Since Pro Tour Phyrexia, Abzan Greasefang decks have undergone a major change, caused by the version that David Inglis played at the event, with Traverse the Ulvenwald.
Over the next few weeks, this new version became the archetype's default on Pioneer, and with the release of Shadows Over Innistrad Remastered on Magic Arena, players were able to experience this new variant.
The Explorer Metagame Challenge, which takes place on April 8th to 10th, is an excellent opportunity for players to test strategies and get good rewards on the digital platform. Today, I will present the archetype that I intend to take to the event, and how to play it.
Although this article is focused on Explorer and the event to come, given the similarity of the lists, this guide also works for Pioneer, as the card pool of this archetype is already fully integrated into the digital platform.
What is Traverse Greasefang?
Traverse Greasefang is a variant of Abzan Greasefang, a deck that seeks to place Parhelion II in the graveyard to reanimate it with Greasefang, Okiba Boss, for a total of 13 damage the turn the artifact enters the board, and an additional eight damage the next turn with the Angel tokens created by the vehicle, for a total of 21 damage.
The difference between this version and the traditional one is the inclusion of a package from Shadows Over Innistrad, with Traverse the Ulvenwald and Vessel of Nascency, where both bring a new approach to the archetype.
While the other version seeks to use creatures such as Stitcher's Supplier and Satyr Wayfinder to mill your deck and close the combo with a Greasefang from your hand, or sought by Eldritch Evolution, Traverse Greasefang seeks a slower adaptation, but less susceptible to the various existing hate pieces against the archetype across the format.
That's because Vessel of Nascency, as an enchantment which ability can be activated at the end of the opponent's turn, opens up fewer response windows for them rather than hoping for an entire turn where the opponent doesn't play a Graveyard Trespasser or Go Blank to exile your graveyard. In addition, Vessel also finds other permanent types, and improves the deck's attrition strategy.
Traverse the Ulvenwald adds consistency to the combo plan. Since this is a strategy that you already want to put cards into your graveyard, having four or more types of them isn't difficult. And the moment Delirium is active, Traverse functions as extra copies of Greasefang, Okiba Boss in your hand.
These elements are combined with a solid core that is much more responsive to the opponent's plan, and makes this version much better equipped to deal with disruptions and/or attrition matchups, albeit slower than traditional lists.
This is the decklist I've been playing in the Magic Arena ranked, and my probable list for the Metagame Challenge.
Although there are some changes compared to David Inglis' list, especially on the Sideboard, the shell and its proposal remain the same.
Any Greasefang strategy wouldn't exist without the card that gives the archetype its name and the main vehicle you want to reanimate.
There's a lot of debate about banning one of these cards because they provide an unpleasant experience for opponents. And let's face it, Greasefang's results in the Metagame Challenge could define the future of the archetype in Explorer/Pioneer.
It's likely that a ban on Parhelion II could still make Greasefang viable without having an efficient combo-kill, thanks to the added value of other vehicles. But would it be worth playing without its most absurd combo, over any other Midrange in the format?
I call these two "the backup".
The reason why Abzan is the best match for Greasefang, Okiba Boss today is the sheer value Esika's Chariot provides the moment it comes into play. If it is reanimated from the graveyard, you will have a total of 10 power on the board over the course of two turns, not counting future interactions with Greasefang.
Skysovereign, Consul Flagship went from a Sideboard one-of last year to a staple today. Its potential to clear the opponent's board in attrition matchups and still be a 6/5 body with Flying makes it one of the best vehicles in the format.
These cards are excellent for the Midrange proposal that comes with the combo. Esika's Chariot wins more games on its own with the pressure it puts on the board than it seems, and having an opponent overly preoccupied with Parhelion II also means it leaves too many gaps for these two vehicles to take over the game.
The "Extra Greasefangs".
Traverse the Ulvenwald operates like the 5-7 copies of our combo, but it's also an excellent early-game manafixing, and we don't need to fear using it to guarantee our land drop in the first few turns.
Can't Stay Away excels in attrition matches, where we expect Greasefang to die frequently. It makes it possible to re-execute the combo up to two times, in addition to allowing its execution straight from the graveyard, with Flashback.
