Beating Esper With Aggro

If you want to play an aggro deck that beats Esper at SCG Open Series: Charlotte featuring the Invitational this weekend, check out your choices with Tom.


Whereas Mono-Black Devotion and Mono-Blue Devotion were the decks to beat a few months back, the format has shifted toward Esper Control and burn decks, which is skewing deck choices and sideboard slots to deal with a more polarized metagame than we’ve seen in Standard for some time. That leaves players in an awkward spot of wanting cards that are stretched pretty thin.

Supreme Verdict will always hold maindeck value based on its "no questions asked" strength, but players are finding that their more specific sweepers like Anger of the Gods, Drown in Sorrow, and Golgari Charm aren’t seeing enough play out of their sideboards to warrant the slots. Mizzium Mortars will be a staple for a while since many of the creature decks are midrange and Blood Baron of Vizkopa requires a quick and efficient answer. People need to have a healthy number of pure anti-control cards and anti-burn cards. I think it’s a good time for fast creature strategies to go under the popular sweepers of the format going into the SCG Invitational in Charlotte this weekend.

Fewer copies of Nightveil Specter are seeing play. The 2/3 body was enough to hold down potential 2/2 attackers, but now people are adopting Lifebane Zombie more since it’s better at nabbing Blood Baron of Vizkopa and various green creatures in the hands of  G/R and Jund Monsters players. Courser of Kruphix was a concern earlier, but G/R and Jund Monsters are seeing a decline in play. Plus some people are switching to Boon Satyr due to its effectiveness against Esper Control. Players also found that the marginal life gain doesn’t do enough to beat burn and the real answer is to present a reasonable clock against them before they assemble enough burn to end the game.

Pack Rat was once the scariest card in Standard. If the first one wasn’t dealt with, you would quickly become helpless and overwhelmed. Since the introduction of Born of the Gods and subsequent developments in the Standard metagame, Pack Rat has lost a lot of its punch. Bile Blight made making even one Rat a risky play, and the increase in the number of Detention Sphere played due to Esper Control and from Mono-Blue Devotion adopting it alongside Ephara, God of the Polis and Temple of Enlightenment have further decreased the stock of the once one-card win condition.

Eric Froehlich recently finished in the Top 16 of Grand Prix Cincinnati with a Mono-Black Devotion variant that eschewed Pack Rat completely. If the fear of Pack Rat falls to the wayside and people start cutting Bile Blight for Devour Flesh, the power of two-power creatures for one mana will increase.

Let’s look at a prime example of our offender before looking at the aggro deck options that I think are capable of attacking the beast where it hurts most.

Kyle Boggemes’ Grand Prix-winning list in Cincinnati featured an additional Syncopate, one fewer Last Breath, and a creature suite in the sideboard, but overall this build is now known as the deck to beat moving forward. Twelve Temples provide what feels like an endless stream of filtering to find the answer to whatever problem is ailing you. How do you beat a deck with an answer for everything?

Kill them before they ever really get going.

Todd Anderson wrote an article this week about Esper Control and possible routes for dethroning it. He suggested a R/W Aggro deck that’s essentially Mono-Red Aggro splashing for Boros Charm and Chained to the Rocks for additional utility. He admits that the list wants additional white sources but hates how the only options are basic Plains and Boros Guildgate, both of which go extremely poorly with the rest of the deck’s aggressive nature and red-dependent creatures like Ash Zealot and Burning-Tree Emissary. With an acceptable mana base, I think the deck would be great against the control metagame that’s expected in the upcoming weeks.

I played R/G Aggro in an Invitational Qualifier this past weekend and plowed through the Swiss portion, going undefeated and picking up only a single game loss to the eventual winner of the tournament. Although I won our match in the Swiss, he was the one who went on to win the whole thing. His R/W Aggro deck punished slower control strategies that were jamming lots of scry lands and shock lands. Esper Control showed up in predictable numbers and was shut out. I don’t think that Baton Rouge is "ahead of the metagame" by any means, but I feel like a similar attack on the metagame will be successful at the Invitational. Here’s the winning list:

Here we see a foregoing of Mutavault in favor of reliable colored mana sources. You really want to win the game or be in a winning position by turn 4, and Mutavault is more of a grindy card for when things don’t work out. It’s clearly a one-sided plan, but in this case it’s better to follow through with your best angle of attack rather than to pull any punches. A lone Temple Garden shows up as a white source that also casts Burning-Tree Emissary. Since the decline of Nightveil Specter, the necessity of Lightning Strike has lowered, and thus Derek Decuir chose to run four copies of Shocks as the first priority, which I agree with. I like Spark Trooper from the sideboard as a good life gain spell against the burn decks if you can find a window.

The only things I don’t like are the high number of Skullcrack and low number of Searing Blood. When Searing Blood is good, it’s great, but given how many copies of Shock he has, it’s probably just okay. For me, Skullcrack has been a minor upgrade over Lightning Strike to side in against Sphinx’s Revelation decks with no real creature targets. It’s an easy switch but is often a very marginal one in terms of overall impact, and I prefer higher-impact cards.

As strong as Ash Zealot, Chandra’s Phoenix, and Viashino Firstblade are due to their haste, there’s one creature in particular that I really like right now, and that’s Spike Jester. The Doom Blade / Ultimate Price / Last Breath trifecta is avoided by this guy, which leaves many opponents who leave up mana on turn 2 for their removal spell in anticipation of actually getting to cast it left wanting. Although a bit more on the midrange side of aggro decks, the following R/B Aggro does a good job of punishing the removal choices that Esper Control currently runs.

