Attacking The Pro Tour Metagame

While BBD may not have had the result he wanted at Pro Tour Magic Origins, he has some vital lessons to take away from that experience and some key insights for what deck you should be picking up next to battle last week’s winners.

By virtue of my articles coming out on Fridays, I am usually the last to the punch bowl when it comes to writing about past events. Since a good deal of other writers on this site played in or at least followed the Pro Tour in Vancouver last weekend fairly closely, it’s hard for me to talk about too much that they haven’t already covered.

I don’t really want to just write the same article they’ve already written, so I won’t. I’m only going to briefly touch on the Pro Tour and the testing process and the decks we saw there, since that’s all mostly been hit up already. The bulk of my article is going to be about Standard moving forward and one deck in particular I think is going to be a good choice in the weeks to come.

Before I begin, though, I should at least set the framework by discussing my Pro Tour experience. I did extremely poorly at Vancouver. I went 1-2 in Limited, and 0-3 in Constructed, for a very early 1-5 drop.

I felt prepared for Limited. I don’t remember the exact data, but I was averaging close to a 2-1 in all of the house drafts we did. Our team has a lot of Platinum-level Pros and a lot of really good players. I consider myself to easily be one of the worst players on our team, so I felt being able to muster a roughly 2-1 average among players of that caliber was a good place to be. Limited is also where I’ve traditionally done the best at Pro Tours, even though I dedicate far more time to Constructed. I had a lot of confidence here, but only rattled off a 2-1 after being plagued by mulligans and generally weak draws.

In Constructed, we locked in pretty early on GR Devotion. It definitely wasn’t what I wanted to play. I would have loved to play a variety of other decks, like Abzan Aggro, or some sort of blue control deck featuring Jace, such as Esper Dragons. However, it seemed that every deck I put together was getting destroyed by GR Devotion, and eventually I just gave up and succumbed to playing it myself.

In retrospect, this was a huge mistake. While the rest of the team did fairly well with Devotion, it wasn’t the right choice for me.

I feel that we made a number of pretty big flaws in testing for this Pro Tour. Granted, I was the lone person that missed Day Two and had a significantly worse tournament than everyone else on our team so I may be coming at this from a different perspective, but I think we did a lot wrong.

Rather than dwell on everything, I want to just highlight one single big flaw we made. We put too much emphasis on GR Devotion. It was our Level One deck. If a brew couldn’t beat GR Devotion, we threw it away. It turns out that there were a lot of decks that were probably great choices for this field that just had a bad Devotion matchup. For example, Abzan Aggro seems very well-positioned against a field of Mono-Red Aggro and U/R Thopters. Yet I couldn’t beat Devotion with it, so I scrapped it. I should have just ignored one mediocre matchup (it wasn’t unwinnable, just bad) in GR Devotion and focusing on building the deck to beat the rest of the perceived field. Sometimes a deck can be a good choice even if it struggles against the best or most popular deck.

It’s a lesson for next time. Well, I hope so at least. Quite often I find myself saying “I’ll do it next time” or “this will be a lesson for next time.” If everything is a failure from which to learn from – a lesson to use next time – you start to actually run out of “next times.” My number of “next times” for playing on the Pro Tour is now extremely thin, so I basically have to start actually achieving the kind of success that is prophesized by “we’ll do better next time” or there won’t be one. I’m hoping for success much more than running out of next times, which should come as no surprise. However, I wrote a fairly lengthy Facebook post on my failures from this Pro Tour and how it affects me moving forward if you want a more detailed explanation about how I feel about Magic and failure in Magic.

Now that we got that out of the way, we can get on to the meat of this piece. This article is titled “Attacking The PT Metagame,” and so far I haven’t written about any of that. In fact, the only thing I’ve succeeded at attacking in the past two weeks is the salad bar at Ruby Tuesday’s. Maybe it’s time to change that and see what we can’t figure out about attacking Standard instead.

Pro Tour Magic Origins was dominated by red aggressive decks and the U/R artifact deck that ended up putting a few pilots into the Top Eight. Immediately, one deck sprung to mind as a tool to combat that field. Drumroll please:

Abzan Aggro. Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

Abzan Aggro In A New World

When I last left off with Abzan Aggro in testing for the Pro Tour, my list looked like this:

If you’re thinking that this list looks fairly different from stock Abzan Aggro, well, I’ve got news for you. You’re right. It does. There are two main changes to the list.

The first is that I removed Rakshasa UsedCarDealer from the deck. I henceforth refuse to call him Rakshasa Deathdealer because frankly, the card sucks against most of the field and fairly rarely ever actually deals death anymore. There’s a card called Deathmist Raptor. It requires such a huge investment for Deathdealer to get through Deathmist Raptor that he’s now been relegated to selling 2005 Hyundai Elantras with minor body damage at more than they are worth to naive customers. Deathdealer really only shines as a threat against control strategies, which Abzan Aggro is already good against… and which gained an upgrade in fighting against specifically Deathdealer with Languish anyway. Rakshasa used to deal death, but he started using the MODO shuffling algorithm and he’s dealing something far less potent these days. I’m off it and on to greener pastures… literally!

