Last week I dove into the Sultai clan of the new Khans of Tarkir set because they were being heavily overlooked in favor of the more in your face Mardu and Temur strategies. This week I will be doing the opposite. Whereas the Sultai article could be seen as a hipster going against the grain, today we are going to be jumping on the Abzan bandwagon…kind of. I have found Abzan to be by far the most common matchup I have been facing in testing this week with both control and midrange options appearing in equal number. We all know Siege Rhino is a great card, and the union of green creature strategies with the flexibility of white and the fantastic removal options in black has already found success in the Junk builds of yore.
Anyone can build an Abzan deck with green, black, and white cards, and many already have. I instead set out to build a competitive Abzan deck while only using one color of mana.
There are several advantages to this strategy. First, the mana base of a mono colored deck is far more cooperative than that of a multi-colored deck. It is easier to fix your mana when you only need one color. Second, as we learned last season, devotion can play a huge factor. While there are cards that actively use devotion as part of their mechanics (Master of Waves and Gray Merchant for example), the sheer ability to be able to ramp your mana with Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx is a huge advantage. Three, often when building a three color deck one is trying to do way to much and shoehorn fringe strategies together. Mono-colored decks naturally have a more limited scope which is naturally synergistic because a higher percentage of the cards will share the strengths of the deck’s color.
I chose to build my mono-colored deck in white, the color that was often viewed as the weakest devotion deck during the last year. I like white on its own because it offers some of standard’s most efficient removal in the form of exile-based enchantments, easily can acquire tokens to make creatures bigger and thus more relevant in long games, and has abundant lifelink sources to combat aggressive strategies.
This choice also is strong from a specific Abzan point of view. The clan mechanic for Abzan is Outlast. For a certain mana cost a creature can be tapped and receive a +1/+1 token. Most Outlast creatures also have a static ability which gives an ability such as flying to any other creatures of yours with a +1/+1 counter on them. The majority of the Outlast cards are in white which is great for this build. While the previews were going on I blew off the Outlast cards as being strictly for limited, identifying them as too slow for standard and essentially being inferior slivers. Or at least I thought that until I reread a card that truly inspired this deck.
High Sentinels of Arashin is an outrageous Magic card. It has evade, is not far off the power curve, easily gets bigger, and has an ability which is both relevant to the game on any turn and is a great place to keep using many as the game goes on. The Sentinels get an extra power and toughness for each other creature with a counter on it. With this card in an Outlast deck we are trying to build a critical mass of unique abilities for my creatures to share with one another and to build a mass of creatures with counters on them to pump the Sentinels into a huge offensive threat.
What are the Outlast creatures who will be receiving these tokens?
Starting toward the bottom of the curve is Ainok Bond-Kin who provides the team with first strike. Of all our Outlast team, he is the biggest liability due to only having one toughness, but this becomes much less of an issue once first strike is brought into play. Next is Abzan Falconer, whose flying ability is really able to take our army over the top. Falconer is a a pretty key member of the team though as midrange decks easily can clog the board with blockers, so granting evade to other creatures is a pretty big boon. The top of the curve in regards to Outlast is Abzan Battle Priest. I recognize that I am a huge fan of lifelink, more so than most, but I really feel that with such a huge portion of the meta currently being aggro based, and with burn and counter-burn both being present threats the ability to gain life takes the life right out of their sails. Even against many midrange deck it totally changes the dynamics of combat in such a way that even sacrificial blocks and bluffed attacks always yield multiple positive results.
It is worth nothing that I am intentionally choosing Soldier of the Pantheon over Herald of Anafenza as the bottom of my curve. While the Herald does have the Outlast ability, it does not have an anthem gifting of an ability keyword like the others, instead creating a 1/1 token. Not only does this not fit with the theme of the deck very well, but Herald’s Outlast ability is also expensive compared to the other creatures in the deck. Meanwhile, Soldier of the Pantheon has protection from multicolor. This is huge in a set that so heavily features multicolored cards. You may be nodding your head, seeing that this makes sense on paper, but I honestly have won multiple games simply because opponents had literally nothing in their deck that could block Soldier. I think an argument could be made for lowering the curve a bit, and I could see adding Favored Hoplite to replace the Wingmate Rocs. Whereas Herald does not fit with the theme of the deck, Hoplite has numerous ways to have his counter ability trigger.
Outwit and Outlast
Ajani Steadfast was not a card I was excited for when it was spoiled, in fact, I have never been a big supporter of any of the various Ajani printings. Then I started playing with him in my early testing. I added a second copy to the deck and then a third. Throwing Ajani down on turn five after curving out four creatures and then dropping his -2 to give everyone a counter is essentially a winning board state, it feels good. Ajani Steadfast also has a certain flexibility in regards to his +1, specifically in regards to granting lifelink in situations where the Battle Priest is not present.
The rest of the spells are primarily a removal suite, four each of Suspension Field and Banishing Light for taking out big creatures and planeswalkers. The one Gods Willing is more of a flex spot that can be adjusted for whatever the meta is requiring of the deck.
The sideboard to me at least looks peculiar, but has served me well. Aegis of the Gods is there not only for a world of burn, but actually more so for the slow rise of discard decks (Waste Not combed with Liliana and the four standard legal discard spells). Ajani’s Presence comes out against removal heavy decks while Reprisal comes out against beefy creature builds like Mono-Green devotion and Temur. Wall of Essence is a criminally underused card. It shuts down aggro decks not only blocking, but forcing them to not attack or utilize their burn spells there rather than at your face. It also is fantastic against Mono-Green devotion, essentially giving you a time walk against even the biggest of monstrous Polukranos. Nyx-Fleece Ram serves a similar role in stonewalling aggressive decks. Elspeth is in the sideboard because…I mean, why wouldn’t you want access to her? Throwing down 1/1 blockers gives you the protection you need to build up your team and her ability to destroy all creatures with power four or greater neuters most midrange decks.
I encourage you to test this deck as it not only has game in any matchup, but is a ton of fun to play. In the event that you would like to harness the full power of the Abzan, this is the three color deck I would play.
No Fleecemane Lion. No Hero’s Downfall. We are moving away from the “jam the best cards in the deck” style three color builds we have been seeing get played to focus more on what the Abzan clan specializes in. I can’t fully claim originality, the ever present Courser of Krufix and Sylvan Caryatid combo is in the deck, but it ramps us smoothly into our real goal, +1/+1 counters and flying white creatures.
Abzan Ascendancy is a great boon to a deck like this. First, coming into play it acts the same as Ajani Steadfast’s -2, granting tokens for all my creatures. It remains useful though as protection from board sweepers, turning your dead creatures into a 1/1 flyer. In a deck with multiple ways to give counters, these flyers quickly become relevant in damage races.
Rather than Ajani Steadfast, this deck uses Ajani, Mentor of Heroes. His +1 token activation is a more flexible version of Steadfast’s -2, allowing you to pick how the three tokens are allocated. Sometimes you need to boost three separate creatures to give them all flying or to boost the High Sentinels. Other times you need to make one blocker who is big enough to deal with the out of control Sagu Mauler on your doorstep. Ajani, Mentor of Heroes gives you those kinds of options.
I hope you enjoy these builds, don’t be afraid to go even deeper into the Abzan rabbit hole, because let me tell you (and I plan to in a coming article), there is a lot more shenanigans available in the old Junk colors than just what you read here.
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