The three cards I really want to play in Standard right now more than any other cards are: Archangel of Tithes, Wingmate Roc, and Silkwrap. All three are very good against the top two decks (Jeskai Black and G/W Megamorph). I've been trying out various shells for these three cards and today I'd like to share one such shell that is perfect for FNM this weekend, a deck I'm calling "White Rhino."
Let's take a closer look at how all the cards in the deck work together.
Individual Card Functions and Key Interactions
The basis of the deck is to curve out with a combination of creatures and disruptive spells that tops out at Archangel of Tithes and Wingmate Roc. Knight of the White Orchid is the best way to reliably get to four and five mana when three of it needs to be white. Otherwise a card like Nissa, Vastwood Seer would be sufficient.
Given the rise in popularity of Eldrazi Green after Grand Prix Quebec City last weekend, I wanted to play Transgress the Mind. The card is already good against Control decks and also adds a powerful dimension against Jeskai decks, allowing you to not only find out what cards you need to play around but also to take an important card like Ojutai's Command or Dig Through Time before it can be used against you.
In addition to Transgress the Mind, some of the best removal spells that Abzan has to offer are Silkwrap and Abzan Charm. Silkwrap is among the few answers to Jace, Vryn's Prodigy in the format that can also deal with Mantis Rider. It also works great against Hangarback Walker, Deathmist Raptor, or Warden of the First Tree. Abzan Charm handles Mantis Rider and Deathmist Raptor (and Warden whenever it gets pumped) but also handles larger creatures such as Siege Rhino or the Dragonlords. More importantly, it can serve as a card draw spell against control decks when you would rather trade in your excess removal spells for more cards.
An important characteristic about all three of these disruptive spells (Transgress the Mind, Abzan Charm, and Silkwrap) is that they exile the card, which means we incidentally have enough fodder to make Wasteland Strangler a reliably removal option. There are also several scenarios where the opponent turns on the Strangler on their own, such as by casting a delve spell, flashing back a spell with a flipped Jace, or by missing on Abbot of Keral Keep or Outpost Siege. Wasteland Strangler is an overall underutilized card in Standard right now and I originally got the idea from Gerry Thompson who tried it in a BW midrange deck about a month ago. It's a creature whose body matches up well against most of the small creatures in the format and who can kill Mantis Rider or any of the other three-drops outside of Anafenza, the Foremost.
Speaking of Anafenza, the Foremost, this was a natural inclusion in this deck for a few reason. First off 4/4 is as big as it gets for three mana. Secondly, with all the Deathmist Raptors and Ojutai's Commands floating around, exiling creatures is an important ability. Thirdly, the exile ability makes Wasteland Strangler that much better. It not only fuels the first Strangler but also keeps the creature card exiled for future Wasteland Stranglers while also keeping it out of the graveyard to be brought back by Ojutai's Command or to be used as delve fodder for any of the popular delve spells of the format. It is also incidentally good with Hangarback Walker since it can add its counter to the Walker without the Walker actually attacking.
Once we add Anafenza, the Foremost and Abzan Charm, the next natural inclusion is Hangarback Walker. Hangarback getting counters placed on it through either of these other two cards can be very important in some spots. Hangarback is also a strong way to buy time to get into the later turns where we start casting our most important cards (Archangel of Tithes and Wingmate Roc), It can also be cast off any color mana, so if our three color deck is not giving us all three of our colors, Hangarback can still come down at any point and give us time to draw into the color we need. And given that we want to start with double white so we can cast Knight of the White Orchid on the third turn, Hangarback Walker plays the perfect complimentary role by coming down off WW on the second turn or off the land gotten from the Knight plus whatever fourth land is played on the same turn. It's also one of the few mana sinks we have in the deck, which shores up a hole left by the absence of Warden of the First Tree, a card that just doesn't quite work out mana-wise with the rest of the deck's requirements.
Siege Rhino is the final card I wanted in the deck that really pulls everything together. It's another big threat that can recoup some of the lost tempo by gaining three life when entering the battlefield. It can also provide a way to inflict those final few points of damage after the board gets stalled or wiped away. It's possible that Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is the better option, but I have not been very impressed with Gideon on defense whereas Siege Rhino is great on offense or defense. You can't really play Abzan without Siege Rhino.
The Lands and How to Sequence Them
The mana was one of the hardest parts of the deck to construct, and sequencing the lands is one of the most difficult parts about playing the deck optimally, so let's talk about my reasoning behind the construction of the mana base and how to use it to full effect.
The first thing we want to be able to do reliably is have double white on the second turn so that we can lead with Knight of the White Orchid on turn three. This means playing a lot of white sources in the deck, many of which are capable of entering the battlefield untapped. So I started with three Plains and eight white fetches.
The next thing we want is to be able to reliably cast our other two-mana spells, which include Silkwrap and Transgress the Mind. This means we not only need to have a pair of white produces lands on the second turn but also one of which that also produces black mana. In order to accomplish this, I chose three Shambling Vent, four Caves of Koilos, and four Sandsteppe Citadel. Since we don't have any first turn plays in our deck, we ideally want to have a copy of Shambling Vents or Sandsteppe Citadel as our first turn play. We don't want too many tapped land though since then drawing too many of them will cost us tempo in the later turns.
