Esper Mentor In Legacy

It doesn’t take much to convince Patrick Chapin to sleeve up Jace, the Mind Sculptor in Legacy, and his recent experiences in other formats led him to Jace’s door by way of Monastery Mentor and Deathrite Shaman with a decklist that definitely has to be checked out before your next event!

Jace, the Mind Sculptor?

It’s good to be home!

Most of my preparation for #GPSeaTac consisted of discussions with Team Ultra Pro, some of whom had the bandwidth to play some Legacy in the weeks leading up to the event. I also had some great conversations with eternal veteran Brian DeMars, who had initially been very interested in some new combo ideas; but that had eventually decided to play Miracles with Monastery Mentor.

I knew I wasn’t going to have the bandwidth to play a ton of games, so when I had a chance to play some games with new Team Ultra Pro member Corey Burkhart, I spent a few minutes getting some crazy combo decks out of my system (basically two games each with Oops! All Spells, Cephalid Breakfast, and some weird Day’s Undoing deck).

At that point, I was ready to get down to business. I just made a list of cards I wanted to play with, massaged some numbers until I could fit as many of them as possible, and shuffled it up. It was immediately obvious that Monastery Mentor and Painful Truths were great, which were the only two really exotic card choices I was into.

People joked about me just playing my Standard deck in Modern, but my experiences with Monastery Mentor at #GPINDY really did provide the foundation for the deck I played in Seattle. Monastery Mentor had overperformed by a lot, and I didn’t even have access to Brainstorm, Ponder, Gitaxian Probe, and Force of Will!

To begin with, there are a fair number of decks that can’t kill a Mentor easily. Against such opponents, the Mentor completely takes over and ends the game in just a couple turns, generally without much investment.

Against opponents with removal, some percentage of the time they don’t have it. Gitaxian Probe and Cabal Therapy help increase the chances that we know if the coast is clear or not. Force of Will and Spell Pierce can be very effective and protecting the Mentor, even if they don’t stop Abrupt Decay.

However, the real beauty of Monastery Mentor is our ability to cast one with four or five lands. Then maybe we Gitaxian Probe, to which they respond with a removal spell, which we respond to with a Brainstorm or Swords to Plowshares. When everything resolves, their Abrupt Decay or Plow on our Mentor works, but now we are up two 1/1 Prowess creatures without having to spend more mana or cards. In Legacy, a 1/1 Prowess creature is a legit threat that needs to be dealt with in a lot of situations.

Cabal Therapy has a particularly awesome interaction with Monastery Mentor. Let’s say they just tapped out for a Shardless Agent, flipping up a Tarmogoyf or something. We play our fourth land and cast Monastery Mentor. Then we cast Cabal Therapy and make a 1/1. Maybe we name Abrupt Decay since they either have it and we hit it or they don’t and we’re happy anyway. After we get to see their hand, we can actually sacrifice the 1/1 we just made to Therapy them again while also getting another token to replace the old one.

Cabal Therapy giving us two spells for only a single mana can actually lead to some really sweet turns where we actually untap with a Mentor. Sometimes we’ll actually Therapy our opponent multiple times despite them having no cards in hand. If we have a Mentor and two Monks already on the battlefield, Cabal Therapy is six extra damage for one mana.

Actually getting to untap with three Prowess creatures usually means we’re threatening to deal twenty or more in one hit. Even if they have some big blockers like Tarmogoyf, we’re often going to be able to present fifty damage the following turn. At one point, I had to Swords to Plowshares a Marit Lage during the end step of the first of my extra turns, putting the Abzan Depths player to 47. Fortunately, I attacked for 80 on the following turn.

“Why would you put Shardless Agent in your deck and hope for incredible luck to hit Ancestral Visions when you can just play Painful Truths?”

— Owen Turtenwald, via his social media team

Owen Turtenwald’s Twitter feed is basically chronicling his slow descent into madness, but it’s also a fountain of brilliant insights. This comment made a lot of sense to me, particularly when I thought about how many times I Treasure Cruised for three mana. Painful Truths was often a Treasure Cruise that cost three life but didn’t require you to exile the five cards in your graveyard. Cruise would be better because of the high-end cases where you pay one mana, but drawing three cards was exactly the effect I was looking for in this world of cheap one-for-one interaction. It took only a couple games to make it clear that Painful Truths was exactly the card I was looking for.

