Abzan Control At GP Providence: 41st

Hot off of a ninth-place finish at Grand Prix Charlotte, Patrick “The Innovator” Chapin decided to chase Grand Prix success one more time in Providence with his trusty Abzan Control deck.

Since I am apparently a person that goes to GPs again, I flew to Providence this weekend. Anything for another chance to scry 1!

Actually, to say that I flew to Providence isn’t totally fair, as I only made it as far as Chicago before the final leg of my flight was canceled. Whatever would have possessed me to book on United Airlines, I do not know. It’s not Spirit Airlines, but United is not good.

What would you imagine a major airline like United would do if they cancel a flight due to “not having enough functioning planes?” You might guess they’d book me on another flight. Of course, that’d be too much like the correct thing for them to do…

Instead, I was told there are no flights to Providence that aren’t sold out. The soonest they can get me in is 9pm Saturday, which super not gonna work for me. After waiting an hour, I was finally able to talk with someone that could and would put me on a plane to Boston. At least that way, I could take a train the rest of the way.

Of course, the kicker is that I could have flown to Boston for half the price as my Providence flight if I had known that United was going to be short on “functioning planes.”

So eventually I made it to Providence, although by the time I got in it was well past midnight and there was no playtesting to be had. Here’s the Abzan Control deck I put together, based on conversations with Team Ultra Pro and just keeping up with recent trends:

With no time to test, I knew I wanted to play an Elspeth-based Abzan deck. Time had proven Den Protector was just too amazing not to play. I understand why some people play only three, as it can be pretty slow, but I was very happy with the full playset. There is actually a lot more to it than meets the eye.

Den Protector is generally at least a two-for-one. The 3/2 evasion body is very relevant, and is especially good at sneaking past Elspeth tokens or becoming totally unblockable when combined with Abzan Charm. Regrowth, on the other hand, is worth a fair bit more than “a card.” You can get back Abzan Charm, Elspeth, or another Den Protector!

What I hadn’t considered when making this list was just how great Satyr Wayfinder would prove to be at stocking my graveyard, improving the choices Den Protector offered me. Each Wayfinder gives you four more chances of finding an End Hostilities, an Elspeth, a Hero’s Downfall or whatever it is you really need your Den Protector to get you. Moving forward, I’m looking to make room for a third.

With twenty-five lands and three Wayfinders, we are talking about a lot of mana. Flooding is a realistic concern, but I think the heavy use of Den Protector mitigates this more than people realize. Den Protector scales proportionate to your mana. It’s not just the frequency at which Den Protector finds stuff like Abzan Charm, Elspeth, or other Den Protectors that tend to be two-for-ones themselves, making it a three-for-one or more. It’s also just that as you draw more mana with your Den Protector deck, you tend to get back more expensive of cards that have a bigger impact on the game, giving you more and better options.

The difference between playing 24 and 25 actual land in Abzan is not as big as it would be in a deck without eight Temples and other supplemental card draw (Abzan Charm, Den Protector getting back Windswept Heath). Sometimes you draw the card that was the 25th land and scry a land to the bottom, whereas if that card had been the 36th spell you would have just scryed that land to the top.

However, the reason I like playing the high side, rather than the low side, for my land count here is twofold. To begin with, our options during the first several turns are largely defined by what lands we have available to us. Being slightly flooded gives us far more options than being slightly screwed.

Second, and perhaps less appreciated by most, is the value of being able to sideboard out a land. When I play Abzan, I typically want one more land in my deck on the play than on the draw against most opponents. Playing a land in the sideboard would replace the 15th best sideboard card, whereas playing an extra land in the maindeck only replaces the 36th best maindeck card.

In general, I find Abzan’s sideboard cards to be better than its filler maindeck cards. Every single sideboard card is awesome in the right matchups while the last few maindeck cards are typically just sideboard cards you’ve put in the maindeck that are often facing the wrong matchups, and you’re just trying to do something with them.

Besides, I’d rather have one too many land in my deck for games I’m on the draw than one too few on the play. The advantage of being on the play dissipates quickly if you miss land drops while the disadvantage of being flooded isn’t as painful when you’re on the draw.

