Crushing At The WMCQ With Esper Control

Adrian Sullivan tells us about his Standard Esper Control deck that he played to a Top 4 finish in the World Magic Cup Qualifier in Chicago, Illinois.

The plan for the weekend started out quite simply: head to my friend Liz’s in Chicago to hang out Friday and Saturday night, and spend Saturday at the WMCQ, following up with a PTQ on Sunday. It was going to be an amazing time, catching up with one of my favorite people, then taking a short, leisurely drive to the venue near O’Hare, then repeat it again one more time.

Right away, it somewhat crumbled.

At the last minute, my friend Liz had to Cancel, and I ended up deciding to take the trip into Chicago in the morning instead. I set my alarms to make sure I had plenty of time to make the trip, looked over the last details of my deck for the event, and finished out the night foolishly staying up too late with great company, drinks, and movies.

I don’t know if you’ve ever done this, but I had Magic dreams. I kept thinking about something that had happened in playtesting with my other deck, the one I wasn’t going to play. In my dream, I was up against Jund, I cast an Advent of the Wurm, with my one card left in hand, untapped, dropped Aurelia the Warleader and used Boros Charm on the Advent to crush through my opponent’s Thragtusks. It was epic. And it kept cycling through my head.

I woke up to a voice: “Adrian, Adrian. Wake up! It’s 8. Didn’t you want to wake up by 6:00?”

Oh. Hells. No.

The event in Chicago was, ostensibly two and a half hours away, and registration closed by 9:45.

The dream evaporated, I looked at the clock, and I suddenly realized what I had to do. The Magic parts of my trip were already packed, except for my deck. I swept everything up, grabbed a quick change of clothes, barely paused for some energy drinks and hit the street. Hopping into my car, I knew I would have to really work it to get to the event.

A part of me was pretty damned worried – I would have to speed to make it in time, but if I got pulled over, I was done. This was going to be a little tricky, to say the least. Even if I sped like mad I knew I still didn’t have a few cards I would need, and there was still the question of registration. This was going to be razor close.

I’m not going to tell you how quickly I booked it, but it was pretty crazy. My eyes were darting everywhere to keep an eye out for cops, and my speed going up and down depending on how far ahead I could see. When I hit a construction zone with a 45 mph speed limit, I groaned, but I just knew that if I worked it, I could maybe, just maybe, make it in time.

Once I was deep in the trip, I called ahead to my friend Adam Jansen. You might recognize Adam’s name from either his win in the SCG Milwaukee Legacy with Show and Tell or just from me mentioning his PTQ win with Jund in a column recently. If you’re really old school, you might remember him from the ancient Magic team, Team ACD, whose most famous player, Bob Maher, is a name you’re much more likely to recognize.

Adam saved the day, to be sure. He found the last three cards I needed for the event, registered me, and when he was ready, called me back to have him and his wife take my decklist over the phone. THANK YOU, Adam and Morgan, thank you!

I got to the venue, found somewhere to park, and tried to find the convention room that Pastimes, the event organizer for the WMCQ, had booked. It took me a moment, but it was right next to “GlamourCon” (a Playboy Playmate and model convention) and right above “Models, Actors, and Talent for Christ”. It was as easy to distinguish the WMCQ crowd from these events as it was difficult to tell them from each other (which maybe is another way of saying that models look like models look like models, generally speaking).

Here is the list I gave the Jansens over the phone, from memory, as I sped along the Interstate, hoping like hell I’d make it in time.

This list is a direct descendant from a list that was given to me by Brian Davis, the PT Chicago 1999 finalist. Now, Brian is one of those people who I think quite unfairly received a lot of grief over his loss to Maher in that finals. Yes, he made some mistakes, but as someone who was playing at that event I can tell you he played some great Magic at that tournament, and in the end he was a young teen playing in a very high pressure event against one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. I’m sure I wouldn’t have even made that finals, even if I’d had a deck as great as he did for the event (Free Spell Necro*, one of the most unfair decks ever).

Brian was a Memphis guy. He got his start in Magic with some names you probably recognize, like Craig Wescoe and Zac Hill among others. While his Pro Tour 2nd place finish will likely always be the thing he is most remembered for, he had some successes after as well.

