How to Beat Abzan

It’s impossible to prepare for every matchup in Modern; there are just too many viable decks and too many fringe strategies out there. And for the most part, it’s okay not to worry about having a positive win chance against every deck in the format. You’ll dodge some, get lucky against others, and lose one here and there. But there’s one deck in Modern you can’t just hope for the best against: it’s the most played deck, the most consistent deck, and the most enduring deck of Modern, BGx Midrange.

Two years ago, it was Bloodbraid Elf Jund. A year later, it was Deathrite Shaman-powered Ajundi and variants. Last summer it was BG Rock and BGw Souls, and today it is straight up Abzan. Thanks to metagame context and the mighty Siege Rhino, aka “Bloodbraid Rhino” in the words of Rock all-star Willy Edel, Abzan has the highest prevalence of any deck in the format. This naturally makes it one of the most important — if not the most important — decks to beat in Modern. There’s a reason decks have emerged specifically to fight this menace: looking at you, Wilt-Leaf Liege and friends!

Wilt Leaf Liege Art

“How to Beat Abzan” is the next installment in this beating top-tier decks series, following “How to Beat Infect” and “How to Beat Burn“. If you are just getting into Modern or need a refresher on defeating its best decks, these articles will hopefully give you a wealth of information to dethrone the champs. And if you are a tournament regular and format veteran, the articles can give you some new ideas and frameworks for approaching these critical matchups.

It’s no secret Abzan is one of the hardest decks to beat in Modern. It has been called the 50-50 deck because it seems to have at least a 50% chance of winning any matchup. It also has all the tools in the maindeck and sideboard for beating basically anything it comes across. So we have a tall task ahead of us.

As usual, I’m going to start with the general principles that make anti-Abzan cards good, and then some specific in-game tactics that are effective against the deck. Then I’ll turn to sideboard cards and maindeck cards, before looking at some deck choices for Abzan-heavy metagames (spoiler alert: the best way to beat Abzan isn’t with cards, it’s with decks). Finally, we’ll end with a list of anti-Abzan tech by color.

 

What Makes Anti-Abzan Cards Good?

One of the biggest challenges in fighting Abzan is the deck appears prepared for everything. Any bullets you have in your hand will probably be ripped away on turns 1 and 2 with Thoughtseize/Inquisition of Kozilek. Any single threat you resolve gets killed by Path to Exile, Abrupt Decay, or Liliana of the Veil. And any clocks you land are unlikely to race Goyf, Rhino, Tasigur, or a swarm of restless Spirit tokens. In short, Abzan is just a really efficient deck. The key to beating Abzan does not lie in being more efficient than they are, which is hard given how powerful their individual spells are. It’s in making their efficiency meaningless.

Here are three qualities cards must have to be strong against Abzan:

  • Generates card advantage
    Lingering SoulsAbzan is the best deck in the format at one-for-one exchanges. Decks that try to play this game with Abzan tend to lose, because their removal and threats are just less efficient than Abzan’s. But anything that can generate card advantage for you is going to be much harder for Abzan to deal with. The prime example of this is Lingering Souls, which can’t be reliably discarded, can’t be reliably killed, clogs up the board, threatens Lily, can swing for up to 4 damage, etc. All for one card! Even looking at less powerful examples, you want cards that create multiple threats (e.g. token producers), cards that have effects even if removed (e.g. Thragtusk, cards that recover lost resources in multiples (e.g. recurring cards with Eternal Witness, “drawing” cards with Tasigur, the Golden Fang, etc.), and cards that destroy multiple resources on your opponent’s side (e.g. Wrath of God). Anything generating card advantage on a 2 for 1 exchange rate (or better) gives Abzan fits.
  • Speed
    Inkmoth Nexus
    There’s a reason three of the Modern’s tier 1 decks are linear, aggressive, non-interactive strategies. These decks are excellent against Abzan because they can apply pressure faster than Abzan can answer it. In the case of Affinity and Burn, they also punish Abzan for its internal lifeloss due to Thoughtseize, shocklands, and fetchlands. Who cares if Abzan TS’s away your Rift Bolt if you still have a pair of Lava Spikes? What does it matter if they Decay a Glistener Elf if you have Inkmoth Nexus hiding in wait? Abzan only has so many resources in the first 2-3 turns of the game, typically enough to answer one threat every turn. If you are playing more than that, Abzan will often be too behind to recover.
  • Durability
    KeranosSome decks are neither interested in or even designed to race Abzan. In those cases, you want to play threats that are just plain hard for Abzan to kill. Batterskull is the posterchild of this gameplan, as is Keranos, God of Storms in URx decks. Unless Abzan snags these with a TS or catches them off a Lily activation, they are impossible to remove. Sure, Abzan tries to handle this in the sideboard, but it’s still an inherent weakness of their gameplan. Abzan is built around an assumption that every threat can be answered either before it resolves or after. Cards like BSkull and Keranos invalidate that assumption, because they can’t be hit by IoK (which is 50%+ of the selective discard in Abzan), and can’t be removed once they enter. This forces Abzan into situations where they have dead removal and can’t answer game-changing threats.

