At the end of my last piece (Modern Wilt-Leaf Abzan Primer), I brought up Jacob Wilson’s autocritique. In effect, Wilson questioned his original builds vulnerability to combo decks and his use of cards like Sword of War and Peace and Ajani, Mentor of Heroes in the sideboard. He then recommended a move towards seven discard spells in his seventy-five. This was also the largest critique of the strategy in my /r/spikes Addendum. I’ll finish this analysis which was teased at last week, then move on to a traditional sideboard and matchups guide.
First, though, a little more history. In part one we focused on Jacob Wilson’s list, but our list is also a successor to user con2053’s 5-0 list from an August 2016 league. This list was one of the first to begin to cut down on creatures spells (cutting Quasali Pridemage, two Birds of Paradise and shaving on other creatures to make room for Tarmogoyf and two more pieces of interaction.) In his seventy-five we find four discard spells, eight removal spells and otherwise Wilson’s core creature package.
There are other lists of influence such as Pascal Werkman’s from July of 2016 and Defcon Castellanza Selesnya Aggro list from this same time period, but it’s worth looking at Jackson Miller’s January 2017 Top 8 list from a ninety-nine player Nerd Rage Gaming Championship Trial. This is where we start to see numbers like three discard spells in the seventy-five, Abrupt Decay main and the move towards the eight fetchland, four shock, three Razorverge Thicket manabase we use.
In April of this year user Yuhy went on a string of 5-0 finishes in Modern Leagues with an Eldritch Evolution build of this list where we first see Gaddock Teeg emerge in the seventy-five. Teeg is an excellent innovation, as he locks out combo and control decks, while also progressing our aggressive game plan. He’s also a gold creature for Wilt-Leaf Liege synergies.
The list most similar to ours is Jaymond Mead’s Top 8 List from the May Classic in Louisville. While Mead had a slightly different sideboard, his list is also heavy on a tokens subtheme (two Gideons, three Lingering Souls), includes ten removal spells and limits his discard to two Thoughtseizes in the seventy-five. This list is followed by user Namkrew___Lacsap’s 26th place finish in an online PTQ this July, as well as a similar build at a smaller StarCityGames.com Invitational Qualifier before Wilt-Leaf Liege strategies largely disappear again. One point in common in all of these last three builds is the lack of discard in the main, so why is this?
- Our manabase
- The ramp aspect of our strategy
- The aggressive element of our strategy
First let’s take a second look at our list, focusing on the manabase.
Wilt-Leaf Abzan by Thomas Snodgrass
4 Noble Hierarch
2 Birds of Paradise
4 Voice of Resurgence
3 Kitchen Finks
3 Loxodon Smiter
2 Siege Rhino
3 Wilt-Leaf Liege
3 Fatal Push
4 Path to Exile
3 Abrupt Decay
3 Lingering Souls
1 Maelstrom Pulse
2 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Windswept Heath
3 Razorverge Thicket
2 Stirring Wildwood
1 Godless Shrine
1 Overgrown Tomb
2 Temple Garden
2 Gavony Township
1 Fatal Push
1 Grafdigger's Cage
2 Nihil Spellbomb
2 Gaddock Teeg
2 Aven Mindcensor
1 Sin Collector
2 Stony Silence
1 Zealous Persecution
1 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
This list has twenty-three lands, eight of which are fetchlands. This gives us four utility slots, of which two enter the battlefield tapped. While lists like Wilson’s or Miller’s which have four Birds of Paradise along with four Noble Hierarch‘s should avoid Stirring Wildwood, as a deck which is naturally trying to ramp into larger threats, there is a real advantage to finding mana sources which double as threats.
Stirring Wildwood is a good example of this as it can block fliers in a pinch, but also plays quite aggressively in tandem with Wilt-Leaf Liege. Our manabase is also less painful than traditional Junk and Jund lists thanks to slightly fewer fetchlands and three copies of Razorverge Thicket which, along with Kitchen Finks and Siege Rhino, gives us a positive burn matchup.
Counting fetchlands, we have eighteen green sources, seventeen white sources and eleven black sources. While our two Birds of Paradise tap for black mana also, I’m not counting them here. If we wanted to use the gospel according to Frank Karsten’s methodology, which counts each birds as half of a source, we have twelve. This isn’t enough black sources to rely on more than two Thoughtseize in the seventy-five and incentivizes us to answer threats after they’ve resolved.
