The Rise Of Abzan Aggro

With Grand Prix London in the books, Patrick Chapin examines the Standard metagame and asks the question “so what’s next?” as players prepare for Worlds and the Season Three Invitational. Will Standard continue its wildly-shifting metagame trends, or have we seen everything at this point?

The number of Hangarback Walkers in Day Two might have stayed the same.

They just cut the red and blue cards and added white, black, and green ones…

This weekend’s Grand Prix London took the wild evolution of the Magic Origins Standard format to the next level. While Abzan Control continues to define the format in popularity and success from one week to another, the rest of the top decks were majorly shook up.

G/W Aggro (predictably) declined sharply in popularity, although it did perform well. Mono-Red Aggro rebounded heavily in popularity, but it got killed on Day Two. The U/R Thopter decks that were so popular at the Pro Tour continued to be only niche role-players this week. Jeskai continued its slow, steady growth and modestly successful win rate. Stormbreath Dragon decks improved slightly. G/R Devotion fell in popularity, but those that remained overperformed. Gimmick decks like U/R Sphinx’s Tutelage, Abzan Constellation, and Abzan Rally all did poorly.

The big story of the weekend, however, was the meteoric ascent of Abzan Aggro. This is somewhat non-intuitive, given Abzan Aggro’s historical weakness to Abzan Control. However, the format finally slanted hard enough against slow Abzan decks and away from Languish to give Abzan Aggro a chance, at least now that Brian Braun-Duin showed the world how to build Abzan Aggro for this new world.

Hangarback Walker has headlined a new archetype basically every single week Magic Origins has been legal. This week, it provides the two-drop Abzan Aggro needed to replace Rakshasa Deathdealer (which has been hurt too much by the widespread popularity of Wild Slash and Searing Blood).

Here’s a breakdown of the Grand Prix London metagame. The Top Sixteen metagame is weighted by finish.

Anyone comparing my numbers with coverage will find a few differences, as my goal is to lump decks together in the most useful ways possible rather than try to highlight diversity. For example, they merged Abzan decks with Deathmist Raptor into the same category as Kibler’s G/W Aggro, which is just not useful to us. Additionally, I have lumped a few similar decks together like B/R Dragons and Mardu.

Let’s start by taking a look at the big breakout deck of the weekend. Taking first, second, seventh, eighth and ninth, Abzan Aggro absolutely demolished this field. The champion, Fabrizio Anteri, is an absolute beast of a player, and his build is the baseline Abzan Aggro deck to test against.

This build is Brian Bruin-Duin’s suggested Abzan Aggro list from last week, but trading a Warden of the First Tree and an Ajani, Mentor of Heroes for a Hero’s Downfall and a Sorin, Solemn Visitor from the sideboard. The sideboard trades two Drown in Sorrow, two Sorins, and an Ultimate Price for two Self-Inflicted Wound, a Surge of Righteousness, an Arashin Cleric, and a Tasigur, the Golden Fang.

Hangarback Walker is an excellent upgrade over Rakshasa Deathdealer on power alone, but it also helps shore up the deck’s weakness to Languish. Additionally, it has great synergy with Anafenza, Ajani, Dromoka’s Command and Abzan Charm, getting extra value out of +1/+1 counters.

Hangarback Walker also helps us decrease our reliance on Warden of the First Tree. Along with Fleecemane Lion, Anafenza, and Siege Rhino, we’re nearly completely immune to Ultimate Price, aside from Den Protector (which we usually save as a five-drop against black decks anyway). The printing of Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Nissa, Vastwood Seer along with the strength of Mono-Red and G/R Devotion has helped propel Ultimate Price into a major role in the format.

Hangarback Walker is also an important part of our Tragic Arrogance plan since we can save a Rhino and the Hangarback if we want. However, we can also sacrifice the Walker if we just want the flying army. As a side note, Tragic Arrogance is the real winner this weekend. Seven decks in the Top Eight featured it, with the other deck being G/R Dragons. In fact, G/R decks were the only ones to Top Sixteen without it aside from a single Bant Heroic deck.

