Modern Wilf-Leaf Abzan Primer

Thomas reinvigorates an old favorite: Wilt-Leaf Abzan. He thinks it's got what it takes to stand up to both UWx & Death's Shadow!

Modern is funny. While a format like Frontier or Standard has a real cap to the number of viable decks, that’s not necessarily the case with some of Magic’s older formats. The card pools are large enough that at any one time there are a number of underplayed decks which could be viable at a given tournament. The problem is that they’re either unfound or untuned. The classic example is Grixis Death’s Shadow, which took until the banning of Gitaxian Probe to be accepted as viable — let alone the formats best deck!

There are a lot of playable decks, but one list I keep coming back to is Jacob Wilson’s Wilt-Leaf Abzan deck from Pro Tour Fate Reforged. The deck, originally intended to beat Junk, had been explosive in testing that season.  I understood why it fell off, but wondered if Fatal Push might have made it secretly good again. This isn’t the sort of the list that will arise from nowhere to dominate the format, but it does seem to be a reasonable choice again.

This list feels a lot like other GB-based decks in Modern, in that you have very close matchups up and down the list, with a few matchups that you should win very consistently. This is the type of thing I look for with a large tournament in mind.

Updating Wilt-Leaf Abzan

We have to go back a few years before we start in order for some context. Modern had just been shaken up with the B&R announcement that ended the reign of decks utilizing Dig Through Time, Treasure Cruise, and Birthing Pod. Delver and Pod archetypes became significantly weaker, or non-existant, and set the stage for Abzan to dominate.

The list that Wilson brought was tough to classify at first glance. Was it Abzan Midrange sans Liliana of the Veil? Podless Pod? Abzan Little Kid is probably the closest to the “truth”, as the list is essentially an aggressive GW deck taking advantage of Wilt-Leaf Liege and Loxodon Smiter. The black splash was for Siege Rhino which was strong against Burn, and Thoughtseize to battle against combo decks.

Wilt-Leaf Abzan by Jacob Wilson

Creatures (27)
Noble Hierarch
Birds of Paradise
Voice of Resurgence
Qasali Pridemage
Kitchen Finks
Loxodon Smiter
Siege Rhino
Wilt-Leaf Liege

Instants (4)
Path to Exile

Sorceries (6)
Lingering Souls
Thoughtseize
Lands (23)
Verdant Catacombs
Windswept Heath
Marsh Flats
Razorverge Thicket
Godless Shrine
Overgrown Tomb
Temple Garden
Forest
Swamp
Plains
Gavony Township

Sideboard (15)
Thoughtseize
Chalice of the Void
Fracturing Gust
Relic of Progenitus
Stony Silence
Zealous Persecution
Sword of War and Peace
Ajani, Mentor of Heroes
Rule of Law
Slaughter Pact
Leyline of Sanctity

So, what’s the appeal to updating Wilson’s list?

Well, the metagame seems to have finally settled into a place where GBx decks and Liliana of the Veil in particular can be dominant again. Liliana has become more popular out of the sideboard of Death’s Shadow lists, but more importantly traditional Abzan has been putting up results again, taking down the latest online PTQ with three copies in the top eight.

Even Jund’s stock is seemingly up, with a top 8 in Louisville and multiple pilots finishing in the top 32. What’s more, GBx decks are not the only Liliana decks hoping to prey on Death’s Shadow: Logan Nettles’ recently went 5-0 with a Liliana heavy UB control listBW Smallpox still sees play online, and, lastly 8-Rack was reportedly everywhere at SCG Louisville, with Tom Ross making adding another top 8 appearance with it.

Players are searching for decks that beat Death’s Shadow. It’s been considered “the best deck” in Modern for a while, and I think it’s true: no matter how many twists and turns the meta takes you can’t ignore the Grixis Death’s Shadow matchup. Fortunately, we have a lot of leeway when it comes to how we can reconstruct Wilson’s list.

