Esper, BUG, Or Black?

Four-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Patrick Chapin writes about his testing for #GPDFW and what decks you might want to be looking at for #SCGOAK or #SCGCOL this weekend.

I don’t play a lot of Magic Online.

Sure, it is definitely at least partially because of things like how many times I have to click to make it through a turn and how non-intuitive it is for an outsider such as myself. The real issue, however, is the loss of the human interaction.

When testing and especially when deckbuilding, I thrive off of the human interaction that accompanies it. Conversations, ideas, questions, thoughts—it all adds up to an enrichment of the experience that is certainly not critical to everyone but a crucial part of my process.

Now, I will concede that taking the time to become a hard-core Magic Onliner would likely bring an increased speed of play, more ability to chat during games, etc., but there is something about the human interaction that invigorates me. No question, Magic Online is exactly what a lot of people are looking for when testing, and it sure is convenient to be able to get an opponent at all hours.

To this end, I jumped on this past weekend in order to test some ideas for Grand Prix Dallas/Fort Worth.

My first attempt?

This build of Esper does a few things outside the norm. To start with, it is built around a core of four Divinations. Divination is absolutely fantastic against black decks and generally effective against a lot of the random midrangey stuff people do. Additionally, it plays well with the four maindeck Thoughtseizes. Maybe it’s crazy to have all Thoughtseize and no Dissolve, but I wanted to try it.

Another notable feature is the use of three Blood Baron of Vizkopas main. As you can see, I have a huge amount of respect for black decks and really want an edge against them. There is a good chance I play Mono-Black Devotion this weekend, and if I don’t, I want to beat it. Besides, I really don’t like Aetherling at all right now, at least not maindeck. I wouldn’t fault someone at all for wanting zero.

The most notable omission is the complete lack of Azorius Charm. I realize that is sacrilegious, but with my plan being turn 3 Divination, I could imagine Devour Flesh being better. That said, Doom Blade is sketchy enough right now, so it might be better off as the first Charm.

My matches?

Jumping in the #yolo queue can be quite dicey since who knows what kind of crazy business peeps will bring to the deli. My matches involved beating up on various White Weenie decks, defeating a rogue BUG deck, losing to Kibler G/B, and then defeating Junk Reanimator.

Ok, so not exactly the best representation of the metagame, but I did learn a number of things. First of all, Divination was great. All three of the black decks featured discard and removal (like Abrupt Decay, Hero’s Downfall, etc.), and Divination really excels in spots like that.

Next, I really didn’t mind the lack of Azorius Charm and Dissolve. Now, that said, drawing Doom Blade against all the black decks was bad enough that I think I’d rather cut it for an Azorius Charm and possibly cut the 27th land for a second Azorius Charm. Four Divinations goes a long way towards drawing extra lands, but we do have fewer Azorius Charms than other builds play.

I guess if I had to make the call right now, I’d play 27 lands since the scry lands are such a good way to get flooded and Sphinx’s Revelation loves a mana flood, but I’m probably 55/45 between the two. In particular, Thoughtseize makes you want to play a slightly lower land count since it punishes flood more than screw.

I considered Ultimate Price and if it would have been better for me, but many of the black creatures I couldn’t kill were also gold. Speaking to this, the Devour Fleshes were great for me. Being able to reliably trade them for cards was awesome, and getting to use them on turn 2 worked great with the Divination plan.

Thoughtseize was good but not great. I liked how cheap it is, playing into the Divination angle even more, but I could totally imagining cutting one or maybe two. Having a Dissolve or two might just be too valuable of an angle to not feature, but there are just so many threes I want to play. For instance, I would love to get a Far // Away or a Hero’s Downfall in here. I really do think Dissolve is shockingly poorly positioned since it’s not good against discard (which lets them play around it), it’s not good against fast white and red aggro (their spells are too cheap), and it’s not even that great against blue since they want to play a tempo game. If I had to register an Esper deck tomorrow, I think I would play zero or maybe one.

As for Far // Away and Hero’s Downfall, well, they are both excellent, and the question is just how many threes can you get away with. The above list has just eight, which is obviously lower than a lot of people play, and I think my next iteration of the deck is going to feature ten. I want to start with a Hero’s Downfall and a Far // Away to learn more, but my guess is that Hero’s Downfall is a little better.