I didn’t actually have either in the build I tested against Corey, but seeing them out of his Shardless Sultai deck made them seem pretty attractive. Deathrite Shaman is just so insanely flexible and strong in Legacy, being a Birds of Paradise, a two-damage-a-turn clock, meaningful disruption, and even a source of lifegain to help offset the Painful Truths.

Abrupt Decay seemed amazing, particularly against Counterbalance (of course), but this seems like a dangerous time to get too greedy with your manabase. Still, a Tropical Island and four Deathrite Shamans was surely enough green mana to at least sideboard the Abrupt Decays.

I took my results to the rest of Team Ultra Pro. Matt Sperling and Tom Martell had been working on a variety of Esper and Sultai decks, and loved Esper in theory, but had two been facing two problems:

The Abrupt Decay package made a lot of sense and addressed the first point nicely. Painful Truths, as well as moving away from any themes (Counter-Top, Stoneforge Mystic, Miracles, etc) helped the second. The three of us shared ideas on what we were looking for in Esper until eventually our lists converged, leading to the list the three of us registered.

Chapin, Sperling and Martell

Photo Courtesy of Wizards of the Coast and Adam Styborski

Originally I tried a couple copies of Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and it was solid, but Sperling and Martell insisted Snapcaster Mage was better for what we needed and they were right. It’s not just that Jace has the same name as the Mind Sculptor, although that is a part of it. It’s that we specifically wanted more reliable ways to leverage our cheap interaction, flashing back Swords to Plowshares and Spell Pierce, and having a body to sacrifice to Cabal Therapy. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy needs support, but aspires to take over the game. That’s fine, but we already have Monastery Mentor and Jace, the Mind Sculptor for that, and they do a better job (in this list, anyway).

It’s not totally clear whether Tasigur or Gurmag Angler would be better in this slot, but I was very happy with Tasigur. That he’s slightly cheaper isn’t a big deal, but I drew a lot of extra cards over the course of the weekend, which had a big impact. Additionally, I was able to protect Tasigur with Karakas on multiple occasions and I even managed to “abuse” Tasigur by bouncing him the turn I cast him, exiling ten cards and shrinking two Tarmogoyfs!

I was a big fan of the Tasigur, and would not mind a second copy at all. Perhaps the second copy should be Gurmag Angler, but I’m really into the options Tasigur gives us. I wouldn’t be surprised if the frequency of opponents with Karakas makes the 1-1 split better.

Basic lands are super valuable in Legacy, and one of the most important parts of the tuning of this list was Matt Sperling’s insistence on going up on our basic land count, not down. That said, Karakas is in a different league than most non-basic lands. Riptide Laboratory was extremely good in Extended, and this one doesn’t cost mana to use.

And it taps for white instead of colorless.

And it can bounce the opponent’s creatures!

This is just out-of-control amazing now that there are so many playable legends all over the format. Bouncing Tasigur to protect him is one thing, but we can also bounce Vendilion Clique to get the ability every turn. One advantage to Jace was the ability to bounce it, if needed, prior to flipping. The main utility in this list, however, is to protect us from key opposing legends.

These were just some of the enemy creatures I bounced over the course of the weekend, every single one of which won me at least one game I would have otherwise lost.


When we were settling on the mix of fetchlands, we obviously wanted four Polluted Deltas and four Flooded Strands but the last couple was a tougher puzzle. Misty Rainforest can find Tropical Island and basic Island, whereas Marsh Flats can find Scrublands, basic Plains and basic Swamp.

We ended up going with a split to hedge, but in retrospect, Marsh Flats was much better for me. The ability to find basic Swamp is just extremely important, both against Wasteland and Blood Moon where it can ensure that Deathrite Shaman is a live card, which can let you actually cast your spells, not to mention letting you cast Abrupt Decay if needed. There are eight other lands that find Tropical or basic Island, but a second Marsh Flats would offer us still just six ways to find those key basic lands.

