If there is one thing I learned over the years, it’s that life is unfair.
And so is Modern.
These days, even the decks that win by simply aiming to disrupt the opponent and attack with creatures are doing it in an unfair way. In a format so diverse, where anything can happen, I find that the best course of action is to embrace the unfairness, be proactive, and force opponents to react to you.
How about gaining a trillion life and scrying through your whole deck, or better yet, drawing all your creatures and dealing a googolplex damage, perhaps as soon as turn three? That is the quite unfair plan of the deck known as Abzan Company.
As an aside, because of the new combo involving Vizier of Remedies and Devoted Druid, this new version of the deck has been known as Counters Company, but really, this is just the same old dog, who happened to learn a few new tricks. Because there is no compelling reason, at this point, to go back to the lists without the Druid combo, it seems to me that the differentiation is rather pointless.
As mentioned before, there are two main combos here: the primary one involves a Devoted Druid feverishly drinking endless quantities of poison to untap itself, and a Vizier of Remedies, at its side, providing an unlimited amount of cure. With as much green mana as you want, you can then find and activate Duskwatch Recruiter, then retrieve Walking Ballista for the kill. The reason this one is positioned as the main combo is because it’s slightly faster, it wins on the spot, and is more difficult to interact with.
The secondary combo, the classic one if you will, can be executed at instant speed with Chord of Calling or Collected Company. It also involves Vizier, this time with Kitchen Finks and Viscera Seer, to gain lots of life, scry through your entire deck, and set up an unbeatable follow-up if necessary.
At this point, one might wonder why it’s worth including the secondary combo, or even include black in the deck at all. Many reasons come to mind: first, the opportunity cost is very small. You were already going to run the Kitchen Finks, so all that remains is adding a single Viscera Seer. The second reason is about play patterns: the Druid combo kill often requires casting Duskwatch Recruiter or Walking Ballista during your main phase, and requires Devoted Druid to not be summoning sick. The sacrifice combo, meanwhile, can be used at any time, often in response to your opponent’s actions, which adds a lot of flexibility to your game. Third, adding black to the deck allows you to run some very powerful – and perhaps necessary – sideboard cards such as Abrupt Decay, Tidehollow Sculler and Orzhov Pontiff. Finally, now that the Vizier/Druid interaction is a known thing, and people have become more prepared for it, you need to give yourself more options.
Now, here lies the difficulty in building and playing Abzan Company: both combos require three different creatures. If you lean too hard on the combo plan, and the opponent manages to break that apart with removal or discard, you end up with a bunch of wimpy creatures that can’t profitably rumble with the Death’s Shadows and Tarmogoyfs of this world. Every competent Modern player will know what you’re up to, and will prepare in consequence. As such, you cannot just try to race blindly to the combo all the time. The best way of building and playing the deck, in terms of general strategy, is often to threaten the combo while building an overwhelming board position and/or generating value, until you reach the point where they can’t answer everything.
Of course, there are matchups where the opponent will not really try to interact with you, and then you just want to combo as fast as possible. This is why the deck’s incredible flexibility is so important. The deck’s powerful tutoring and recursion engine enables you to adapt your game plan on the fly. It also gives you easy access to a number of “silver bullet” creatures that give you an edge against most of the popular Modern strategies.
Your best matchups, if you build the deck correctly and play it well, are proactive decks with little removal, and decks that can only deal a finite amount of damage. Turns out, that’s a lot of decks. And even if you don’t combo out, you can usually gain enough life and make enough blockers to beat Burn and other aggressive decks on a consistent basis. Some of the toughest matchups, as stated above, are those with lots of removal and board sweepers. Snapcaster Mage decks that can also put early pressure on you, like Grixis Death’s Shadow, can be especially hard to keep up with. Urzatron decks are probably your worse matchup. A resolved Ugin is usually game over, board sweepers make it hard to assemble your combos, and they don’t care if you have a gazillion life, as they can just set up a Karn ultimate to reset the game, or exile your entire deck with Ulamog.
Here is my current list:
In this article, I will discuss the choices you can make when building and playing the deck, from the core pieces to the singletons in the sideboard. How many of each creature should you play? Should they be in the maindeck or the sideboard? When should you run them, or not? What other options could you consider, beyond what you can find in the stock lists? These are my notes on Abzan Company.
