The Pro Tour didn’t go so hot for me. I went 5-3 on day one, but I went full Updraft Elemental mode on day two. What’s Updraft Elemental, you say? Well, it
happens to be a creature that represents exactly how many wins and losses I possessed. That 1-4 record put me at 6-7, and I dropped from the event at that
point, dead for any prize. I was going to play the last three rounds because I like to finish playing the tournament out when I’m at the Pro Tour, but Sam
Pardee, Mike Sigrist, and Nathan Holiday gave me a fairly good reason why I shouldn’t.
“I guess you are still playing for the opportunity to get zero Pro Points out of this tournament.”
You get three Pro Points just for attending the Pro Tour…unless you get disqualified. Then you get zero. With a lot of disqualifications and crazy things
happening already in the event, it seemed like there was truly no reason to bother playing the last rounds and chance it. I could take my ball, my three
points, and my dignity and go home, or I could play for nothing and risk losing it. It seemed like a no brainer.
This was my eighth Pro Tour, and seventh consecutive. I’ve done very well at finding a way to get back on the Pro Tour time and time again, but what I
haven’t found is a way to do well once I’m there. I am consistently putting up 4-2 records in Limited, but then throwing it away with a poor Constructed
record. This tournament was no different, with a 3-4 record in Constructed dragging me down. Granted, I only went 3-3 in Limited this time around, but it
feels kind of weird to be known as a “Constructed player” and yet have Constructed be the low point of nearly each and every one of my Pro Tours, while I
put up acceptable, although not fantastic, results in Draft.
The prior two Pro Tours, I know my mistake came in deck selection. I played Jeskai Ascendancy at the Khans of Tarkir Pro Tour. Everyone was ready for the
deck, and I went 5-5. I played Mono-Blue Tron in DC, and the deck was simply a poor choice; I went 4-6. This time, however, I came into the event with a
I played a version of Abzan Aggro with Surrak, the Hunt Caller. I would be disingenuous to call it my deck. While I was the one who championed the list and
eventually earned a few converts, it wasn’t exactly a fresh concept. Abzan Aggro is an existing deck, and Surrak was a card that Gabe Carlton-Barnes was
playing as a one-of in his lists of Abzan Aggro during testing. I simply took things to their next logical step and made Surrak a focal point of the deck
rather than a nice one-of.
Once I started playing with the deck, I knew it was what I was going to be playing at the Pro Tour regardless of whether anyone else joined me. It only
took a few games against G/R Dragons to see how easily Abzan Aggro could race the deck thanks to how quickly Nasty Surraksty [CEDitor’s Note: Dude, c’mon. Even for you, this is a stretch.] could close out a game. You would hit them with anywhere from 8-10 damage the turn
you played Surrak and then they were forced to deal with him the next turn or they would just simply die. Hasty Siege Rhinos are no joke.
While myself, GCB, and Ari Lax didn’t fare particularly well with the deck, Brad Nelson went 9-1 and Austin Bursavich went 8-2. This locked Brad Nelson for
Platinum, and it qualified Austin Bursavich for the next couple of Pro Tours. Meanwhile, I was on the sidelines, dead for anything and wondering whether I
had any chance at all of making my goal of Gold this year.
Magic is a really weird game in some regards. There aren’t many other games that simultaneously pull your emotions in so many different directions. I told
Brad that I was really happy for him but that it was going to be hard to show my happiness at first because I was also still very disappointed from my own
finish. It’s hard in many ways to watch other people do well with the deck you worked so hard on and not feel some touch of jealousy. At the same time, you
can feel a sense of pride that your friends are doing well with a deck they likely wouldn’t have played if you didn’t help push them along that path.
I think it’s possible to both experience some amount of happiness and sadness at the same time. Watching Austin and Brad celebrate made me happy, but I was
still sad about how things could have gone so much better for me. The thing is, Magic is the kind of game where we lose more than we win. This wasn’t my
weekend, but maybe in two weeks, a month, or even six months, these same players can watch me succeed and share my happiness as well. It’s important to
invest in your friends and teammates.
I know I was on the right team this Pro Tour because I cared about how others were doing. Rooting for Seth Manfield and Steve Rubin to go deep in the
tournament and then being happy for Austin and Brad to pull off unlikely 7-1 records on day two to get the results they came for was pretty sweet. I’ve
been on plenty of teams where you don’t really care that much about how the rest of your teammates are doing, and that’s just not where I want to be ever.
I want my teammates to care about how I perform, and I want to care about how well they do.