Playing three Gitaxian Probes may seem crazy to some, but it actually is one of those cards that can sometimes be a liability to draw two of. It is not uncommon to sideboard them out against aggressive strategies (where the life loss really matters) anyway. That said, I do love the combination of Gitaxian Probe with Cabal Therapy. I am keeping an eye open for possibly finding room for a fourth Probe, but I’ve got admit both that I was happy with three copies and that I sideboarded them out a fair bit.

I tested one Preordain and liked it, but we ran out of time and I really wanted the second Spell Pierce that Matt and Tom had. Brainstorm and Ponder are definitely better for us, but it’s honestly close to Ponder (nothing is even in the same zip code as Brainstorm). I actually think I could see the first Preordain before the fourth Gitaxian Probe, but it’s close.

I originally had a third Cabal Therapy and two Thoughtseize, but that was largely to try and support Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. Sperling insisted Spell Pierce was what we actually wanted thanks to the tempo advantage it would often provide. He was 100% correct, particularly against Hymn to Tourach, Counterbalance, Show and Tell, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

I get why people only play three sometimes, I really do. However, there’s no way I’m playing less than four in the 75, so cutting one from the main still costs us a sideboard slot. The sideboard cards are so good for decks like this that it’s hard to justify losing one for a very marginal upgrade to the maindeck (if you even believe it to be an upgrade, which I currently do not).

When I made my first draft, I was using a couple of Vindicates since I didn’t want to play a second basic Plains and destroying Blood Moon is an important ability. Besides, it’s easy to randomly manascrew people in this format sometimes.

However, Council’s Judgment has a number of strengths beyond giving us an out to True-Name Nemesis (its most famous role). That it doesn’t target is nice against Misdirection, but it also just makes it harder for people to respond and it can kill both Geist of Saint Traft and Progenitus. Council’s Judgment also exiles, which is a small point, but it’s helpful against Delve, Grim Lavamancer, Eternal Witness and more.

The double white was an issue occasionally, but Deathrite Shaman went a long way towards helping alleviate that. We debated playing two maindeck, and it was one of the last cards cut, but there are enough matchups where it’s too slow that we decided to keep the second in the board.

What about everything we just said about Force of Will? Well, if you draw two Force of Wills against someone where it’s not good, you actually only pay “the price” half as much since you can always pitch one to the other. That makes the “savings” of avoiding those spots worth less as opposed to a card like Council’s Judgment, which is actually a stronger card after sideboarding anyway, since so many of the best cards for it to kill are cards people will board in against us.

I was the only one of three of us to play the third Painful Truths in the sideboard, but I’m glad I did. I wanted to play three maindeck, but we do have a lot of three-cost cards and Matt and Tom had some concerns about games in which we draw two. Instead, they wanted the second Snapcaster Mage, and I had to admit, the Mage looked impressive when Sperling and I played two games of the mirror. Still, I wanted to have the option of the third Painful Truths partially as an added tool against control and disruption-based decks, and partially as a hedge in case we underestimated the Painful Truths.

It sounds funny, but when you’re working with limited time to make decisions, sometimes the best strategy is to give yourself room to tune your deck over the course of the tournament. You still have to play the 60 you registered in Game Ones, but there are times where you only later realize a way your maindeck should have been different… and if you have some flexibility in your sideboard sometimes you can help make up for that. This should not generally be your primary plan, but it is a reasonable factor to consider when you know you have far too little time to be confident in your maindeck.

Back in 2007, I brought a Mystical Teachings deck with Tarmogoyfs to the national championships (which, in those days, was one big tournament). It also featured Korlash, Heir to Blackblade. Korlash had been great for me at Regionals in my dedicated Grixis Korlash deck, however, this new deck did not use it quite as well.

I had been working on a Teachings Grixis Korlash deck that sideboarded in Tarmogoyf in key matchups. I was in New York, battling a few games against Jon Finkel, and he thought the Tarmogoyfs were great and suggested I play them maindeck. I agreed and started shifting the focus of the deck, but I ran out of time, resulting in a poorly-tuned list.

