This past weekend at the SCG Open in Milwaukee, Abzan Company took home three Top 8 spots and the winner’s trophy. No other archetype even came close. Only three other archetypes, RG Tron, Infect and Jund, managed to get two copies inside the Top 16. Weeks ago, I pointed to Abzan Company as the clear front-runner in a post-Eldrazi landscape, and if Milwaukee is to be believed this possible future is now very much our reality. Today, I’ll give my thoughts on three questions. Why is Abzan Company winning? What does this mean for Modern? And above all else, how do we beat it?
How Did We Get Here?
In a fairly concentrated metagame composed of primarily linear aggressive decks, Abzan Company is king. When Eldrazi was running the tables, Abzan existed as one of the only archetypes that boasted a “positive” win percentage against it (as much as any deck could claim against a broken archetype). More importantly, however, was Abzan Company’s positioning against the rest of the metagame. Burn, Infect, Affinity, and similar strategies were too aggressively focused and “combo”-like to handle Abzan Company’s toolbox answers and general lifegain---thus these decks fell by the wayside. With Eldrazi gone, these archetypes have returned to normal levels of representation in the metagame, but Abzan Company still exists to prey on their weaknesses.
In addition, Splinter Twin’s removal from the format served to better Abzan Company’s position. It can now execute its gameplan with singular focus, without having to fight through removal/permission while guarding itself against a quick combo kill. The same aggressive decks that Abzan Company preys on are subsequently holding unfair combo decks at bay, further cementing Abzan Company’s position at the top. This scenario is reminiscent of the old Valakut Conundrum of 2011. Valakut decks in Standard had no hope of beating Caw Blade, yet they dominated all the aggressive archetypes players were building that “could” beat Caw Blade. Thus, Caw Blade kept winning, as Valakut players barred any unfavorable matchups from making it through the early rounds unscathed.
And so we come to the present. Abzan Company is reaping the benefits of an aggressively saturated Modern landscape that is simultaneously providing a field ripe for the picking (for Abzan) while also keeping Abzan’s natural predators at bay. R/G Tron, fast combo, and control archetypes are kept in check, and Modern has seemingly settled into a Rock-Paper-Scissors scenario of sorts. If our goal is to unseat Abzan Company from its (shaky) throne, we must first analyze it to determine its weaknesses.
Abzan Company functions as a synergistic “pile” of creatures that work together to provide value, disruptive elements, and the potential of a combo kill. Seven one-mana accelerants (plus two Wall of Roots) allow the archetype to skip two-drops in favor of CMC 3’s on turn two, and Collected Company (or two two-drops) on turn three. Often, the deck seeks to throw creatures onto the battlefield as fast as possible, looking to the four copies each of Collected Company and Chord of Calling to recoup lost value from low-impact mana creatures, and to tutor up specific responses or combo pieces at will.
Against aggressive strategies, a playset of Kitchen Finks, along with multiple ways to find/recur/replay it, provides incredible value. Seemingly narrow creatures like Wall of Roots, Spellskite, and Scavenging Ooze can be leveraged enough to provide surprising value, even in matchups that go against their “primary use.” Tutor elements and general card advantage spells in the form of Collected Company/Chord of Calling are strong in every matchup, particularly against control. The inherent flexibility present in almost every slot in Abzan Company works to build a deep reservoir of latent “game” that can aid any experienced pilot in working his/her way out of almost any situation.
At its core, however, Abzan Company remains a combo deck that can apply a functional aggressive backup strategy if necessary. It does not rely exclusively on its combo to win in the same vein as a deck like Scapeshift or Living End, but any opponent prepared to play defense will give it serious trouble.
Kitchen Finks takes the title of “best attacker” in the maindeck, and a single Tarmogoyf, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, or even Wall of Omens can hold damage at bay until Abzan finds either a Fiend Hunter or a Gavony Township to push through damage. By relegating interactive elements like Path to Exile to the sideboard in favor of a more focused maindeck configuration, Abzan Company has worsened its position against archetypes capable of mustering a solid defense.
Traditionally, players have found success in attacking Abzan Company’s graveyard, but these measures can only go so far. Rest in Peace is not game over, but Rest in Peace in combination with other elements of disruption (be they defenders, a quick clock, or some other proactive strategy) can be deadly. My personal favorite tool to fight Abzan Company has been the potent combination of Anger of the Gods, Damnation, and Leyline of the Void out of Grixis Control.