This style of Abzan Aggro has more removal than many previous builds, which it can get away with because of the versatility of both Dromoka’s Command and Abzan Charm. Dromoka’s Command has become one of the best cards in the format since enchantments are everywhere, countering burn spells is huge, and the card’s main weakness (U/x Control) has nearly completely disappeared.

The +1/+1 counter sub-theme actually works really well with Den Protector as it usually doesn’t take much to make it completely unblockable. For instance, if your opponent has a Siege Rhino and drops an Elspeth, making three tokens, you can unmorph your Den Protector, get back Abzan Charm, give the Protector +2/+2… and now you’ve got a 5/4 unblockable creature and their Elspeth is dead.

While three of those top five finishing Abzan Aggro decks were very close to BBD’s list, the other two played a Wingmate Roc version with a few twists. These are the differences between the two styles:

Wingmate Roc Build Maindeck Changes


Den Protector Den Protector Abzan Charm Abzan Charm Dromoka's Command


Wingmate Roc Wingmate Roc Warden of the First Tree Ultimate Price Hero's Downfall

Wingmate Roc Build Sideboard Changes


Self-Inflicted Wound Self-Inflicted Wound Glare of Heresy Surge of Righteousness Arashin Cleric Tasigur, the Golden Fang


Herald of Torment Herald of Torment Herald of Torment Tragic Arrogance Dromoka's Command Unravel the Aether

The Herald of Torments are not exactly new to Abzan Aggro (Corey Burkhart used three in the maindeck of the Abzan Aggro deck that made Top Eight at GP San Diego), but they have new meaning now that Tragic Arrogance plays a central role in our sideboard plans since it’s another creature you can save (counting as your enchantment). Additionally, the matchups where you want Tragic Arrogance are typically matches where fliers are at a premium, like G/R Devotion.

While it was Abzan Aggro’s weekend, there was one Abzan Control deck in the Top Eight of Grand Prix London:

Wald’s list is nearly a carbon-copy of the list Paul Rietzl Top Eighted GP San Diego with. He swapped the third Nissa for a third Den Protector as well as an Ugin maindeck in place of the second Tasigur. His sideboard replaces two Hallowed Moonlights and Drown in Sorrow with two Arashin Clerics and an End Hostilities (and still features an Ugin, letting him go up to two).

While Abzan Control has traditionally been favored against Abzan Aggro, and appeared to majorly gain in the matchup because of Languish, it was Abzan Aggro that knocked Wald out of the tournament. Hangarback Walker was a crucial component, of course, including a Dromoka’s Command letting a turn-two Walker kill a Fleecemane Lion and leave three 1/1 fliers behind. However, Tragic Arrogance was also a big factor, which is one of the best ways to come back from being behind an Elspeth when it’s coupled with Den Protector and Siege Rhino.

If Abzan Control wants to re-take the upper hand, a couple small tweaks can go a long way. First of all, swapping the sideboard Bile Blight for Ultimate Price will help. Not only does it clean up Thopter tokens, it also relieves some Fleecemane Lion pressure.

Going a step further, you can try to make room for Glare of Heresy and/or Self-Inflicted Wound in the sideboard. Even though they don’t kill Hangarback Walker, it helps to have more cheap removal for Fleecemane Lion and Anafenza.

The Dragonlord Dromoka should be replaced with a third Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, whatever you do. Dragonlord Dromoka’s most important role is against U/R Thopters, an archetype that has fallen into niche territory. It’s also nice against U/X Control, but those decks have mostly fallen by the wayside. Dragonlord Dromoka is also solid against Mono-Red Aggro, but the difference between it and Elspeth isn’t as much as you might guess. Meanwhile, Elspeth is huge against Abzan Control, Abzan Aggro, G/R Devotion, and G/W Aggro (four of the six current biggest decks).

