Walkers Everywhere

Standard keeps shifting on us, and this week’s win for Abzan Aggro when the deck was believed dead just goes to show how dynamic the format really is right now. But there is one specific card that seems to be at the center right now…

“First there was one. I thought I was safe – that my people were safe – but just like that they began to multiply. We did our best to stave off their attack, but they came at us from all angles. It felt like they were falling from the sky. A lot of good people were lost that day as we succumbed to the Walkers. I mean, of course, that’s what we call ’em. Walkers. I’ve heard different names for them, though. Biters. Eaters. The kids have probably the strangest name for those… those… things. They call em’ Thopters… whatever that means.”

– Rick Grimes

It’s no secret that Hangarback Walker is a hell of a Magic card. They’re everywhere, from G/W Megamorph’s sideboard, Heroic maindecks, the centerpiece to U/R Thopters, and now, in up to four decklists from Grand Prix London. Without warning they raised Abzan Aggro back from the dead by granting it virtual immortality after a sweeper and working extremely well with the new tournament staple, Tragic Arrogance. There are a lot of people out there who think that this weekend was Hangarback’s coming-out party, but the signs that this card was destined to wreak havoc on the delicate ecosystem of Standard was written in blood on the wall from the moment it was printed.

Patient Zero, aka Jeff Hoogland U/W Thopter Control deck, put everyone on notice as soon as Magic Origins was legal that Hangarback would be a contender. Believing that Thopter Spy Network was the true engine propelling the deck, the signs were ignored and Walker was regulated to role-player rather than epidemic-creator status.

Pro Tour Magic Origins gave the Walker a similar fate. Ensoul Artifact and Shrapnel Blast took the center stage and, again, people looked past Hangarback Walker as the real threat. Sure, the price spiked, but folks were far more interested in putting scissors on a Darksteel Citadel or Ornithopter. It merely provided support and longevity. When Mono-Red Aggro won, it became a necessary component in sideboard to stave off the damage they could put out. Brian Kibler had four in his 9-1 G/W Megamorph deck’s 75. Hangarback Walkers were spreading.

Now here we are, fresh off of GP London with eighteen copies of the artifact appearing in the Top Eight, four decks based off of it, and hot Hangarback-on-Hangarback action in the finals. It’s safe to say that this card is no longer a piece of the puzzle in deckbuilding, but the very thing we must consider when building our decks.

I’m about to make a bold claim. It’s half hyperbole, but also half true. Take it as you will.

Traditionally the most busted formats are ones that revolve around low-costed, extremely-versatile artifacts.

For those of you not overtly familiar with the above-pictured cards, they all at one time or another completely defined their Standard metagame. Each provided extreme cases of free mana and effects that, for their cost, were entirely unfair.

Aether Vial is a mainstay in Legacy currently in Death & Taxes, but in years prior during its Standard legality it was the cornerstone in Vial Affinity, which is arguably one of the most powerful decks of all time. For one mana you could generate incredible amounts of mana, surprise people with combat tricks and even produce out-of-nowhere kills. It also saw play in Goblins and Merfolk.

Skullclamp required a banning. It was in the first and even more powerful iteration of Affinity, and provided ridiculous consistency for Vernal Nail (an Elf-based Tooth and Nail deck), Goblins… you know what? Pretty much anything that played a creature.

Umezawa’s Jitte was the catalyst for one of the worst formats of all time. You either played a deck that beat the legendary equipment or you played four copies yourself. Whoever had the Jitte was an overwhelming favorite to win because your creatures could be grown with the +2/+2, their smaller creatures could be killed with the -1/-1, and your life total could even be sustained by the pointy stick too. It was so bad that, near the end of its run, control decks were playing four Jitte in their sideboards to kill it via the old legend rule.

Vial? Mana efficiency.

Skullclamp? Card advantage and threat generation.

Jitte? Versatility.

