Tuning And Beating Abzan In Standard

Siege Rhino is a heck of a card, and this week’s results at #SCGCHI still suggest it is a top contender in Standard even though another deck stormed the Top Eight. Pro Tour Champion Shaun McLaren examines how to build, play, and mulligan with Abzan in time for #SCGRICH!

Magic Origins has officially made its mark on Standard with the Open Series in Chicago. I would say so far that this mark is more of a dent than a crater. There weren’t too many big surprises so far.

Dragonlord Atarka is still good.

Siege Rhino is still good.

Pretty much everything else is still playable.

I would say if anything it was surprising just how dominant the Rhinos and Devotion decks were. Not to say there were no new innovations, Jeff Hoogland UW Thopter deck immediately springs to mind. Beyond that there was a smattering of new cards, a Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy here or an Archangel of Tithes there and even a Pia and Kiran Nalaar over yonder, but nothing that seemed to topple the mighty established archetypes.

The top already-existing decks have a lot of momentum, they’re tuned and already good to go -sprinkle a few new cards in and bam, you have a solid deck. Abzan also received some great new tools, and probably the two most obviously good cards in the set: Nissa, Vastwood Seer and Languish, which were pretty much on everyone’s radar.

Magic Origins has plenty of great cards, but most of the hidden goodies Magic Origins has to offer that will unlock new archetypes are still being discovered, if they truly exist at all.

So today we’re gonna stick with what works: Abzan. I’ll look at the best versions of the deck, how to build them, and how it might be beaten.

Abzan has a solid core of great cards and then many, many different ways to build it beyond that. It appears to be very hard to get an edge through deckbuilding right now. All of the cards are so good it’s almost impossible to be playing a “bad” card. How bad can a deck with four Thoughtseize, four Courser of Kruphix, and four Siege Rhinos be? Just toss in anything else that’s remotely castable and you’re good to go. It’s difficult to build an Abzan deck wrong… but it’s even more difficult to build it perfectly to stampede through the metagame you expect.

The Strength of Abzan

In a word: versatility.

In another bunch of words: it’s just dang good and screw you Siege Rhino.

Courser of Kruphix and Siege Rhino have been such dominant forces the entire time they’ve been legal because they’re so powerful against aggro and control strategies. Plenty of the cards are offensive, defensive, and card advantage. Den Protector and Abzan Charm also fit the bill in this regard. At this point in time, there is a critical mass of powerful cards to complement the core of Abzan, pushing it into the spotlight as the deck to beat, and it’s doing a good job at fending off all attackers.

The sideboard of your typical Abzan deck also makes it very flexible. I think there are plenty of decks that have a favorable Game One against Abzan, but very few that are favored after sideboard.

Finding the Perfect Habitat for Siege Rhino

First let’s look at some decks from the Top 64 of the SCG Open in Chicago.

Bruce sliced through the swiss rounds like cheese before falling to Chris Andersen G/R Devotion in the quarterfinals.

The biggest differences between Abzan decks is usually Deathmist Raptor or No, and Bruce is so firmly in the No category he is even only running two of the Raptors’ partners in crime, Den Protector.

He did make use of the new cards, though, with three copies each of both Languish and Nissa, Vastwood Seer. I think two will be the baseline starting point for Nissa, Vastwood Seer and three for Languish going forward. There are so many good three-drops already and Nissa, Vastwood Seer does get slightly worse the more copies of her you add, since you have a limited amount of Forests, she’s legendary, and has a low impact on turn three.

Taylor is running an unconventional build with two Dromoka’s Command and the full four Satyr Wayfinder.

I think Satyr Wayfinder’s stock is going to fall due to Nissa, Vastwood Seer since she fills a similar role with a potentially huge upside in the late-game. Satyr Wayfinder also encourages you to keep a low land count, which makes its chance of whiffing higher, while still making your deck liable to flood in the end. It also potentially mills your precious, precious Forests straight to the filthy graveyard which makes Nissa shed a tear. Satyr Wayfinder really shines when you’re running a full pack of Deathmist Raptors, or threatening to follow it up with a Tasigur, the Golden Fang. Remember you don’t have to play the full amount of Satyr Wayfinder (or Deathmist Raptors, as Taylor knows) as they do work well as singletons, since it’s nice to have options, and it’s often harmful having multiples gumming up your hand all wanting to be cast at once.

This is a sideboard I can get behind. It will Wingmate Roc your socks off. Wingmate Roc is great for breaking the mirror wide open, since it’s a very hard card for Abzan to deal with… unless Languish is involved.

Languish will leave you with no socks, crocs, or rocs.

Patrick McGregor’s list has a little of everything.

Ultimate Price is a card whose stock should continue to rise thanks to Languish. Languish mops up all the little creatures so well, which was previously a task best suited to Bile Blight, so it’s good if most of your other removal can hit creatures with larger posteriors.

A big part to constructing the perfect Abzan list is finding the right balance in the three-drop slot. Abzan’s curve has always looked like an upside-down pyramid, you want to keep it from looking like the deck is giving you the upside-down finger. That means making cuts. Few people have been brave enough to shave Courser of Kruphix despite it working poorly with Languish, but every other three-drop is suspect until proven playable.

Right now Languish is running rampant, as it should be. Smack down those creature decks. But eventually the format will compensate, and Abzan will have to adapt.

When do you want more Deathmist Raptors and Nissa, Vastwood Seers?

When control decks and the mirror are prevalent. Deathmist Raptor and Nissa, Vastwood Seer are good enough that the format will adapt to them. They are weak against fliers, unblockable creatures, exiling cards, and they are kind of slow. But they provide card advantage and inevitability which is sometimes exactly what you want.

