If there's any clan coming into Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir with a chip on its shoulder, it's the gritty Abzan crew. Even before any major Standard-format tournament had been played, people recognized the consistent power of the white, black, and green in the set. There are few better examples of "creature-creep" than something like Siege Rhino. A 4/5 for four mana that drains three life makes Loxodon Hierarch shiver in its boots, while a Ravenous Baloth hides behind it. Plus, it has a bigger nose horn than any of them.
But just how well-known is the power of Siege Rhino in this format? When talking to new Hall of Fame inductee Paul Rietzl, he was only willing to mention one card specifically when discussing the new Standard metagame with me: Siege Rhino.
It stops things like Brimaz, King of Oreskos cold. It gives control a real clock to stop. And for burn decks, the first Rhino makes the climb steeper, and the second pushes the boulder back down the mountain.
Martin Juza, Frank Karsten, and Matej Zatlkaj, all members of the "Cabin Crew" (formerly Team Lost in the Woods; sometimes referred to obliquely as "Team Central Europe"), settled on some version of this deck. When I sat down as they dished over the last few card choices, Karsten looked at me and shrugged, "We didn't break the format."
And that's a bit how this deck feels. It's got good, even great cards for sure, but it's a known entity. The flip-side of that is the familiarity in consistency. "You need to know what to expect from your cards; when you cast Murderous Cut, you know what you're getting," Karsten said. He was applying this toward the group's discussion of Sorin, Solemn Visitor, but it can apply equally well to the Abzan Midrange deck. If you know what you're getting when you play it, it's easier to plan accordingly.
When you play Murderous Cut and many like it in your deck, you know what you're getting: a great rate on a powerful and efficient card.
Fleecemane Lion and Courser of Kruphix are known for sure, but they are still value machines. There are worse things you can be doing in the format than getting super-awesome value. And that's what people are discovering about the new flying value machine, Wingmate Roc. More and more versions of this deck go up to four of these and don't look back. The group expounded a bit saying, "Elspeth does nothing in this format." A top end of Wingmate Roc keeps the pressure on hard, and gains you life while pressuring. Welcome to value town, population birds. You see, it's a bird town.
There are a few other versions of Abzan going around the Constructed tables here—a couple aggressive builds with Herald of Torment, an enchantment-based build, and a Delve build with Whip of Erebos—but they are unproven entities compared with the raw power of the value creatures and stellar removal (Utter End is the best Vindicate we've had in Standard since, well, Vindicate). Abzan Midrange will be a deck you can bring anywhere during this season, and you'll be doing just fine, which might not be true of the others.
On the Limited side of things, Abzan benefits from a mechanic that isn't likely to be seen too much outside of the draft tables—with the outside chance of Herald of Anafenza—Outlast. Though the ability taps your creature for the turn, you get big dividends. Taking a couple points of damage from an opposing attacker is a small price to pay when you realize that your creature gets big enough to stop, or even kill that attacker next turn. When you look at cards like Abzan Falconer, that provides flying to creatures with +1/+1 counters, and Tuskguard Captain, giving trample to the same, it's easy to see the same value from constructed in limited as well.
Those two cards are the ones that Hall of Fame legend Jon Finkel told me when he chatted about Abzan in Limited. Those are the cards he's looking to get, get in multiples, and will be a good sign that his strategy would work. He had just gone 3-0 in the first draft pod, and I asked him why someone would want to draft Abzan, other than the absurd value, of course. But for that exact reason, Finkel was skeptical about the colors at all and reversed my course.
"Abzan is usually a trap. Because Black-Green is over-drafted, and your mono-colored rares aren't very good," he continued that you will often wind up with a deck less powerful than the cards should seem. It's an interesting take because the conventional wisdom up to this point has been, "take an enemy color to stay open, and see what clan is wheeling." However Finkel seems to have gotten past this point, saying there are even "stay-open colors" that are too popular. Unlike in Constructed, where there are endless copies of Jungle Hollows and Ainok Bond-Kin, that's not so at the draft tables. And if too many people want them, someone's going to get the short shrift.
While Hall of Famer Jon Finkel did 3-0 his draft with Abzan, he was quick to warn of the dangers of drafting the clan due to the popularity of black-green as a color combination.
But others have pivoted away from that while remaining the Abzan colors, as the colors can poach some other clan's cards for its own benefits. Not only do cards like Incremental Growth work well, but the Temur-aligned Heir of the Wilds (who's been appearing in more than a few Standard decks here) is a no-diggity-doubt great two-drop in Abzan as well. And don't think Abzan mages won't be gobbling up every great delve card they can find in black. Sultai Scavenger can provide some much needed evasion to the sometimes-light clan.
Finkel said the advantages of drafting the colors is you have access to one of the best commons in the format—Debilitating Injury. Sometimes it can be hard to grab, but if you can get your Abzan-y paws on a couple copies, the killing of 2/2 morphs, and the crippling of 5/5 unmorphs will be great fun.
In Constructed and Limited alike, Abzan is the value color—and its value is evident on its face and, thus, well known. This bodes well for Constructed, where players can settle into a deck, get to know its ins and outs while remaining confident that they metagame won't shift away from it. Because undercosted value creatures, broad removal, and cheap hand destruction rarely goes out of fashion.
And though the same is true for Limited, because of the, well, limited nature of the format, some pros, or at least Jon Finkel, feels it can lead you into avenues you can't recover from. Those are big words coming from the guy who first-picked a Rakshasa Deathdealer and went 3-0. But then again, it's Finkel, he could've 3-0'ed with a deck full of Archers' Parapets. Although, now that I mention it, there have been some five-Parapet decks floating around draft, and I've seen them slaughter some people one life at time. It was sad, really.
Though the flavor of the Abzan clan is nomadic, the cards provide a strong familiarity and home-iness. You need to know what you're going to get from your cards, as Karsten said. So feel safe, comforted, and at home in the fact that smashing face with a giant rhino will always be sweet as all get-out.