I eventually started focusing more on various Esper decks, which were emerging as the most appealing ways to build blue control decks. Something I found kind of interesting was the different, but still positive success I was enjoying with both Esper Dragons and non-Dragon control. I tried variations that focused on black, variations focusing on white, and variations trying to do everything.
The biggest thing I was seeing was that you had to give somewhere.
My Esper Dragons list wasn’t all that far from Shota Yasooka’s, the main difference being my adoption of a small amount of actual white cards. This meant by list comes out a little slower, but has a little more power. Generally, his was probably the better way to do if for last weekend’s metagame, though I do think he should have used Silumgar’s Command.
I have been incredibly impressed with Silumgar’s Command since the rotation. It’s hard to play many maindeck counterspells, but they are great against the decks that go big (like Goggles or Seasons Past). Silumgar’s Command is actually totally respectable against the fast aggro decks, in moderation.
Obviously, loading up on five-drops is a risky proposition, but the ability to give one creature -3/-3 while bouncing another is actually quite good. And that’s not even factoring how big it is to kill a planeswalker at the same time we’re killing a creature.
I’ve got a feeling the format is moving in an even more midrange- and control-oriented direction, and Silumgar’s Command’s stock will continue to rise. There’s an abundance of good fives, so it’s not like it’s a slam dunk or anything, but it is one of the most maindeckable counterspells (Clash of Wills and Negate are aggressively mediocre right now, and Cancel variants have been downright bad).
In the end, I was leaning towards playing a non-Dragons version. I just wasn’t happy with white aggro matchups without Languish, I wasn’t happy with midrange matchups without white spells like Ojutai’s Command, and I wasn’t happy with Silumgar’s Scorn while also supporting Languish and white spells.
Here’s the list I would have registered if the Pro Tour had been held four days earlier:
The use of Archangel Avacyn may come as a surprise in this context, but Serra Angel with flash is actually pretty sweet. It lets us surprise-pressure planeswalkers, gives us nice answers to Lumbering Falls, and helps us punish people who don’t want to play into our Ojutai’s Commands.
Besides, this is actually more than that. The indestructible ability not only saves Jace sometimes but lets our Angel defeat Needle Spires straight-up (not to mention giving us a great answer to opposing Archangel). We can also flip her sometimes by playing a second Jace and legend-ruling one when we really need to sweep the battlefield.
I love Sorin right now. The ability to completely trump Chandra, Flamecaller in the head-to-head is big. If you cast Sorin after an opponent’s Chandra, you can kill her outright while gaining back almost all the lost life from her attack and still have Sorin on the table. If you cast Sorin first, you can plus him, net a card and some damage, and have enough loyalty that even if Chandra comes down and attacks him, he’ll live, letting you net another card and hopefully come up with an answer to Chandra.
Besides, Sorin is just a powerful card, and it’s nice to have a lot of lifegain when you’re using cards like Painful Truths.
I really like Felidar Cub out of the sideboard of Esper decks right now. The ability to get it back with Ojutai’s Command means we can stretch a couple of Felidar Cubs a lot further when battling Fevered Visions decks or opponents stacking up Always Watching (particularly since Felidar Cub can also just trade with a white one-drop early if need be).
I had been tuning Esper for a bit, but nobody was really interested in it and there wasn’t that much more to figure out; so I experimented with Mardu, just to make sure we were hitting all the cards and concepts we wanted to. No one had played with Nahiri, the Harbinger much, so what about a Mardu Planeswalkers deck?
It was great.
The first draft immediately put a hurt on white aggro, and relatively quickly it seemed like the best midrange strategy we had built. In retrospect, I think I didn’t give enough weight to how many other people were going to play midrange strategies themselves, so I should probably have stuck with Esper. My Esper lists were consistently doing well against decks like Jund and Mardu, whereas Mardu was often poorly set up for other midrange decks.
Here’s the list I ended up playing in the Pro Tour:
- 3 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
- 2 Ob Nixilis Reignited
- 2 Chandra, Flamecaller
- 1 Nahiri, the Harbinger
- 2 Sorin, Grim Nemesis
The biggest difference between this list and most of the other Mardu lists I see people playing is the lack of Goblin Dark-Dwellers. I tried Goblin Dark-Dwellers and was not a big fan of them Game 1. Everyone has so much removal that the extra 4/4 body was just not accomplishing a lot for me. It’s great if you have enough other creatures that their removal isn’t going to be dead anyway; I just didn’t want to play anywhere near that many creatures. Besides, trimming a few Painful Truths for Read the Bones is a serious sacrifice.
Goblin Dark=Dwellers does get better after sideboarding. Our deck ends up with more hits in the right matchups, while our opponents have less creature removal on the average.
Instead of Goblin Dark-Dwellers, we’ve got Gideons and Ob Nixilis. This gives us a lot of ability to pressure ramp decks and control decks, and I actually found Gideon to be excellent against B/G Collected Company as well. You could still incorporate Gideons in a Dark-Dwellers build, of course. I’m just comparing to what most people seem to do. The mana isn’t trivial, but as long as you don’t lean into Grasp of Darkness, you should be okay.