Another radical possible direction to go is to completely abandon Detention Sphere in favor of Planar Cleansing. Pack Rat is not a problem for Esper at all, but where you really lose out is on Detention Sphere’s ability to detain Thassa. There aren’t a ton of other great alternatives for Esper, but maybe you can just suck it up and not actually be able to get rid of her easily. That seems like a relatively good way to turn a good matchup into a bad one, however, so I’m not overly enthusiastic about it. It’s a shame that Merciless Eviction doesn’t work for us since the whole reason we would go this route is to take advantage of Planar Cleansing. That said, we could consider a Merciless Eviction in Esper with Detention Sphere, but what problem are we really trying to solve? More expensive cards isn’t really what we’re looking for.

The Blood Barons were absolutely incredible, but given that half our opponents were White Weenie and half were black decks, that isn’t surprising. That said, Blood Baron seems like it matches up well against the format at the moment. It’s bad against control, but there isn’t a ton of that and maybe we take that as a loss of edge in the mirror. It’s good against red, so that’s a plus. It’s bad against Mono-Blue Devotion, but your kill card isn’t the most important in this matchup. The main thing is that I just don’t love Aetherling. I think I still want one just to make sure, but I am very open to the possibility that it belongs in the sideboard.

As for three Blood Barons main, maybe you want an Elspeth instead of the third, but I was really not sad to have so many. Additionally, I prefer four victory conditions to three at the moment (in addition to Jaces). This is largely a function of having so little countermagic. Stuff can go wrong, and having backup roads to victory and brute force power cards can clean up a lot of messes. This is another argument for at least one Aetherling. If you don’t have counterspells, it’s nice to have a victory condition that can’t be stopped if the game goes long.

4 Jace, Architect of Thought
4 Supreme Verdict
4 Sphinx’s Revelation

I can’t imagine playing fewer than the maximum of any of these three cards (and Detention Sphere probably belongs on this list as well).

I was happy enough with the mana base on the whole, but I am reminded of just how much better the scry lands are for us than shock lands. That said, if we add a couple Hero’s Downfalls, I might want to go back to the full twelve shocks in addition to the eight Temples.

The sideboard was a little random and I didn’t get to play against any control decks, but I kind of like the idea of Duress and/or Sin Collector instead of a bunch of countermagic, with the exception of some Gainsays. While I don’t love Dissolve against Mono-Blue Devotion, Gainsay is breathtaking.

I do generally like having lots of creatures and/or planeswalkers in the sideboard of a highly reactive deck like this. When you don’t actually have the ability to lock up control of a game, it’s important to be able to turn more proactive in post-sideboard games.

First, there are going to be problems you can’t solve, and racing gets around this. Second, you get an edge game1 from opposing reactive cards being dead, but after board you can get an edge from adding a diverse mix of proactive cards that are normally targeted by removal. If opponents try to keep reactive cards, they are more likely to get stuck without a lot of pressure early, giving you more time to draw cards. Besides, every one-for-one used on you is like you got a removal spell to deal with one of theirs, which really benefits the guy with twelve blue card-draw spells.

While I didn’t get the diverse mix of opponents I would like, I was generally pleased with the deck and will be exploring it further. While control was quite weak in Albuquerque (as we predicted), it rebounded at the GP in Vienna, with two decks in the Top 8 and two more in the Top 16. Normally, we might anticipate an anti-control backlash, but the bigger story was definitely another weekend of Mono-Blue Devotion dominating. Three in the Top 8 and four more in the Top 16 suggest that it might be another good weekend to play Paul Rietzl and Owen Turtenwald version of Mono-Black Devotion.

Mono-Black Devotion is an interesting one. After an absolute thrashing of the format last week, it put zero into the Top 8 of Vienna. This is at least partially a regional difference, but it is also partially because of everyone spending the week testing and tuning against it. Now that Mono-Blue Devotion is the deck to beat, I think Mono-Black Devotion will rebound. While the cycle used to be four weeks long, we are now cycling every other week and accelerating as we speed towards equilibrium. A successful rogue deck could upset the applecart, but barring that it looks like the format is reaching stability soon.

Wanting to get a little more experience with Rietzl’s brand of Mono-Black, I jumped in a few matches with it. I defeated White Weenie, lost to Thassa, defeated a BUG deck, and lost the mirror. Ok, first of all, why are so many people playing White Weenie online? It’s a fine strategy, but the Magic Online metagame evolves so much more rapidly and strangely than the paper metagame. There will be a fair bit of White Weenie—but not like this.