One of the advantages to this deck is it’s essentially a Green White aggressive deck, splashing black for Lingering Souls, removal spells and sideboard cards — all of which play well in the midgame, when we will reliably have black mana. That allows us to have excellent mana for our core strategy alongside utility lands like Gavony Township. To move towards extra copies of cards like Thoughtseize and Duress we would want to add Marsh Flats and cut some number of utility lands or copies of Razorverge Thicket.
We’re also simply not a Liliana of the Veil attrition strategy, as we have both a ramp aspect and an aggressive bent to our deck. In that sense the removal spells do a good job of providing tempo and clearing the way for our own threats, which, while resilient to removal, can be outclassed by opposing board states without Wilt-Leaf Liege, or a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar emblem.
This takes away part of the value of discard, which is to situationally strip the opposition of key removal spells. Most of our threats shrug off removal, or are tokens. So, we don’t particularly care about cards like Fatal Push or Lightning Bolt. Similarly, as a deck that is trying to ramp into cards like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or early Gavony Township activations, we’re often able to take advantage of the mana from Path to Exile on a Voice or Kitchen Finks.
Generally, my philosophy is that I’d rather have a better overall expected win percentage and some feel bad games, than the reverse. You would much rather have a better chance of winning a given tournament, but feel helpless game one against certain play patterns. This is even more so the case when you still have a realistic path to victory game one and a high number of options in your sideboard, as is the case here.
That’s the reasoning behind the current build. Another time, perhaps, I’ll explore a version of this list with six or seven discard spells in the seventy-five, or an Eldritch Evolution toolbox variant. Let’s now turn to the sideboard cards we’re choosing to play, before discussing matchups.
Sideboard Theory and Matchups
In Modern you want to be frequently adjusting your sideboard. We’ll cover the current fifteen, but you’ll want to update this for the expected metagame of each given event or tournament. Beyond the previous discussion on discard spells, there are also variants like Magic Online user Yuhy has used which have a more toolbox feel. As we’re often becoming more threat dense in sideboarded games and trimming cards like Birds of Paradise, we’ve simply opted for a traditional sideboard strategy in this iteration.
Fatal Push – While it may seem strange to play with our most powerful removal spell in the sideboard, with the recent rise of Titan Shift and UWx control, as well as decks like Small Pox and 8-Rack picking up in popularity, there are enough decks trying to blank your removal that it’s fine to move one to your sideboard. There are very few matchups where both Path and Abrupt Decay are dead. Push is dead in a higher percentage of matches.
Also, the way our mana plays, it’s easier for us to interact early with Path to Exile and we’re already heavy on removal, so this is the one which is moved the sideboard. Still, Fatal Push is such a powerful card, I would never have less than four in my seventy-five.
Grafdigger’s Cage – I like to play at least three pieces of graveyard hate. This one is also a great answer to Elves and other collected companies decks, which seems relevant in the current metagame. You could run as many as two Grafdigger’s Cages, but I think one makes the most sense as it’s weak to common sideboard cards from dredge like Abrupt Decay and Nature’s Claim. If you want to open up a sideboard spot, there’s also the option of running some number of Anafenza, the Foremost main.
Nihil Spellbomb – Rest in Peace is the best answer to Dredge, but plays poorly with Voice of Resurgence, Kitchen Finks and Lingering Souls. In a dredge heavy metagame, it’s fine to make some adjustments to allow for Rest in Peace, but at the moment I’ve found Spellbomb to be a fine alternative. Relic of Progenitus is also fine, but a little slower and risks hitting our copies of Lingering Souls.
Leyline of the Void is also a consideration, but double black is very hard to get consistently with our manabase. This would heavily incentivize us to either radically change our mana, or to run the playset and aggressively mulligan into Leyline. In the case where Dredge is that prevalent, I think we’re better off playing Rest in Peace.
Gaddock Teeg – This is answers two and three for Elves and other Collected Company strategies. That it also turns off Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is unfortunate, but we cut the powerful planeswalker in most matchups where we bring in Teeg. I honestly wouldn’t be afraid of running one or two Teegs main in some metagames, but I would then want to move back towards Siege Rhinos at my top end.
I often play as many as three Teegs in my sideboard and he always seems to over perform against both control and combo. He’s one of the cards I tend to play instead of Duress or additional Thoughtseizes.
