Frontier: Cruising With Abzan Vehicles

Ever wanted to run Siege Rhino next to Heart of Kiran in your Vehicles list? Thomas is back with an aggressive take on one of the format's best decks, Abzan.

In Frontier there are a few decks which have separated themselves from the field. Notably, Atarka Red, Saheeli Combo, and Abzan Aggro have all proven themselves and make up the format’s top tier. My favorite variant of Abzan is Abzan Vehicles, which burst onto the scene at North American Champs, winning it all in the hands of Matthew Hoffmann. The list is both explosively aggressive and resilient to common hate cards like Crux of Fate, Fumigate and Languish.

While some of my coauthors have advocated for blue based vehicles decks, they’re just too vulnerable to Atarka Red and Abzan Aggro. While you beat combo regularly, losing to the formats other best decks is not the place you want to be. Hoffmann shores up his aggressive matchup by playing two drops like Hangarback Walker and Walking Ballista over Scrapheap Scrounger. This gives him both more game against token based strategies and powerful top decks in the late game.

Compared with his NA Champs list, Hoffmann has made very few changes. With Rally the Ancestors seeing no play, he’s moved towards Collective Brutality in his sideboard over Hallowed Moonlight. Otherwise, his updated list is the same, which makes sense. His top concern is still to beat the format’s big three: Atarka Red, Cat and Abzan.

Abzan Vehicles by Matthew Hoffmann

Land (23)
Spire of Industry
Blooming Marsh
Concealed Courtyard
Windswept Heath
Caves of Koilos
Scattered Groves
Forest
Plains

Creatures (20)
Thraben Inspector
Toolcraft Exemplar
Warden of the First Tree
Hangarback Walker
Walking Ballista
Thalia, Heretic Cathar
Anafenza, the Foremost
Siege Rhino

Planeswalkers (4)
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
Sorin, Solemn Visitor
Artifacts (5)
Heart of Kiran
Smuggler's Copter

Instants (8)
Fatal Push
Dromoka's Command
Abzan Charm
Murderous Cut

Sideboard (15)
Duress
Authority of the Consuls
Tragic Arrogance
Anguished Unmaking
Collective Brutality
Ishkanah, Grafwidow
Hornet Nest
Anafenza, the Foremost
Thalia, Heretic Cathar
Ultimate Price

There’s a lot to talk about here. First, the sideboard: Hoffmann doesn’t dramatically change his strategy with his sideboard, which is something we’ve seen out of Esper Vehicles or Mardu Vehicles. Truly, that strategy dates back to Mardu Vehicles lists in standard which originally splashed another color for a counterspell package, then even began to run cards like Fumigate out of their sideboards. Instead, Hoffmann relies on insects and arachne in the form of an Ishkanah, Grafwidow and Hornet Nest. This, in conjunction with solid midrange beaters, fends off aggressive strategies. Against midrange he can either maintain his aggressive role, or try to grind with them, but lacks the true control transformational sideboard plan.

anafenza the foremost mtg card

Like most Abzan lists, Hoffmann’s deck seems better positioned against both red and white aggressive strategies than traditional vehicles strategies. This is, again, thanks to powerful roadblocks like Anafenza, the Foremost and Siege Rhino, backed up by removal spells like Fatal Push and Dromoka’s Command. His results at North American Champs, where he went undefeated against Atarka Red, further testify to the strength of this matchup.

Against the formats Splinter Twin, 4c Copycat, you have the required interaction if they try to go for the turn four kill in Walking Ballista, Thalia, Heretic Cathar and instant speed removal. You also have an aggressive enough game plan that they won’t be able to grind value against you into the middle and late game. This is one of the big appeals to vehicle strategies in general is your excellent Cat matchup.

Marvel or Elves combo could be a little rougher, but access to Duress and Collective Brutality in game two should give you some interaction against Elves and otherwise it’s best to race their combos. UBx control, or any controlling midrange strategy can also be problematic, but a resolved Gideon, Ally of Zendikar often just wins these games, especially against Grixis. Your five vehicles will hopefully overwhelm control’s artifact removal, but look out for Kolaghan’s Command, a card which makes Grixis more challenging than straight Blue-Black control.

Notable Cards

Warden of the First Tree is a great aggressive one drop that you can sink mana into in the early, mid or late game. If left unchecked it quickly becomes a 3/3 attacker and then threatens to single handedly win the game late. Generally I like the split here with Thraben Inspector which gives us a critical mass of artifacts for Toolcraft Exemplar, but lacks the late game power of Warden.

Toolcraft Exemplar is usually a one mana 3/2 first striker, which is above rate, to say the least. This aggressive one drop is one of the big payoffs to our strategy.

