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Introducing Abzan Midrange To Pioneer

Did the Pioneer banning open up space for new decks? Michael Majors makes the case for Abzan Midrange with a list and sideboarding guide.

Siege Rhino
Siege Rhino, illustrated by Volkan Baga

Boros Wizards (Lurrus), Orzhov Auras (Lurrus), and Five-Color Niv-Mizzet are the early winners from Pioneer bans — the last despite the loss of Teferi, Time Raveler and Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath.  Mono-Green Devotion is still chugging along behind, ever consistent and powerful with its access to eight-mana creatures.

More broadly, attacking is a lot more effective now given the removal of Uro from the format, and Boros Wizards lost its Public Enemy No. 1. Beyond that, Lotus Field is always a looming threat if folks start slacking on sideboard cards.

Those are largely the rules of engagement of Pioneer.  Respect everything, and expect to get attacked.  That’s a pretty reasonable landing strip right?

On the non-cynical side of things, Pioneer is pretty wide open and looks to be in a great spot at a glance.  Naturally, as the format has moved back into a weird snapshot of 2016 featuring some impostors, and the demands of “kill stuff and disrupt them,” I’m pretty interested in getting as midrange as possible.

If Boros Wizards is popular, and there are pressures placed on you within the format to kill your opponent, my natural inclination is to move back to this old favorite (Also loathed?  Is there a consensus on this fella?).

There’s really nothing better to stabilize a battlefield against traditional burn than Siege Rhino.  It “counters” a burn spell on the way in, is difficult to remove, blocks effectively, and quickly closes the game.  Look, I get you probably didn’t need that explanation, but it’s been a while, okay?  Yes, Siege Rhino looks remarkably fair in comparison to Uro, but trust me, Pioneer is a wildly different format now.

I’d be remiss to not bring up my secondary motivation for looking towards Abzan rather than Jund. 

Archon of Emeria is critically important against Lotus Field.  It isn’t unbeatable, but backed up by a little additional pressure and/or a Thoughtseize, it might as well be.  Having access to such a powerful bullet with Traverse the Ulvenwald is a huge leg up in the matchup, as securing a Game 1 victory gives you plenty of breathing space for your sideboard cards to cement a match.

Archon isn’t even particularly embarrassing against Boros Wizards and Orzhov Auras.  These decks are built upon hyper-efficiency and limiting the duration of games, so putting both players in one-spell territory gives you a tangible amount of breathing space.  Archon also amusingly stops Bring to Light.

And now the minor one.

It would be tempting to default to Jund for Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger and its interaction with Satyr Wayfinder to try to “replace” Uro and model after the now-dysfunctional Sultai Midrange, but for the aforementioned reasons and the less sexy Shambling Vent, I believe Abzan is the worthwhile direction to pursue in the short term.  

Having effective creature-lands is a big deal, and if Boros Wizards is the Level 0 best deck, then Shambling Vent is a huge boon for closing out close games and avoiding sweating the top of an opponent’s deck — in addition to making late Satyr Wayfinders have utility later in the game.  It’s also a monster with Nissa, Who Shakes the World.

Let’s get to the decklist:


We’ve talked about a few of the heavy hitters, so let’s talk deck highlights.  

People always laugh at Jund Midrange in Modern and say that it’s a mopey 49% deck.  There’s also a massive gap between those who play Jund as the aggressor and those who play it as the “let’s exhaust all of our resources and I hope I beat you on the margin of a Raging Ravine” role.

Be the person who attacks with their midrange deck. This Abzan deck is built to attack. There are fewer things to get hung up on like Liliana of the Veil and a lot more discard. Your clock is slow out of the gate and you don’t have the benefit of Thoughtseize into Tarmogoyf of your sister format’s deck, but Abzan is still looking to close by Turn 7 or so.  And you’ll need to attack resilient strategies like Orzhov Auras or when your advantage is tenuous at best against Five-Color Niv-Mizzet or Lotus Field. 

Nissa is huge in this department.  I don’t need to tell you how strong Nissa, Who Shakes the World is, but between her ability to simply kill your opponent singlehandedly and how she turbo-charges many of your interactions (Cling to Dust; Tireless Tracker; Tasigur, the Golden Fang; making casting Emrakul, the Promised End feasible), she’s a critical component of Abzan and likely midrange strategies as a whole in Pioneer.

