I have always loved the GBx archetype since it uses discard, removal, and efficient creatures to battle the entire format. Through tuning and experience nearly any matchup is winnable, a rarity in the rock-paper-scissors style of Modern. Within GBx, there are two popular variations that attack from different angles: Jund and Abzan. Abzan tends to be more creature focused while Jund is traditionally more removal heavy. Being proficient with both Abzan and Jund allows you to effortlessly switch between the decks when the metagame demands. Traditionally, Jund has been the more powerful deck, requiring two recent bans to keep it in check, while Abzan rode its Lingering Souls' in GBx mirrors to considerable success. Today both Jund and Abzan are tier 1 decks that, when piloted well, can take down any Modern event you attend.
There are no “correct” Jund/Abzan lists as every version should be tailored to beat a different meta. This is one of the selling points of GBx: changing certain maindeck and sideboard numbers can drastically change the deck’s matchups and play. This is a true tuner’s deck thanks to its deep cardpool and inherent card power. A generic GBx deck will do well thanks to the power of Inquisition of Kozilek and Tarmogoyf, but a tuned list will dominate by having the correct answers in the correct numbers with the optimal threats for the field.
Monitoring the metagame and understanding what cards help against tiered decks (without taking up other valuable cards’ slots) provides major advantages for open tournaments. For example, if you are worried about Merfolk, adding Dromoka's Command or Golgari Charm to the main can help fight their best card in the matchup: Spreading Seas. If Burn is especially prevalent then additional Kitchen Finks or Huntmaster of the Fells // Ravager of the Fells instead of removal may be right. Small tweaks like this can make or break certain matchups if you predict the field correctly, but can have terrible consequences if you overtune or misjudge the meta. Be careful. With that said I will be looking in-depth at one list each for Jund and Abzan to analyze what makes them so good against an open field.
The Ever Present Jund
At Grand Prix Oklahoma City, perennial Standard master Brad Nelson took an innovative look at the format staple to continue his Jund streak.
Fantastic looking on paper, this deck addresses many of the major matchups in its choices. In response to the aggressive nature of Modern, Brad does a 4-2 split between Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize. This reflects the increased popularity of Grixis, Affinity and Burn, matchups where Thoughtseize loses value while Inquisition of Kozilek hits almost every relevant spell without burning through too much life. Maelstrom Pulse goes way up in value with the rise of Merfolk and UW Control by hitting Spreading Seas, sets of Merfolk lords, and Planeswalkers GBx has trouble dealing with one-for-one. The deck cuts high end threats like Olivia and Tasigur to one copy each, using Kolaghan's Command’s graveyard mode to return copies of whichever creature is best for a given situation. This opens up more slots in the main deck for Maelstrom Pulse and the fourth Liliana of the Veil, which is great against Grixis, UW Control, and Bogles.
Brad’s maindeck is strong on its own against the expected Grand Prix meta, but the his sideboard is the real standout element of this build. Moving Huntmaster of the Fells // Ravager of the Fells and Kitchen Finks to the board allowed him to run more generally useful cards like Maelstrom Pulse while keeping them as life-gaining clocks against decks like Naya Zoo, Affinity, and Burn which are unfavorable game one. Nihil Spellbomb acts as a more flexible Leyline of the Void replacement: it's strong in multiples and usually replaces itself. With Living End starting to see steadier play, along with the ever-increasing popularity of Grixis, Spellbomb is a great tool to pair with Scavenging Ooze to control the graveyard. Brad doubled up on Night of Souls' Betrayal, phenomenal against Affinity, Infect, and Jund’s nemesis Lingering Souls.
I really like Night of Souls' Betrayal in the current meta since it takes away one of Abzan’s best tools to win the GBx mirror (Souls) while also shoring up other poor matchups and having incidental impact against random decks. As awesome as the Enchantment is, the spiciest piece of technology in Brad’s sideboard for Abzan is actually Sword of Light and Shadow, which invalidates Abzan’s plan to one-for-one and pull ahead with Lingering Souls. If there is one card that I think should become a staple in Jund sideboards against Abzan, it’s the Sword.
Unfortunately, Brad’s edits are not without consequences. There are no Fulminator Mages, Sowing Salts, or other ways to interact with lands in Brad’s deck. This is as good as a concession to Tron and Amulet Bloom. Though these decks make up a lesser percentages in the current metagame, running into them is a death sentence. Big mana decks that can ignore Jund’s one-for-one strategy are always tough match-ups, but without any sort of answer to Karn Liberated or Ugin, the Spirit Dragon besides Maelstrom Pulse, it becomes an even worse matchup than before. Even with all of the technology in Brad’s sideboard, Abzan is still a tough matchup. While he certainly improved the BGx duel, it is still not a deck you want to play against often. That said, I think Brad has constructed a great version to play in an open tournament like a StarCityGames Open or a Grand Prix.