Walking Ballista stops cat combo, is an artifact to enable Toolcraft Exemplar, crews a Smuggler’s copter and can just win the game if things go late. While running this over Scrapheap Scrounger makes your Grixis matchup worse, in Hoffman’s expected meta this decision makes a lot of sense.

Hangarback Walker was the biggest surprise for me in this list as generally the artifact of choice here would be Scrapheap Scrounger. Walker is better against midrange decks where Scrounger will quickly be outclassed, though, and the thopter tokens can do real work against opposing planeswalkers. It’s also an early threat that can be a real bomb when drawn late.

Anafenza, the Foremost has been a staple in the Abzan Aggro deck across formats, even at times crossing into Modern. Her stats (a 4/4 for 3 mana) coupled with her ability to disrupt graveyard strategies, like the once prevalent Rally, makes her a powerful option. The fact that she is legendary, though, means that you can’t play too many copies without the risk of drawing multiples. Hoffmann elects to play two here.

Smuggler’s Copter is the best aggressive card in the format. It pressures planeswalkers, survives wraths and lets you filter your draws. I try to play as many as I can in these decks and like the four to one ratio with Heart of Kiran. In a list with access to four Scrapheap Scrounger you could consider a different split, but I think it’s hard to play less than four Copters in this strategy.

Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is the best planeswalker in the format. It plays as both an aggressive threat and a grindy token generator. It can also become a Glorious Anthem in a pinch, or when you draw multiples.

Sorin, Solemn Visitor is a solid planeswalker that does work in aggro matchups where he can swing the race all by himself. He’s less powerful than Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in an open metagame, as he has to go down to two loyalty to make a token. Two loyalty is a precarious number in a format full of shock effects and Lightning Strikes.

I don’t mind the three to one split here, though, as Sorin can just win games against Aggressive strategies, which vehicles has historically struggled with. It’s also true that Gideon is legendary, so there are some diminishing returns to running four.

Dromoka’s Command is a powerful removal spell, that has additional value against Atarka Red, as it blanks their burn spells at a profit. It also is good against random enchantments like Cast Out or Always Watching.

Notable Cards Hoffmann Didn’t Play

Elvish Mystic is one of the formats strongest one drops. The choice to play Mystic or not is an important one for Abzan lists. While it can crew a copter just fine and a turn three Gideon just wins in some matchups, it’s a bad draw in the middle or late game. In this list, I understand going with the more synergistic Thraben Inspector, or the more powerful Warden of the First Tree.

Scrapheap Scrounger is a staple in vehicles. I think the people that love this deck will be the people that have seen Scrounger do nothing too often against opposing Abzan decks and the people that hate it will wonder why it’s not playing one of the better aggressive two drops in the format.

Hushwing Gryff sees play in the sideboard and maindeck of Frontier Abzan lists.  The stats are unimpressive, but playing with at least some number of the formats most powerful Hippogriff is often where I want to be with Abzan. That successful lists have even put it in the main against threats as varied as Felidar Guardian, Renegade Rallier, and Torrential Gearhulk shows its strong positioning in the current meta.

Matchups & Sideboarding

4c Copycat

I generally don’t like to be on removal that doesn’t interact smoothly with the combo. Our core strategy is so strong in this matchup, I felt comfortable not making any radical changes beyond adjusting our removal suite. Basically, if there is a lot of Saheeli in your meta, Abzan Vehicles is a very good choice and I wouldn’t change a card in this seventy-five.

In: +2 Authority of the Consuls, +1 Thalia, Heretic Cathar, +1 Ultimate Price, +2 Anguished Unmaking, +1 Anafenza, the Foremost
Out: -4 Fatal Push, -2 Dromoka’s Command, -1 Abzan Charm

Atarka Red

They’re the beatdown, so we don’t want Toolcraft Exemplar. While shaving on a card as powerful as Smuggler’s Copter might be controversial, I actually found Walking Ballista and Hangarback Walker overperformed. Ishkanah, Grafwidow is expensive, but blanks their go wide strategy if you can resolve it, so is nice top end. While traditional Abzan is better setup in this matchup, we’re still a favorite overall against the format’s premier aggressive strategy.

In: +2 Authority of the Consuls, +2 Collective Brutality, +1 Ishkanah, Grafwidow, +1 Hornet Nest, +1 Anafenza, the Foremost, +1 Thalia, Heretic Cathar, +1 Ultimate Price
Out: -4 Toolcraft Exemplar, -1 Abzan Charm, -4 Smuggler’s Copter

Marvel

Duress is our best card and one we can even consider mulliganing for on borderline hands. You can leave in some number of Dromoka’s Command and shave on Walking Ballista if you expect them to be bringing in Hour of Devastation, but we don’t want to dilute our aggressive game plan too much. Our path to victory is to quickly curve out and win by turn four or five.