Birds of Paradise and Noble Hierarch: The best opening hands often have one of those; you don’t want to topdeck one going late; you really don’t want to put one into play with Collected Company, but sometimes you have no other choice. Still, with the exalted and bolster triggers, as well as Gavony Township, the Birds end up attacking surprisingly often in this deck. Because of the addition of Devoted Druid, you don’t want to play too many, or risk encountering the dreaded Collected Company into two mana dorks too frequently. You can consider boarding out the Hierarchs in matchups where you expect the game to go long, so you can reduce the number of bad topdecks and play around potential sweepers. Because they have evasion and can generate black mana, Birds are better than Nobles here.
Devoted Druid: The primary combo can be threatened as soon as you untap with this guy, so you want to play all four. Replaces the old favorite Wall of Roots in the two-drop mana creature slot. As was the case with the Wall, the extra mana it can generate means faster Collected Companies and Chords of Calling, and Gavony Township activations as well. Township and Anafenza can reset the -1/-1 counter for more mana.
Vizier of Remedies: Because it enables two combos at once, you want to run at least two, although three feels like a better number to improve the odds of naturally drawing one. Replaces Melira, Sylvok Outcast from older versions, making you weaker to Infect decks. You can sideboard some out if you play against a removal-heavy deck and you don’t expect to be able to easily combo off.
Duskwatch Recruiter: You really only need one, but as there are more mana creatures than before in this version of the deck, it can also act as a mana sink to find more action when you’re flooding. Its back face is not that useful, so be careful not to get stuck with a useless Krallenhorde Howler when you get the mana combo going.
Walking Ballista and Rhonas, the Indomitable: Both can be used to kill the opponent after you execute the mana combo. Rhonas can be found with Collected Company, but that is its only real advantage over Walking Ballista, which is more efficient, more versatile and does not need the combat step.
Viscera Seer: Part of the secondary combo. Because it’s the weakest on the battlefield and the easiest to Chord into, it’s the one you should play the less copies of. With that in mind, you should never expose it to removal until you want to combo off, if at all possible. Also has multiple less obvious roles, such as preventing your creatures from being Path to Exiled so you can bring them back later; sacrificing superfluous creatures to scry into a useful spell; or reversing the triggers on Fiend Hunter and Tidehollow Sculler to exile the chosen card permanently (by sacrificing them in response to their enter the battlefield ability).
Kitchen Finks: The centerpiece creature of the deck that ties it all together. I don’t think you should ever play less than four. Being a combo piece that can attack, block, slow down aggro decks and make opponent’s removal less efficient, they bridge the gap between your combo game and your value game. Bear in mind that opponents with Surgical Extraction out of the sideboard will sometimes attempt to target the Finks with it. You can play around this by playing a second Finks so you can combo again in response to the Extraction, exiling it with your Scavenging Ooze to blank the target, or better yet, by going for the other combo.
Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit: Her main role is that of an alternate Vizier, to negate the -1/-1 counter on Kitchen Finks so Viscera Seer can sacrifice it as many times as you want, gain tons of life and scry through your deck. Can also bolster Birds in a pinch for beatdown purposes, or put an arrow in Walking Ballista’s quiver. If both Anafenza and Vizier of Remedies are on the battlefield with Seer and Finks, you can also generate infinite bolster triggers. Vizier prevents the -1/-1 counter from ever hitting the Finks, and if you sacrifice that Finks with the bolster trigger on the stack over and over again, then let all those bolsters resolve, all your creatures will get showered with delicious counters.
Collected Company and Chord of Calling: The core engine of the deck. Still, there are many situations where you might want to consider sideboarding some of these out. If you expect Grafdigger’s Cage, which is the best sideboard card against you, you should board out two Companies for the Abrupt Decays; if you play against a deck that can kill a lot of creatures, sideboard out some Chords of Calling, because you can have a hard time casting them with too few critters to pay for convoke. You should also cut some Companies if you sideboard in multiple non-creature spells, so your creature count does not go too low.
Eternal Witness: Its interaction with Chord of Calling and especially Collected Company (you can get back the same Chord or Coco that brought the Witness into play) is the main reason to include this card. Also acts as a way to fight through removal and re-use combo pieces. Two seems like the right number, as it’s not really useful early in the game and you don’t want to be too focused on the graveyard, especially after sideboarding.
