by Corey Murphy
Let me just start by saying that Abzan Aristocrats might be my favorite standard deck to pilot ever. I’m starting to think, after taking down my local game day, that it’s the real deal, too. No, not a humble brag, I realize game day is meant to be more of a casual event and definitely was expecting that going in. I didn’t even have my deck completed when I entered the shop but, luckily, was able to buy the last two Zulaport Cutthroats from the store (not sure how I was going to get buy running only two). It ended up being an 8-hour, 5-round event with about 30 players in attendance full of tier 1 standard decks. Here’s what I had to face:
Round 1: Jeskai Black (2-0)
Round 2: Abzan Midrange splash red (2-1)
Round 3: Esper Dragons (2-0)
Round 4: UB Aristocrats (loss 1-2)
Round 5: Draw into top 8
Top 8 Round 1: WB Warriors (2-1)
Top 8 Round 2: Jeskai Black (2-0)
Top 8 Finals: Atarka Red (2-0)
I’m thankful for the lack of time limit in top 8 because in two of those match-ups, one of the games lasted for almost an hour. Game two against Jeskai black was extremely grindy with about 5 resolved radiant flames at the hands of hardcast + Jace flashback. I nearly lost to a flying Mantis Rider here (dropped down to about 4 life compared to my opponent’s 22) before finding a Fleshbag Marauder and taking it down. It took about another half an hour full of Evolutionary Leap plus Hangarback walker tokens to rebuild and eventually trigger Zulaport Cutthroat for exact damage.
Grindy was kind of the theme of the day. With as many as 4 separate triggers every time a creature is sacrificed (scry+draw+make a scion token+trigger zulaport), there is a lot of room for error. If you are careful, you have a strong game against almost every deck in the field right now. Let’s break down the deck and highlight some of it’s more interesting interactions…
3 Bloodsoaked Champion
4 Carrier Thrall
2 Catacomb Sifter
3 Fleshbag Marauder
4 Hangarback Walker
3 Liliana, Heretical Healer
1 Grim Haruspex
4 Nantuko Husk
4 Zulaport Cutthroat
1 Evolutionary Leap
4 Collected Company
1 Canopy Vista
4 Windswept Heath
4 Llanowar Wastes
3 Caves of Koilos
1 Rogue’s Passage
2 Shambling Vent
2 Anafenza, the Foremost
2 Den Protector
2 Minister of Pain
1 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
3 Abzan Charm
2 Dromoka’s Command
1 Painful Truths
(At the event, I was short 1 Liliana, 1 Dromoka’s Command, 1 Minister of Pain and ran 1 Grim Haruspex, 1 Caustic Caterpillar, 1 Hallowed Moonlight in those same spots.)
The most obvious interaction is between Nantuko Husk and Zulaport Cutthroat. Let’s start with this as it is the core of the deck…
We know from cards like Viscera Seer that free and repeatable sacrifice triggers can enable some pretty ridiculous plays. While there is no infinite loop to be made in standard, the advantage of being able to complicate combat math with Husk’s +2/+2 is extremely relevant. Besides the significant stat boost, the option to sacrifice your creatures is extremely useful for a number of reasons:
- Exile removal spells like Utter End and Complete Disregard are abundant in standard. If an exile spell is pointed at creatures in this deck, which makes frequent use of the graveyard via Liliana, sacrificing them in response will keep them “in the game”.
- Blocking a lifelink creature such as Shambling Vents can be done without an opponent gaining life. In a situation where you are near to closing out the game and your opponent hopes to stabilize with creature lifegain, you can block and sac before any damage is dealt.
- Fliers are a bit of a challenge for us as we play no pinpointed removal in the main deck. Husk allows you to pump and sacrifice a Hangarback Walker to create some blockers in the air.
- You can cast Liliana or Grim Haruspex and then sacrifice a creature to Husk to ignite spark or draw.
Why Abzan Aristocrats
There are about 3 different versions of the Aristocrats deck floating around right now. We’ve all seen Calcano’s UB version at the Pro Tour. This list is very “all-in” to the Whirler Rogue + Nantuko Husk plan and seems to play more like the Atarka Red-style decks with a back-up plan of “Zulaport you to death”. The GB one is much closer to what I run as I have 0 white cards in my main deck and will only ever need to use my W mana for Shambling Vents game 1.
