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Ain’t No Hangarback Girl

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Standard

I’m going to let you in on a secret: I’ve never liked Hangarback Walker. That’s not to say I don’t think it should have been printed, just that I personally dislike the card. Sure, from a design perspective, it’s pretty cool. It has low power and toughness for its cost, but comes with resilience and the ability to grow over time. Still, there are ways to prevent its dies trigger with exile effects or by answering the tokens once they come into play (although Bile Blight and Doomwake Giant are rotating, Silumgar, the Drifting Death is still in the format). So on paper, it’s a balanced card that makes the “if it would die, exile it instead” text on a bunch of spells relevant, but things aren’t so simple in practice. The format is at a place where almost every deck wants to play Hangarback, and because it’s colorless every deck actually can. The fact that Hangarback is colorless turns it from a well-designed role-player into an automatic 4-of in a ton of decks, which contributes to the format being stale. Even though we have more rotation in the first place slot currently than we’ve had for a long time, the top 8 and top 16 of big Standard tournaments are clogged with the much-revered Thopter Daddy.

Why is this a bad thing? Sure, Hangarback Walker is powerful and versatile, but it’s not blatantly overpowered and it doesn’t have any tremendously problematic synergies. It encourages more precise decision-making and provides more relevant lines of play, which is good, right? Sure, all of that is good. The reason Hangarback Walker isn’t absolutely terrible for Standard is the same reason Brainstorm isn’t absolutely terrible for Legacy: it’s a card every deck wants to run and it’s very good, but it makes games more decision-intensive. And yes, part of the reason I don’t like Hangarback Walker has nothing to do with its impact on a game of Magic, but rather is due to the fact that seeing it everywhere is just plain annoying. Really mature of me, I know, but it’s true.

Now here’s the controversial part: the reason I don’t think Hangarback should be banned or should never have been printed is that it’s not actually that good. In fact, I don’t think it should be in the best deck people have been playing it in: Abzan Aggro.

Don’t get me wrong; I think Hangarback Walker is fine when you run it with a full set of Den Protectors and a full set of Siege Rhinos. But Warden of the First Tree doesn’t belong in that deck, and calling it Aggro is a misnomer. It’s a proactive midrange deck that happens to be on the more aggressive side of the midrange spectrum but still wants to play a more tempo-based game. Is that splitting hairs? I don’t think so. I think it’s an important distinction. The deck I played at the SCG Invitational last month in New Jersey? That was Abzan Aggro. The deck I won a PPTQ with three weeks ago? That was Abzan Aggro. The deck Fabrizio Anteri won Grand Prix London with? That was not, nor will ever be, Abzan Aggro.

With that said, I want to discuss the future of Abzan Aggro after Battle for Zendikar releases. Even if we continue to play Rakshas Deathdealer, we need another 2-drop to replace Fleecemane Lion. Hangarback Walker is strong in the deck, and it’s a good fit with another 3-drop worth considering: Drana, Liberator of Malakir. But Hangarback isn’t the most aggressive of creatures, and I really don’t like having to play Den Protector with it. I want to play an aggro deck, not durdle around with 2-mana Doomed Travelers and 5-mana Eternal Witnesses. As for Drana, including her is definitely possible, but I don’t like having to hit two black sources on turn 3 without Urborg or Mana Confluence in the format anymore.

So what are our options at the 2-mana slot? Well, as far as I can see, there are two main ones: Snapping Gnarlid and Undercity Troll. Let’s compare them.

Undercity Troll is unimpressive until he connects, at which point he’s a little bit of a powerhouse. Paying 2 mana for a 3/3 that can regenerate is really sweet, even if it takes a turn for him to become a 3/3. However, it doesn’t attack well into cards like Knight of the White Orchid, Hangarback Walker, or Warden of the First Tree. In addition, the Troll is pretty bad at fighting with Dromoka’s Command until it levels up. In contrast, Snapping Gnarlid is great at attacking and great at fighting with Dromoka’s Command, but is somewhat vulnerable to removal and doesn’t give us a mana sink going late. In addition, Snapping Gnarlid’s competitiveness really depends on how many lands we want to play and how many of those lands we want to be fetches.

I’m going to run Snapping Gnarlid, but the cards that made the decision for me might surprise you: they’re Shambling Vent and Smoldering Marsh. I want to run the full 4 copies of the creature* land because it’s just that good. Sure, it’s no Stirring Wildwood, but it doesn’t have to be, and having Lifelink is much more powerful than having Reach, especially once you factor in Dromoka’s Command. What running all four copies does is make me also want to run a full 26 lands, seeing as some of them turn into creatures.

*Please don’t say “manland” anymore. It’s kind of sexist, even though I’m sure you don’t mean it that way.

What Smoldering Marsh does is make me want to run Wooded Foothills. If you haven’t heard about this particular interaction yet, Wooded Foothills can fetch either Canopy Vista (which is a Forest) or Smoldering Marsh (which is a Mountain), so it can actually fetch any of our colors. And running Wooded Foothills means I want to run between 6 and 8 fetch lands, making Snapping Gnarlid better than if I were just to run 4 Windswept Heaths.

To round out the creature suite, I want to try out a few Undergrowth Champions. The card seems great with Dromoka’s Command, Abzan Charm, and Anafenza, and we’re already running 6 fetchlands. I think it could possibly get out of hand incredibly quickly, and unlike Managorger Hydra, it’s fine if we start to flood out. Three copies of Champion seems fine.

So we’re running 23 creatures and 26 lands, which leaves 11 slots for interactive spells. We’re definitely running 4 Dromoka’s Command and 4 Abzan Charm, as they’re just the most powerful and versatile options. I can’t see a reason to go without a singleton Murderous Cut, as it’s incredibly easy to cast and hits any creature that can be targeted. That leaves 2 more spots. I know Brad Nelson has been advocating Reave Soul, but that card seems a bit awkward to me. It’s certainly worth testing, but I doubt it’s better than the other options. I’m reticent about playing Ultimate Price after Theros rotates because Khans has so many multicolor creatures and Battle has so many colorless ones. I didn’t even maindeck Ultimate Price at the Invitational or the PPTQ. Self-Inflicted Wound could be fine, but Devoid is still a thing and I’m not sure what the format will shape up to look like. I definitely like Valorous Stance, but it’s pretty conditional so I’m not sure I want more than one copy. A second Murderous Cut is possible, as well as a Reave Soul, and something like Silkwrap is worth consideration because it exiles. I’ll probably start with the second Valorous Stance and see how the format develops.

Here’s the final list:

The sideboard will be tremendously dependent on the metagame, so I don’t have a whole lot for you right now, but here are the cards on my mind for it:

I don’t like discard because I want my opponents not to have time to cast all their cards over the course of the game. None of the cards from Battle for Zendikar really impress me in terms of their sideboard potential; they all seem to be outclassed by Khans cards.

If you decide to play this list, or if you have any questions about it, let me know in the comments or find me on Twitter or Facebook. I’m always happy to discuss Magic with anyone!

Casper Mulholland

@CasperZML on Twitter

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