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Rise of the Hangarbacks


Jasper Grimmer
Jasper Grimmer

About Jasper Grimmer

Jasper is a player from Germany who can be found at almost every European Grand Prix and prepares a lot for them. Being on the GP circuit since 2011, he has had a number of good finishes: 

  • Top 8 GP Malmö 2012
  • Top 8 GP Paris 2015 
  • Top 4 Team GP Florence 2015 (with Amit Cohen & Robin Steinborn)

Rise of the Hangarbacks


Grand Prix London is in the books and I feel like Gandalf rose from the dead, returning from his battle on Zirakzigil when everyone believed him to be long gone. In our case, Abzan Aggro - a deck which seemed to be unplayable over the course of the last month - shined in the spotlight once again. And what a spotlight that was! Winning the whole thing, putting another four copies into the Top 9, and also winning the Super Sunday Series, is a statement which you have to take seriously.

Even now, a few days after the tournament, there are several articles published covering this deck and I will try to do my share as well.

When I planned on playing Green White Megamorph I wasn't taking into account that it would go on and dominate most of Day 2 of Grand Prix San Diego. Now that the cat was out of the bag, I did not want to run into a prepared field, especially after seeing that in the end, it was not the biggest winner in terms of sheer results anyway. I figured pretty quickly that you wanted to have access to Thoughtseize, at least after boarding. Anafenza started to look sexy again, and after glaring over the results of the other tournaments which took place on that weekend I was sold.

The biggest problem was always the second 2-drop. Rakshasa Deathdealer just isn't and never was good enough. It is so inefficient and clunky, it hurts only watching the gameplay with it. At least Fleecemane Lion can dodge a Languish with the help of one Abzan Charm or even a Dromoka's Command after going Monstrous, but with the little cat demon you need to have at least four mana open the entire time.

Enter the Texas Ranger.

Hangarback Walker
Magic Origins (Foil)

This fellow is everything the Deathdealer wants to be. It is hard to kill, creates value every turn and is especially good against MonoR, Languish decks and Abzan Rally, all the decks you would think you are having a hard time winning against. It may be that Ensoul Thopter and Spy Network Control introduced this guy to the world, but there is no place like Abzan Aggro for the Hangarback to shine.

The first time my friend realized that Anafenza could actually put counters not only on attacking creatures but on any tapped creature on your side completely blew his mind - and then my board after casting Dromoka's Command in the Declare Attackers Step. With his new girlfriend, Hangarback Walker gets out of hand pretty quickly. But speaking of Dromoka's Command: this is another way to produce even more Thopters and even on demand, if your opponent has a bigger creature and you need your fliers to finish the job. And don't get me started on the brutality of casting Abzan Charm on Johnnie Walker.

Still, we needed at least another one or two 2-drops, as we were not pleased with the second or even the first Warden of either Tree. Certainly we did not want to go back to the cat demon and the Warden was just not a 2-drop, realistically speaking, in context of that many tapped lands. Playing just more Den Protector and then treating them as 2-drops was an idea we tossed around, but in the end we landed on a much much sweeter thing.

"And in the right corner, the newcomer..."

Avatar of the Resolute

As a last-minute addition, and completely destroying all of our sideboard plans, as well as the manabase, we were still so happy to have found him. There are so many nuances that make this guy the right choice. Let me break some of them down for you:

  1. This deck is full of +1/+1 counters. Anafenza creates them, Hangarback Walker comes with them, Fleecemane Lion and Den Protector can get one, Dromoka's Command and Abzan Charm all put counters somewhere (and, if you really stretch it, Warden of the First Tree technically has the ability as well, if you are in the market for one copy of it). A 2-drop that is good beats on turn two and only gets better as the game progresses sounds exactly like Fleecemane Lion territory.
  2. He brings a solid body on turn two. This is relevant more than it seems at first, because most of the time you want to curve out and play Dromoka's Command as a removal even against non-enchantment creatures. So having a body in play as early as possible is pretty important.
  3. He tramples. It may not seem like a big deal, but it really pushes this one over the top. Pumping your guys is a common case and ignoring chumping tokens like Goblins, Soldiers or Thopters is huge when being in a race scenario.
  4. He blocks Mantis Rider and Stormbreath Dragon. Probably his biggest upside is the ability to come down and trade with either the pesky insect or the fear-inducing Dragon, though there he needs a little help. Stormbreath Dragon in particular is a real pain when fighting with Abzan Aggro. He is the lone reason why there are so many Ultimate Prices in the maindeck of these Top 8 decklists and having a proactive answer to that is..well, priceless. Literally.