What land to cut? Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth is a common choice against slow decks. Forest, Llanowar Wastes, and Caves of Koilos are all defensible, as is Satyr Wayfinder. Also, it is not necessary to cut a land. It’s way better to play an extra land than a mediocre card. For instance, against red decks, it is absolutely vital to not stumble on mana, so I don’t cut any mana despite the fact that I am bringing my curve down.

On the other hand, any matchups where I am getting Thoughtseized typically become attrition-y enough to want to shave a mana (Mono-Black Aggro would be an exception if you ever faced it, though I do typically cut a land against Abzan Aggro when I am on the draw).

While Den Protector is typically functionally a three-for-one (or two-for-one with selection), it has another very important function. It is a totally playable two-drop. The real reason Den Protector is arguably the best card in Dragons of Tarkir (and it’s certainly in the top three) is its flexibility. Against red decks, Abzan’s cards are so much stronger that all you want is something to do with your mana each turn. If you can survive the first five turns, things tend to get better and better for you. Casting a Den Protector on turn two isn’t amazing or anything, but just trading with a one-drop or with a Lightning Strike (and their two mana) is a big help.

Imagine how much better Jace’s Ingenuity would be if you could also just play it as a 2/1 for 1U, not to mention playing it as a three-mana 2/2 that lets you spend two mana later to draw two cards!

I had Deathmist Raptors in my initial list, but it’s so popular I suspected the format was going to swing very anti-Raptor, a suspicion that proved to be well-founded as I faced no less than three maindeck Anger of the Gods and several other opponents with strategies that fundamentally outclass Deathmist Raptor.

Besides, Deathmist Raptor costs three and Abzan has far more amazing three-drops available to it than it can possibly play. Having a good mana curve is important, and four Courser, four Downfall, four Charms and a Read the Bones is a lot – and that’s not even counting Den Protector.

That said, having zero Deathmist Raptors made it easier for my opponents to interact with my morphs. Additionally, it’s not like Deathmist Raptor would be “bad” as a random creature. It’s particularly amazing against Red Aggro and Abzan Aggro, two matchups I have shaved some percentage against and which I expect to be more popular next weekend. Just as playing one or two Fleecemane Lions is an option to help round out the curve, so too is playing one or two Deathmist Raptors, to add a little versatility and an extra angle of attack.

Most people that don’t use Deathmist Raptor use Fleecemane Lion as an early blocker that would also be a threat against opponents without cheap creatures. I love the card, without question, but a lot of the same cards that matchup well against Deathmist Raptor or go over the top of it also trump Fleecemane Lion. Besides, when everyone plays Anger of the Gods, Draconic Roar, Lightning Strike, and Foul-Tongued Invocation, Satyr Wayfinder starts looking extra sweet…

Anger of the Gods? Draconic Roar? Lightning Strike? Foul-Tongued Invocation?

I expected Mardu Dragons to be one of the most popular decks (along with Abzan, Green Devotion, and Esper Dragons), but going into the tournament didn’t have enough experience with the matchup to know how best to fight it. After facing it five times in the tournament, it feels like a slightly favorable matchup for Abzan. I don’t think major changes are needed, but I would like a second Ultimate Price. It’s also important to sideboard in the Dromoka’s Commands. A random Outpost Siege is an easy way to lose a game outright, and the ability to stop a burn spell is generally useful enough to be worth a card (stopping both sides of a Roar or all of an Anger).

I decided to maindeck a copy of Ugin to get some serious edge against the mirror and Green Devotion, which were the two most popular decks, but it’s just so slow… it really should move back to the sideboard. End Hostilities is still a very real plan against Green Devotion anyway, and that matchup felt quite good for Abzan when you have this many sweepers, this much good removal, and this much Elspeth/Ugin.

As for the mirror, Ugin would be great but I don’t think it adds enough to be worth having to draw it in other matchups. You can live without it, and against a fast deck, its power is not well-utilized since you are usually already winning if you live long enough to cast an Ugin.