Junk in the Trunk
Having dissected Brad’s Jund list, it is now time to look at my current deck: Abzan. At the World Championship, Thiago Saporito played an innovative version of Abzan that included Noble Hierarchs, Siege Rhinos, and an aggressive sideboard. Looking at his list, we can see he took inspiration from Wilted Abzan, along with the classic Abzan list, to create an accelerated midrange deck that has phenomenal late game grind potential.
This deck is spectacular. Relevant tools from Wilted Abzan such as Noble Hierarch and Voice of Resurgence really help against decks like Jund and Grixis. They put these decks on the defense and might even cost them two spells to deal with your one creature. Saporito's deck tends to win through grinding one-for-one and two-for-one exchanges until it can pull ahead through in the mid to late game with Lingering Souls or Tarmogoyf. Voice complements this perfectly. One of the biggest shocks for me is the lack of four Lingering Souls in the maindeck, a staple of Abzan since its creation. That said, Saporitio correctly recognized while Lingering Souls are good, fitting in the fourth Liliana of the Veil against Grixis decks and other controls decks is better. With that in mind, I recommend bringing the fourth Lingering Souls back into the main deck and moving the fourth Liliana back to the sideboard in a more aggressive matchup.
Calling in the Hate
While Saporito’s maindeck innovations are less explicitly powerful than Brad's, he creates a targeted sideboard that shuts down several matchups. Back breaking against Grixis and Living End, the three Leyline of the Void punish these decks that look to abuse their graveyards to cheat out expensive threats. While Grixis has always been a good match-up, Living End is one of the worse outside of big mana decks like Tron for Abzan. In addition, running two Sigarda, Host of Herons is a great response to the growing strength of Jund. There are zero answers to this card in Brad’s entire 75 if it hits play. Sigarda is an absolute GBx mirror breaker that can render a solid hand of removal inert, simultaneously closing the game in a few turns. Many Abzan decks play one Sigarda depending on the strength of Jund, but committing a second slot to the card acts as a further tool to beat Jund’s latest innovations. Another card I really like right now is Dromoka's Command, an utter blowout against Merfolk and Burn due to its two-for-one potential. It's even possible for Command to be a board wipe. Against Merfolk, having your opponent sacrifice their Spreading Seas at instant speed while also picking off a Lord can end the game on the spot. Similarly, in the Burn match-up, preventing damage from a major burn spell while also eating a Swiftspear or Goblin Guide can turn a close game into a cakewalk.
Brad’s list is meant for an open tournament, but Thiago's is very tuned for an expected meta. For an open meta, I recommend cutting one Leyline of the Void, one Leyline of Sanctity, and the Thoughtseize from the board in favor of two Stony Silence and a Golgari Charm. While Leyline of the Void is very good against Living End, the deck was over-represented at Worlds compared to most open fields. Grixis is a very good matchup even before the Leyline of the Void. Leyline of Sanctity is solid, especially against Burn, but the deck does not have an inherently bad Burn matchup and the slot is better used have an extra hate card against Affinity and Lantern Control. Finally, I really like Golgari Charm right now. Its -1/-1 mode does a lot of work against Infect, Affinity, and opposing Lingering Souls decks while its other two modes have blowout potential against other big Modern players. Against UW Control, having an additional answer to Detention Sphere or Supreme Verdict can end the game. In addition, Golgari Charm gives another piece of instant speed enchantment removal to blowout a Merfolk opponent attacking in with the assumption of Spreading Seas’ islandwalk.
This deck also suffers versus big mana decks such as Tron and Bloom Titan. With the addition of Stony Silence, however, you can slow down Tron and try to win a fair fight. While the matchup is still bad, there are many angles to attack from and if they stumble at all, you can steal a game one victory before boarding in Pithing Needle as a hard answer to Karn, Ugin, or Eye of Ugin. Other than those two match-ups, Lingering Souls really helps against many creature based match-ups, since it’s difficult to one-for-one against.
One of the biggest reasons to play Abzan, is the phenomenal matchup against Grixis (in all its iterations), Affinity, and creature based midrange decks. Having the ability to consistently one-for-one your opponent while deploying hard to kill threats like Siege Rhino and Lingering Souls puts a lot of pressure on the opponent. While neither GBx deck punishes slow starts to the degree that Burn or Zoo can, they can bury the opponent by picking apart their hand and resolving quick clocks that makes it very difficult to fight when behind. Another advantage of these decks is that they are designed with late game top deck wars in mind as almost every creature or removal spell is live in the late game with the exception of hand disruption and Noble Hierarch for Abzan. This allows the deck to continually one-for-one with opponents without running out of gas later in the game, an advantage that their creature-lands support.
After looking at both of the major GBx decks and their latest innovations, going into an open tournament I would still play Abzan. Its superior match-up in the Jund-Abzan mirror is just too good. That said, Brad’s innovations have greatly improved the deck in my eyes, and I would be keeping an eye on Jund for the future. Tell me what you think of these two decks in the comments and what you would play right now if there was a Grand Prix near you!