If you’re expecting a lot of Marvel, cards like Dispossess or Sorcerous Spyglass are considerations for the sideboard. Otherwise, they’re the faster deck and we struggle to meaningfully interact with their best draws.

In: +3 Duress, +2 Anguished Unmaking, +1 Anafenza, the Foremost
Out: -4 Fatal Push, -2 Dromoka’s Command

Abzan Aggro

This is reportedly a great matchup and, depending on build, can’t really be worse than even. Toolcraft Exemplar is better on the play, but felt awful on the draw when almost everything outclassed it. Feel free to mix this up depending on the role you see yourself taking, of course, as it’s still a powerful card in our strategy. Shaving more on Walking Ballista is perfectly fine here too, but I found it useful in finishing off opposing planeswalkers and helping our Siege Rhinos get by theirs. Hangarback Walker tends to be pretty powerful, especially as a late topdeck.

If they are staying aggressive, the life loss from Anguished Unmaking is actually a liability, so be careful. It’s still your best answer to planeswalkers, though. I bring it in just a little more than half the time, honestly. Dromoka’s Command is a risky card, but I try to leave it in when possible. Against a lot of removal do board it out, though.

If you bring in Hornet Nest, look for the games where you draw it with Walking Ballista or Dromoka’s Command. You can manufacture some nice value here. Of course, Tragic Arrogance is our best sideboard card and will just win a high number of games you draw it — even from way behind. Feel free to play a second in a heavy Abzan meta.

In: +1 Tragic Arrogance, +1 Ishkanah, Grafwidow, +1 Hornet Nest, +1 Anafenza, the Foremost, +1 Thalia, Heretic Cathar, +2 Anguished Unmaking
Out: -4 Toolcraft Exemplar, -2 Walking Ballista, -1 Dromoka’s Command

UBx Control

This is a pretty close matchup, but they’re slight favorites. Our vehicles help compared to traditional Abzan lists as they make us more resilient to cards like Languish and Fumigate. Still, game one can be hard as we have a lot of dead cards. Post sideboard games get better as we have a lot of discard spells to help push through our best card in the matchup: Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.

Anguished Unmaking is another consideration if they’re bringing in planeswalkers, as is leaving in Fatal Push for Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, but I generally just bring in discard and threats.

In: +3 Duress, +2 Collective Brutality, +1 Thalia, Heretic Cathar, +1 Anafenza, the Foremost
Out: -4 Fatal Push, -2 Dromoka’s Command, -1 Murderous Cut

Jund Delirium

Jund Delirium can be a scary deck. They have Kolaghan’s Command for our vehicles and we just don’t beat an early Emrakul, the Promised End. Still, our deck is aggressive and powerful. The key to winning is just to kill them as quickly as possible. Anafenza is also a key card, as if resolved early enough it can actually keep them off of both creatures and artifacts.

Our sideboard isn’t really set up for this matchup, but in a metagame where turbo Emrakul is popular we can consider cards like Infinite Obliteration and Tormod’s Crypt, which make the matchup a lot closer.

In: +1 Tragic Arrogance, +1 Anafenza, the Foremost, +1 Thalia, Heretic Cathar, +2 Anguished Unmaking, +1 Duress
Out: -2 Dromoka’s Comand, -4 Fatal Push

Combo Elves

Combo Elves has some pretty terrifying starts, but if we can keep them off their most broken draws with our removal, we’re in a good position to race them. Collective Brutality is one of the best cards in the format against this archetype in game two, as it nails their early dorks as well as Collected Company and Chord of Calling.

In: +2 Collective Brutality, +1 Tragic Arrogance
Out: -3 Hangarback Walker

Conclusion

Abzan Vehicles is a powerful variant of one of the format’s best archetypes and one which is worth playing. It’s at its best in fields filled with Saheeli Cat Combo and Atarka Red. Matthew Hoffman, the decks creator, also recommends it against Abzan. While that seemed pretty even in my personal testing, I’ll yield to the the reigning North American Champion here. Like a lot of decks I’ve recommended recently, you do need to watch out for Marvel. While the strategy sees a lot less play at the moment, if it comes back you’ll want to consider cards going more aggressive with Scrapheap Scroungers and playing Dispossess in the sideboard.

Thanks for reading! You can follow the rest of the team @mtgdotone and you can keep up with me personally @Nascarfath. I’m always happy to respond to feedback in the comment or on social media.

Thomas Snodgrass
Magic and Twitch enthusiast. Frontier grinder. Frequent caster of Torrential Gear Hulk into Dig Through Time (with counterspell backup.) @Nascarfath on Twitter.
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