Esper Stoneblade At #GPDC

Josh Ravitz writes about the Esper Stoneblade deck he played at #GPDC, where he made Top 16. See if you should play it yourself at SCG Legacy Open: Providence!


The best.

The most premier event. I had been looking forward to it since Denver. Legacy is still my favorite Constructed format; I enjoy competing in this format because it is complex and diverse, games are not decided by variance quite as much as they are in "newer" formats, and you can play some really sweet cards. Preparation pays off because the games aren’t about your matchups or drawing the correct half of your deck quite as much as in other formats. I also felt it was probably my best chance at qualifying for the Pro Tour, and while fifteenth place was [deceptively] close to an invite here, I was really an entire win away again. Lastly, of course, I was happy to see an excellent player win the tournament, and no one is more "deserving" than Owen Turtenwald, with his umpteenth GP Top 8, finally getting the win.

Most recently to succeed in the format you needed to be able to beat RUG Delver, Death and Taxes, and combo often fueled by Show and Tell. Obviously every so often something may be revived due to a new card being printed (Thespian’s Stage reinvigorated Lands for example) and that deck may succeed once or twice; however, while there are endless decklists floating around for a virtually limitless archetypes, they are not really quite all as viable as you might be led to believe. November 1 of this year saw the new Commander decks released—and with them one card in particular which would shake up the format in an interesting way. Suddenly, the game had changed.

Now killing a True-Name Nemesis was as important as anything else for some decks, and simultaneously it made bringing a Griselbrand to Show and Tell even more attractive since our new Merfolk friend was not born with wings. So the rules of the game indeed changed even if the game stayed the same; if you fight fair, you need a plan. It doesn’t have to be a fancy plan; it just needs to work. Keep in mind that as Ari Lax wrote a couple of weeks ago the True-Name Nemesis may be equipped with something sharp.

Luckily, most of the fair decks in this format can actually answer non Batterskull Equipment, which means that a sword or a Jitte isn’t an issue most of the time, but that still leaves the Nemesis itself. If you can race it in the air, it isn’t an issue (I did this once on camera against Saito with an Elspeth, Knight-Errant in game 1), but Death and Taxes decks have adapted to playing their old standby Serra Avenger for much the same reason.

The cards that jumped out to me as specific "answers" were both blue Swords, Holy Light, Zealous Persecution, Massacre, Golgari Charm, Toxic Deluge and just sweepers in general, most of which are actually in their own way superior to Toxic Deluge assuming you can cast them. Golgari Charm never did it for me, though, and while Holy Light was immediately exciting to me as I thought hard and long about playing Death and Taxes, eventually it was Zealous Persecution that captured my heart. While I only ended up playing one, it did me proud every time, and I often wished I had played two.

I am getting ahead of myself though. My preparation for the event itself was actually not all theory this time; because I really hoped to do well in this event, I did what I did last time, which had also previously worked. I planned to eliminate decks one by one until I had settled on one that could hold its own against the projected metagame, perhaps adding a little extra to try to deal with True-Name Nemesis, which did not exist online to test against.

Geist of Saint Traft isn’t really the right card to proxy the Nemesis with even though they are functionally similar. True-Name Nemesis can block a Batterskull or a creature enhanced with an Umezawa’s Jitte for as long as you want with no ramifications; Geist can’t block a Grizzly Bears. Similarly, the extra point of toughness means that the cards I wanted to theoretically play against True-Name Nemesis wouldn’t be cards I’d want against the Geist. Luckily it’s obvious that a Golgari Charm is good against a deck with True-Name Nemesis and perhaps Dark Confidant, so I didn’t need to really try them out.

Instead, what happened was I started winning with the first deck I tried out, which was an Esper list that I had seen about a month prior succeeding in what the kids used to call "Daily Events."

There’s a lot of art here, but perhaps you need to have loved Stoneblade as I once had to appreciate it all. The deck seen here looks similar to the one I played in Baltimore at the SCG Invitational early last year on the surface, but it is also quite different with Liliana of the Veil’s presence along with Elspeth. Fewer Lingering Souls than I was used to meant the RUG Delver matchup might suffer, but I thought perhaps experience could prevail for me. Finally, three Vendilion Cliques made my mouth water, and I knew I’d have to at least try this deck out somewhere before the GP.