If cards qualify on at least one of those categories, they are probably at least decent against Abzan. If they qualify on multiple levels, they are all-stars.

Anti-Abzan Tactics

Regardless of which cards you bring to the table against Abzan, there are certain ways you need to approach the matchup to have a fighting chance. Instead of discussing more abstract principles of this matchup, I want to focus on three nuances of the Abzan matchup affecting how you play your deck.

  • Be aware of Goyf’s P/T
    TarmogoyfAt all times, you need to be aware of Goyf’s P/T. This goes well beyond just keeping track of Goyf’s P/T with a dice or token (which is potentially of questionable legality, but I’ll leave that for the DCI). It’s about knowing how big Goyf is right now, and how big Goyf could be at any given moment. Your average Goyf tends to be about a 4/5 (instant, sorcery, creature, land) by turn 3, but as the game progresses, even the slightest increase in its power can completely ruin your combat math. As an example, consider the Abzan mirror. Say you left a Rhino back to guard your Lilly from an enemy Goyf but your opponent topdecks a Decay. Now he kills Lily, pumps Goyf to 5/6, and swings for 5 against a Rhino that cant’ safely block. If you expected a play like that, maybe you would have held back 2 Spirit tokens as insurance, or kept mana open for a manland. This underscores the importance of tracking both Goyf’s power and its potential power at any given time.
  • Don’t walk into Lily traps
    Liliana of the VeilOne of the easiest ways to lose to Abzan is to play a creature into an opposing Lily with no protection. This leads to you losing your creature, the enemy Lily being unthreatened at just 1 loyalty, and you wasting your entire 2nd/3rd turn while the opponent developed their boardstate. For fair decks, it’s really hard to recover from this. Play around it. For instance, if you have Souls and a creature, wait the extra turn to play Souls before playing your Confidant, Smiter, or Tas. The tokens will clog up the board and defend your bomb from a sac effect (not to mention threatening Lily herself). Alternately, if your deck plays discard or countermagic, just wait the extra 1-2 turns to play your important threat with mana up for a same turn TS or Spell Pierce.
  • Burn to remove vs. Burn to race
    Lightning BoltIf you are playing a deck with burn spells, there comes a time when you need to decide whether you are playing to race or playing to control the board. If you are controlling the board, firing two Bolts to kill an enemy Goyf might be worth it. But if you are playing to race, those two Bolts put you 6 damage closer to a win. This choice is often determined by the boardstate and the life totals of both players. If Abzan is at > 15 life by turn 4, you probably want to control the game. But if they are at < 12 life, then FULL SPEED AHEAD! Decks with Snapcaster Mage need to be particularly aware of this decision, because Snappy extends your Burn’s reach well beyond what an Abzan player might expect. But also remember that Rhino is effectively -1 Bolt for your racing agenda. When playing against Abzan, make this decision around turn 4-5 and stay focused on it. It helps dictate your playlines and keep you efficient. For instance, if you are controlling the game, then Bolting a Spirit token might not be the worst plan. But if you are trying to race, that’s a huge waste of resources.

