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Henrika, Infernal Seer Art by Billy Christian

Standard Abzan Control Deck Guide: This Standard’s Sultai Ultimatum

In the last few months, Orzhov has been a major part of Standard. Everything started with a Mono Black Control deck featuring Lolth, Spider Queen and Blood on the Snow back in Standard 2022.

After that, many variants of Black control decks emerged. We had seen Orzhov with many good early creatures like Eyetwitch, Shambling Ghast, and surprisingly Spirited Companion in the mix. Orzhov with 4 Edgar, Charmed Groom, Esper versions just for Kaito Shizuki, or even Mardu ones just for Valki, God of Lies or Fable of the Mirror-Breaker. All of these variants are part of the evolution of this archetype, but dear readers… There’s still room to improve.

Just as I mentioned in my last column; there are many occasions when the evolution of a format lends us to new archetypes or strategies, and then in consequence, some good cards fall into oblivion. Just as we now remember how good Esika's Chariot is, bringing back Binding the Old Gods to the table is a game changer.

Do you remember how fundamental this card was to decks that aim for big spells such as Emergent Ultimatum? Well, Everton Nogueira does. He managed to make top 3 with an Abzan Control list during the MMA #5 tournament:

Abazan Control by Everton Nogueira – MMA #5 3rd place
by Bohe
Buy on TCGplayer $298.81
Standard
Control
best of 3
9 mythic
35 rare
5 uncommon
12 common
0
1
2
3
4
5
6+
Planeswalkers (3)
Sorceries (6)
3
Invoke Despair
$2.37
2
Farewell
$19.98
1
Emeria’s Call
$6.49
Artifacts (2)
Enchantments (9)
61 Cards
$368.71
Sideboard
2
Power Word Kill
$0.78
4
Duress
$1.00
3
Go Blank
$2.37
2
Doomskar
$4.98
1
Farewell
$9.99
2
Portable Hole
$4.98
15 Cards
$25.09

Let me explain why I bring Emergent Ultimatum to the table. If we remember how that archetype works we can notice:

  • The deck played some ramp spells like Cultivate and Binding the Old Gods.
  • Many spot removals and board wipes were there to let us reach the late stages of the game.
  • A few good creatures helped us contest the board when needed.
  • Just a single Emergent Ultimatum means enough advantage that coming back for our opponents was something really hard.

“Yes, Bohe, Sultai Ultimatum was an amazing deck, but why is that archetype relevant to this conversation?”

Well, dear readers, after playing this variant of Orzhov I realized that it works very similarly and has a very symmetrical plan to the one Sultai had back then:

Seems like a clearer comparison now, isn’t it? While we certainly must keep the proportions, but this Abzan deck is without a doubt one of the stronger variants of black based control decks right now.

Shigeki, Jukai Visionary Art by Anna Podedworna
Shigeki, Jukai Visionary Art by Anna Podedworna

Shigeki, Jukai Visionary was under the radar for a few weeks, even for limited play. I can’t tell you how many times I saw this snake passed in premier drafts. It wasn’t until last week or so that I saw many players start picking Shigeki much higher, and after seeing how powerful it is, it wasn’t a surprise to me how good it was when I tested this deck. It blocks amazingly well while we are on the play, it ramps us without losing a card, and we can do this process as many times as we want. In a normal game, ramping two times with Shigeki is not a hard thing to accomplish, then using its channel ability for getting back things from our graveyard (and not only the cards Shigeki sends there) is where things start getting spicy.

Going big with Shigeki is not hard thanks to Binding the Old Gods, another card that helps us get enough lands for the transition from mid to late game. Nevertheless, Binding the Old Gods has another incredible upside that we can take advantage of. The second chapter of this saga lets us search our library for a Forest, and not just a basic Forest. That’s the reason behind the four Woodland Chasm and two Arctic Treeline in the list.

The snow lands have the basic land types of the colors they produce, and because of that we could find both with Binding the Old Gods‘ second ability to help us color fix. We could argue that both come into play tapped, but the lands that Binding finds come into play tapped anyway, making that irrelevant most of the time. With these extra duals in the equation, paying quadruple black in a three colored deck is just as easy as paying for Emergent Ultimatum, Genesis Ultimatum, or Cruel Ultimatum in their respective decks (or even easier, I would say).