The BUG matchup seemed draw dependent, and I don’t know who really has the edge but suspect the black deck is just better at its core. Losing to Mono-Blue Devotion was actually uplifting in that it seemed clear the black deck had the edge. Thassa itself was challenging, but land-light draws seemed to be the biggest obstacle. I am confident that this matchup continues to at least slightly favor Mono-Black.

The mirror was the disappointing one. Yes, lots of mirrors suck, but this one was especially infuriating. His Thoughtseize hit my Underworld Connections; my Thoughtseize missed the Underworld Connections on top of his deck. He drew Mutavaults and I didn’t when we both had Pack Rat. There just seemed to be a shortage of opportunities to create favorable imbalances, but perhaps I just need more experience with the matchup.

I also wanted to experiment more with the BUG deck we were brewing over the past couple of weeks, so I jumped into some queues with this:

This list features some tweaks from the version discussed last week. To begin with, after my experiences with G/B in Albuquerque, I have cooled off a bit on Reaper of the Wilds for many of the same reasons I have cooled on Aetherling. It’s a great card and still has plenty of great applications, but Polukranos is so great against Mono-Blue Devotion and White Weenie. Besides, if we are going to Prime Speaker, Polukranos is just what the doctor ordered.

I have liked Polukranos so much that I also cut the Desecration Demons. They are still totally awesome but have added value in black decks because of Gray Merchant (making even one hit from a Demon dangerous) and the surplus of black removal (making feeding him hard). On top of all this, all of their creatures are black, making Doom Blade dead.

Nightveil Specter was another card we had discussed but I had tried to avoid. The more I looked at it, the more it seemed foolish not to play it, especially with our ability to make any color of mana with Sylvan Caryatid. Nightveil Specter is just really hard to kill and a surprisingly good blocker. Yes, with our Forests we are going to miss the turn 3 sometimes, but we have fewer Forests than black decks have Mutavaults—and that is to say nothing of our Sylvan Caryatids.

Prophet of Kruphix was as awesome as advertised, and I think the next iteration has to have at least three. This leads me to believe that this path is walking a similar direction to Reid Duke and Ben Seck, who have been working on a Prophet of Kruphix Bant deck.

Their list has many similarities, with Scavenging Ooze, Sylvan Caryatid, Polukranos, Jace, and more. The biggest difference is that they have Sphinx’s Revelation, Detention Sphere, and more mana creatures where we have Nightveil Specter, Thoughtseize, Abrupt Decay, and Far // Away.

What’s better?

Well, the card quality of both is quite high, so the real question is what’s better for the deck. I really don’t know, as I don’t yet have experience with Reid’s list; however, my guess is that Reid’s offers more brute force strength and is less prone to specific card matchups. The strange thing about the BUG deck is that it has a bunch of one-for-one reactive cards and is slow yet doesn’t feature much card draw. That suggests a structural weakness in my opinion.

I got a few matches in against Mono-Red Devotion, Mono-Blue Devotion, and Boros(!) but didn’t have as much enthusiasm as I did for the Esper deck. It felt like the logical next step in BUG was to add Read the Bones, but it was feeling more and more like I was turning it into a bad Esper deck. As always, I loved Abrupt Decay and Golgari Charm and Sylvan Caryatid was solid, but giving up Sphinx’s Revelation, Detention Sphere, and Supreme Verdict is asking so much.

So what am I playing this weekend?

My two top choices at the moment are the Esper Control deck listed above and Mono-Black Devotion. I love card draw right now, but I don’t love the idea of being overly reactive and moving in a more tapout direction might be the ticket for making Esper the right call. I also think despite the hate that Mono-Blue Devotion is going to continue to do well since it is just the strongest deck at the core.

As of right now, this is what I’m planning to register:

Any suggestions are much appreciated, particularly if you can suggest the mystery two-drop that we need. What will the top decks at GP Dallas/Fort Worth and SCG Standard Open: Oakland be? Has anyone cracked the code on the rogue deck that will throw a monkey wrench into the format?

I’d love to be the guy to do it, but this weekend I think I’m playing Sphinx’s Revelation or Gray Merchant (and I know I’m playing Thoughtseize). See you on the other side!

Patrick Chapin
"The Innovator"

Next Level Deckbuilding