There are lots of other tactics we could discuss, like choosing Lily discards, prioritizing enemy threats, selecting cards from Tasigur activations, etc., but these three tips above are a great starting point to get you thinking about beating Abzan.

Sideboarding Against Abzan

Modern sideboard cards need to be flexible. With so many decks in the format, you can’t commit too many sideboard slots to specific matchups. A card like Stony Silence is an exception to this, because Affinity is such a large chunk of the metagame and Silence is so gamebreaking against them. But for the most part, you can’t have too many Silences in your board.

This means when boarding against Abzan you need cards that are relevant in other matchups as well. Why not focus on Abzan itself? This deck is so flexible in its sideboard and maindeck that you can’t hope for even the best anti-Abzan bullets to just win the game on their own (unlike Silence against Affinity). That means using diverse sideboard cards (2 Moon, 1 Relic, 1 Roast, etc.) instead of just going all-in on one card (4 Moon). Here are a few card choices that exemplify this approach.

Blood Moon

Blood MoonHonestly, Moon would be a solid entry on my top 10 most powerful Modern sideboard cards (maybe even top 5). So it should come as no surprise it’s showing up against Abzan, a tri-colored deck with a number of important utility nonbasics. One of Abzan’s biggest strengths is its manlands (Treetop Village and Stirring Wildwood), which help it punch through stalls, dodge removal, and mitigate the effect of manaflooding. Other builds also pack either Vault of the Archangel or Gavony Township as stalemate breakers. These cards alone would justify a Moon inclusion, because shutting down even a few of them for a single card investment puts Abzan at a huge disadvantage. But add Abzan’s reliance on fetches and shocks and you can totally shut this deck down with a resolved Moon. When sideboarding, this is an outstanding card on the play; Abzan has two turns to discard it from your hand or they are probably stuck on 2 colored mana all game. Even if they fetch around it to get basics, this often hamstrings their mana development enough to buy you time to do other things. Be careful of boarding this in on the draw. It’s relatively easy for Abzan to get a basic swamp and a basic forest in play by then, and Decay will ruin your day.

Leyline of Sanctity

Leyline of SanctityLeyline is both one of the best cards against Abzan and also the most misunderstood. On the one hand, it stops three of the strongest cards in the deck: TS, IoK, and Lily. On the other hand, if you mulligan to Leyline too aggressively, your opponent might just beat you to death with Goyf and Tas while you sit there trying to draw your third land after a mull to 5. Also, a lot of Abzan players will sideboard out hand disruption in games 2/3 in grindy matchups, favoring threat density that can be topdecked in the midgame. This further limits Leyline’s effectiveness. But if you are running a deck with a very defined gameplan that absolutely can’t be disrupted (e.g. Amulet Bloom, Bogles, etc.), then Leyline is outstanding and probably game-ending. Otherwise, don’t rely on it. Extending that to a general rule, if you are  deck that Abzan wants to leave its TS/IoK arsenal in against in games 2/3, you are a deck that benefits from Leyline. Also, it doesn’t hurt that Leyline is also strong against the format’s most-played aggro deck (Burn).

Damnation

DamnationDamnation and Wrath of God are two of the strongest sweepers ever printed. They also see relatively little play in Modern. There are some good reasons for this depending on the metagame, but if Abzan is your big worry, these cards become a lot more attractive. Damnation and Wrath are the archetypical two-for-one (or more) sweepers at your disposal. If the Abzan player overextends into these cards, the resource loss is often insurmountable. If the Abzan pilot plays around it, their clock is so much slower that you have more room to maneuver and force that overextension. Even just catching a Goyf and Spirit team is huge, especially if you used your 2nd and 3rd turns to play noncreature cards. That’s a massive card advantage swing. Your opponent committed two turns to play 2 cards that are immediately wiped away. You developed your own gameplan on turns 2-3 (or hindered theirs in some way), and then invalidated their turn 2-3 plays in one swoop. That’s the kind of card advantage exchange Abzan struggles to recover from.