Now, one of the best cards that can can capitalize on this is Invoke Despair. I’ve heard many times how hard it is to overcome a resolved Invoke Despair from the opponent, so we’re utilizing that power here. It’s a card that just like the ultimatums (there’s one for each of the three color combinations) can produce an effect that puts our opponent way behind in the game. It doesn’t matter if we are playing against aggro, midrange, control, tempo or combo.Invoke Despair is always going to be impactful.

We also have a selection of the best removal the format can provide like Vanishing Verse which is extremely good against Mono White or any of the relevant planeswalkers in the meta. Power Word Kill, March of Otherworldly Light, Hagra Mauling, Farewell, The Meathook Massacre and the aforementioned Binding the Old Gods are all great options as well.

Two of the best planeswalkers in the Standard are also here: The Wandering Emperor and Lolth, Spider Queen, both helping us for a smoother transition to the late game. I haven’t mentioned the creatures yet, and some singles that this list plays, but after testing and enjoying this archetype during my streams I made little changes that make the deck feel even better.

Standard Abzan Control
by Bohe
Buy on TCGplayer $318.98
Standard
Control
best of 3
9 mythic
36 rare
6 uncommon
9 common
0
1
2
3
4
5
6+
Planeswalkers (3)
Creatures (6)
1
Legion Angel
$0.35
Instants (9)
4
Vanishing Verse
$7.96
2
Power Word Kill
$0.78
1
Hagra Mauling
$1.49
Sorceries (6)
3
Invoke Despair
$2.37
2
Farewell
$19.98
1
Emeria’s Call
$6.49
Artifacts (2)
Enchantments (10)
60 Cards
$388.24
Sideboard
3
Legion Angel
$1.05
2
Duress
$0.50
2
Go Blank
$1.58
2
Doomskar
$4.98
1
Farewell
$9.99
2
Portable Hole
$4.98
15 Cards
$26.07

The first major change is how we changed the deck from 61 cards to 60. Everton plays 61, and I think that I understand why. Playing three colored decks without the proper mana base sometimes means losing many games to being stuck on lands and/or not having the right colors. Adding a land in that situation could solve the problem. Surely after testing the deck could feel likes it runs fairly smoothly, but having less chances of drawing the cards that we need during our games is something I can’t afford, so…

I cut:

And I add:

Many of you know that I like consistency whenever it’s possible. Adding the four Binding could help us keep our land drops going and our colors in the place where they need to be. For Edgar, Charmed Groom, we talked about how important it was back then to Orzhov, and playing 4 Wedding Announcement in this deck means that if Edgar dies, but doesn’t get exiled for some reason, we are going to have another token producer that can get benefit from the anthem effect Wedding Announcement provides when it flips. However, of all the remaining creatures Everton presents in the original list, this singleton seems the least important to me.

Shigeki, Jukai Visionary is a a central part of our early game if we don’t need to play our removal during turn two.

Henrika Domnathi is a very powerful card that means a lot of shenanigans during the mid game that is good against any archetype by either making our opponents sacrifice a creature (we are probably sacrificing a Human token), letting us draw a card, or getting a respectable 3/4 flier with deathtouch and lifelink depending on the situation (or even everything, in the best scenario), and finally, Eradicator Valkyrie.

This mythic angel that was hiding from plain sight until now. It has hexproof from planeswalkers. Do you know what that means? Yes, The Wandering Emperor can’t deal with it. That’s not all, it has flying, lifelink and it’s boast ability can also get rid of a creature or planeswalker, a mana sink that we surely are going to take advantage of. (Mana sink: cards that let us use up all the extra mana we can produce).

So after some games, and while Edgar is good per say, I realized Edgar was the least impactful of our creatures.

March of the Wretched Sorrow is good thanks to the life it provides against aggro and because it can also deal damage to a planeswalkers, but unlike March of Otherworldly Light, we don’t want to pitch almost any of our black cards because how relevant they are to our plan.

Then I cut Season of Renewal. It was good from time to time letting us create a loop with Shigeki, Jukai Visionary, but with just two Shigeki and one Season I think it’s something we don’t need and that it shines in very very long games. It also brings back Binding the Old Gods, Wedding Announcement or any of our creatures, but it feels like something expendable.

Legion Angel was a card that had to be here. After playing many variants of black based control decks like Orzhov or Esper, having this angel at our disposal can win many games on its own. Cutting some cards from Everton’s sideboard was not so hard. We are going to explain further in our sideboard guide section.