Hangarback Walker is as dangerous as Albert Wesker. At first glance it’s a miniscule 1/1 for two mana, but from it springs forth death and devastation. A single mana grows it to a 2/2… and then a 3/3… and then a 4/4, and so on. That’s mana efficiency. Upon death it spawns as many Thopters as you were able to put counters on. That’s card advantage and threat generation. It’s unparalleled in Standard right now as a blocker, and as an attacker it’s essentially unblockable. That’s when you’re not combining it with the blowout potential of Dromoka’s Command. That’s versatility.

Am I saying that Hangarback Walker is as good as those three marquee artifacts? No, but I do think that we often undervalue the presence of a card until history looks back on it to see the effect it had. At its current pace, Hangarback is very, very dangerous but in a good way.

Here’s an example of the kind of deck that, going forward, you’ll want to add to your gauntlet.

Despite not being the winning list, a distinction that belongs to Fabrizio Anteri, I fully believe Matteo had the superior list. Matteo took things a step further and opted to not play Ajani, Mentor of Heroes, packing his deck instead with the very synergistic Wingmate Roc to complement those Hangarback Walkers that you’re never afraid to attack with because you know you’re getting value out of them either way. Wingmate Roc is a very, very powerful trump in the Abzan Aggro mirror, and one that we identified during Pro Tour testing as one of the best things you could do both before and after sideboard.

One interesting interaction is that of Tragic Arrogance. For those of you not privy to the card’s interactions, you may choose your Walker as the artifact you control and keep it, breaking the symmetry by keeping an additional creature. You can do the same for enchantment creatures like Courser of Kruphix – but in this deck that’s more likely to come up with the sideboard copies of Herald of Torment. The diverse card types added onto your creatures allows for better board states against your opponent in those Tragic Arrogance sideboard games.

One thing that may jump out at you is the deck’s blatant disrespect for Languish. Abzan Control is still one of the highest-represented decks in Standard, and each build is packing anywhere from two to four sweepers in the maindeck. In a way, Languish was believed to be the best way the kill off Abzan Aggro, but reports of its demise were greatly exaggerated as Hangarback Walker has provided the kick that was needed to resurrect it. Combining that with other former hits like Sorin, Solemn Visitor, the deck is far more resilient to the -4/-4 effect than it was before. Killing the brain won’t work, because now the brain shoots out flying 1/1 Thopters. It’s like Night of the Creeps all over again.

So what can you do to combat this new menace?

To be honest, I don’t think there’s much you can do at the moment. The best answers – exile effects – are fairly non-existent. Decks like G/W Constellation or Abzan Constellation don’t seem to do well against Tragic Arrogance or Dromoka’s Command, but their Banishing Lights and Silkwraps are two of the best ways to deal with it, as is Doomwake Giant. I’m not fond of Unravel the Aether because, as you saw in the finals of London, they sometimes just rot in your hand while your opponent goes about their game when they don’t draw Hangarback Walker. Ignoring it is also entirely plausible if you’re able to fly over it. A deck like Esper Dragons may do well if it’s packing Languish into Crux of Fate, but Abzan Aggro already provides a multitude of problems for Esper to begin with. Anger of the Gods is probably your best bet, but without a strong finish in London (I read it had a 23rd-place finish) is U/R Sphinx’s Tutelage already being outclassed? Perhaps we need to be looking deeper at the combo of Soulfire Grand Master and Anger of the Gods?

The core issue is that there are very few clean ways to deal with the advantage generated by Hangarback Walker outside of just playing Abzan yourself. Abzan Charm can handle it nicely if they ever get too greedy with it, and Den Protector can attack right past it. It’s time to open up Gatherer and figure out just what stops this card. Being able to take an already-powerful deck and enhance it to the degree that Abzan Aggro is at currently is certainly something to take note of. It means your next few tournaments should be spent figuring out how to best attack Hangarback Walker and going from there.

They’re coming for us, man. There ain’t no doubt about it. Whatever momentum we thought we had was crushed the minute they starting coming at us. I wish we didn’t ignore the signs. I wish we listened when we were told the Walkers were coming. We were too stupid to realize it before they had already taken over. Now there’s nothing we can do. Don’t make the same mistake we did. Be ready. Be prepared. It’s too late for us… but it’s not for you.