The first Tournament of 2019, after a week off due to sickness and a hectic holiday period I had one deck on my mind. Abzan Knights (White/Green/Black) had been bouncing around my brain in my downtime. I love the Knight cards in Magic. History of Benalia is the best looking card I’ve seen and is already a powerhouse in the standard format. This card creates a Knight token for two turns then gives all Knights +2/+1 until the end of turn. Most knights are either two or three drops and I’d put a couple of bigger, legendary ones thrown in for flavour. Using legendary creatures can be a risk as you can only have one in play at a time, so if it survives the others become dead cards to draw. I’d tried to pilot an all Knight deck that curved out at five mana, but the lack of evasive creatures and consistency in the land base caused its downfall. It was pretty useless drawing all forests if I needed a plains or swamp to play out an early knight. I’d added more dual lands to compensate for this (can be played as either one colour or another). I was reluctant to throw the towel in and after tweaking a few pieces the puzzle was becoming a lot clearer.
The deck evolved over the next few weeks to be slightly more of a midrange deck, with the bigger threats being an Angel and the dreaded Carnage Tyrant. My land base wasn’t quite fixed but I put in some more forests and Jadelight Rangers to utilize the Explore mechanic (“Reveal the top card of your library. Put that card into your hand if it’s a land. Otherwise, put a +1/+1 counter on this creature, then put the card back or put it in your graveyard.”) and could use this to hit lands more often. The deck no longer had to depend on brevity to win, with a stronger way to search for cards and some bigger spells to finish everything off. I was looking forward to seeing how it all went and still had a couple of the legendary knights in to stay on flavour.
My opponent was playing something I’d feared before, Green Stompy deck. This deck ramps fast, getting massive green creatures on the board quickly and tries to goldfish the opponent (Basically not looking at the game state too much and ignoring the opponent. Just going with your own plan to win). The deck is fairly linear but the unexpected splash into black removal had me worried the first time it came down. The creatures it plays early can be a total hassle. If any of the big ones aren’t taken care of then the game will end fast. The deck curves out really well being able to play small mana dorks (tap for one mana) early and curving into nearly unstoppable three-drop creatures in Steel Leaf Champion. Once the board is wide a huge 12/12 Dinosaur called Ghalta, Primal Hunger can come down extremely early and since it has Trample it’s very difficult to block.
I’d played against my opponent before, we chatted a bit quickly and got the new year pleasantries out the way. As soon as the game started he was dead focused though. His initial start of playing Llanowar elves into Thorn Lieutenant was pretty scary, but I had both my early knights down as blockers with First Strike (meaning they deal damage first, before taking damage) making them excellent blockers. The two early Knights: Grace and Malice, have great synergy as they give each other +1/+0 as long as their opposite colours are in play. Then the big fearful creatures started to appear. Steel Leaf Champion is a 5/4 three mana creature that can’t be blocked by creatures with 2 or less power. This makes it an incredible early game threat and to top it all off he had buffed his Lieutenant. Green decks have a few sneaky tricks to turn their small creatures into larger ones, the Blanchwood Armour gives the enchanted creature +1/+1 for every forest you control, so the Lieutenant was now a 7/8. I’d been able to use an Assassin’s Trophy to deal with it, but it gave my opponent a free land drop. This was a big mistake, bringing out a Carnage Tyrant that has Hexproof and Trample. Unfortunately, all my knights couldn’t deal with it and he trampled through to get me down to zero.
Game two went much more in my favour with a slight misplay on both parts leading to a lucky victory for me. The game started in a similar fashion and being able to get an Ixilans Binding down to take care of the Steel Leaf Champion for the foreseeable future, I was looking good. We were both building pretty big board states and I had started to ramp into my bigger threats. Both my angels came into play and Lyra, Dawnbringer was able to stick around. She’s a 5/5 flyer with lifelink (Damage dealt by this creature also causes you to gain that much life.) so was able to get me back up to six life from one. Then my opponent decided to clear the board. He misread the card and didn’t realise that it would hit his own creatures with -4/-4. Lyra was able to survive but couldn’t block this turn. I knew I’d go back up again on the next turn so was safe. Lyra was then too much of a threat, coupled with my Knight of Autumn being a blocker on the ground meant I could jump back up to fourteen health and chip through to victory.
Game Three I couldn’t hit my land drops. I had a big removal spell but Ghalta, Primal Hunger came down on turn five and I was so far behind that I couldn’t catch up. It was unfortunate as after looking at the next few cards I had some great upcoming plays. We laughed that it would have been several turns before I’d actually hit a land but I could maybe have put up a better fight.
It was a shame the last game was a no contest, it would have been pretty close and we played out another match for fun. We both curved out and I managed to just get ahead. Overall, finishing off my land base to make a three coloured deck more consistent is something I’m working on. I also should have maybe mulliganed more aggressively to look for lands but I’d already dropped to six cards so going to five would have been very risky also.
