Last week I wrote a sideboarding guide for playing Abzan Aggro against the Standard field. Today I'll discuss the thought process that led me to identify Abzan Aggro as the best deck in Standard, and I'll explain how it has evolved from last season to where it currently stands, the logic behind specific card choices, and the methods I use to get the most from the deck.
I initially approached the post-rotation Standard format with a Siege Rhino-centric worldview, but prior to any Battle for Zendikar cards being spoiled it wasn't clear where wedge cards stood in the new format. It was uncertain if the new carpool would provide the tools to build robust three-color manabases, but in retrospect it was obvious that the multicolor world of Khans of Tarkir would have to be supported in Standard, especially when you consider that we were coming from the monochromatic world of Theros; the pendulum always swings back in the other direction. Battle for Zendikar delivered bonafide dual lands to go with the existing fetch lands, which created the Whirlwind rainbow of colors that is the current Standard metagame.
Battle for Zendikar's impact on the mana of Standard had serious implications for the format, and they weren't all immediately apparent. Trading the scry lands and tri-lands for fetch lands and dual lands certainly sped up the format. Replacing so many tapped lands with untapped land means action starts sooner now than it did last season. Replacing scry triggers with losing life means players have less life to work with, and therefore less time, and they also have less access to quality cards during this time period. Over the course of a game, players accrue damage from fetch land activations, so there is increased incentive to be aggressive and take advantage of an opponent's reduced life total. Last season, decks with many scry lands would build an advantage as the game went on and bury opponents with card quality, so they were incentivized to slow down the game as much as possible. Now the opposite is true, and this represents a fundamental shift in the format.
With Standard favoring aggressive strategies, it's no surprise that Atarka Red decks started off so strongly after rotation, and they continue to put up fantastic results. I could make a similar statement about Abzan Aggro, which has embraced its aggressive role and puts immense pressure on the other decks in the format. The changing mana of Standard has fundamentally changed Abzan Aggro, making it a faster deck that is more consistently able to produce its best possible openings, so it's better at being an aggressive deck. Combined with the fact that opponents have less life to work with, Abzan Aggro is more potent than ever before.
With the new battle lands making three-color decks clearly viable, it became clear that Siege Rhino was the best thing to be doing in the new format. Abzan Control was the clear front-runner all season long and porting it to the new format was of highest priority. As it turns out, losing the irreplaceable Elspeth, Sun's Champion meant the deck no longer had the incentive, or even the ability, to play a long control game and, furthermore, the switch from scry lands to fetch lands meant playing for a long game was no longer desirable.
Abzan Aggro, on the other hand, ported to the new format nearly untouched and it had access to plenty of suitable replacements for anything it lost in the rotation. Rather than suffer from the loss of Elspeth, Sun's Champion, Abzan Aggro reveled in the fact that its primary trump card left the format and gutted the opponent that it had the hardest time beating.
When Lumbering Falls was spoiled and it became known there would be creature lands in the new format, it was a further sign that Abzan Aggro would be great in Standard. Enemy-colored lands meant B/G and B/W lands were options for Abzan Aggro, and any creature land in these colors was sure to see play in the deck. Abzan Aggro is a midrange deck that combines powerful, individual threats with flexible and efficient disruptive spells; historically these sorts of decks have always benefited from access to creature lands. These lands allow one to pressure opponents without playing a creature card, and turning a land into a creature means an otherwise one-dimensional resource is now a valuable tool. The threat of these lands being activated is often as good as using them, especially against a planeswalker. These lands also serve as valuable insurance against board sweepers. Adding a creature land to Abzan Aggro was sure to make the deck even more powerful and well-rounded.
Shambling Vent was printed and it was of course an excellent tool for Abzan Aggro. At three mana it's relatively cheap to activate for a creature land, so there is often extra mana available to use it and realize its potential value. Shambling Vent avoids many common removal spells and is surprisingly difficult for opponents to destroy at instant speed, so it's a great threat against control decks, and the life gain is excellent for pulling ahead of aggressive decks. It allows Abzan Aggro to enter attrition battles from a more favorable position, as having a resource stashed away in its lands provides the extra edge it needs to find an advantage in close games. In terms of synergy within the Abzan Aggro deck, Shambling Vent can hold counters from Anafenza, the Foremost. This is surprisingly useful because it allows one to get another attacking creature on turn four without actually casting one so, on turn two, mana can be spent on a removal spell or discard. Lifelink makes Shambling Vent excellent for fighting with Dromoka's Command, and it's a useful target for placing +1/+1 counters with Abzan Charm. Shambling Vent also makes it easier to trigger raid on Wingmate Roc in very long games.
Abzan Aggro operates similarly to a tempo-oriented deck like Delver decks in various formats. Warden of First Tree is your Delver of Secrets, and it can start attacking for three damage as early as turn two. It is more mana intensive, but you can flip it reliably and on your own terms. It also offers great power in the late game, where the threat of a trampling, 8/8, lifelink creature demands the opponent's attention. It's actually significantly more aggressive than Fleecemane Lion, the creature it has essentially replaced, because it starts attacking on turn two compared to turn three.