Rest In Peace (and company)

Rest In PeaceBelieve it or not, Abzan is kind of a graveyard deck. Goyf, Souls, Ooze, and Tasigur all rely on the graveyard in one form or another. It’s not like the graveyard is an incidental part of the Abzan gameplan, sort of like how it was an incidental part of Treasure Cruise Delver’s gameplan. The graveyard is integral to its strategy. Cards like Rest in Peace (RiP), Dryad Militant, Relic of Progenitus, etc. are devastating for Abzan’s core threats. RiP turns Goyf into a Kobold and turns Ooze into a Runeclaw Bear. It effectively triples Tas’ average casting cost, and converts Souls into a bad Spectral Procession. The key with anti-graveyard cards is knowing which one is best for your deck. RiP functions best in proactive strategies; Relic is strong in more reactive ones; Militant is more a build-around card catering to proactive decks. Pick the card that suits your gameplan and deny Abzan players one of their most important resources.

Fulminator Mage

Fulminator MageThis unassuming Rain of Tears with legs is the lynchpin of the BGx anti-Abzan plan. If you are playing a fair black-based deck, then Mage is your go-to guy against Abzan. But like Leyline, Mage is also one of the most misunderstood cards in this matchup. At his best, Mage sets back the Abzan player a turn and lets you hit your Huntmaster of the Fells/Siege Rhino 1-2 turns before the opponent can land theirs. Or it pressures an opponent while threatening one of their manlands. At his worst, however, Mage is an awful turn 7 topdeck that sits there looking stupid while Goyf and Rhino charge across the field. In that respect, Mage underscores the importance of boarding differently when on the play versus when on the draw. On the play, he gives you a huge lead on turn 3-4. On the draw, he’s often too little, too late.

Because Abzan attacks from so many angles, there are obviously dozens of other viable sideboard cards that I could have discussed here. So just because it wasn’t mentioned, it doesn’t mean it’s not good! Check out the Anti-Abzan Armory at the end for more ideas. Also, just because a card is listed in the sideboard section, doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to maindeck it. Trinket Mage loves playing with Relic, and Gerard Fabiano showed everyone that Damnation is a viable maindeck sweeper in this metagame. Don’t be limited by a card’s “traditional” role in the sideboard!

Beating Abzan with the Maindeck

In some ways, it’s actually easier to tailor your maindeck to beat Abzan than it is to tinker too heavily with your sideboard. Those 15 cards need to get you through 1 or 2 games against all the weird and zany decks you might encounter in the Modern wilderness (a wild Ad Nauseam/Humans/Dredgevine/Norin the Wary appeared!). Your main 60 really just need to get you through game 1 and maintain some degree of relevance beyond that. With Abzan at 13%-14% of the metagame right now, it’s fine to hedge your bets against them to some extent. Here are some cards that can help you do this.

Lingering Souls

Lingering SoulsAbzan mirrors, particularly at PT FRF, often came down to who had the most Spirit tokens. Remember that pointer earlier about card advantage? When a single card generates 4 tokens over separate 3 and 2 mana investments, you know you have the very definition of “value” in your hand. Souls serves a number of key functions against Abzan. It creates as many as 4 chump blockers to stonewall Goyf, Tas, and Scooze; it protects your more important creatures from Lily’s sac effect, and it protects other cards in your hand from Lily’s discard. The tokens also directly threaten Lily herself. Finally, the tokens are a surprisingly fast clock in their own right, hitting for 1-4 damage per turn if unmolested by the best counter to Souls: the enemy’s Spirit tokens themselves! If you are playing BW in Modern right now, there is almost no reason to not use Souls (Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is one of the few). It’s relevant against all but the most uninteractive decks in the format, and outright strong against most of the rest.

Dark Confidant

Dark ConfidantBob is back! Original art, baby! Modern’s best black two drop took a bit of a break from the format, but he’s back with a vengeance these days. Why was Bob gone in the first place? Anti-synergy with your own delve cards, URx Delver’s burn suite, the overall prevalence of Burn, etc. These factors contributed to a hostile environment for poor Bob. But for a variety of reasons (bannings, metagame shifts, etc.), those factors are no longer as pressing today.