End Hostilities, on the other hand, was the perfect call. Having two copies maindeck radically changed the Green Devotion matchup, but it was also a fine card against Abzan Aggro, Mardu Dragons, and Mardu Aggro. I am also glad I played End Hostilities over Crux of Fate because of Dragonlord Atarka + tons of green creatures, as well as Stormbreath Dragon/Thunderbreak Regent + Soulfire Grand Master/Goblin Rabblemaster. Dragonlord Ojutai wasn’t that big of a deal, anyway. Self-Inflicted Wound + Elspeth + Thoughtseize go a long way.

This is just classic trick of putting a sideboard card in the maindeck to save space, but I think this was probably the wrong one (though it was still fine). Instead, I think I’d rather have an Ultimate Price. We really should get the curve to a place with nine two-drops if possible – eight at minimum – in order to better ensure we come out reasonably fast against aggro. Besides, with Warden of the First Tree and Wingmate Roc as popular as they are, it’s totally fine to draw one against Abzan Aggro. It sucks against control, of course, but we do get points against red, Green Devotion, and Mardu.

As for the tournament itself, my first round was the first of five Mardu decks I would face. Eventually I reached a position where I had Siege Rhino and two Soldier tokens to my opponent’s tapped Stormbreath Dragon and untapped Seeker of the Way. I was at 13 with a Wayfinder and Hostilities in hand, versus his 7 life and no hand. I had ten lands to his eight.

With just two minutes on the clock, I had to decide relatively quickly. I could either attack with just the Rhino (and either cast the Wayfinder or not), or I could swing with the whole team and follow up with End into Wayfinder. If I swing with just the Rhino, he can monstrous his Dragon (dealing one or two if he wants to attack with the Dragon, two or three if he does it on my draw step). The nightmare scenario would be if he drew one of his at least two Murderous Cuts, letting him attack with the Seeker and get to Monstrous his Dragon as well.

Even Crackling Doom is pretty annoying, letting him kill the Rhino, attack with both, and go back up to six. If I block the Seeker, I’m still at seven and probably have to End next turn.

The real problem with not casting End, however, was that he could just keep his Dragon and Seeker home. Now, I’m not making progress and he gets to Monstrous the Dragon. Then, I kind of have to End, anyway (only getting one damage in from my attack, which only ties the extra damage I could have gotten from the previous turn), while taking two or three damage from the Dragon and possibly losing the Wayfinder. If I don’t End at that point, there are lots of cards he can draw to kill me outright even if he drew land on the previous turn.

So I decided to attack with the team, leaving him at two. Then I cast End Hostilities and am up a Satyr Wayfinder and a fair chunk of life. Unfortunately, he drew three Dragons in a row, and I ended up losing exactly zero life to one. I am still not sure if I made the right play or not, but as the cards fell, waiting a turn would have been a winning line. It can be super hard to tell whether you made a slightly wrong play and lost because of it, or if you made a slightly right play and lost because of it.

My second round was against Abzan Aggro and proved even more gut-wrenching than the previous loss. I took the first game, but I was behind in game two. I had dealt with his Lion and Deathdealer, but he was beating me down with three Coursers. I had finally drawn out of my mana problems, however, and was making a game of it.

On one of his turns, he drew his top card while he had no cards in his hand, and as soon as he drew that card he looked at his top card and drew it as well. He had obviously seen it was a land and it was easy to prove what card it was, because of Courser. This situation is so obvious, it would normally not even warrant a judge call.

However, recent events have made it clear that the rules surrounding “drawing extra cards” are not well-written and inconsistently enforced with extremely disruptive results. I hoped I would be ruled against, but if this situation was appreciably different than the one in Brussels I wanted to know if it was because of him starting with no cards in hand, whether the difference was from being on camera or not, or if it was based on the specific head judge.

I did not know it at the time, but the head judge at this event was the exact judge that made the original ruling against me, when I was on the other side. I guess that makes it a better experiment, as that is one less variable.

It’s a messy situation, without question. To begin with, did the cards “touch?” Now, I know they did, as I am the one that pointed out to my opponent that he had drawn an extra card. However, I am very sure my opponent was not lying when he said he wasn’t sure if they did or not. Lying requires intent to deceive, and I am sure he didn’t consider himself to have drawn the second card. They physically touched, but that’s not the same as physically holding both cards with one hand.