All of these advantages vanish when playing Den Protector or Warden over the Avatar. But enough of this mumbling, here is the decklist, putting my teammate in the Top 24:

Of course, going to Pandora means a few for the 60 you are registering. First of all, the manabase has to change. Luckily, it is not all downside. With no 1-drops anymore, we can play one or two Temples more than with having Warden or Thoughtseize in the deck. Second, with the high creature count comes a low spell count, obviously. This also means that our spells have to be more impactful than usual, resulting in no Ultimate Prices or Hero's Downfall. We wanted to destroy our blocking opponents with the spells and besides that, only play creatures as follow up. Thus, this almost feels a bit like a Limited deck when choosing the combat trick mode with your Commands and Charms. Turning creatures sideways and casting pump spells is enough in Constructed, who would have thought!

Playing this is incredibly fun, but also very challenging. At the latest when you stare down a board full of creatures on either side and you look at your hand containing a  Dromoka's Command as well as a copy of Abzan Charm, the headaches really start. Luckily for us, most of the time we just have to turn all creatures into the red zone and see the opponent falling into despair because they know exactly what is going on.

Cards That Did Not Make the Maindeck

Compared to the other decklists from GP London, there are a few omissions we made due to having more creatures.

Hero's Downfall - Stormbreath Dragon really is annoying when you have zero ways to kill it. There are two things to note though. First, we are even more aggressive, so that most of the time, the child of Daenerys has to stay back on blocking duty. Second, we still got our friend from Pandora to help us out here so we are not completely cold when it comes to blocking the dragon. We realized that Elspeth is a big concern, but that is where Herald of Torment really shines.

Ultimate Price - I touched on this matter before. Once again, we have the Avatar to help us out against Stormbreath Dragon and the plan is to go to town with early pressure and command away the blockers anyway.

Elspeth, Sun's Champion (in the board) - This was the toughest slot we fought over and eventually my teammates convinced me to leave her out. As we figured out our plans for the specific matchups it became clear that we would not even board her in against Devotion or Abzan Control, leaving her to be only the plan in the mirror match and against G/W Megamorph. It just is such a turn from what this deck wants to do that we decided to leave Elspeth on the sidelines for this one. With the results from London and now more mirror matches on the horizon, I definitely want at least two of them.

Gather Courage - Wait, you did not see this one in the decklists? Check out Florian Kochs winning one from the Super Sunday Series:

I absolutely love this idea and would en-courage you to include this innocent looking trick. There are so many things you can do with it. Probably the biggest selling point is countering a Roast or Excuisite Firecraft on your Anafenza. The problem with the MonoR matchup is not that you don't have enough lifegain or relevant spells to cast - Siege Rhino and Sorin, Solemn Visitor make up for that department - it is that by the time of turn four, you still have no board and they have two to three creatures out despite having played a spell every turn. Gather Courage breaks this routine and allows you to untap with a board presence, which is often good enough to turn the tables. Also, blowing out the Languish player must feel really good.

Going Forward

So, now that the whole world is playing Abzan Aggro onace again, what to do in Prague and at the WMCQs? I think this list still is the place to be. An aggressive deck with Thoughtseizes is always a very safe bet, but Hangarback Walker really pushes this over the top. That your 2-drop is very hard to kill and causes the blue control players to splash green just to have access to Unravel the Aether is too good to pass up on.

The plan for the mirror traditionally was to side in a lot of two mana removal and finish off with Elspeth. Wingmate Roc is a beast (well, actually a pair of birds, but what can you do) as well, but with the field being prepared and probably having as many removal as you do it does not seem like the best of plans. As far as your removal suite goes, a mix of Self-Inflicted Wound and Glare of Heresy proved to be efficient. Both of these kill almost every creature except the Texas Ranger, while having both upsides in either dealing damage or being able to handle an Elspeth.

Would I still play some Avatars? I think I would. It is very good against Jeskai and Devotion where you need pressure as soon as possible. But I think some of them have to go in favor of more spells - one Gather Courage and a Valorous Stance seem like the right number. As for the sideboard, there are a lot of changes to be made, but it certainly starts with some numbers of Self-Inflicted Wound and Glare of Heresy, another Gather Courage for the MonoR matchup.

That's it for today.

There have been a lot of shake ups in the last month to the Standard metagame, but I actually think that for the most part, things are now staying the way they are until the big rotation. Every major player is now revealed and everyone knows what to expect. Although being unexpected at first, I think denying the power of Hangarback Walker is just false and will result in Utter End..

Join me next time, when I say goodbye to Standard and welcome the other format, which is covered by three Grand Prix in the upcoming season: Modern.

Until then,


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