The fastest way to find the combo is to dig the deck for Greasefang, while we put the rest (vehicles included) in the graveyard.
Vessel of Nascency is the most recent addition, it allows finding artifacts and Planeswalkers with its ability, and interacts with Fatal Push in the post-sideboard, in addition to being able to activate its ability at the end of the opponent's turn.
Grisly Salvage is a staple of any self-mill strategy in Pioneer, as it's an Instant-Speed spell that finds the creature or land drop you need for the next turn while putting four cards into your graveyard.
Witherbloom Command, despite being a sorcery, is very efficient. In addition to also guaranteeing your land drop and putting cards in the graveyard, it has other modules that can kill small creatures, give you an extra breath against Aggro, and deal with troublesome non-creature permanents like Rest in Peace, Unlicensed Hearse, or Curious Obsession, among others.
There will be many times when you draw Parhelion II, or it's in your starting hand, and having the means to discard the artifact is necessary.
Raffine's Informant is the best discard outlet for the deck. Because it's a creature (and can be found with Traverse the Ulvenwald), and Connive's ability makes the player draw the card before discarding it, expanding your options.
Liliana of the Veil is a recent addition, but aside from discarding Parhelion II and other vehicles, she excels at attrition games. Her abilities dry up the opponent's resources and punish them for trying to propose 1-for-1 trades and/or put individual threats on the board, in addition to also punishing the archetypes that cannot easily deal with her presence on the board.
Liliana isn't good against all decks, but in the games where she matters, she excels at what she does.
Thoughtseize works as extra protection and a means of getting enough information to know how and/or when to execute your plan.
On its own, this spell ensures that you slow down your opponent's game and/or remove an important piece that would hinder your combo. In addition, it guarantees the necessary knowledge to know which stance you should take during the match.
The flex slots.
Both are on the list because of the versatility they present in different games, but you can test whatever you want in these slots to define what works best for your Metagame.
Scrapwork Mutt is a discard source for Parhelion II, is an artifact creature for Traverse the Ulvenwald, and its Unearth ability creates some situations where it pulls the remaining damage against the opponent in games where Esika's Chariot is your main wincondition.
Collective Brutality works in almost every match, and is yet another discard feature for the list. But none of its effects are exceptional for two mana, making it obsolete compared to more efficient cards.
My list runs 20 lands, unlike most who play around 21 to 23. The first reason to play less in my version is that we can be aggressive with Traverse the Ulvenwald and secure our second land drop with it, then fetch the third and/or fourth with Grisly Salvage, or any other mill, or draw effect.
The second reason is that, outside of Doom Whisperer on the Sideboard, the highest mana cost on my list is four, and we don't need more than five or at most six lands to ensure our plan works in the late-game.
Some may even prefer to include a twenty-first land in the list. In those cases, I would recommend Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire, or more copies of some fast land.
Speaking of fast lands, the combination between them is constantly changing as it seems pertinent. Today, I consider that we need a land drop with green in the first turn to establish our setup, or black to play Thoughtseize.
However, we also need white mana on the second or third turn, black or green mana on the second, and to perform our combo with Traverse the Ulvenwald, or to play Greasefang, Okiba Boss with backup discard. Because of this, the Mana Confluence playset seems almost mandatory.
Our cheap removal package.
Traverse Greasefang struggles to deal with go-wide strategies in the Maindeck, and those can manage to trample it before the combo is executed. So, we need some cheap removals to hold them back.
Fatal Push is the default Pioneer/Explorer removal. It deals with most Aggro creatures, while also interacting with chump blocks or Vessel of Nascency to trigger Revolt, which allows it to kill bigger threats such as Adeline, Resplendent Cathar or Spell Queller.
Ray of Enfeeblement seems like a specific answer against white decks, and indeed, it works well against Humans, Angels, and the Mirror. However, the -1 toughness works against creatures of other colors works well against Spirits and mana dorks, while the -4 power slows the clock of strategies like Mono Red Aggro and Mono Green Stompy.