Aven Mindcensor – While a lot of players like Runed Halo, I think the 2/1 body can be relevant in an aggressive deck and this has always been my favorite answer to Primeval Titan strategies as it is good both against their early ramp and their later payoffs. This also gives us the upside of stranding any Nature’s Claims in hand, if they put us on Halo or Leyline of Sanctity. Speaking of which, Leyline is another powerful option that I often play when I expect more Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and combo in the competitive metagame. As with other Leylines I really prefer this to be at least a three of, though, and it is vulnerable to disenchant effects.
Thoughtseize and Sin Collector – These are the Duress options we discussed earlier as they allow us to take the most problematic cards away from decks like Ad Nauseam, Storm or Scapeshift, while (somewhat) furthering our aggressive gameplan in the case of Sin Collector. I would love to have more if our sideboard had the room and our manabase allowed. If you’re worried about pure combo, I don’t mind loading up on Duress and Thoughtseize, or playing Rule of Law (which was actually my last cut from this sideboard.)
Stony Silence – I usually start with three in all decks with access to White. I’m willing to go down to two as we have enough removal and a fast enough clock that the Affinity matchup isn’t bad. If you’re expecting a lot of Affinity as well as some Lantern, I wouldn’t hesitate to play a third and even consider Fracturing Gust. A nice middle road is also Creeping Corrosion and I’ll admit that I’ve sleeved up three Stony, one Corrosion in plenty of tournaments.
Zealous Persecution – Persecution is a great sideboard card for an aggressive deck with go-wide elements. It’s good against Elves, which has been on the upswing recently. It’s obviously very good against tokens strategies, or as the mirror breaker for other Abzan decks playing Lingering Souls. Some people prefer Golgari Charm, which is fine in builds without souls. In a deck with a real tokens sub theme, though, the pump effect of Zealous Persecution just wins you some number of games, whereas Charm hits too many of our own creatures.
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar – A grindy card primarily for Abzan, but helpful in control matchups. Just be very careful about playing this and Teeg in the same 75. It’s also just useful when you need another threat, as the play patter of make a token, then swing for seven the following turn is a real clock.
Another consideration is Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. Elsepth has the upside of also being a way of going over the top in matchups like Eldrazi Tron. Generally with Eldrazi Tron subtly waning and Abzan already such a good matchup, I just stuck with Gideon who is relevant in a higher percentage of matchups.
Grixis Death’s Shadow
We have a very favorable matchup against the Death’s Shadow lists game one. Essentially all of our cards line up well with theirs. Games two and three get grindier, as we board out some of our mana dorks for the last Fatal Push, Gideon and Nihil Spellbomb. Spellbomb is principally there for Snapcaster, which is their best card against us in the midgame. In some number of games you can use it more proactively to keep them off of delve too.
The games will often play out with you building out a large board and pushing the game into the middle to early late game. Ideally from there we try to set up a game state where you can win in one hit. As is typical against Death’s Shadow, I’ll often avoid attacking in the early turns if it will bring them below thirteen life. The later the game goes, the more we’re favored, as their best path to victory is an early Death’s Shadow backed up by Stubborn Denial.
In: +1 Fatal Push, +1 Gideon Ally of Zendikar, +2 Nihil Spellbomb
Out: -2 Birds of Paradise, -2 Noble Hierarch
Here we play the role of the midrange control list behind our eleven removal spells. Three Decays main helps a lot against Cranial Plating and this is generally a solid matchup: our removal keeps them off balance and we swing with large green creatures to win the game.
In Game two I take out the Gideons, as they’re vulnerable to Affinities fliers, and bring in more removal and haymakers like Zealous Persecution and Stony Silence. I tend to cut Voice of Resurgence as a lot of their key threats have evasion, but this could be a Smiter too if you expect them to be on Hazoret, the Fervent. It’s also fine to bring in Thoughtseize on the play, but I tend not to as it’s just so bad after turn one. Arcbound Ravager is usually their scariest spell, but if we’re smart with how we use our removal, we’re well setup in this match.