Finally, the last change was a little tweak to the mana base. I understand the importance of Woodland Chasm and Arctic Treeline, but why three Scoured Barrens over the two missing Shattered Sanctum? I think the extra life is not so relevant in many situations thanks to our many lifelinkers and our two The Meathook Massacre. That’s why I completed the set of our Orzhov slowlands leaving just 1 Scoured Barrens, because our number of black dual lands have to be the same and enough to cast our Invoke Despair.


Potential Inclusions / Notable Exclusions

Edgar, Charmed Groom Art by Volkan Baga
Edgar, Charmed Groom Art by Volkan Baga
  • If you make some changes to the list, adding Sorin the Mirthless could be a possibility. In fact I was almost going to leave one in my final list (in our sideboard).
  • I was thinking about Yasharn, Implacable Earth for a bit, it could stop Oni-Cult Anvil and ramp us at the same time. However, even while Anvil is an amazing deck, we have enough tools to navigate trough the match.
  • Sneaking a third The Wandering Emperor was something I really tried, but I surrendered that idea after many hours of reasoning about our cards and why we want each of them.
  • Archon of Emeria is a really good card against Naya Runes. Nevertheless, we have enough tools in our main and sideboard that already help us against them. Also, Archon is better in creature based decks.
  • The Restoration of Eiganjo was an idea for ramping us during turn three. Maybe I will test a version with this card more. It lets us toss a land to our graveyard and then put it into the field (and if we don’t have it, the first chapter goes for it), and then when it flips, it’s amazingly synergistic with Wedding Announcement. It would be a more midrange focused version instead of hard control.
  • A good card nowadays is Fracture. One or two copies in our sideboard are not bad depending on the metagame.

Sideboard Guide

Eradicator Valkyrie Art by Tyler Jacobson

Mono White / Boros Aggro

InOut
+2 Bloodchief's Thirst-2 Reckoner Bankbuster
+2 Portable Hole-1 Lolth, Spider Queen
+1 Eradicator Valkyrie-2 Farewell
+2 Doomskar-1 Binding the Old Gods
-1 Henrika Domnathi

We have a good opportunity here to explain our sideboard changes. Everton plays a pair of Power Word Kill in the sideboard. After testing, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is a little bit problematic when we don’t have one mana responses for her. Bloodchief's Thirst and Portable Hole come in handy as good removal for this creature while being amazingly great against both Mono White and Boros. Portable Hole can also exile Kumano Faces Kakkazan or Rabbit Battery.

We haven’t talked about our dear Reckoner Bankbuster until now. It’s a great card for games that tend to be long enough to become attrition based matches. We cut this artifact and our expensive cards for our spot removals, giving us a safer early game. Cutting Farewell could seem strange, but we are making our deck batter, swapping two of our board wipes for two cheaper wrath effects. Here we don’t have any artifact, enchantment or graveyard tricks to take care of at the same time.

Finally, we swap one Henrika Domnathi for our second Eradicator Valkyrie. The sacrifice effect is a little bit slow against the decks that go wide.

Azorius / Jeskai Control

InOut
+2 Duress-1 Binding the Old Gods
+2 Go Blank-2 The Meathook Massacre
+1 Eradicator Valkyrie-2 Power Word Kill

We have to be very careful. Even if we have discard spells in our sideboard and a good matchup overall against the other variants of black based control, Azorius now tend to play two copies of Desert Doom”] and Jeskai has Goldspan Dragon most of the time. Cutting our Power Word Kill is mandatory.

We still have very good answers like our The Wandering Emperor, Invoke Despair (that makes them sacrifice one creature), and other cheap removal like Vanishing Verse, even our Farewell and Binding the Old Gods could help, but use your interaction carefully.

Naya Runes

InOut
+2 Bloodchief's Thirst-1 Lolth, Spider Queen
+2 Portable Hole-1 Eradicator Valkyrie
+1 Farewell-2 Reckoner Bankbuster
-1 The Meathook Massacre

This is another match where we don’t have the time we want to make Reckoner Bankbuster work as intended. Eradicator Valkyrie is amazing against The Wandering Emperor decks, but here is not a place where she can shine.

Instead of both cards and our copy of Lolth, we bring in five amazing removal spells for the matchup that are going to help us stabilize without many problems during the early-mid game. Bloodchief's Thirst and Portable Hole can target almost any one of their possible threats. That’s why we don’t have to play Doomskar here, I think it’s over-sideboarding. We have enough spot removal that we can wait for our copies of Farewell to arrive. We put in one more because of that. Not to mention it would also help exiling enchantments, making things like Kami of Transcience, Showdown of the Skalds or Hallowed Haunting less relevant.

