Down And Dirty – Finding the Right Respirator: Esper Red in Standard

The StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Open Series Comes to Nashville!
Wednesday, October 28th – Kyle Sanchez is always game to share his latest Standard concoctions, and with Zendikar in the mix, he is not shy when creating new decks! Today, he brings us a selection of Red Esper decks, all of which look to have a positive game against the dominant Jund decks in the current metagame…

Richard Feldman article from last week was fantastic. It opened my eyes to many new things, like different ways to approach naming a deck. I’m not pitching any Rembrandt today. I’m going to swagger jack his naming process and look to make a Red Esper deck, a.k.a. Respirator, because Tezzeret was a plan for a long time in my deck building process. Sadly, he definitely doesn’t have enough trinkets to toy with these days to warrant any Standard inclusions.

The first and foremost thing I need to look at when approaching a control deck in the Standard format is breaking down what the other decks are really doing.

Jund is the bad cat in the murky alley, providing a purrfect midrange control package featuring card advantage in the form of Bloodbraid Elf and Bituminous Blast. It uses the most efficient creatures the Jund tribe has to offer, with Putrid Leech and Sprouting Thrinax starting out the curve, while big daddy Broodmate Dragon finishes it off at the higher slots. It uses the best removal in the format, with Duress, Terminate, the format-defining Lightning Bolt, and the Maelstrom Pulse as the catch-all to overmaster any Planeswalker plots while punishing stupid aggro decks that throw out any doubles. Garruk Wildspeaker is another very troublesome threat, since Celestial Purge and Path to Exile can’t touch it, and they often just create a streaming river of Beasts that is difficult to handle. As if all these cards weren’t enough, I still haven’t discussed their best weapon: Blightning. This gives them the luxury of making you discard your hand before dropping their resilient threats.

Beating this deck consistently is something with which every deck I’ve played so far has trouble. I can have a slight edge, no problem, but they have so many tools that I believe it to be impossible to claim more than 60% with any deck opposite this clearly overpowered Shard. Worst off, the tools that are good against these Jundy peeps are so damn narrow. Feldman did a great job of highlighting those tools last week, with Double Negative, Celestial Purge, and Swerve all claiming main deck slots in his All American Colored Control.

The R/W Landfall deck is equally potent in the abstract, but their threats are situational. They are bad on defense, and the deck has some pretty clunky draws that create a lot of variance. I’m down with Kor Skyfisher, but having one or two when I need to land a Ranger is awful, Goblin Bushwhacker sucks when you don’t have other creatures in play (which, to his credit, is an inevitability in these brews), and sometimes the mana just doesn’t work out since it’s a two-color deck with no fixers outside of Arid Mesa. This deck is still great and powerful, but it has many more ways to be attacked than the resilient Jund decks.

The Mono-Red and Red/Black Burn decks are a lot better than most give them credit for, but they have the same problems as R/W Landfall: bad mana, bad on defense, and extremely vulnerable when you’ve got the clunk draws. The only advantage to playing Mono-Red or Red/Black is the option of Blightning, Goblins, and Hellspark Elemental (Volcanic Hammer with Flashback!), but the R/W deck has a leaner and more aggressive curve, and Ranger of Eos to back it up with a combo-like end game.

I don’t want to dismiss Vampires because that’s when you end up losing to them, but they’re slower than the Red decks, have comparable disruption (Sludge n’ Duress? What else yah got?!), and just don’t have a solid enough squad at this point. Vampire Nighthawk is underwhelming, and the Vampire Nocturnus very sketchy at times. You want to know how big you dudes are going to be every turn, and Nocturnus just doesn’t guarantee anything. He’s that used car salesman who gets you out the door with a title and a good price, only to forget to tell you a wheel is loose, which inevitably falls off when you’re on the highway home.