I definitely felt that on this team, and if there is one giant positive from this Pro Tour for me, it’s that many of my teammates did well, and that I
found a team that I’m still excited about working with for the next Pro Tour.
And another tournament without a positive finish just gives me a clearer outline of how much more work I need to do if I’m going to hit Gold. Which is a
That’s not what this article is going to be about, though. Abzan Aggro is a deck that has given me a lot of great finishes this past year. In fact, it’s
actually the deck that qualified me for this Pro Tour. The archetype has had a number of ups and downs, but I think its stock is high right now. I want to
talk about the list we played, the decisions we made, and what I think about the deck moving forward.
- 4 Fleecemane Lion
- 4 Anafenza, the Foremost
- 4 Rakshasa Deathdealer
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 2 Warden of the First Tree
- 3 Surrak, the Hunt Caller
I am convinced that Abzan Aggro was the best deck in the format before Fate Reforged. Fate Reforged, however, really put a number on the deck. Not only did
cards like Valorous Stance provide an easy way to kill Siege Rhino for a number of decks that otherwise struggled hard with the card, but it led to a rise
in R/W Aggro, which was one of the worst matchups for Abzan Aggro.
That all changed, however, with Dragons of Tarkir. There were two main reasons for the change. The first is that your manabase improved. That’s not to say
that any new lands came out in Dragons of Tarkir to help with the mana, but rather that the mana costs in the deck became significantly less restrictive.
Before Dragons of Tarkir, you were priced into trying to kill creatures with Bile Blight. Bile Blight is not a card that really benefits from having two
Forests, two Plains, and four Windswept Heaths in your deck. Dragons of Tarkir offered a wealth of other options, however, and that made casting spells so
much smoother and easier.
The first option is Dromoka’s Command, which lets you curve Fleecemane Lion into a spell that you are guaranteed to be able to cast the next turn
(otherwise you couldn’t have cast the Lion). This gives you the opportunity to take turn 3 off to play an enters the battlfefield tapped land and help
improve the rest of your turns.
The other option is Ultimate Price, which is significantly easier to cast than Bile Blight. Any game you lead with a Sandsteppe Citadel, it’s fairly likely
that you’re going to be able to curve out and cast your spells fairly easily.
The second way the deck improved is that the curve was lowered. Having access to Dromoka’s Command and Ultimate Price now provides a cheaper curve for
removal, which improves the power level of the deck. Any time you can get the same effect for less mana, your deck is simply stronger. Dromoka’s Command
also offers so many other benefits to the deck beyond just being a cheap piece of interaction.
The first is that it provides a maindeck answer to problematic enchantments. Cards like Chained to the Rocks, Outpost Siege, Jeskai Ascendancy, and Whip of
Erebos could be problems for Abzan Aggro, but with access to Dromoka’s Command, it’s much easier to beat those cards. R/W Aggro went from being one of the
worst matchups to a matchup that is close or maybe even favorable, all thanks to Dromoka’s Command.
Command can also protect creatures and counter lethal burn spells, which isn’t to be overlooked. Putting a +1/+1 counter on in combat can be devastating,
especially when you’re also two-for-one’ing them in the process by fighting a separate creature or making them sacrifice an enchantment. I definitely won
some surprise games in testing by just ignoring a Thunderbreak Regent or Stormbreath Dragon in play and then using Dromoka’s Command to counter the lethal
Crater’s Claws and win the race.
My favorite thing to do with Dromoka’s Command, by far, is to fight an Elvish Mystic and make them sacrifice a Courser of Kruphix. There are few things
more satisfying than absolutely crushing the nut draw of Elvish Mystic into turn 2 Courser of Kruphix with Fleecemane Lion into blow you out. It was so
devastating, that we started not even casting the Courser there in testing to play around the giant blowout, which is still just a good thing if you ask
All told, though, most lists are playing Dromoka’s Command. There’s nothing new about that. What makes this decklist unique compared to other versions of
Abzan Aggro is Surrak. Nasty Surraksty. [CEDitor’s Note: …] I loved Surrak so much in testing that our team actually has a dance associated with
the process of deploying and smacking them in the face with a hasty Surrak. Depending on who you ask, it’s either The Dizzler Dance or The Nasty Surraksty
dance. Either way, it’s a thing of beauty, just like Surrak.
Surrak allows you to regain the initiative. Oftentimes games of Standard are determined by who’s first. The first person to gain initiative is the one who
wins. They play a Seeker on turn 2 and then kill your creature for the next few turns. Suddenly you’re behind on board and at nine life. Abzan Aggro does
the same thing. Fleecemane Lion into Anafenza into two removal spells is lights out on the play against most decks.
