November 19, 2015

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Going Rogue: Abzan AristoGOATS

Hello and welcome back to Going Rogue, where winning isn't the goal, but it often happens anyways.

Now before we actually get into this article, I need to apologize for something that happens every so often amongst brewers and writers - duplication. People have similar ideas, put them both to paper, and invariably the second one turns out to be a lot less exciting than the first. So if you find this article to be a waste of time, it might be because you read a fairly similar article two weeks ago on, which also seeks to exploit the new Blood Artist duplication with the printing of Zulaport Cutthroat.

However if you don't find this article to be a waste of time, it might be because you appreciate GOATS.

GOATS? Yes, GOATS. But we'll get to that later.

The name of the game is actually Abzan Aristocrats, and there are a few different ways to do it.

First, let's take a quick look at the MTGGoldfish list.

For those of you unfamiliar with the archetype, the basic strategy is to go wide with a large number of small creatures, and let Blood Artist turn their inevitable death into a win condition. With multiple Blood Artist effects on the board and a sacrifice outlet like Cartel Aristocrat, this can quickly accelerate from a slow drain to a one-shot kill.

This first list seems to exploit that in a new way. First, by adding Collected Company to the mix, to get as many as eight Blood Artist-effects onto the field as quickly as possible, as well as the accompanying bodies to feed them. And second, by adding Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit and Safehold Elite to go infinite with a sacrifice outlet.

This is obviously reminiscent of the Kitchen Finks-Melira, Sylvok Outcast combo that's been around Modern in various builds for some time. Finks is a card that also technically works here - so why the Safehold Elite instead? This version of the deck is very all-in on its combo, and with four copies of Return to the Ranks, Safehold Elite beats Finks in the "how many spells can put me onto the battlefield" contest by a score of 11-7.

Speaking of keeping score, the deck's architect took it to a smooth 9-1 record in testing. That's certainly impressive enough for me to want to try the deck out. Even if that sort of success may largely be a product of catching your opponents off-guard, and that its familiarity might hurt its impact, that is exactly the sort of surprise factor that a rogue deck needs to thrive. So major kudos to this creation.

For longer term use, it's unclear whether relying on the combo is the most competitive angle to take with a deck like this. I suppose time will tell. In the meantime, I'd like to shine a light on what may be a more robust version that I've also enjoyed similar testing success with, at 7-2. It doesn't have an infinite combo, but it does have several separate paths to victory that synergize nicely together.

Oh, and yes, it also has GOATS.

First of all, the similarities:

Collected Company, like most of the decks it's featured in, is the real star of the deck. It provides card advantage, it adds to our going wide plan, and it can flash in "combo" pieces at opportune moments. Meanwhile Rally the Ancestors is the ultimate apology for the disposable nature of our creatures. This version of the deck places a higher value on creatures remaining in play than the combo version, so we don't need all four Rallies. Two should do nicely in the main.

Zulaport Cutthroat gives Blood Artist the redundancy it needed to be reliably built around, so of course we are going to also use both in some quantities. Satyr Wayfinder is underrated, and is really just an incredible fit for this archetype. It lets you play light on lands, is a cheap body that replaces itself, and it turns on the graveyard. I always want four. And finally, Viscera Seer is a classic sacrifice outlet that does great scry work even when its not winning you the game.

How about the differences?

This is where things take a sharp turn.

  • Elvish Visionary (and its defensive partner-in-crime, Wall of Omens) slow the game down and help you find the rest of the cards you need.
  • Noble Hierarch doesn't shine in this deck as much as I'd like her too, but she does speed up our access to Collected Company. Meanwhile, although wide decks don't utilize her exalted ability well, it can be important in this deck to poke through for two or three damage to get your opponent within combo range. Another option for this slot is Blisterpod, which might actually prove to be the better card with further testing.
  • Eternal Witness is almost an auto-include in any Collected Company deck, but in this case she's especially valuable. Our many creatures die fast and die often, and we want to repeat that effect as much as possible. Also, Satyr Wayfinder has a tendency to sometimes drop our combo pieces into the graveyard, and needs help recovering the pieces.
  • Voice of Resurgence is one of the biggest changes in this version. If there's one thing I've learned while trying to make stupid decks work, it's that you need a backup plan that fits the deck's strategy. Think Hive Mind in a deck that already wants Summoner's Pact. Voice brings that sort of incidental synergy to this deck. Cheap creature? Check. Protects combo interactions? Check. Is great with a bunch of tiny, useless friends? Check. Improves when you can kill it on demand? Check. I'd play eight if I could.
  • And finally, the other creature that does double-duty, Mirror Entity. While more often than not, we'll be funnelling as much mana as possible into its X ability to make winners out of our duds, you can also get tricky by letting X equal zero. Wait, what? Yes, you read that right.