It already wants to play cards like Voice of Resurgence, Kitchen Finks, Lingering Souls and Path to Exile. Fatal Push is a natural inclusion in this strategy, as well as Abrupt Decay. Loxodon Hierarch and Wilt-Leaf Liege also have utility against heavy discard strategies too. With less Burn running around, it makes versatile threats like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar a whole lot stronger too.

The other story of SCG Louisville was UWx control with both the Open and Classic ending with UWx control beating UWx control in the finals. That’s not a major surprise as the archetype has been slowly rising in popularity for sometime. I agree with our own Riley Knight that UWx control “is better positioned than it’s ever been.” Indeed, Jeskai control made the top eight of SCG Syracuse and put two in the top eight of SCG Richmond, so these results weren’t a surprise.

While this is traditionally not a great matchup for Thoughtseize-less Junk decks, Liege encourages us to go heavy on Voice of Resurgence and Kitchen Finks, which are traditionally quite good against UWx. Gaddock Teeg has been performing well out of the sideboard too against Jeskai as it stops both Cryptic Command and Supreme Verdict. We also have plenty of answers to Spell Queller and Finks gives us game against the “bad burn” plan.

All in all, our matchup against UWx isn’t too terrible. However, we’ll want to keep an eye on the metagame and see if any archetypes start trending upward. We’ll also need to account for other mainstays like Affinity, Eldrazi Tron, Burn, Primeval Titan, Collected Company, and Storm strategies.

Wilt-Leaf Abzan by Thomas Snodgrass

Creature (21)
Noble Hierarch
Birds of Paradise
Voice of Resurgence
Kitchen Finks
Loxodon Smiter
Siege Rhino
Wilt-Leaf Liege

Instant (10)
Fatal Push
Path to Exile
Abrupt Decay

Sorcery (4)
Lingering Souls
Maelstrom Pulse

Planeswalkers (2)
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
Lands (23)
Verdant Catacombs
Windswept Heath
Razorverge Thicket
Stirring Wildwood
Godless Shrine
Overgrown Tomb
Temple Garden
Forest
Swamp
Plains
Gavony Township

Sideboard (15)
Fatal Push
Grafdigger's Cage
Nihil Spellbomb
Gaddock Teeg
Aven Mindcensor
Thoughtseize
Sin Collector
Stony Silence
Zealous Persecution
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar

While Jacob’s list played four Path to Exile and two Thoughtseize, I’m all the way up to eleven hard removal spells. That may seem extreme, but answering the threats from decks like Grixis Death’s Shadow, Affinity, Abzan and Eldrazi Tron is very important right now. Even Jeskai Control demands answers to Spell Queller. In a removal heavy metagame, threats like Voice of Resurgence, Kitchen Finks, Lingering Souls and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar are particularly valuable. Siege Rhino and Wilt-Leaf Liege still give us value in our grindier matchups as the lightning helix effect isn’t worthless and Liege either seriously affects the strength of discard spells from decks like Grixis Shadow and Abzan, or can punish them for tapping out.

While I take Reid Duke and his opinion on Path to Exile seriously, in a more aggressive list like this, I think it’s high impact enough to answer all of the more problematic threats from Eldrazi Tron and Grixis Death’s Shadow.  While casting Path on Primeval Titan or Gideon Jura is often a dubious proposition, it’s an interaction which comes up. Fatal Push doesn’t give us those options and it’s important to minimize dead cards in a format as powerful as Modern.

With that in mind, I’ve gone heavy on Abrupt Decay. It allows us to answer problematic planeswalkers like Gideon of the Trials or Liliana, the Last Hope. It also answers prison strategies like Ensnaring Bridge, Blood Moon and amongst other non-creature threats (while being uncounterable removal against Death’s Shadow.) For similar reasons I like Maelstrom Pulse and would run more, but three mana is a lot for a sorcery speed removal spell.

This iteration of Abzan has tested well. It has an excellent Death’s Shadow matchup, and an equally positive GBx matchup. It feels good against aggro, and is about even with control. The combo matchup is weak, but Death’s Shadow seems to be keeping these decks somewhat in check. I’d be quite happy running this seventy-five in the current metagame. If you want to hedge against combo, I’d bring Thoughtseize back into the main and play Rule of Law in the sideboard.