Tasigur, the Golden Fang has received little press in recent years, but taking double-spell turns to deploy threats is still a fundamentally powerful component of Magic, and Tasigur doesn’t face the traditional sizing issues against Gurmag Angler and Tarmogoyf as predominantly as it would in Modern.  That means his interaction is actually valuable, and as mentioned before, the “engine” of Cling to Dust, Tasigur, and Nissa is no joke.  And yes, although this is “a lot” to have going on, having a valid strategy to win the deep games is welcome when so many other concessions are being made to being relatively lean.

Frankly, I’m not sold on Emrakul yet, but it’s such a wildly different component to add to your deck for the cost of one slot of deck real estate that for now it feels worth it (especially with the movement towards Nissa).  Previously, it felt like these decks were hand-waving the fact that they could cast Emrakul, but Nissa into Emrakul is a realistic and game-winning sequence.  The question is, how much help does Nissa really need to win games?

The last weird one.  Pioneer is less resource-restrictive than Modern, so giving up the land is less of a cost.  The case is even more compelling when you look at the diverse cast of threats in Pioneer. From Monastery Swiftspear and All That Glitters to Niv-Mizzet Reborn and literal Thespian’s Stage, there’s a lot to cover, and I haven’t been comfortable with Abrupt Decay’s ability to handle the wide spread of creatures and planeswalkers my opponents are playing.  It isn’t ideal by any stretch, but like I said, the plan here is to deploy Rhinos and get them dead.

The Sideboard

The sideboard is actually pretty simple: some meaningful bullets to cover in a variety of matchups and a little bit of anti-combo (and anti-green).  As is often the case, when I’m building midrange sideboards in Modern, the goal is to have your cards all be on double or triple duty with splash damaging a variety of matchups.

In this specific case, there are a few incidental nods towards Boros Wizards — Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet; Knight of Autumn; and Collective Brutality can all fill a variety of roles.  It isn’t much, but we’re already making sufficient nods in our maindeck. 

I’m not sold on Ishkanah, Grafwidow and Languish, but I previously had Extinction Event and was sorely underwhelmed when I was so interested in getting on the battlefield, so at least Languish plays well with the strategy.  I generally like to have access to a sweeper in Abzan, so I’m comfortable with it for now.  Ishkanah is just a nod towards Spirits existing and it’s a fine card to have against aggression in general.

Matchups

VS Boros Wizards (Lurrus)

Out:

In:

Pretty straightforward.  Get leaner, play more lifegain.  Drawing one Thoughtseize isn’t actually terrible (and can often be used to take Lurrus as the games are likely to slow down), but two can be crippling depending on how the rest of your draw lines up.

Similarly, drawing multiple Languishes can play poorly into their gameplan.  Survive, gain some life, start trying to close as soon as you can, and cut their outs with Shambling Vent.

VS Orzhov Auras (Lurrus)

Out:

In:

This is one of the few matchups where I’m comfortable becoming the full control deck.  Their creatures size up and outscale yours so easily when they’re doing their thing (and Stonecoil Serpent even has the unfortunate property of pseudo-bricking your Siege Rhino) that you’re better off avoiding any kind of hybrid plan and instead just trading as much as possible and winning through your card advantage and Nissa.  

That said, this matchup is still fairly straightforward to play as long as you don’t get blindsided by All That Glitters math.  This is another situation against a Lurrus deck where you should consider sandbagging your Thoughtseize for when your opponent adds their companion to their hand.

VS Five-Color Niv-Mizzet

Out:

In:

If Five-Color Niv-Mizzet recovers and stays at the top of the metagame, that could be a problem for Abzan.  Our options aren’t exciting here, but it’s also extremely difficult to predict how this deck will shift post-bans in a new metagame since they have a lot of options.  Archon of Emeria shutting down Bring to Light might be worth the consideration of the second copy, but for the most part they’ll beat you in super-deep games, so you need to kill them.  

VS Mono-Green Devotion

Out:

In:

That “Out:” section is a little ugly, but you don’t have one class of card that’s particularly weak against Mono-Green Devotion.  In many ways that’s why it’s a frightening and powerful deck — it can get on the battlefield early and then quickly snowball with planeswalkers.  You need a spread of interaction and the ability to close them out before they can generate traction and start chaining together planeswalkers.

That said, at the end of the day, Push the Elf and try to never give up the battlefield between your Languish-proof creatures and a stack of removal spells.  This is the matchup where Assassin’s Trophy is felt heavily; it’s weak against the early Elf draws but really does cover you if the games drag out at all against Vivien, Arkbow Ranger and the new inclusion of Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider.

Pioneering Pioneer

Pioneer right now is great, and if you’ve been desperately seeking some traditional midrange Magic that trades overly resource-rich games for some scrappy aggression, I highly recommend you pick up the format and Abzan Midrange.