Esper On The Frozen Tundra

Prepare to play Standard this weekend at SCG Open Series: Las Vegas featuring the Invitational as Patrick tells you about his Esper Control deck from Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth.

The Journey begins . . .

Friday evening Luis Scott-Vargas and I got scooped up by the car service that would be taking us to the airport. All day Luis had been keeping an eye on our flight, looking for any indication that we would need to make other plans. Whether that meant other travel plans or other plans for how to spend the weekend was yet to be determined, but all signs pointed to us escaping the fate that befell so many others.

Our flight was minorly delayed but not by more than an hour. We wondered how well we were running and if it would continue. We spent our extra time at the airport enjoying a relaxing dinner instead of just grabbing fast food. Afterward, we went through the traditional ritual of gaming for the meal followed by the traditional ritual of Luis paying for the meal.

Our flight down to Fort Worth took just over 90 minutes. Sadly, it took us longer than that to make it the last 300 feet after we landed. Everything was encased completely in ice, and the pilot could not control the plane. We had to wait for a “tug,” but the eventual tugging vehicle could not get traction either. Next we waited for a snowplow to come clear a path for the tug to try to pull us. What we needed was one of these:

The good news: once we got off the plane, we were met by our hero, Cameron Jones, a local player that braved the elements to give us a ride all the way to Fort Worth.

The bad news: everything was under four-to-six inches of ice, and this is not a region that is well equipped to handle weather like this.

The 24.8-mile journey took us almost exactly two and a half hours, and from what I heard, it took some over three hours. Particularly treacherous were the bridges that were not only covered with even more ice than the roads but featured jagged spikes relating to the rumble strips.

With Paul Rietzl flight canceled, where would I turn for someone to talk me out of taking a turn on the Esper train? Brian Kibler, Tom Martell, and other bad influences (in the best way) had been stormed out. Owen Turtenwald had been a very vocal advocate for Mono-Black before but had now tempered his recommendation. It was still good enough to play, but he had been losing online lately and could no longer recommend switching to it in good conscience.

Luis had gotten Esper out of his system at Grand Prix Albuquerque and was squarely on a W/B Aggro list he’d been working on with Pat Cox featuring Xathrid Necromancer. Ben Stark actually made Top 4 with the list; however, it’s not clear Ben Stark wouldn’t Top 4 every GP with a rusty tin can. All jokes aside, Stark actually practiced a great deal for this event and was a key part of tuning it along with Luis, Pat, Josh Utter-Leyton, and Orrin Beasley, the latter of which both made Top 16 (and possibly David Ochoa, who gets zero credit since showing up is half the battle).

As always, Brave the Elements and Banisher Priest are the best reasons to play the deck (other than Mutavault, which is just unreal here). Precinct Captain and Soldier of the Pantheon are good, and the black splash really does add a lot against control (Necromancers and discard) while the spot removal gives us tools against the rest of the format.

The downsides? The deck is still pretty short on power. Boros Elite, Daring Skyjek, and Imposing Sovereign are all fine but kind of fit into a Judge’s Familiar / Tidebinder Mage / Frostburn Weird space without even getting Thassa, God of the Sea and Bident of Thassa as a payoff.

The other big problem is that the deck is just real cold to Blood Baron of Vizkopa. Given that the GP was won by a black deck that splashes four Blood Barons, things are going to have to change. The GP winner’s deck is sure to catch on at least somewhat and is just a nightmare for W/B. My guess is that they move even further down the road of making this a true W/B deck rather than just featuring a tiny black splash. Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if they abandon White Weenie period at least for a week.

I actually played Pat Cox in a feature match and got a chance to get bashed myself. In the first game, he just had too aggressive of a draw on the play, and I didn’t have a Supreme Verdict. Game 2 Blood Baron won the game singlehandedly. A light-mana draw in game 3 proved fatal, as this is definitely a list that can punish a slow draw.

