I promise that I tried to build something else.
No, really, I did. I actually went through a bunch of different ideas after Pro Tour Kaladesh — everything from Aetherworks Marvel to B/G Delirium to Jeskai Control to even Temurge. I even considered building something that used four Smuggler’s Copters, which would have broken my rule of “don’t build decks that use cards you were too dumb to pre-order, even though you knew you should have.”
OK, maybe it’s not a great rule. But the point is that I was about as open to a deck choice this Standard season as I have been in a long time. After all, everybody’s favorite big dumb Rhino was no longer an option, and ramp lost a couple of critical pieces. Even my pet Seasons Past deck from last season had lost Dark Petition, which meant it could no longer work. Right?
So while preparing for a PPTQ last weekend, I took some time to think through some of the most powerful interactions in Standard and how I could either take advantage of them or beat them. Torrential Gearhulk was a natural starting point; it’s a silly good card, and I enjoyed playing it in Jeskai Control at an SCG Classic a couple weeks ago, even though I bombed out miserably. While there, I played against an Esper Control deck that seemed pretty spicy; Grasp of Darkness and Anguished Unmaking are really good with Gearhulk, and Esper opens up Sorin, Grim Nemesis, which is still a pretty strong finisher. Throw in stuff like Blessed Alliance and Immolating Glare and you’re putting together a pretty strong removal package. If you’re willing to push the manabase a little, you can even include Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, which is obviously well positioned right now.
I also seriously considered B/G Delirium, because Ishkanah, Grafwidow is so good against U/W Flash. I have been known to enjoy getting Emrakuls into play for less than their mana cost (sometimes even free in certain formats), so that was an added bonus. Ultimately, I decided to consider other options, because I felt like it would probably be a pretty popular choice, and I have a bad habit of getting bored in mirror matches and losing focus.
As I dug through the possibilities, I kept coming back to one thought. The most powerful interaction that wasn’t being heavily played in Standard right now was these three cards:
So, yeah. I built Abzan. Again. It ultimately came down to the fact that this particular color combination offered me everything that I was looking for. Before sharing the list, I’ll break those things down.
Removal: I definitely wanted to run four Grasp of Darkness, because it’s a house right now. It literally kills everything in U/W Flash, it’s great against aggro, and it deals with Grim Flayer even if Delirium is active. Conversely, I wanted something that was good against it, and it doesn’t kill an Advocate if you have six lands in play.
Game-changing Planeswalkers: Liliana, the Last Hope, is simply too good to have not been a major player in this format, even if she didn’t see much play early on. She helps keep the board clear against aggro, she digs for threats in midrange matchups and her ultimate is just absurd. Ob Nixilis Reignited and Nissa, Vital Force are both strong five-drops, with their plus and minus abilities offering a lot of flexibility depending on what is needed at the moment. Sorin gains life, kills stuff, kills your opponent and offers card advantage. It’s hard to ask for much more.
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet: Kalitas is a four-drop that’s really a six-drop — or an excellent follow-up to an Ob Nixilis/Sorin — but when you can get a zombie or two while exiling some creatures, he’s a threat to take over the game. He also plays well with Liliana’s ultimate, but if you have both a Kalitas and a Liliana emblem, you’re probably in good shape regardless. The life gain is obviously good against aggro, and about the only creature that Kalitas really isn’t good against is Reflector Mage. That’s because Reflector Mage is a jerk. Spell Queller is fairly high on the jerk-o-meter as well, but you’ve got plenty of ways to kill it at instant speed for a surprise Kalitas before blockers.
Archangel Avacyn: Kalitas and Avacyn play well together, because zombie tokens are not angels. Which means that you can flash in Avacyn to save Kalitas from a kill spell, kill something on your next turn to get a zombie, sacrifice the zombie before damage to gain life, and oh, by the way, flip your Avacyn at the next upkeep. Fair.
Card advantage: The planeswalkers offer card advantage, as can Tireless Tracker. Painful Truths is awesome in this deck, because three cards is a lot of cards. Just don’t get it Spell Quellered. Aggro and U/W Flash don’t have a lot of ways to generate card advantage, so being able to do so gives you a big edge against those decks.
Life gain: Painful Truths, Anguished Unmaking and Ob Nixilis can hurt a bit, so gaining life mitigates them. Being able to make Shambling Vent a 4/5 or even a 6/7 is backbreaking in certain matchups; Kalitas, Sorin and Blessed Alliance gain life here and there while also helping to kill creatures. I even threw in a Nissa’s Renewal because I am a stone-cold sucker for that card.
With all of that in mind, here’s the list I ran at first:
I can say one thing for this deck: It beats R/W Vehicles. At a five-round PPTQ, I played against Vehicles three times, and went 3-0 against it. Liliana was great, of course, and Flaying Tendrils did some serious work out of the sideboard. By the way, ever cast Nissa’s Renewal against someone who’s on R/W Vehicles? I’m not sure exactly how to describe the sound they make, but it roughly translates to “I hate this game.”
But, my two losses on the day — I ID’d round 5 to get into top 8 — were against the same B/G Delirium deck. It wasn’t the stock build, but it still gave me fits because so many of my one-ofs were really good in the matchup, yet I couldn’t use them more than once.
Yes, you know where this is going.
We don’t have Dark Petition, so it’s a little trickier to effectively run Seasons Past. But the payoff is enormous, because being able to reuse whatever you want from your graveyard is never going to be a bad thing. Having access to Liliana allows you to stock your graveyard even more if you want. I thought about Mindwrack Demon to provide even more options, but that pesky lose life clause makes resolving Seasons Past potentially a little awkward.
You obviously don’t want to run four Seasons Past, but one probably isn’t viable without a tutor effect. I’m starting with two, but wouldn’t be surprised if one ends up being the right number again. With the card advantage options you have, you can dig pretty deep for it, but my main concern is accidentally milling it with Liliana or getting the first one hit by Transgress the Mind. I’ve also considered running one Seasons Past and one Greenwarden of Murasa, which might be the way to go. Greenwarden can’t do anything about exiled cards, but it would offer you the ability to -2 Liliana without having to worry about hitting your Seasons Past.
So here’s the next iteration of the list, without a sideboard yet:
The sideboard will likely end up being close to the original one, because it allows you to basically take out all the expensive stuff and bring in a lot more efficient removal. I cut Nissa from the main, but definitely want to have access to her out of the sideboard for control matchups.
This deck does struggle with blazing starts from aggro decks, but that’s true of just about every deck. But with the cheap removal and life gain, you can generally get to the late game, where aggro goes from a tough matchup to basically something you can’t lose to. Being able to recur everything gives you a way to beat midrange and control, and Transgress the Mind out of the board is still really good in those matchups. A Lost Legacy will probably be a good addition as well.
Overall, this deck feels like it has game against everything, and Seasons Past is still a seriously messed-up Magic card. I suppose it’s fitting that it just won’t go away when I sit down to build a new deck.
Casey Laughman is editor of Nerd Rage Gaming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.