Rounding out the Top Four is a Jeskai deck with a little heavier creature count instead of token-makers like Hordeling Outburst:

This new breed of Jeskai is built around Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Ojutai’s Command. You play Jace and flip him easily if they don’t kill him, rebuying a key removal spell or Dig Through Time. If they do, you get it back on turn four (and draw a card) on your opponent’s end step with Ojutai’s Command, then untap and flip him immediately, rebuying the Command!

Soulfire Grand Master is a fine card in its own right, but part of what makes it so great in Jeskai is that it serves as a second two-drop you can get back with Ojutai’s Command that has late-game strength – both Jace and Grand Master can be sources of card advantage later!

Goblin Rabblemaster and Mantis Rider are fine cards in their own right, but a deck with Jace and Grand Master drawing removal there is an increased chance of these must-kill creatures living. Even if your opponent does have a second removal spell, Ojutai’s Command and Stormbreath Dragon provide yet another wave of must-kills.

Stormbreath Dragon has improved greatly over the past two weeks as the number of Mono-Red decks with eight “Deal 4s” has decreased and the number of white removal spells has increased, such as those found in G/W Aggro and Abzan Aggro (Valorous Stance, Dromoka’s Command, Abzan Charm).


Jace encourages you to play a variety of removal spells so that later, when he flips, you have a better mix to choose from for the job at hand.

Last week, I suggested adding Anger of the Gods and Elspeth to Jeskai’s sideboard. Both cards are invaluable against Abzan Aggro and G/W Aggro. Anger of the Gods (and Revoke Existence) is particularly nice against Hangarback Walker. Elspeth is the best card in the format against either deck.

The final “Tragic Arrogance deck” to Top Eight GP London is Erik Skinstad’s update to Kibler’s G/W Aggro deck.

Erik’s maindeck is the exact sixty Kibler suggested on Friday, with the only change coming to the sideboard where Skinstad removed a Brimaz, King of Oreskos and Valorous Stance to make room for a pair of Plummets.

G/W Aggro was a fantastic choice last week, but the whole format is now slanted against it. Now that Abzan Aggro is the new deck to beat, the prospects for G/W are not looking any better in my opinion. A lot of the cards people will add to fight Abzan Aggro bring some splash damage to G/W Aggro. Additionally, there will be an increase in Abzan Control, a matchup G/W would prefer to not face.

If you are locked in on G/W Aggro, I would consider making room for Wingmate Rocs (maybe one maindeck and two in the sideboard). You gotta be careful of Languish, of course, but Wingmate Roc has real chances of winning games against opponents who draw Elspeth.

Finally, the only non-white deck to Top Eight, Brad Nelson G/R Dragons deck, was piloted by Martin Juza to his 83rd GP Top Eight:

In a way, the return of this deck brings us full circle as this was the deck to beat on day one of the new format. The only major change? It kills one of the sacred cows.

Dragonlord Atarka is an absolutely amazing creature, of course, but the format has shifted in a direction that makes us want a lower curve. Instead, this list has ten burn spells rather than the six to eight from a month ago. Also of note, the sideboard has a lot less anti-red cards (zero Hornet Nest or Seismic Rupture) and instead loads up on anti-Abzan and Stormbreath cards.

Moving forward, there is one Standard event left before the World Championships, the Standard Premier IQ at SCG Charlotte. As is often the case, if you want to win this weekend, playing a deck you are proficient with is the top priority. If you have a variety of masteries or just want to learn, the positioning I like for this weekend is with Abzan Control and decks that beat Abzan Control. The last time Abzan Aggro got this good (prompting more Abzan Control), the next Grand Prix was won by U/B Control.

What I’m wondering is, does Abzan Control even beat Abzan Aggro anymore? More importantly, perhaps: what is the best strategy in the format against both Abzan decks?