Going into last weekend, U/W/x Control and Mono-Black Devotion were the only two decks I was strongly considering. Sphinx’s Revelation + Supreme Verdict + Detention Sphere + Jace, Architect of Thought seemed like a well-positioned core, while Thoughtseize + removal has always been fantastic in the format. Mono-Blue Devotion is still the strongest core, but it seemed a bad week to play it with the pendulum having swung all the way toward the anti-Thassa side.

Arriving at 3:30 AM did not leave much time to chat with anyone else about tech, and I decided to just Esper. This was my list:

The ideas behind this list are discussed at length here. The biggest change since then was the adoption of a couple of Warped Physiques. Of all the ideas suggested, Warped Physique and Dimir Charm were the two that appealed most to me. Early testing indicated that Warped Physique was pretty close to just a Terminate that could kill Thassa so I went with it, but I wouldn’t mind a Dimir Charm either.

The key variations in this list compared to other Esper decks are:

  • Moving away from Azorius Charm. It is never that bad and obviously straight U/W needs them, but I do not love Azorius Charm in Esper at the moment. It is not good against Pack Rat, Brave the Elements, Soldier of the Pantheon, Voice of Resurgence, Judge’s Familiar, Blood Baron of Vizkopa, or control.
  • Moving away from permission. Gainsay out of the sideboard is just awesome since it is so mana efficient, but as good of a card as Dissolve is, I don’t love it against Mono-Black (which rips apart your hand and can play around it), Mono-Blue (where it is a little slow, particularly on the draw), or white aggro (where it is far too slow). This hurts my control matchup to be sure, but if U/W is all the rage now, at least we have discard and they don’t.
  • Increasing the amount of Divinations, which is strong against Mono-Black and control but weak against Mono-Blue and white aggro.

I also didn’t sideboard Soldier of the Pantheon, but in retrospect they would have been pretty good. Just having playable one-drops would’ve been great for gaining a little tempo. Throughout the event, my biggest struggle was with my mana base, and having some good one-mana plays would’ve helped a little.

Still, it doesn’t address the fundamental problem that you need to draw a lot of lands in order to cast your spells and if you draw too many lands you flood out. This wasn’t a color issue at all, so it’s not like being Esper over U/W made the color requirements too hard. However, it’s actually a powerful argument for U/W since U/W gets to use Mutavault. This lets us play the high end of the range of mana we need yet be able to convert those lands into virtual spells sometimes.

My day 1 was rocky, sneaking in to day 2 at 6-3. On the second day I grinded out the min-cash, going 5-1. My final record of 11-4 was good for a 35th-place finish, which is going to be worth stone zero at the end of the year since only the Top 5 Pro Point finishes count and the prize is certainly worth less than the cost of travel.

William Jensen raised some good points about just how powerfully the Top 5 limit is affecting people’s decisions. The limit was put in place to make the Pro Points race more competitive among more people, but it does take away a lot of incentive from Sam Black, Owen Turtenwald, Reid Duke, William Jensen, Ben Stark, and others that have started out strong.

He wondered what the world looks like where the Top 5 limit applies to Pro Point races like Player of the Year, National Champion, and the World Championship but did not apply for trying to earn Platinum. The limit’s goal was to make the races more competitive and not so heavily about quantity of appearances, but his proposal does not interfere with that at all.

While it’s super valuable to make it possible for stars with jobs like Kibler, LSV, Rietzl, and Martell to have a real chance at the races, it’s also super valuable to provide incentive for the full-time 24-7 mages like Black, Turtenwald, Duke, and Jensen to go to everything. Having a chance to continue to work towards Platinum seems the perfect solution.

Of course, this carries with it a real cost. WotC designed the levels to be earned under a system with just five GPs counting. If you just remove that restriction, Platinum becomes a lot easier to achieve (think last year PLUS another Pro Tour). The real number of additional Platinums would actually surely be much higher since people respond to incentives and would be more likely to “make it happen” if they are close.

