Welcome to Abzan Week!
Personally, I was happy to see that Abzan were the first up on our schedule of clans to cover here on the website. I don't say that because the Abzan Houses are my favorite place to stay when I visit Khans of Tarkir, but because it's a great representation of what a clan on Tarkir should look like.
The first thing to know about the Abzan is that they are all about endurance. While these kind of Vorthos-y details aren't the focus of this column, it makes it easier to understand what makes this clan tick when you put yourself in the shoes of the designers and developers for the set. During the card creation process, they were all focused on a clan that would outlast its opponents.
In fact, outlast is a great place to start.
Ainok Bond-Kin is a good representative of the Abzan, as it has two key characteristics necessary to understanding how the clan works.
The first is that it has outlast. Outlast is the big key mechanic for the Abzan clan. Each clan gets its own unique keyword ability or mechanic that signifies what makes it distinct. Outlast from the Abzan does a great job of conveying their philosophy: They'll be the last person standing at the end of the day.
The Bond-Kin also hints at a possible +1/+1 counter subtheme for this clan. You know where you get the +1/+1 counters for the Bond-Kin itself, but this card grants first strike to each other creature you control with a +1/+1 counter on it. The obvious place to get them is by being a different creature with outlast, but there are plenty of other ways to get the counters flowing. Some of them are even instant speed (more on that later).
It's important to note that for cards like Ainok Bond-Kin, you don't need any counters on it in order to grant first strike to other creatures with counters on them. I've already seen a few people overlook the first strike on another creature. Just by playing it precombat, you grant first strike to all of your creatures with +1/+1 counters on them already.
Creatures like Disowned Ancestor keep it simple. They give you something to do on the first turn of the game, and something to do after you have run out of places to dump your mana. As one may assume, these cards are great in a long, drawn-out game, as your early creatures maintain their relevancy while your opponent's early threats don't.
Besides first strike, there are outlast creatures that grant lifelink, flying, reach, deathtouch, and trample to all of your creatures with +1/+1 counters on them. These are powerful mid- and late-game plays and they make up the core of a good outlast deck.
When it comes to evaluating the outlast cards, I like to look at them from two different viewpoints:
How good is this card if I never put a +1/+1 counter on it?
How good is this card if I put one +1/+1 counter on it?
For the first viewpoint, I simply want to know what I am getting for my mana. As it turns out, all of the outlast creatures are at least a decent deal on the Vanilla Test. The possible exception is Disowned Ancestor, as it's kind of weird at 0/4, but even that isn't a terrible deal.
The second viewpoint is just as important as the first, as this is where the payoff starts rolling for our outlast deck. Since outlast can only be done at sorcery speed, it represents a big commitment just to get that first counter on there. No attacking or blocking for an entire turn cycle can be hard to recover from—it had better be worth it.
Basically, all of the outlast cards are powerhouses with even one +1/+1 counter on it. A 3/4 flier, a 4/3 lifelink, a 4/4 reach, etc.
Let's look at the non-rare gold cards for Abzan.
First and foremost we have the Abzan Guide:
This is part of a full cycle—one for each clan—of morphs that cast for six mana and have a morph cost of five mana.
This is a strong cycle of cards, and Abzan Guide may just be the best one of all of them. It's not fancy, but a 4/4 with lifelink is just a massive damage swing. The aggressive decks hate to see this morph turned face up, and it's big enough to be effective against the slower decks.
Part of another cycle, Abzan Charm is a fantastic uncommon that works particularly well within its clan. This is the best of the charm cycle for Limited, putting a powerful stamp on any deck that can cast it.
The best ability is the first ability—instant-speed creature removal for basically any creature you really care about. It's hard to top that.
The second ability is nice when you are stuck in a topdeck war and need to reload your hand. It's perhaps not maximized in this clan as you often have other things to do with your mana (outlast!) when stuck in a stalemate. Still, drawing cards is sweet.
The third ability doesn't look like much on the surface, but remember when we talked about other ways to get +1/+1 counters on your creatures? This is one of the best! The fact that they come at instant speed can create awesome blowouts in your favor when combined with cards like Ainok Bond-Kin, Tuskguard Captain, and Abzan Battle Priest.
Speaking of ways to get +1/+1 counters on your creatures...
Armament Corps may not be at instant speed, but it's hard to do much better for just five mana. In the worst-case scenario, you get a rock solid 6/6 for your mana investment. In the best-case scenario, you are making two other creatures bigger while potentially granting them some of the bonus abilities we discussed earlier.
It may not look super fancy, but Armament Corps performs consistently at a high level, and will be one of the best cards in your Abzan deck.
Ready to Rumble
If you look closely at the Abzan-branded cards in the set, you'll start to notice a trend: there are quite a few cards with the Warrior subtype floating around. Mardu has this going on as well, but white and black are Warrior colors for the most part, and there are plenty in Abzan.
The most important of which is this one:
A 2/3 for two mana matches up very well in a format full of 2/2 morph creatures. Throwing in a toughness bump for any incidental Warriors you control puts this little two-drop right under the spotlight.
There is also the other half of this duo, Chief of the Edge, which you can steal away from a hopeful Mardu drafter and put right into your Abzan deck.
Even though the Abzan are more of a defensive, grind-you-out type of people, they can turn on the afterburners when needed and get their beatdown on just fine. You have to keep your eye out for crossover cards from Mardu, but I have seen some nasty curve-outs from Abzan decks.
When you are drafting your Abzan deck, try to lean it one direction or the other. You either want the high toughness, shields-up type cards or the cheap, aggressive ones. As it turns out, a 0/4 on turn one is pretty great at enabling raid cards thieved from Mardu, for example.
All in the Family
Abzan is one of the strongest clans from Khans of Tarkir, but it's tricky to play. When to outlast and when not to outlast, and even when to stop outlasting, are all important strategic choices that can be punishing if done incorrectly. Early in the game, the decision to start outlasting a creature in preparation for the long game can be vitally important.
On that same note, the decision to eschew outlast in favor of simply beating down can lock you into a race situation where you won't have the chance to outlast again. It's tricky stuff, but I've found that taking one turn off to outlast generally produces a threat that's difficult to deal with, while still not putting all of my eggs in one basket. A basket that is likely to get cut, brought down, forced away, shot, throttled, bounced, or otherwise interfered with.
One really cool thing about the design of this clan that I only noticed while writing this article is the family aspect of Abzan and how it plays out in game. You see, the Abzan live in the desert, where life is pretty rough. They have adapted by becoming close family units that rely on each other to survive.
In actual play, having two outlast creatures (or an outlast creature plus some big blocker) is akin to having one person stand guard while the other trains/grows/sleeps or whatever. It's like they have each other's back and mutually benefit as a result.
That's pretty cool.
Another thing that is pretty cool is how many wins you'll get if you master drafting and playing this tricky clan. I'm not sure yet which clan is the strongest overall, but Abzan definitely has its hat in the ring in a big way.
Until next week!