During the tournament, I lost most of my Game Ones; however, I realized how unplayable my deck was by the second round despite getting lucky in the first. I started sideboarding out the Korlashes every game and managed to go 7-1 in the Constructed portion despite having a bad maindeck and bad manabase all of the time. Let’s just put it this way: when you play Korlash in your Five-Color Control deck you end up with a lot more Watery Graves and Blood Crypts than you would normally play, resulting in a lot of pain and not enough of the right colors.

There is nothing wrong with realizing your mistake and doing the best you can from that position! It is certainly a much better strategy than just being hard-headed and staying the course to try to “save face” when you know you were wrong. As it turned out, I was actually very happy with the 2 + 1 mix of Painful Truths and would probably do it again.

Fun sidenote about Painful Truths: If they have a Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, you can Painful Truths for four! I never got to make this play, as my matches against Thalia never broke that way, but it is cute.

Tom strongly advocated three sweepers and making it a mix, to give us the most options while making us harder to play around. Zealous Persecution was his baby that he advocated very hard for and assured us that it always overperforms.

He was completely right.

I killed Young Pyromancer and friends, Thalia + Mother of Runes, Empty the Warrens tokens, Monastery Mentor tokens, Dark Confidant, True-Name Nemesis and more. The card was terrific for me, and I would not have minded a second if we found the room.

Engineered Explosives was an important additional piece of interaction for Counterbalance and Chalice of the Void. I wouldn’t want the second, but Tom wonders if it should be main. If we played any sweeper main it would be the one, but I’m not super warm on that.

Supreme Verdict versus Toxic Deluge was a close call. I do appreciate Toxic Deluge being cheaper and that it does not always have to kill our Tasigur or even our Monks, however, I was happy to not have to pay life – especially against the massive Knight of the Reliquaries I had to kill on occasion. Additionally, Supreme Verdict being uncounterable is great against Merfolk and Delver (even if it’s a bit slow); not to mention it being a blue card! That said, Sperling played Toxic Deluge instead and he said he was happy with that one.

Sperling and Martell played a Surgical Extraction and a Rest in Peace, but I wasn’t as concerned about graveyard decks since we have Deathrite Shaman. I wanted to make room for another Painful Truths somehow, and Rest in Peace ended up being my cut.

My best Surgical Extraction was on a Punishing Fire (which was match-winning), but the most stylish was as a proactive zero-mana instant speed way to pump my Prowess-enabled team!

I never really got to Containment Priest anyone, even though I did face two Sneak and Show decks (no Reanimator or Elves though). I just didn’t draw it when it mattered. However, I did sideboard it in my match against U/R Delver. Normally I wouldn’t recommend this, however, I kind of just had a feeling I could “get” him with it, at some point when he attacked me with two Grim Lavamancers in Game One. He’ll never suspect!

Sure enough, in the following game, he missed on Delver of Secrets once and had it gobbled up by the Priest (despite Envelop and Spell Pierce in hand). You better believe he respect the possibility of an Ashcoat Bear for the rest of the match!

Would I play Containment Priest again? Maybe. I’m not sure. It didn’t pull its weight this time, but I’d want to take a good look at the metagame I expect to face and figure out what percentage of my opponents I would want it against. I also want to get some experience with the card and determine how effective it actually is. It is kind of hurt by people boarding against Monastery Mentor and Deathrite Shaman and thus randomly having answers for it.

Without question my worst sideboard card. I drew it a lot, but it didn’t do much to change the outcome of games. I am not giving up on it, just noting that it disappointed me all tournament. The only time I was about to do anything cool with it, I responded to a Jace activation with it only to have them flash down a Notion Thief as well.

I really want to get somebody though…

My final record ended up 11-4:

Wins: Shardless Sultai, Jeskai Miracles, Temur Delver, Abzan Depths, Storm, Sneak and Show, Mono-Red Moggcatcher, and Aggro Loam (plus kicked the bye’s butt three times)

Losses: U/R Delver, Non-Shardless Sultai, Storm, and Esper Mentor Mirror

It was a fun event, but now it’s time to Monastery Mentor in Modern…