The Power of Mirror Entity

Viscera Seer and Cartel Aristocrat are staples in this archetype, but can really limit the value you get out the combo interactions. Because you need to sacrifice your creatures in a chosen order, you wind up not getting full value out of your combo triggers. Consider the following two scenarios:

Despite sporting all of six power across six creatures, this is a pretty good board state to have. Sure, it doesn't attack well, but it's hard for your opponent to attack into it, and you can cannibalize your team at any point to start stacking drain triggers. But there's a limitation: You have to order the sacrifices in such a way that you lose impact. Here's the correct line of play:

  • Sacrifice Elvish Visionary to the Seer. Blood Artist and Zulaport Cutthroat both trigger to drain for two. Repeat with Satyr Wayfinder and Eternal Witness to get up to six.
  • Now things get awkward. If you sacrifice either Artist/Cutthroat, that will be the last time you trigger both. But if you sac the Seer, that will be the last time you trigger either. This is even worse with Cartel Aristocrat, who can't sacrifice herself.
  • So instead your biggest drain involves saccing the Artist, then the Cutthroat, and keeping the Seer alive, for a total drain of nine.

Now let's look at the same situation, but replace our Viscera Seer with a Mirror Entity:

Suddenly our options are a lot better. We have a game-ending attack opportunity by dumping everything we've got into the Mirror Entity and swinging for the fences. (Presumably, this is how the card was meant to be used.) On the other hand, if you choose a value of zero for X, everything dies simultaneously, rather than being sacrificed in a certain order. This means you get a trigger off both the Artist and the Cutthroat for each creature, including the Mirror Entity and themselves. As a result, this brings our drain from nine up to to twelve.

That's all well and good, but I came here with the promise of GOATS.

Right, right. Sorry. I almost forgot. What's changed in the mana base?

Plants? Seen it. Dryads? Boring. +1/+1 counters? Yawn... But GOATS!

All four of these lands help contribute to our plan of going wide, whether we're saccing out for the kill, or getting huge with Voice of Resurgence tokens or Mirror Entity. But Springjack Pasture, perhaps moreso than the others, brings something really interesting into the mix. On its own, it is a terrific grinder, putting lame bodies in front of 30/30 Slippery Bogles for days. But it also brings fun and powerful synergy to the deck with Mirror Entity. When X is anything greater than zero, all your creatures are now also GOATS.

Let's go back to the previous scenario, but add in a Springjack Pasture on the board and a Rally the Ancestors in hand.

Attack, tap out (other than the Pasture) for an X of... let's say four. That's an attack for 24 - certainly a good start, but we're not done yet. We can then follow this up by sacrificing everything to the Pasture to gain six life and six white mana, triggering a Blood Artist drain for twelve, and then using our GOATS mana to Rally them all back and zero the Entity again for another twelve.

Yep, that's a 78-point life swing. And we just did it all with GOATS.

The list:

The Pros and Cons of Each Build

Do you like what you see in these decks? Let me help you choose which one to sleeve up.

Modern Rallyfenza

  • This is definitely the faster deck. With access to an infinite kill, you don't need to spend time developing your board before going for the classic Aristocrats sacrifice kill.
  • Somewhat related to the above point, you can also win out of nowhere an instant speed. Even though Collected Company can only find two of the four cards you need to go off, there's so much redundancy to easily find the rest - and then there's Rally the Ancestors.
  • On the other hand, combo decks work best with deck digging, and we have access to neither Serum Visions nor Faithless Looting.
  • There is also a heavy reliance on the graveyard. A Rest in Peace turns off the infinite combo, as well as seven of the deck's spells.
  • Finally, while Return to the Ranks is an interesting card, it's very narrow in this deck, in that it's really only good for recurring the infinite pieces. If you're just looking to sacrifice your entire board multiple times, it loses a lot of its potency, since its Convoke ability no longer applies.

Abzan AristoGOATS

  • Multiple angles of attack make for a much more robust strategy. While we're not nearly as good at winning with an opposing Ad Nauseam on the stack, our combo effects grind better into the late game, and we are also good at winning the good old-fashioned way with big attacks.
  • Far less graveyard reliance. Sure, Eternal Witness fails the vanilla test pretty hard if she doesn't have any targets, but without relying on a Persist-based combo, we don't have to scoop to Scavenging Ooze.
  • GOATS make things better, always.
  • On the other hand, we are slower, and less likely to successfully race decks like burn or combos that we can't block our way out of. (With the exception of Living End. Both of these builds should be nearly auto-wins against Living End.) Sin Collectors, Spellskites, and Aven Mindcensors out of the side help with this to different extents depending on the opponent.
  • With only two copies of Rally the Ancestors in the main, we are much less likely to win out of nowhere in a seemingly lost game. While we're still combo-oriented, our board presence matters a lot until we're ready to consume it all.

All that being said, either build is going to be a bucket of fun, so I wouldn't spend too much time humming and hawing between them. Figure out which one fits your style better and take it for a spin!

That's all for this week. Until next time, have fun, and may the force be with... yes... you guessed it... GOATS.