Gavony Township: Can turn Birds into threats. Can reset Kitchen Finks. Does it all. This is your main avenue to victory when you can’t pull off either combo. The color requirements of the deck make it risky to run more than two.
Archangel of Thune and Spike Feeder: An alternate, and optional, combo of the deck. Fell out of favor with the printing of Vizier of Remedies. Could be worth revisiting later on depending on the metagame. The Feeder isn’t very good on its own. The Angel is hard to Chord for and can’t be hit by Company, but it can randomly take over games.
Murderous Redcap: Another optional combo piece that can’t be Chorded for, the Reverse Finks is also made somewhat obsolete by the new combo, especially since Walking Ballista kind of does its job of picking off small creatures.
Saffi Eriksdotter: Yet another optional combo piece, this one can loop with a Viscera Seer and Renegade Rallier to scry your entire deck, generating bolster triggers if Anafenza is on the battlefield. Can double as protection for your other combo pieces.
Renegade Rallier: It can ramp you by bringing back fetches, it can bring back Horizon Canopy for additional card draw, or it can be an auxiliary Witness of sorts, though Witness is much more versatile. If you play this card, you should leave fetch lands in play if you don’t have a use for the mana, so can turn on revolt when you need it.
Tireless Tracker and Courser of Kruphix: The value engines of the deck. These enable you to win the games where your opponents have lots of one for one answers to your creatures. While your opponent has to respect your ability to combo at any time, Tracker and Courser generate value over time and gradually help you take over the game. Furthermore, they work even better together. Courser is also excellent against the aggro decks, especially Burn. In a world full of black midrange decks and Snapcaster Mage decks, I feel some number of these are necessary to keep up and be able to switch gears as needed. These creatures are the reason my list has a 23rd land rather than the third Noble Hierarch.
Scavenging Ooze: A must-have in the maindeck. Great against Dredge, Burn and the mirror; great to make Tarmogoyfs smaller, exile Griselbrand, blank Snapcaster Mage and break up delirium; great at winning races. Don’t leave home without it!
Fiend Hunter: Tutorable removal that can be, as stated above, used in conjunction with Viscera Seer to permanently exile a problem creature.
Qasali Pridemage: Pretty self-explanatory. Bring this in against Affinity (obviously), or if you expect Grafdigger’s Cage, Ensnaring Bridge, Blood Moon, Leyline of the Void, or Worship, among other things. It’s not pretty, but it can randomly take out an Oblivion Stone against unsuspecting Tron players who tapped too low.
Linvala, Keeper of Silence: Destroys the mirror match, as well as Elves and Knightfall decks. Can also stop a lot of shenanigans from Bant Eldrazi.
Selfless Spirit and Spellskite: This is the “protect your assets” slot. I’m not a huge fan of Spellskite at the moment: for it to be worth maindecking, it has to be useful for more than just protecting your combo pieces from removal (such as blanking Infect and Boggles decks). Furthermore, given that there are more Paths to Exile and Fatal Pushes then there are Lightning Bolts floating around these days, Spellskite usually just trades for one removal spell. Selfless Spirit can also do that, while covering against board sweepers and attacking in the air.
Voice of Resurgence and Tarmogoyf: These two are not quite suited to the game plan of the deck, but are still worth mentioning. If you need solid attackers or blockers, they both can be excellent metagame calls in the right situation, either in the maindeck or in the sideboard.
Path to Exile: Sometimes you need more than just one Fiend Hunter to keep up with what your opponent is doing. Against creature matchups, your plan is usually to recast the same removal spell multiple times by bringing it back with Eternal Witnesses. Sometimes it’s correct to maindeck a few of these, but be aware that to do so, you have to reduce Collected Company’s effectiveness.
Abrupt Decay: The anti-hate card. Especially important if you expect to face Grafdigger’s Cage or Liliana, the Last Hope, which both do quite a number on this deck. Takes out Cranial Plating, and acts as Paths number 3 and 4 in creature-focused matchups like Merfolk and Elves. Some people run Maelstrom Pulse in that slot. I understand the appeal of being able to destroy Ugin or Karn, but I don’t know how you’re supposed to win if you tap out to destroy one of these if they have been activated already. The instant speed and reduced mana cost, and even the uncounterability at times, matter a lot more to me. And I’d rather attempt to combo against Tron decks before they set up than try to interact with their large threats.