In: +1 Fatal Push, +1 Zealous Persecution, +2 Stony Silence
Out: -2 Voice of Resurgence, -2 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
With three Kitchen Finks and two Siege Rhino we’re generally favored in this matchup. Post sideboard I cut a removal spell as Burn is relatively light on threats. The most important things tend to be killing Eidolon of the Great Revel and playing around Skull Crack, as both effectively turn off Finks’ life gain. Against lists running Shrine of Burning Rage, you should keep in your Abrupt Decays, and it’s fine to shave a Path to Exile. The one mana removal spells are still important, though. Against Burn the games we lose are the ones where an early haste creature takes a sizable chunk out of our life total and we’re forced to play a lifegain spell into a Skullcrack.
In: 1 Fatal Push, 1 Sin Collector
Out: 1 Maelstrom Pulse, 1 Abrupt Decay
Dredge is pretty even with this build. Their most explosive draws overwhelm us, but if we’re allowed to develop our board, we outclass them relatively quickly with our creatures. We don’t have our best hate-cards in this seventy-five, but three dedicated pieces of graveyard hate should keep things reasonable. In a metagame heavy on dredge cards, I would try to play an Anafenza, the Foremost main deck, and possibly some number of Rest in Peace in the sideboard. If you’re facing a lot of graveyard decks and don’t want to shave on creatures like Voice of Resurgence or Kitchen Finks, then four copies of Leyline of the Void might be your best option.
In: +1 Grafdigger’s Cage, +2 Nihil Spellbomb, +1 Zealous Persecution, +1 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
Out: -3 Abrupt Decay, -2 Fatal Push
This is the deck Jacob Wilson’s list was built to beat. Our additional removal spells are solid in this matchup, our creatures are bigger, and their discard is either awkward or works against themselves in game one. After sideboarding, we bring in Zealous Persecution for opposing Lingering Souls, more removal, and Gideon as another powerful top end threat. Birds of Paradise is an easy cut and we shave a Noble Hierarch. You can also bring Thoughtseize in when you suspect Damnation, which is a fairly common right now. If you know they’re not on Damnation, I wouldn’t bring it in. You can also just play around it, as a high percentage of our cards are resilient to discard (which they should already be cutting)
In: +1 Fatal Push, +1 Gideon Ally of Zendikar, +1 Zealous Persecution
Out: -2 Birds of Paradise, -1 Noble Hierarch
This matchup is surprisingly even. We’re slight dogs game one because most of our removal is blanked in the early and middle game where we would otherwise have an edge. Without discard, we struggle to force them into a top deck war, but still have a playset of Voice of Resurgence to give them trouble. Your best draws will involve curving Voice into Gideon. Even when they answer him with Detention Sphere, we can just Decay or Maelstrom Pulse it to get Gideon back.
Game two gets better as we’re better setup to fight Supreme Verdict with our two Gaddock Teeg’s, two Thoughtseize, and Sin Collector. A favorable play pattern is that we develop a board where they have to answer Teeg, or die. They Path Teeg and Supreme Verdict, which we answer with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar — again a threat which they can only hope to answer with their own Gideon. And in some number of games they still can’t answer the combination of Gaddock Teegs and Voice of Resurgences backed up by discard.
Of course, we have to be very careful about how we play into their counterspells, and removal. Gideon and Gaddock Teeg can seem like a big nonbo, but they have to answer Teeg or else lose out on their most powerful spells. This can actually reward us for holding Gideon, as once they answer Teeg to enable Supreme Verdict, he’s our best followup. It’s also not trivial for them to remove Teeg, wrath the board and hold up countermagic in the face of early pressure. Against builds that run Spell Queller, keep in more interaction but don’t go overboard: it’s still a control deck after all!
In: +2 Thoughtseize, +1 Gideon Ally of Zendikar, +1 Sin Collector, +2 Gaddock Teeg
Out: -3 Fatal Push, -1 Path to Exile, -2 Birds of Paradise
Scapeshift / Titan / Valakut Decks
Game one this is a pretty hard as our removal spells are just not good. In the builds which run Khalni Heart Expedition, at least Abrupt Decay is still live, but generally we have to have one of our explosive draws to have a shot in the first game. While our deck is capable of turn four kills, this is still not a good game one. Games two and three actually aren’t as bad as we have a lot of interaction thanks to two Thoughtseize, two Mindcensor and Sin Collector. All of those cards are great against them, but watch out for Anger of the Gods.