More board interaction, but focused on other problematic permanents.
Although they work well against Aggro, the two spells above serve to remove hate pieces and deal with creatures or Planeswalkers that generate too much value if they remain in play.
Assassin's Trophy is the replacement for the missing Abrupt Decay in Explorer. But it has the advantage of potentially dealing with Karn, the Great Creator, one of the biggest enemies of our strategy, as it locks the activated abilities of artifacts and, consequently, the crew ability.
Vanishing Verse is a one-of against many threats, but its presence on the Sideboard is due to its potential to deal Parhelion II or Esika's Chariot permanently.
Duress is a spell capable of coming into Game 2 and 3 against various archetypes, depending on your stance in the game. It works best against Combo and Control, but it's also good protection against Midranges when you need to go for the combo plan.
Unlicensed Hearse is the best graveyard hate we can get. Its ability to deal with any threat at Instant-Speed and still become a late-game threat makes it one of the best cards to answer Greasefang, or Arclight Phoenix.
The fact that it's a vehicle is another major bonus to our list.
Our Traverse the Ulvenwald toolbox.
Knight of Autumn does a bit of everything: it destroys artifacts and enchantments, it's a blocker that slows down the clock of Aggro decks, while it's also a decent threat on an empty board. Its main function is to serve as a response to common hates, such as Unlicensed Hearse and Rest in Peace, but it stands out from other options for its flexibility.
Doom Whisperer is present for the Midrange matchups, as they struggle to kill it, while it can set up the combo on its own with Surveil.
Rakdos lists often run Power Word Kill as the primary removal, which cannot target Doom Whisperer, and only one or at most two copies of Bedevil (or Dreadbore on Pioneer). So, unless they have plenty of Blood tokens and a Bloodtithe Harvester to sacrifice, they have very few options to deal with this creature.
Gruul Midrange needs to force a 2-for-1 to deal with Doom Whisperer. Still, this also depends on how many Obliterating Bolt remain in Game 2 and 3, and they are often few or none as they need space to include Fry and Abrade.
That is, the "Doom Whisperer plan" is a very efficient alternative in those matchups where you can't just count on closing the combo to win due to the opponent's interactions.
The other attrition elements.
The third Liliana of the Veil is an important piece in games where you need to be disruptive. Midrange matches are where she fits best, especially against those who don't run mana dorks.
Reckoner Bankbuster is a flexible Sideboard slot where I have been using it for attrition games, especially against Control.
These games usually extend to the point where the opponent goes for the "draw-go", and the number of cards in each player's hand matters. Bankbuster ensures you maintain resource parity, as well as becoming a threat in subsequent turns. The fact that it's another vehicle to reanimate with Greasefang, and generates more value in the next few turns, is a bonus.
Alternate Card Choices
The cards above are other options I consider today for the Traverse Greasefang's Sideboard. Over the last few days, I've also been working on a version with a more permanent-oriented sideboard, to take more advantage of Vessel of Nascency and Traverse the Ulvenwald.
Tips and Tricks
Most of Traverse Greasefang's starting hands in Game 1 boil down to having the resources to run the combo or pick it up with your spells. So, you want at least two lands (on the play, you might have a land and Traverse the Ulvenwald), one or two search engines (Grisly Salvage, Raffine's Informant, Vessel of Nascency), and a combo piece (Parhelion II, Esika's Chariot, Greasefang, Okiba Boss, Traverse the Ulvenwald) and, preferably, a disruption (Thoughtseize, Liliana of the Veil).
Hands that differ from these depend on who you're playing against, and a Mulligan is preferable for combinations that stray too far from the above. Hands that have disruption and the means to find the combo and/or cast Esika's Chariot are a decent option for Game 1, as long as you have action to fetch the combo.
In this example above, you can choose to be aggressive and use Thoughtseize to remove a key piece, Grisly Salvage the next turn, and if you find Greasefang, you can choose to cast Raffine's Informant on the third turn to discard Esika's Chariot and attempt a combo on the fourth, or preserve the vehicle to play it on the next turn.