Brian was someone who I ended up working with quite a bit in the time after that Pro Tour, and I was always happy when he would pilot one of my decks. His best showing with one was a Grand Prix Top 8, but he had some other good showings as well.

When I was talking to him recently about Standard, I mentioned that I’d been working on Grixis and Esper Control, and he immediately piped up that he had an Esper Control deck that had been doing great. Looking at it on paper, I could see it had a lot of elements that I really, really liked.

Here is the original list that he sent me:

This list was a pre-Dragon’s Maze list, and when he and I talked, Dragon’s Maze was just becoming available on Magic Online (the place where I’m most likely to be playing, these days, it seems). As I saw it, Far//Away just seemed like it could be incredibly powerful
for the event.

There are some significant differences between Brian’s original list and mine, to be sure. Ultimately, though, the deck I played is at most a few steps from his. Here are the major changes:

-Removing the Augur of Bolas
-Removal of land for Thought Scour
-Changing the removal suite
-Changing the land<.p>

These are pretty significant changes, and changes which, I will add, Brian was not on board with. That said, I did try out his version, tried out a version radically different, and then, slowly, moved back towards the version that he had initially played, though I never fully got there.

Let’s go through them step-by-step:

Removing Augur of Bolas

Again and again, I kept finding that Augur of Bolas was just not serving a good purpose for me. If you recall at Pro Tour Gatecrash, Augur of Bolas was a huge part of the success that was seen by the various different blue-based control decks. A huge part of it was that the few times that you might whiff on an Augur was not as significant as picking up a Supreme Verdict, a Sphinx’s Revelation, a counterspell, or something. The aggressive decks were actually sometimes slightly stymied by the card, so it meant something. The control decks, though, were the kings of the format, and even if you only ended up with a truly crappy 1/3 (practically no card at all in those matchups), you could try again with a Restoration Angel, and even the chance at one of the significant cards was enough to go there.

In the new metagame, there simply isn’t much in the way of control, and the aggressive decks are simply too powerful to even be bothered by a 1/3. The difference between a 2/1 and a 1/3 is huge, if only because at least a 2/1 Snapcaster might be able to truly play the role of Ambush Viper against the right opponent. Hell, Augur of Bolas has been so lackluster that Shaheen Soorani recently tweeted that he was testing out Alchemist’s Apprentice as a potential replacement. “Always get that card,” I believe he said.

Removing Land for Thought Scour

In this case, I removed two land and a spell for three Thought Scour. A large part of this was the influence of Matt Nass, talking about the value of Thought Scour plus Snapcaster as a way to claim a small touch of card advantage on the cheap in U/W/R decks. This is made especially true by the actual potential of this deck to maybe reveal a Lingering Souls.

I reviewed many of the games that I played, and saw this as a great option for having some kind of cheap card cycling, particularly in a deck that might be trying to find cards late in the game. While this is incredibly against the current wisdom, I think Think Twice is basically garbage in control right now. I understand entirely what it does: it helps smooth out your draws. The problem, I find, is that you just don’t have the time to make these kinds of plays against the aggressive decks. Yes, if you weather the storm you can do it, but five mana to net a single card is a depressing affair. Again, if you were in a control-heavy metagame, this would be acceptable. Think Twice, in fact, is a great factor in fighting the control war because of how grindy it can be.

But this is not that metagame. When I look at the older version of Brian Davis’s deck, I noticed he had had Think Twice in it. I asked him why he cut it. “Too slow right now,” I believe he said. This mirrored something that, once again, someone said: “Ain’t nobody got no time to Think Twice.”

With the change to four Snapcaster Mages, which at least have an Ambush Viper-like ability (or perhaps an expensive defensive Righteous Blow), you can find yourself rebuying in on Thought Scour, but also (because of Thought Scour) sometimes you find yourself getting some great fuel to buy something truly great back later in the game. The difference is that, in the early game, you have a play that tends to do something, and when you are simply wasting time to draw a card, you’re only spending one mana to do it.

Changing the Removal

First, the big one: Supreme Verdict is really bad right now (at least for most decks).

I don’t care if it is Blood Artist, or Strangleroot Geist, or Boros Charm, or, or, or… Or, the elephant in the room, Voice of Resurgence.