This is the matchup where we are the most punished by running Gaddock Teeg and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in the same seventy-five, as we want Gideon’s clock, but Gaddock Teeg interacts favorably with both the builds running Scapeshift, or Through the Breach. Fortunately we’re rewarded for holding Teeg to keep him safe from bolts and Anger of the God until we resolve a Wilt-Leaf Liege, so we’re usually able to curve Gideon into Teeg when necessary. Likewise, you’ll sometimes want to hold a Mindcensor for their most explosive turns if your board is already weak to Anger.
In: +2 Thoughtseize, +2 Aven Mindcensor, +1 Sin Collector, +2 Gaddock Teeg
Out: -3 Fatal Push, -3 Abrupt Decay, -1 Path to Exile
Tron & Eldrazi Tron
Not our best matchup and one of the reasons we are heavier on Path to Exile. Against Eldrazi Tron, which is the commonly build, we just want to come out fast and rely on Gilt-Leaf Liege to make our creatures larger than theirs. Ideally we get into a race with bigger creatures with Path to Exile backup. They’re advantaged most of the time, but we do have some good draws here. In game two, Gaddock Teeg is a nice answer to All is Dust and Stony Silence shuts down Walking Ballista. Both variants have a heavy ramp theme so Thoughtseize is good for grabbing a payoff card.
In: +2 Thoughtseize, +2 Stony Silence, +2 Gaddock Teeg
Out: -3 Fatal Push, -1 Abrupt Decay, -2 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
Game one is a straight race, but we have removal for their enablers. Games two and three we have a lot of interaction. I’ve actually had favorable results in the matchup, but combo is generally problematic for the current build of our deck and this shouldn’t necessarily be an exception. If Storm sees another serious uptick with the reprinting of Opt, you’ll want to be sure to have multiple copies of Rule of Law in your sideboard.
In: +1 Fatal Push, +2 Thoughtseize, +2 Aven Mindcensor, +1 Sin Collector, +2 Gaddock Teeg, +1 Grafdigger’s Cage
Out: -4 Path to Exile, -2 Gideon Ally of Zendikar, -1 Maelstrom Pulse, -1 Abrupt Decay, -1 Lingering Souls
8-Rack & Smallpox Decks
That some people are playing 8-Rack and Smallpox again to prey on Death’s Shadow is another pull towards our deck. That means that beyond Abzan or Jund , we have two more Liliana decks we can expect to see in some numbers competitively. It’s very hard to lose to 8-Rack, as we will often start the game out with a free 4/4, blanking a discard spell, and four of our removal spells hit The Rack. Smallpox is similarly quite favorable, but they do have some problematic threats in Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or Lingering Souls. Still, discard heavy decks don’t do well against this strategy.
In: +1 Gideon Ally of Zendikar, +1 Sin Collector, +2 Thoughtseize, +2 Nihil Spellbomb
Out: -4 Path to Exile, -2 Fatal Push
In: +1 Gideon Ally of Zendikar, +1 Zealous Persecution, +2 Thoughtseize, +1 Sin Collector, +2 Nihil Spellbomb
Out: -3 Fatal Push, -2 Path to Exile, -1 Birds of Paradise, -1 Siege Rhino
Elves & GWx Company
These are favorable matchups because of our removal heavy build and powerful sideboard cards. We’re favored game one and heavily favored game two when we bring in seven answers to Collected Company and Chord of Calling. Against all-in Collected Company combo decks we’re on a similar plan, but you want to be sure you can interact with the combo, while applying pressure. Thankfully your creatures are large and put on pressure quickly.
In: +1 Zealous Persecution, +2 Thoughtseize, +1 Sin Collector, +2 Gaddock Teeg, +1 Grafdigger’s Cage
Out: -2 Gideon Ally of Zendikar, -2 Birds of Paradise, -3 Loxodon Smiter
As I said before, I think this is a perfectly viable aggressive Abzan list, which is well positioned at the moment. Heading into Ixalan it doesn’t have any major gains, but there’s nothing particularly problematic for it either. Blue based control decks may see an uptick in play, but I think our build of Abzan does fine against them. It’s clearly great against other Abzan decks and Death’s Shadow.
That said, be sure to adjust the list week to week. Some weekends it will be right to run Thoughtseize main and less removal, other weekends you’ll want the fourth Lingering Souls and as much hard removal as possible. My friend Matt McTavish was so bold as to move Thrun, the Last Troll main deck one tournament when he ran this list. While that may have been a bit aggressive, it’s the right spirit: tournament to tournament, you rarely want to run back the same seventy-five.