The other change is that without Deathdealer around, the manabase gets a lot easier. The old manabase played a lot of Temple of Silence because you wanted to be able to lead on Temple of Silence and then fetch a Forest with Windswept Heath to cast Rakshasa Deathdealer or Fleecemane Lion on turn two. A Plains was so bad with Deathdealer that it was easily the worst land in the deck. That’s not the case anymore, so you can just play a maximum number of Temple of Malady, making the hands where you lead on a Temple of Malady a lot better because you can cast a Warden of the First Tree or a Thoughtseize on turn two along with another enters-the-battlefield-tapped land. You can just fetch a Plains for Fleecemane Lion without it hurting the mana anymore.

Deathdealer was replaced at the two-drop slot by Den Protector. I think that Den Protector is easily one of the best cards in Standard, potentially even the best. In fact, the only thing I really liked about the GR Devotion list we played at the Pro Tour was the sideboard Den Protector plan.

Adding Den Protector to this deck gives it a lot more angles. For one, you can and will simply play Den Protector on turn two as a 2/1 a large amount of the time. Basically, if you don’t have a Fleecemane Lion, it’s probably right to do this in most matchups. Den Protector will actually get in a lot more damage than Rakshasa Deathdealer did in a lot of matchups by virtue of being really hard to block, especially when you start putting +1/+1 counters on it.

You can accomplish that with Dromoka’s Command, Anafenza, the Foremost, or Abzan Charm. Den Protector into Anafenza is actually a really awesome curve that starts to really get out of control when Den Protector reaches 4/3 range. At that point, it starts to be a super real threat that is incredibly hard to block. More Power. More Toughness. I love it.

Additionally, Den Protector also gives the deck another three-drop and another five-drop. It also provides a lot of inevitability and grinding power for the deck. A lot of decks, like any UBx control deck, for example, is going to have a hard time beating Den Protector loops. Den Protector is also very effective at reusing cheap and effective two-mana removal options like Dromoka’s Command and Ultimate Price.

However, this list is still a bit outdated. With the PT behind us, we have more information to work off of. With decks like Mono-Red Aggro and U/R Thopters now top contenders in the metagame, we probably have to change some cards around.

I want to trim on Thoughtseize, Hero’s Downfall, and Ultimate Price from the maindeck. Thoughtseize is really ineffective against GR Devotion and highly aggressive decks like Mono-Red. It might be good against Thopters, but I still wouldn’t want to draw too many against a deck that can kill you really fast in increments of five damage.

Hero’s Downfall feels like it is too expensive as a removal spell when there aren’t a lot of Planeswalkers to kill. Right now there aren’t very many, with Xenagos the Reveler being the big one. Xenagos can be taken care of fairly easy by just attacking him down, especially with Den Protector involved. Taking out Hero’s Downfalls makes the deck a lot weaker to cards like Elspeth, Sun’s Champion or Ugin, but the deck is already fairly weak against those cards anyway. Abzan Aggro doesn’t beat too many resolved Elspeths whether or not you kill her after she comes down. Ditto on Ugin. Even if you do, Den Protector is usually there to ruin your fun and bring Elspeth back from the dead. Even Heliod didn’t plan for that plot twist when he brutally murdered Elspeth in Theros. Speaking of which… I still haven’t forgiven you, Heliod, you sick, sick man. That was messed up.

Ultimate Price can’t kill any of the U/R Thopter deck’s creatures except Whirler Rogue (which is like a 0.25 for one), so it’s not really the kind of card I want to maindeck in mass quantities in this format at least until the hype for that deck dies down some. Otherwise it actually seems really good right now. It’s great against GR Devotion and likewise great against red decks, as it’s one of the few removal spells cheap enough to not be inefficient against them. It’s probably worth playing a few copies main, but I wouldn’t overdo it since you don’t want too many dead cards when your opponent is smashing you for five on turn two.

As for cards I want to add into the deck. I want to try playing with some Hangarback Walkers. Much like Den Protector, Hangarback is a card that gets better when you’re adding +1/+1 counters to it, which we can do with Dromoka’s Command, Ananfenza, and Abzan Charm. Gerry Thompson sent me an Abzan Aggro list with Hangarbacks a day or two before the PT. I liked the list a lot but I didn’t want to audible to an untested deck a few days before the PT, and I also don’t think I was wrong. Last-minute audibles rarely work out. Granted, anything would have worked better than what I did, but that’s at least one thing I don’t regret doing. I regret not testing Abzan Aggro more, but I don’t regret avoiding a last-minute switch.