Orzhov / Esper Variants

InOut
+2 Duress-2 The Meathook Massacre
+2 Go Blank-1 Vanishing Verse
+1 Eradicator Valkyrie-2 Henrika Domnathi

Most of the Orzhov and Esper variants are now changing from playing a horde of one and two drops like Eyetwitch, Shambling Ghast, etc, to playing Henrika Domnathi, Graveyard Trespasser, Luminarch Aspirant and similar creatures.

That’s the reason we don’t bring in Bloodchief's Thirst and/or Portable Hole and we take out The Meathook Massacre. We prefer to use discard spells that aim for their powerful planeswalkers or spells and then answer their threats with our efficient collection of removals.

We bring the Eradicator Valkyrie because The Wandering Emperor is guaranteed from our opponents.We also take out Henrika Domnathi because they usually play four Wedding Announcement and many other token generators like Kaito Shizuki, The Restoration of Eiganjo, The Wandering Emperor, etc. We keep both Farewell and don’t bring Doomskar for the same reason. We can reset the board if needed and take some pesky enchantments in the process.

One Vanishing Verse goes out because we usually are going to prefer to play our discard spells early in the game and at the same time, drawing one early could be a dead draw against Edgar, Charmed Groom or Kaito Shizuki.

Rakdos Anvil

InOut
+2 Bloodchief's Thirst-2 Henrika Domnathi
+2 Portable Hole-2 Vanishing Verse
+2 Go Blank-1 Eradicator Valkyrie
+1 Farewell-2 Binding the Old Gods

Just like our last match, Henrika goes out here because they have many options to sacrifice. Vanishing Verse is also facing it’s worst matchup. They tend to play a lot of multicolor cards like four Bloodtithe Harvester and four Oni-Cult Anvil which Verse is useless against.

We bring in more effective removal in the form of Bloodchief's Thirst and Portable Hole (which could also remove the Anvil). This is a battle of resources. Getting a two for one with Go Blank plus removing their graveyard and stopping any Agadeem's Awakening attempt is also good.

Farewell is here for the same reason as against Runes. With so many good spot removal, Doomskar could be over-sideboarding. We have enough time to find any of our three Farewell (not like against Mono White or Boros).


Tips and Tricks

March of Otherworldly Light Art by Nils Hamm
March of Otherworldly Light Art by Nils Hamm
  • Shigeki, Jukai Visionary could put any land it finds into play, that’s why we play so many non-basics. Playing Shigeki on turn two if you have the chance is always a good idea.
  • Playing the channel ability of Shigeki is good for one or two, but be patient if possible. I played this ability x=4 more than once. Three is normally enough for ending the game thanks to the resources it provides.
  • March of Otherwordly Light is an amazing answer against many threats, but it shines against creature lands.
  • Binding the Old Gods is one of the main reasons this deck exists. Playing one just to ramp even if you don’t have a target for the first chapter is not a bad idea if the opponent doesn’t have any threats.
  • Speaking of ramping and mana. My usual Pathway advice is more important than ever. We could pay quadruple black for Invoke Despair and triple white for Emeria's Call during the same game if we play our lands properly and chose the right colors for the pathways. Save the pathways and play them just when you need certain type of mana.

Final Notes

The more I play with Invoke Despair, the more it looks like a tiny Ultimatum to me. This new Standard metagame never ceases to amaze me. Even if 5 decks are now clear contenders in the tier 1 group, many new strategies and variants keeps emerging.

Thanks to Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty for bringing us great cards to build around, but also thanks to the players like Hideyuki Matsura and Everton Nogueira that don’t stop there and make us remember amazing cards like Esika's Chariot (Bant Vehicles Deck Guide here) and Binding the Old Gods.

Orzhov/Esper midrange keeps mutating. Now they play beefier creatures and Mardu and Abzan are here and there too, it’s just a matter of time until the next big archetype shakes up the meta and the tournaments like this Abzan that got 3rd place did, overcoming many orzhov, aggro decks and all possible strategies in its way.

Until the next time, my dear readers. Let me know on my social media what you think about this archetype. Any suggestions for our next deck guide are always appreciated. Ah! and remember, don’t forget to smile at least once a day.

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Bohe
Bohe

A full time MTG content creator. Started playing Magic in 99’ with the release of Urza’s Destiny, 3 times Grand Prix attendant (1 as a player ending #78 and 2 as a judge). Mexican, lover of coffee, Korean culture, languages and ex-LoL coach.
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