The Pia and Kiran Nalaar was a bit of a concession to Nahiri, to make sure there was something to tutor up. Even with just one, it’s important to have the threat of actually using her ultimate, which comes online very quickly.
A lot of people were skeptical of Nahiri when she was first revealed, but sure enough, Nahiri showed up in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad, while Arlinn Kord did not…
Her plus ability is a great way to make use of extra lands or filter the wrong removal spells. She also gains so much loyalty that she can actually come down without any direct way to protect her sometimes. She’s just that durable.
Her -2 ability is obviously amazing when you take out a creature, though you’ve got to be careful about Bounding Krasis. The ability to hit enchantments is huge, giving us much-needed relief against Fevered Visions and Always Watching.
Exiling tapped artifacts is definitely not trivial, either. Pyromancer’s Goggles has catapulted to being one of the primary engines in the format, and Magmatic Insight and Tormenting Voice ensure that the Goggles are often tapped. I’ve also exiled more than my fair share of Hedron Archives out of ramp decks, though it’s not always easy to catch ’em.
In retrospect, it would have been nice to also feature a Hedron Archive of my own. Being able to tutor up the Archive and then cash it in for two more cards would be a great option for some games. Besides, it’s just nice to be able to ramp into Chandra or Sorin plus Fiery Impulse or Duress on turn 5.
Another option I would have liked to try is Magnifying Glass.
Magnifying Glass fits into the curve a little better, and going long, the card draw ability actually seems like it could be pretty decent, the way the games play out. The biggest strike against it is how much worse of a tutor target it is when you Nahiri it out, since it gets bounced back to your hand for no gain in value (unlike Hedron Archive, which you can sacrifice before it comes to that, or just get a big mana advantage from).
It is kind of cute that investigating can lead to us stacking up a few extra Clues, which means more fuel for Pia and Kiran Nalaar if we’re feeling frisky.
One of the perks of playing ten planeswalkers instead of Goblin Dark-Dwellers is getting to use Oath of Chandra. I only ended up playing one copy, but it was pretty good for me. The extra damage really adds up, particularly when we’ve got Chandras and so many creature-lands. Of course, the real strength comes from how much it lets us pressure planeswalkers at very little opportunity cost. Jace, Telepath Unbound in particular is a planeswalker that ends up at two loyalty a lot.
A full eight creature-lands may seem like a lot, but one of the key selling points of Mardu is getting to use so many. They really are fantastic cards, and this list needs a lot of land to get going but also will flood out if it doesn’t have something to do with the mana going long. They also help make sure we can threaten planeswalkers consistently, not to mention actually closing games.
I love Rending Volley out of the sideboard right now. It’s super mana-efficient interaction against white aggro. It’s also a fantastic card against Bant (helping against Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy; Bounding Krasis; and Archangel Avacyn). I could easily see playing three or even four.
Kalitas gets sideboarded in against basically everybody. So why not maindeck him? The biggest thing is just how much removal everyone has maindeck, just as in the Goblin Dark-Dwellers situation. Kalitas is at his best against B/G Collected Company, which basically just folds to the card.
If I were going to play a Goblin Dark-Dwellers version, here’s what I’d register (knowing what I know now):
As currently configured, I think this list will have a problem with Den Protector / Goblin Dark-Dwellers grindy decks. We have more and better creature-lands, but they don’t match up super-well. I lost two matches in the Pro Tour because of how much my Vents and Spires could not interact well with the Den Protectors and Goblin Dark-Dwellers. They have all the same draw and discard, but Den Protector / Chandra / Kolaghan’s Command makes them win the grind-fest.
I do think Kolaghan’s Command is going to become more playable in Mardu moving forward as more and more people adopt Pyromancer’s Goggles. Besides, it’s just a good card and great for grinding. With fewer people than ever playing exile effects, we’ve got excellent chances of using it to return Goblin Dark-Dwellers and get all kinds of card advantage.
Traverse the Ulvenwald is pretty respectable for fixing our mana while also being a nice one-cost card to get back with Seasons Past. It also opens up stuff like a one-of Dragonlord Atarka and stretching two Den Protectors and two Goblin Dark-Dwellers much farther than they’d normally go.
Hedron Archive is also a possible one- or even two-of, which would help get us up to the big mana needed to Seasons Past every turn. It’s also just a fine way to ramp us into Dragonlord Atarka, Chandra, or Nissa’s Renewal.
With all eyes on this weekend’s SCG Tour® Standard Classic in Milwaukee, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the next step in the evolution of the format. Modern is its own animal altogether, but on Sunday, I think we’ll see a lot more Esper, Mardu, Jund, and midrange, interactive decks in general. Personally, I’d want to be on the Esper side of that equation, but maybe that’s what the Thalia’s Lieutenant people want us to believe…