Notable Cards

Noble Hierarch is one of the most potent one-drops in the format and perfect for our list. It’s hard to cast this many three and four drops in Modern without mana accelerants. Too many decks are reliable at killing you by turn four. Birds of Paradise fixes all of our colors, but Hierarch gives us green, white, and that lovely exalted trigger. As a base Green White deck, Hierarch is preferable.

Voice of Resurgence is a consistently excellent two drop. Cards like Voice which give you value in the face of removal spells are particularly appealing. It’s gets the double pumped from Wilt-Leaf Liege, and punishes most forms of interaction. It’s particularly effective against early aggression from Death’s Shadow — it’s an early blocker and offers a little extra play against cards like Stubborn Denial.

Loxodon Smiter is unassuming. While three mana for 4/4 is a good rate, in a format with two mana 4/5s, we can do better. Where it gets more interesting is its text which allows you the option of playing an uncounterable threat into open mana early against control and which paralyzes Liliana of the Veil decks. Some of our most aggressive curves involve Hierarch, into Smiter, into Wilt-Leaf Liege, and swinging with a 7/7 on turn three. Combo isn’t the only one who can kill on turn four!

Wilt-Leaf Liege is the namesake card of our deck. As with Smiter, the anti-discard text is relevant, and the deck is built to leverage her double pump effect with our multi-colored creatures and token producers. Oftentimes we’ll save her until the opponent taps out, and use her as a sort of overrun to win the game out of nowhere. Lingering Souls, on the other hand, is one of the draws to playing white in the first place. It fits perfectly with our theme of  resilient threats that synergize with Wilt-Leaf Liege. There are also plenty of decks which just can’t answer a flying army— especially in tandem with a Gideon emblem or an active Gavony Township.

Gideon, Ally of Zendikar generally sees play out of sideboards in Junk decks. I started with one, and in a lot of matchups it was the card I most wanted to draw. By the end of testing, I was up to three copies in my seventy-five and never regretted it. It’s a great card to ramp into game one, as some decks just lose to a resolved Gideon.  The stream of tokens also plays well with the pump effects from Liege and Township. When you need to race, not many are faster than Gideon.

Alternative Card Choices & Considerations

Qasali Pridemage isn’t the worst. It’s interaction against Affinity along with the exalted triggers can make our attackers larger than anything even Eldrazi Tron can muster. Against burn it can even force a trade with Eidolon of the Great Revel. Still, I’ve been expecting a lot of removal and tend to favor cards like Kitchen Finks and Voice of Resurgence, which are good against both control and Death’s Shadow, where the Pridemage is relatively weak.

Anafenza, the Foremost is a good choice when Dredge is out in full force, as it can be played as early as turn two. While Dredge is clearly tier one, it’s been seeing slightly less play lately, and so I’ve felt fine with my current configuration. The mana is a little more demanding than Finks and Smiter, but the graveyard hate and ability to grow your creatures are both relevant. Generally, she doesn’t make the cut, but it packs a lot of game against a lot of decks, like if Nick shows up with his favorite deck.

Duress is just a stand in for more combo interaction. After his run to the top eight, Wilson somewhat critically discussed his play at the event. He boldly recommended scrapping his entire sideboard for the following:

Now, while the exact numbers may need updating, but his point remains.

Given the fact that the maindeck is well suited for attrition-based matchups, the sideboard should be geared toward unfair/combo decks.

So, why are we seemingly going in the opposite direction? There’s a few reasons for this. In a format as diverse as Modern, you really have to pick your battles, and we do have a plan against combo even if we’re generally unfavored. Second, a lot of our answers are tuned for the current meta, so of course it’s different. It’s probably not a stretch to say that we have thirteen cards targeted towards today’s unfair and combo decks and only Fatal Push and Gideon for fair decks.

Thanks for reading! The nitty gritty sideboard plans will be posted in the next day or so – the editor needs to get it Ixal-ON at the prerelease too! Follow MTG.one on Twitter, and feel free to give me a shout as well!

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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