It took very little time for people to realize that Abzan was the deck to beat. That doesn't mean it's the best-performing deck here today, nor the best deck as a whole. But coming into the tournament, it was the deck everyone knew would make an appearance. With a total of 115 players on some form of Abzan, it's safe to say everyone's supposition was right. It wasn't hard to see something like that coming. As Brazilian Willy Edel put it, "it simply has the best pool of cards in the format."
So Level 1 then becomes: what decks are advantaged against Abzan? The answers for a vast majority of pro players here have been proactive, aggressive strategies. Even though Abzan clearly takes the #1 slot for most-played archetype, slots #2-5 are all some form of aggressive deck. Burn, Affinity, Infect, and Zoo—in that order, are the next most-played decks. If you lump them together, that pack makes up more of the format than the Rhino-wielding Abzan (which is not to say some of these decks aren't running Siege Rhino themselves, of course). Just about one third of the field.
Proactive strategies are often the best way to go in an open field. And as long as you have a plan for the top dog, Abzan, you've got a pretty good chance. Two-time World Champion Shahar Shenhar said, "Abzan needs a forty-card sideboard," to cover all the match-ups they need to. So instead of playing the midrange, many players decided just try to go under the pack.
Here's a quick look at the most-played non-Abzan archetypes.
The number five archetype is Zoo. Combining the power of the most efficient creatures and the most efficient burn, Zoo comes down hard and fast. Though there are many sub-archetypes of Zoo, they all attempt to use various critters to pound on the board, then finish up with a couple awesome red fiery, lightning-y things.
ChannelFireball's Patrick Cox is a well-known lover of the Zoo strategies, and today he's packing Domain Zoo, the greediest five-color build one could muster—packing the best off all colors, and some Tribal Flames.
"You're really aiming to get a turn-two Geist of Saint Traft, then a turn-three Siege Rhino. That's basically unbeatable for most decks." That's especially true if you plan to clear the way for the Geist with Lightning bolt or Lightning Helix.
Gold-level Pro Patrick Cox championed Zoo as the strategy to play this weekend for its nearly unbeatable creature starts as well as its potent burn.
With Zoo, Cox says, "You get all the best cards, and don't have to really worry about the drawbacks too much. I mean, Wild Nacatl, three power on turn one is just too good of a rate."
"Now that Pod's gone, the decks with four Kitchen Finks and four Rhinos, and four ways to fetch them are gone." Cox continued that even though Zoo hasn't performed very well since the unbanning, that's part of what makes it good. People are under-preparing for it.
"I think [Abzan] players assume they have a good match against Zoo, but they really don't. With seven one-mana creatures [Noble Hierarch and Birds of Paradise] you can kill them before they really get started." There's a lot of truth to Cox's assertion. Liliana of the Veil is really underwhelming when there are three or four creatures on the board when it comes down.
Once you stop respecting a 3/3 for one mana, or a turn-two hexproof Angel-maker, you're gonna have a bad time.
There's a whole team of players here on infect. The Pantheon, many of the players usually skewing to control or combo, have almost all shifted to their newest member's baby. And that member deserves all the accolades for getting some of the best minds in the world to try and attack with Inkmoth Nexus. When I attempted to talk with Gaudenis Vidugiris about the deck, he simply said, "He finally convinced me on Thursday; you should talk to Tom."
Tom Ross, who until very recently was the most popular player not qualified for the Pro Tour, got himself back in the game and is on the deck he made famous—Infect.
It was Tom Ross, Infect aficionado and new member of the Pantheon, that convinced the rest of the team to learn to love poison counters.
Getting your little men in the there and poisoning people to death is certainly a solid strategy, but the deck hasn't gotten much clout in the last year. Why are the likes of Pro Tour Hall of Fame members No. 8 William Jensen and Jon Finkel on the deck?
"Well, it's faster than Storm; that's what got Jon on the deck," Ross said. As the Pro Tour approached, more and more on the team fell like dominoes onto the Infect plan when Ross kept beating them all in testing.
"It's the combo," Ross said. The combo he was referring to is Wild Defiance and Become Immense. The delve instant gives +6/+6, then the Wild Defiance trigger provides another +3/+3. Assuming the creature has a base power of 1, that's all the poison you need, all at instant speed in the combat step.