Voice of Resurgence changes things, particularly given how ubiquitous it is. One can talk about the minimal returns of putting cards back in the graveyard against Junk Reanimator, or how sometimes even turn four is too slow against Naya. For Naya, a lot of times, four mana might as well be six mana; it is so much without acceleration. But, because of the mere existence of Voice of Resurgence in many of the top decks, Supreme Verdict is actually a bad call, in my opinion, for any deck not packing Farseek.

Terminus is expensive at six mana, but honestly, most of the time it does cost one mana, and the majority of the time that it doesn’t is when you’ve used Sphinx’s Revelations to get to that point.

About the only other deck, besides Farseek decks, that I think shouldn’t be simply making a direct switch to Terminus are the Aetherling decks, which sometimes are going to want to make a better plan with how they use their Aetherling than a Miracled Terminus can afford. The six mana of actually casting Terminus is prohibitive. That’s about it, though.

The remainder of the removal was largely an experiment that ran out of time. I’m still toying with the removal package, though I do know this: I love the singleton Blind Obedience in the deck.

A quick note on Blind Obedience: a long time ago, I learned that certain cards can have an incredibly powerful effect, but that they are utterly terrible in multiples. Some cards, like, say, Blood Moon or Choke, are simply so good that their effect can completely shut down a game, and so the cost of extra cards can be worth it simply for the utterly dominating effect that a single card has. Other cards simply have a hugely diminishing effect.

I think I first learned this lesson with the card Price of Glory.

This card was an incredibly powerful sideboard card. Against the more controlling decks, it was a great tool. But, this was an era of Psychatog, and the power of the card could also be harnessed to kill you, not to mention that shutting down your own instants was problematic to.

I put three of them in a sideboard, and used it to crush one opponent. Then another. Then in another match, I drew a second one. My Psychatog opponent stopped trying to use counterspells to control the game, except for the most important cards, and instead simply discarded them. My opponent ended the game at an incredibly low life total, but won, and if I had literally drawn any other spell in my deck, I would have won.

This was the time of Psychatog, so that deck was everywhere. A few rounds later, I played another Psychatog player and the same thing happened.

Here’s the thing: some cards simply do not give you back enough to handle the cost of them in multiples. That first copy can be of incredibly huge value, but the second one is much, much less valuable. Many of you probably have noticed this effect in Triumph of Ferocity.

Blind Obedience is much the same way. It is incredibly powerful against haste, for one. The repeated effect in that matchup is so powerful that it deeply reduces the value of numerous cards in an opponent’s deck, if they are the right matchup. At the same time, this deck is a deck that can take to a very offensive posture, and nibbling away at the opponent’s life total, as well as holding down potential blockers, for even a moment, can be a huge deal.

The second one only gives the tiniest touch more of an effect. Simply put, it isn’t worth it.

Finally, the removal of Detention Spheres is something, again, that was an experiment. Pperhaps a failed one, or maybe a successful one, depending on your point of view. Domri Rade is one of the primary Bad Guys that you want to lock down under a Detention Sphere, and it’s a real issue. Mostly, I had cut the Spheres because I was frustrated with them against the Junk Reanimator decks that I had seen. This was a metagame call, and if you are in a heavy Junk Reanimator area, or in a land of Abrupt Decay, consider following my lead.

Changing the Land

Here, I was struggling because of the sheer amounts of pain that I took from lands. I decided to cut back on the colored mana that Brian had access too. This wasn’t without its costs, of course. There was more than one game that I played where I could tell I would have won with slightly “better” mana.

“Better” mana is a strange concept. Sometimes I see people’s mana that is utterly “perfect” in the sense that they have all of the colored sources that they need to cast their spells, and sometimes even more so. A lot of times, this is wrong, because the colored sources that they are using do come with a cost that is sometimes greater than the benefit.

In this case, I probably dialed it back a little too far. I took Nicholas Spagnolo’s list from the Invitational in Los Angeles as my guide, and then tweaked it from there. By the day of the tournament, I think the mana was close, but not quite.