Leyline of the Void, while generally considered weaker than Rest in Peace, is immune to Abrupt Decay and can be played for free if in our opening hand. Few decks in Modern have access to both (specifically Abzan and BW) but many have access to one or the other, and both have their merits. Grafdigger's Cage is another option I’ve been trying out, but I would only suggest it for specific archetypes like Naya Blitz and Suicide Zoo (and it might be better for these archetypes to just try and get them dead). Grafdigger's Cage is cheaper and available for all colors, but doesn’t do much against Thopter-Sword or the various Dredge decks that are starting to grow in popularity. Remember, not only does graveyard hate stop the various combos, it also weakens persist creatures and negates the lategame strategy of Eternal Witness rebuying Collected Company.
To Kill a Beast
I’ve found success against Abzan (and the format in general) in two ways: going above, and attacking beneath. We’ll start first with Grixis Control.
Grixis Control benefits from an inherent strength against Abzan Company, as our ever-present removal works to keep Abzan’s board from developing and gives their creature-centric combos fits. Collected Company is their best spell against us, and we really don’t mind if they go infinite (we can deck them with a Jace ultimate if necessary). Abzan Company knows this, however, and will work hard to present a quick clock and disrupt our gameplan with Tidehollow Sculler and end-of-turn value spells. Getting poked to death by various 2/x’s in this matchup alone has me wanting to go back to a Tasigur, the Golden Fang strategy, as forcing them to bring in Path to Exile will dilute their draws and play right into our post-board gameplan of Dispel.
Dispel might seem like a questionable choice against a deck with 30ish creatures, but again, the only spells we really care about are Collected Company and Chord of Calling. Ten of those creatures are mana elves, and we care about none of them individually except for Scavenging Ooze. One-for-one removal is excellent against combo elements and mana creatures to a point, until they become extremely awkward against Kitchen Finks and Eternal Witness.
For this reason specifically (more so than an attempt to disrupt their combo) I’m playing two Leyline of the Void. Turning off Eternal Witness on Collected Company and ensuring Kitchen Finks stays dead is well worth the spell, however awkward it is to pay full-price for the effect.
All in all, this matchup is relatively straightforward, and Ancestral Vision into removal into sweeper into threat is often enough. Abzan Company is tricky, however, and much of their equity is gained from incredible knowledge of their own lines of play. Get familiar with the intricacies of this matchup if you expect to beat them!
Another deck I’ve been exploring is Naya Blitz with Thalia's Lieutenant. This deck is the real deal, and is also deceptively tricky to play and master. Currently, I’m on a slightly spell-heavy Lightning Helix version, due primarily to the prevalence of Abzan Company and Burn on MTGO.
I’ve talked about this list in general a few times over the past few weeks, so feel free to check back on those older articles if you want some general thoughts in the deck. Against Abzan Company specifically, our success is almost entirely dependent on one card: Champion of the Parish.
Abzan Company’s primary gameplan against us is lifegain and flooding the board with creatures to prevent us from going wide. Double Burning-Tree Emissary into Mayor of Avabruck // Howlpack Alpha draws are fine here, but much less exciting against Kitchen Finks than they would be against an empty board. Instead, our primary gameplan should be to maximize Champion of the Parish as much as possible, building a large creature that forces them to chump-block.
This matchup can vary from simple to unbeatable, depending on whether we’re on the play or draw, and whether we have Lightning Bolt or they have Kitchen Finks. Overall, I’m calling this matchup a toss-up, and I’m trying out Rest in Peace in the board to give some extra help. Reducing Kitchen Finks to just a trade, as well as preventing infinite life (which we definitely cannot beat, obviously) is well worth the card, and stopping Scavenging Ooze from growing to trade-level is just an added bonus.
With Naya, most of the time we just have to play the hand we’re dealt, and a strong cheap draw from our opponent will often be enough to put us away. This doesn’t mean we’re praying for a stumble, however; when we’re killing their mana creatures Abzan’s defenses are ridiculously slow, and post-board they still only have 2-3 Path to Exile (and we’ll have some of our own).
Abzan Company may be slowly taking hold of the top spot in Modern, but avenues exist to unseat it from its throne. Grixis Control and Naya Blitz are but two options amid a myriad of possible archetypes, and hopefully these two divergent philosophies in how to attack an enemy have given you some ideas of your own. Let me know in the comments if you’ve found success against Abzan Company! Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week!
The_Architect on MTGO