Another Pro Tour is in the books and it looks like this Standard format is going to be awesome. Yes Jeskai Aggro was the most popular deck at the Pro Tour, but that doesn't mean the deck will dominate the format. I was one of the five players in the tournament playing the planeswalker-heavy version of Abzan Midrange of Team TCGplayer; in fact I ran the same 75 that Ari Lax did. Usually when I look back on a tournament I have some regrets about my deck choice, but not this time.
The deck was created by my teammate Steve Rubin, but I was one of the primary influences in terms of tuning the deck and persuading other people to play it. I am going to go over the deck in more detail, but here is the decklist for reference:
This version of Abzan Midrange is a bit more grindy than most and also has a lot of late-game power. Cards like Siege Rhino and Courser of Kruphix do a lot of work in allowing the game to go long, or sometimes you can simply go on the aggro plan with an early Siege Rhino.
Alright let's go over some of the card choices.
First of all there are two Elvish Mystics, which may seem like a strange number. Many Abzan Midrange decks are no longer running Elvish Mystic, but the card does a lot of work helping play a large planeswalker a turn early. The fact that so many lands come into play tapped is one of the reasons that the deck can't play more than two. Elvish Mystic is not a substitute for actual lands, as the lands can't be killed by a Magma Jet or Lightning Strike, and having a critical mass of lands is important with Courser of Kruphix.
One of the most notable exclusions here is that of Fleecemane Lion. There are zero copies of the card, and there are a couple reasons for this. The first is that you almost always want to be playing Sylvan Caryatid on turn two, Fleecemane Lion does get worse as the game goes on, and getting him monstrous is generally tough to do or not particularly relevant. The other big reason is the deck is able to minimize the amount of cards that die to Lightning Strike and Bile Blight. Cutting the Fleecemane Lions is what allows for so many late-game heavy hitters.
The other creatures in the deck are pretty straightforward and are some of the pillars of Abzan Midrange. When looking at the list though one might wonder how easy it is to trigger Wingmate Roc's raid with so few creatures that attack. First of all it is true that sometimes you will just have to run out Wingmate Roc without raid, but more often than not this isn't the case. This is another reason to play Elvish Mystic, as it can be suicided later in the game in order to get that additional 3/4 flyer. The tokens from Sorin, Solemn Visitor and Elspeth, Sun's Champion also provide additional creatures to help out with raid.
Moving onto the planeswalkers let's talk about the one that may stand out the most: Ajani, Mentor of Heroes. This is one of the best cards to have versus the control and midrange decks. When given time this card will take over a game and can be used to dig for whatever specific planeswalkers or creatures are needed in a given board state. Perhaps the most underrated use of the +1/+1 counters is simply making Sylvan Caryatid a large defender, so as to be able to sit behind Ajani, Mentor of Heroes. In fact, I saw Ari gain 100 life with Ajani, Mentor of Heroes, so yes even the ultimate can be relevant. While it is true that sometimes you draw both copies and it can be awkward, it is a rare occurrence.
Sorin, Solemn Visitor provides a cheap four mana planeswalker and another form of lifegain and flying creatures. I have seen a few lists that have cut Sorin, Solemn Visitor altogether but I think two copies is the right number. Of course Elspeth, Sun's Champion is the planeswalker which we ran the most of, and many versions of Abzan Midrange don't play any Elspeth, Sun's Champion. So what makes Elspeth, Sun's Champion so good? It closes out games in the mirror, and provides a large threat that needs to be answered.
The suite of spells is also not the norm and, in fact, it's extremely important to actually play the deck to realize why the spells are set up this way. The first thing is the four maindeck copies of Thoughtseize. Before the Pro Tour it became apparent that control was going to be a factor, and in many matchups Thoughtseize acts as a one mana removal spell. Even in the Jeskai Burn matchup you want Thoughtseize to be able to grab an early threat out of your opponent's hand. Thoughtseize also provides another early play to help make up for the absence of other early drops like Fleecemane Lion.
There are also the full four copies of Abzan Charm, and man is this card good. Most Abzan Midrange decks up to this point have opted to run three copies of Abzan Charm, but I expect the trend to move towards the full playset. All three modes are extremely important, and I know that I used them all multiple times throughout the tournament. People still don't see putting two counters on one of your creatures coming, and making Sylvan Caryatid into a 2/5 defender can be sweet.