I have to credit Maxwell Dressler for the idea here. I caught his list on Star City after he top 8’ed an SCG IQ on Oct 4th with this 75. Max’s deck was appealing to me because his sideboard plan was basically to convert into an Abzan Aggro deck with Abzan Charm, Anafenza, Dromoka’s Command, and Sorin. In Max’s deck, he runs one Abzan Ascendancy in the main. While I would admit that this card is extremely powerful, it seems to crowd up a very busy 3-drop spot. Some of the most important cards in the deck, Nantuko Husk, Liliana, Catacomb Sifter also cost three so this makes the curve a little…wonky. I justified the white with the sideboard alone and went much heavier on the Collected Company plan in the main deck cutting down to just 5 non-creature cards. This way, the deck runs much more consistently and Collected Company almost never bricks.
Max runs Drana in his list. Yes, this is cute, more counters for your tokens, but Drana will rarely connect given the number of Mantis Riders floating around right now. Also, Bone Splinters do well to clear the board of a pesky blocker or threatening creature while also providing a useful sacrifice outlet for a Liliana ro Zulaport Trigger but I decided that it would be much more effective to run a creature spell that does something…similar…in Fleshbag Marauder.
Many decks opt for Sultai Emissary over Carrier Thrall. These cards are similar but seem to be front-end/back-end versions of the same idea. I prefer Carrier Thrall because it starts with 2 power. This way, you can trade earlier with creatures in aggressive decks like Atarka red. Before manifest, Sultai Emissary is a chump blocker at best against Zurgo and Monstastery Swiftspear. On the back end, Sultai Emissary is a functional card draw with so many creatures in the deck, but the ability to sacrifice the Eldrazi scion token for mana is very valuable. This colorless mana is often funneled into Hangarback Walker activations but also allows for a turn 3 Collected Company (which is especially deadly).
My Favorite Interactions
Here are a few things that I discovered in the last couple of weeks piloting this deck…
Hangarback Walker having 0 cmc is one of the best and worst things about it. Yes, it cannot survive entering the battlefield through Collected Company. But also, YES!, it cannot survive entering the battlefield through Collected Company. When paired with a Liliana, it will enter the battlefield at the same time and immediately die to trigger her flip.
Also, Liliana’s -X ability becomes “-0: draw a card” when you have Grim Haruspex in play and a Hangarback Walker in the graveyard. Not to mention a Zulaport trigger tagged on if those are hanging out too…
Bloodsoaked Champion is extremely good right now. As an offensive turn 1 play, he typically connects 2-3 times before your opponent even has a blocker that they are willing to go defensive with. This is because there are so few 1-drops being played. In fact, there are very few 2-drops as well. Jace isn’t exactly ready to volunteer to absorb 2 points of damage and a Soulfire Grandmaster is not expendable either.
The most exciting thing about this card is that its Raid ability can be triggered at instant speed. This means that you can declare a Nantuko Husk as an attacker, sacrifice Bloodsoaked, Raid, sacrifice Bloodsoaked, Raid, etc, etc, etc. This functionally gives Nantuko Husk firebreathing. Even better, every time you activate it, you are either drawing a card with your Haruspex or gaining a life from Zulaport Cutthroat. This is especially great when many of your triggers only work for “nontoken” creatures dying. Being able to repeatably sacrifice a creature spell can generate some insane advantage.
There are so many awesome things going on here and I truly believe that this has potential to be one of the strongest decks in the format. I feel like the Jeskai Black and control match-ups are heavily in our favor, Abzan Aggro and Atarka match-ups are slightly in our favor, and the mirror match is very good for us post board (even though I lost that one…Anafenza was nowhere to be seen).
It’s definitely difficult to play and punishes mistakes much more than your average deck. Play carefully, sequence properly, and be sure to call and track your triggers one at a time and you’ll be in good shape. Keep me in the loop about your successes with this deck or share your version in the comments. While I like this build, I wouldn’t doubt there are some modifications that can be made to make it even stronger.
Thanks for reading!