The control decks are the weakest decks right now because they are all so quick to lose to either Jund’s resilience or the other Red decks’ speed. On top of that, Day of Judgment just doesn’t feel like it does enough right now, because they plan on landing one threat and riding it while having Bloodbraid Elf to recover. Their manabases are vulnerable to Ajani Vengeant and Goblin Ruinblasters; they all seem to have some trouble with Planeswalkers; and they are all going out of their way to include Cruel Ultimatum. I’ve tried mana control lists, and casting Cruel is harder than a Gruul Nodorog at freshman cheerleading camp.

Basically, Standard is in a really tough spot. It almost feels like we should be focusing on how to out-Jund the Jund mirror, but that is much too boring. I want to play with some Blue spells, damnit!

When building a good Resper deck, there are several different routes to take. The goal is to play Esper Charm with Ajani Vengeant in each deck, so that’s been my starting point for each brew. Esper Charm combats multiple strategies right now, including the popular Oblivion Ring and Luminarch Ascension, while obviously being the best card draw and discard spell in Standard.

4 Ajani Vengeant
4 Esper Charm


From there, my next decision is whether or not I want to include Blightning, which, when paired with Esper Charm, makes a hellish discard package to fight against. I’ve found that maxing out on Blightning can be troublesome, since ideally you want to be playing an Instant speed game except when dropping Ajani.

Finding a good threat for the Resper deck has also been a problem. Obelisk of Alara is dominating and awesome, but still dies to Maelstrom Pulse, Oblivion Ring, and the second Pithing Needle they draw post board. Sphinx of Jwar Isle is the best thing we’ve got right now.

This deck features a very dedicated counter suite with a full set of Negate, Double Negative, and Offering to Asha, which has been freaking AWESOME! Everyone has been hyping Punish Ignorance as the new four-mana default counter of choice, but Asha is simply better. It gains one more life for much less troublesome mana. It doesn’t counter stupid cards like Duress, Path, or Bolt late game, and a Leech or Hexmage might sneak through, but Duress is the only card on the powerful low-casting-cost card list that I even remotely care about.

I’ve been testing this list since last Monday, and have been really impressed by the results. My only issue is that the dead cards I’m giving them with the Shroud creatures are often the cards they discard to Blightning and Esper Charm. They usually try and hold back one removal spell in fear of Baneslayer Angel. It’s really just about using Esper Charm to make them discard at end of turn, and then following it up with a Blightning with Negate backup.

This deck is definitely weak to Vampires with their Gatekeeper of Malakir, Malakir Bloodwitches, and Mind Sludge for the turn I tap out for Ajani. Ten games deep into the match, I was 3-7 and wondering if Ajani Vengeant is even worth it. So I tried building a few versions without the clunky four-drop that everyone is expecting, instead using Tezzeret the Seeker since he can untap Borderposts to keep Negate/Countersquall mana open. Dumping Red also didn’t seem too profitable because I really wanted Blightning and Double Negative.

Wall of Denial is really great in a Planeswalker strategy, which isn’t that apparent. They’ve got to send two dudes at Ajani to take care of him, and if you ever get double Wall you can really just sit back on Instants until you set up Esper Charm plus Blightning. But is that really the most powerful thing we can do with Charm plus Blightning? I didn’t think so, which motivated me to graft it on to the Esper combo deck from Pro Tour: Honolulu that smashed Jund in Block season.

This deck was very successful for me in the twenty or so games I played. It might have been because it was a total surprise to the people I was playing, or because it’s a very powerful and resilient combo backed up by very good spells, which could make it the real deal in Standard moving forward. The mana might be a bit off, but I didn’t have any problems other than randomly drawing two Plains in the same hand or not having Red on occasion.

This was the deck that David Williams and John Paul Kelly played to 18- and 19-point results. However, it feels like this isn’t a case where Red actually enhances the deck, and there are Esper cards that would be better off to have better mana, along with Borderposts and Knight of the White Orchid for acceleration. One thing they didn’t have during Block season was Day of Judgment, which gives this deck a great way to recoup from them overextending to get past Wall of Denial.