Surrak’s haste and the enormous amount of damage he represents completely flips that around. There were times where I had a Fleecemane Lion in play facing
down a Goblin Rabblemaster, and I just decided to get aggressive. I’d play Surrak, smack them for eight, and suddenly they are feeling vulnerable. They can
try to race, but what if I have a Siege Rhino to follow up with, give haste, and just kill them? They start to leave creatures back to block or spend their
turn killing your Surrak rather than continue to press their advantage. Then you just play your second copy of
, and show them a picture of Tony Danza. Who’s the boss now?
Surrak is also dirty with Anafenza, the Foremost. With naught but a single Anafenza in play, Surrak represents a natural ten points of damage. Play it,
give it haste, swing and give it a counter, and slap em for ten across the face.
The key to the deck, however, lies in sideboarding. Surrak gets sided out in nearly every single matchup. The few where I would keep it in was against
control decks, where I simply needed as many threats as possible, and against Thunderbreak Regent and Stormbreath Dragon decks or decks like G/W Devotion
where racing was imperative. Against everything else, it came out.
The idea is that games get slower and grindier after sideboard. Surrak is less likely to give haste and more likely to be the only creature in play. For
that reason, it’s also acceptable to sideboard out a land in post-sideboard games. It’s okay to miss a few lands since you’ll have a lot of removal to
bridge the gap, but it’s worse to flood out in an attrition matchup. Oftentimes this land is Urborg, where drawing a second copy is bad news.
26 lands, however, is exactly how many I want in the maindeck. You lose when you don’t curve out in most matchups. You can flood a bit, but you can’t
afford to do nothing for a few turns earlier in the game. People always want to play less lands, or to cut lands from decks, but my success with Abzan
Aggro playing 26 lands is much higher than playing 25. There are a lot of mana sinks in the deck, but Rakshasa Deathdealer and Fleecemane Lion aren’t
nearly as impressive when they are serving time as a grizzly bear and a watchwolf.
The Future of Abzan Aggro
I think the deck continues to be a big force in Standard moving forward. However, with the rise and success of control strategies, and how much people love
to play those kinds of decks, I think that Abzan Aggro needs to be reworked for a new metagame. I want to try a more controlling build that features WD40
(Whisperwood Elemental) [CEDitor’s Note: That nickname doesn’t even make sense!] and Thoughtseize.
Instead of focusing more on Surrak and just ending the game really fast, this version is going to rely a bit more on Thoughtseize and the resilient threat
that Whisperwood provides to win a longer game. Both of these cards are naturally better against control strategies, but Whisperwood is also phenomenal
against decks like the winning Atarka Red deck by providing multiple bodies, locking up the ground, and forcing them to just finish you off with burn
The list I’m thinking about looks something like this:
- 4 Fleecemane Lion
- 4 Anafenza, the Foremost
- 4 Rakshasa Deathdealer
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 2 Whisperwood Elemental
- 2 Warden of the First Tree
This version of the deck is going to be worse against devotion strategies and G/R Dragons. You’re trading Surrak, one of the best cards in that matchup,
for Whisperwood Elemental and Thoughtseize. Thoughtseize is often mediocre against consistent decks with a lot of duplicate parts, and Whisperwood
Elemental is usually too slow to be relevant.
However, this version will be better in the mirror match, against Abzan Control, against Mono-Red, and against the U/B or Esper Control decks that put up
such powerful finishes at the Pro Tour.
In matchups where Whisperwood shines, it really is going to shine. Manifesting any other creature is a giant beating. I’ve often heard “I’d rather draw
that Siege Rhino than manifest it,” and while that may be true, it’s not like putting a 2/2 in play that can suddenly and cheaply be a 4/5 with trample is
exactly a bad thing. The same applies for all the creatures, which are giant and cheap and better as the game progresses, with the exception of Anafenza.
There’s always a give and take, but it’s important to react to the metagame and figure out the best list for any given week. On power level, Abzan Aggro is
finally back up to being good enough to compete in Standard, thanks to Dromoka’s Command and Ultimate Price. But in terms of what version of the deck to
play and how to build it, that’s going to vary week to week.
Last week, I think the Surrak version was the best deck for that tournament, and Brad Nelson and Austin Bursavich cashed that in for two very strong
finishes. Next week, who knows? Maybe it’s still time to cast *censored*, or maybe it’s time for Whisperwood Elemental or Wingmate Roc to make a triumphant
return. That’s what testing, preparation, and prediction is for.