Kataki, War’s Wage: Okay against Affinity, but be aware that it’s very good only if you play it on turn two. After that, chances are they will be able to fight out of it. In any case, you can often just beat them by executing your combo before they kill you, as they don’t have a lot of ways to stop you. Another reason you might want Kataki, though, is against Lantern Control. It can also do a lot of work against the Krark-Clan Ironworks deck.
Orzhov Pontiff: One-sided Wrath against Elves, Affinity, tokens and the mirror, as well as anything that relies on multiple one-toughness creatures. A mainstay in Abzan Company sideboards, and an occasional maindeck role-player.
Melira, Sylvok Outcast: Outclassed by Vizier, which enables two combos rather than just one. Might still be a useful sideboard card when Infect decks inevitably make a comeback, but be aware she doesn’t work with Devoted Druid.
Fulminator Mage: Useful against Tron, Lantern Control, Shapeshift decks, Amulet Titan, Celestial Colonnade, among others. If you put these in your sideboard, be aware that you need at least three for them to be reliable enough.
Eidolon of Rhetoric: The best silver bullet you can have against Storm and Ad Nauseam. They usually have one or two ways to get rid of it after sideboarding, so pairing this with Spellskite can do wonders there.
Phyrexian Revoker: You want to bring this in against Lantern Control, Bant Knightfall and Tron, mostly. Also stops things like Liliana of the Veil, opposing Scavenging Oozes, Arcbound Ravager, Heritage Druid, Elvish Archdruid, Relic of Progenitus and Nihil Spellbomb.
Tidehollow Sculler: Useful against Tron, Scapeshift, and all manners of combo decks. Also fills the Spellskite role of eating a removal spell if that’s what you need. Can be sacrificed to Viscera Seer in response to the trigger to exile the card permanently, as with Fiend Hunter, though you need to make that decision before you get to see your opponent’s hand.
Sin Collector: Less versatile than Tidehollow Sculler, but you don’t have to jump through hoops to exile the card. Comes in against mostly the same decks as Sculler, except against Tron where it doesn’t do much.
Thoughtseize: You can consider adding a few of these to your sideboard to complement your Sculler/Sin Collector package, if your metagame is very combo-oriented.
Burrenton Forge-Tender: This used to be a mainstay in the sideboard as protection against both Burn decks and Anger of the Gods, but has fallen out of favor recently. You already have tons of cards that play well against Burn, and Selfless Spirit is more useful as sweeper protection. This little kithkin can also stop Lightning Storm and Conflagrate, though, so perhaps it’s worth keeping in mind.
Reclamation Sage: A slightly worse version of Qasali Pridemage in most situations. It does have some upsides, such as not having to pay additional mana if you find it through Collected Company, and staying on the board after its deed is done.
Aven Mindcensor: Mostly useful against decks that involve Primeval Titan and/or Scapeshift. Might be a bit too cute against Death’s Shadow decks with Traverse the Ulvenwald, but it can still be situationally backbreaking. Can have some play in the mirror, too.
Big Game Hunter: Useful against Death’s Shadow and Eldrazi decks, where it acts as a Fiend Hunter that doesn’t bring the creature back if it dies.
Thalia, Heretic Cathar: A decent attacker that can slow down Tron and power down the Knight of the Reliquary/Retreat to Coralhelm combo. It can also stop the Saheeli combo if that ever becomes popular in Modern.
Anafenza, the Foremost: A big creature that hinders Dredge decks and can potentially reset your Kitchen Finks. Most of the time, it’s just a worse Scavenging Ooze.
Gaddock Teeg: A card with very niche applications, as you can no longer cast Company or Chord once it hits the battlefield. You have to make sure this absolutely cripples your opponent before you even consider playing this one.
Kor Firewalker: Obviously good against burn decks. Not that you should need much help there.
Yixlid Jailer: Obviously good against dredge and storm decks. Your Kitchen Finks can still come back, though.
Dosan the Falling Leaf: Obviously good against counterspell decks. Which may or may not exist.
Well, there you have it, in an arbitrarily large nutshell. As you can tell, this deck is very complex and provides its pilot with multiple deckbuilding options, game plans and lines of play, and as such, requires a lot of thought and practice. You need to know your deck, its intricacies and its matchups inside and out, but once you do get there, it’s one of the very best decks in the format. If you know what you’re doing, you can pretty much be prepared for anything.