My opponent got extremely upset about the situation, and I don’t blame him. It’s not even about the possibility of getting such an unsatisfactory ruling that needlessly ruins an easily repairable game. The head judge didn’t even get a chance to decide his ruling, before the opponent started scooping up his cards, saying, “If you want to win this bad, you can have it. I won’t be called a liar.”

I tried stopping him, insisting that wasn’t the accusation at all, and that wasn’t what this was about at all. There is a problem with the rules that needs to be fixed. However, he had already made up his mind, and while it was certainly not my intent to offend him, I understand how he feels.

Feeling like you’ve been accused of lying when you know you weren’t is extremely offensive, and the other party insisting they are not accusing that is not always a consolation if the situation has already offended you. I tried explaining that I did not want him to get a game loss, and not to concede. “I just want information to help fix a problem with the rules,” I started to explain; however, he made clear that he didn’t want to talk about it.

I hate being misunderstood and I desperately wanted to explain, but it would have been selfish to press the issue further as it was obviously something he just wanted to be away from. The only thing I could still do was apologize for any of my words and actions that had been offensive, as it was never my intent to disrespect him, and let him go. Regardless of my intentions or meta-considerations about improving the game, this was certainly far more painful than any of the losses.

The real problem with the “drawing extra cards” penalty provision is that the head judge has to choose between warning and game loss. Those are pretty extreme ends of the spectrum, and if those are the only tools available we should be looking to fix game states that are easily corrected. It’s not an easy problem, but we can and should do better. There is also a strange inconsistency where spectators seeing something can tell a judge, except that if the match is a feature match, with thousands of witnesses, they are silenced.

I ended the day at 7-2, with my other loss coming to Abzan Aggro. Mulligans and manascrew would have made it uninteresting, except for a particular turn in game three. My opponent had two Siege Rhinos and a Lion (with four mana and one or no cards in hand). I had a Siege Rhino and six cards in hand, including a Sandsteppe Citadel I could play as my fifth land, but I was way behind in life after a bazillion Rhinos in a row.

I had to decide between Courser of Kruphix and Hero’s Downfall. If I play the Courser, I might hit a land on top, but I go up to eight regardless. The problem is that if he has an untapped land, I have to chump with the Courser and my Rhino doesn’t get to eat anything. That leaves me at four and needing to draw an untapped land, a Rhino, or a Cut to survive (and if I play the Courser and my top card isn’t a land…).

Instead, I would just Downfall a Rhino the way I have Abzan Charmed creatures over the past couple turns. If he has a land, I live and now only need one play to survive, so I don’t need to draw anything. If he draws a creature, I eat the Lion and am still only one play away.

Unfortunately, I had the rare “total brain fart.” Sandsteppe Citadel was my second black. The previous two turns of Abzan Charms were possible because they only need one black. Now, I’m just dead on board. There’s nothing to even bluff.

He did have the fifth land, and I was definitely going to be a pretty big dog if I had played the Courser (I would guess 20/80); but if you’re not careful, such a clear-cut, purely bad mental lapse like this can be tilt-inducing. I finished last weekend 13-2 and didn’t even make Top Eight. Here I was 4-2, and in a tournament where tiebreakers don’t reset.

I went for a walk, pulled myself together, and refocused on the objective. GP Providence was small enough that 12-2-1 had chances, and even if I was just grinding out a min-finish, every point helps. I’ve got plenty of empty slots, and I didn’t fly all this way to give up.

I manage to win my next three rounds, including defeating PV piloting his trademark Esper Dragon deck. Unfortunately, I picked up two more losses the next day. One was against Mardu Dragons, flooding out in one game and losing to triple Outpost Siege in the other.

The other loss was against the new Jeskai deck that was all abuzz this weekend. It featured Dragonlord Ojutai, Ojutai’s Command, Soulfire Grand Master, Mantis Rider, and Stratus Dancer, plus it sideboards in Mastery of the Unseen. Our game one took a long time, and while I could establish control in game two I couldn’t deal the hundreds of damage I needed before time ran out.