With that being said, I think it’s a sweet direction to try. Hangarback might just be the kind of card that’s just good in nearly every deck. It also plays well with the sideboard plan of Tragic Arrogance.

One card that I think gets a lot better in the new format is Anafenza, the Foremost. Not only is she a stone-cold killer against the Rally deck, but she’s also really good against and with Hangarback Walker. Opposing copies of Hang em High don’t die with Anafenza in play. He gets exiled and thus he doesn’t create any of his Thopter buddies. Rekt. Abzan Charm is also great against opposing Hangar-ons.

All told, I want to play a deck that looks a lot like Brian Kibler GW deck, but that has access to Anafenza, the Foremost, Abzan Charm, and Siege Rhino because those cards are some of the most powerful things you can be doing at their respective mana costs.

Another card I want to test but I haven’t gotten around to yet is Managorger Hydra. I heard talk that someone was playing Managorger Hydra in their Abzan Aggro deck at the Pro Tour and the idea sounds like genius. Abzan Aggro is a deck that has a lot of must-kill creatures already, like my mane man, Fleecemane Lion. They aren’t going to always have a removal spell for Managorger Hydra or they will have spent it already… and the card spirals out of control fast, especially in a deck like this that is going to play a lot of cheap spells.

I can’t imagine I want it over Anafenza, the Foremost, which seems insanely good in this format right now, but I can easily see a few copies being played in addition. It’s definitely something to consider and file away in the test bank for later.

I will say right now that I don’t know how good Hangarback Walker is going to be in Abzan Aggro, but I do think that this Den Protector-heavy version of the deck is a lot stronger than normal builds of Abzan Aggro, be they with or without Hangarback Walker.

One thing I haven’t really touched on too much yet is why this deck is good in the post-Pro Tour metagame. I’ve talked a lot about the list itself and why I’ve chosen or thrown out various card choices, but I should really spend some time talking about why I think this deck is so well-positioned right now.

For one, it’s great against control decks. It simply has a natural good matchup against them, which is a valuable spot to be. Not having access to Hero’s Downfall or maindeck Thoughtseize might certainly weaken the control matchup, but I would still wager it is good anyway thanks to Den Protector and Hangarback Walker. It should improve drastically after sideboarding.

Secondly, it is playing some of the best-positioned cards right now. I’ve already talked about why I think that Anafenza, the Foremost is great in the current metagame. There’s more than just Anafenza, however.

Dromoka’s Command could easily be the best spell in Standard right now. I was in complete shock how many people brought decks to the Pro Tour that were extremely weak to Dromoka’s Command. It is powerful against Mono Red and Thopters both. It kills Eidolon of the Great Revel and Ensoul Artifact while also allowing you to get more value by fighting another creature or distributing a +1/+1 counter – or in the best-case scenario, countering a burn spell like Shrapnel Blast or Stoke the Flames.

Dromoka’s Command is also good against Constellation and Demonic Pact, which made up a small part of the field. It is also one of the best cards against GR Devotion, which was a fairly large segment of the field. You can use it early to destroy mana creatures and Courser of Kruphix to keep them off their game. It also powers up Den Protectors, which is a really easy way to win against them. Build a big-enough Den Protector and slam removal spells into their bigger creatures and voila.

Really, it is only pretty poor against control decks, and those made up such a small amount of the field to the point where it was only a marginal liability. Even control decks have cards like Jace or Sphinx’s Tutelage to allow you to still get some value of the card.

I can tell you exactly what I want to be doing in this Standard format… it’s casting Dromoka’s Command. Kibler was casting the card and he went 9-1 in Standard. That doesn’t come as much of a surprise to me, considering the Pro Tour field. Unless things change, I want to stick with what works, and what works is giving them a heavy dosage of D.C. power.

While it was surprising how many people brought decks that were bad against Dromoka’s Command to the Pro Tour, it paid off for them because so few people were playing the card. No more. Punish them for their Hubris. And if not Abzan Aggro, then I would at least play Brian Kibler G/W deck. Play something with Dromoka’s Command because the card is just so unbelievable right now.

There is one more brief thing I want to discuss before I’m done.

I really liked the new mulligan rule for Limited and Constructed. I think it’s a slam-dunk in Limited, but I also think it’s great for Constructed. I’m all for reducing the number of games in Magic where one person barely participated and I think this rule is phenomenal for smoothing out draws and preventing those kinds of games. Not many people are being very vocal about the rule, but I for one liked it and I say we keep it. Worst case, it doesn’t work and it gets reverted. Best case, it’s a huge success. I don’t know what we have to lose by trying it out and I would rather experiment and fail than not even bother to experiment at all.

But let’s be honest here. I think we all know that I won’t be using the new rule regardless. Never mulligan. Keep seven. Full grips. Open palms. Can’t lose.