Den Protector is one of the most important cards in the deck, and I can't find a reason to play less than four. To start, Den Protector has great synergy with other Den Protector. Using Den Protector to return another copy is a great chain of card advantage that the opponent can't beat with traditional creature removal spells. Den Protector ensures constant access to creatures, so playing four copies helps to support Wingmate Roc. As a piece of board presence, Den Protector is an attacking-focused creature that fits into the primary plan of being aggressive. It's similar to Delver of Secrets in its own right because it has its own version of evasion, and that becomes very valuable with the ability of Abzan Charm to add counters and force it past blockers.
Den Protector often just returns a fetch land in the early game, but in the late game it has a wide selection of cards to choose from. Den Protector is especially important in post-sideboard games. One reason is that games slow down and become more attrition-oriented, so having a source of card advantage is more important, but Den Protector is especially useful in games two and three because Abzan sideboards in a wide variety cheap, high-impact disruption that are ideal targets for recursion.
Den Protector is misunderstood because it's commonly considered to be a five-mana play, but it's far more flexible than that. It's a fine two-mana play, especially in hands filled with action that have all of their mana accounted for over the following few turns. Den Protector on two turn is better yet when there is another Den Protector in hand to potentially return it. One of the most common reasons to play a face-up turn two Den Protector is in preparation of Anafenza, the Foremost the following turn, which will require a body to place a counter on when it attacks on turn four. With some Foresight, a turn two Den Protector could be the deciding factor that triggers raid for a game-winning Wingmate Roc on turn five.
Den Protector is best of all because it can be cast for three mana, and Den Protector is very often just a three mana play. As a tempo deck, Abzan has two priorities, to develop its own side of the battlefield and to limit its opponent's board presence. It is absolutely necessary to use mana efficiently, and morphing Den Protector is often the most mana-efficient option available. Yes, Den Protector has a tremendous target on its head, but that's actually a great thing. Consider that a three-mana creature that demands a response and forces the opponent's hand is actually an absurd card. If Den Protector is immediately destroyed, that means the opponent spent mana that they couldn't spend on destroying another threat or deploying a threat of their own. It's important for Abzan Aggro to keep pace with its opponent, and morphing Den Protector without mana to unmorph is an important part of Abzan Aggro's plan for accomplishing that.
When casting a face-up Den Protector, or a face-down Den Protector into potential removal spells, there is a risk in losing a valuable source of card advantage, but the payoff for utilizing your card and mana to the fullest is very high. Properly using Den Protector by weighing the need for battlefield development versus card advantage demands is at the heart of piloting Abzan Aggro and an important skill in getting most from your experience piloting the deck.
I should also mention Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, a tool that Abzan Aggro never had last season. Sorin, Solemn Visitor always wanted to be a constant source of tokens, but the need to reduce loyalty severely restricted the card and made it only a small player in the deck. As a threat and source of battlefield presence, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar has a tremendous impact for very little cost, and it's a perfect fit into a deck that can protect the planeswalker with removal and blockers and that can utilize all three of its abilities. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar can produce a stream of tokens indefinitely, and it maintains a high loyalty that survives cards like Crackling Doom and even Den Protector. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is also a fast aggressive clock as a 5/5 creature that only a few select removal spells touch. Creating emblems is not common, but it's another very potent ability that is especially useful for pushing through blockers. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar also has synergy with the deck, particularly as a reliable enabler for Wingmate Roc, because the opponent will have to stop both the creature token and the planeswalker itself to prevent Raid.
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar typically starts by making a token, and then by attacking each turn afterwards until the opponent is dead. It's usually better to make a token when turning into a 5/5 would expose it to removal, particularly Abzan Charm, Crackling Doom, and Jeskai Charm, but even Sidisi's Faithful put into play from Collected Company or Rally the Ancestors. Making an anthem is the rarest of the abilities. It' best used when there are many creatures to pump and it will deal comparable damage to making a 5/5, when the opponent has chump blockers, or when the planeswalker is clearly going to die and making an anthem is better than a 2/2.
Abzan Charm is the removal spell of choice, and it's even better now than ever before because it's actually a great card against the red decks in the format. The versatility of Hero's Downfall is gone from the archetype, and the lack of many planeswalkers combined with the difficulty of hitting two black mana pushed its successor, Ruinous Path, to the sidelines. Murderous Cut has stepped up to the plate as the instant speed removal spell of choice and it's better than ever because of the fetch lands powering delve.
Dromoka's Command has been an important removal spell in Abzan Aggro for as long as it has been in print, but its stock has never been lower. Red decks don't play many burn spells, and with Theros block gone there are very few enchantments to destroy. As a creature removal spell Dromoka's Command is inherently unreliable and come with some level of risk. As the format has shifted around Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, the necessity for cheap removal has never been higher, and that brings me to Silkwrap. Every opponent in the format plays a target, and that makes Silkwrap a great maindeck inclusion because it isn't dead in any matchups. It's a clean and efficient answer to Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, and it keeps it from the graveyard to be recurred from Ojutai's Command, Kolaghan's Command, or Rally the Ancestors. I have been slowly cutting Dromoka's Command for Silkwrap and, at this point, I am testing a maindeck with four Silkwrap and no Dromoka's Command. Another option would be to cut Dromoka's Command for a third Murderous Cut or even an Ultimate Price. Dromoka's Command is pretty useful against red decks after sideboard when they bring in Roast, so I retain access to one in my sideboard:
Here's my most recent decklist:
Turn to the comments with any questions!