Abzan: A Retrospective

Posted in Event Coverage on January 10, 2016

By Corbin Hosler

It all started with Siege Rhino.

Black decks based around Thoughtseize had been strong since its release in Theros, but the rotation in of Khans of Tarkir and everyone's favorite rhino really pushed it over the top. With Ari Lax's Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir win in Honolulu, it was clear to the world that Abzan had arrived.

Abzan Midrange – Ari Lax, Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir 2014

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The quintessential midrange deck, Lax's Abzan build could hold its own in the early game with a steady stream of blockers in removal. As it entered the midgame, planeswalkers and Courser of Kruphix provided enough value to stabilize the board, and the endgame of Elspeth, Sun's Champion meant that there was almost no position the deck couldn't pull out of.

Ari Lax was the first to find high-level success with Siege Rhino, but he would be far from the last.

As Standard evolved over the next year, Abzan evolved with it. While there were always aggressive variants, it was the control shell that found the most success. The card advantage offered by its planeswalkers — eventually joined by Ugin, the Spirit Dragon — meant that no deck in the format could match the pure late-game power of Abzan's topdecks – topdecks that were helped by the selection power of Courser.

Abzan Control – Matt Sperling, Pro Tour Magic Origins

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The arrival of Battle for Zendikar forced the deck to adapt once again. With staples Thoughtseize, Courser and Hero's Downfall gone, the deck wasn't as consistent as it once was. Still, the arrival of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar did plenty to fill the void. With the adaptation of Hangarback Walker and the myriad abilities of Gideon, all three abilities on the planeswalker became devastating in their own right. Times may have changed, but you can't keep a good Siege Rhino down. And while the late-game power of Elspeth was gone, Den Protector and Hangarback Walker provided enough to give Abzan one of the strongest late games in the format. And while the cards in the deck changed after Rotation, its overall game plan did not.

Abzan Midrange — Brent Clawson, winner Grand Prix Indianapolis

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With Clawson's win in Indy, Abzan — never gone for long — was back at the top, and it seemed Siege Rhino would reign supreme for another season.

But Magic is nothing if not ever-changing, and the Standard format at Grand Prix Oakland little resembles that of Indianapolis in early November. Silkwrap fills the format and blanks Hangarback, and there has been a surge of Dragons decks that are more than happy to fly over the heads of Abzan. Throw in the format's combo deck in Rally the Ancestors that doesn't much care about Abzan's supposed late game, and all of a sudden the Rhinos and Hangarback Walkers found themselves outmatched.

That forced longtime Abzan players like Matt Sperling to reevaluate their chosen deck. Could Abzan continue to exist in its current form, or were drastic changes needed?

It's a question that different players found very different answers for. While Sperling — who has plenty of experience over the last year playing both the aggressive and controlling variants — ultimately settled on a “traditional” build for Grand Prix Oakland and finished Day 1 undefeated, others found success by not being afraid to question everything in their decks.

That train of thought led down some unexpected roads. Hangarback Walker and Den Protector are, in a vacuum, two of the most powerful cards in Standard. For a long time, their late-game power was the backbone of the Abzan decks. But in the new Standard, it turns out that's not what Abzan needed to do in 2016.

What did it do well? Attack, for one. Warden of the First Tree was always solid creature throughout the game, but it turns out to be a perfectly fine early attacker as well, and when paired with Anafenza, the Foremost and Gideon it turned out Abzan could actually beat down very well. And while Hangarback Walker was a resilient two-drop, it didn't contribute to the theme of attacking.

Snapping Gnarlid did. Along with Heir of the Wilds, many players cut the late game of Hangarback Walker entirely to build a purely aggressive deck. The new, aggressive form of Abzan has catapulted several players, including Joshua Hoffeld, to the top of the standings on Sunday.

Abzan Aggro – Joshua Hoffeld, Grand Prix Oakland

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Matt Sperling has tested all variants of Abzan, perhaps Standard's most defining deck over the last 18 months.

“Gideon is really the card that changed things,” Sterling explained. “Because it's so much better when you're on the attack, it's really pushes you to be more aggressive when you can. Everything you do works with Gideon, and allows you to end the game quickly. I ultimately decided on Hangarback over the Gnarlids just because it's so powerful, but I can see why people went with the more aggressive builds. I wouldn't be surprised to see it do very well this weekend.”

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