With a final score of 11-4, I managed one Pro Point, which is progress, but I’m still going to need a big finish in Vancouver to get another chance at the World Championships. With 33 points, a Top Four finish should clinch a slot, but if I can pick up three points in Dallas, a Top Eight should be enough. If I mess around and Top Four the GP, I might be able to sneak in with a record of 12-4 at the PT (a good Top Sixteen). It’s going to be a challenge, no question, but that’s already four times as many slots as the qualifiers last year.

Moving forward, here’s my current build of Abzan Control:

I’m definitely not sure on the Hero’s Downfall vs Ultimate Price swap in the maindeck. I do want to try at least one Deathmist Raptor, though. Got to keep them guessing!

This list has only one Read the Bones and two copies of Duress instead of the other way around, which is the way you want it if you expect an increase in blue decks. However, if things break harder towards Abzan, we should go back the other way.

Sideboard Guide

VS Abzan Control


Bile Blight Ultimate Price End Hostilities End Hostilities Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth


Read the Bones Hero's Downfall Nissa, Worldwaker Nissa, Worldwaker Ugin, the Spirit Dragon

If they have Fleecemane Lion or Sylvan Caryatid, Self-Inflicted Wound is good, but you don’t want it against Satyr Wayfinder and Deathmist Raptor. I usually sideboard out a land on the draw; on the play, I am more likely to keep it in and shave something like Thoughtseize.

VS Abzan Aggro


Ultimate Price Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Courser of Kruphix


Self-Inflicted Wound Self-Inflicted Wound Bile Blight Hero's Downfall

On the draw, I will often shave a land, though don’t cut a Wayfinder as you need it to help protect you against Self-Inflicted Wound. Sideboarding in the third End Hostilities is also common, particularly if they show you a Warden of the First Tree in game one. If I think they are shifting big, it’s totally fine to play a Read the Bones. In fact, you can cut as much of that stuff as you feel is appropriate, sideboarding more like you do against Abzan Control.

VS G/R Devotion


Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Bile Blight Deathmist Raptor


Self-Inflicted Wound Self-Inflicted Wound Read the Bones Hero's Downfall End Hostilities Ugin, the Spirit Dragon

Satyr Wayfinder is such a worthless body here that it’s worth considering shaving, however it is a great way to look for Ugin.

VS Esper Dragons


Ultimate Price Bile Blight Murderous Cut End Hostilities End Hostilities


Duress Duress Self-Inflicted Wound Self-Inflicted Wound Read the Bones Nissa, Worldwaker Nissa, Worldwaker

On the play I am usually cutting at least one land, whereas on the draw I am often cutting two. Caves of Koilos, Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, and Forest are the weakest lands, while Satyr Wayfinder is needed for Foul-Tongued Invocation. It’s also totally defensible to replace one of the sideboard copies of Duress with an extra Bile Blight or some other anti-fast aggro card.

VS Mardu Dragons


Thoughtseize Abzan Charm Abzan Charm


Dromoka's Command Dromoka's Command Hero's Downfall

If you think they have a lot of Seeker of the Way/Soulfire Grand Master/Goblin Rabblemaster/Hordeling Outburst, bring in the second Bile Blight. If you think they are pure control, you can cut the maindeck Bile Blight for another Abzan Charm. Additionally, if you are on the draw, you probably want the second Bile Blight instead of a Forest. If you are on the play, you may also want to keep a third Abzan Charm in.

VS Red Aggro


Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Abzan Charm Abzan Charm Abzan Charm Abzan Charm


Duress Duress Dromoka's Command Dromoka's Command Bile Blight Drown in Sorrow Drown in Sorrow End Hostilities

Depending on their build, you may want the fourth Hero’s Downfall, and you might not want all the End Hostilities and you might even shave the third Elspeth. Never shave mana in this matchup! It’s generally good to bring in Dromoka’s Command against anyone that might have Outpost Siege, but it’s just awesome in this matchup anyway since it counters a Stoke the Flames with upside.

Since I’m probably* not flying to Buenos Aires this weekend, I’m turning my sights to Magic Origins spoilers. I was thinking maybe we could start things off on Monday with one of the best cards in the set…

Let me know what card you most want to see discussed, and I will also work with whatever gets the most votes. Of course, who knows what happens if the most popular suggestion was the card I’m already building around?

*Probably… … …