The biggest flaw of R/B is the high number of mana-intensive cards you want to run. This leads to the overall inability to take advantage of Mutavault, having to run a fairly high land count, and having to include a Rakdos Guildgate or two. However, when the powerful red + black mana combo has been assembled, this deck is a powerhouse. Its greatest strength to me is its ability to play well off of the top once both players’ resources have been exhausted. Seventeen haste creatures and ten burn spells mean that once the opponent reaches the low single digits that nearly half your deck is live to seal the deal. The threats in the maindeck here are so good that the sideboard can be dedicated to targeting the necessary opposing creatures.

It’d be great if the last two copies of Lifebane Zombie could make their way into the maindeck since it’s so good right now, but given such high mana considerations, you have to focus more on one color than the other. Consistently curving Ash Zealot into Lifebane Zombie just won’t happen in every game that you draw both. I think R/B Aggro is one of the most powerful aggro decks, but it’s also the most prone to stumbling.

Control decks splashing black for Thoughtseize and Doom Blade leaves Mono-Black Aggro well positioned. Instead of having direct card advantage in the form of Underworld Connections like Mono-Black Devotion, the aggro counterpart opts for creatures that provide inherent value either by untapping with them in the form of Pain Seer (which Legacy players familiar with Dark Confidant will attest that sometimes just one trigger can be enough) and new bestow creature from Born of the Gods Herald of Torment. Herald of Torment serves a dual role of providing evasion and presenting a singular sturdy threat in the face of Supreme Verdict. Pain Seer becomes much more threatening when its body gets larger and combat becomes easier for it.

I like the full number of Lifebane Zombie here, as it’s more effective here than out of Mono-Black Devotion given that attacking quickly and unimpeded is of higher focus. I feel like the sideboard isn’t quite varied enough. This isn’t quite like the old days when Suicide Black featuring Phyrexian Negator couldn’t possibly win ever against the burn decks of the time, but it still holds true a bit here.

Pain Seer and Herald of Torment only serve to hasten the limited clock that you’re on, and I’d like to see a couple of sideboard slots dedicated to alleviating that poor matchup. Whip of Erebos could be a fine inclusion, though it’s rather slow. If something like Gift of Orzhova can get in a hit, it may just be enough to pull the race enough in your favor. That said, I like I Mono-Black Aggro as a deck that dodges the current commonly played removal of the format of the non-burn decks quite nicely.

But if we’re talking about dodging removal altogether, let’s look at the number one deck for completely sidestepping it:

Hexproof thrives in the most defined of formats and tends to rear its ugly head when people don’t respect it enough. The overall goal is simple: play a hexproof creature and slam as many power-pumping and evasive Auras on it as possible. The optimal draws involve Gladecover Scout and pants on turns 2 and 3 or a Witchstalker with an Unflinching Courage to catch back up if you happened to fall behind on the earlier turns.

After sideboarding the Aura targets become better defined, with Skylasher and Fiendslayer Paladin being untargetable by their respective protected colors. The deck can be a little soft to Devour Flesh without a Voice of Resurgence or a surprise Knight token from Selesnya Charm, but any reasonable pilot should go into the Mono-Black Devotion matchup and its cousins with that awareness and play around it accordingly. Boros Charm serves double duty here by often ending the game on the spot due to double strike and by saving your enchanted fella with the indestructible mode against any angry gods or high verdicts.

Lastly we have one of the original aggro decks of the Return to Ravnica Standard era:

Temple of Plenty has done more for G/W Aggro than Brimaz, King of Oreskos has, but the king has been a much welcome addition. Loxodon Smiter has declined sharply in value and has now been resigned with the label of "just another dude" since the format is without choice discard like Liliana of the Veil and without two-drop countermagic outside of small Syncopate numbers. Boon Satyr filled the dual role of the four-power three-drop while giving extra resilience against Supreme Verdict, but it wasn’t quite as good of a card to curve out with.

I like the two copies of Mistcutter Hydra in the maindeck and the additional four protection from blue creatures in the sideboard in this Esper-filled metagame. G/W Aggro has historically been known for its ability to trump the other aggro decks of the format due to its access to life gain cards and overall beefier creatures. Unflinching Courage has been a playable card in the maindeck from time to time, but this isn’t quite the time so it should be regulated to the sideboard. Soldier of the Pantheon is surprisingly annoying for other small creature decks to attack through, and the minor life gain combined with the reasonable creature clock allows G/W Aggro to do just fine in most game 1s.

Esper Control is a deck that has all the tools to solve its problems. So is it the best deck? Probably. What I do know is that I don’t want to play Esper mirrors for two days. I’m not a fan of twenty games that go to time. I think that Esper as it stands is capable of beating G/R Monsters, Mono-Black Devotion, and Mono-Blue Devotion, all variants of each archetype included. What I don’t think it can do is align the necessary removal spells at the right time and in the right order against all the possible aggressive strategies that are viable right now.

What Esper Control will be doing in the next couple weeks is either hedging against the field by playing a little of each like it does right now with the numbers of Doom Blade, Last Breath, and Azorius Charm or risk guessing wrong and succumbing to creatures that it can’t profitably interact with. This is all compounded by the higher expectancy of Esper mirror matches leading people to play cards that go over the top of each other (read: slower and good for aggro) like Jace, Memory Adept or more counterspells.

I’d rather not mess around with such guessing games.

Keep calm and attack for two.