Hands with many copies of Parhelion II are not advisable, unless you have many means of discarding them.
In the case above, you'll need to be aggressive with Traverse and Raffine's Informant to secure Liliana of the Veil on the third turn. If Greasefang comes on your draws, you've closed the combo. Otherwise, you are proposing an attrition war. This hand is not advisable if you are facing an aggro.
Post-sideboard, your hand will always depend on what the other side of the board proposes, and this is where stances come into play.
Traverse Greasefang's stance is one of being a fast combo that mixes with a very efficient Midrange plan, thanks to its vehicles' ETBs. So, your focus in Game 1 is to close out early in most games, with the exception being against Black Midranges and/or Control, where trying to rush the game has a tendency to punish you, and you need to play around the opponent with a higher frequency.
As you'll see in the Sideboard Guide, the stance changes in Games 2 and 3, as you need to act as that game demands to have the time and opportunity to play Greasefang, Okiba Boss. Therefore, you need more removals against Aggro, a consistent alternate game plan against Midranges, and not getting overwhelmed by Control's card advantage.
There is no magic formula to understand the ins and outs of each game. I recommend extensive training to understand their development, and what the possibilities of the cards in your hand are for certain situations.
Game 1 against the Mirror Match comes down to who can close the combo sooner, and there's no definitive solution for either one as to how to deal with the Parhelion II on the other side.
Regardless of whether your opponent has the version with Traverse the Ulvenwald, or with more creatures and Eldritch Evolution, focus on finding Greasefang and Parhelion II and closing the game fast.
There are two ways to play post-sideboard in Mirror. In one, you bet on Duress and other disruptive means to ensure your combo works by the time you manage to pull it off.
In the other, you focus on thwarting the opponent's combo success to extend the game into attrition play with Esika's Chariot, while carving your hand and graveyard to execute your own combo. I prefer this posture on the post-side because, although we have the potential to win the match early, we have no guarantee that the match will not drag to later turns, so preparing your game plan to have the most efficient mid-game answers seems like the appropriate choice.
Remember that Vanishing Verse exiles monocolored permanents, so save it to deal with Parhelion II or Esika's Chariot.
Assassin's Trophy should be preserved for an occasional Unlicensed Hearse, and the use of Thoughtseize depends a lot on your stance at the time: protect your combo if you have the wherewithal to execute it, or remove the opponent's key pieces if they are ahead in the game.
Rakdos Midrange is still the most popular deck in the format, due to the quality of its responses against the Metagame. Yes, it has all the answers needed to deal with Abzan Greasefang, but it can't have all the answers all the time.
Our combo with Parhelion II must be overshadowed, and only used if the opponent has no mana and/or no cards in hand. Focus on reanimating and/or casting Esika's Chariot and Skysovereign, Consul Flagship, as they have ETB effects, and accumulate an absurd value if they are returned to the game with Greasefang.
This is an attrition-oriented game, so always consider how much value you can extract with your spells. Sometimes it's worthwhile to threaten a Greasefang with Traverse the Ulvenwald just to force the opponent to play around it, while you bet on another line to win.
In Games 2 and 3, we focused more on the attrition plan and less on the combo. We now have efficient answers to the main threats and their answers, as well as Reckoner Bankbuster for card advantage and Doom Whisperer as a late-game threat.
Our plan doesn't change much compared to what we ran in Game 1, but be cautious with how you play your removals.
The match against Rakdos Sacrifice is, in essence, a race between who can establish their engine the fastest. Normally, we have the advantage because, in addition to the combo with Greasefang, we can also pressure them with Esika's Chariot.
But if a Mayhem Devil remains in play alongside Witch's Oven engine and/or Treasure tokens, we'll have trouble closing the combo without other backup creatures. Therefore, it should be the main focus of Thoughtseize.
This is another archetype that has no means of dealing with Doom Whisperer (except for the occasional one-ofs), so using it as a late-game finisher while dedicating the remaining turns to disrupting the opponent's plans with discards and/or removal is a good stance for this game.
However, we still need to be careful with Mayhem Devil, in addition to the Thoughtseize side-in they usually do.