The most used mode is likely the removal spell as there are a variety of creatures that you want to kill with this. Being able to exile the creature is particularly nice versus stuff like an animated Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker or a Soul. Of course the Night's Whisper effect usually just provides a turn three play when not much is going on, and helps allow you to hit land drops. Oftentimes I will have a Courser of Kruphix in play showing a spell on top of my deck, and this will make me want to fire of the draw two effect during my main phase to have another shot at playing a land of the Courser of Kruphix that turn.
Then there is the three/two split between Hero's Downfall and Utter End. No, Hero's Downfall isn't straight up better than Utter End. For one Hero's Downfall is double black which can be somewhat tough on the mana, plus Utter End Exiles the card it Removes. One of the most important aspects of Utter End is being able to Remove artifacts or enchantments. Cards like Banishing Light or Suspension Field are prime targets for an Utter End, and getting a creature back in play like Siege Rhino that was exiled by an opponent's Banishing Light or Suspension Field can be a huge blowout. The other piece to this is that Perilous Vault is a thing, and Utter End has targets versus control decks when Hero's Downfall sometimes doesn't.
Speaking of control decks the maindeck was constructed in such a way that there are as few dead cards as possible versus those decks. Sometimes you will draw a Hero's Downfall and not be able to use it, but more often than not you can Overload the Blue/Black control deck by playing lots of threats. Having a removal spell like Abzan Charm which can just be draw two cards is super important. I don't recommend maindecking a card like Bile Blight which is very good versus Jeskai Tempo, but it isn't worth it because of how ineffective it can be in other matchups. So against control I take out the three Hero's Downfall and add two Nissa Worldwaker and one Liliana Vess. Since the control decks don't put early pressure on you, you have time to deploy expensive threats. Nissa Worldwaker is the best planeswalker versus Perilous Vault because the 4/4 creatures can't be exiled by it.
So if the control matchup is good, can the same be said for Jeskai Burn? This is a swingy matchup but after playing a ton of games I definitely like the Abzan side here. Ari went through two Jeskai Burn players in the top eight without much difficult. Siege Rhino is the best threat, and whenever you cast a turn two Sylvan Caryatid it feels like cheating, especially in this matchup, which often comes down to a race. Even though this version of Abzan Midrange plays some slow threats like Ajani, Mentor of Hero's and Elspeth, Sun's Champion which aren't good in this matchup, they can be great if the game stalls out.
When on the draw versus Jeskai Burn it is important to kill their threats before deploying your own. The three copies of Bile Blight and the Liliana Vess usually come in for two Elspeth, Sun's Champion, one Ajani, Mentor of Heroes, and one Abzan Charm. Having access to a two mana removal spell in Bile Blight is a big deal after board. Don't make the mistake of boarding out Thoughtseize, which is actually good in this matchup because it nabs a threat from the Jeskai Burn player's hand, and the gameplan is to stop their threats as quickly as possible - to force them to go on the burn plan.
The scariest matchup is versus Green Devotion. Game one is very difficult because of how good Hornet Queen is. Monogreen Devotion is able to back-up Hornet Queen with other threats, and so your best plan is to try and get an aggressive Siege Rhino draw, killing their threats, and Thoughtseizing away the important cards. After board the matchup gets better as the mass removal spells come in, usually alongside two Drown in Sorrow. The cards you can cut when sideboarding are the Sorin, Solemn Visitor, up to two Courser of Kruphix, one Thoughtseize, and one Siege Rhino. After board Abzan Midrange is the control deck and just wants to take over the game with Duneblast or Mass Calcify. I board in Liliana Vess because it can tutor up a sweeper.
When deciding to play Abzan Midrange many players were worried about having to play the mirror matchup. While this is not necessarily a fun matchup to play I like the side of this version of Abzan Midrange, compared to the one with Fleecemane Lion. We just have more big threats and many games come down to who can stick an Elspeth, Sun's Champion. If possible try to play around Wingmate Roc by stopping raid from happening, but this isn't always possible. Wingmate Roc can be a trump card, so watch out because it is more threatening coming out of the aggressive Abzan deck.
I board in two Murderous Cut, one Duneblast, one End Hostilities, and one Liliana Vess. You can cut Utter End and some number of Thoughtseize just because the games sometimes do come down to topdecking. When replaying Ari's quarterfinal match he did topdeck Elspeth, Sun's Champion at exactly the right time, but his deck was also filled with more threats he could draw when compared to his opponent.
Most of the other matchups are pretty straightforward, and the sideboard is quite versatile. I have been asked what I would change from the decklist, and I can honestly say there is nothing I would change. This may change in a few weeks, but this is definitely a deck I would recommend playing.
Thanks for reading,