in the board that changes. There are a lot of times after stabilizing the board you get aggressive Den Protector rebuying Dissolve to keep your opponent off any relevant spell. It's an effect that a lot of decks are not prepared to interact with.
I want to address the mana quickly, as that is often one of the first things people ask me about the deck. I play a full 12 "enters the battlefield tapped" lands, but I do not play a single Temple of Deceit. This deck is not very mana intensive for green sources and really only needs one or two to function in a normal game, but does need the green sources early. While that is a difficult thing to make happen consistently without a green fetch, having every enters the battlefield tapped land produce green is a good starting point. I have teetered with having a 5th basic over a painland, but I do not want to cut down on green sources much more. If I had to though, it would be an Island over a Yavimaya Coast. Haven of the Spirit Dragon is quietly one of the biggest reasons to play the deck. Giving Satyr Wayfinder the ability to "draw" you a win condition in the mid-to-late game is really powerful and something that has pushed the deck over the edge in recent sets.
Moving to the sideboard, it's a lot of the same as before. I've removed Thoughtseize from the main as I don't love the card in the deck and would rather only bring it in against other control decks. While two copies does not seem like many, this deck is very good at seeing a large number of cards and once you do, Den Protector gets them back.
Self-Inflicted Wound is a card I've become a fan of recently because of the uptick in Heroic and low to the ground Abzan decks. While three copies may be overkill, the card is very good at being a cheap answer to all of Abzan's threats and goes a long way in ensuring you stay at a healthy life total in the match.
Orbs of Warding is untested, I'll make that known now. In theory, the card does everything I want a card to do against the red decks, which are not the most favorable match, but I have not had a chance to put it into practice yet; I will be working on that. Currently, Orbs plus the Feed the Clan are the cards devoted to the Monored matchup. It's possible that I would skimp on these slots for a larger tournament, but for anything at the local level, you need to have hate for the red decks.
I'm traveling to Charlotte this weekend to play Modern in the Open Series, then Standard and Legacy in the New Jersey Invitational the following week. Best of luck to anyone battling in the WMCQ or Eternal Weekend in Philadelphia this weekend. If you are still stuck on a Standard deck for the WMCQ or anything else for that matter, I would really give this Sultai list a consideration. When looking over the top decks in the format, not many people are giving UBx control the respect it deserves, but none of them seem particularly difficult to Defeat either...