Gruul Vehicles is another archetype where the game is all about speed: you need to close the combo before their pressure is too great to handle, and the Gruul decks are excellent at putting pressure on.
Again, there is no mystery for Game 1, look for the combo as soon as possible and take advantage of the fact that Gruul doesn't usually run Instant-Speed removals to cast Greasefang and return the best artifact you had in your graveyard. Even if the opponent has Abrade in the maindeck, there's no point in trying to play around it in Game 1.
Post-side, we need to be less aggressive with our combo, as they likely included Abrade and Fry for this matchup. So, our focus is on delaying their game while establishing ours with removals.
Remember that their main threat lies in the added value their vehicles generate, so dedicating Assassin's Trophy to them is a valid option, but other threats may deserve just as much attention, depending on how the game unfolds.
Doom Whisperer is also the MVP in this matchup, as no Gruul removal can reach six damage, and Flying guarantees that it will almost always connect combat damage.
Mono Green Devotion
Another race matchup, as Game 1 depends on the speed with which the opponent manages to put Karn, the Great Creator in play to lock our combo. If that happens, we'll have to find ways to play around with Esika's Chariot's tokens, which are pretty bad against their blockers.
Therefore, play aggressively, establish your board with Raffine's Informant if they play a mana dork in the first few turns to save yourself from Karn if they decide to tap out to play it, and look to close the combo before they take over the game.
Our plan in Games 2 and 3 continues to delay the opponent until we close the combo, and using Fatal Push to kill mana dorks in the first few turns is a suitable choice.
Assassin's Trophy should be focused on Karn, but other bombs fetched by the Planeswalker are a problem as well, and Vanishing Verse doesn't tend to handle them well, but Nissa, Who Shakes the World and Cavalier of Thorns as important legal targets in this game.
Mono Red Aggro
Mono Red has always been about establishing a race against the opponent, and it's no different with us. In this game, chump blocks are important, and Esika's Chariot helps to hold them for a few turns.
Although we need to focus on closing the combo early, keep in mind that this deck features Lightning Strike and, in some cases, Wizard's Lightning. Don't go all out on closing the combo early when the opponent has untapped lands.
I believe our game plan greatly improves post-side, as we have efficient methods of holding off Mono Red's aggression until we stabilize with Esika's Chariot, while they usually remove some of their more aggressive drops to include Abrade and other effects that hold our combo.
Ironically, our plan now adopts a posture focused on the Midrange, given that they tend to bluff often about having an answer to Greasefang, so use your removals wisely and hold the game until Esika's Chariot or Skysovereign, Consul Flagship stabilizes, or an opportunity closes the combo appears.
Mono White Humans
Another speed-based matchup, but Humans are very efficient at slowing us with Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and/or Hopeful Initiate, so I see the Game 1 as unfavorable.
Their creatures get bigger than ours due to Thalia's Lieutenant, so we must aggressively pursue the combo while we still can, as it's the only functional wincondition against them.
Games 2 and 3 are made more tangible thanks to our removals, which we need to prioritize on key creatures that overly accelerate their plan and/or disrupt ours. Our posture is still to close a quick combo, because we won't be able to win the match with the attrition of Esika's Chariot.
Adeline, Resplendent Cathar must be destroyed as soon as it comes into play, and remember that the opponent has Rest in Peace on the sideboard, and Assassin's Trophy must be conserved to deal with it.
Angels is a peculiar and unfavorable match, as it is the only deck in the format today where closing the combo with Parhelion II doesn't guarantee victory in the next turn, given the absurd amount of lifegain they have.
You should focus on executing the combo early. But if they manage to establish a good board, I recommend conceding and moving on to the next game.
Unlike most Aggros, Angels is an archetype where we can afford to keep Thoughtseize because their clock is not as fast, and removing certain creatures or Collected Company from their hand makes a huge difference.
We can go the combo lane and close the game early, but there are often times when we become a disruptive Midrange and deal with their board or hand and then pressure them with Skysovereign, Consul Flagship and/or Esika's Chariot.
