Abzan Knights - Standard



Back in Dominaria Standard, before getting squeezed out of the meta by Gogari value decks and RDW, there was a small period of time where a pretty neat deck put up solid results. I don't think it ever won a major event, but it certainly showed up in a few top 8s and I remember playing against it several times at my own LGS.


The deck was Black-White knights.


It used the powerful combination of Benalish Marshall, and History of Benalia to apply immediate pressure, then Lyra Dawnbringer to end the game (if the smaller guys hadn't done so already). It looked to Karn, Scion of Urza in the sideboard (and sometimes main) for card draw to keep the aggression coming. It was an impressive deck that was able to make use of tribal synergies and, unique from other recent tribal decks, actually post some wins. It wasn't long for this world, however, and quickly faded to obscurity.


Today, I try to bring it back.


Gameplan

Like many aggro tribal decks, plan A is to put down powerful creatures on curve, swing out, and maintain pressure on our opponent so they can't get their own gameplan going. Ideally, we're going turn 1 Dauntless Bodyguard, turn 2 Knight of Malice, turn 3 History of Benalia, turn 4 Valiant Knight, turn 5 win. The first strike on our Knights of Grace and Malice is not to be underestimated. It allows us to attack past just about any blockers generally up to turn 5. Against more aggressive decks, it makes them incredible blockers as well.


Our noncreature spells are mostly removal to help us deal with big creatures we can't just attack over or pressure from our opponent's board. Assassin's Trophy is a good way of dealing with planeswalkers so we don't have to spend time attacking them, but we only run 2 because we're not interested in getting our opponent 3 or 4 free lands.


There's one thing that this deck has that sets it apart from a basic tribal strategy, and that's the ability on Valiant Knight. For 5 mana, we can give our team double strike. It's an extremely powerful ability even when we don't activate it, because it forces our opponents to play around it without the mana commitment. If they don't, we just activate and win.


Also, we've got a really cool card in Aryel, Knight of Windgrace. With vigilance, she's able to attack and activate one of her abilities each turn. I only run one of her however, as she's four mana in a deck that has no trouble using mana given our curve.


Sideboard

At the head of the sideboard is Vona, Butcher of Magan. She has two purposes: first, against slower decks with a lot of noncreature permanents—mainly esper control and temur reclamation—she's able to take care of their key pieces while providing a 4/4 body to continue applying pressure. Second, I'll bring in 1 copy against mono-red on the play simply because she has lifelink.


Mortify and Moment of Craving are removal against aggro and decks that rely on enchantments. Duress is for control. Midnight Reaper and Conclave Cavalier are for decks with a lot of board wipes, as both provide value when we get swept.


Playtesting

This was one of the more winning decks I've played, although I have to add a caveat to that: most of the people I played did not have refined decks. I was a little bummed I didn't get to test against esper control or temur reclamation at all, but I guess people just weren't playing those decks while I was online. That did mean I got plenty of playtime against mono-red though, with the other repeat decks being gruul aggro and merfolk.


The nut draws for this deck felt nigh unbeatable without my opponent having a sweeper. Even if they did, the delayed creature from History of Benalia and the activated ability from our Valiant Knight can get that pressure ramped back up very quickly. No matter who I played against, if they were a creature-based deck without some kind of consistent removal to keep our best creatures off the board, I was always feeling favored. Even against larger creatures like Carnage Tyrant, the knights had a stronger board presence. Merfolk stole a game from me with double Sleep, but otherwise I came out on top.


Mono-red was a little different. Since they weren't purely creature-based, and since this deck doesn't run enough removal to keep stronger creatures off the board like Runaway Steam-kin and Goblin Chainwhirler, the matchup was much closer to 50-50. Also, like I said above, consistent removal for our lords is another way to keep our creatures from becoming too threatening, and mono-red has about a million 3 damage spells in their deck.


There weren't too many complex turn sequences with this deck, but that's about what I expected. The real strategy and decisions lied with which creature to play when. Benalish Marshal was constantly a point of contention, as his 3-white requirement usually meant he was the only play on that turn unless I had a Cast Down or Knight of Malice.


Changes

With this deck tech, I tried specifically to make the deck Abzan as I wanted to see how powerful the addition of Knight of Autumn and Assassin's Trophy would be. Given how little I've talked about them, you can probably figure out how that worked out. Don't get me wrong, Knight of Autumn saved me a couple games vs mono-red, and Assassin's Trophy did destroy a planeswalker when I needed it to, but the price was high. Benalish Marshal and History are both essential cards for this deck that require multiple white mana to play on curve, and forcing green into the deck really hurt my ability to play them when I wanted, not to mention the Knight of Autumn herself was sometimes hard to find green for.


Unfortunately for my little experiment, this deck is just better built with only white and black. It's not like we've got nothing to replace Autumn with, either. Midnight Reaper will go just fine in the main and provide a ton of value. I'd also have room for the 4th Benalish Marshal and a second Aryel. Perhaps a couple copies of Moment of Craving main will make the mono-red matchup easier as well.


That's the long and short of it. Hopefully you enjoyed reading about my knight experiment. I encourage you to give it a shot yourself if you're looking for a good tribal deck in the current standard. Who knows, it might surprise even you!


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