The main interaction you’re looking to pursue with this combo is to set up a turn where you have a Glassdust Hulk in play with a Sharuum either in play or in the graveyard. You then cast the second Sharuum, sending both to the graveyard due to state based effects, then return a Sharuum with the triggered ability, rinse, wash, and repeat several hundred times for an obnoxiously huge Glassdust Hulk, which then attacks unblocked for the win.

This combo is surprisingly fluid in its approach, and with so many Jund decks that don’t have access to this combo’s bane – Path to Exile and Celestial Purge – it might be poised to take down some tournaments sometime soon.

Corpse Connoisseur is another integral ingredient that pushes this deck into consistency, since he enables a nice reanimation package with the beastly Sphinx of the Steel Wind, while finding the necessary second Sharuum or Glassdust Hulk. The one-off Sphinx Summoner really doesn’t do as much as you might initially think, but is basically better than playing a third Connoisseur. You can Connoisseur for the Sphinx Summoner, then reanimate it with Sharuum to find another Sharuum, but that doesn’t really do anything, and I’d rather just find the second Sharuum the first time around.

The real reason to play Red is to get to use Anathemancer against the other non-basic filled control decks. I played five post-board games against Gavin’s deck, and Chapin’s 5CC deck, and they weren’t even close. Luminarch Ascension is great and all, but tutoring up Urza’s Rage with Corpse Connoisseur is much more enticing.

You play combo game 1 against Jund, and have a versatile sideboard plan to cement the Jund matchup while becoming a huge favorite against the aspiring dedicated control decks. I really like this brew… just make sure you board in Hindering Light and Thought Hemorrhage to deal with opposing Hemorrhages, because those are a kick in the gnards against this deck.

This has been the version I’ve been testing the most. It’s much more Planeswalker-centric and lacking the Wall of Denials compared to the other two lists. To compensate for the lack of Walls and increase in Wrath effects, I have to run more removal in the form of Burst Lightning, which gives me some burn options for the four-color and five-color mirror post board to compliment Anathemancer and Blightning.

I like this version a touch more than the first, because I’m running a lighter counter magic suite. I’d often stack multiples in my hand that just ended up dead while I’ve got cards on the board I need to deal with. This is one deck in which I don’t really mind playing Swerve. I tested Feldman’s list a little while building these Respirator decks because they seemed to parallel one another in approach, and even had a Swerve/Negate split main deck, but I often needed to counter Planeswalkers like Jace, Garruk, or AjaniV, and it became pretty annoying. I just want a two-mana hard counter that takes care of non-creature spells, and while Swerve is clearly better opposite an Esper Charm or Blightning, I’d much rather have the ability to counter troublesome Planeswalkers and Cruel Ultimatum.

I split the Negate and Countersquall 3/1 main deck because I’ve been facing an increasing number of control decks, and edging them out in the mirror with Ajani, Anathemancer, Blightning, and the Burst Lightnings is a great way to take them down. Burst in general is just a great spell to have right now. It kills Jace, AjaniV, Garruk, and can team up with Blightning or AjaniV to take down pretty much any Planeswalker that isn’t Nicol Bolas.

The Liliana slot is something else I’m proud of. It’s Nicol Bolas #2, Sphinx #3, Day of Judgment #4, and the critical 8th discard spell to keep them out of cards in their grip all at the same time! It’s possible to develop a more elaborate tool box, but playing more than one Liliana sucks. She’s very slow, doesn’t demand an attack phase like AjaniV and their planeswalking counterparts, and she’s extremely underwhelming opposite the true aggressive decks in this format.

I also have a Tezzeret Respirator list that inspired the name in the first place, but it really sucks and I wouldn’t be caught dead playing with a deck that flat-out loses to a Maelstrom Pulse and Putrid Leech these days. There’s also a chance that a non-Red Planeswalker deck featuring Garruk and Tezzeret could see play, simply because untapping Borderposts or lands into cheap spells like Path, Purge, Negate, and Essence Scatter is another great way to set up some Standard games. In the mid-late game you can even set up Garruk/Tezzeret plus Day of Judgment or Identity Crisis

Thanks for reading…