Hanging With Hangarback

With Hangarback Walker appearing to dominate Standard as the most versatile card in every deck, it’s not enough to just join them these days – you have to know how to beat them, too.

It’s Hangarback’s world now. The rest of us are just living in it.

Before Pro Tour Magic Origins, I knew that Hangarback Walker was good, but I wasn’t really sure how good. It was a card that I’d added to the sideboard of my G/W Megamorph deck over the weekend of Grand Prix Dallas, intended primarily as a tool against control decks to help give me resilience against removal. It also happened to be good against aggressive red decks since it offered a speed bump against their early offense. Oh, and it was also good against Elspeth because it could create fliers, and also against Tragic Arrogance, and also against…

Okay, maybe I should have realized it earlier. We expected G/R Devotion to be the most popular deck in the room at the Pro Tour, and while Hangarback Walker was great in a lot of other places, a slower, grindy card was not at all what you wanted to be doing when your opponent was ramping to Dragonlord Atarka.

In any case, Hangarback Walker has gone from a feature of artifact decks and sideboards to one of the most-played cards in the Standard format. It’s easy to cast, has utility in both the early and late game, and combos well with already popular cards like Dromoka’s Command and Abzan Charm. What are the best ways to combat the Thopter-spewing menace? Today I want to take a look at Standard cards that can help bring Hangarback Walker and friends back down to earth.

It seems appropriate to start with a couple of easy ones that are already popular in Standard. Amusingly, both Anafenza and Abzan Charm do double duty when it comes to Hangarback Walker. Both have excellent synergy with the +1/+1 counter-loving artifact, and both are great answers to the Hangfather’s children. Anafenza’s replacement effect keeps Hangarback Walker’s death trigger from ever happening no matter what you use to kill it, while Abzan Charm can similarly send the artifact to exile if it’s big enough.

Obviously the Hangarback Abzan decks that dominated GP London played with both of these, but it’s possible that they ought to be on the radar of Abzan Control players as well. The Charm is clearly a staple of any Abzan deck, but Anafenza hasn’t tended to see play outside of Abzan Aggro. Perhaps she’s worth considering for a slot in the sideboard given how well she lines up against Hangarback as well as offering insurance against other decks like Rally the Ancestors and the like.

Incidentally, exile effects like these are also excellent against Deathmist Raptor, which is another major player in Standard alongside Hangarback Walker. I guess I’m just pointing out every way that anyone can really hate on my G/W Megamorph deck.

Maybe this article isn’t the best idea…

This card has become a sideboard staple since the Pro Tour, thanks largely to the success of U/R Thopters there, but is it possible that it might be time to consider playing Unravel in the maindeck? Thanks to Hangarback and enchantment creatures like Courser of Kruphix, Eidolon of the Great Revel, and Boon Satyr, Unravel the Aether has targets in most popular decks, and two mana is much less than hard removal typically costs these days. In my matchup against Matt Sperling at Grand Prix San Diego, he won game three almost entirely on the back of Unravel the Aether; he was able to remove a bestowed Boon Satyr mid-combat and then Den Protector it back to get rid of my Hangarback Walker as well.

I think the biggest problem for Unravel the Aether as a maindeck card is really finding a home for it. Most green decks in Standard right now tend to be either heavily ramp oriented, like Devotion or G/R Dragons, and those decks have very limited space to play any kind of removal effects. Perhaps a deck like Sultai Control could benefit from playing Unravel, particularly alongside cards like Demonic Pact and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy to offer additional utility for the card or the ability to loot it away when it isn’t effective. Or perhaps in another Demonic Pact shell, like the G/B one Del Morel Leon played to a strong finish at Pro Tour Magic Origins.

When I was playing G/W Megamorph, one of the cards that I was the most scared of was Anger of the Gods. While Languish was the sweeper getting all of the attention thanks to being the new card on the block, Anger was much more effective at dealing with my plan against control – namely, Deathmist Raptor and Hangarback Walker.

Magma Spray doesn’t line up quite as well against Deathmist Raptor, but is a great answer to Hangarback Walker when it comes out early in the game. It’s also great at efficiently killing Zurgo, Elvish Mystic, Rattleclaw Mystic, Den Protector, and more. If you’re looking for a one-mana removal spell and you don’t really care about the potential to go to the face with Wild Slash, you should seriously consider Magma Spray instead if only for the ability to easily take out an early Hangarback Walker.

Unfortunately, while both Magma Spray and Anger of the Gods line up well against Hangarback in particular, they’re less effective against the rest of the cards in Hangarback Abzan specifically. Assuming you can maneuver them around Dromoka’s Command both of them are strong against the creature base of G/W Megamorph, but Abzan has bigger bodies like Anafenza and Siege Rhino on top of those Dromoka’s Commands. If you’re looking to lean on red removal against Hangarback Abzan, you’re going to need to supplement it with ways to kill bigger bodies as well.