With regards to Abzan, Bob has always been a strong way to break open the BGx matchup for any deck, especially in the BGx mirror. But Confidant wasn’t nearly as powerful against Jund, a deck that could easily answer him with Bolt. Abzan has to rely on Path to Exile instead, which is miles worse as a quick answer to the Confidant. A Pathed Bob will still accelerate you into a turn 3 Rhino or Lily with discard/Bolt backup (assuming you are playing Jund). In addition to Abzan’s reliance on a worse one mana removal spell, it also just isn’t as aggressive as the BGx days of the past. This means Bob’s lifeloss is less punishing. And once online, everyone knows Confidant quickly takes over a game.

Wilt-Lief Liege

Wilt-Leaf LiegeSome people hate Abzan so much they build a deck just to beat it. Abzan Liege, aka Little Kid, was the product of some of Magic’s most innovative minds, working in collaboration between Team Channel Fireball and Team Face to Face. Sam Pardee, a former Pod player, was a big advocate of the deck shell, taking the more aggressive elements of the post-Rhino Pod decks and recasting them in a shell without Pod itself. The result was Abzan Liege, a deck that is designed card-by-card to dismantle Abzan. Liege is the centerpiece of this strategy. She’s a lord that pumps the rest of your team. She’s Decay/IoK proof. And between her and Loxodon Smiter, your opponent is locked out of using Lily’s +1 at all. Her pump effect is extremely valuable against Abzan, breaking open stalemates against 4/5 Rhinos, Goyfs, and Tas’s. She’s awesome with Lingering Souls too; as anyone who has played BW Tokens can attest, an airforce of 2/2 flyers is much scarier than a flock of 1/1s. Liege is a great example of a card that is nasty against Abzan but also relevant in other matchups. She’s always a lord for your squad and always a 4/4 for four mana.

Batterskull

BatterskullBecause Stoneforge Mystic is banned, Modern players seem to forget how powerful a card like Battereskull can be even in her absence. This card is an absolute monster against Abzan. Unless discarded by Thoughtseize, it just never dies and never stops applying pressure. Like Liege, the card is IoK/AD-proof. But unlike Liege, not even Lily or Path can reliably hit this card. Singleton removal like Slaughter Pact is just as ineffective. As the siegelike nature of the card suggests, BSkull is excellent at gradually grinding an opponent down. Just sticking it on a Spirit token is often scary enough to break open a gamestate. 5/5 flying, lifelink, vigilance creatures are really hard for Abzan to deal with using just landlocked 4/5s. That Spirit token (or anything else you stick the Skull on) will swing for 4-5+ life and then block to gain an additional 4-5+ life the next turn. Or it will take an Abzan creature with it to the grave before you suit something else up. Skull is great in this metagame for control decks that need to quickly get back in the game after stabilizing. It applies pressure and replenishes your life total, which makes it relevant against both grindy decks and more aggressive, damage-based ones.

Outpost Siege

Outpost SiegeAs usual, no tech article would be complete without some uncommon/odd technology choices. Siege, a direct import from the Standard metagame, is such a card. Like Bob, Siege gives you +1 card per turn to bury your Abzan opponent under a tide of card advantage. Unlike Bob, Siege is much harder to remove. Only TS and Pulse actually kill this card in the Abzan maindeck, which is a distinctive advantage over something like Chandra, Pyromaster — she’s still a good card against Abzan (see the end of the article), but her vulnerability to interaction makes her less reliable. Siege is also completely painless, which makes it feel like a Phyrexian Arena without the lifeloss. This makes Siege surprisingly relevant in other matchups, even more aggressive ones where life totals matter. Sure, you don’t want to play this on turn 4 against an unstable Affinity board or a Twin player with 5 cards in hand, but in many other gamestates it’s a great topdeck that can ensure refueling over the rest of the game. It’s a solid 2 copy inclusion in your red-based deck, especially if your metagame tends to be Abzan heavy or generally grindy.