I chose to round out the mana base with one Forest, two Canopy Vista, and one Sunken Hollow. The one Forest is for times when we need green mana untapped but don't have two basic lands on the battlefield. For instance, let's say our first to plays are Shambling Vent and Plains and we want to cast Anafenza, the Foremost on the third turn off a Windswept Heath. The only way to do that is to run a basic Forest. Sunken Hollow is a way to find black mana off Flooded Strand. You need to have two basics on the battlefield in order for it to enter untapped, but either way, playing a single copy adds five black sources to our deck since we're already running four copies of Flooded Strand. Lastly, the first copy of Canopy Vista is obvious as a green source to be fetched out with either fetch land. The reason for running the second copy, however, is because we want to run a sufficient number of Plains in our deck to support the eight fetches and four copies of Knight of the White Orchid but we never need more than the third basic Plains. Once we have two on the battlefield, the Canopy Vistas will start entering untapped. Given that we are three colors, we want as many dual-option lands as possible. Drawing hands with too many single color lands will increase our risk of not being able to cast our spells. So three Plains and two Canopy Vistas is the mix I went with. This mana base gives us a total of 24 white sources, 15 green sources, and 16 black sources.
In the sideboard I wanted a lot of spells that could come in against control decks because we have a lot of cards that are great versus aggro creature decks but not so great versus control decks that are light on creatures and are instead looking to just wipe the board with a wrath effect. So I have two Utter End, two Duress, three Den Protector, and three Mastery of the Unseen to bring in against control decks. These take the place of some combination of Wingmate Roc, Archangel of Tithes, Wasteland Strangler, and Silkwrap. If they have Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, then it's likely best to leave in a few copies of Silkwrap. If not, then maybe one of the fliers.
Against creature decks we mostly just want to bring in a few more removal spells. Ultimate Price and Wasteland Strangler are great against Atarka Red. In that matchup I take out the Wingmate Rocs because they cost too much mana and our game plan is to simply live long enough to resolve Archangel of Tithes. Abzan Charm is also mediocre there, so I want to replace those with Duress and maybe a Den Protector.
Against the more midrange creature decks like G/W Megamorph or Abzan Aggro, I want to bring in more copies of Wingmate Roc because those are generally the trump that wins the game in the air. Den Protector can also come in in those types of matchups since they often come down to attrition fights once each side brings in more removal spells.
Additional Cards to Consider
Here are some cards that are reasonable to include that didn't quite make the 75:
0 Whisperwood Elemental
This is a card that works great against control decks and fits right into the Wingmate Roc slot. When playing G/W Megamorph I would board out Wingmate Roc against control decks and replace it with Whisperwood. I decided that Mastery of the Unseen and Den Protector were more important cards for the matchup, but the decision is close and if you prefer to play the Elemental, then these would be the spots to make room.
0 Dromoka's Command
It's a premium removal spell, but we don't really have a lot of big early creatures to fight with. We don't have Warden of the First Tree to fight Jace on turn two and most of our early drops will not survive a fight with Mantis Rider. Also Dromoka's Command does not exile any permanents with Wasteland Strangler without the help of Anafenza, the Foremost. All these factors played into my decision to cut them entirely, though if enchantments are big in your area and Utter End is not enough to deal with them, this would be the next best option, though Erase is also enticing because it exiles.
0 Murderous Cut
0 Valorous Stance
These two removal spells share a similar shortcoming to Dromoka's Command in that they do not exile the removed creature. Murderous Cut is interesting as a one- or two-of because we don't have Den Protector or Deathmist Raptor and thus are not utilizing the Graveyard for anything. Valorous Stance is a strong card against Siege Rhino and the Dragonlords, but so is Abzan Charm and Utter End and each of those spells exile.
0 Stasis Snare
This one was the hardest cut. It exiles and can hit any creature. I decided I wanted more ways to kill early creatures so I went with Ultimate Price instead, but this one was barely on the chopping block.
0 Virulent Plague
With the rise of Bant Tokens, Virulent Plague is a reasonable sideboard card. In addition to killing off all the warrior tokens from Secure the Wastes and the Ally tokens from Retreat to Emeria, it also wipes out Goblin tokens against Atarka red, taking away their option to go wide against us. This would naturally play into our strategy of dealing with their threats by blocking and by casting cheap one-for-one removal spells such as Silkwrap and Ultimate Price. Alas it was the final card cut from the sideboard in order to make room for all the cards that can come in against control decks. Archangel of Tithes already makes us pretty good against the "go wide" plan anyway though, so this is a reasonably sacrifice to make.
Overall the deck is fun to play, has a lot of disruption and powerful interactions, and is a little different from most of the other decks people are playing. And most importantly, it has a coherent plan.
I won Grand Prix Beijing last weekend. Will I do it again this weekend in Indianapolis?
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