The Event

There were a number of good players in the room. Last year’s winner of a WMCQ Alex Binek was there, as well as a few pros in the form of Sam Black and Owen Turtenwald. The other notable players were Chris Andersen, Michael Bernat, Caleb Durward, Adam Jansen, Brandon Nelson, and Jeff Hoogland. There were other people there that I’m sure you might recognize if you were a Midwest grinder, and numerous people that I probably missed, but those are the names I ended up having scribbled down in my notes from a cursory look around the room.

We ended up at nine rounds, and as the tournament progressed there were just a ton of players from around the country there. I met people from Seattle, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and more.

Here was my path:
R1: W 2-0 vs. UWR Control
R2: W 2-1 vs. Junk Reanimator
R3: “W” – opponent awarded a DQ after a deck check.
R4: W 2-1 vs. UWR Control played by Michael Bernat**
R5: W 2-1 vs. Junk-istocrats
R6: W 2-1 vs. Jund
R7: W 2-0 vs. Bant Hexproof
R8: Intentional Draw with Daniel Cecchetti, a friend from Madison
R9: W 2-1 vs. Bant Hexproof (Wyoming State Champ Shane Severs)
T8: W 2-0 vs. Bant Hexproof (Again, Shane Severs)
T4: L 0-2 vs. Naya Midrange played by Brandon Nelson

Final record:
Matches: 9-1-1
Games: 16-7

It was a pretty good run, but it ended with Brandon. He in turn was beaten pretty handily by Daniel Cecchetti, in a somewhat unsurprising result. After the event, Daniel told me he was half-heartedly rooting against me because he was pretty sure he couldn’t beat me. I told him I understood, and congratulated him on his finish.

In my head, I replayed a moment in Game 2 against Brandon, where I used Cyclonic Rift during combat. In retrospect (and after watching the match online), I believe I would have won that game if I had waited until the end of the turn. Or, for that matter, if I had had another black source. Or, if I didn’t have Warped Physique.

We learn…


There are times when you hear the beginning of a story, and you fee like you know just what is going to happen. Sometimes, you have that cinematic moment, and the movie arc plays out in your own life: beset by early challenges, the protagonist has a few lucky breaks combined with their own stalwart readiness, and, in the end, overcomes all odds to achieve their victory.

My weekend for the WMCQ in Chicago felt like it started that way, and as the weekend came to a close, I wish it could have maintained that feeling. Starting out late, and making it to the tournament anyway, the round three “bye”, the repeats of a good matchup… I told Maher about it later, and he nodded, “Yeah, it must have felt like ‘Everything is coming up Adrian’.” Just the combination of it all made me feel like the story had an almost inevitable ending.

Of course, nothing in this game is truly inevitable.

That’s everything, I think. If I played it tomorrow, the deck would look like this.

I know I’m planning on playing this deck, moving forward.

I hope you enjoyed this little tale. I had a lot of people come up to me after the event or the next day during the PTQ to congratulate me on my finish. This is kind of an interesting experience. I know that for me, I was deeply disappointed with the finish and quite sad about it overall, even though I understand it was a great finish.

I know I can’t truly know if this is true or not, but I’m not sure if anyone there wanted that win as much as I did. Definitely, it is possible. Many people actually came a great distance for the event (more of a statement, I think, of the importance of the event than the success of the removal of a true Nationals, if you ask me), and I’m sure that they wanted it to. I just know that when I sat with some friends playing Cube***, people would offer me a congratulations, and I would thank them for saying so, but I didn’t feel happy with the finish at all. This is the difference, I think, between coming to a tournament truly intending on winning it or coming to it with another mind set; when you come to win, anything less is a disappointment.

Until next time,
Adrian Sullivan

* For those of you who love footnotes, here is Free Spell Necro, designed, I believe, primarily by recent PT Champion Craig Wescoe:

After the match, I had a fun conversation with Adam Jansen about it. I felt like Bernat had made a strategic error going into the match, and Adam and I discussed whether that was the case or not. At one point, I said I thought Bernat was approaching it from the wrong angle.

Adam: “Well, he’s newer to the game.”
Me: “He’s been playing for years!”
Adam: “Only since 1999.”

Man, we are old.

Here is the cube deck that I ended up with. It was awesome. Thanks, Adam, for having it! And thanks to Rashad Miller, and a few others, for being a part of one of my most enjoyable cube experiences yet.

Owly Images