If you raise the limits, now you are back to making it even harsher for those trying to stay full on in the Magic community while juggling careers and families. My proposal?

I guess I would ask WotC to run the numbers and assess what they think the world would look like if next year GPs beyond your first five count 50% towards Platinum benefits. Yes, if everything else were equal, this would obviously cause there to be a general increase in the number of Platinums, but it would involve more top players going to more events. If they believe this change adds only a few Platinums a year, I could imagine it possibly being worth it. Besides, Magic continues to crush more and more, so it stands to reason that this might be one of the areas that they might be willing to increase the budget by 10% on, particularly if they are getting more out of it.

In the tournament itself, I beat up on a lot of Mono-Blue Devotion decks but overall played against a very diverse mix of decks. My losses:

  • Mono-Blue Devotion (winning three other times)
  • W/B Aggro
  • Mono-Black Devotion (defeating it one other time)
  • B/R Aggro

The Rakdos match was my only lost on day 2 and was especially painful since I forgot to board in my Keening Apparitions and then lost to Burning Earth.


I am reminded again and again of how important practice and familiarity is for me personally. I had not played against B/R Aggro since before the Pro Tour. Should I have known to board against Burning Earth? Definitely. That is one of the costs I pay for trying to juggle so much (and why I always go early before PTs and focus on the event to the fullest).

If I were going to Esper again, I would probably run something like:

This list is almost the same, and really I wasn’t unhappy with my list. Luis had tried to convince me to cut the fourth Divination, and he was right. I board down to one or two against Mono-Blue Devotion and various aggro decks. That is just too big a part of the field, and the mana base is set up to count on Divination. Instead, I’d rather go back to 27 lands and just be able to board one out against black (and one out on the draw against a lot of people).

Why sideboard out a land against black? We both have tons of Thoughtseizes, and they are just going to completely rip our hand apart. If we are a little mana screwed, no problem. They aren’t very aggressive, and we have extra cards to discard. If we are flooded, however, a Thoughtseize might take our only action and leave us defenseless and just praying for Sphinx’s Revelation every turn.

Without many Azorius Charms to fix our mana, we need that 27th land for the matchups where we can’t plan on spending turn 3 casting Divination to dig for more mana.

Warped Physique was pretty good for me, and I wouldn’t mind a second one again. I even killed two Thassas! I do want to make room for one Dimir Charm though. It’s not a great way to fix your mana, but it’s a great tool for making use of extra removal spells against non-aggressive strategies. Sometimes all you want to do is dig to a Sphinx, Detention Sphere, Supreme Verdict, or Aetherling. I still think Devour Flesh is the best, and with the increased popularity of Blood Baron, this will only continue to be truer.

Would I play Esper again? I don’t know. Maybe. It’s really hard for me to want to play anything besides Thoughtseize + removal. Thoughtseize is just a messed-up card.

Obviously, the U/W deck finalist William Jensen employed has to be considered:

This is another Andrew Cuneo joint, as should be obvious from the use of Elixir of Immortality over Aetherling. I like a lot of what’s going on here, with my only real complaint being the use of just three Jaces.

Four Divinations is obviously completely in my wheelhouse and important for trying to keep up with black, which is generally a weakness for an unprepared U/W deck.

The Quickens are mostly just because he wants to draw the good cards more, though you do get some nice Supreme Verdict blowouts. This is in place of filling the deck with a lot of bad two-cost removal. Notice how all of the Last Breaths and Celestial Flares are in the sideboard and there are just one Ratchet Bomb and two Syncopates main to fill out the “weak two-drop” slot.

Cuneo’s list has only two Mutavaults, but that can still make a big difference when you’re a bit flooded. That said, I sure wouldn’t mind making room for a few scry lands. They are just so good, and I suspect we can afford more tapped lands. For reference, here’s the list Seth Manfield made Top 8 with:

He uses Essence Scatter instead of Syncopate, Last Breath instead of Divination, and an Aetherling instead of Elixir. On all of these, I prefer Cuneo’s list. However, I do like the use of the scry lands even though they are half off color.