The key when picking maindeck cards against Abzan is they should be relevant against at least 1-2 of the other tier 1 decks in the format. Or, if they aren’t relevant there, against at least 3-4 of the tier 2 ones. This ensures that you aren’t over-metagaming for Abzan at the expense of other matchups.

Deck Choices to Beat Abzan

As is often the case with Modern decks, your best way to beat Abzan isn’t always to tailor your maindeck/sideboard for the matchup. Sometimes it’s to play a deck that is just plain good against Abzan in the first place. Here are three ways to pick Modern decks to give you an edge against Abzan players.

RACE ‘EM

Race Em

Sensing a pattern with the How-to-Beat articles yet? I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again: Modern is a proactive format where you want to GIT ‘ER DONE as quickly as possible. There are lots of ways to be proactive in Modern, but the best way to apply that against Abzan is to just be fast. Play lots of threats, apply lots of pressure, and make it impossible for Abzan to answer everything on a one-for-one basis.

Burn is the archetypical fast deck in this category. Indeed, its Modern rise is in large part attributable to BGx Midrange, which it rose to combat (see GP Kobe in summer 2014 and the surrounding months). Infect is another example of this, both in its ability to recover from one-for-one exchanges, its innate resilience (Vines of Vastwood to stop removal, Inkmoth Nexus immunity to everything but Path, etc.), and, of course, its raw speed.

There’s a reason PT Fate Reforged was both the PT of Abzan and the PT of Infect and Amulet Bloom, and that’s because pro players took this “RACE ‘EM” advice to heart. But don’t forget about other aggressive decks — Merfolk and Bogles especially — when looking for options in this category.

Go all-in anti-Abzan

Metagame Em

Some players metagame against Abzan by throwing in a Batterskull and some Souls and calling it a day. Other players build their entire decks around Wilt-Leaf Lieag. When a deck comprises 13%-14% of the metagame, you can take metagaming to the next level. Don’t just play a few cards to beat Abzan; build your entire deck around clobbering Abzan and hope you have enough ammunition to stay relevant elsewhere. Abzan Liege was a breakout deck at PT FRF because it followed this strategy, and it has remained relevant beyond the PT on the back of both its Abzan matchup and the relevance of its cards elsewhere. Even against decks that don’t play Lily, Loxodon Smiter is still a 4/4 for 3 mana that can’t be countered (Zoo players know this well). Decks built around Blood Moon have a ton of strengths in this metagame, not least against Abzan; accelerate Moon out on turn 2 via Simian Spirit Guide for maximum table flipping. Add some pressure to your Moon deck and you have a strategy that wrecks Abzan but retains relevance elsewhere. Or maindeck Leyline in an enchantress deck. This is the philosophy behind Abzan Liege, and it’s highly applicable elsewhere.

Play a different game

Ignore Em

Abzan is trying to play fair and interactive Magic. The further away from that you can get, the better equipped you will be to beat Abzan. The absolute best example of this is Living End. While Abzan is trying to answer threats and play efficient clocks, Living End is dumping cards in the yard, actively thanking Abzan players for their discard, and topdecking one of their redundant cascade engines (or just drawing it at instant speed). Turns out Decay isn’t very good against a squad of angry Deadshot Minotaur[/card]s and Street Wraiths. In general, any deck that can blank Abzan’s interaction will fall in this category. Other examples of this include Restore Balance combo, Scapeshift, Storm, and a bunch of other decks that want to assemble some win condition and don’t care about a handful of disruption spells thrown their way. RG Tron is another anti-BGx strategy that could fit here, but note that the deck barely cracked a 50% win rate against Abzan at the PT. So although Tron remains a good choice against BGx decks, it is likely a lot less powerful against Abzan than it was against Jund.

The Anti-Abzan Armory

It’s time to wrap up with another rundown of some of the anti-Abzan tech at your disposal. These are unordered top 5 lists broken down by color, along with an honorable mention to acknowledge a situational or underappreciated piece of technology, and an “It’s a trap!” entry to highlight cards you should steer clear of.