Okay, now we’re getting off the beaten path a little bit. While Last Breath was briefly a fixture of U/W Control decks last Standard season as a way to handle Mutavault, Nightveil Specter, and Pack Rat, it hasn’t really seen much play since rotation. Now, it’s a fine answer to Hangarback as well as mana creatures, Courser of Kruphix, little red men, and even all of the flip-Planeswalkers like Jace, Nissa, and Liliana. Might it be time to breathe life back into Last Breath?

Devouring Light never really made it to prime time since it’s a relatively expensive conditional removal spell, but with exile effects having such a high value against Hangarback and the card having enough flexibility to also handle other creatures like Siege Rhino, perhaps now is its time to shine.

Look, it’s a theme! STUFF THAT EXILES! HOORAY!

In all seriousness, while Utter End is clearly not an efficient removal spell, it is an effective and versatile one. It can handle everything from Hangarback Walker to Siege Rhino to Ensoul Artifact to Elspeth. I’d only want to include it in a deck that has enough other tools to extend the game against aggressive decks such that it can afford to spend four mana on a removal spell, but it’s a fine fallback card.

Another less-than-efficient removal spell, but one with enormous upside in games that go long. It’s interesting that Silence the Believers was one of the defining cards of Theros Block Constructed thanks to combating Bestow and being so powerful in long midrange matches, but it hasn’t had much of an impact on Standard despite exile effects being so powerful against Hangarback, Deathmist Raptor, and Den Protector loops. Granted, four is a lot of mana – and seven is even more – but I would have expected the card to show up more than it has.

This is the card that I probably spent the most time during playtesting trying to get work because it just seemed like such a powerful combination of stats and abilities for its cost. My biggest problem was finding a shell for the card that actually had enough other powerful cards in it, an issue that proved difficult thanks to Archangel’s prohibitive mana cost. One of the problems I felt like the deck had was a lack of quality early creatures, but that was before I’d gotten on the Hangarback train – maybe the Hangfather can give Mono-White enough of a boost to compete?

Incidentally, the popularity of Hangarback has me more interested in revisiting Archangel decks – whether including their own Hangarbacks or not – because the tax on attacking and blocking can really hinder the effectiveness of a swarm of Thopters. If you have to pay for each of your little flying pals every time you want to send them into battle, they’re going to have much less of an impact on the game. Similarly, pinching your opponent on mana early in the game also makes it more difficult for them to afford to ratchet up their Walker to begin with.

My other push for revisiting Archangel decks is Tragic Arrogance. Much like Hangarback Walker, I’d recognized that Tragic Arrogance was a strong card leading up to the Pro Tour, but at the time I’d only really thought of it as a sideboard option against decks that flood the board like Devotion. The more I’ve played since, though, the more I’ve come to realize how powerful Tragic Arrogance can be in a wide range of matchups. Perhaps it’s possible to put together enough powerful white cards after all?

Then again, maybe the idea of playing any kind of control deck without either Den Protector or Dig Through Time is just crazy…

It may seem strange to list creatures without any obvious interactive abilities as ways to deal with Hangarback Walker, but both Mantis Rider and Stormbreath Dragon are great at fighting against the kind of games that Hangarback Walker looks to create. Hangarback is at its best in grindy slugfests, preferably on the ground where it can get a chance to block and unleash its children. Both Mantis Rider and Stormbreath Dragon look to put pressure on the opponent and close out the game in the air as quickly as possible. Yes, either of them can be blocked by Thopter tokens, but if you’re not attacking on the ground your opponent has to do something to actually generate Thopters from a Hangarback, and not everyone has the luxury of having Evolutionary Leap sitting around to unleash twenty-three Thopters at a moment’s notice.

I did that once, though. And it was awesome.

In the same vein as Mantis Rider and Stormbreath Dragon – and perhaps in the same deck as them – Harbinger of Tides offers a way to get Hangarback Walker off of the board without letting it spill its contents everywhere. Hangarback is particularly vulnerable to Harbinger in a few different ways, too. It generally requires a significant mana investment over several turns before it really gets going, and it will often end up tapped thanks to its ability even if it never attacks.

Actually, this card isn’t very good against Hangarback Walker at all since it costs three mana when most Walkers tend to come down on turn two. But I’m including it here mostly because it’s a card you should still keep in mind in a world where Walker is a frequently-played card. When I first heard that several pro teams were playing blue-base artifact decks with Hangarback Walker at the Pro Tour, I thought there was a good chance that they were playing this card because the Walker’s death trigger works so well with Exploit.

This is another card that’s not explicitly good against the actual card Hangarback Walker, but rather against some of the game states that the card creates. One of the ways that Hangarback can win games is by providing a swarm of chump blockers if it gets a chance to block, preventing big attackers like the aforementioned Stormbreath Dragon from getting through to finish the job. Rogue’s Passage can help pave the way to get that last big lethal attack in no matter how many Thopters your opponent might have at their disposal.

What do you think? What are the best ways to handle Hangarback Walker? Do you expect the Hangfather’s reign to continue at the Open Series in Charlotte this weekend, or will a new king of Standard be crowned in the Premier IQ on Sunday as it has so many times already since Magic Origins came out?