It's no surprise that you can see Ross parading around the Pro Tour seemingly in the middle of round, with his match slip long handed in. Sure, the deck is susceptible to removal, but that's what the Pantheon team hashed out together. Not to reveal too much of their tech on the first day, but they made sure their version of the deck could win in a variety of ways—even when they don't stick with that first-turn Glistener Elf or Inkmoth Nexus.
The proactive nature of Infect borders on non-interactivity because of "the combo," but if it's proactive is good enough for Huey Jensen, Owen Turtenwald, and Reid Duke, it's probably good enough for anyone.
Tied with Infect for the amount of players is another aggro-combo hybrid, Affinity. I know it's verboten to call Affinity "combo," as it really is just massive synergy, but if you've ever felt the power choosing whether your opponent takes 15 damage off an Ornithopter, or sacrificing your entire board to hit for 10 poison with Inkmoth Nexus, it sure feels like a combo.
Many pros are on the robotic plan this weekend. To no one's surprise, both Alex Majlaton and Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Frank Karsten are both sleeving up the zero-costers, but so are Matthew Sperling and Pro Tour Hall of Fame member No. 14 Paul Rietzl. However, Sperling and Rietzl's build is more akin to the metalcraft deck of days of yore than what Modern Affinity has recently looked like.
"Because I know Affinity, our testing plan was to test everything else, then test Affinity." The pair knew they didn't want to play Abzan, so they tested a whole variety of decks. "Scapeshift, Zoo—"
"All kinds of Zoo," Sperling interjected.
"—before we really got to Affinity." Rietzl finished. But when they did, something interesting happened. They found Tempered Steel. Unlike cards that hate on the hate, Tempered Steel is a more proactive way to blank the hate cards. Instead of casting a Wear & Tear on a Stony Silence, why not just make it a do-nothing? Who needs activated abilities on your creatures when they are all +2/+2? And why try to hold back in the face of Pyroclasm or Anger of the Gods, when all your creatures are big enough to survive it?
This card, along with a few main deck Dispatch, changes the role of Affinity enough that even if you expected the deck, it won't play like you think it would. This was important for both Sperling and Rietzl when it came to playing proactive match-ups.
Both Hall of Famer Paul Rietzl and Matthew Sperling sleeved up a unique take on Affinity this weekend.
"Zoo is very expected. And if Abzan tunes to beat Zoo, you just can't beat it," Rietzl said.
"If everybody knows something about the format, you usually don't want to be doing that something," Sperling added.
A proactive strategy with a twist or an important tweak is also a good way to attack such an open metagame.
I know I've referred to some of these decks as "aggro/combo" decks, but when you want the closest thing to a combo deck, and you can't just play combo, Burn is your friend. This is exactly what players like two-time World Champion No. 4 Shahar Shenhar, Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, No. 6 Lee Shi Tian, Chris Fennell, Eugene Hwang, and Ross Merrriam all thought.
Each person I talked to agreed that in a diverse metagame. You want to be "as proactive as possible." Often for Shenhar, this means some dirty combo deck. But he explained further. "Once we figured out there was no broken combo out there—there was no real reason to play combo.
“Affinity is too explosive and too inconsistent," he continued. "[Zoo was] worse against Abzan, and that's the biggest deck you're trying to beat."
It was little surprise to see Shahar Shenhar playing Burn, and for good reason.
He and Damo da Rosa settled on Burn because of how good the match-up was about Abzan. "It blanks all of their best cards and removal spells." Though Lee Shi Tian was openly ambivalent on Twitter concerning the deck, he conceded that it was "a good metagame call," and his team was having good success with it.
An additional benefit of playing Burn this weekend, is that, among the proactive decks, it's usually also the fastest. As Shenhar said, "I can just goldfish faster than any of the other decks, and most of the burn can double as removal post-board if I need it to."
There's no doubt proactive strategies are the way most players here have chosen to go—even over Abzan. In a diverse metagame, being proactive is rewarded. Though there's little doubt Abzan has the best pool of cards, which 75 you pick will severely change your weekend. If you need to choose fifteen cards when you want forty for the sideboard, really your wins and losses may end up more variant than you'd like.
Though we're likely to see an Abzan place in the Top 8, if only for sheer numbers, the sideboard (and even the main deck) choices might just be luck of the draw, rather than a true comprehension of the metagame. Or else it'll be the Abzan deck that realized that the most played archetypes will be the aggressive ones, and loaded up for that match.
Because there's lots of proactive strategies here this weekend, and for good reason.