When do we want more Languishes?

It’s hard for Languish to be bad, but it’s not good against the mirror or control decks. Therefore this is probably going to be the key decision point about the metagame for deckbuilders.

Languish hurts a bunch of different archetypes and kills a lot more than ugly footwear. Four mana instead of five versus aggro decks is a gigantic deal. Its existence gives more reasons not to play Abzan Aggro, Collected Company, and G/R Dragons. It doesn’t necessarily push them out of the format though.

It’s about finding the holes in the format. Are there too many Languishes in the format? Play control or Abzan designed to prey upon the mirror. Are there too few Languishes and everyone is trying to out-control each other? Play those aggressive decks.

Opening Hands

Lets go over some mulligan decisions with Abzan Control.

Remember to pause, think, and allow yourself to make what you feel is the correct decision. Taking a beat to pause before every mulligan decision will benefit you greatly. All too often, I find myself keeping hands I shouldn’t because I don’t stop to think.

We’ll use Bruce Edelman’s list and be using the new Scry rules.

Hand #1

You’re on the draw in game one and you know your opponent is on Goblins. You caught a glimpse of his match last round and remember seeing Goblin Piledriver and Obelisk of Urd.

Siege Rhino Languish Languish Temple of Malady Temple of Malady Temple of Malady Caves of Koilos

Hand #2

You’re on the play game one against an unknown opponent.

Llanowar Wastes Caves of Koilos Plains Courser of Kruphix Courser of Kruphix Den Protector Siege Rhino

Hand #3

On the draw game one against an unknown opponent, you’ve mulliganed once and see this hand:

Llanowar Wastes Plains Courser of Kruphix Courser of Kruphix Den Protector Siege Rhino

You decide to keep the last hand on the draw and scry to see Temple of Silence on top. Do you put it on top or bottom?

Hand #4

You’re on the play game one against an unknown opponent.

Temple of Malady Temple of Malady Thoughtseize Courser of Kruphix Abzan Charm Elspeth, Sun's Champion Elspeth, Sun's Champion

Hand #5

You’re on the play game two against G/R Devotion, having lost game one. You sideboarded out your Siege Rhinos for a smattering of removal and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and plan to win with removal, card advantage, and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion.

Temple of Malady Temple of Malady Caves of Koilos Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Elspeth, Sun's Champion

Beating Abzan

What do you think has the best matchup against Abzan in Standard?

Which of the major archetypes holds the key to beating Abzan Control without sacrificing too much versus the rest of the field.


I think aggro decks are naturally disadvantaged against Abzan right now. Courser of Kruphix and Siege Rhino were already problem enough, adding Languish into the mix only makes things worse.

Mono-red doesn’t seem to be particularly well-positioned. Same goes for G/R Dragons, since all those juicy 4/4s suffer the same fate.

Logan Mize capatalized on the shape of new format with W/U Heroic by building creatures big enough to survive Languish and just attacking straight through big green monsters with Aqueous Form. W/U Heroic is where I would want to look if I wanted to beat down.


I think control decks are going to have a resurgence soon. The format is relatively polarized and exploitable.

Notably absent from the Top 64 of Chicago was U/B Control. Was it so afraid of Gaea’s Revenge that it died off completely, or were people just not interested in playing it? There are answers to Gaea’s Revenge, not necessarily great ones, but Perilous Vault is great here and there’s always Pharika’s Chosen or Typhoid Rats depending on whether you prefer a Rat or a Snake.

G/B Five-Color Dragons traditional grinds Abzan into bone bread, but control decks running Dragonlord Ojutai are just asking to get Languished.

Thopter decks and U/W Control also appear to be viable. Hangarback Walker is a hot new tool and it’s not necessarily an easy card for Abzan to deal with, but Abzan Charm can threaten to exile it nicely.

I think control decks will almost always have a solid game one against Abzan, but after sideboarding to align itself against whatever your strategy is, it can be very difficult to keep up with the Abzan deck. Maybe you need to find a way to surprise them (and hope they don’t Thoughtseize your super-secret tech.)


Ramp is explosive and powerful but it’s difficult to find an edge against Abzan, especially after sideboard. You mostly just have to pack a bunch of good cards like Nissa, Worldwaker, find some new tech, and hope Abzan didn’t come too well-prepared for you.

Destroying The Abzan Mirror

Shave Languishes and spot removal for more Nissa, Vastwood Seers, Deathmist Raptors, Wingmate Rocs, and Mastery of the Unseens.

This is probably not a bad idea, but beware: if you try to beat your own archetype while still trying to fend off a hostile format that wants to defeat you, you may stretch yourself too thin.


Sultai Reanimator – Bring out the clunky enchantments and hope that Dromoka’s Command is nowhere to be seen. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy Nissa, Vastwood Seer, and even Liliana, Heretical Healer work well with Whip of Erebos – when they are reanimated with Whip and flip, you get to keep the Planeswalker. Whip and Flip!

Abzan Constellation – Crushes normal Abzan but seems a little clunky for the rest of the field.

Jeskai Aggro and Tokens – A little underpowered and a major grind to win most games, but they still have plenty of good tools to work with. It’s hard to play fair when people are tossing Dragonlord Atarka’s at you.


Those are but a few of the options you have now that Magic Origins is unleashed upon us. The coming weeks with the Open Series in Richmond followed by Pro Tour Magic Origins in Vancouver will help answer whether Abzan will continue its reign of terror.

Is it correct to succumb to the dark side and play Abzan as best you can, or stand up and say “There’s not going to be a Siege Rhino, Your Grace” and fight the Rhinos until your last breath?

I just don’t Rhino.