White

Blue

Black

Red

Green

Multicolored

Colorless

Many of these top 5 lists could easily have been top 10s instead, so don’t hold a grudge if I forgot about your favorite anti-Abzan bullet. There are just so many ways to attack the deck and although none of them are gamebreaking on their own, some combination of angles is often enough to defeat Abzan.

In the next installment of the How-to-Beat series, we’ll look at the arch-nemesis of Abzan decks and arguably the second most important deck to beat in Modern: UR Twin.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE (4/8): Added a note about RG Tron to the “Play a different game” section.

Sheridan is the former Editor in Chief of Modern Nexus and a current Staff Author. He comes from a background in social science data analysis, database administration, and academia. He has been playing Magic since 1998 and Modern since 2011.

17 thoughts on “How to Beat Abzan

  1. I’m curious why your “decks to play against Abzan” section includes ZERO mention of RG tron; the abzan matchup is basically the reason to play that deck? You make zero mention of the deck archetypes that go significantly over the top of abzan; although that could be considered part of the “play a different game” category, the fact that you completely leave out any mention of that strategy is kind of a huge oversight.

    Grave titan, Primeval Titan (grabbing manlands), white sun’s zenith, reveillark recursion chains, sphinx’s revelation… These cards (and associated strategies) go so far over the top of abzan they have trouble winning games in which these cards come down.

    1. RG Tron isn’t as good against Abzan as it was against Jund. It barely exceeded a 50% win rate against the deck in the PT. From what I have seen of those matchups, this is because Tron has an excellent game 1 but a much shakier games 2/3, after all the Mages and Silences come in. It’s still a good choice against Abzan, even if not quite as spectacular as it was against Jund (Path is a big part of this). Also, it’s definitely in the “play a different game” category. I’ll add a note about it, just to be clear.

      As for those other cards, I tried to give a bunch of disclaimers that not everything got mentioned. You could probably write three articles on How to Beat Abzan because there are so many ways to do it.

  2. Batterskull is not that great vs abzan – the 4/4 lines up poorly vs tas/goyf/rhino (see thrun for more on this) and when the time comes for a big swing the germ (or equip target) can get knocked off by lili/decay. Replaying it for 8 mana is often too slow, and leaves other cards stranded in hand for lili/thoughtseize to pick off. Although sure if you find yourself with 8 lands out and a batterskull it should end favourably.

    I’ve actually had a lot of trouble vs zoo with abzan. Aggressive lists with nacatls and guides that knock goyf out of the way with a bolt or path, and more midrangey lists that have hierarchs sitting around invalidating liliana as a turn 3 removal play.

    1. I’ve had a very different experience with Skull. It’s not the germ component that is so valuable. It’s sticking it on basically anything else in your deck, which instantly becomes a monster. The playline is turn 5 skull, blocking an attack and gaining 4 life, and then equipping to a threat and swinging. Assuming you have any creatures at all on the board, Abzan just can’t keep up with this. The Swords don’t really work in that respect because they get caught by both IoK and AD. The other key for me is that BSkull is good in the metagame overall, so if you are playing it in your maindeck you don’t have a dead card in other matchups.

      1. Having lived through at least one instance of trying to skull my souls tokens and meeting: bolt, snap-bolt, path over 3 consecutive turns I feel a little less brazen about paying 5 mana to equip a creature with anything vs a deck packing significant quantities of removal.

        If it sticks, sure, boss. But this is not a card I’m sweating much more than say a baneslayer angel, thragtusk or gideon jura as an abzan player.

          1. its the same idea. You equip a token, they decay it, you equip another one, they slaughter pact it, you equip another one, theyd ismember it. This is good for you if they have no board state whatsoever, but if you’re taking 4 dmg each of these turns from rhino/goyf/tas you’ll quickly realize tapping out to force them to kill a token is not that good.

      2. I’m in a UWR control list and i can say that batterskull is actually quite bad vs Abzan in that particular list due to lack of creature density. Gideon, baneslayer and thundermaw are all better sideboard cards because they board out of removal vs you. Even then, good luck casting it on turn 5 if they manage to resolve a lilliana and you have to start discarding your hand.