Unfortunately, both of these lists are going to be quite vulnerable to B/W decks. Blood Baron is already an issue, and Sin Collector on top of Thoughtseize makes it very difficult to fight back. We do have Divinations, but we can’t even put pressure on their life total, meaning they can Underworld Connections to their heart’s content.

For reference, here is the latest black deck to win a Standard American GP (making for three out of three this season):

The champ’s list is mostly just the product of replacing Gray Merchant with Blood Baron, though he does have a few odds and ends like Sin Collector and Last Breath. Perhaps even more interesting is the use of seven maindeck discard spells instead of any Nightveil Specters. This is definitely a black deck to beat other black decks as well as control. Given black’s inherent strength against devotion decks, that makes Gutierrez’s list very appealing.

The format has gotten to a place where it is basically just dominated by blue, black, and control, with white aggro continuing to show up in modest numbers. Where are the green decks? Where are the red decks?

Okay, yes, there was one red deck in the Top 8, but who really thought they were making it past all those Blood Barons and Gray Merchants?

Minard’s list features a lot fewer creatures than most red decks, falling squarely into the burn deck space. Such a list relies heavily on Skullcrack but is still at such risk of just getting destroyed by life gain.

How do we escape? Maybe we don’t. Maybe the format really is mostly just the four archetypes described above. Every week that goes by without a legitimate rogue challenger emerging lowers the probability that it is actually out there. That said, with just four decks that we need to prepare for, I gotta believe there are things we could try.

The problem is that Mono-Blue Devotion is so incredibly good against people without a ton of removal that it makes it hard to imagine another way to attack the format that isn’t just a black deck or a control deck. White aggro does a good job thanks to cards like Banisher Priest and Thoughtseize but is still just another variation on discard + removal. Is there any other way to beat the format besides Sphinx’s Revelation or playing your own Thassas?

Born of the Gods spoiler season doesn’t start for another month, so I sure hope someone finds a way to spice things up. Maybe it’s time to start looking at Modern, Legacy, or Vintage. What do you think? What format would you like to do some brewing in?

Back at GP Albuquerque, I played a bit of Vintage, which mostly involved David Ochoa smashing various rogue brews with his BUG good-stuff deck. One particularly fun brew we tested was the following:

Unfortunately, Mental Misstep just thrashes this deck, so for the time being I think it’s safe to say this is not a good time to play Elf Combo in Vintage.

I would like to experiment with Hermit Druid (a one-card combo) and/or Survival of the Fittest. Alternatively, Mox Opal is just disgusting, so maybe it’s time to break it and get it restricted. Vintage would be a lot more fun if Oath of Druids were restricted, but it isn’t clear if Oath is really strong enough to dominate the format enough for there to be a call to action. You can totally beat Oath by playing unfair strategies, but sadly it really pushes out the brews.

That said, Matt Sperling suggested Leyline of Sanctity, which might actually be the key to taking a big step forward in the format. It’s a zero-mana uncastable way to stop Oaths before the game even begins. That it costs four means Abrupt Decay can’t get them out of it. That it also stops Thoughtseize, Jace’s ultimate, and Gifts Ungiven all add up. What is the best home for it though?

Of course, there is also a lot of room to innovate in both Modern and Legacy. Hell, maybe it would be fun to take a stab at Theros Block Constructed! Perhaps someone will break things up in Standard, but in the meantime what format should we attack next?

The SCG Invitational is this weekend and is our greatest hope for turning Standard on its head. Even more exciting is seeing what direction Legacy goes now that True-Name Nemesis has taken over. It’s a little weird that you can’t really test Legacy on Magic Online due to True-Name Nemesis not being available, but either way I suspect things are about to get a lot less fair because of that card.

See you guys in Vegas!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”

Next Level Deckbuilding