I took the list above and modified the sideboard, removing the Geist of Saint Trafts and Canonists in favor of Meddling Mages, and I made a few other minor changes so that I ended up with the following:

1 Force of Will
1 Baneslayer Angel
1 Duress
1 Flusterstorm
3 Meddling Mage
2 Supreme Verdict
1 Humility
2 Rest in Peace
1 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Vindicate
1 Sword of Feast and Famine

The reasoning behind adding the Meddling Mages over the Geists was that I’d want to have Geist in against combo decks but would also want the Cliques in (from the maindeck), which would glut my deck with three-drops; this was unacceptable. I was also just not in love with the strategy of adding that card to my deck in order to speed up my clock. The idea of a turn 1 black disruption spell into a turn 2 Meddling Mage danced through my mind, and I took the deck to the Eternal Weekend for the Legacy Championship, where the metagame was slightly less defined than it was shortly thereafter.

The tournament was not a success in the sense that I won the event, but the deck performed okay. While I mulliganed and got Wasted/Stifled against RUG Delver and got a little unlucky against a Storm deck to be eliminated from the event, I felt okay. I learned a little about which cards were good and which were not, which was important. The greediness of the Volcanic Island (just to power Engineered Explosives) became obvious to me, and I knew the sideboard needed more work. I really wanted a second basic Plains, but in the end that just wasn’t feasible and careful play would have to suffice instead.

I borrowed the cards from William Jensen and attempted to find out if the deck was really viable on Magic Online. I figured if I was losing to random things then I could move on and maybe play Sneak and Show or Death and Taxes at the GP, but I never did start losing, which just led me to focusing on trying to perfect the build. This was not an easy task, as sometimes it can be difficult to separate cards that are good from cards that I just simply enjoy playing with.

This is the final list I settled on for the Grand Prix:

The maindeck is a card or two different from before; at the last minute I wanted to include a Notion Thief in my sideboard to fight against grindy blue decks (the mirror, Shardless BUG, etc.), and I needed to find room. I had already toyed with the idea of removing the third Vendilion Clique for something faster and similar, so I was planning to play a second Inquisition of Kozilek in that spot, but I ended up moving the Sword of Feast and Famine to that slot to make room for the Notion Thief.

Sword of Feast and Famine makes Stoneforge Mystic legitimately effective in the first game of the match against unfair decks, which overall has a huge impact on the way the match plays out because stripping a card from their hand—that is to say interacting with a non-life-total resource—is quite damaging for them. If their draw isn’t great, or if they mulliganed, or if your draw was especially good (Thoughtseize into Mystic with a FOW or something—not unreasonable), they probably can’t even beat the Sword. The downside is that it is a slower card than the originally planned Inquisition of Kozilek, which has more overall utility against the field. But I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them literally collecting decklists moments later, so I made the decision.

The Notion Thief ended up having a lot of upside, and I would recommend playing one in any deck with a similar plan since it is a blue card to board in against combo decks as well as a flash threat (very important in those matchups) and of course has all the benefits listed above when fighting Jace/Brainstorm wars.

The other additions to the sideboard were the Zealous Persecution and the second Engineered Explosives, which were previously a third Meddling Mage and a Baneslayer Angel. I wanted the Zealous Persecution to fight against True-Name Nemesis decks, and it has a ton of upside against a lot of other creature decks such as Maverick and Death and Taxes. Similarly, Engineered Explosives is good against almost every fair deck, but specifically I wanted to be able to kill Aether Vial out of Death and Taxes and be able to assemble Engineered Explosives and Academy Ruins more often when it would be good.

Prior to the end of the third round, I got to play a few games against Owen himself. I beat him 3-0, and he called it quits, noting that he hadn’t won more than a handful of playtest games in the last few days. The tournament began, and I lost the first game of the day to a Tezzeret deck while holding all four Swords to Plowshares and having only two lands in play. I found an Engineered Explosives that turned the match around in the middle of game 2 and went on quite a little run, beating that Tezzerator deck, Sneak and Show, Miracles, BUG Delver, and Esper Deathblade and finally losing game 3 on the draw against Deathblade.

This was unfortunate for me because it meant I wouldn’t get a chance to be paired against the 9-0 Elves and 9-0 Sneak and Show matchups that I wanted but instead would face off against unknown decks. Sadly for our hero, I stumbled a bit in day 2, beating RUG Delver and then losing to a Bant Stoneforge deck without Green Sun’s Zenith. I then beat Saito’s Merfolk, lost to U/W/R Delver, and beat U/R Delver and Esper Deathblade.