        I can see what you mean about the equip thing though. Maybe in decks with higher creature density like UWR geist or Twin it would work out the way you said it will.

  3. Sheridan, great article. Could you explain why Go for the Throat is NOT recommended (because you don’t want to to play the one-for-one game), but Roast IS recommended? I believe in the one-for-one aspect, they’re the same.

    1. @Darcy: I agree that BSkull becomes much more problematic when you are trying to stick it on tokens against a million and one burn spells (particularly Electrolyze). But Abzan generally doesn’t have that kind of constant stream of removal. If they are Pathing a Birds of Paradise/Hierarch/Spirit token to stop my BSkull from landing on it, that’s not exactly a valuable exchange. They also can’t keep that up for extended periods of time.

      @Michael: Great question. There was actually an intermediate step that got me to recommending the card, which wasn’t at all clear in the article. Red doesn’t have a lot of high end spot removal. Even Flame Slash doesn’t kill the average Abzan beatstick. But some decks are stuck with using a card like Flame Slash to kill Spellskite, or because they want some more hard removal options and aren’t in black, In such a deck, Roast is a great replacement, especially in metas with Abzan.

      GffT serves a very different function; it’s just yet another black spot removal spell. If your deck is playing black removal, my advice is to go straight to the big guns (Damnation) when dealing with Abzan. But when you are stuck on red spot removal and can’t go to Wrath/Damnation, Roast is the best way to scale up your burn. Skred and Harvest Pyre are other contenders that perform a similar function, but they are much more situational.

      1. I’m definitely on the Harvest Pyre boat as it allows me to continue playing draw-go (UR Twin player here).

        Definitely enjoy the article series and giving me some food for thought.

        Another Blue/Colourless option that you didn’t discuss was Vedalken Shackles (dies to Abrupt Decay) but along with Blood Moon and the threat of the combo (can they be 100% certain you boarded out your Twins?) it’s another card they need to answer.

        I’ve also had success with Jace, AoT – +1 shuts down tokens, -2 gives advantage.

        But as you said – there’s lots to discuss when it comes to Abzan and the truth of the matter is that the deck is designed around resiliency – there is no silver bullet against them.

  4. I’d also would say that going bigger than Junk is a way to beat them with Control decks in the colors that kill their creatures. Cryptic Command, Snapcaster Mage, many removal spells that hit large creatures, bigger creatures like Baneslayer Angel and Grave Titan, and planeswalkers like Gideon Jura, Jace Architect of Thought, and Elspeth Sun’s Champion fight Junk very effectively.

  5. Great article, I’m really enjoying them.
    I was just wondering why there was no mention of BW Tokens? The deck historically and currently has an excellent matchup against the BGx decks due to absurd redundancy and blanking one-for-one removal. As a pilot of the deck I can testify that I look forward to the BGx match as one I can win without boarding.
    Just wondering what your thoughts were on this. Thanks again for the lovely read!

    1. @Val and Brad: Those are both great examples of decks that beat Abzan. In both case. This gets back to the point that you could have written multiple articles on how to beat Abzan, covering a huge range of decks, cards, strategies, etc. Instead of touching on every single possible deck that can win this matchup, I preferred to give a lot of examples and some general principles for deck selection. Tokens is a natural choice from a “RACE ‘EM” and “card advantage” perspective, and it’s no coincidence that a token cards (Bitterblossom, Souls) show up in the last section.

      As for control decks, one reason I did not focus on them too much is that I don’t believe this kind of deck is very good in Modern right now. Sure, you have the ability to beat Abzan with a UWx deck using Gideon/Jace/Angel/etc., but your other matchups are going to suffer because of that choice. So although you can use the principles in the article to steer your deck towards these kinds of cards and decks, I wouldn’t call it an optimal decision in this metagame. Which isn’t to say the cards/decks are bad against Abzan! Just in the interest of space, I didn’t really want to focus on them.

      The only thing I regret leaving out is the innovation space for decks like Modern Nic Fit and other ramp decks that don’t really exist but certainly could if built properly.

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