Just like against Humans, Angels players tend to add Rest in Peace to the Sideboard. However, this is an archetype that we can play around the enchantment if we lock down their initial aggression.
Azorius / Bant Spirits
With the arrival of Spell Queller in Magic Arena, white versions of Spirits became popular. Unlike Mono Blue, this version has a more efficient go-wide clock due to lords, but at the expense of speed and more efficient Tempo plays.
Both routes are efficient against them, but we need to play a lot around Spell Queller and Collected Company. Introducing a string of threats each turn works against the Bant version, but is a problem against the Azorius versions, which has Lofty Denial and Curious Obsession.
On the Play
On the Play, we can stay ahead of the game and set our pace. Our cheap removals prevent them from overgrowing the board too soon, and force the game to the point where our vehicles do the rest of the work.
Remember to play around Rattlechains, and pass untapped on the second turn to respond to it and/or to cast Grisly Salvage or activate Vessel of Nascency is an ideal choice, as this creature makes the game much more favorable for them.
On the Draw
On the draw, we rely more on Thoughtseize to prevent their growth in the game. Removing a punctual piece like Rattlechains, Spell Queller, or any lord is enough to hold the game for a few turns.
I like to be more aggressive with my gameplan on the draw, but we still need to play around counterspells and other effects that could slow us down, and the Midrange stance is still great if you have enough removals.
Mono Blue Spirits
Mono Blue Spirits is a Tempo deck that seeks to play a creature, enchant it with Curious Obsession and then build up extra draws each turn that allow it to delay your turns with cheap counterspells.
As we lack efficient removals in Game 1, going for the combo is one of the best options we have, but if their clock isn't fast enough, we can try to play around the counterspells to extract the maximum value, for example, let them counter a Skysovereign, Consul Flagship just to try to get it back with Greasefang.
This is also a matchup where we can force the combo just to exhaust their answers, then try to dominate the game with Esika's Chariot, as they don't usually have many answers for it, and we manage to establish more pressure than Mono Blue with ease.
Post-Side, avoid playing the combo plan with Parhelion II, as Fading Hope will respond to the vehicle and cause you to lose a turn and an entire setup for just one mana. ETB triggers with other vehicles are essential to extract maximum value from Greasefang, Okiba Boss.
Use your removals to hold their board, but remember to look for the most opportune timing to deal with a creature enchanted with Curious Obsession. This is even one of the few games where I recommend playing Greasefang only to increase your pressure, since few of their creatures trade favorably with a 4/3.
The match against Control generally follows one of two options: either you establish the combo too early, the opponent has no answers, and you win, or you take your time sculpting your resources, the opponent stabilizes their game and forces you to carve out a hand with disruption and threats to try to fit any wincondition.
The ideal option is to close the combo early, while Esika's Chariot works as a backup. You need to pressure them at spending resources each turn, to win the game with the few threats that resolves.
The post-side game follows the same route as Game 1. Except now, you have answers to deal with some Planeswalkers, but mostly to remove Rest in Peace if necessary.
On the other hand, they also have more efficient cards against you, and we need to play a lot around the opponent to create an advantage, whether with Greasefang, or with Liliana of the Veil, or even with a beatdown plan with our creatures.
Lotus Combo - Pioneer
In Pioneer, where Lotus Combo is present as one of the main decks of the format, we would need to replace two Sideboard slots with two copies of Damping Sphere to fight it.
In this game, whoever closes the combo the fastest wins the game. Therefore, we need to be aggressive in finding our combo and/or setting the pressure while being disruptive with Damping Sphere and discards.
Fading Hope is a common issue coming from their sideboard, as well as some Damping Sphere hates that also affect Parhelion II. Therefore, focusing on Esika's Chariot's plan when they have mana available may be a more efficient route in the medium term.
Every turn counts, and their combo is harder to interact with, so think carefully about the possibilities in your hand before deciding not to execute the combo and play it safe.
Traverse Greasefang is one of the top Explorer and Pioneer decks in the Metagame today. Its efficient combo combination with a good attrition plan makes it a solid option for tournaments and competitive events.
If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments.
Thanks for reading!
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