Twelve rounds, ten different decks, a normal weekend of Legacy. Fifteenth place is a great finish, and with a little more luck against either of the U/W/R or Bant Stoneforge decks on day 2, I probably would have qualified for the Pro Tour this time around. But the deck was not perfect. For starters, the card Disenchant should exist as a one-of in the sideboard, and most likely the Elspeth, Knight-Errant needs to swap to the sideboard for one of the Supreme Verdicts or possibly disappear altogether (but still move the Verdict main).

The second Engineered Explosives can possibly become a second Zealous Persecution if you get access to the Disenchant, as you might want something more specifically against True-Name Nemesis once you can handle easier noncreature permanents out of Death and Taxes. Disenchant is also nice to have in random spots, like against Burn that might have Sulfuric Vortex; however, all too often I had to hope to draw Vindicate to remove my opponent’s Batterskull, and having a second effect like that can really help at times.

The only matchup that actually felt bad to me out of the ones I played was against Deathblade, and I think it’s probably because their mana curve is lower, stress your Swords to Plowshares early, and have access to a lot of the same tools you do. On the play in sideboarded games, I think you’re favored, and I think you’re very favored in any long-long game. But on the draw, things can be dicey, and I’m not quite sure how to fix the matchup just now. Finally, with this configuration, you’re a little weak to Storm strategies; you have all the countermagic and Duress effects that you might normally have, but you don’t have the hate bears you’d like to have because just two Meddling Mages isn’t as many as I’d like. Maybe one Ethersworn Canonist can join the team.

You may be wondering why I would play this deck over Deathblade. Well, for starters, I like to play a more controlling planeswalker-based strategy. The deck is also more versatile, having a more diverse game plan than simply playing the best creatures. I also think people are used to playing against Deathrite Shaman decks, be they blue or green or red or what have you, whereas this deck, as old as it is, might catch them off guard. One of my opponents sideboarded in his Submerges and Rough // Tumbles against me after trouncing me in game 1 because he just expected me to be playing Deathblade. I’m not saying this will happen to you, but it could!

Going forward I would recommend this deck to you if you’re looking to practice and bone up on your control deck playing, but let me warn you that in Legacy being a novice with the deck you’re playing at the time is just as deadly as selecting a poor deck. The matches are intense wars rather than the superficial skirmishes you may experience in Standard. Each turn requires shuffling at least once, and if there’s a Sensei’s Divining Top involved or a few planeswalkers, things can take entire minutes to figure out; you just don’t have that much time, and getting excessive draws is not fun or productive.

During the tournament, I felt that sideboarding was pretty straightforward, as you don’t often want to keep in your Force of Wills against most decks. You cannot afford to pay two life to Thoughtseize something against a Delver strategy, and you want the Vindicate, the Supreme Verdicts, and the extra removal spells. Humility is a great card, but you cannot use it against decks with Equipment because the Equipment can nullify the Humility. The Humility is a trump against Sneak and Show though and has a lot of added utility against Elves, Goblins and myriad other decks you may run into, so I would not recommend cutting it.

As ever, I don’t want to give you a specific sideboard guide because if your opponent’s Merfolk deck happens to have Equipment in it and I recommend siding in Humility against them and you lose with the Humility in play I don’t want you to think I misled you. In Legacy it is hard to set rules like that; it’s more important to know why you’d want to board something in and board it in accordingly rather than blindly following the guide I present to you.

Looking at the results of the Grand Prix, we see a deck with True-Name Nemesis claim the title, but we also see one of the best players in the room winning the event. I personally would like to credit Owen with the victory rather than his deck, though I do think Owen is a player that excels with a deck he has played before. He definitely took his licks with this deck at the Invitational as well as in the pre-tournament games against me and I’m sure in countless other games against some of the best players in the world—Reid and Huey. So what does this mean?

Well, True-Name Nemesis is a card that can define creature matchups where it cannot easily be removed, and it also can invalidate Equipment strategies at the same time (other than the protection-from-blue Swords). Furthermore, since Owen’s sideboard and maindeck were so hateful against combo decks with all the Meddling Mages and counters, I think True-Name Nemesis’s impact will continue to be felt. The natural counter to it would be to go over the top, but that is currently not advisable if people will be playing such a hateful build of U/W/R Delver. We’ll see what people do to adapt at the upcoming Opens and the Invitational in December, which I am of course also looking forward to.