Match two was against a new opponent. I’d seen him running crazy variations of a turbo deck. Tubro decks tend to look to play their win condition out fast and clean up early. These style of combo decks can cause havoc if they get off to a good start and need to be shut down quick. I’d made a good guess that he wanted to hit Niv-Mizzet, Parun as fast as he could so I was prepared to play the role of the aggressor to slow him down as much as possible.
Game one I had an amazing opening hand with three lands, all my mana fixing and a big knight to ramp towards. My opponent didn’t have many early answers, but was casting spells to give him treasures (they can act as disposable mana) and cycle through his deck incredibly fast. He was down on fourteen life and was now trying to deal with my smaller knights. I hit my fourth land drop and Valiant Knight came down. He may not seem entirely threatening as a 3/4 but also gives other knights +1/+1. This allowed me to now threaten his blockers without dying. Josu Vess, Lich Knight made his appearance and my opponent slammed down Niv to start pinging down my creatures. Luckily the buff from Valiant Knight and his special ability to pay 5 mana to give all knights double strike was enough to push through the damage I needed to win.
Game two my opponent thought I was playing more of a midrange strategy rather than a token one. A lucky draw of two History of Benalia gave me an incredible board of four knights that were poised to get buffed up fast. He was able to get a Drake down as a blocker and the way he’d been using his spells meant that it was buffed heavily. I knew he would have to block one of the knights when I swung in and luckily was able to use a spell to give it indestructible. His next play was going to be Niv, he had plenty of mana if he untapped too so I needed a miracle to stop it. I drew my card for the turn and it was probably the draw of a lifetime. Ixilan’s Binding doesn’t cause Niv to trigger his abilities and shuts it down entirely. My opponent was tapped out and I apologised that my draw was incredibly lucky. The binding landed and he shook my hand.
I was pretty lucky with my draw but that is the nature of Magic sometimes. It may have been a misplay to have nothing to protect Niv-Mizzet, but he really had no other option. The Binding was in the deck purely to deal with him so I was glad I’d added two copies. Granted I think my recognition of being able to have a variety of threats and identify my role in the game led to my victory.
My final match for the day was with another opponent I’d had a lot of games with. This is always useful as you can take a guess at what they are playing, but after seeing a couple of his decks I’d a pretty clear idea once the first mountain came into play. He was playing Izzet Drakes and his deck was an older version that is arguably more tuned to be a flashy finisher. I knew he was reliant on his Crackling Drakes and of course, Niv-Mizzet to finish off the game. I would have to be the aggressor again as it was the best way to win. I started off strong, with a couple of knights coming down and being able to chip away at his life total. People forget that if you leave the early threats around they will eventually get the work done. He was able to use the Ionize counter spell on both my Jadelight Rangers on turn three and four, but this left an opening to get both of my other knights in play. At this point he had two drakes down but sitting at 7/4’s so they were formidable blockers. Luckily my Valiant Knight buffed all my knights to be far too strong now, and with a wide board I could swing in and beat his blockers by outnumbering him.
Game two I had a bit of a nightmare, having to mulligan down to five cards is a massive disadvantage. I knew I needed a land drop, but I traded away a reasonable six card hand that had removal in the hopes of finding a more aggressive start. Luckily it was starting to pay off, my opponent was also getting stuck on lands but had a goblin electromancer in play to make his spells cheaper. We were both drawing and playing our threats out tit for tat and I knew once he hit six lands Niv was most likely going to come down. I didn’t have an answer but was once again creating a wide board state of knights. I had two History of Benalia in play and knew if I could survive a turn my buffed knights would push past his drakes. Then as if almost scripted Niv appeared, my opponent was tapped out and I was answerless. My five knights would do a lot of damage, but if he decided to block two of them I wouldn’t have lethal damage. I needed another amazing draw and my lucky nature kicked in with another Ixilan’s binding. People often say lightning can’t strike twice, but something must have hit the top of my deck today. We laughed as I mentioned this had just happened and he was doing some counting to see if it was survivable. It didn’t look like it was and he showed me his hand of three Niv’s mentioning he thought I’d just have spell based removal and not enchantment based.
Granted the second game my opponent got slightly land screwed but his sideboard plan didn’t account for a wide board state. I could play out as many of my threats as needed with only single target removal being the only real issue. My top end threats can race Niv Mizzet anyway, but I’m glad I could see different routes to beat the deck that is considered number two in the standard Meta right now. I think being up against a Golgari deck (the best deck in standard currently which is Green/Black) I would have struggled. I played a game before the tournament and the focused versions with two colours are far more efficient than an Abzan deck at the moment. I plan to keep tuning this deck for next week and am looking forward to seeing how other match ups go.
My showdown packs contained :